Russian nuclear intimidation

Think tank: Chatham House

Author(s): Keir Giles

March 29, 2023

This report from UK think tank Chatham House looks at how Russia uses nuclear threats to shape Western responses to aggression.

The idea that nuclear use by Russia is not only possible but probable if it is challenged or threatened, let alone defeated or humiliated, has been fostered by Russian propaganda efforts over many years. Among Western audiences and decision-makers, this has led to interpretations of the evidence for and against this probability that are alarmist rather than objective. Fears of escalation to the point at which Russia may resort to nuclear use have constrained the willingness of Western governments to provide war-winning military support to Ukraine, and have shown Russia that nuclear threats – no matter how implausible – work. If Russia is allowed to achieve success in its war against Ukraine through nuclear intimidation, this validates the concept of nuclear coercion not only for Moscow but for other aggressive, assertive or rogue states around the world. In this research paper, Keir Giles argues that Western support for Ukraine should be guided by informed assessments of Russia’s actual nuclear posture, and by the experience of Moscow’s reaction to the phases of the conflict to date, rather than by Russia’s use of nuclear intimidation as a tool that has shielded it from the consequences of its actions in Ukraine.