Starting in mid-September 2022, the Western media and political world has been abuzz with a Russian threat of nuclear Armageddon. Against such evil, the West, supporting Ukraine, may only show outrage, unveil the real malevolent nature of Russia and increase pressure to try to deter Russia, so runs the narrative.
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- Can You Unbias Analysis? The Russian Nuclear Threat
On 27 October 2022, reputable news agency Reuters published a fact-box on the said Russian nuclear threat: “Factbox: Has Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons?“. Because this is a factbox and Reuters publishing it, then we are meant to believe not only what is included in the article, but, also, most importantly, the implicit conclusion: Russia is guilty of unwarrantedly threatening the world with a nuclear strike.
The article by Reuters is a perfect example of what should NOT be done if one wants to have a clear understanding of an escalation process. The way Reuters looks at evidence leads to a biased analysis, be it intentionally, for propaganda motivation or for the sake of political correctness, or unintentionally by lack of analytical skill.
Can you do better than Reuters? With this article we open a competition with an award at the end: re-publication of the best result first received as a complete article and complimentary registration to our online course “Mitigating biases“.
First we shall explain what is wrong with Reuters’ analysis. Out of this explanation we shall highlight what should have been done and what you must do if you want to participate in the competition. Share your chronology with us either as comment for this article or by using our contact form (paste your text in the message box).
To help you we shall stress what we identified in open source as a major starting point for the “Russian nuclear threat”.
What’s wrong with Reuters’ analysis?
When you read Reuters’ article, you immediately notice that only a couple of statements are presented, that they are most often only a sentence extracted from a speech, without context, that the exact references (dates, place, type of speech) are not given and replaced by a link to another Reuters’ article. In the meanwhile, the gist and the reasons for the statements are lost. If the reader does not make the effort to read the other article, assuming the other article is unbiased, then s/he cannot have a proper understanding of the reference used. These are already major flaws for a proper analysis.
Then, and this is the major issue, in the first and last part of the article, only one side’s statements, the Russian one, are highlighted.
Imagine that you are watching a film, and that you only hear what actor A says and see what actor A does. Meanwhile, everything related to the other actors, B, C, D, etc. is muted and blackened. This film would be neither very interesting nor actually understandable.
Yet, this is what readers accept from journalists – and unfortunately often from academics and researchers. This is also what many so-called analysts offer to decision-makers.
Yet, statements in international politics, especially considering the stakes of a nuclear war – mutual assured destruction (M.A.D.), can NEVER be considered without what other actors express and do. Similarly, actions cannot be understood without also looking at relevant others’ actions. Note that domestic politics and interactions should also ideally be taken into account, and here we mean the whole political sphere in the noblest and most complex meaning of the term, not politician politics.
In this exercise, though, we shall only limit ourselves to international statements.
A correct approach to analysis and what you must do
Once we know that international politics is about interactions, then what must be done is easy to understand.
What you will get is certainly not the final resulting analysis. It is however the basis for a good analysis. Once you obtain this foundation, then you can add other elements to refine your understanding. Alternatively, if you do not do this first step right, then everything else will most probably be flawed, however brilliant your other reasonings and well documented your other pieces of information.
We must build a chronological record of relevant statements (and ideally actions) by relevant actors, and read them and understand them as chronological INTERACTIONS.
Thus, for this competition, what we challenge you to do is to rebuild this chronology of main relevant statements (with proper references).
To use again the film metaphor, we ask you to make appear major relevant actors B, C, D, E, etc. alongside Russian and allied actors A(s). In doing so, you will give the audience the sound when everyone speaks – and for the bravest among you – the image when everyone acts.
You can post the reconstructed chronology below in the comments, with a valid email if you want to make sure you will be able to win the free access to our online course “Mitigating biases“. You do not have to give your real name if you are afraid to do so, but the email must be valid. You can also use our contact form (paste your text in the message box).
How it all began
To help you, we share what we identified as the start of this newly perceived threat, as highlighted by the media.
Reuters takes as starting point President of Russia Vladimir Putin 21 September 2022 televised address to the nation as described in the corresponding Reuters’ article: Guy Faulconbridge, “Putin escalates Ukraine war, issues nuclear threat to West“.
The real, primary reference is Address by the President of the Russian Federation, in relation to the Executive Order on partial mobilisation in the Russian Federation, the two being dated 21 September 2022, published on the website of the President of Russia.
If you want to properly understand what is truly happening, the original text of the address must be read, not the commentary by Reuters. Commentaries are best read after the primary material.
If you read attentively both the original address and Reuters’ article verbatim quote, you notice that first President Putin stresses the perception of threat felt by Russia as created by the West, he labels “the nuclear blackmail”:
“Washington, London and Brussels are openly encouraging Kiev to move the hostilities to our territory. They openly say that Russia must be defeated on the battlefield by any means, and subsequently deprived of political, economic, cultural and any other sovereignty and ransacked.
They have even resorted to the nuclear blackmail. I am referring not only to the Western-encouraged shelling of the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant, which poses a threat of a nuclear disaster, but also to the statements made by some high-ranking representatives of the leading NATO countries on the possibility and admissibility of using weapons of mass destruction – nuclear weapons – against Russia.”Address by the President of the Russian Federation, 21 September 2022, reference
It is only after this explanation of the Russian perceptions that we find President Putin’s sentence highlighted by Reuters and others as the threat to use nuclear weapon:
“In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.”Address by the President of the Russian Federation, 21 September 2022, reference
Thus, first, to read the integrality of a speech chronologically gives us insights into the perceptions and understanding of others, which is truly key for a good analysis and even more important in terms of foresight as well as prevention.
Second, we can note that there is nothing new here in Putin’s statement, compared to the Russian nuclear doctrine, as detailed in the Executive Order of the President of the Russian Federation of June 2, 2020 No.355 – “Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence”, notably paragraph 19 (access text through Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation – long upload time – or through Defense Media, St Petersburg; for a Western analysis explaining the Western fear regarding this doctrine, Mark B. Schneider, “Russian Nuclear Threats, Doctrine and Growing Capabilities“, RealClear Defense, 28 July 2022).
19. The conditions specifying the possibility of nuclear weapons use by the Russian Federation are as follows:
a) arrival of reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies;
b) use of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction by an adversary against the Russian Federation and/or its allies;
c) attack by adversary against critical governmental or military sites of the Russian Federation, disruption of which would undermine nuclear forces response actions;
d) aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.
Many in the U.S., however, tend to perceive the Russian nuclear doctrine as a kind of right to use nuclear weapons in case of any type of defeat against the West. This perception is now largely spread as the reality of the Russian nuclear doctrine, even so it is only an American interpretation of the doctrine. Indeed, even in the U.S., controversies exist regarding this understanding. The American perception and controversies are well described in a U.S. Congressional Research Service’s document: “Russia’s Nuclear Weapons: Doctrine, Forces, and Modernization, Updated April 21, 2022:
“This doctrine has led some U.S. analysts to conclude that Russia has adopted an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, where it might threaten to use nuclear weapons if it were losing a conflict with a NATO member, in an effort to convince the United States and its NATO allies to withdraw from the conflict. Russian officials, along with some scholars and observers in the United States and Europe, dispute this interpretation; however, concerns about this doctrine have informed recommendations for changes in the U.S. nuclear posture.”Congressional Research Service’s document: “Russia’s Nuclear Weapons: Doctrine, Forces, and Modernization, Updated April 21, 2022
Finally, Putin confirms what a regular reading of international news and a bit of memory tells us, other actors related to NATO have made statements or acted in such a way that a feeling of threat related to nuclear deterrence was prompted in Russia.
Since 2007 for the most recent phase, many episodes of heightening tension regarding nuclear threats can be traced throughout historical interactions between the West and notably the U.S., on the one hand, and Russia on the other, as reminded by Schneider (ibid.). For the latest spat, which is of concern to us, President Biden in a one hour interview recorded on 15 September 2022 and aired on 18 September, prompted by the speculations of the journalist, was the first to greatly hype a possible Russian nuclear threat:
Scott Pelley: As Ukraine succeeds on the battlefield, Vladimir Putin is becoming embarrassed and pushed into a corner. And I wonder, Mr. President, what you would say to him if he is considering using chemical or tactical nuclear weapons.
President Joe Biden: Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. You will change the face of war unlike anything since World War II.
Scott Pelley: And the consequences of that would be what?
President Joe Biden: I am not going to speculate–
Scott Pelley: What would the U.S. response be?
President Joe Biden: You think I would tell you if I knew exactly what it would be? Of course, I’m not gonna tell you. It’ll be consequential. They’ll become more of a pariah in the world than they ever have been. And depending on the extent of what they do will determine what response would occur.President Joe Biden: The 2022 60 Minutes Interview – 18 September 2022
Here, President Biden expresses the American pervasive fear and perception created by the 2020 Russian nuclear doctrine. This fear is real. Furthermore, Russia is also perceived as a real danger to the U.S. national interest as we explained previously (see Hélène Lavoix, The American National Interest, The Red Team Analysis Society, 22 June 2022).
This 15/18 September interview, added to the repeated absurdity of accusing Russia to bomb itself on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, may be taken as a possible origin or trigger for the Russian perception of Western nuclear blackmail as expressed by Putin on 21 September (e.g. Jacopo Barigazzi, “G7 calls for return of Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant to Ukraine control“, Politico, 23 October 2022).
Thus, if we look at the chronology, it is the American fear of the Russian nuclear threat, that is the origin of the near panic regarding that threat, not Putin’s statements. Of course, Putin’s statements in reply then alimented the American fear. we have here a perfect case of escalation.
Meanwhile, the claim by Reuters that “The recent surge in concern over a possible nuclear escalation come after two Putin speeches last month in which he clearly indicated that he would, if needed, use nuclear weapons to defend Russia”, is false.
To examine the right sequence of statements and events, in the right order, shows why there is escalation, how it could be avoided or on the contrary intensified. It also highlights perceptions and thus would help in acting properly to achieve objectives. For example, assuming peace were really the aim, understanding perceptions would show how fears could be assuaged and the situation progressively stabilised. However, up until November 2022, the aim in the Western world appears to have been more about supporting Ukraine so that it achieves victory, than about peace (e.g. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin: ““Ukraine needs our help to win today. And they will still need our help when the war is over”, Speech at Ramstein Air Base, Politico, 26 April 2022 British Foreign Minister James Cleverly : “We will support them [Ukraine] until this war is won. We will support them until their sovereignty is restored”, “UK Vows to See Ukraine ‘Through to Victory’ Over Russia, The Defense Post, 4 October 2022; EU Van der Leyen: “I’m deeply convinced you will win this war… There’s one clear rule: The conditions are defined by Ukraine. It’s your decision,” Oleksiy Sorokin, Kiev Independant, 15 September 2022 – note that in early November 2022 support might be changing towards negotiation, e.g. Missy Ryan, John Hudson and Paul Sonne”U.S. privately asks Ukraine to show Russia it’s open to talks, Washington Post reports”U.S. privately asks Ukraine to show it’s open to negotiate with Russia“, The Washington Post, 5 November 2022).
Can you now reconstruct a proper timeline of statements for all sides on the nuclear threat issue and improve on Reuters’ article? We are looking forward to reading your chronologies.
Featured image: Firestorm cloud over Hiroshima, United States Army, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons – 6 August 1945: “This image was identified in March 2016 as the cloud created by the firestorm that engulfed” Hiroshima after the U.S. dropped a nuclear bomb on the city, “a fire that reached its peak intensity some 3hrs after the bomb… Earlier estimates derived solely from the quantity of fuel in the city, and more recently on the height of the Pyrocumulonimbus cloud both point at approximately 1000 times the equivalent energy of the bomb having been released by this firestorm. During the birthing of this cloud, 20 mins after detonation soot filled black rain began to fall on survivors. Climate scientists suggest that 100 of these identical firestorm clouds could cause 1-2 celsius of “catastrophic” global cooling, which is termed a small “nuclear winter”.