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Coercion and Deterrence: Putin’s Irrational Nuclear Threats are a Risk to the Whole World

The Russian President’s threats to use nuclear force should be a wake-up call for the West, writes Dr Andrew Corbett

Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2022. Photo: Thibault Camus/Reuters

Coercion and DeterrenceVladimir Putin’s Irrational Nuclear Threats are a Risk to the Whole World

The West should have made the cost of invasion much clearer to Russia in advance to have any hope of deterring Putin, says Andrew Corbett

All wars seek to achieve political objectives through the use of force and to justify that force by pointing to those objectives. 

This was clearly shown by Russia’s attempts to use ‘false flag’ attacks to justify its invasion of Ukraine. The attempts failed after the US published intelligence showing the planned disinformation campaigns in advance. 

It is, however, never legitimate to threaten the use of nuclear weapons to achieve those political objectives – except perhaps (and this is a hotly debated point in itself) where the use of nuclear weapons is a deterrent against aggression itself. 

Nuclear weapons are so destructive and indiscriminate that there is simply no military target that would legitimate the associated non-combatant casualties.  

For this reason, Vladimir Putin’s recent apparent threats to use nuclear weapons are particularly worrying. In response to debilitating economic sanctions against his regime, the Russian President is reported to have announced that he had ordered “to move Russia’s deterrence forces to a special regime of duty” – having already told the West that, if it intervenes, “the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history”.

This is not the first time Putin has made such threats against NATO members and other states. 

In 2015, he said that if Denmark joined NATO’s ballistic missile defence system, “Danish warships will be targets for Russian nuclear missiles”. Throughout 2014 there was an unusually high incidence of nuclear weapon drills alongside military exercises as part of a coherent campaign by Russia seeking to deter interference in its annexation of Crimea. Arguably, it worked. 

Coercion and Deterrence

However, what makes Vladimir Putin’s latest threat so menacing is the context of Russia’s faltering invasion of Ukraine. It suggests that Russia sees the use of nuclear weapons as war-fighting tools, not simply as means to deter external aggression. In other words, the Russian President see this as a threat to ‘escalate to de-escalate’.   

Since 2014, NATO’s response to these threats has been measured. No changes have been made to its nuclear posture, no corresponding threats have been made, and the subsequent ‘enhanced forward presence’ (NATO posture changes that enhanced deterrence on its eastern flank) were entirely focused on enhanced logistical support arrangements and conventional forces deployments. 

NATO’s public statements on nuclear deterrence – which state that it is designed to “preserve peace, prevent coercion, and deter aggression” – remain largely unchanged since 1991.

The longevity of this is a fair indication of the stabilising effect that nuclear deterrence has. However, after what it described as Russia’s “irresponsible and aggressive nuclear rhetoric” in 2014 and 2015, NATO did announce – in the 2016 Warsaw summit communique – that “any employment of nuclear weapons against NATO would fundamentally alter the nature of a conflict”.

Deterrence and coercion are central to any conflict. Russia’s deployment of conventional forces around Ukraine over the past few months has been a good example of both.

Coercion occurs when an aggressor seeks to force an adversary to do something. Russia appears to have sought to coerce Ukraine into accepting independence for the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. 

Deterrence is similar except that, instead of trying to compel a particular action, it seeks to persuade an adversary away from a course of action by suggesting that it would entail more significant costs than gains. In the case of nuclear weapons, these costs are literally incalculable. 

Prior to 24 February, western deterrence against Russian invasion was incoherent and not very credible. NATO states had made it clear that they would not deploy their own forces in defence of Ukraine, and a coherent punitive economic sanctions regime did not emerge until some 48 hours after the invasion began – thus avoiding any substantial deterrence effect at all.

The West should have made the cost of invasion much clearer to Russia in advance to have any hope of deterring Putin. Instead, NATO’s actions have become punishments rather than deterrents. The question now is: what other deterrence tools remain open to the international community?


The other question that needs to be answered is what Vladimir Putin is trying to achieve. 

If his interests in pursing this war significantly outweigh the apparent risks, then there is little that will be able to deter him. 

On the one hand, Putin claims that he is engaged in this conflict in order to restore sovereignty to Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine and to unseat an illegitimate regime, as officials have repeatedly insisted. On the other, his opponents say that the war is an attempt to distract from internal opposition by demonising NATO and the US in order to sustain an increasingly fragile Russian regime.

Of course, Russia’s strategic interests and Putin’s personal interests may diverge here.

The long-term interests of Russia appear to have been badly harmed by the invasion of Ukraine.  The rouble has dropped 12% on the foreign exchanges since January, the isolation from SWIFT banking services appears to be causing significant domestic concern over runs on Russian banks. Individuals and banks have been sanctioned and Aeroflot has been banned from many countries’ airspace, including Iceland, which controls much of the north Atlantic airspace and therefore transatlantic air travel. European states are actively seeking long-term alternatives to Russian gas as energy sources.

Ukraine’s interests in this are obvious and, in a very literal sense, a matter of life or death.

The interests of NATO, the EU and the international community more generally are more nebulous – sustaining liberal values, democracy and the rule of law. The international community might support liberal values, democratic government and the international rules-based order as personified by the Ukrainian Government, but it is not yet prepared to risk a direct military confrontation against a nuclear-armed Russia, which appears to have significantly greater and more tangible interests invested in the outcome of this conflict.  

Putin’s Warning

The Russian President’s threat to the West – that “the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history” – appears couched in terms to deter further intervention by NATO or European states.

Certainly, Russia has the capability to launch devastating nuclear strikes across Europe, not just in Ukraine. But why would Russia attack NATO? It would be pointless and catastrophic and the inevitable response would be devastating for Russia and the whole world.

The only credible reason why Russia might threaten a nuclear strike is as a deterrence measure against further Western intervention. The international community has not intervened militarily so far and, if the conflict remains conventional, perhaps the Russian risk assessment is that there will be no intervention. 

However, if Putin is contemplating the use of nuclear weapons, in order to escalate and snatch a ‘victory’ from a conventional defeat in Ukraine, such a deterrent message to NATO might just appear credible. 

Ukraine may be forced over the next few days to consider the prospect of successfully repelling Russia’s invasion with conventional forces, only to be faced with the threat of nuclear attack if it does not capitulate.  

Putin’s comments seek to exploit nuclear weapons for political gain. This is fundamentally immoral but it should also be a wake-up call for us all. He is a man that has moved from being a rational, if aggressive, national leader to an increasingly irrational tyrant, whose desire to sustain his own regime at apparently any cost now poses a danger to the security and stability, not just of Kyiv, but the whole world.

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