According to a recent survey conducted by the Levada Center, 56% of Russians do not believe that the hypothetical use of nuclear weapons in the war with Ukraine is justified. However, a somewhat significant proportion of the population, 29%, hold the opposite view. This raises concerns about the potential for nuclear aggression should Ukraine launch a successful counteroffensive. An additional 15% were undecided, suggesting that they may also be swayed to support nuclear aggression. This increases the likelihood that Vladimir Putin will once again resort to nuclear blackmail. When it comes to public opinion in Western countries, the Kremlin's nuclear threats have had a dual effect. They have both increased fear of a potential nuclear conflict and simultaneously boosted support for the deployment of their own or American nuclear weapons on their respective territories.
From the very beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, President Putin has used nuclear rhetoric to create the impression of his own invincibility and to deter any reaction from the West. In February 2022, he ordered the Russian nuclear forces to be put on high alert. His nuclear threats sounded even more menacing in September 2022 in the midst of the Ukrainian armed forces' counteroffensive. With his nuclear rhetoric, Putin has essentially changed the interpretation of Russia's nuclear doctrine, blurring its principles to a point of uncertainty. Russia acknowledges the possibility of using nuclear weapons in the event of an ‘existential threat’, but what constitutes an ‘existential threat’ has become unclear since the start of its full-scale conventional war against Ukraine and the occupation of parts of Ukrainian territory. Russian propagandists periodically resort to using the rhetoric of nuclear aggression, suggesting that it could also be a response to the use of a ‘dirty bomb’ by Ukraine. This raises concerns about Russian false-flag attacks, which could be used as a pretext for using nuclear weapons.
However, a nuclear strike would inevitably have catastrophic consequences for Russia and would bring the world to the brink of a major nuclear war, as the US administration warned the Kremlin at the height of the September escalation. In this context, an important question arises: how do Russians themselves view the Kremlin's nuclear threats?
According to a survey by the Levada Center conducted in late April 2023, 60% of Russians believe that the Russian leadership is not yet ready to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, while only 29% believe that they are ready to take such measures . Those who are more critical of what is happening in Russia (believe that things are going in the wrong direction), and those in the 25-39 age group (34%) are most likely to believe in the willingness of the Russian leadership to take this insane step.
In response to the question, ‘Can the use of nuclear weapons be justified in the current conflict with Ukraine?’ 29% responded positively, 56% negatively, and 15% were undecided. The youngest (18-24 years old) and oldest (55+) age groups are less susceptible to the rhetoric of nuclear aggression (with 23% and 26% respectively considering the use of nuclear weapons justified), as well as those who are critical of the state of affairs in Russia and the presidency of Vladimir Putin (also 23%). Thus, while most Russians consider the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine unjustified, the proportion of those caught up in the rhetoric of nuclear aggression is significant, especially considering the ‘undecided’ camp, whose opinions may be influenced by provocations or the further escalation of nuclear rhetoric. In our view, this ratio sharply increases the likelihood that Vladimir Putin will resort to nuclear threat rhetoric again during the anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, seeking to simultaneously deter Western aid and the Ukrainian counteroffensive and to expand the ‘nuclear party’ in Russian public opinion.
When it comes to the reaction of the public in the West to Russia's nuclear blackmail , it has undoubtedly had an effect. However, its result has not only increased the fear of nuclear war, but has also noticeably increased the support for the placement of one's own or American nuclear weapons on their territories.
According to a survey by the Erfurt Institute for Public Opinion Research (INSA Consultante) conducted between March 31 and April 3, 2023, the majority of Germans (55%) believe that Vladimir Putin could use nuclear weapons against Ukraine and its military allies. This opinion is more often expressed by respondents aged 50-59, who remember the previous Cold War (62%). The highest proportion of those who agree with this statement is among voters of Germany's three ruling parties: supporters of the Free Democrats — 67%, the Social Democrats — 63%, and the Greens — 62%. The lowest proportion of those who believe that the Russian president is capable of using nuclear weapons against Ukraine is seen among supporters of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, at only 43%.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine and its nuclear rhetoric have radically changed German society's attitude towards the issue. For years, the majority of Germans demanded the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from their country. After the 2021 parliamentary elections, the ruling parties enshrined in the coalition agreement the goal of making Germany a nuclear-weapon-free country. But, in June 2022, for the first time, surveys recordeda majority of Germans (52%) in favour of keeping American nuclear weapons in Germany. In addition, 12% of those surveyed said these should be modernised and the quantity of weapons increased. Only 39% of German respondents now advocate for American nuclear weapons to be removed from their country. Supporters of the Green Party are most in favour of the deployment of this nuclear arsenal in Germany (64%), followed by CDU/CSU voters (61%), Free Democrats (61%), and supporters of the current German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's party, the Social Democrats (56%). Only a majority of supporters of the right-wing radical party Alternative for Germany continue to demand the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons (56%).
One-third of Americans are ‘extremely concerned’, and another third are simply ‘concerned’ about the possibility of nuclear war on the horizon in the next five years, according to public opinion polls conducted in the United States in November 2022. This result (69% concerned) is 8 percentage points higher than it was in 2021 (61%). When asked, ‘Are you worried that Russia could launch a thermonuclear strike against the United States?’ 71% of respondents in 2022 answered positively, although this had stood at just 60% in 2021. 77% of those surveyed are concerned that the Kremlin may use nuclear weapons somewhere else in the world. At the same time, the proportion of those who believe that the US will win a war with a nuclear state remained unchanged when compared to the previous year (53%). However, it has decreased significantly since 2018, when 65% of Americans believed that America could win a war with a nuclear state.
According to an article published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has significantly increased support for the deployment of nuclear weapons in Britain, even among those who were previously opposed to this. Survey data cited in the article shows that 40% of British citizens are in favour of having nuclear weapons in the country, while 26% are against it. Two-thirds of supporters of nuclear deployment said that the war in Ukraine had strengthened their opinion, and among those who were opposed to nuclear weapons, 16% said they had changed their position.
However, the British public is divided on the issue of the country’s nuclear doctrine, or the principles of its potential nuclear weapon use. The doctrine of Britain and NATO does not rule out a preemptive nuclear strike in extreme cases of self-defence, including defence of its allies in the North Atlantic Alliance. However, 48% of Brits are in favour of prohibiting preemptive strikes, while 40% support retaining such an option. Additionally, more than a third of Brits (39%) approve of the country joining the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which prohibits the development, testing, production, and acquisition of nuclear weapons. Young people aged 18-34 are most likely to hold this opinion (48%). Only 13% of the British public is against joining this treaty.