Welcome back to Narrative X-ray, a new series of articles examining the broader narratives behind propaganda. Last time, we focused on the concept of the ‘russian world’. This time, we’re going to examine the narrative of Russia’s powerful ‘nuclear fist’, which we’re often told is ready to turn any enemies of the Kremlin into a “radioactive pile of ashes” in a matter of minutes. We’ll cover how this narrative was created and maintained.
Nuclear rhetoric from the Kremlin can be heard with increasing frequency recently, as it helps distract from having to discuss the progress of the “special military operation” in Ukraine. Even if all the rest of Russia’s vaunted military power is considerably less than imaged prior to the war, at least its nuclear fist is beyond doubt – so the Kremlin would like you to think – and the defence of Ukraine is not worth an “escalation” to test that.
In Russia, like the rest of Europe, research into radioactive elements has been conducted since the beginning of the 20th century. From the 1920s to the end of the 1930s, Russian physicists, in cooperation with European colleagues, were engaged in research on the further development of atomic physics at the Cavendish Laboratory, which was headed by the New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford. Meanwhile, research aimed at promoting nuclear physics in the Soviet Union was led by Abram Ioffe who was the director of the Leningrad Institute of Physics and Technology.
The Soviet scientific community discussed the possibility of creating a nuclear bomb as early as the 1930s, and in 1940 even came up with a specific proposal for the development of such a weapon, but it did not attract Stalin’s attention, and a full-scale program to create a nuclear weapon began as a priority only after the breakdown of the Nazi-Soviet Pact when Germay attacked the Soviet Union, which then switched sides to the Allies.
After the Kremlin found out about the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the program was continued with greater urgency, and the creation of a nuclear weapon was given added impetus by intelligence gathered about the US Manhattan Project. Through Klaus Fuchs, a German physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, American information also reached the Russians. Imprisoned German scientists were involved in the creation of the Soviet atom, and on August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear weapon at the Semipalatinsk range in Kazakhstan, the design of which was based on the “Fat Man” plutonium bomb dropped by the United States on Nagasaki.
By this point, the Cold War was underway and a US-Soviet arms race took off with new and more powerful nuclear weapons being created, as well as new ways to deliver them. Russian physicist and later social figure, dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov also participated in the development of the hydrogen bomb. It was under his leadership that the most powerful nuclear weapon ever tested was completed – a more than 50-megaton Tsar Bomba, which was detonated over Novaya Zemlya on October 30, 1961.
By the mid-1960s, both the United States and the Soviet Union had sufficient nuclear power to completely destroy their adversary. In addition, both sides developed the ability to launch a devastating retaliatory attack, primarily by submarines, even after a first strike from the other side. This policy became known as mutually assured destruction (MAD). Each side knew that any attack on the other would be destructive to themselves, so at least in theory it forced them to refrain from attacking their opponent. However, there was still preparation for such a scenario at every level – right down to civil defense drills in schools and the sewing of cotton-gauze masks.
“Disco and Atomic War”
Jaak Kilmi and Kiur Aarma
a documentary film
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia inherited the former superpower’s entire arsenal of nuclear weapons. Even if Russia was no longer a competitive power in the world’s top league economically or militarily, it still has the largest number of nuclear weapons in the world. According to ICANW, the International Organization for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, Russia has approximately 6,000 active nuclear weapons, which is more than the United States (about 5,500). Every other country in the world lags far behind the two, with China in third place having roughly 350 nuclear weapons, according to ICANW.
According to the threat report published by US intelligence this year, Russia increasingly relies on nuclear weapons for its security and continues to work on their modernization. During military parades, massive intercontinental nuclear missiles always roll across Moscow’s Red Square. The Russian state media reports on the superiority of the new nuclear weapons – the Sarmat and Poseidon – over their competitors.
Under Putin’s leadership, Russia has taken a clear direction to restore the former empire, and with it, the country’s nuclear rhetoric has undergone a renaissance. “Russia is the only country that can turn the United States into a pile of radioactive ash,” stated the head of Russian state television, Dmitry Kisselyov, back in 2014, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Since Russia launched its full-scale war against Ukraine, nuclear threats from the Kremlin have become increasingly hysterical. “The defeat of a nuclear power in a conventional war can trigger a nuclear war,” stated the Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in a Telegram post this January. Speaking at the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi last October 18, Putin announced that in the event of a nuclear war, Russians will go to paradise and Russia’s attackers will simply die. On Russian state television and social media sites, experts and presenters constantly warn that if Europe continues to support Ukraine, these countries may turn to ashes.
In one respect, the threats are intended for the countries to which they are verbally addressed – Western countries that support Ukraine. In particular, they are trying to influence those members of the electorate of democratic countries who still remember the existential nuclear fear of the Cold War and who, based on this, can influence the governments of their countries to refrain from helping Ukraine. Mostly, the decision-makers of different countries are also from the generation that still remembers the fear of the nuclear fist of the Soviets, which shadowed their childhood, and who therefore do not want to “anger the Russian bear”. Does it still make sense to risk the outbreak of the third world war and a global nuclear catastrophe on behalf of one of the former Soviet republics?
On the other hand – and much more alarmingly – according to several experts, such aggressive nuclear rhetoric also aims to prepare the Russian population for a possible nuclear conflict. This does not necessarily mean that outcome is any way likely because merely domestic fear of nuclear war has its own purposes.
Today’s rulers of the Kremlin probably know from their own experience that this kind of intimidation allows the state to effectively control people and mobilize them against a common enemy.
In addition to the already mentioned intimidation, an important goal is certainly to underscore Russia’s importance on the world stage. Putin’s Russia wants to be seen as one of the world’s great powers, like the Soviet Empire, equal to the United States and China. That is why, according to the rhetoric spread in the national media, Russia is at war in Ukraine not with the Ukrainians, but with the USA and the collective West.
Domestically, too, by waving a nuclear fist, they want to divert attention from the failures in Ukraine and assure their citizens that they are still the world’s leading nuclear power, feared by all others.
In his opinion, the clearest example has been the refraint of Western supporters of Ukraine, including the United States, from providing Ukraine with the military aid necessary to win the war. Western countries have been constantly careful not to give Ukraine’s armed forces weapons that could threaten Russia. Aid has been carefully calibrated, and Ukraine’s allies have sensed Russia’s red lines and acted only when they turned out to be fictitious.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has repeatedly cited Russian threats of escalation as a direct reason to prevent or limit aid to Ukraine, citing the desire to “do everything possible to avoid an escalation that could lead to a world war.”
The successful warning and the associated fear of a situation where Russia loses patience also continues as one of the arguments for a cease-fire in Ukraine at any cost.
On the other hand, Russia has already used its nuclear threat so much without any real consequences that its effect is starting to disappear. As the latest escalation, Russia announced in March this year that it had signed an agreement with Belarus to deploy tactical nuclear weapons on its territory. In his comment to ERR, security expert Rainer Saks found that Western countries hardly react at all to the nuclear threats made by Russia.
However, not all nuclear weapons fit the world-ending stereotype of them, and this is where it gets more complicated.
There are also tactic nuclear weapons, which would still inflict wide horror, but aim to achieve specific tactical objectives on the battlefield, not to destroy, say, the largest cities in the United States or Russia, which are the strategic nuclear weapons. For years, academics and arms control negotiators have debated exactly how to define tactical nuclear weapons.
Russia has more tactical nuclear weapons than any other country and there is speculation that the Kremlin may use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine as a last resort, to which the Western countries may not respond in the same way, fearing a global nuclear war. However, the United States also has approximately 200 such weapons deployed in Europe, and the Americans have signaled at the highest political level that any use of nuclear weapons by Russia would not go unanswered.
However, it cannot be completely dismissed, because no one disputes the existence of Russia’s nuclear fist, and even if it is not in the best condition, it is the largest in the world in terms of nuclear weapons. In an additional development, the use of Patriot anti-missile defence systems in Ukraine has demonstrated their ability to intercept Russian hypersonic missiles, which until now had been assumed to be unstoppable. It’s especially a surprise as the Patriot technology is more than 40 years old, but this development increases the chance that nuclear weapons could be successfully intercepted.
Keir Giles states in the summary of his report that although the corridor of uncertainty is much narrower than widely assumed, there is still a greater than zero chance that Vladimir Putin could decide in favor of a nuclear strike, given all the circumstances.