As the Russian government carried out nuclear weapons exercises, threatened to use nuclear weapons if anyone interfered with their invasion of Ukraine, and raised the alert levels of its nuclear forces, the threat of nuclear weapons is back at the top of the international agenda again. However, the nuclear weapons discourse has for the last 20 years been made intentionally inaccessible to the public, hiding the topic behind vague, technical language that are often confusing and unclear.
Statements and comments on nuclear weapons made by national leaders, government officials and military commanders are often vague, couched in euphemisms or abstractions, based on unexamined assumptions, and/or inconsistent with existing national policies and international obligations. This is especially the case during times of high tension and conflict.
Such communication may be intentionally misleading or ambiguous, or may reflect rushed policy and flawed analysis. Either way, asking the right questions is the key to decoding the real message, elaborating its implications, and illuminating the underlying situation.
This guide is intended to help journalists ask the questions that help the public get clear and direct information about nuclear weapons, nuclear threats and nuclear warfare. The examples are drawn from the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, but the advice applies to any situation in which leaders are talking about nuclear weapons.