After the world escaped a nuclear exchange during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, it has been generally understood that nuclear-armed nations did not publicly threaten their rivals and enemies with thermonuclear weapons.
Of course, there were occasional lunatic exceptions to the rule. Since 2006, when the unhinged North Korean regime acquired nuclear weapons, the world has periodically dismissed the zany threats from the Kim dynasty. Kim Jong Un has sporadically warned he might strike Japan, South Korea, and the United States—usually in an outrageous and outlandish fashion.
Kim finally was warned of the consequences of his brinkmanship rhetoric, most famously by Donald Trump in 2018. He reminded Kim that the American nuclear button was bigger than North Korea’s—an eerie counter-warning that for a time led to the cooling of North Korean rhetoric.
Pakistan went nuclear in 1998. From time to time, its prime ministers have warned India that in any confrontation, what Pakistan lacked in numbers and arms would be made up by the preemptive use of nuclear weapons. But again, Pakistan’s threats, like those of Kim Jong Un’s, were dismissed as the rantings of the insecure and blustering, who were otherwise deterred by much larger nuclear arsenals.
But the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine opened a new chapter in nuclear trash-talking. The Ukrainian war has proved dangerously unique in a variety of ways. True, there have been prior large land wars involving nuclear powers. The first Gulf War of 1991 saw Britain, France, and the United States combine to help crush Iraq without mention of nuclear arms. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 without such threats. Neither did China mention a nuclear option in 1979, despite a less-than-successful short invasion of Vietnam. Nor did Great Britain, in its 1982 retaking of the Falkland Islands, talk of the bomb, although recently declassified documents revealed that the Royal Navy carried 31 nuclear weapons on its expeditionary fleet—presumably depth charges, bombs, and missiles—to the chagrin of the current Argentine government.
Yet the Ukrainian war is the first large conventional war on the very doorstep of a nuclear superpower. And additionally, it has become a proxy war between the nuclear-armed NATO alliance and nuclear Russia.
There are other dangers as well. The old maxim that democratic governments do not pose existential threats to the same degree as their autocratic counterparts suggests that the Putin regime is a bit different, a bit more unfettered than its NATO enemies.
Another challenge is the fact that the saga of Russian and Ukrainian borders is complex, with long messy histories analogous to the volatility of the Balkans, and especially accentuated with the collapse of the borders of the old Soviet Union.
Much of western Ukraine was Polish until 1939, when it was gobbled up and never surrendered by Stalin in 1945, who had switched alliances in 1941 to the Allied side. Crimea had been Russian since 1783, when it was annexed from the Islamic Khanate. Much of Ukraine itself was part of Russia from the 18th century until the collapse of the Soviet Union. In sum, autocracy, irredentism, and nuclear war make for a volatile combination.
But far more dangerous is the notion that Russia was a superpower and in some ways still is one, given its huge land mass, its rich natural resources of natural gas and oil, and its nearly 6,000 nuclear weapons—still the largest such stockpile in the world.
But most importantly, Putin’s blatant aggression is now checked and stalemated, and thousands of Russians have died. Ukraine is on the offensive, and there have been prior attacks on the Russian Black Sea fleet, strikes inside Russia itself, and apparent drone missions against Moscow suburbs. No one knows who blew up the Nord Stream pipeline, but assurances that it was not Russia’s enemies seem increasingly unconvincing, as new narratives emerge of Ukrainian responsibility, with likely Western support and perhaps foreknowledge.
Ukraine’s stated war aims are not just to push Moscow back to the 2022 prewar border, but to cleanse Ukraine of all Russian troops and restore the 2014 Ukrainian nation, including all of Crimea and the disputed borderlands. That, of course, is a legitimate aim, given Russia’s cruel invasion and targeting of civilian targets. But the expansive agenda poses additional paradoxes and dangers—and what is a militarily sound and necessary strategy can often go out the window when nuclear weapons come into play.
Putin first invaded Ukraine during the appeasing years of the Obama-Biden Administration. His sudden rashness likely was in response to the 2011 American Libyan misadventure, the empty Obama “redline” rhetoric in Syria, John Kerry’s request for Russia’s reentry into Middle East affairs, and Obama’s eerie “Tell Vladimir” quid pro quo “deal” of “space” for ending missile defense, all caught on a hot mic in Seoul in March 2012.
In any case, no major Western leader, and especially not Barack Obama, ever had talked of supporting a counteroffensive between 2014 and 2022 to reclaim what had been lost in 2014. That current Western-sanctioned aim apparently emerged in 2023 in response to Russian setbacks and deeper Western supply intervention. Of course, new agendas always arise as a legitimate part of war, and hinge on the pulse of the battlefield. But again, there was no Obama-Biden post-2014 initiative to rally the West then to reclaim what it aims to now.
A final wrinkle is the massive U.S. and NATO military aid to Kyiv, which in direct shipments, intelligence, and training might already have exceeded $100 billion. If so, Ukraine, in the most recent 12-month period, would have enjoyed the third-largest military budget in the world, behind only the United States and China—and nearly double the annual defense expenditures of Russia itself.
Stranger still, Ukraine and its Western allies claim that such a staggering sum is insufficient, given that Ukraine needs far more offensive weapons to cut off the Russian supply chain, originating, of course, from inside Russia. That offensive agenda apparently is now to include F-15 and F-16 fighters, the most sophisticated German, British, and American armored vehicles, billion-dollar anti-missile batteries, and the most lethal artillery and missile weapons in the world.
Add it all up, and what we are witnessing is a once haughty and aggressive dictatorial Russia so far increasing bleeding and humiliated in Ukraine—in large part thanks to the largest shipments of Western military support to any single country since the Anglo-American Lend-Lease supply of Soviet Russia in World War II.
These weapons, necessary to the defense of an invaded Ukraine, largely explain Russia’s enormous losses, which may have reached or exceeded 200,000 or more dead, wounded, captured, and missing.
Once-loose talk of incorporating Ukraine into NATO is now de rigeur. Next followed the admission into the alliance of Finland, with its 800-mile-long Russian border, and soon likely Sweden, which likewise possesses an extremely capable military and is a neighbor as well of Russia.
What does all this mean to a humiliated Russia?
The Putin dictatorship, which asked for such comeuppance, is flailing. The Russian military has suffered global disgrace. Moscow blames Western powers for ensuring the collapse of its offensive in its own backyard. Western leaders, including the U.S. defense secretary, have boasted that the Ukraine war is a needed proxy conflict in which the West will further weaken Russia and curb its aggression.
Now Ukraine is targeting sites inside Russia—as traditional military doctrine would advise if its aim is to expel all Russians from its pre-2014 borders. But again, that was not the policy of the West from 2014 to 2021. Many of today’s loudest hawks were strangely silent when the Obama Administration appeasement led to the 2014 Russian invasion, that then was shrugged off as a permanent fait accompli throughout the Obama years.
Russia is facing internal chaos and war resistance. An ailing Vladimir Putin is reeling. And the result is the largest epidemic of nuclear trash talk since the dawn of the nuclear age, almost all of it blithely dismissed as empty saber-rattling by an ailing thug who got his just deserts.
Perhaps. But consider that the epidemic of nuclear bluster has exceeded the usual “one-bomb state” nuclear nonsense from theocratic Iran.
For example, in summer 2022, Putin repeatedly suggested that Russia reserved the right to use nuclear weapons if threatened with destruction. A few prominent Russians openly envisioned thermonuclear war. Alexei Zhuravlev, a member of the Russian parliament, boasted on Russian state television, “I will tell you absolutely competently that to destroy the entire East Coast of the United States, two Sarmat missiles are needed. And the same goes for the West Coast. Four missiles, and there will be nothing left.”
In September 2022, as Russian fortunes in Ukraine became even more problematic, the threats increased. Former Russian lawmaker Sergei Markov warned of such intercontinental strikes with nuclear weapons, publicly warning London: “In Russia, there’s partial mobilization, and for your British listeners, Vladimir Putin told you that he would be ready to use nuclear weapons against Western countries, including nuclear weapons against Great Britain. Your cities will be targeted.”
In March, the International Court at the Hague indicted Putin as a “war criminal” for the savageries unleashed in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In response, a number of prominent Russians once again threatened a nuclear response. The former president of the Russian Federation and current deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, warned the justices, “It’s quite possible to imagine a surgical application of a hypersonic Onyx from a Russian ship in the North Sea to The Hague courthouse. So, judges, look carefully to the sky.”
Margarita Simonyan, of the Kremlin-funded broadcaster Russia Today, likewise threatened, “I’d like to see a country that would arrest Putin under the ruling of The Hague. In about eight minutes, or whatever the [missile] flight time to its capital.”
When a mysterious unidentified drone hit the Kremlin in early May, there was a chorus of renewed calls for nuclear action: “After today’s terrorist act, no variant remains other than the physical elimination of Zelenskyy and his clique,” once more thundered the megaphone Medvedev. And the chairman of the lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, warned the Ukrainian nation that he would demand “the use of weapons capable of destroying it.”
Russia’s former space chief Dmitry Rogozin likewise tried to lower the threshold of nuclear weapons use: “According to our [nuclear] doctrine we have the right to use tactical nuclear weapons because that’s what they exist for . . . a great equalizer for the moments when there is a clear discrepancy in the enemy’s favor.” When still more likely Ukrainian drone bombers hit an upscale district of Moscow in late May last year, Medvedev again issued more of his nuclear bombast: “The West does not fully realize the threat of nuclear war . . . There are irreversible laws of war. If it comes to nuclear weapons, there will have to be a preemptive strike.”
Accordingly, the threshold on nuclear trash-talking and preemptive war in general have been lowered elsewhere. In December 2022, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, explicitly warned Greece that newly acquired Turkish missiles could strike Athens itself—unless “you stay calm.” As Erdoğan more unabashedly defined his threats: “When you say ‘Tayfun,’ [“typhoon”] the Greek gets scared and says, ‘It will hit Athens.’ Well, of course, it will . . . We can come down suddenly one night when the time comes.”
In December 2022, Iran was again talking of strikes against the Israeli’s nuclear reactor with threats to “raze Tel Aviv.” Tehran released a video showing simulated nuclear missile attacks destroying Israel. China is now in on the act, bragging about the virtual end of a defiant Taiwan, and has issued nuclear threats against both Japan and Taiwan, should they alter Taiwan’s status.
All this rhetoric again is treated with nonchalance in the West—and occasionally with near glee as welcome symptomology of Russia’s crackup and the impending implosion of the Putin regime.
Maybe, maybe not.
Yet with billion-dollar critical pipelines and dams blowing up, we are entering a new phase of the war, in which casual reference to hitting targets inside Russia, of nonstop bragging about the superiority of lethal Western weapons over their inferior Russian counterparts, of schadenfreude over the flailing Russians, and reports of horrendous losses to both Ukraine and Russia are all earning eerie nuclear backtalk that we have not heard in 60 years.
Is it all just saber rattling, buffoonery, the last braggadocious mutterings of a failed regime? Cheap efforts to obtain deterrence that Russian arms have lost? Perhaps. And then again, perhaps not.
The key to remember, however, is that there must be a near certainty that nuclear trash-talking is all cheap rhetoric, since the slight chance that it forewarns something deadly serious is . . . quite deadly, indeed.