The idea that Russia is on an irreversible course of war with the West is not a new one, and has become a mainstream topic of discussion of late. But if Russia already considers itself at war with the West, and NATO believes that it has done everything to avoid escalation and direct confrontation with Russia, then there is significantly less common ground to work with. It might also be worth considering that a Russia which believes itself already at war may be willing to engage in riskier and more unpredictable behaviour, which makes de-escalation and understanding Moscow’s actual red lines much more of a challenge.
Where are the Red Lines?
It is unlikely to be a coincidence that around the summit, rhetoric from Russia on the use of nuclear weapons escalated. In the build-up to Vilnius, Putin maintained that Russia had moved nuclear weapons to Belarus, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) put out a series of (highly unlikely) conditions for their withdrawal, such as the removal of all US forces in Europe. There have also been other statements from Sergei Naryshkin, head of the SVR (foreign intelligence), that Ukraine is manufacturing a so-called ‘dirty bomb’, likely in an attempt to push a false-flag narrative. Pro-government tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda suggested that with the increase in NATO (non-nuclear) forces, Russia reserved the right to respond, including with the use of nuclear weapons.
Some of the choreography is important here. It is noteworthy that the MFA’s communication around nuclear posturing came not from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov himself, but from a lesser known and more junior official called Alexei Polishchuk, who leads a department on Commonwealth of Independent States – not an area of particular priority for Russia at the moment. Polishchuk has form – he has talked about Ukraine using nuclear weapons before – but it is unusual for his department to be leading on the rhetoric surrounding such a critically important issue.
While it would be unwise to ignore Russia’s signalling around the potential use of nuclear force, it does seem that the Kremlin has come to expect a response from the West whenever it is mentioned, as this returns to the agenda the urgency of opening emergency communication channels with Russia. It is possible that Russia views the West’s response as a potential weakness, or it could be attempting to probe NATO’s own willingness to use nuclear force. Or, it could be seeking to create the future basis for a practical security discussion; with Russia’s suspension of New START in February 2023, there are currently no arms control treaties underpinning nuclear security in Europe – a dangerous scenario that has prompted significant debate among the academic community in Russia, not all of it escalatory. Public sentiment is important here too – a sociological survey released on 13 July indicated that three-quarters of Russians are opposed to the country using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, even if – as the question was framed – it would win the war. The survey may have been commissioned to test the waters, and to determine the extent to which the public’s views are in line with some of the senior leadership’s comments of late.