Nuclear Blackmail and the false excuse of ‘Avoiding World War III’

30 Квітня 2022, 19:42

Article by Bogdan Tsupryk, analyst

Here’s a list of threats by Russian officials over the last few days:

‘The danger is serious, it is real. And we must not underestimate it’ – Sergei Lavrov on the threat of nuclear war. Is the danger that real? We all wonder who is trying to make that danger real. It is only Russia that has been actively bringing up the topic of nuclear weapons. They have failed, however, to make it sound like a fair assessment of the situation, since no one else has even hinted at any use of nuclear weapons. Thus, it is merely blackmail.


‘We have all the tools for this that no one else can boast of having’ ‘We won’t boast about it: We’ll use them if needed and I want everyone to know that. We have already taken all the decisions on this’ warned Vladimir Putin, hinting at his nuclear arsenal. This was again, a reaction to the Ramstein summit, which was a breakthrough for delivering all sorts of weapons to Ukraine.


Another mouthpiece of the Kremlin, Margarita Simonyan (editor-in chief of Russia Today), also assessed the likelihood of a nuclear strike as very high. It seems that the new strategy is to make the West believe that Russia is determined to use its nuclear arsenal if needed to. In fact, nuclear threats are only used by Russia and North Korea (neither West or China has done so) and has done so not only after the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, but numerous times, some as early as 2008. Despite the undiplomatic rhetoric of the Russian dictator, business as usual continued until 2014 and even somewhat usual until the invasion in 2022.


Read more: Hawks and Doves: How Past US Presidential Administrations set the stage for Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine



In essence, Russian diplomacy is now ‘deterring’ the West from arm supplies in all ways it can, including nuclear blackmail. This strategy has worked with some success as several politicians backtracked and refused to supply Ukraine with arms – Olaf Scholz, being a prime example. After issuing a statement where he outlined the top priority as avoiding World War III, the Russians at last saw a degree of success in their blackmail. If that is the top priority, then what would their deterrence policy be on Russia invading Estonia, Lithuania or Latvia? The top priority would mean to retreat, or even give in to Russian demands of shrinking NATO back to its 1997 borders. Surely, that would avoid World War III. The more concessions, the less likely a World War III, right? Wrong.


There are just so many concessions one can make before self-destruction. Some might say that Putin has been serious about everything so far (i.e. every threat he made). This has been proven wrong on many occasions. In an event where he was actually deterred physically, his threats turned out to be a bluff. This can be seen in many examples throughout the years. The Turkish air force shot down a Russian fighter jet near the Syrian border in 2015 – Putin threatened Turkey with ‘serious’ consequences. Nothing happened, because he knew the Turks would shoot down every jet that attempted to cross into Turkish controlled airspace. Furthermore, the numerous nuclear threats over the years never amounted to anything. Putin’s threats to Finland and NATO after their joint statement of an imminent NATO membership, also amounted to nothing.


It is time for officials like Scholz and many of his German counterparts to not use Russian threats and bluffs as excuses to remain in their comfort zones and retain their cheap energy bills. In my conviction, Scholz and many others who use the ‘avoid World War III’ or ‘avoid nuclear annihilation’ excuse are doing so consciously without believing the seriousness of the threat. Sure, some may believe that Putin is serious about pressing the nuclear button, but others are using this to waste time – perhaps Putin still wants peace and Russia will remain a provider of gas for Europe (wouldn’t that make life so much easier without an embargo).


Another motivation for this excuse is infallibility and stubbornness of some of the EU elite. The left-overs of Angela Merkel’s legacy are still trying to save their old political order, where Russia plays a central part as an energy supplier. Admitting their wrongdoing (i.e. doing business with a de facto terrorist state and global threat) would entail the undoing of the years of policies they have executed while in power. Angela Merkel’s refusal to visit the area north of Kyiv, which was a scene of war crimes, proves the infallibility of some of the EU’s elite. Merkel would never have the stomach to admit such a costly mistake.


Both Russia and the West seem to have left the MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) doctrine of the Cold War behind. Russia now openly uses the nuclear threat on a daily basis (seemingly not caring about the nuclear response from the other side), while the West does not. If the denouncement of MAD, triggered by Russia’s use of the ‘n-word’ is now in the clear – this gives a new life to those who have recently become experts of ‘how to prevent World War III’. One of such ‘experts’ is Noam Chomsky. ‘Give Russia what it wants and we will avoid a nuclear war, things are getting very dangerous’. The rise of this rhetoric plays against the MAD balance of power and tries to show that one side is more committed to destruction than the other. In such a scenario, the side less committed to MAD will be forced to consecutive concessions. ‘Self-destruct or we will destroy you’ – is what Russia is trying to paint the picture as, despite the fact that most competent Western officials do not believe the second part. The use of Russian mouthpieces in the West claiming ‘they really mean it, let’s give in to their demands’ shows that without any reaction to nuclear threats, these setbacks in the West’s own backyard will occur if there is no response to Russia’s ‘n-word’ usage.


Read more: Why the West's Russia 'Deterrence' Strategy Was Wrong – an analysis using Game Theory


In a recent interview, 45th US president Donald Trump claimed that he threatened Putin in reaction to Putin’s nuclear threats. ‘We have more and better weapons than you’ and Trump stated he found the careless usage of the ‘n-word’ by Putin to be appalling. According to Trump, the frequent usage of the word got ‘everyone scared’ and that he would have stopped Putin from using this as a form of blackmail. Regardless of whether this recollection of events was true or not (as we have seen more often than not, Trump spoke kindly of Putin), Trump’s idea here is headed in the right direction. The West must re-commit to its MAD strategy as soon as possible, before figures like Chomsky and ‘neo-Merkels’ start promoting a ‘peace’ deal with Russia more vigorously.


The nuclear bluff has an even more rippling effect when Russia knows that the belief in the seriousness of nuclear warfare on the part of Russia is real. Fear is hence easy to exploit. Whenever things are moving in the wrong direction, Russia can always come back to nuclear blackmail to nudge Western officials. There are those who believe it and those who find this blackmail as an excuse to sit back and wait until perhaps, the situation will stabilise. It is the perfect excuse for them – if they do something, that means World War III, hence, they cannot do anything.


More importantly, when dealing with a tyrannical leader who openly uses the nuclear threat to achieve foreign policy ‘breakthroughs’, one must realise that the earlier you confront this threat, the less real (and more of a bluff) it is. Allowing threats to continue will only encourage further escalation to occur. If your adversary knows that you mean business from the beginning, he will not escalate. The West’s response must be proportional, not just with sanctions and military aid – but with spoken rhetoric as well.