by Daria Blinova, PhD student, Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Delaware

Since times of the devastating bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II the international community has adhered to unwritten norms against the use of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, driven by mutual distrust in the anarchic international environment, the temptation to enhance nuclear capabilities remains extremely high. As Vipin Narang in his book “Seeking the Bomb” claims, at least 29 countries have made an effort to go nuclear. Yet, today nine countries, namely the United States, Russia, France, China, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea, officially possess nuclear capabilities that can potentially cause catastrophic damage to the world.

Such unthinkable concentration of power imposes a great responsibility on the leaders of nuclear-weapons nations who must ensure that there are no mistakes or miscalculations in their decisions in critical moments. This also means that the option of using nuclear weapons should never be considered as a means to carry out wars or conflicts, not even as a threat. However, the latest developments in international politics have shown that the nuclear taboo has been violated and nuclear discourse has gradually become normalized in our daily routine, which makes the risks of catastrophe more plausible and thereby undermines global security.

One recent example is the war in Ukraine initiated by Russia in February 2022. Over the course of the conflict, Russia’s elite driven by emotions made the nuclear threats more pronounced. For example, Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, once posted in Telegram that if the Ukrainian offensive, which in his words is backed by NATO, was a success and Ukraine would tear off a part of Russian land then the Kremlin “would be forced to use a nuclear weapon”. As he noted, Russia’s enemies would better pray for the success of Russia’s soldiers in order to make sure that the “global nuclear fire is not ignited”. Several months later, Kremlin propagandist Margarita Simonian in her address allowed the thought about nuking Siberia in order to convey Russia’s determination to the West.

Escalation of the nuclear threat rhetoric is a recent notion that has direct implications. Even though it can be perceived as a provocative language with the elements of bluffing, no one really wants to check the authenticity of this rhetoric. The danger of the nuclear narrative can be contagious, and it leaves room for irrationality, where the priming effect of the nuclear war context may drive spontaneous decision-making in times of conflict. The assumption of nuclear deterrence should not be an option in the response to the losing positions in war since the logic suggests that the costs of the loss are lower than the comparable advantage of the nuclear strike. Nevertheless, the nuclear threat language continues to be used.

In the recently launched Israel attack on Gaza as a result of the surprise attack by Hamas on Israel, far-right minister Amichai Eliyahu remarked that dropping the atomic bomb on Gaza could be an option. Although suspended from Netanyahu’s government as a result, the mere contemplation of using nuclear capabilities among elite circles of nuclear-weapon countries is a dangerous sign. It signals a changing reality regarding the purpose of nuclear weapons and also raises doubts about the workability of the nuclear taboo. North Korea is yet another example where its leader Kim Jong-un repeatedly threatens to launch a nuclear attack against the US. He claimed once that “if the American imperialists provoke” North Korea even a little bit, then it will not hesitate to slap the US “with a pre-emptive nuclear strike”. Even though such rhetoric may not be perceived as fully serious, it raises concerns about unpredictability and demonstrates the irresponsibility of the nuclear-armed states in managing their policies to prevent global mass destruction.

There are several implications of the nuclear war discourse promoted by the leaders of the nations owning the nuclear arsenals. First, the normalization of the nuclear context constructs a reality that leaders and country elites start to believe in thereby not distinguishing between adequacy of their threats. Next, routinization of the possibility of nuclear strikes also distorts the perception of the immediacy of the threats, making such threats non-credible and thus hardly detectable. This, in turn, poses larger consequences for world peace and sparks the fear of apocalypse upon which autocrats capitalize to tighten their grip on power domestically. Such fear can be used by leaders such as in Russia or North Korea to keep the public alert and focused on the existential threat rather than on domestic problems such as socio-economic decline.

Since World War II, nuclear capabilities have served as a means of maintaining a global balance of power by merely relying on their deterrence effect. Yet, the understanding of the wrongness of using nuclear weapons has been forming for decades. As noted by Nina Tannenwald at the beginning of the millennium, the “nuclear taboo” has worked effectively in minimizing the rhetoric of nuclear attack threats. However, in recent decades, this taboo seems to have been damaged. Leaders and elites in one-third of nuclear nations talk about nuclear strikes as if they were a conventional solution to wars, which is unprecedented. In light of the recent increase in conflicts, it is now more important than ever to reverse this negative effect. Therefore, to prevent the spread of a “nuclear virus”, it is crucial for the global community to focus on the nuclear threat discourse and work towards delegitimizing it. The broken taboo should be fixed before it’s too late!


About the Author

Daria Blinova
PhD student
Department of Political Science and International Relations
University of Delaware

Daria Blinova is a Ph.D. student, research assistant in the Department of Political Science & International Relations, and departmental senator for Graduate Student Government​ at the University of Delaware. She also coordinates first-year students in the Department as a PSGSA member and is mentoring international students through the UD iBuddy program.

She graduated from Kuban State University (the Russian Federation) with two Bachelor’s Degrees with honors: in Law and in International Relations. Daria continued her academic career in the United States at Western Michigan University where she worked as a teaching and research assistant, published articles, participated​​ in conferences, and earned a Master’s Degree in International Development Administration.​

Research Interests

​Daria has wide research interests that are ranging from studies about development and SDGs, politics of post-Soviet countries, and political economy to international security and demo​cratic transition. She is currently working on projects relating to US Sanctions and foreign lobbying; international sanctions against Russia; access to information laws in Hong Kong; representation under the UNFCCC regime; and others.​