»Fears of nuclear escalation«

Simon Weiss, Christos Katsioulis, Alexandra Dienes

Russia's war against Ukraine has brought fears of war and conflict back into the European public consciousness. Ten months into the war, we asked citizens of Germany, France, Poland and Latvia about their views on the war and its consequences, and compared them with the data from last year's survey. This spotlight shows the impact of the war’s geographical proximity on people's perception of the danger of nuclear escalation and how it may have increased their fears, and discusses how best to deal with these politically.

Europeans’ fears that war and conflict may affect them directly have increased everywhere.

  • Compared with 2021, respondents in all four countries are more concerned that wars and conflicts will have an impact on their country in the future.
  • The biggest increase is observable in Germany with a rise of 21 percentage points compared with September 2021. France has also reached a significant level of concern. In Latvia and Poland, levels of concern were relatively high, at 73% and 72%, respectively, but they have now risen to over 80%.

A military confrontation between Russia and the West is considered likely by at least half of the population everywhere.

Military confrontation between Russia and the West considered likely.

  • Regarding the likelihood of a direct military clash between Russia and the West, the populations of Poland and Latvia were already quite concerned in 2021.
  • A year later, about half the populations of Germany (47%) and France (50%) share fears of such a scenario.
  • In Latvia and Poland, these levels have risen to 61% and 59%, respectively.

Germans are the least worried about nuclear escalation.

When it comes to fears of nuclear escalation in the course of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the survey reveals a paradox. A difference between Eastern and Western EU member states is no longer discernible. Instead, Germany has become an outlier. Counterintuitively to the motif of ‘German Angst’, German respondents are significantly less worried than their European neighbours, although all four countries exhibit high levels of fear. In Germany, 55% of respondents indicated they were worried about nuclear escalation. By contrast, this was true of 75% in Poland, 73% in France, and 71% in Latvia.

The lower levels of concern among Germans could be a counter-reaction.

How can the German outlier position be explained?

After all, since the successful offensives of the Ukrainian armed forces, the public and politicians across Europe have been discussing the issue of whether Russian President Putin might deploy battlefield nuclear weapons. Putin himself has employed nuclear rhetoric, bandying about such terms as ‘Russian deployment doctrine’ or ‘Russian operational doctrine’, as well as citing the historical examples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Simultaneously, some speculations – especially by certain retired military officers – on the likelihood of a NATO attack on the Russian Black Sea Fleet in response to a possible Russian nuclear attack serve to showcase the potential dangers of further escalation.

One reason for the relatively low concern among Germans might be found in German discourse on how to deal with Russia. In Germany, analyses of Putin’s nuclear gestures or threats range from simply playing it down (’he's just bluffing’) to emphasising the futility of nuclear scenarios in Russia’s war against Ukraine (’the use of nuclear weapons would not help Putin’). The relative lack of concern in Germany could be a counter-reaction to the argument raised by some that German policy is influenced too strongly by Putin’s attempts at nuclear intimidation.

What are the policy implications of these data?

Responsible and ethical policymaking must take people's concerns seriously. Given the critical levels of security concerns, this requires acknowledging that the danger is real. The resetting of the Doomsday Clock further underlines this need.

While fear is the proverbial bad counsellor, there is such a thing as the ’rational power of fear’. Rational fear engenders activity and in turn contributes to its own reduction. Empathetic political action in this crisis thus requires politicians regularly and transparently to communicate their reasoning behind decisions which affect the security of Europeans, without spreading fear.

This is a fine line to tread. The extent of concerns about the effects of the war on one's own country illustrates how fragile nation-states’ ability to shape their own destiny really is. At the same time, Germany's outlier position with regard to fears of nuclear escalation illustrates the effects that specific national discourses can have on the public mood. Media discourses, however, can also take on a life of their own. Downplaying the nuclear threat in Germany while concerns among its European neighbours are rising must equally be avoided.

The current observable difference between Germany and the other three countries should not obscure the fact that in Germany, too, a majority of the population are worried. We should not freeze or be caught in the headlights, but weigh our political decisions carefully to avoid an escalation of the war.

Angst vor der Bombe

Weiß, Simon; Katsioulis, Christos; Dienes, Alexandra

Angst vor der Bombe

Eine Umfrage in Deutschland, Frankreich, Lettland und Polen
Wien, 2023

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