What role does Russian nuclear war rhetoric play?
103 days ago, at the end of October, I took a look at some uses of nuclear war talk on the Telegram channel of main propagandist Vladimir Solovyov. With the anniversary of the invasion coming up, I took another look to see if we can discern any role that nuclear war talk plays in Russian rhetoric. I think the answer is possibly.
Naively, and as last time, I just counted the uses of the word ‘nuclear’ in his messages, having looked and seen that in most (not all) cases it was used in a context of war. A graph from the start of the invasion til yesterday (as is evident, both data analysis and data viz are my passions):
Here are the raw numbers which help, I think:
There are two questions: why the bump in October, and why the new bump in January? I want to propose tentative answers to these questions.
A prima facie attractive theory is that the October bump is a response to the Crimean bridge bombing of 8 October. I don’t think that’s quite the whole story, as we see if we look before and after that date. Bear in mind that the average mentions per day is 1.9, so there’s perhaps some reason to think that days with, say, 4 or 5 mentions are worth attention, and we do see a couple of such days around the bombing. But we also see big days before and after.
Is there any longer-lasting event around this time that could have served as the spur for this? It’s tempting to think that this map, and its continuation that would show the liberation of Kherson on early mid November, tell the story:
Of course, that’s merely a hypothesis, and I should say that if one looks at the actual messages around that period, it’s not completely clear that they are being responsive to this. (At the same time, one might not expect that even if they were responding to it they would indicate it.) But it’s worthy of consideration: nuclear war talk bumped up around September and October as a result of Russians feeling threatened by Ukrainian advances.
What happened in January
Can we explain this? Well, note that the big news in January was the giving of offensive tanks by Germans, other European countries, and maybe kinda eventually, the United States. The story had been brewing since around the start/middle of the month, and it’s noteworthy that it’s then that nuclear talk increases.
Moreover, and unlike the October case, if we actually look at the texts themselves, the case that the ‘nuclear’ talk is responding to the Europeans’ weapons is stronger. Here’s some text from a randomly picked story on 20 January:
Just like, the more they help Ukraine, the more problems in Russia, the more situational successes of the West, the closer Europe is to nuclear war.
(All of these are from Solovyov’s Telegram channel starting around 20 January and working back.)
The very next post:
Explain two things to me: what’s going to happen after the giving the tanks? What’s the next step? Fighters “tornado” and “Eurofighters”? Or maybe Bundesvehr soldiers? Such logic? And most importantly, what is your goal in this war? If you think you can win a war against a nuclear power, you are deeply mistaken.
On the same day, a report of Putin’s response to the tanks, including a supportive noting of Medvedev’s saying Russia’s losing “could trigger a nuclear war” as being ‘in accordance with the RF’s nuclear doctrine’. The next reminds us “Nuclear powers have not lost major conflicts on which their fate depends.” We have Kadyrov saying the same: “Russia is a great, nuclear power. Russia can never lose in any fight. As our president said, why do we need a world without Russia”?” So: all are singing from the same hymn sheet that a nuclear power can’t lose.
Soon after Solovyov asks:
The head of the Eurocommission, Fon der Leyen, urged to give Ukraine any weapon it could use.
Even nuclear ones?
And let’s end this little run through with Solovyov speaking in his own voice:
The appearance of German tanks on Russian territory is the cornerstone of any war. As soon as Leodard comes here, get up, the country is huge, there is no other option. Britain will supply 12 Challenger-2 tanks, this should be taken seriously, it was put against us, we are to be killed. AH-64 Apache helicopters will be supplied, but they are the same as our aircraft. But the fact is that these guys are completely insolent. They don’t have brakes.
Should we use nuclear weapons? Why should we be embarrassed if we are talking about our determination in the event of a threat to the territory of the Russian Federation, and Leopard tanks will drive around Russia, in the Kherson and Zaporozhye regions, occupied by the Nazis. Who’s stopping you from doing it?
There are other examples which you can find on his Telegram.
In light of this, I think there’s a pretty strong case to be made that the recent uptick in nuclear talks is a response to the tanks, and that fact should increase our confidence that we could find similar correlations between previous and future nuclear talk and events. A tentative theory might be that nuclear talk comes out either in response to things Ukraine does in Ukraine, or in response to the ‘west’. Even if that’s not right, if something like that is, then, given the importance, unchartedness, and volatility of nuclear war, finding right such theories is worth doing.