In its daily Russian Offensive review, the Institute for Study of War notes that Russian officials began de-escalating their rhetoric regarding the use of nuclear weapons in early November. These references to nuclear war had been on the rise throughout October, with the likely goal being to pressure Ukraine into negotiations and reduce western support for Kyiv.
The Kremlin’s rhetorical shift indicates that senior Russian military commanders and elements of the Kremlin are likely to some extent aware of the massive costs for little operational gain Russia would incur for the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine or NATO. After the annexation of Ukraine’s four oblasts, which had probably created a rift in the Russian military leadership, Putin had not publicly defined what now constitutes an attack on Russian territory, according to the think-tank.
“It is possible that senior Russian military officials are equally confused about the application of Putin’s annexation order to existing military doctrine,” ISW notes, clarifying that there are thus far no indications Russia had undertaken any preparatory steps for a nuclear strike.
However, Kremlin-run television shows still air the occasional nuclear threat, which are common in Russia’s jingoistic domestic information space. This tactic is a way to remind domestic audiences of Russia’s might amidst clear military failures on the frontlines, ISW says.
The think tank notes that the Kremlin likely privately clarified its nuclear policies to deescalate with the United States and its allies, but in the future, it will likely conduct future rhetorical nuclear brinksmanship in an effort to prompt the United States and its allies to pressure Ukraine to negotiate. The nuclear threats have not succeeded, however, in pressuring Ukraine to cede to the Kremlin’s demands, and the US and its allies should not undermine Ukraine’s dedication to recapturing all Russian-occupied territories, the ISW says.