On May 6, the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation announced it would conduct nuclear-weapons exercises in Russia’s Southern Military District, a large zone crossing between Russian and Ukrainian territory. Two weeks later, they went ahead with them, inside Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders. These drills simulated attacks with relatively small warheads—tactical nuclear weapons, designed to destroy limited territory. The decision, the Kremlin elaborated, was a response to recent statements by Western leaders that threatened to escalate the war. It was just days after France’s President Emmanuel Macron had confirmed his longstanding position not to rule out sending European troops to help defend Ukraine.

A few weeks later, on May 31, Dmitry Medvedev—Russia’s former president, now the deputy chair of its Security Council—warned that Moscow’s conflict with Ukraine and the West could result in nuclear war. “This is, alas,” he said, “neither intimidation nor bluffing.”

Since the end of the Cold War 30 years ago, Russian officials had never threatened to use nuclear arms—until after the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. That April, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov began warning that the danger of nuclear war was “serious” and “real.” Five months later, President Vladimir Putin emphasized that the precedent for using atomic weapons was, after all, set by the U.S. Now the Ministry of Defense, the Kremlin, and Medvedev are all repeating the same menacing idea. What’s happening here?

Sergey Radchenko is the Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the author of The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War. As Radchenko sees it, Moscow isn’t just bringing back a threat it used during the Soviet era; it’s revived an entire mindset of nuclear brinksmanship from the Soviet era. Which means extreme uncertainty about whether and when Moscow might follow through. Washington and the West understand this uncertainty; they take it very seriously; and altogether, Radchenko explains, this dynamic is a key to understanding the course that the war—and the indirect conflict between the U.S. and Russia behind its scenes—has taken from the beginning …

Michael Bluhm: What’s behind these tactical nuclear exercises?


This article is for members only

Join to read on and have access to The Signal‘s full library.

Join now Already have an account? Sign in