Fears of a Russian nuclear attack following Putin’s memorable February 24, 2022 declaration of war against Ukraine have fuelled a renaissance of nuclear deterrence and calls for nuclear armament in Europe. Many believe that Russia’s war of aggression was possible because Ukraine had renounced nuclear weapons and deterrence. Consequently, it is argued, nuclear sharing in NATO must now be strengthened and the readiness of nuclear forces in Germany be increased.
In fact, Ukraine itself has never possessed nuclear weapons. Rather, they were Soviet warheads stationed there, which Kiev could not dispose of independently and which were dismantled after the collapse of the communist regime during a comprehensive mutual disarmament phase. Explaining Putin’s inhumane war in terms of a lack of nuclear deterrence falls short. It would mean that the only reliable protection against military incursions would be the nuclear arming of all states. This is a dubious argument that has been used in the past, especially by authoritarian states such as North Korea and Iran to justify violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If one follows this logic, Putin would soon not be the only tyrant who satisfies his hunger for power by nuclear means.
No, Putin’s nuclear shielding of a war of aggression is not proof of the peace-bringing blessings of nuclear weapons. Rather it shows the destabilizing and deadly consequences of extending and de-limiting nuclear deterrence. It reveals the impossibility of ensuring responsible use of nuclear weapons by “nuclear grammar,” strategic balance, and other calculation models. Much has been missed in recent years, but there has been no failure to upgrade the nuclear forces and secure their competitiveness. All nuclear powers – except Israel (presumably) – invest to further develop their nuclear force de frappe. Not only Russia, but also the U.S. is continually modernizing its arsenals and expanding its delivery systems. So are France and Great Britain, with London even expanding its nuclear forces in numbers.
The two largest nuclear powers not only increased the operational capability of their hardware. With the exception of the Obama administration, they have also expanded their doctrines. Today these include attacks other than those with weapons of mass destruction as possible scenarios for a nuclear response. Conventional strikes by the adversary can also justify a nuclear response and first use if they threaten Russia’s or the U.S.’s own diffusely defined national existence. Washington and Moscow therefore increasingly acquired capabilities for supposedly limited nuclear warfare on foreign territory. Russia’s nuclear-secured war of aggression macabrely continues this de-limitation of nuclear deterrence and reveals its inherent perversion.
Expanding Nuclear Deterrence Confirms Putins Narrative
Putin so far lacked the necessary “glacis,” the allied nuclear battlefield, for credible deterrence through a proxy-war scenario. To be sure, the Biden administration is far from even contemplating a nuclear proxy war in Europe. But the deterrence gap in Russia’s nuclear arsenal for such a scenario is one of the little noticed strategic motivations for Putin’s military expansion and missile tests in Belarus and invasion of Ukraine. If NATO were to respond by expanding its nuclear deterrent, such as by deploying U.S. nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe, it would be tantamount to confirming the Russian narrative and could thus pave the way to a third world war. How should it respond instead to Putin’s imperial misuse of nuclear weapons? What conclusions are to be drawn from Russia’s shattering of the nuclear common sense?
When a common understanding of nuclear deterrence is gone, predictability is also lost. The U.S., NATO and the German government have recognized this and made clear efforts to de-escalate and denuclearize the Ukraine war. The danger of nuclear war in Europe is real. Therefore, in terms of realpolitik, it is imperative not to let Putin drag us into nuclear confrontation. Despite all hostility and resolute support for Ukraine, high-level military contacts between the U.S. and Russia, as well as telephone calls between European leaders and the ruler in the Kremlin, remain indispensable. The five nuclear powers recognized in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, including Russia, jointly declared in January that a nuclear war cannot be won and therefore must never be waged. From all sides, in the United Nations and as far as possible in cooperation with states that support Russia, this declaration must be remembered and Moscow must be held to account.
Avoiding the Point of No Return
Just a few months ago, the Biden administration intended to initiate a turnaround in U.S. nuclear doctrine, limiting possible deployments to the single event (“sole purpose”) of an adversary launching or imminent nuclear attack. Tragically, the current climate of debate in the United States and most European countries makes such a revision difficult. Yet the war in Ukraine shows that it is needed as never before in terms of security policy. The German government should therefore advocate in the alliance against any extensive definition of nuclear deterrence and advance a policy of restrictive nuclear defensibility. The U.S. and NATO should also explicitly keep open the possibility of a non-nuclear response to a nuclear strike The United States has appropriate conventional capabilities to take advantage of such ambiguity. To this end, conventional forces on the eastern flank must also be expanded.
In this way, the West might be able to reverse the momentum. In doing so, it would gain greater diplomatic and military flexibility and room for maneuver in dealing with the Russian nuclear threat. The risks of a nuclear proxy war in Europe could be reduced. Especially stationing countries of U.S. nuclear weapons such as Germany would benefit from that. The warheads deployed exclusively for such scenarios would be potentially available as bargaining chips to prevent a Soviet-style nuclear sharing by Belarus and to gain greater concessions by Russia for Ukraine. The viability of the U.S. nuclear umbrella and option to respond by nuclear means can be preserved. That Russia is currently showing weakness should not divert us from the dual strategy of resolutely supporting Ukraine and stopping Russia on the one hand and limiting the war in Ukraine and pursuing a policy of nuclear restraint on the other. Rather, Russia’s weakness must be used to negotiate and end the war with the maximum possible concessions to avoid a point of no return and extensive resort to weapons of mass destruction.
This text was first published as a guest article on welt.de on April 14, 2022. Please find the German language version on PRIF Blog.