The Russian nuclear threat: The weight of uncertainty

The Russian nuclear threat: The weight of uncertainty


10 | 03 | 2022


"Is there a real possibility that Putin would order a nuclear weapon to be dropped on Ukraine? If it were not on the table, we would not even be considering it".

In the picture

Transport of a Russian strategic missile in July 2021 [Russian Ministry of Defence].

On 27 February Putin put Russia's deterrent forces on "special alert". Although there was no sign of Ukraine's immediate accession to NATO or sample of any real nuclear capability, he ordered Russia's top defence officials to place nuclear forces "in a special combat service mode".

Ukraine has not possessed nuclear weapons since signature of the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, in which it committed itself to ratify the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to refund to Moscow around 3,000 nuclear warheads inherited after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In return, Ukraine became an independent state, and the other signatories - Belarus, the United States, Kazakhstan, the United Kingdom and Russia - pledged to "respect the independence, sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine" and "refrain from the threat or use of force" against the country.

Given the current status , it is worth asking whether the signature of agreement was not a "romantic and premature" action, as a former Ukrainian military commander, Volodymyr Tolubko, described it at the time, since, if it had nuclear warheads, the current invasion might not have taken place or, if it did, it might have taken place on different terms.

To better understand the reasons for this remorse, we have to go back to the second half of the last century, in the midst of the Cold War. The relative stability of this period was largely driven by the so-called theory of Mutually Assured Destruction, which kept the nuclear states in constant tension status . In a bipolar world characterised by confrontation between the two great powers, the launch of a nuclear weapon would almost certainly have resulted in a nuclear response of similar magnitude, with a disastrous result for both sides. Hence, the warring parties lived - and continue to live - in a state of nuclear deterrence.

As noted, Ukraine is not currently a nuclear state. Russia, on the other hand, is considered the state with the most nuclear warheads on the planet, with an estimated 6,400 deployed, those at reservation and those in the process of being dismantled. Faced with such a disparate balance of power, critics of nuclear weapons claim that the mere existence of this subject of weapons does not guarantee, far from it, the absence of conflict or the perception of peace. At the same time, in the face of such an imbalance of power, nuclear deterrence may not be guaranteed. Is there therefore a real possibility that the Russian leader might order the launch of a nuclear weapon over Ukraine as a measure of last resort resource to ensure success?

The reality is that, if this possibility were not on the table, we would not even be asking this question, nor would we be asking ourselves this question, nor hearing about a "nuclear threat" in the media at speech. However, the answer is open to a multitude of nuances, doubts, opinions, and even details that are difficult to predict for a possible prognosis. Therefore, in the face of such terrifying uncertainty, we have no choice but to opt for a discouraging "it depends".

It depends first and foremost on the Russian leader's unpredictable personality, which makes it difficult to know exactly how far he is willing to go. History shows that Putin is not afraid of risks and is willing to make good on his threats to satisfy his interests. However, the current circumstances are indeed complex, and political, economic and military pressure may work against him.

At this point, the so-called ' madman theory'with which US President Richard Nixon frightened the Soviet Union during the Vietnam War is familiar. Although the strategy was not very effective at the time, the purpose was to make intimidating threats that would influence the course of negotiations. It is possible that Putin believes his own words, or that he is playing an actor's role, but the image of an unscrupulous leader he projects reinforces the idea of this strategy, which would ultimately prevent Putin from crossing the red line of nuclear weapon use.

Since the Russian invasion on 24 February, Moscow has played the role of victim to justify its action, citing a clearly non-existent threat to Russia. Its political speech has tried to put Europe and NATO member states between a rock and a hard place in order to keep them, as far as possible, on the sidelines of Russian intervention in Ukraine. The nuclear element casts an eventual element of confrontation that could break the unity of the West in negotiations over the decision to threaten or use nuclear weapons. And this rhetoric is, in turn, a determinant of deterrence, which exists because of the credibility of the adversary's capabilities and intentions.

It is worth remembering again that Ukraine is not a nuclear state, and this imbalance of power weakens the potential of deterrence theory. At this point, the answer to our initial question also depends on the role that the other nuclear states and NATO are willing to play. What is certain is that Ukraine's military forces are showing more capability than expected, or at least there is not as disproportionate an imbalance as initially predicted. Russia's strategy has been adapting to these circumstances by attacking important targets such as residential areas, gas stations, access roads, and has shown a certain urgency in putting a brake on Ukrainian resistance. test is the seizure of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe.

Scaling to de-escalate

The escalation of hostilities, coupled with the nuclear threat, also brings to mind the old doctrine of 'escalate to de-escalate', which would mean resorting to a nuclear strike to end a conventional war. In 2020, the Kremlin published for the first time a presidential decree specifying Russia's nuclear doctrine and setting out a number of scenarios in which it would be prepared to use nuclear weapons. In the face of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and Putin's rhetoric, reference letter is particularly relevant to the possible use of nuclear weapons in the face of conventional aggression when the very existence of the Russian state is in danger. However, it depends on what the Kremlin considers 'aggression' and 'danger', what it perceives as a risk.

In this context, it is difficult to forget, now more than ever, the impact of the US nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on that fateful 6 and 9 August 1945. All the more so given the far greater power of today's nuclear weapons. Therefore, Putin's authorisation of the use of nuclear weapons also depends on the political and military goal that the Kremlin has established.

Russia's interest in destroying Ukraine is indeed questionable, while occupation of the territory seems a more realistic goal. The use of the nuclear bomb would pose a danger to the Russian state itself, which would suffer the consequences of radioactivity from the explosion, and would make it difficult to incorporate the Ukrainian territory into Russia. resource A limited nuclear war with less powerful tactical nuclear weapons to force the Ukrainian resistance to surrender and negotiate a agreement favourable to Russia would then be possible. In any case, a limited demonstration of Russian nuclear force would not prevent the possible escalation of the conflict into a global nuclear war.

We do not know what exactly 'winning' means for Putin and how far he is willing to go to achieve his insistent goal of 'denazifying' Ukraine. However, despite this pessimistic scenario, the nuclear threat is still hypothetical.

The Kremlin's rhetoric is rather a political speech of intimidation to force Ukraine - and the West - to yield at the negotiating table. However, Western unity in the face of Russia's invasion of Ukraine is sample stronger than ever. So, while there is no consolation in the face of the humanitarian catastrophe we are witnessing, a nuclear scenario seems a remote option. Or so we would like to believe.