25.07.23 Review

Nuclear Numbness: In the thirty years since the end of the Cold War, perceptions of the nuclear threat have dulled considerably in both Russia and the United States

Over the past three decades, the fear of nuclear conflict has receded to the periphery of public consciousness, and the understanding of its consequences and logic has become rather blurred. This fading awareness has played a part in the erosion of taboos surrounding discussion of the use of nuclear weapons. While in Russian society, the faction of 'nuclear hawks' remains marginal, those who view nuclear rhetoric as an effective means of intimidation appear more substantial. In Russian society, these threats give rise to what can be described as 'nuclear resentment' or an 'inferiority complex.' Meanwhile, surveys in the United States demonstrate a muddled public opinion on key nuclear issues. Nevertheless, the perception of US military superiority, which includes nuclear capabilities, offers Americans a feeling of relative security. According to American polls, a mere 4% of US citizens believe that nuclear retaliation from Russia in response to American weapons deliveries to Ukraine is likely, while 25% view it as unlikely. Moreover, only 20% of Americans express a desire for more involvement in nuclear policy discussions.

In the era of the Cold War, the concept of nuclear deterrence heavily relied on instilling fear, and it became deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness of both Western and Soviet societies. Events like the devastating nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, vividly depicted in numerous films, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the nuclear arms race, and the influential anti-war and anti-nuclear movements in the West and USSR collectively contributed to making the fear of nuclear weapon use an integral part of everyday social culture. However, over the past 30 years, this culture has largely faded from common discourse.

With the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the threat of using nuclear weapons, either as retaliation or as a preemptive strike for deterrence, has been a subject of initial discussion by Russian propagandists, later echoed by pro-Kremlin international experts. This rhetoric, which is based on the doctrine of 'limited nuclear escalation,' itself indicates a lowering of the threshold of 'nuclear fear.' During the Cold War years, policymakers and populations on both sides believed that the use of weapons of mass destruction by either side would inevitably lead to a large-scale nuclear conflict.

This decrease in the threshold of nuclear fear has seldom been the focus of sociological surveys. Recent polls conducted in Russia have shown that 86% of respondents considered the use of nuclear weapons during the current war in Ukraine unacceptable under any circumstances (with only 10% holding an opposing view). However, when asked if the Russian leadership would be willing to use nuclear weapons during the conflict if they deemed it necessary, 29% of respondents from a May survey conducted by the Levada Center responded affirmatively. Additionally, one-third of those surveyed believed the use of nuclear weapons in this conflict to be justifiable (marking an increase from 29% in the previous survey conducted in April).

The decrease in the threshold of nuclear fear opens up room for nuclear blackmail by Russian authorities. Within Russian society, there exists a marginal faction of 'nuclear hawks' and a larger group who see nuclear threats as an effective means of intimidation. In a survey conducted by Russian Field, 11% of those surveyed found the use of nuclear weapons acceptable for defeating Ukraine, 5% deemed it acceptable only if Russia was facing defeat, and 10% avoided giving a definitive answer. Only 74% of respondents firmly rejected the possibility of using nuclear weapons.

A joint survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Carnegie Corporation explored the perspectives of US citizens on nuclear issues. Approximately half of those surveyed (53%) indicated that they had some level of awareness regarding the consequences of using nuclear weapons, with only 19% considering themselves 'well-informed.' Approximately 30% said they were familiar with US nuclear development policy and nuclear doctrine objectives. About half of Americans (47%) believe that nuclear weapons play a positive role in ensuring national security. Supporters of the Republican Party (61%) and those over 45 years of age (55%) are more likely to emphasise the importance of nuclear weapons, while 45% of Democrats share this view. Among people under the age of 45 this figure stood at 38%. 46% of those surveyed stated that they believe in the effectiveness of the US missile defence system, but only 6% expressed full confidence in it.

Approximately 40% of respondents reported having some level of familiarity with the concept of 'nuclear deterrence,' while 63% believe that the possession of nuclear weapons by the US helps prevent conflicts between the US and other countries. Among those who are acquainted with the concept of nuclear deterrence, 88% consider it to be very effective (46%) or somewhat effective (42%) in preventing nuclear war.

Because American society places great trust in the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence and the military superiority of the US, the majority of those surveyed (55%) believe it is unlikely that Russia would use nuclear weapons against the US in response to American military aid to Ukraine. 24% consider such a scenario 'rather likely,' and only 4% find it 'very likely.'

60% of Americans said they would like to know more about US nuclear policy. However, only two out of every ten Americans expressed a desire to be more involved in US nuclear policy, while around a third of those surveyed prefer not to be involved at all. 39% said they would not like to change their current level of engagement.

The American survey demonstrates a certain ambiguity in public attitudes toward this issue, with few consolidated opinions on specific questions. Nevertheless, Americans tend to draw confidence from the perception of US military and nuclear supremacy, which provides them with a sense of relative security. Meanwhile, in Russia, the nuclear rhetoric and concept of 'limited nuclear war' reflect an 'inferiority complex' and a kind of 'nuclear resentment,' compensating for the awareness of disparities between the two countries in terms of conventional weapons, technology, and economic power.