Russia refusing to rule out nuclear war should not surprise you

March 23, 2022, 4:37 PM UTC

A senior Russian official has caused a stir by refusing to rule out the possibility of Russia launching nuclear weapons. So should the West be worried? Yes and no.

In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was repeatedly pressed to say whether Moscow could use nukes, and under what circumstances.

“If it is an existential threat for our country, then it can be,” Peskov said.

In response, the Pentagon called Russia’s nuclear rhetoric “dangerous”. “It’s not the way a responsible nuclear power should act,” spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday.

The thing is, what Peskov said is nothing new.

The last two versions of Russia’s nuclear doctrine, published in 2014 and 2020, stated that Moscow could use nuclear weapons “in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.”

The 2020 document also included another couple of scenarios that could trigger a nuclear response, including the “arrival of reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies,” and an “attack by an adversary against critical governmental or military sites of the Russian Federation, disruption of which would undermine nuclear forces’ response actions.”

So, should Peskov’s Tuesday reference to existential threats be seen as a threat in itself?

Firstly, it is no surprise that people are jumpy around Russian invocations of nuclear doctrine, even if this one came as a response to an interviewer’s pointed questions.

It’s little more than three weeks since Russia’s President Vladimir Putin put his nuclear forces on special alert following “aggressive statements” from the West. The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency said last week that it expects Putin to make nuclear threats as his army is underperforming so badly in Ukraine.

Then there’s the question of what constitutes an existential threat to Russia.

Putin and his team seem to believe Ukraine is, by virtue of its very existence, a threat to its larger neighbor—Peskov even said in Tuesday’s CNN interview that Ukraine was an “anti-Russia that was created next to our borders.”

NATO expansion is also an “existential threat” to Russia, Russian diplomat Roman Babushkin said the day before the Kremlin’s forces poured into Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Meanwhile Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president and current deputy chief of its Security Council, said Wednesday on his Telegram channel that the U.S. was trying to ensure Russia was “humiliated, limited, shaken, divided and destroyed.” Russia, he added, “will never allow such a development.”

It’s worth noting that Russia’s nuclear doctrine is relatively specific on the issue of potential triggers, when compared to the U.S. Decades after the Cold War ended, the U.S. still has a policy of “calculated ambiguity” that does not specify under what circumstances it might launch nuclear weapons.

U.S. President Joe Biden launched a fresh “nuclear posture review” in July last year. Biden is thought to support a “no first use” policy that would limit U.S. strikes to retaliatory circumstances.

When Putin signed Russia’s 2020 military doctrine update, Peskov claimed it said Russia “can never and would never” shoot first with its nukes. The U.S. was not convinced.

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