Russian propaganda plays on the revival of the West’s fear of a nuclear attack, especially knowing how close European capitals are to Moscow's atomic warheads. But Europe must remember the lessons of the Cold War and not play into Putin's hands.
BERLIN — “Take a look at this picture,” the expert on Russian state TV says excitedly. “There’s nothing they can do about it.”
On the screen is a diagram that shows how long it would take a Russian nuclear missile to reach various European capital cities from its base in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad: 106 seconds to reach Berlin, 200 to reach Paris. “Would you like to know about London? That would take 202 seconds,” the presenter says.
This is not the first time that Russian TV has threatened the West with nuclear war. And the reaction from across Europe is clear – panic.
The Russian strategy is particularly effective in Germany, where people seem to have forgotten the lessons of the Cold War.
In the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February, Putin set the world on edge by putting his country’s nuclear forces on high alert. In early March, his foreign minister Sergey Lavrov warned of the danger of a Third World War, which “will undoubtedly involve nuclear weapons and be highly destructive.” On Thursday, Russian forces in Kaliningrad carried out simulated nuclear strikes with Iskander missiles.
To give the impression the country is far more willing to use nuclear weapons than is actually the case.
It is clear from the Russian military doctrine what the country hopes to achieve through these statements and manoeuvres. This official document claims Moscow is compelled “to exercise strategic deterrence towards the leading states of the world by intimidation or fear inducement, through means of a clear military threat that is openly declared and communicated to the potential aggressor,” as was written in a paper published in 2005 by the General Staff of the Armed Forces.
The threat of a nuclear attack is central to this intimidation, as the Washington-based thinktank CNA wrote in its analysis of the military doctrine, arguing it was designed to give the impression “that the country is far more willing to use nuclear weapons than is actually the case.”
Because in wartime – and Russia is at war – the country’s chief aim is to prompt foreign powers to “reduce their hostile actions” towards Moscow.
How NATO won the Cold War
Putin made clear in early March that the Kremlin saw the West’s support of Ukraine as an act of hostility. In a televised statement, he compared the sanctions against his country to a declaration of war. In late April in reference to the West’s decision to supply weapons to Ukraine, he warned that any country posing an unacceptable strategic threat to Russia should be aware that the response would be “lightning fast.”
These threats seem to be particularly effective in Germany. On April 20, former foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel said in a radio interview that if Germany sent tanks to Ukraine, Putin might use that as a pretext to use nuclear weapons. Chancellor Olaf Scholz followed suit in an interview with Der Spiegel a few days later. He explained his reluctance to send heavy weaponry to Kyiv, saying: “I am doing everything to prevent an escalation leading to a Third World War. There must not be a nuclear war.” Despite follow-up questions from the journalist, Scholz could not point to a concrete threat of a nuclear attack.
“The Cold War stayed cold because both sides had the potential to mutually destroy each other in the event of a nuclear war,” Tom Nichols, an expert on nuclear weapons at the US Naval War College in Rhode Island, told Die Welt. And this balance still exists today.
According to Nichols, the old deterrents should still work. “So far, Russia has been careful to ensure that the war does not spread beyond Ukraine.” However, the reaction to Russian threats – among both politicians and the public – is now much more fearful than during the Cold War. “German society has forgotten about the Cold War, and forgotten how NATO won it,” Nichols says.
He argues that Germany should recognize the potential of its own nuclear deterrent. “During the Cold War, we didn’t wake up every morning bathed in sweat. We were informed, concerned, but not living in a constant state of panic. The danger was abstract, as it is today. But we have forgotten how to see it that way.”
Russian TV channel broadcasted an infographic of a Russian nuclear attack in Europe.
The weapon is called: fear
During the Cold War, the threat of a nuclear attack was “omnipresent,” historian Mary Elise Sarotte from Johns Hopkins University wrote in an article published in the New York Times. “Yet after decades of peace between the West and Russia, that collective cultural awareness has largely dissipated.”
The weapon is not the nuclear bomb itself, but the fear it incites.
Florence Gaub, a political scientist at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, agrees that we are no longer used to the idea of a constant nuclear threat. “For a long time, Germany’s foreign policy has been based on the principle that violence is out of the question. The Russians have destroyed this world view. Now we must learn once again to live with the threat of nuclear war.”
That is an ideal situation for Vladimir Putin. “When someone fears for their life, the brain shuts off access to rational thinking,” Gaub says. “That is what Russian propaganda aims to achieve. It is designed to make us fear for our lives, because in that situation the brain has only two possible responses: fight or flight. And at the moment many of us will choose the latter.”
According to RTL’s trend barometer, in mid-April, 55% of Germans were still in favor of sending heavy weapons to Ukraine, while 33% were against. By the end of the month, that support had dropped by 9 percentage points. According to the survey, almost two thirds of Germans are afraid that the war in Ukraine could escalate into a Third World War.
This drop in support for sending heavy weapons to Ukraine “is exactly what Putin was hoping to achieve,” says Nichols. Gaub agrees: “The weapon is not the nuclear bomb itself, but the fear it incites.”
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