Tuesday, February 28, 2023

What the War in Ukraine Has Revealed About Nuclear Weapons

From Nina Tannenwald, at Foreign Affairs, "The Bomb in the Background":

In a major speech this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he was suspending his country’s participation in the New START treaty, Russia’s only remaining major nuclear arms control agreement with the United States. He also threatened to resume nuclear weapons tests. The declarations sent jitters through the international community. These actions constituted yet another example of Putin’s willingness to leverage his nuclear arsenal, dangling it like the sword of Damocles over the West in order to limit NATO’s support for Ukraine.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine last February, Russian leaders have issued numerous explicit nuclear threats against Ukraine and NATO. In April, Putin promised to respond to outside intervention in the conflict with “swift, lightning fast” retribution. “We have all the tools for this,” he added, “ones that no one can brag about.” So far, however, there has been no significant or observable change in the operational readiness of nuclear weapons in either Russia or in Western countries.

Some observers see Russia’s decision to not use nuclear weapons yet as proof that it will never do so. But that assessment assumes Putin is a rational actor and would not risk the calamity and the pariah status that would follow any Russian deployment of such a weapon. Unfortunately, it is far from clear that Russia’s nuclear brinkmanship is mere bluffing. Moreover, nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine are not remarkable in their absence, but rather in how they frame the conflict. By deterring the greater intervention of NATO, the Russian nuclear arsenal has helped prolong the war and make any conventional resolution to the fighting more difficult to attain. The conflict in Ukraine is no doubt the most dangerous nuclear confrontation since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. As the past year of carnage and bluster has shown, nuclear weapons wield devastating power even as they remain locked in their silos—and governments need to reinforce the taboo against their use.


In the context of the Ukraine war, nuclear weapons have mostly benefited Russia. Putin has invoked his nuclear might to deter NATO from any military intervention on Ukraine’s behalf. That deterrence has worked: the West is (rationally) unwilling to enter the war directly or even to give Ukraine long-range firepower that could reach far into Russia, for fear that such help could end up sparking an apocalyptic nuclear conflict. As a result, the war will likely last longer than it would have if the West entered the fray. A longer war will lead to many more deaths and further destruction. Were nuclear weapons not in the calculus, the United States and NATO would be able to employ their superior conventional firepower more effectively in Ukraine’s defense to win the war quickly. But Putin’s nukes neutralize the West’s conventional military superiority.

It is also possible that Russia’s nuclear weapons emboldened Putin to invade in the first place, because he would not have attacked Ukraine without a way of keeping the United States and NATO out of the war. Of course, Putin acutely misjudged the relative strength of the Russian military. But Russian leaders are aware of their conventional military’s inferiority to that of the West. The fact that Russian leaders issued so many explicit nuclear threats suggests that they saw their nuclear arsenal as a way of compensating.

To be sure, the nuclear weapons in the arsenals of several NATO member states presumably have deterred Russia from expanding the war to NATO countries, such as Poland, Romania, or the Baltic states. In this regard, nuclear deterrence has clearly helped prevent a wider war.

But it has also prolonged the conventional war, at greater cost to everyone, especially the Ukrainian people. A grinding, brutal war of attrition could persist for a long time, with no side able to land a definitive knockout blow. In such a war, Russia maintains a significant advantage over Ukraine by virtue of its much bigger population and larger military.


Some Western analysts suggest that the United States and NATO should call the Kremlin’s bluff—they should more forthrightly back the Ukrainians and drive Russian forces out of Ukraine. Russian leaders have repeatedly warned of escalation if the West keeps arming Ukraine, but, the argument goes, the Kremlin will not actually resort to nuclear weapons and break the taboo regarding their use. As a result, many observers, mostly outside government, are taking a cavalier approach to the risk of nuclear escalation.

Some pundits take the fact that Putin has not used nuclear weapons after a year of embarrassing military defeats as evidence that he will not use a nuclear weapon in the future. They argue that the West should do whatever it takes to support Ukraine. They criticize U.S. President Joe Biden for declining to send advanced military equipment to Ukraine and deride the supposed defeatists who fret about escalation. “The greatest nuclear threat we face is a Russian victory,” the journalist Eric Schlosser wrote in January in The Atlantic. The historian Timothy Snyder, one of the most perceptive observers of the war, has dismissed Russian threats as mere “talk” designed to scare the West. In February, he went so far as to mock people concerned about nuclear escalation, writing that discussions of the risks of nuclear war are mere media “clickbait” and “a way to claim victimhood” and “blame the actual victims.” But some close observers of Putin, such as the writer Masha Gessen, disagree. They are much less sanguine about Putin’s rationality. In the warped worldview of the Russian president, Gessen has argued, the use of nuclear weapons could be justified as a rational course of action...

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