July 2023 Update: Nuclear Weapon Use Risk in Ukraine

In our last note on this subject (27 June) we drew attention to the fact that President Putin had publicly rejected calls from some Russian figures to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, but appeared still to be playing with the idea that threats to Russia’s territorial integrity could justify the use of such weapons – a lower threshold for their use than threats to the survival of the Russian state (as specified in the relevant Russian military doctrine).

On 14 July Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defence Policy published the following (for the original see https://svop.ru/main/48156/):

“At the request of several members of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, we are publishing a statement they have submitted. It does not equate to the position of the Council but reflects the views of the signatories.

‘There have recently been speeches and statements, including by some members of this Council, in which is advanced, albeit with numerous reservations, the idea of a preventive nuclear strike by Russia in the event of negative developments affecting military operations in Ukraine and adjacent territories. Furthermore, those making these speeches and statements do not limit themselves to flights of fantasy about the use of tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of Ukraine, but also propose nuclear strikes on leading members of NATO.

We all know well the findings of past and more recent studies of the damage that can be expected to result from the use of nuclear weapons. Hoping that a limited nuclear conflict can be managed and prevented from escalating into a global nuclear war is the height of irresponsibility. The destruction of tens and perhaps even hundreds of millions of people would be at stake – in Russia, Europe, China, the USA, and other countries. Humanity in general would be threatened.

For our country, destroyed in the course of such a catastrophe, for our people, disorganized by such a war, this would also mean the prospect of losing sovereignty to the surviving peoples of the South.

The use of pseudo-theoretical reasoning and emotional statements (in the style of “talk shows”) to influence the mood of society and build pressure for the adoption of disastrous decisions is unacceptable.

Such reasoning is not just theoretical. It presents a direct threat to all mankind and amounts to a very specific proposal to kill everyone who is dear to us and whom we love.

We, members of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, consider such proposals absolutely unacceptable and unreservedly condemn them.

No one should ever blackmail humanity with the threat of using nuclear weapons, still less give the command to use them in combat.

We invite all members of the Council to join this Statement.’”

The names of 21 signatories followed. Neither these signatories nor the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy are likely to have influence over Russian decisions relating to the use of nuclear weapons. But the statement is not without significance.

First, it offers a measure of the strength of political pressure within the Russian establishment for using nuclear weapons in Ukraine; it suggests this pressure has been sufficiently strong for the signatories to feel compelled to make public their concern. Second, it implies the confidence of the signatories that there exist very senior figures within the Russian government who deplore such pressure and will welcome the signatories’ statement.

The first of these inferences points in a similar direction to evidence in June of President Putin still entertaining the idea that threats to territorial integrity can justify nuclear weapon use. The statement underscores that it would be prudent for non-parties to the conflict in Ukraine to urge upon the parties the earliest possible ceasefire so as to deny Russian advocates of nuclear weapon use the circumstances in which Russian decision-makers might feel inclined to heed their counsel.