On the one hand, Russia wants to prevent an escalation — a clash of nuclear powers — that would destroy cities and possibly human civilization. On the other, it seeks to escalate the conflict to the point where the United States will enter a strategic dialogue and consider concessions.
Russia’s demands were laid out in a December 2021 document that would effectively have defanged NATO in Central and Eastern Europe and caused the withdrawal of the US tactical nuclear umbrella for all European allies. It was dismissed by the US.
Since then of course, Russia has launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine. Yet it still hopes for negotiation and continues (figuratively speaking) to bang its shoe on the desk in the hope of being noticed. The best way to do this? Endless public threats from both politicians (including heavy hints from Putin himself) and propaganda outlets suggesting it may “go nuclear” by launching weapons against Ukrainian targets and Western cities ranging from Poznań to London and New York.
There is a problem, however. The United States has not only rejected escalation through direct conventional military intervention to halt Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine but has also refused to increase the combat readiness of its nuclear forces. As a result, this route to crisis negotiations has been blocked.
Ideas like stationing nuclear weapons in Poland or (more radically) transferring them to Ukraine have not become popular. Worse, for the Kremlin, the US has more than once stated that it sees no indications that Russia intends to use nuclear weapons and, accordingly, does not intend to adjust its own strategic nuclear deterrence.
The US determination not to engage in the nuclear game causes irritation among Russian policy-makers and — perhaps worse for its sense of greatness — a feeling that it is failing to inspire fear.
Now, Sergey Karaganov, one of the most famous Russian experts in the world, an adviser to Putin, professor, doctor of sciences, and scientific director of the Faculty of the Higher School of Economics, is making statements about the need for a nuclear strike (firstly in June and again on September 26) in which, among other things, he argued that Russia must restore fear of nuclear war and dispel the myth that it would automatically escalate “to a global thermonuclear conflict.”
His statements look to be concocted for Western consumption. The status of Karaganov and his known connections in Russia is an attempt to tell Western elites that he speaks not just for himself but also indicates the thinking of those senior officials with whom he is involved. Western officials and think tanks were being told that Karaganov’s language did not merely represent one man’s eccentricities.
His words therefore amount to an attempt at diplomatic pressure. We can see this because military experts, former or current officers of the Ministry of Defense, and its scientific and journalistic units, do not echo his words, despite the fact that they work on methods to conduct a global war and on countering the United States. No reputable Russian general claims that a preemptive nuclear strike will lead to victory. Not a single captain or colonel interviewed by this author considers a nuclear strike to be a solution to the problem of war or to improve the great-nation status of Russia.
This is largely because Russia still has mechanisms for escalation. It can increase the activity of nuclear forces near the borders of Western countries and make them more provocative. It can carry out demonstrative launches of nuclear missiles. For example, Russia could test a Sarmat strategic missile or a nuclear-powered Burevestnik missile, with its supposed 12,500-mile range.
There are other steps it could take. In October, at the Valdai Club, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia should consider the possibility of revoking ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT.) This would certainly be the next step on the escalation ladder.
Karaganov’s musings are posed as if Russia has a binary choice: to wage war in a normal manner or to carry out a nuclear strike. It’s as if strategic deterrence was not working, and Russia has already found itself at the top of the escalation ladder. This is not the case. Russia has more than enough mechanisms for fear-mongering.
According to the Russian military, nuclear deterrence can be implemented through patrolling the state borders of opponents, conducting military exercises, demonstrating the capabilities of nuclear weapon delivery vehicles, increasing the level of combat readiness of nuclear forces and changing military doctrines or withdrawing from international agreements. Some of these steps have been implemented. Russia raised the alert level of its strategic forces, conducted nuclear exercises, and withdrew from the New START treaty.
In addition to nuclear weapons, the use of the latest Kinzhal hypersonic missiles in Ukraine has also become part of the mechanism of strategic non-nuclear deterrence. Russia also carried out strikes on the energy infrastructure of Ukraine. The destruction of a hydroelectric power plant, pipelines, and the threat of nuclear power plants can also act as steps on the escalation ladder. The Russian military believes that the impact of such activities can increase the effectiveness of its strategic deterrence.
A higher stage of escalation would involve a strike on the US or its allies’ space satellites used in the war in Ukraine, a strike on the Ukrainian army’s supply points with Western weapons and ammunition, and any attack on nuclear power plants. Some hawks also believe that Russia should not give a damn about the NPT and transfer nuclear technologies to any receptive Latin American state.
Russia may also change its nuclear deterrence strategy. The Foreign Ministry has repeatedly pointed out that nuclear doctrine provides exhaustive scenarios for the country‘s theoretical use of nuclear weapons. Introducing a clause on a preventive nuclear strike would be the main signal to the United States and NATO that Russia is making nuclear weapons not only a deterrent but a means of warfare.
This might take the form of a clause stating that a nuclear strike is possible to prevent the expansion and/or prolongation of the war. Or that a nuclear strike might be triggered by a threat to any region of Russia if conventional armed forces are unable to regain control.
A change in nuclear doctrine would represent a strong, demonstrative, and rapid means to introduce a nuclear factor into the Ukrainian conflict. Ministry of Defense experts in their theoretical work have already proposed the use of the strategic missile forces on individual enemy targets and the creation of a separate group of missiles for a first nuclear missile strike.
In the West, many suggested the threat of losing Crimea could lead to a nuclear strike. But if so, why this was not spelled out in the doctrine itself?
It’s likely Putin is influenced by his Cold War generals, who do understand nuclear weapons policy and believe there is no such thing as limited nuclear war. It will always result in global catastrophe with mutual destruction. A nuclear strike is an extreme measure, not a means of victory.
The safest conclusion is that Russia is not ready to leap across the steps of the escalation ladder, whatever it would like the West to believe.
Maxim Starchak is an independent expert on Russian nuclear policy, defense, and the nuclear industry. Fellow at the Centre for International and Defence Policy of the Queen’s University in Canada and a Russia Correspondent for Defense News
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.