On top of the fear and horror caused by the month-long Russian onslaught in Ukraine, many people around the world have been shocked and frightened by Russian president Vladimir Putin’s recent words and actions in relation to his nuclear weapons.
Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of the nuclear-armed NATO alliance, called Russia’s latest nuclear moves over Ukraine ‘irresponsible’ and ‘dangerous rhetoric’. Also on 27 February, British Tory MP Tobias Ellwood, who chairs the commons defence select committee, warned that Putin ‘could use nuclear weapons in Ukraine’. The Conservative chair of the commons foreign affairs select committee, Tom Tugendhat, added on 28 February: ‘it is not impossible that a Russian military order to use battlefield nuclear weapons could be given.’
At the more sober end of things, Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, told the New York Times: ‘My chances of dying in a nuclear war still feel infinitesimally small, even if greater than yesterday.’
Respected security analyst Paul Rogers told a PN online meeting on 9 March that, as long as NATO continued behaving cautiously, the risk of nuclear war could remain low.
However great or small the chances of nuclear war may be, Russia’s nuclear threats are disturbing and illegal; they amount to nuclear terrorism.
Unfortunately, these are not the first such threats that the world has seen. Nuclear threats have been made before, including – difficult as it may be to believe – by the US and by Britain.
Words and deeds
There are two basic ways you can issue a nuclear threat: through your words or through your actions (what you do with your nuclear weapons).
The Russian government has made both kinds of signals during this crisis. Putin has made threatening speeches and he’s also moved and mobilised Russian nuclear weapons.
Let us be clear, Putin is already using Russian nuclear weapons.
US military whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg has pointed out that nuclear weapons are used when such threats are made, in the way ‘that a gun is used when you point it at someone’s head in a direct confrontation, whether or not the trigger is pulled’.
“US nuclear weapons have been used... in the precise way that a gun is used when you point it at someone’s head in a direct confrontation, whether or not the trigger is pulled.”
Below is that quotation in context. Ellsberg argues that nuclear threats have been made many times before – by the US: ‘The notion common to nearly all Americans that “no nuclear weapons have been used since Nagasaki” is mistaken. It is not the case that US nuclear weapons have simply piled up over the years – we have over 30,000 of them now, after dismantling many thousands of obsolete ones – unused and unusable, save for the single function of deterring their use against us by the Soviets. Again and again, generally in secret from the American public, US nuclear weapons have been used, for quite different purposes: in the precise way that a gun is used when you point it at someone’s head in a direct confrontation, whether or not the trigger is pulled.’
Ellsberg gave a list of 12 US nuclear threats, stretching from 1948 to 1981. (He was writing in 1981.) Some more recent examples were given in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 2006.
The topic is much more freely discussed in the US than in the UK. Even the US state department lists some examples of what it calls US ‘attempts to use the threat of nuclear warfare to achieve diplomatic goals’.
One of the most recent books on this subject is Joseph Gerson’s excellent Empire and the Bomb: How the U.S. Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World (Pluto, 2007).
Coming back to the present, president Putin said on 24 February, in his speech announcing the invasion:
‘I would now like to say something very important for those who may be tempted to interfere in these developments from the outside. No matter who tries to stand in our way or all the more so create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.’
This was read by many, correctly, as a nuclear threat.
Putin went on: ‘As for military affairs, even after the dissolution of the USSR and losing a considerable part of its capabilities, today’s Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states. Moreover, it has a certain advantage in several cutting-edge weapons. In this context, there should be no doubt for anyone that any potential aggressor will face defeat and ominous consequences should it directly attack our country.’
The nuclear threat was firstly against those who ‘interfere’ with the invasion. In the second section just quoted, the nuclear threat is now against ‘aggressors’ who ‘directly attack our country’.
If we decode this propaganda, Putin is actually threatening to use the Bomb on outside forces who ‘directly attack’ Russian units involved in the invasion.
So both parts of the speech mean the same thing: ‘If Western powers become involved militarily and create problems for our invasion of Ukraine, we may use nuclear weapons.’
‘A terrible price’
While this kind of over-the-top language is associated now with former US president Donald Trump, it’s not very different from that used by US president George HW Bush, against a non-nuclear weapon state.
In January 1991, Bush issued a nuclear threat to Iraq ahead of the 1991 Gulf War.
He wrote a message which was hand-delivered by US secretary of state James Baker to the Iraqi foreign minister, Tariq Aziz.
In his letter, Bush wrote to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein: ‘Let me state, too, that the United States will not tolerate the use of chemical or biological weapons or the destruction of Kuwait’s oil fields. Further, you will be held directly responsible for terrorist actions against any member of the coalition. The American people would demand the strongest possible response. You and your country will pay a terrible price if you order unconscionable acts of this sort.’
Baker added a verbal warning. If Iraq used chemical or biological weapons against invading US troops, ‘The American people will demand vengeance. And we have the means to exact it…. [T]his is not a threat, it is a promise.’
Baker went to say that, if such weapons were used, the US objective ‘would not be the liberation of Kuwait, but the elimination of the current Iraqi regime’. (Aziz refused to take the letter.)
The US nuclear threat to Iraq in January 1991 has some similarities to Putin’s 2022 threat.
In both cases, the threat was attached to a particular military campaign and was, in a sense, a nuclear shield.
In the Iraq case, Bush’s nuclear threat was specifically targeted to prevent the use of certain kinds of weapons (chemical and biological) as well as certain kinds of Iraqi actions (terrorism, the destruction of Kuwaiti oil fields).
Biden’s nuclear threat?
It is possible that US president Joe Biden made a similar kind of nuclear threat on 24 March. He said that, if Russia used chemical weapons in Ukraine, this ‘would trigger a response in kind’. This suggests either chemical or nuclear retaliation.
British prime minister Boris Johnson added: ‘You have to have a bit of ambiguity about your response, but I think it would be catastrophic for him if he were to do that, and I think that he understands that.’
This also sounds like a nuclear threat designed to ‘deter’ the use of chemical weapons.
Putin’s nuclear threat has been less specific. Matthew Harries of Britain’s RUSI military thinktank, told the Guardian that Putin’s statements on 24 February were, in the first instance, simple intimidation: ‘we can hurt you, and fighting us is dangerous’. They were also a reminder to the West not to go too far supporting the Ukrainian government. Harries said: ‘It could be Russia is planning a brutal escalation in Ukraine and this is a “keep out” warning to the West.’
In this case, the nuclear threat is a shield to protect the invasion forces from NATO weaponry in general, not any particular kind of weapon.
When the question of the legality of nuclear weapons went in front of the World Court in 1996, the US nuclear threat to Iraq in 1991 was mentioned by one of the judges in his written opinion.
World Court judge Stephen Schwebel (from the US) wrote that the Bush/Baker nuclear threat, and its success, demonstrated that, ‘in some circumstances, the threat of the use of nuclear weapons – as long as they remain weapons unproscribed by international law – may be both lawful and rational.’
Schwebel argued that, because Iraq did not use chemical or biological weapons after receiving the Bush/Baker warnings – apparently because Saddam received this message – the nuclear threat was a Good Thing:
‘Thus there is on record remarkable evidence indicating that an aggressor was or may have been deterred from using outlawed weapons of mass destruction against forces and countries arrayed against its aggression at the call of the United Nations by what the aggressor perceived to be a threat to use nuclear weapons against it should it first use weapons of mass destruction against the forces of the coalition. Can it seriously be maintained that Mr. Baker’s calculated – and apparently successful – threat was unlawful? Surely the principles of the United Nations Charter were sustained rather than transgressed by the threat.’
There may be a Russian judge, some time in the future, who argues that Putin’s nuclear threat also ‘sustained rather than transgressed’ the principles of the UN Charter (and the whole of international law) because it was effective in ‘deterring’ NATO interference.
Use ’em like bullets
Another example of a US nuclear threat that is remembered in Washington DC as ‘effective’ came in 1955, over Taiwan.
During the First Taiwan Strait Crisis, which began in September 1954, the Chinese Communist party’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) rained artillery fire on the islands of Quemoy and Matsu (ruled by Taiwan’s Guomindang/KMT government).
Within days of the bombardment starting, the US joint chiefs of staff recommended using nuclear weapons against China in response. For some months, that remained a private, if serious, conversation.
The PLA carried on military operations. (The islands involved are very close to the mainland. One is just 10 miles offshore from China while being over 100 miles from the main island of Taiwan.) The KMT also carried out military operations on the mainland.
On 15 March 1955, US secretary of state John Foster Dulles told a press conference that the US might well intervene in the Taiwan conflict with nuclear weapons: ‘smaller atomic weapons... offer a chance of victory on the battlefield without harming civilians’.
This message was reinforced by the US president the next day. Dwight D Eisenhower told the press that, in any combat, ‘where these things [nuclear weapons] are used on strictly military targets and for strictly military purposes, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else’.
The day after that, vice-president Richard Nixon said: ‘Tactical atomic explosives are now conventional and will be used against the targets of any aggressive force’ in the Pacific.
“Where these things [nuclear weapons] are used on strictly military targets and for strictly military purposes, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else.”
Eisenhower came back the next day with more ‘bullet’ language: limited nuclear war was a new nuclear strategy where ‘a whole new family of so-called tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons’ could be ‘used like bullets’.
These were public nuclear threats against China, a non-nuclear weapon state at the time.
Privately, the US military selected nuclear targets including roads, railroads and airfields along the southern Chinese coast. US nuclear weapons were deployed to the US base on Okinawa, Japan. The US army prepared to divert nuclear artillery battalions to Taiwan.
China stopped shelling the Quemoy and Matsu islands on 1 May 1955.
In January 1957, Dulles publicly celebrated the effectiveness of US nuclear threats against China.
He told Life magazine that US threats to bomb targets in China with nuclear weapons had brought its leaders to the negotiating table in Korea.
He claimed the administration prevented China from sending troops into Vietnam by sending two US aircraft carriers armed with tactical nuclear weapons into the South China Sea in 1954.
Dulles added that similar threats to attack China with nuclear weapons ‘finally stopped them in Formosa’ (Taiwan).
In the US foreign policy establishment, all these nuclear threats against China are seen as successful uses of US nuclear weapons, successful examples of nuclear bullying (the polite term is ‘atomic diplomacy’).
These are some of the ways that the West has paved the way for Putin’s nuclear threats today.
(New, frightening, details about the near-use of nuclear weapons in the Second Straits Crisis in 1958 were revealed by Daniel Ellsberg in 2021. He tweeted at the time: ‘Note to @JoeBiden: learn from this secret history, and don’t repeat this insanity.’)
You can also make nuclear threats without words, through what you do with the weapons themselves. By moving them closer to the conflict, or by raising the nuclear alert level, or by carrying out nuclear weapons exercises, a state can effectively send a nuclear signal; make a nuclear threat.
Putin has moved Russian nuclear weapons and put them on a higher alert. A group of experts summarised the situation a week before the Russian full-scale invasion on 24 February, mentioning three Russian nuclear weapon systems: short-range Iskander-M missiles; 9M729 ground-launched cruise missiles; and Kinzhal air-launched cruise missiles.
The experts wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists: ‘Collectively, these missiles are capable of striking deep into Europe and threatening the capitals of a number of NATO member states. Russia’s missile systems are not necessarily intended for use against Ukraine, but rather to counter any NATO efforts at intervention in Russia’s imagined “near-abroad.”’
The road-mobile, short-range (300-mile) Iskander-M missiles can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads. They have been deployed in Russia’s Kaliningrad province, neighbouring Poland, since 2018. These Iskander-Ms were reportedly mobilised and put on alert in the run-up to this latest invasion.
The nuclear-capable 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile (called ‘Screwdriver’ by NATO) is said by the Russian military to only have a maximum reach of 300 miles. Western analysts believe its range actually goes up to 3,400 miles. According to reports, these missiles have been moved to Kaliningrad. All of Western Europe (including the UK) is within range.
The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal (‘Dagger’) air-launched land-attack cruise missile can carry a 500kt nuclear warhead (dozens of times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb). The missile, with a range of perhaps 1,240 miles, was also deployed to Kaliningrad, bordering NATO, in early February.
Putin then raised the alert level for all Russian nuclear weapons.
On 27 February, he said: ‘Senior officials of the leading Nato countries also allow aggressive statements against our country, therefore I order the minister of defence and the chief of the general staff [of the Russian armed forces] to transfer the deterrence forces of the Russian army to a special mode of combat duty.’
Experts were confused by the phrase ‘special mode of combat duty’, as this form of words is not part of Russian nuclear doctrine.
Because that set of words doesn’t have a specific military meaning, it wasn’t absolutely clear what Putin was saying, other than that nuclear weapons were on some kind of high alert.
Putin’s order was a ‘preliminary command’, rather than triggering active preparation for a strike, according to Pavel Podvig, one of the world’s top experts on Russian nuclear weapons (and a scientist at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva).
Podvig explained: ‘As I understand the way the system works, in peacetime it cannot physically transmit a launch order, as if the circuits were “disconnected”.’ That means ‘you cannot physically transmit the signal even if you want to. Even if you press the button, nothing would happen.’ Now, the circuitry has been connected, ‘so a launch order can go through if issued’, according to Podvig.
‘Connecting the circuitry’ also means that Russian nuclear weapons can now be launched even if Putin himself is killed or cannot be reached – but that can only happen if nuclear detonations are detected on Russian territory, says Podvig.
Moving nuclear weapons closer to a conflict and raising the nuclear alert level have both been used to signal nuclear threats for many decades.
For example, during Britain’s war with Indonesia (1963 – 1966), known here as ‘the Malaysian Confrontation’, the UK sent out strategic nuclear bombers, parts of the ‘V-bomber’ nuclear deterrent force.
We know now that the military plans only involved Victor or Vulcan bombers carrying and dropping conventional bombs. However, because they were part of the strategic nuclear force, they carried with them a nuclear threat.
In an RAF Historical Society Journal article on the crisis, military historian and former RAF pilot Humphrey Wynn writes: ‘Although these V-bombers were deployed in a conventional role there is no doubt that their presence had a deterrent effect. For like the B-29s which the United States sent to Europe at the time of the Berlin crisis (1948-49), they were known to be “nuclear capable”, to use the convenient American term, as were the Canberras from the Near East Air Force and RAF Germany.’
To be clear, the RAF had rotated V-bombers through Singapore before but, during this war, they were kept beyond their usual term.
RAF air chief marshal David Lee writes in his history of the RAF in Asia: ‘the knowledge of RAF strength and competence created a wholesome respect among Indonesia’s leaders, and the deterrent effect of RAF air defence fighters, light bombers and V-bombers on detachment from Bomber Command was absolute.’ (David Lee, Eastward: A History of the RAF in the Far East, 1945 – 1970, London: HMSO, 1984, p213, emphasis added)
We see that, for insiders, ‘nuclear deterrence’ includes terrifying (or ‘creating a wholesome respect’ among) the natives – in this case, on the other side of the world from Britain.
Putin’s talk of putting Russia’s deterrence forces on alert today has a similar meaning: ‘deterrence equals intimidation’.
You may be wondering if the Victors and Vulcans were sent out to Singapore just with conventional weapons.
That wouldn’t have affected the powerful nuclear signal these strategic nuclear bombers sent, as the Indonesians weren’t to know what payload they carried.
You could send a Trident submarine into the Black Sea today and, even if was completely empty of any kind of explosive, it would be interpreted as a nuclear threat against Russian-occupied Crimea and Russian forces more broadly.
As it happens, British prime minister Harold Macmillan had authorised the storage of nuclear weapons at RAF Tengah in Singapore in 1962. A dummy Red Beard tactical nuclear weapon was flown to Tengah in 1960 and 48 actual Red Beards were deployed there in 1962.
So nuclear bombs were available locally during the war with Indonesia from 1963 to 1966. (The Red Beards were not withdrawn until 1971, when Britain withdrew its military presence from Singapore and Malaysia entirely.)
There is a parallel between Britain keeping V-bombers in Singapore during the war with Indonesia and Russia sending 9M729 cruise missiles and Kinzhal air-launched missiles to Kaliningrad during the current Ukraine crisis.
In both cases, a nuclear weapon state is trying to intimidate its opponents with the possibility of nuclear escalation.
This is nuclear bullying.
It is a form of nuclear terrorism.
In the case of Indonesia, Britain was making nuclear threats against a non-nuclear weapon state.
There are many other examples of nuclear weapons deployments that could be mentioned. Instead, let’s move onto ‘the nuclear alert as a nuclear threat’.
Two of the most dangerous cases of this came during the 1973 Middle East war.
When Israel feared that the tide of the war was going against it, it placed its nuclear-armed intermediate-range Jericho ballistic missiles on alert, making their radiation signatures visible to US surveillance aircraft.
The same day that the mobilisation was detected, 12 October, the US began the massive airlift of weapons that Israel had been demanding – and the US had been resisting – for some time.
The strange thing about this alert is that it was a nuclear threat mainly aimed at an ally rather than at enemies.
In fact, there is an argument that this is the main function of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. This argument is set out in Seymour Hersh’s The Samson Option, which has a detailed account of the 12 October Israeli alert.
Shortly after this, the US raised the nuclear alert level for its own weapons.
After receiving US military aid, Israel’s forces began making advances and a ceasefire was declared by the UN on 14 October.
Israeli tank commander Ariel Sharon then broke the ceasefire and crossed the Suez Canal into Egypt. Backed up by larger armoured forces under commander Avraham Adan, Sharon threatened to defeat Egyptian forces completely. Cairo was in danger.
The Soviet Union, Egypt’s main backer at the time, began moving elite troops of its own to help defend the Egyptian capital.
The US news agency UPI reports that, to halt Sharon and Adan, the US raised the alert level of its forces worldwide: ‘Called DefCons, for defense condition, they work in descending order from DefCon V to DefCon I, which is war. Kissinger ordered a DefCon III. According to a former senior State Department official, the decision to move to DefCon III “sent a clear message that Sharon’s violation of the ceasefire was dragging us into a conflict with the Soviets and that we had no desire to see the Egyptian Army destroyed.”’
The Israeli government called a halt to the Sharon-Adan ceasefire-breaking assault on Egypt.
Noam Chomsky sees things differently. In his view, the purpose of the nuclear alert ‘was to warn the Russians not to interfere with [some] delicate diplomatic maneuvers, designed to ensure an Israeli victory, but a limited one, so that the U.S. would still be in control of the region unilaterally.’
In either interpretation, the raising of the US nuclear alert level was about managing a crisis and setting limits on the behaviour of others. It is possible that Putin’s latest ‘special mode of combat duty’ nuclear alert has similar motivations.
In both cases, as Chomsky would point out, raising the nuclear alert reduces rather than increases the safety and security of the citizens of the homeland.
The current Russian nuclear threats are both frightening and a clear breach of the UN Charter: ‘All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state....’ (Article 2, section 4, emphasis added)
In 1996, the World Court ruled that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would ‘generally’ be illegal.
The one area where it could see some possibility of legal use of nuclear weapons was in the case of a threat to ‘national survival’.
The court said it could not ‘conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake’.
In the current war, Russia’s survival as a state is not at stake.
Therefore, according to the World Court’s interpretation of the law, the nuclear threats that Russia is issuing are illegal.
That also goes for the US and British nuclear threats. Whatever happened in Taiwan in 1955, or in Iraq in 1991, the national survival of the US was not at risk.
Whatever happened in Malaysia in the mid-’60s, there was no danger that the United Kingdom would not survive.
Therefore these nuclear threats (and many more that could be mentioned*) were illegal.
It is possible that Russia is now trying to create a general policy, drawing a nuclear line in the sand in terms of what it will and will not allow to happen in Eastern Europe.
If so, this will be somewhat similar to the Carter Doctrine, another ‘ominous’ nuclear threat related to an area.
Western commentators who rush to condemn Putin’s nuclear madness would do well to remember Western nuclear madness of the past.
On 23 January 1980, in his State of the Union address, then US president Jimmy Carter said: ‘Let our position be absolutely clear: an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.’
‘Any means necessary’ included nuclear weapons. As two US naval academics have commented: ‘While the so-called Carter Doctrine did not specifically mention nuclear weapons, it was widely believed at the time that the threat to use nuclear weapons was part of the U.S. strategy to deter the Soviets from advancing south from Afghanistan towards the oil-rich Persian Gulf.’
The Carter Doctrine was not a nuclear threat in a particular crisis situation, but a standing policy that US nuclear weapons could be used against any force attempting to dislodge US control over Middle East oil.
It is possible that the Russian government now wants to erect a similar nuclear weapons umbrella over Eastern Europe, a Putin Doctrine.
If so, it will be just as dangerous and illegal as the Carter Doctrine.
Western commentators who rush to condemn Putin’s nuclear madness would do well to remember Western nuclear madness of the past.
Almost nothing has changed over the past few decades in the West, either in public knowledge and attitudes or in state policies and practice, to restrain the West from making nuclear threats in the future. This is a sobering thought as we confront Russian nuclear lawlessness today.