On the face of it, it would seem that statements from Moscow indicating Russian preparedness to resort to nuclear weapons are numerous. I note that veteran Ukraine-war commentator Alexander Mercouris disingenuously discounts western assertions of Russian threats (as does Moscow itself), simply on the basis that the language deployed by Russian sources is usually something short of absolutely direct.

But who is kidding whom here?

I am not aware of, and I do not at this moment recall, comparable statements from major western leaders (of course, it is only western leaders that have ever actually used such weapons for war, and it is mainly western leaders who have seriously discussed their possible use in specific conflicts) although any time I hear that Washington leaves “all options on the table” in situations of international conflict an icy tremor runs my spine.

Are more potent western threats issued in subtle forums that go unreported by mainstream media? Recent press reports hint at such, as do assertions by Biden administration officials to the effect that there will be “grave consequences” in the event that Russia does use nuclear weapons – assurances that leave little to the imagination, nor are intended to.

I note with interest the inclusion in a speech that Putin delivered in Samarkand in mid-September of reference to western attacks on Russian nuclear facilities. To my knowledge, no such attack has been reported in western mainstream media. Did Putin simply make this up? I doubt it. Making things up does not seem to be his style.

Am I surprised that western mainstream media might avoid reporting things that undermine their broad commitment to a narrative of western innocence, or that they simply do as they are instructed by powerful figures in their respective security underbellies? Not at all.

Should we care about western threats to Russian nuclear facilities, if indeed Russia has threatened such facilities in Ukraine? But even western leaders and media have indicated their acceptance that it is Ukraine, not Russia, that has been shelling the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (ZPNN). Further, Russia was accommodating of the IAEA inspection team even while Ukraine launched manned assaults against the ZPNN, perhaps with a view to delaying or destabilizing the IAEA visit. And as for a recent story from Ukraine sources that a Russian missile landed within 400 yards of another Ukrainian nuclear power station (at Pivdennoukrainsk) on September 19, I have yet to see a full and balanced accounting for this incident. But it would be consistent with recent warnings and actual instances of escalation of Russian attacks to include Ukrainian infrastructure.

The issue or, worse still, exchange of threats (direct or indirect) to employ nuclear weapons, is a serious matter. Are these threats a bluff? The use of bluff ultimately erodes credibility and may even encourage an opponent to ignore the bluff by pressing home whatever advantage they enjoy. So bluff is generally not regarded as good practice. And here we are dealing with a Russian leadership that has been warning Western powers for two decades or more that if they continued to disrespect Russian national security concerns then war would follow. So why would we not take their threats seriously now?

In some situations, the calculation may be that if a bluff works just for now, then it is sufficient unto itself, and that the long-term costs of a loss of credibility are something that can be dealt with at a later date. But then again, in this instance, if the threats are indeed bluffs, they appear to have very little impact on Western leaders and not much more on Western citizens who are all much too bleary-eyed with Hollywood fantasies to pay serious attention to realities. So if the threats have little impact, why use them?

Since the context is a war of attrition, it may be that a bluff that one side will use nuclear weapons will continue to exercise a certain grim hold on the mindsets of opponents, or on certain parties within the camps of opponents, throughout the entire process in a way that is deemed helpful to the party that has issued the bluff (given that the physical capability of implementing the bluff is not in question). But this would be the case only until an opponent engages in action that, if the threat of the use of nuclear weapons was real (say the issue of long-range missiles with nuclear capacity to Ukraine), then that action would bring about a nuclear attack. But if it doesn’t lead to a nuclear attack then the opponent will likely conclude with greater certainty that the other side is bluffing and feel the more confident for it.

Since it is certainly within the bounds of plausibility that Washington might provide long-range missiles to Ukraine with nuclear warhead capability, then I don’t believe Russia would issue a threat that is a bluff.

But then again, how could any nation even seriously contemplate taking an action so devastating as a nuclear attack in the knowledge that, even if the first weapon fired was a “mini-nuke,” it would with great likelihood invoke an equivalent or even more damaging retaliation that in turn would lead to further escalation, concluding, quite possibly, with the end of human existence?

Both sides must now and in the past have engaged some of their most powerful minds on these questions. If they are not, we are indeed dealing with unbelievably puerile and corrupted political elites.

How could any combatant possibly think that nuclear annihilation, or the plausible expectation of such, could be worth it – on any scale of potential gain or avoidance of loss?

What, after all, is fundamentally at stake here? Yes, the odious, nauseatingly unctuous, hypocritical leaders of the western world, privileged, preening, shallow, ignorant as they are, may deserve to be taken down several pegs to assemble in humbler concert with other members of a multipolar world. The thought that they should succeed in what surely is their major game-plan is horrific to contemplate. Much of it was conveniently spelt out, well in advance, by the 2019 RAND corporation’s study of “Extending Russia,” but it has all been visible from the early 1990s onwards. The plan is provocation of Russia, using Ukraine and Ukrainians as pawns, in order to dismember the Russian Federation and set its components in conflict with one another, while western capital devours the vastness of Russian natural resources.

Success of this game-plan would be an extremely unpleasant scenario, surely leading to even more obscene inequality between and within nations and perhaps an even faster trajectory towards some of the most feared elements of the much discussed though still opaque and definitely controversial discourses of the “global reset.”

The game-plan is nothing if not ambitious, especially in view of Chinese and even Indian affiliation with Russia (despite western media’s gleeful but unfounded claims of fragility in their relations at Samarkand), but it seems that nothing is beyond the febrile hallucinations of the neoliberal cabal that rules western foreign policy elites.

And what so terrible thing would happen were Russia to win – ahead, that is, of nuclear contest? Parts of what was once Ukraine would be integrated into Russia. The West would agree to no longer push NATO eastwards, nor deploy missile “defense” systems along Russia’s borders, nor stage provocative war games along these borders or along its Black Sea coasts. The West would agree to coexist with Russia, perhaps welcome it back to the G7 (becoming, once again, the G8), inviting it to join NATO and the EU. The neoliberal Zelenskiy regime and its “Right Sektor,” Banderite entourage would be dismantled. The West would refrain from further meddling in Russia’s internal affairs.

What signs are there that Russia, in heady hubris upon such modest success following putative victory over Ukraine, would then hurl itself aggressively against the former states of the Soviet Union or even against Western Europe? None whatsoever.

Now let us see: a world without Zelenskiy in power, or certain death to all? … Choices, choices!

Another worrying dimension of this speculation as to the meaning of Russian nuclear threats has to do with the degree of confidence with which the threats are issued. Which is to say that if such threats are NOT bluffs, and if it is generally accepted that a first strike will lead to annihilation of the species or something not far short of that, and if those who issue the threats are NOT mad (nor are they), then ….. what can we conclude?

Russia believes, I think correctly, that it is currently enjoying a period of nuclear advantage because of its more advanced development of hypersonic capability (though this has to do with missiles, not so much with the destructive potential of warheads, in which the US is probably the leader). But a “nuclear advantage” is something completely different from “impunity from nuclear attack from the opponent’s forces.” It might increase the element of surprise, even of precision, and immunity from anti-missile defenses, but it would not remove the opponent’s retaliatory capability, by any means.

Is there any reason to think that the Russian advantage extends to a superior, even foolproof, missile defense system? None that I know of – and you might think, given Russian boasts about its hypersonic capability, that Russia would have boasted of superiority in the field of defense as well if this was indeed the case. I recall no such boasts.

Is it possible that Russia calculates that it will do such extensive damage with its first strike that the enemy will withhold retaliation on the simple basis, quite rational, that continuing existence is preferable to total non-existence? One might admire the logic, even the daring, but such a calculation would represent an enormous risk and with incomparable consequences should the calculation prove wrong.

Does Russia possess information about western nuclear capability that leads Russia to suppose that there is some grave problem with western nuclear armoury? It would hardly be beyond belief that the efficacy of this system of nuclear weaponry is a lot shakier than commonly supposed, perhaps even amounting to a massive scam perpetrated by corrupt defense industries. I have no evidence whatsoever that this is the case, although I do know of persistent doubts about the reliability of nuclear defense systems. Yet surely no sane entity would presume that there could be an absolute and universal failure of retaliatory capability.

Even were we to suppose that Russia had access to some deadly but as yet unknown energy-blocking technology that could disable western capability, it is extremely unlikely – I would say even unthinkable – that Russia would not have already indicated the possession of such (so as to achieve its aims without actually having to put the technology to use), or that western intelligence would not have acquired information of such and that western behavior would not have demonstrated a far higher level of caution than is currently the case.

So that brings us back to the issue of threat – is it real (therefore likely suicidal if implemented), or is it bluff, in which case the benefits are far short of compelling, and the bluff is counterproductive when exposed as such. Further, there is always the risk that the utterance of such a bluff, one that carries at least a prima facie credibility, would prompt an opponent to launch a first strike, even if this was not the preferred judgment or strategy.

In short, the uncertainties are enormous, and the implications are extremely grave for many billions of human beings. Refusal by any responsible party to now negotiate a reasonable and robust settlement, I argue, itself constitutes the most heinous of war crimes.

Titan II Reentry Vehicle and Warhead Casing” by Clemens Vasters is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


  • Oliver Boyd-Barrett

    Oliver Boyd-Barrett is Professor Emeritus (Journalism and Public Relations) from Bowling Green State University, Ohio and (Communication) from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. His first book, The International News Agencies, was published by Constable/Sage in 1980, and its French sister, Le Traffic des Nouvelles (with Michael Palmer) by Alain Moreau, in 1981. Since 2000 he has focused on issues of war and propaganda. Recent titles include Hollywood and the CIA (Routledge), Media Imperialism (Sage), Western Mainstream Media and the Ukraine Crisis (Routledge), Russiagate and Propaganda (Routledge), Media Imperialism: Continuity and Change (Rowman and Littlefield)(with Tanner Mirrlees), Conflict Propaganda in Syria (Routledge). Two current projects deal with Russiagate: Aftermath of a Hoax (Palgrave), and Afghanistan: Aftermath of Imperial Occupation (provisional).