Prospects for nuclear weapons in the light of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine

These words were regarded as threats to use nuclear weapons (nuclear weapons) in the event of direct intervention of the armed forces of NATO member states in the war with Ukraine.

Such hints were heard in the speeches of Russian officials more than once. This was repeated by Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Vladimir Putin’s deputy in the Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, not to mention State Duma deputies and members of the Federation Council.

Thus, nuclear weapons, which for decades had been invisibly present somewhere in the background of world politics, abruptly came to the fore. Nuclear blackmail, as Russian politics has rightly been called, has turned from a theoretical concept into an instrument of practical politics.

History of nuclear weapons

Since its inception in the 1940s. The military-political role of nuclear weapons has undergone several important transformations. Initially, it was conceived as a battlefield weapon, what we now call non-strategic or tactical nuclear weapons. With the advent of intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear weapons began to turn into an instrument of strategic deterrence. The Caribbean crisis of 1962 was an important milestone in the realization on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean of the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear war between the US and the USSR. This contributed to the international dialogue on tension reduction and disarmament, which resulted in the signing of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1968, a fundamental document in the field of nuclear non-proliferation, disarmament and the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Article I imposes on nuclear states the obligation not to transfer in any way nuclear weapons and technology for their creation by a non-nuclear state. Article II obliges non-nuclear states to refrain from acquiring or developing nuclear weapons.

Article VI plays an important role in discussions about the prospects for nuclear disarmament. It instructs all states parties to the Treaty “to negotiate effective measures to end the nuclear arms race in the near future and to achieve nuclear disarmament, as well as a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

This is the favorite argument of all nuclear states, including Russia, who use it as an explanation why, to this day, nuclear disarmament has not achieved the desired results – that is, the complete destruction of all stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Their point of view is that it is possible to talk about nuclear disarmament and the complete elimination of nuclear weapons only taking into account all foreign policy factors affecting international security and the security of the nuclear states themselves. Since NATO has a huge superiority in conventional weapons over the Russian army, the Russian (like the Soviet) leadership has always proceeded from the fact that nuclear weapons are the key guarantor of non-attack on it by other states, primarily NATO.

Coercion or restraint

It must be understood that there are two aspects to the concept of “nuclear deterrence”. It is believed that there is “containment” (deterrence) and “coercion” (compelling). Deterrence is intended to prevent hostile actions from the enemy, since the enemy understands that in the event of such actions there will be an appropriate destructive response. Coercion is characterized by the use of the threat of the use of force, including nuclear weapons, in order to force the enemy to renounce hostile actions. Of course, all the time it was containment that was the key factor in ensuring strategic stability.

Thus, until today, the talk was about nuclear weapons as an instrument of strategic deterrence, which was planned to be used exclusively as a means of retaliatory strike. All options for such use of nuclear weapons are listed in the Fundamentals of State Policy in the Field of Nuclear Deterrence 2020. Of course, they do not contain any hints of using nuclear weapons to coerce other countries.

In 2022, the policy of nuclear deterrence changed – in addition to Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons in the event of the active involvement of Western countries, there were fears that the Russian dictator would want to force Ukraine and (or) Western countries to comply with his demands, threatening otherwise to use nuclear weapons. In such a scenario, deterrence gives way to coercion. The main danger is that it is rather difficult to provide an adequate response to such nuclear coercion.

Of course, the blackmailer expects his threats to be taken seriously. Nobody wants to become a target for a nuclear strike. It is these considerations that underlie the desire of Western countries to avoid escalation and provocation of Russia (although it is obvious that such a line has already demonstrated complete failure in terms of preventing a Russian attack on Ukraine).

However, it is still unclear what an adequate response might be to Putin’s use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine. This may include conventional strikes against Russia’s military infrastructure, its military bases, etc., but all this carries the not illusory risks of escalating into a full-scale nuclear war.

The blockade scenario looks more realistic. The use of nuclear weapons by a nuclear state against an obviously weaker and, most importantly, non-nuclear state would be a flagrant violation of the so-called nuclear taboo. In addition, it will instantly devalue all the security guarantees given by nuclear states to non-nuclear countries – and this is not only the infamous Budapest Memorandum, but also more significant from the point of view of international law treaties on the creation of nuclear-weapon-free zones.

A nuclear strike on Ukraine is highly likely to force almost all states, with the possible exception of North Korea and Eritrea, not only to strongly condemn such a development of events, but also to take real measures to prevent further escalation by Russia. A logical step would be the creation of an international anti-Putin coalition, uniting the vast majority of the world’s states, in order to eliminate the threat of repeated nuclear strikes.

The fate of nuclear weapons is decided in Ukraine

Thus, further rethinking of the role of nuclear weapons in politics depends on the outcome of the war in Ukraine. If the Russian president, with the help of nuclear pressure, manages to “knock out” for himself acceptable conditions for ending the war, which he can pass off as victory, then this will give a clear signal that nuclear weapons are not only a reliable deterrent, but also an effective tool of political pressure. For example If today North Korea relies on its nuclear missiles as a means of preventing aggression against itself from the United States and South Korea (deterrence), then who will forbid Kim Jong-un in the future to demand serious concessions from South Korea under the threat of a nuclear strike. This will lead to a further undermining of its non-proliferation regime, the spread of nuclear weapons around the world, and, consequently, an ever-increasing threat of its use.

If Russia loses the war, that is, Putin cannot present the end of the war as his victory, and does not use nuclear weapons, this will make one wonder how effective nuclear weapons are as a political tool. If a nuclear power is defeated in a war waged by conventional weapons, then nuclear weapons, it turns out, do not work so well as a deterrent. In this case, the state possessing nuclear weapons faces a choice – either to use it immediately with unpredictable, but obviously very serious consequences for itself, or not to use it at all. The temptation of nuclear weapons in this scenario is significantly reduced.

The war with Ukraine is thus the most important military-political event of the 21st century in terms of its influence and possible consequences. Its outcome will largely determine the geopolitical configuration for the next decades.

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