War in Ukraine: The nuclear dimension
April 1, 2022
[ Suresh Chandra Mohanty ]
Nuclear weapons have never been used since World War II, apparently because deterrence worked during the Cold War and thereafter. The parties to a conflict were conscious of mutual vulnerabilities, wary of unintended consequences and convinced that a nuclear war should never be fought as it can’t be won. The war in Ukraine is being fought between two unequal neighbours, both in the conventional and the nuclear dimensions, yet, with a nuclear overhang to deter the NATO countries, including the US, from any interference. With the launch of the special military operations in Ukraine, as Russia termed it, on 24 February, President Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces to move to a higher state of alert. Three days later, the nuclear forces were supposedly put on a special regime of combat duty. Over the past 36 days of the conflict, the threat has been sporadically reiterated in suspicion of active Western support. The deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev on 26 March this year reiterated Russia’s intention to use nuclear weapons if the country faced an existential threat, though intelligence reports do not indicate credible mobilisation of nuclear forces that would constitute an intention for weapon use.
Ukraine surrendered its third largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in 1994 in exchange for security guarantees by Russia, the UK and the US. Currently it neither has the weapon nor the technological expertise, financial might or capability to develop nuclear weapons. Given the conventional and nuclear asymmetry, the existential threat to Russia most certainly cannot come from Ukraine. What could then be the possible circumstances that could constitute an existential threat to Russia, forcing it to use nuclear weapons? One: if Russia faces an imminent humiliating defeat and is unable to achieve all or a substantial combination of its politico-military objectives (to include formal integration of Crimea, and independence of Donbas region and its subsequent integration with Russia), neutrality of Ukraine and demilitarisation of its armed forces. As it stands, on the 36th day of the conflict, Russia seems to have substantially achieved its perceived objectives, except probably demilitarisation against steadfast resistance by Ukranian forces in the major cities, which is a work in progress.
Two, if the NATO, including the USA, joins the battle either in the garb of or in response to Russia using chemical/biological weapons or tactical nuclear weapon (limited in terms of range and effect) as a desperate measure to capture major population centres where it seems to have suffered a setback.
Three: experts also feel that Russia may ‘escalate to deescalate’, not necessarily a Russian concept of warfare. With multiple rounds of talks not yielding the desired result against heavy bombardment of multiple cities with relentless rockets, missiles and artillery attacks to force Ukraine to its terms of ceasefire, while at the same time, Russian troops and equipment suffering significant damage, might instigate the weapon of last resort as part of escalatory continuum to compel complete subjugation. In the beginning of the campaign, Russia did not use a bulk of its vastly superior air power to shape the battle space for a ground offensive, assuming quick capitulation. Towards mid-March, it progressively embarked on massive escalation in bombardment of cities, including use of Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, apparently to force a ceasefire on its terms, which is still elusive.
Nuclear brinkmanship could also be designed to restrain the NATO forces from providing lethal offensive weapons and joining the war surreptitiously, which would prevent Russia from achieving its geopolitical aims. This deterrence strategy seems to have succeeded. First, the US dithered in providing Polish MIG 29 fighter aircraft to Ukraine through the NATO airbase in Germany despite desperate pleas by President Zelenskyy. Second, persistent refusal to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine and in the fear of a direct confrontation with Russia, and third: emboldened by such a stance and undeterred by sanctions, Russia continues to devastate Ukraine by relentless bombing of both military and non-military targets, including extending the envelope to the western Ukraine city of Lviv, close to the Polish border, with utter disregard for Joe Biden’s presence in Warsaw.
Nuclear deterrence has played a defining role in geopolitics, substantiating the ‘stability- instability paradox’. While nuclear weapons promote strategic stability and prevent large-scale wars due to their devastating and irreversible impact, they allow window for low intensity conflicts. When one state has nuclear weapons and the opponent doesn’t, there is a greater chance of conflict (as in the case of Russia-Ukraine). Pakistan, till of late, played its nuclear card well to continue its proxy war against India and deter a large-scale conventional retribution which could have been disadvantageous to her, given the conventional asymmetry enjoyed by India. Though Lt Gen Khalid Kidwai, the former spearhead of the strategic plans division, articulated Pakistan’s nuclear threshold as loss of large tracts of territory, significant destruction of war waging potential and economic strangulation, successive articulation by both political and military leaders indicated a much lower threshold in response to India’s cold start and proactive doctrine. Indeed, it is apparently Pakistan’s successful nuclear rhetoric that deterred Indian conventional response to Pakistan’s involvement in the Parliament attack in 2001 despite massive mobilisation (Operation Parakram) and confining Indian attacks to its own side of the line of control despite preventive casualties during Operation Vijay in 1999. Further, India also toyed with the idea of a shallow theatre offensive in 2001 to create space for conventional conflict below nuclear threshold. All this till Pakistan’s nuclear bluff was called out by Indian surgical offensive across the LAC in 2016 and the Balakot strike in 2019.
Compare the US strategy against Iraq vis-à-vis North Korea. The US seems to have been convinced that Iraq didn’t possess nuclear weapons when it invaded, though the justification could have been intentionally obfuscated. North Korea has continued to aggressively display its nuclear prowess against a hamstrung US response. Ironically, nuclear armed states can only bully non-nuclear states.
To give credence to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in his response to clarify comments from Dmitry Medvedev, “existence of the state and special military operations in Ukraine have nothing to do with each other.” Unless the NATO engages itself directly in the conflict, Russia is unlikely to use nuclear weapons since it is capable of achieving its stated objectives without its use. However, nuclear deterrence will continue to be the edifice of diplomatic statecraft in the evolving renaissance in the world order, realignments, military technology and deft strategic thinking. (Maj Gen Suresh Chandra Mohanty is security adviser to GoAP.)