On December 27, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke to Russian state news agency TASS about the war in Ukraine and the deterioration of relations between Moscow and the West.
Lavrov was asked about the possibility of nuclear weapons being used and whether such rhetoric would increase in 2023.
Lavrov said that question should be addressed to Westerners and that “the United States and the West in general” had been engaged in “propaganda” regarding the topic of nuclear weapons.
“On the one hand, irresponsible speculation is constantly circulating there that Russia is about to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. There are links to some statements of the political leadership of Russia. But in reality, there were no such statements. On the other hand, signals in the nuclear sphere coming from the West are very confrontational.”
Lavrov said former British Prime Minister Liz Truss during a preelection event “declared that she was quite ready to order a nuclear strike.
“However, Washington went the furthest — some ‘unnamed officials’ from the Pentagon actually threatened to conduct a ‘decapitation strike’ on the Kremlin … the threat of physical elimination of the head of the Russian state.”
Lavrov then accused Ukraine’s president of carrying out “off-the-scale” provocations.
“Volodymyr Zelenskyy agreed to demand preventive nuclear strikes by NATO countries against Russia. This also goes beyond the bounds of what is acceptable.”
Lavrov’s characterization of those statements from U.S. and other officials is misleading and omits the context in which they were made.
Moscow has issued threats regarding the potential use of nuclear relations in direct relation to the war in Ukraine.
On September 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently expressed his willingness to use nuclear weapons. Putin said:
"If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will without doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people — this is not a bluff. … And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weathervane can turn and point towards them.”
Dmitry Medvedev, who was once a Russian president and prime minister and who is now a deputy chairman of the country’s Security Council, said Putin’s comments are “certainly not a bluff.”
"Let's imagine that Russia is forced to use the most fearsome weapon against the Ukrainian regime, which had committed a large-scale act of aggression that is dangerous for the very existence of our state,” Medvedev said in a September Telegram post, the Reuters news agency reported.
Russia was engaged in the process of formally annexing more Ukrainian territory when those comments were made. Reuters reported that “Moscow could portray attacks to retake [Ukrainian land] as an attack on Russia itself.”
Medvedev appeared to support such an interpretation in a Telegram post on November 1, when he argued that Ukraine reclaiming its territory “posed a threat to the existence of our state and the collapse of present-day Russia.”
That he said, would be a “direct reason” for Russia to use its nuclear deterrent.
Multiple U.S. officials also said senior Russian military leaders had discussed using a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine amid military setbacks, The New York Times reported on November 2.
Those officials, however, said there was no evidence Russia was actually preparing for a strike.
Days after Putin’s comments, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said there would “be catastrophic consequences for Russia” if Moscow used nuclear weapons against Ukraine.
It was in this context that an unnamed Pentagon official discussed the option of a "decapitation strike” on the Kremlin,” as reported by Newsweek on September 29.
That theoretical strike option was presented as a response to a Russian nuclear attack. There is no indication the “decapitation strike” would be a nuclear one, and no U.S. official publicly came out in support of such an attack.
In the Newsweek report, officials noted that U.S. President Joe Biden preferred “non-nuclear options over nuclear ones” in the event that Russia used nuclear weapons first.
This leads to Lavrov’s allegations that Ukraine’s president called for NATO to launch “preventive nuclear strikes” against Russia.
During a virtual address to the Sydney-based Lowy Institute on October 6, Zelenskyy was asked about Putin’s comments that he was not “bluffing” regarding the potential use of nuclear weapons. Zelenskyy was further asked whether he believed the likelihood Russia would use nuclear weapons against Ukraine had risen, and what more he wanted NATO to do to deter Russia from using such weapons.
Zelenskyy’s reply was delivered through an interpreter, who said:
“Now what [does] NATO have to do to prevent and deter the use of nuclear weapons by Russia? What’s important — and I have to underline that once again in my statements to the international community. Preventive strikes … preventive actions, so that Russia would [know] what would happen to them … and not waiting for the nuclear strikes first.”
The interpreter appeared to correct himself in real time by immediately rephrasing “preventive strikes” as “preventive action.” But Russia seized on the phrase “preventive strikes” to accuse Ukraine of warmongering.
Zelenskyy spokesman Serhii Nykyforov would later claim the Ukrainian president was referring to the period before the war started on February 24, when “it was necessary to apply preventive measures to prevent Russia from starting the war.”
“Let me remind you that the only measures that were about then were preventive sanctions,” Nykyforov wrote in a Facebook post.
Zelenskyy did not go into detail about what type of “strike” or “action” he was speaking of when the comment was made, and never made a reference to NATO using nuclear weapons or hitting Russia with a preventive strike.
Next, Truss, who served as Britain's prime minister from September to October 2022, was asked about the Letters of Last Resort while campaigning to become prime minister.
The Letters of Last Resort refer to handwritten instructions from the British prime minister to the commanders of Britain’s nuclear submarine fleet on what to do in the event that a nuclear strike destroys the United Kingdom and/or the British government.
Truss was asked how she would feel in a hypothetical situation, where she was tasked with deploying nuclear weapons in response to such an attack. The question was not asked in the context of Russia and the war in Ukraine.
“I think it’s an important duty of the prime minister. I’m ready to do that.”
A report in The New York Times, noting Truss was speaking during her campaign to lead Britain’s Conservative Party, said such “steeliness” on national security issues “appeals to the party faithful.”
Moscow had regularly attempted to frame potential responses to its aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere as proof of Western aggression against Russia.
The RAND Corporation, a U.S. research organization, recently released a report on factors U.S. policymakers should consider if "faced with a limited Russian attack ... on U.S. or allied targets in Europe or outer space," during the war in Ukraine.
That report specifically excluded a strike on U.S. soil or one using weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, as any such attack would "entail a dramatically different set of response options."
Russian media played up the threat of the independently produced report (although RAND is partially financed by the U.S. government), alleging it proved the U.S. military plans to "escalate" hostilities with Russia.
Some Russian media falsely said the report shows the U.S. plans to strike Russia "with impunity.”
The RAND report said, "U.S. policy in the war to date has been guided by a clear imperative to avoid a NATO-Russia war," adding, "A limited Russian attack on NATO does not invalidate this objective."