Journalists need to be less gullible when covering Putin's nuclear threats, observers say
Critics call out Western media for amplifying the Kremlin's efforts to undermine support for Ukraine
There is a wickedly funny moment in the 1964 anti-war film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb that really resonates with today's perilous geopolitical landscape.
Explaining how the world-ending device works to a nervous U.S. president, the mad nuclear scientist (Strangelove, played by Peter Sellers) exclaims, "The whole point of a doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret!"
There is more than a grain of real-world truth in that dark, Cold War-era satire.
This week, the world was bombarded by chilling reports that Moscow and Washington have stopped sharing information about their strategic nuclear stockpiles with each other and that Russia plans to move nuclear weapons into neighbouring Belarus.
New analysis by Chatham House, the respected U.K.-based policy institute, suggests Western leaders and the media should take a deep breath and cast a more critical eye on the Kremlin's nuclear threats.
One of the authors, Keir Giles, said these repeated threats — amplified and reported without context by media — are having the effect of helping Moscow dampen material support for Ukraine.
"It would be wrong, of course, to say that ... the major Western media outlets deliberately make the problem worse," Giles told CBC News in a recent interview.
"But there's no doubt that they are part of the problem, through no deliberate fault of their own, but simply through their own deeply ingrained behaviours, which Russia is adept at exploiting."
The study argues that while there's intense speculation about Russia's nuclear posture and efforts to dissect Russian President Vladimir Putin's statements, "there has been relatively little attention paid to what the military actually does."
Whenever they speak in public, Western intelligence chiefs have said repeatedly that they have detected "no real preparations to change [Russia's] nuclear posture."
Moscow is also "unlikely to order a nuclear strike without at least some effort to deliver a final warning to the West, and to prepare the information space for delivery of Moscow's narratives during and after the attack." said the report.
That means paying attention to the nuclear signs and signals is more important than repeating Putin's threats.
Sean Maloney, a history professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, has been watching what the Russian military does and says, tracking the nuclear messaging between Russia and NATO since well before the full invasion of Ukraine. He's also been critical of the media coverage and the social media-driven hysteria.
Maloney wrote his own 87-page analysis of the exchange of threats last year. He said that while he's convinced the Kremlin's political statements are part of a deliberate campaign to scare the West, the reassurances of western intelligence chiefs don't always reflect the full story.
Maloney, an expert in Soviet Cold War tactics, wrote about how at the end of April 2022, Russian nuclear threats "were bluster and there was no reason to change the [U.S.] force posture at this time."
But data from that time period shows the U.S. military infrastructure — including air-to-air refueling and surveillance planes — was buzzing with activity, meaning "more was going on" and there was at least some level of concern.
A senior Pentagon official told Reuters earlier this week there was no indication that Russia intended to use nuclear weapons following the decision to place them in Belarus.
Giles said the Chatham House report is not calling for the media to ignore Kremlin threats.
"Absolutely not, [but] the whole issue of potential nuclear use should be approached with caution," Giles said. "That caution should be based in reality. We should have learned by now to tell the difference between what Putin says and what Russia does."
Christian Leuprecht, another defence expert at the Royal Military College, said nobody should be telling the media what it can and cannot say.
"We live in a free and democratic society, so I think, you know, we don't want to constrain free media from reporting what they feel editorially is relevant to know for the public," he said.
Putin has 'no good reason' to go nuclear
But that doesn't mean the coverage should be alarmist and devoid of context, he added.
"Perhaps it's time to point out also that there's really no good reason for Putin to use these weapons," Leuprecht said. "So, I think [the media has to be] doing a better job at balancing the discourse rather than playing into, 'Oh my word, Russia is talking about nukes again and again this year.'"
Chris Waddell, a professor emeritus at Carleton University's School of Journalism, said he wonders how much the sensational coverage of nuclear threats actually plays on the minds of western leaders and affects their decisions on matters such as how far to go in arming Ukraine.
"I suspect that the decision-makers have lots of sources of information, only one of which is the media and what's being reported by the media," said Waddell, referring to intelligence agencies and signals intercepts.
There is a lesson to be drawn here from history, Waddell said. In past wars, it was sometimes decades before pertinent facts and information were released to the public.
"I can make a good argument that the media is actually doing its best to cover the war in the ways that it can, but it is hampered by the fact that we just don't know a lot," he said. "In the Second World War, we didn't know a lot. Today, we still don't know a lot about what is actually going on behind the scenes."
As it happens, when the movie Dr. Strangelove was first released at the height of the Cold War, it was accused of distorting, exaggerating and mocking the policy debate over the employment and proliferation of nuclear weapons.