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Re-calibrating the Russian Nuclear Threat to NATO

  • In re-calibrating the Russian nuclear threat to NATO, it is useful to assess what lessons the Kremlin might have drawn from the 2022 invasion. However, there are important caveats to NATO drawing its own lessons about the conflict as well as trying to project the lessons that Russia has learned. First, the war in Ukraine is still ongoing with incomplete and imperfect information abound. Second, Russia is not a monolith, and it is unclear whether actors within the Kremlin will draw similar lessons. Third, Russian actors may not have the capacity for systematic assessment that then informs decision making. Finally, whatever lessons Russia has learned now, they may radically change depending on the future course of war, and on its ultimate outcome.
  • There was consensus that Russia would become increasingly reliant on its nuclear forces going forward, particularly whilst its conventional capabilities are constrained. A possible lesson for Russia that was raised was that nuclear intimidation threats obey the law of diminishing returns: the effectiveness of these threats has decreased and the costs have increased over time. It was also noted that it was unclear whether NATO had actually crossed Russian red lines, considering the difficulty in separating Russian signals from noise, which may prevent observers from drawing easy lessons about the credibility of Russian nuclear threats. Russia has aimed to keep NATO out of the Ukrainian war; however, whether (and how) NATO changed Russia’s decision-making calculus is unclear: was it always Russia’s intention to avoid direct confrontation with NATO or were they deterred? One concern was that Russia would assess that its early defeats in Ukraine were related to them not using nuclear weapons earlier in the conflict, which would have troubling implications for any future conflict.
  • It was assessed, however, that whilst the threat of Russian nuclear use in Ukraine remains real, it is unlikely at the present time. There is a distinction between direct and indirect nuclear threats to the alliance. Direct nuclear threats specifically target the alliance, although the prospect of Russian nuclear use against allies does not appear credible at this time. Indirect nuclear threats relate to how Russian actions impact the thinking and behaviour of other actors. For example, Russia’s nuclear sabre-rattling in Ukraine may show the effectiveness of nuclear coercion to other nuclear weapons states, and encourage similar behaviour. However, for now, Russian nuclear rhetoric has not been effective in coercing NATO or Ukraine.
  • Participants discussed the motivations behind and effects of potential Russian nuclear sharing with Belarus. Several rationales were discussed, including: signalling to the West, achieving strategic depth, binding or reassuring Belarus, and using these weapons as a bargaining chip in future negotiations with NATO. Some noted that Russian nuclear sharing with Belarus may undermine Russian criticisms of NATO nuclear sharing. The implications for NATO security and vulnerability are still unclear, as it would depend on, for example, the number of weapons, weapons systems, and operational arrangements involved.
  • There was lively debate about how to assess ‘rationality’ of Russia’s decision-making calculus when trying to calibrate the Russian threat to NATO. This question is fundamental for understanding how and if NATO can deter Russia and the actions it should take in order to do so. Some emphasised the emotional nature of Russian decision-making related to the start and conduct of the war in Ukraine. Others emphasised the role of information, rational miscalculation, and psychological biases. Others emphasised the level-of-analysis problem in assessing whether rhetoric and signals are aimed at domestic or international audiences. It is important to separate assessments of rational decision-making processes from assessments of outcomes: a decision that leads to an undesirable outcome is not necessarily an irrational decision, just as a decision that leads to a desirable outcome is not necessarily a rational decision.

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