Russian Nuclear Rhetoric 2014-2023: Transatlantic Differences in Threat Perception

March 2024 No Comments

Author: Egle Murauskaite (University of Maryland)

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After decades of discourse on disarmament and non-proliferation, the war in Ukraine has effectively marked the return of nuclear weapons to both mainstream public rhetoric and military-policy planning, and highlighted the growing importance of strategic deterrence. Russia’s progressively more intense nuclear saber-rattling over the past decade is partly due to an updated NATO posture and gradual commitments by Western nuclear powers to update their arsenals. While Western analysts have consistently reported seeing few substantive changes on the ground to accompany Russian verbiage, the escalatory pattern is frequently compared to the Cuban missile crisis at the height of the Cold War. In contrast, the Eastern European Baltic states, typically at the forefront of Russia’s containment agenda, consider Russia’s nuclear rhetoric with seemingly little concern, discounting the threats as empty. A regularly under-appreciated product of differing Cold War experiences, the gap between these divergent transatlantic perspectives has barely changed despite substantial changes to the geopolitical situation against which the nuclear rhetoric has sounded.

This paper traces and compares the transatlantic perceptions of Russia’s nuclear rhetoric from the start of the conflict in Ukraine in 2014 to the latest round of escalatory threats issued in early 2023. It is based on a review of open-source literature, public opinion polls, and interviews with security experts previously conducted by the author. The paper starts with an outline of transatlantic positions based on previous research and proceeds to present a detailed narrative comparison in the context of Russia’s conventional war in Ukraine that started in February 2022.

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