War in Ukraine: Nuclear Signalling, Coercion and Deterrence
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War in Ukraine: Nuclear Signalling, Coercion and Deterrence

1 January 2023


Table of Contents War in Ukraine: Nuclear Signalling, Coercion and Deterrence End Notes About the Author Canadian Global Affairs Institute War in Ukraine: Nuclear Signalling, Coercion and Deterrence The ongoing war in Ukraine has been marked by a new level of official references to nuclear weapons. Russian President Vladimir Putin, among others, has referred to his country’s nuclear capabilities in several public comments. Western officials have responded to these comments with counterstatements and actions on the ground. A study published in early September 2022 by the German research centre SWP1 listed at least 90 “nuclear interactions” on the public record between Russian officials and their counterparts in the U.S., NATO and European countries. By the end of the year, perhaps 30 more such interactions were on the public record. German researchers classify these events according to whether they are escalation, warning or de-escalation events by a state source. All of them are part of the deterrent dialectic in the context of what the experts call a “signalling” sent by a state to its adversary(ies). What is nuclear signalling? Nuclear signalling is a central part of nuclear deterrence, itself a complex mix of defence functions, diplomatic and military practices, a strategic reality, a technological and industrial issue and an art of language and communication. Learning the language of deterrence requires mastering a notion that the Anglo-Saxons call “nuclear signalling,” which the French usually translate as “signalement nucléaire.” In a famous 2002 text on the perception of signalling, the American academic Robert Jervis, who died in December 2021, stated: “Signals are like a language in that their meanings are established by agreement, implicit if not explicit.”2 In their strategic interactions, states thus use a vocabulary, launch actions and adopt behaviours as signals designed to be understood by both the sender and the receiver. Signalling can be defined as the signal and the description that allows it to be identified in a common way. It is therefore any type of visible initiative resulting from a rational calculation intended to modify one or more strategic interactions between identified actors. This was, for example, the decision the United States took on March 2, 2022 to postpone the test of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile so as not to risk fuelling the Russian perception of a nuclear escalation of the conflict that was expanding in Ukraine. The nuclear signals sent by Russia, the United States, France, the United Kingdom and NATO authorities, plus a wide range of official audiences within each of these entities within the last year exceed 100, so it is not easy to read the appropriate signalling. Most of the time, such signalling evokes first the understanding of the person receiving the signal. But there is no guarantee that everyone shares this understanding, including the signal’s main recipient, i.e., the person for whom the signal is primarily intended. Nuclear-weapon states send signals about their capabilities and intentions to three distinct types of audiences: a civilian, domestic or foreign audience; allied and partner states; and competitor and adversary states. For example, when French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian reminded a television station on February 24, 2022, that NATO is a nuclear alliance, it was a general signal, presumably to any audience. However, the French press repeated it, saying that Le Drian was addressing Putin, which would make little sense in this case

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security ukraine russia europe eastern europe deterrence nato defence policy global defence policy perspective wmds benjamin hautecouverture