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The Ukraine–Russia Conflict and Nuclear Misinformation

Dr Rajiv Nayan is Senior Research Associate at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • September 23, 2022

    On 21 September 2022, and to an extent, even on 22 September 2022, Indian and international media flashed the statement of President Vladimir Putin that Russia “…will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.”1 Some media reports also carried Putin’s remarks prefacing the above sentence “In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people…”.

    Both the sentences in combination convey a different meaning as against only the remarks threatening nuclear war. The remarks denoting the nuclear threat, seen in isolation, gives an impression of an aggressive nuclear Russia ready to use its nuclear weapon to accomplish its war aims. The remarks in combination though change the impression of Russia from being a blood-thirsty country to one that intends to defend its territorial integrity through nuclear weapons.

    Admittedly, the threat to use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has generated intense debates. Putin’s statements brought into focus Russian nuclear policy thinking. Putin stated

    “I would like to remind those who make such statements regarding Russia that our country has different types of weapons as well, and some of them are more modern than the weapons NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] countries have. In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.”2

    This does give the impression that Putin’s statement was in response to some perceived sabre-rattling by the other side, and Russia was responding to such belligerence.

    Putin went on to flag

    "Western-encouraged shelling of the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant, which poses a threat of a nuclear disaster but also to the statements made by some high-ranking representatives of the leading NATO countries on the possibility and admissibility of using weapons of mass destruction – nuclear weapons – against Russia.”3  

    Russia has time and again, used nuclear rhetoric to promote its strategic objectives in the conflict. While Putin tried to paint Western countries as a villain by accusing them of threatening to use WMD and blamed them for shelling Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plants, it is difficult to find a single high representative of any NATO country who has publicly threatened to use WMD against Russia. Even so, selective quoting of Putin’s statements on nuclear issues gives the impression of a Russia that is nuclear sabre-rattling.

    Information warfare or propaganda, no doubt, is used to mobilise public opinion for and against a country.  From the very beginning of this conflict, media has been used as an instrument to wage misinformation warfare. Either select facts or interpretations of the facts are projected to create an illusionary representation.  It is to be borne in mind that both Russia and its opponents are indulging in such acts. This kind of information warfare campaigns have become an accepted practice and essential component of hybrid warfare.

    Quite significantly, in the Russia–Ukraine conflict, we find that not only the direct parties to the conflict are indulging in this game but also indirect or supporting actors. At times, it appears the agencies or forces involved in this game become autonomous and perhaps exceed their brief. As a result, they become a matter of concern for their own governments or parties. For example, The Washington Post published an investigative report,4 predominantly, shaped by Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory study, which underscored secret psychological operations conducted in the Ukraine–Russia conflict and other places.

    The Washington Post report revealed the use of major social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter in the disinformation campaign. The United States Central Command is also accused of influencing foreign countries. Of other activities, the report supposedly found the involvement of the US military organisation in creating some ‘anti-Russian narratives’. It seems the US government took note of the operation and ordered auditing of such activities that amounted to ‘peddling falsehoods’.

    Putin’s 21 September 2022 statement though does bring to attention four aspects of Russian nuclear policy, doctrine, or posture. These include an aggressive/offensive nuclear weapon policy; a defensive first use nuclear weapon policy; a retaliatory first use nuclear weapons policy; and a retaliatory second strike nuclear weapons policy. Putin’s statements indicate that the Russian President basically stated a retaliatory second-strike nuclear weapons policy.  

    Putin accused the other side of indulging in nuclear blackmail. Generally, Western media gives the impression that Putin is blackmailing the world with nuclear threats. Putin though squarely reproached the leadership of the NATO countries for initiating steps to use WMD.

    Quite significantly, on the same day that Putin made his nuclear remarks, US President Joseph Biden Jr accused him of making ‘overt nuclear threats against Europe’.5 Later, he reiterated that ‘A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’. Interestingly, Biden in his remarks only highlighted Putin’s threat to Europe, and not against the entire NATO, when Putin had threatened to retaliate against NATO WMD threat. It would seem Biden also interpreted or projected the fact to suit his narrative.

    Furthermore and quite amusingly, in his 21 September 2022 statement, Putin did not overtly mention that Russia would use nuclear weapons to retaliate against NATO’s threat of using WMD. He basically boasted that Russia possesses better quality weapons than those of NATO. Putin asserted that Russia will ‘certainly make use of all weapon systems available’ and added that it was not a ‘bluff’. In his subsequent statement, Putin rhetorically stated that “Those who are using nuclear blackmail against us should know that the wind rose can turn around.”

    In recent months, Russia has been censuring Ukraine and its supporters for bombing the Zaporizhzhya plants and damaging the support systems. Earlier, in February–March 2022, Russia was held responsible for weaponising the nuclear power plants when it was suspected of attacking Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plants. An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team led by Director-General visited Ukraine, and some of its members are still stationed in the country. For sure, it is difficult to admit that Ukraine will damage its own plants and put its citizens at risk. Similarly, it is hard to believe that Russia will damage the plant and harm its soldiers fighting the battle near the plants or those who are stationed in the complex after taking it over.

    The conflict, it seems, has acquired its own momentum. Both sides, in order to outgun each other, possibly unintentionally, enter into the danger zone, or are crossing the red lines. Afterward, to escape from global criticisms, both indulge in a misinformation campaign. Both sides are aware of the nuclear taboo, and the sensitivity of the international community about the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons, which will have disastrous consequences for Ukraine, Russia, and entire Europe. Instead of managing their misdeeds through misinformation campaigns, the parties to the conflict should take serious risk avoidance measures.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.