Russia and the West trade veiled nuclear threats as Putin presses invasion of Ukraine

Weeks before Vladimir Putin shook the world by ordering his nuclear forces to their highest state of readiness, the United States, Britain and other NATO allies began shadow-boxing with Russia on social media to signal they're prepared to go all out should the Ukrainian conflict escalate and spill into Europe.

Experts say the 'strategic signalling' could be bluster — or something far worse

Russian President Vladimir Putin addressees the nation in Moscow on Feb. 24, 2022, as Russian troops launch their attack on Ukraine. (Russian Presidential Press Service/The Associated Press)

Weeks before Vladimir Putin shook the world by ordering his nuclear forces to their highest state of readiness, the United States, Britain and other NATO allies began shadow-boxing with Russia on social media to signal they're prepared to go all-out should the Ukrainian conflict escalate and spill into Europe.

It's the kind of brinksmanship mentality the world hasn't seen since the darkest days of the Cold War, said one expert who has been researching the so-called "strategic signaling" that's been taking place with alarming frequency since early December.

"As a professional and studying this pretty much my entire life, I haven't seen anything like this since I was young back in the 1980s," said Sean Maloney, a professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada. "This is highly unusual. It's highly dangerous."

Opinions differ in the diplomatic and defence communities over what Putin's order to transfer the nuclear forces of the Russian army "to special combat mode" means in real terms. Some view it as a signal from the Kremlin to make sure the system is in readiness in case it's triggered.

Others, such as Canada's representative to the United Nations Bob Rae, argue it's a diplomatic "tactic" meant to bully the western world.

Rae noted during an appearance before a House of Commons committee Monday that, a little over a month ago, Russia joined four other nuclear powers (the United States, France, China and the U.K.) in stating that a nuclear war could never be won and there is no justification for the use of such weapons. The statement was issued ahead of a UN conference that was cancelled because of the pandemic.

"It was still a very important statement," said Rae. "This took place in January 2022. We're not talking about five years ago. We're talking about six or seven weeks ago."

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Rae said that while the world is left to ponder these contradictory signals, he chooses to believe what Russia was saying before Putin's recent nuclear saber-rattling.

'It is a complete turnaround from what they've said before," Rae told the House of Commons foreign affairs committee. "But I also think it's important for us not to be scared off by this tactic. Because I think it is a tactic. I think it's really important not to give in to what it's intended to do."

But while Russia was making the solemn declaration alongside those other nuclear powers, the country's defence ministry — known for its slick videos and social media skills — was peeling back the curtain on a number of exercises involving its nuclear forces.

At first blush, it all appeared to be cool, sharable content — grist for the social media mill — but Maloney said it served a dual purpose.

In what could be a message to Canada and other Far North nations, Russia published photos of its Tu-160 "Blackjack" bombers exercising in the Arctic. It issued a tweet of a MiG-31K carrying a hypersonic missile.

More ominously, the ministry publicized a readiness drill by mobile strategic missile forces at Irkutsk in south-central Russia. Maloney said that exercise startled him when he saw it online.

"They've definitely increased the readiness level of parts of the strategic nuclear forces," he said, noting that the Irkutsk missiles would be aimed at North America. 

"And the fact that they've moved Tupolev-160 bombers around in the Arctic with tankers, they've done that in a couple of occasions ... They're definitely signaling us on this that they're serious."

The message, he said, is, "Don't mess with us and what we're doing in Ukraine."

Not to be outdone, in mid-January the U.S. Navy reported on Twitter that one of its ballistic missile submarines (USS Nevada) had arrived in Guam and the "submarine's visit demonstrates our nuclear triad's capability and flexibility, reinforcing America's commitment to regional security and stability." 

Maloney said the tweet — coming from the chief of U.S. naval operations — was "clearly a signal."

"That never happens. Not in the middle of the crisis," he said.

On New Year's Day, the Royal Navy let it be known on social media that one of its Vanguard class ballistic missile submarines was putting to sea.

"There has been an extensive — and they've allowed us to see it — there's been an extensive discussion in their social media about exercises with specific units," Maloney said.

There are precedents for these elaborate shadow-boxing exercises that predate social media. The Russians launched a blizzard of strategic signaling during their 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and during the 1956 move by the Soviets to crush the Hungarian revolution, said Maloney.

The question of whether Putin is actually willing to use nuclear weapons divides experts.

In June 2020, Russia made public a presidential directive on nuclear deterrence. The general consensus among experts was that it lowered the threshold for first use of nuclear weapons, especially for the Russian navy.

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'This is a highly dangerous situation'

The directive set out four conditions for the use of nuclear weapons: detection of a ballistic missile fired at Russian territory; the use of nuclear weapons, or weapons of mass destruction, by an enemy against Russia and its allies; an attack on Russian infrastructure which would undermine nuclear forces; and "aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy."

The broad ambiguity in that last condition has been a subject of alarm and debate and has drawn the attention of NATO. Alliance defence ministers acknowledged discussing nuclear deterrence in their recent meetings.

A mother from Ukraine rests with her child at a refugee shelter in Tiszabecs, Hungary on February 28, 2022. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

"This is a highly dangerous situation. It is unpredictable," said Maloney.

"We're dealing with an adversary that has an historical context that doesn't fit with how we view reality, and if people think that all the options are off the table, they better think again. When you're looking at Russian doctrine, it's deliberately ambiguous so that they reserve the right to escalate nuclear weapons use on whatever level they choose."

Joanna Hosa is a foreign policy analyst who once worked as a program coordinator for the European Council on Foreign Relations. She said that, like Rae, she prefers to believe there is still some method to Putin's apparent madness.

Is Putin a 'rational actor'?

"I think Putin is imperialistic but is not suicidal, and to start a nuclear war with the West — that would be suicidal," she said.

Canada's former military representative at NATO, retired vice-admiral Bob Davidson, said he was startled and deeply troubled by the full-scale invasion of Ukraine — an action he and other defence experts saw as folly, given the size of the Russian force.

He said his analysis had been based on the assumption that "we're dealing with a rational actor. This week has changed my perspective quite dramatically."

Davidson said it's important for the West "to keep a door, an escape door, open for Vladimir Putin" to give Russia a way out of this crisis.

"But you know, we need to remind everybody of what the implications are if this goes too far," he said.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.