Last month, The New York Times said that the “nuclear” question had been discussed with “words chosen carefully” during a long-awaited talk between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky on April 27. Some other news outlets reproduced Xi’s exact words: “There is no winner in a nuclear war. All parties concerned should remain calm and restrained in dealing with the nuclear issue and truly look at the future and destiny of themselves and humanity as a whole and work together to manage the crisis.”

It is not clear whether Xi was referring to Vladimir Putin’s statement on March 25 that he would transfer battlefield nuclear weapons across the border to Belarus to store in a facility that will be ready in July. Western observers had then said that the threat was to “rattle the Ukrainians and distract from Kremlin’s losses on the Bakhmut battlefield”.

There were no reports on how Zelensky reacted to this. He had, however, used the occasion on the same day – the 37th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and Moscow’s brief seizure of the plant and its radiation-contaminated exclusion zone after its full-scale invasion of Ukraine – to air his views. He repeated “his warnings about the potential threat of a new atomic catastrophe in Ukraine amid the war with Russia”, the Los Angeles Times said.

This was the second time when Putin was making a threat of this sort. The first was in September 2022. He accused NATO and the West of “nuclear blackmail” and said that Russia would use “all means at our disposal” to protect the country. “This is not a bluff,” he added.

This was in continuation of what he said at a press meet in December during his visit to Minsk, capital of Belarus, that Russia was training Belarus pilots to fly aircraft capable of carrying “special warheads”.

US National Security Council officials reacted in April that they had not seen any movement of tactical nuclear weapons towards Belarus since March 25. On the other hand, former US National Security Adviser John Bolton felt that Putin might not be bluffing on Belarus, although Russia already has its mighty nuclear arsenal in its Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic Sea.

On May 28, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko added a new dimension to this tense situation by telling the Russia-1 channel that those “nations who are willing to join the Union State of Russia and Belarus will be given nuclear weapons”. This was after several media reports that Russia might have transferred tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus in response to the United Kingdom supplying Ukraine anti-tank ammunition with depleted uranium.

Peace activists wearing masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden pose with mock nuclear missiles in front of the US embassy in Berlin in 2021 to call for more progress in nuclear disarmament. Credit: AFP.

Nuclear ambiguity with occasional threats had rattled the world earlier. On March 28, America’s Public Broadcasting Corporation released a documentary titled The Movement and the Madman on an incident in 1969 involving President Richard Nixon, which resembled Russian President Vladimir Putin’s present nuclear threat. This was perhaps to remind the world about a long forgotten episode in American history when the US had indulged in a similar nuclear blackmail.

The blurb of the film says that two huge anti-war protests in the fall of 1969 made “President Nixon to cancel what he called his ‘madman’ plans for a massive escalation of the US war in Vietnam, including threats to use nuclear weapons”. It also says that the protesters had “no idea at that time what they had prevented and how many lives they had saved”.

At the height of the Vietnam War, this created a panic in the US and among allies – perhaps not in the Soviet Union. That was when Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger planned to intimidate the former Soviet Union by issuing secret alerts to the US nuclear forces around the world to project the idea that he was “crazy” and that his adversaries in the Vietnam War should “back down”.

This massive secret operation between October 13-30, 1969, to portray a “Madman’s Theory” involved US military operations around the world in the American homeland, Western Europe, the Middle East, the Atlantic, Pacific, and the Sea of Japan. It took in strategic bombers, tactical air, and naval operations, including movements of aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines and also surveillance of the Soviet merchant ships moving toward Haiphong.

Michael Krepon,one of the best experts on arms control, co-founder of the Stimson Center, explained the “Madman’s Theory” in his review of the book Nixon’s Nuclear Specter by William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball. “During the Vietnam War, the United States possessed the largest and most capable nuclear arsenal in the world,” Krepon wrote. “It was bogged down in a brutal, extended war with a state that did not possess nuclear weapons”.

Krepon said that the authors faced serious difficulties while researching these events. The Library of Congress did not give them access to the Kissinger Papers as they were closed to “all, but a privileged few until five years after his death”. They also could not gain access to archives in China, Russia or Vietnam to study how they felt at Nixon’s threats. Still, they could gather furtive details that were released from time to time.

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Credit: Nixon White House Photographs, White House Photo Office Collection (Nixon Administration), in Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

According to Krepon, Nixon and Kissinger practised the same coercive diplomacy against Soviet Union during the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks or SALT: “They set in motion bureaucratic inquiries into policy options that they did not intend to pursue, operated through irregular channels, and tried to keep key individuals out of the loop.”

The story revealed by Barr and Kimbal said that Nixon, frustrated by the slow progress of the Paris talks and irritated by Soviet assistance to North Vietnam, “decided to test the ‘madman theory’ by ratcheting up the readiness level of nuclear forces” to compel Moscow to use its leverage “to induce Hanoi to meet US terms”.

In 2015, the National Security Archive at George Washington University published a set of 24 secret documents revealing the process by which this “madman theory” was communicated. The theatre commanders did not know nor could they find out why the US President had ordered them to implement this secret readiness alert.

However they put US nuclear bombers on high alert, raised the combat readiness of US tactical aircraft and air defence forces.They sent more nuclear missile submarines to sea. They also conducted manoeuvres using destroyers, cruisers and aircraft carriers in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Aden, and the Sea of Japan. US Strategic Air Command conducted a nuclear-armed airborne alert exercise over eastern Alaska.

Nixon was a great believer of coercive nuclear diplomacy according to Bob Haldeman, his Chief of Staff. Nixon himself called it “Madman theory”: “Bob – We’ll just slip the word to them that ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry-and he has his hand on the nuclear button”. Krepon says that Nixon had told Time magazine in 1985 that he considered Nikita Khruchev as the master of this art “because he scared the hell out of people”.

The whole exercise failed as the Soviets paid it no attention. As the authors said: “ The Soviets may have seen Nixon’s moves as a bluff; Moscow made no change in its Vietnam policy”. Krepon said in 2015: “When Nixon met with Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, during the readiness test to underscore U.S. messaging, the wily envoy, having been through the crucible of the Cuban missile crisis, correctly interpreted the mixed messages he received as bluff”.

However Krepon’s conclusions in 2015 are important for the world now. After the 1969 incident, the US realised the limits of coercive nuclear diplomacy while Vladimir Putin “reminds the world of Russia’s nuclear arsenal while engaging in military expeditions in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and Syria”.

The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. Views personal.