What Russia’s “Dirty Bomb” Nuclear Rhetoric Means

Russian rhetoric on the use of nuclear weapons was full of seemingly mixed signals last week.

First, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called around its Western counterparts, claiming that Ukraine is preparing to use a radioactive “dirty bomb” – which is not a nuclear weapon per se, but which could possibly be used in a false flag attack like a pretext for Russian nuclear escalation. But then President Vladimir Putin Thursday offered a the assurance, after tactical nuclear exercises, that its army is not planning a nuclear attack against Ukraine.

It’s impossible to know what Putin really thinks – and how far he’s willing to go to justify his continued attack on Ukraine – but there’s a reason not to take this week’s message from Moscow as an indication that Russia is currently preparing a nuclear attack.

Experts told Vox the most likely explanation is that it is an attempt to pressure the West to force Ukraine to reach a peace agreement. The war goes badly for Russian forces and Europe faces a long, cold winter without Russian energy supplies. It is also an attempt to distort the information environment and sow confusion and misinformation – an integral part of Russian warfare doctrine.

Putin has warned throughout Russia’s seven-month war against Ukraine (and even before) that he would use nuclear weapons in response to perceived NATO and Western aggression. But Wednesday’s drills aren’t necessarily a sign he’s going all the way. The exercises, in fact, take place every year; The Russian defense apparatus followed protocol to alert the US Department of Defense about them, and NATO began conducting its own nuclear exercises on October 17.

The Russian account that Ukraine plans to use a dirty bomb has obvious similarities with its false claims that rebel groups have perpetrated chemical attacks in Syria. Although no Western official or expert finds the dirty bomb allegations credible, the Russians Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov on Monday, he contacted his American and British counterparts to express his concern. Shoigu called defense officials in the United States, United Kingdom, France and Turkey on Sunday with the same message, according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). Monday’s call was the first between Gerasimov and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley since May. That this happened is a positive development, Iindicating that communication channels between Russia and the West still exist, reducing the likelihood of escalation.

But it is also an indicator that Moscow is probably trying to poison the information space and sow doubt in the West about the risks of supporting Ukraine in its continued struggle for sovereignty, ISW senior intelligence analyst Katherine Lawlor told Vox.

“The fact that we’re having these conversations means it’s working,” she said.

Putin may be trying to step up, but not the way we think

As with many nuclear posturing, the purpose of Russia’s latest nuclear weapons moves may be less to actually use nuclear weapons than to exert pressure and sow fear and confusion.

This week’s nuclear exercises are not themselves unusual; they were planned and Russian defense officials alerted the US Department of Defense that they were continuing, as Moscow is required to do under its obligations as a signatory to the New START treaty. “In this regard, Russia is meeting its arms control obligations and transparency commitments to make these notifications, and so this is something we will continue to monitor,” the Pentagon spokesperson said. Air Force Gen. Pat Ryder said Tuesday.

The drills simulated a response to a potential attack and activated Russian air, land and sea defensesas Reuters reported on Thursday.

But it is important to keep in mind that such exercises are not only training maneuvers, they are also demonstrations of force, propaganda in a sense. That’s what prompted experts to watch this week’s drills, according to Natia Seskuria, a partner at the Royal United Services Institute.

“Now Russia is increasingly using nuclear threats to blackmail the West,” she told Vox via email. “Last time Russia held such drills just before launching the war in Ukraine,” so the drills could signal some form of escalation, but not necessarily in a nuclear sense.

“It seems that Putin is trying to exert additional pressure on the West and overshadow the fact that Russian conventional forces are not succeeding in Ukraine. The Kremlin hopes that by stepping up nuclear rhetoric, the West would be willing to try to convince Ukraine to negotiate and agree to concessions,” Seskuria said.

Putin had previously warned that he would be ready to use nuclear weapons during his invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, and Russian nuclear doctrine permits first use in response to conventional warfare – not necessarily solely in response to nuclear attack. According to an April report from Congressional Research Service, “This doctrine has led some US analysts to conclude that Russia has adopted an ‘escalation to defuse’ strategy.”

Although Ukraine is not a member of NATO (it has applied for membership), it enjoys the support of the United States and other NATO allies, which have weapons provided and training of Ukrainian troops to great effect. But throughout the war, NATO members were careful to avoid the possibility or appearance of a direct conflict with Russia or a strike on Russian territory — a line that could be increasingly difficult to navigate given Putin’s annexation of four southern Ukrainian regions earlier this month.

Dirty bomb rhetoric is also an old tactic – this is similar to Russian claims in Syria that rebel groups, the White Helmets relief groupeven if these groups did not have access to chemical weapons and the Syrian regime, backed by Russia, was actually carrying out the attacks. Kremlin-aligned Twitter accounts and media then repeatedly amplified Russia’s claims.

Now, “Russian state media has been spreading the ‘dirty bomb’ accusations and spreading fear,” Seskuria told Vox. “Russian media have a large part in mobilizing public opinion and are part of the Kremlin’s war propaganda machine,” she said, adding that “the ‘dirty bomb’ accusations [are] also intended for domestic consumption, in conjunction with a high probability that Russia is planning a false flag operation.

What will happen next?

Cheese fries said Thursday that Russia would not strike Ukraine with nuclear weapons, despite its previous threatening rhetoric.

“It makes no political or military sense,” Putin said, saying statements about using all means at his disposal to protect Russia were in response to Western threats.

While Putin’s threats to use tactical nuclear weapons should be taken seriously, there are also a number of preparatory steps that would occur before these weapons are actually used on the battlefield. “I think we would see additional steps on the climbing ladder before we had [to a nuclear attack]“, like a weapons test on the surface, Lawlor said. such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken have indicated they take the possibility of an escalation seriously, the evidence so far does not point to the imminent use of tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield.

Moreover, such weapons would probably not be very useful for Russia, given their rather limited usefulness on the front line and the inability of Russian conscripts to actually fight in this landscape. “From an operational point of view, I don’t think the Russian forces are ready to fight in a nuclear environment, because the ‘correct’ use of nuclear weapons […] would basically be used to punch holes in Ukrainian lines,” Lawlor said, allowing Russian mechanized units to cross and attack Ukrainian units from behind.

Given what we have seen of Russian troops so far, the likelihood of them successfully executing these plans is not high. “Even the units that are trained for this are so degraded at this point,” Lawlor said. “And you’re going to tell me that a guy who was a policeman in Krasnodar Krai three weeks ago and who was forcibly mobilized in the street is going to charge into an irradiated area? Absolutely not.”

It is not entirely clear that the use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield would achieve Putin’s immediate objective of preventing Ukrainian forces from advancing further and allowing Russian forces to advance, given how devastating a NATO response to tactical nuclear weapons could be, Lawlor told Vox. “The operational effects of NATO retaliation in Ukraine – which would likely include the targeting of Russian forces, probably not troop concentrations but command posts, logistics, things like that – will devastate its operational ability to continue. to advance along the front line.”

Nuclear weapons and bogus dirty bomb scares don’t make much logistical sense, and they’re not new.

That doesn’t mean the West can ignore Putin’s nuclear posture — the risk is too great, as Ankit Panda, Stanton’s senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has put it. The New Yorker Isaac Chotiner earlier this month. “Hopefully it’s somewhere we don’t have to go, but, of course, governments are planning for all sorts of eventualities, and those conversations have been behind closed doors for the past few months as the prospect of a nuclear escalation lingered,” he said. To this end, the United States also sent private communications to Moscow warning against the use of nuclear weapons, the Washington Post reported in September.

But to sow discord, confusion and misinformation in the information space is a known and tested part of Russian asymmetric warfare doctrine, which Ukraine and partner countries deliberately fought against before and at the beginning of the war. Don’t expect him to let up anytime soon.

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