Making Sense of Nixon-era Nuclear Threats and “Madman Theory” in Russian War Rhetoric

Over the past decade, Western governments have spent billions of dollars fighting Russian disinformation: from conferences to academic research to a host of fact-checking and debunking initiatives designed to expose and explain the Kremlin lies. But despite all these efforts, what most regularly and surely undermines Russian misinformation is, in fact, Russia itself.

The parallel reality that the Kremlin has built for itself and for millions of Russians is sloppy and full of holes. Take this week’s Victory Day: On Monday, Russian troops lined Red Square in commemoration of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in 1945. Vladimir Putin rented for “preemptively repelling aggression” from the West and arguing that Moscow had no choice but to go to war in Ukraine. He falsely claimed that kyiv was seeking to acquire nuclear weapons and drew parallels between the Red Army’s fight against Nazi troops and the Russian forces currently fighting in Ukraine.

Later in the day, a memorial concert broadcast on Russian Channel 1 featured a stage filled with men and women wearing World War II clothing and waving Soviet flags. But puzzling, one of the giant photos projected behind them (intended to capture Soviet couples during the war) Featured instead… the infamous American bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde. Why? I suspect someone on state television was asked to take pictures of couples and thought Bonnie and Clyde would suffice. The point remains: Russian disinformation is sloppy.

Then on May 11, contradicting the Russian leader, Russian Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin announcement that Washington’s real plan was to get all the grain out of Ukraine and stage another holodomor, referring to a famine that killed millions Ukrainians in the 1930s.

Are you having trouble keeping up with all of this? That’s the point. Russian disinformation narratives are effective because they are brazen, aggressive and relentless, not because they always line up or make sense. But does this narrative mess make Putin more or less dangerous?

Putin did the unthinkable and launched a full-fledged war against a sovereign nation. He is now deliberately making everyone nervous about his next steps. Having failed to capture kyiv, his army seems ready also give up on Kharkiv – this would signal a serious military setback in the East. With a war at an apparent stalemate, what will he do next?

If May 9 did not bring the all-out call for mobilization that many feared, it is apparently still on the table. The same goes for the possibility – however remote – of nuclear war. It’s a threat that Russian propagandists love to dangle on state television. This week for Disinfo Matters, Coda’s Masho Lomashvili tried to figure out just how real this threat really is.

Will it atomize? Or is it just Nixon-era “crazy theory” in action?

For years, the issue of nuclear weapons has been gathering dust on the shelves in the back of our minds. Putin changed that.

Will it atomize? What will be the final click? How big will the explosion be? These questions are now part of the conversations I have with my friends in bars.

My friends may not be qualified to answer these questions, but politicians in Western capitals also face them. Not only because nuclear stability is based on many theoretical and hypothetical scenarios, but also because disinformation from the Russian propaganda machine is causing serious nuclear confusion.

From the start of the war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin addressed himself directly to “those who might be tempted to interfere” from the outside. He stressed that anyone who dares to stand in his way or tries to threaten Russia or its citizens will face an immediate response. The results, he said“will be such as you have never seen in all your history”.

Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Washington, DC-based company Arms Control Association says Putin’s comments have been pretty consistent since and align with Russia’s nuclear use Politics which includes the right to use nuclear weapons “when the very existence of the state is threatened”.

But what matters, says Kimball, is that there are no practical signs that Russia is actually preparing for a nuclear attack. “Russia and Putin, in particular, are making these statements to prevent the United States and NATO from intervening directly in Ukraine,” Kimball said.

Pavel Podvig, Senior Researcher at United Nations Institute for Disarmament Researchpointed me to the “madman theory” – a common concept in the field of nuclear deterrence, referring to the idea that when a head of state suggests that he is irrational enough to resort to nuclear weapons , this increases his power at a bargaining table .

The madman theory originated with Richard Nixon. In 1971, during Nixon’s negotiations with the North Vietnamese to end the Vietnam War, he told National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to let it be known that the United States might use nuclear weapons. so-called Nixon Told Kissinger to tell the North Vietnamese “I can’t control it”, referring to himself.

The theory, Podvig argues, is highly relevant to Putin’s current behavior and that of his officials, who regularly remind the West of Russia’s nuclear capabilities. But it should be noted that they never make direct threats.

State media, however, is another story. Dmitry Kiselyov, the Kremlin’s chief propagandist, recently presented himself simulations of a nuclear attack on Britain on his flagship show on Russian state television. “Just one throw from Boris, and England are gone. Once and for all. Why mess with us?” he said, speaking directly to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Russian television experts and analysts regularly called for the use of so-called non-strategic weapons in Ukraine. By “non-strategic,” they mean nuclear weapons that target specific areas that would help the faltering Russian military gain a battlefield advantage in Ukraine. But the devastation they would cause would still be enormous.

Kimball is skeptical of this possibility because it is both difficult to imagine what the military purpose would be, and because it “would likely draw US and NATO forces directly into the war, which is not what Putin wants.

Kimball thinks Russian TV propagandists are making these threats to ingratiate themselves with the Kremlin and to bolster nationalist and pro-war fervor. “The Kremlin might, but it didn’t rain on that kind of irresponsible warmongering,” he told me.

Raphael Cohen, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation agrees. “If you want to distract people from the fact that the war is definitely not going as planned, you’re trying to present a proud and powerful Russia and nuclear weapons have this kind of mystique about them,” he told me. said.

Russian disinformation, Cohen reminds me, “isn’t some kind of masterful, highly coordinated jujitsu,” but rather “sowing a lot of different narratives and seeing which one sticks.”

The bottom line? When it comes to nuclear stuff, pay less attention to Putin’s propagandists and more to what the man himself chooses to say.


  • The collaboration between Chinese and Russian state media has really blossomed during the pandemic. This report from our friends at NewsGuard details the impressive reach Russian stories are gaining via Chinese social media: invasion of Ukraine. The English-language page of Chinese state broadcaster CGTN has 117 million subscribers, according to the report, while China Daily and the Global Times have 104 and 67 million subscribers respectively. According to NewsGuard, the main misinformation story these sources have been spreading about the conflict is that the United States runs bio-labs in Ukraine “that are developing bio-weapons.” We reported on this particular myth long before the Kremlin weaponized it to justify invading Ukraine.
  • On the eve of Catalonia’s vote for independence in 2017, a “mysterious group” of Russians offered Catalan leaders 10,000 armed troops to help the territory secede from Spain. This brilliant OCCRP Investigation reveals the story behind the offer.
  • A few weeks ago, we told you about the success of Russian disinformation in Western Europe. This week, one of RT’s biggest Spanish-speaking propaganda stars had an unexpected change of heart. In a video she posted expressing her opposition to the war, Inna Afinogenova, who has 365,000 followers on Twitter alone, announced her resignation from Russia Today. “Fundamentally, I don’t agree with this war,” she said. “I will never understand or justify a war that targets civilians.” The video was a reminder of how few Russians have chosen to quit. And even in her resignation, Afinogenova refused to condemn her former employer. “I won’t say if the platform I’ve worked for all these years is propaganda. The truth is I don’t know. But I, personally, will not do war propaganda,” she said.

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Sharon D. Cole