“Let’s imagine that Russia is forced to use the most fearsome weapon,” former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, once considered Russia’s top reform-oriented politician, wrote on the Telegram messaging platform this week. Both he and Vladimir Putin have warned this week that they are not bluffing — Russia is willing to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
Asking ourselves if the Kremlin is actually bluffing is a waste of time. The Kremlin is warning us that they are ready to violate the nuclear taboo if Russia’s very existence is threatened. And they would. Putin could also choose to use other taboo weapons like chemical or biological agents. The point is that nothing is off the table for the Russians, and parsing speeches or social media posts is not productive.
Russia has an instrumental approach to diplomatic statements. Overtly and even proudly lying is acceptable and often applauded. Take, for example, the sham referendums conducted on Ukrainian territory. Nearly 100 percent of Ukrainians who voted — at gunpoint in many cases — allegedly voted to join Russia. Russia does not even control all of the territory it will soon “annex” into the Russian Federation. No matter. The Kremlin will now assert that Russia has saved these people from an imaginary Western-backed, “Nazi-perpetuated genocide” meant to “destroy Russia.” The fact that all of this is untrue? Doesn’t matter.
Would Russia deploy a nuclear weapon? Russian military doctrine states that it reserves the right to deploy nuclear weapons if the very existence of Russia is at stake — that is, defensively. Many observers have worried that annexing (politically if not actually) 20 percent of Ukraine will allow Russia to argue that NATO-supported Ukrainian offensives in these territories is now akin to an attack on Russia and could therefore trigger a nuclear response.
The nuclear response in question here is most likely not the use of a long-range “strategic” nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile that would take out an American city. Russia is more likely to consider the use of a smaller, short-range, “tactical” nuclear device, a so-called battlefield device. But this is splitting hairs; the use of any nuclear device would still constitute a horrific escalation of the war, even if it were deployed in a way that killed hundreds or thousands of people rather than millions. It would presumably be used to try to shock the Ukrainians into surrender, not to wipe out Kyiv.
Experience suggests that Russia would not consider attacks on the newly seized Ukrainian territories as existential threats to the state. Ukrainian forces have bombed parts of Crimea, Ukrainian territory formally and illegally annexed by Russia in 2014. The attacks forced Russian tourists to flee seaside resorts but did not trigger a nuclear response.
The real question we should be asking ourselves is if the United States is bluffing when it says that there will be catastrophic consequences for a Russian nuclear attack. Public statements from the Biden administration have been vague but the administration has apparently been sending stronger and more specific warnings to Moscow for months. In the screed in which he declared that Moscow isn’t bluffing, Medvedev also stated that he didn’t see the United States and Europe as ready to “die in a nuclear apocalypse” to defend Ukraine.
This then is the real danger: Moscow doesn’t believe that NATO will respond forcefully to a nuclear attack. The Kremlin believes that American and European politicians are feckless, only temporarily united, and too nervous about a cold winter and losing elections to escalate back. That may indeed be true.
Deciding how NATO would respond to Russian use of a weapon of mass destruction — and communicating that scenario clearly to Putin — is critical. At a minimum, NATO and the United States will send significantly more potent weapons to the Ukrainians to punish Russia for using weapons of mass destruction.
Russia may or may not claim this is akin to inserting NATO troops and starting World War III. Not responding forcefully to Russian escalation could ultimately be worse. It would embolden Russia to step up the horror in Ukraine and potentially beyond. Now unafraid of how the West would react, the Kremlin will be encouraged to engage in other forms of aggression beyond Ukraine, from cyberattacks on Western infrastructure to more aggressive meddling in elections. The most dangerous phase of this war is just beginning.
Alexandra Vacroux is executive director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.