In the past 20 years, American presidents have devoted precisely 38 words — combined — in their State of the Union addresses to supporting the country’s nuclear deterrent. President Trump’s 2018 contribution — “As part of our defense, we must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal, hopefully never having to use it, but making it so strong and powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression” — was just the deterrent’s second supportive mention in a SOTU since the Cold War.
In stark contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently blew past this mark in one paragraph. His latest speech to the Federal Assembly, roughly the Russian equivalent to the State of the Union, ultimately delivered more than a half-dozen paragraphs on Russian nuclear capabilities, and another half-dozen hypocritically accusing the United States of violating the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
And that is no aberration. In last year’s speech, Putin spent even more time on the subject, extolling, and playing animated videos of, five new Russian strategic weapons. If anything, his speech this year, which introduced just one hypersonic missile, displayed a Russian version of restraint.
Such bluster is nothing new for Russian leaders, but its increasingly “nuclear” nature and the range of actions it threatens is a new and worrying development. For example, a Russian defense official reportedly threatened to add Norway to their list for nuclear attack if it participated in a joint military exercise involving only 300 U.S. Marines.
Why are Russian officials, from Putin on down, issuing so many nuclear threats? One possibility is that it’s a chance to highlight one of Russia’s only technological achievements that rival the West’s, in a message aimed primarily at a domestic audience.
Or this nuclear rhetoric may be aimed at deterring foreign leaders, primarily the United States and NATO. In this year’s speech, Putin wondered aloud, “But can they count? Probably they can. So let them calculate the range and speed of our future arms systems. This is all we are asking: just do the maths [sic] first and take decisions that create additional serious threats to our country afterwards.”
Finally, Russia may be trying to sway Western publics against their governments’ nuclear modernization policies. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union hyped its nuclear threats to sow dissent among NATO allies and induce radical peace groups to pressure Western governments to make unilateral concessions, according to declassified CIA documents. Putin may be hoping for a similar effect from his rhetoric – perhaps already manifest in some of the recent Western articles and reports that advocate for unilateral U.S. nuclear reductions as a response to Russian aggression.
Whatever the Russian motivation, U.S. and NATO officials have an interest in steering Russian rhetoric away from its focus on nuclear weapons. Repeated Russian nuclear threats, especially those that are vastly out of proportion to the situation, could have a “dulling” effect on U.S. and allied officials, making future nuclear threats appear less credible. In addition, if Putin perceives his nuclear threats as being effective, he may be tempted to use them more frequently.
If not sufficiently addressed, Russian nuclear threats could also divide NATO unity among current members, and perhaps discourage potential future members from joining. One-off braggadocious comments by lower-level Russian officials need not evoke panic in the West, but the systematic, repeated, and high-level nuclear threats seen today appear to be part of a tailored Russian information warfare strategy meant to advance Russian interests at the expense of NATO.
What can be done to disabuse the Russians of the notion that nuclear threats can be productive? The Trump administration is already taking some important steps: calling out Russian arms control violations and hypocrisy in detail, building NATO support at the highest levels, and sanctioning Russian companies.
If Russian rhetoric continues its radical slide, however, President Trump can borrow a page from the playbook of a predecessor with experience countering Russian “active measures”: Ronald Reagan.
National Security Decision Directive 75, often called the Reagan administration’s “blueprint” for policy on the Soviet Union, directed U.S. officials to counter Soviet propaganda “at all available fora” so that lies never went unchallenged. Under NSDD 75, U.S. officials also sought to “Prevent the Soviet propaganda machine from seizing the semantic high-ground in the battle of ideas through the appropriation of such terms as ‘peace.’”
For today, this means effectively countering Russian officials, commentators, and troll armies on the internet. It also means having U.S. officials with a list of talking points always at the ready to counter Russian disinformation whenever a reporter asks. An effective U.S. inter-agency working group made up of Russia specialists, information warfare practitioners, deterrence and assurance analysts, and communication professionals may be needed to quickly counter Russian disinformation campaigns before their talking points become mainstream and relatively uncontested.
A deft presidential response can also be of use. In 1984, President Reagan was asked whether he was worried about a report that the Soviets had deployed more submarines with nuclear cruise missiles off the U.S. coast, to which he responded “If I thought there was some reason to be concerned about them, I wouldn’t be sleeping in this house tonight…They’re announcing and they’re publicizing, but those submarines are off both our coasts.” There was no mimicking of the Soviet bluster or exaggeration, just a disarmingly simple and reassuring response that got to the heart of the issue.
The United States must continue to counter Mr. Putin’s nuclear rhetoric by building allied support, rejecting pressure to unilaterally cut its nuclear forces, and speaking the truth about Russian activities around the world at every forum available. The United States has the capabilities needed to address Russian nuclear rhetoric; now it needs top-level support, guidance, and coordination among supporting agencies. Such a strategy may not mute all of Moscow’s nuclear rhetoric, but it may mitigate some of its more pernicious effects.