In the middle of the terrible human suffering on the ground in Ukraine, the frightening question is whether the war could escalate into a Nato-Russia nuclear confrontation.
On 27 February, president Vladimir Putin signalled a willingness to raise the stakes of the conflict to the nuclear level. In a televised appearance designed to intimidate the west, he ordered “the minister of defence and the chief of general staff to put deterrent forces on special combat duty”. Chillingly, three days earlier, when he had announced Russia’s “special operation”, Putin had warned those who might consider intervening in Ukraine of “consequences that you have never encountered in your history”.
The last time Russian nuclear forces went on nuclear alert was in November 1983, when Soviet decision-makers misinterpreted a Nato nuclear release exercise as a possible countdown to nuclear war. US and Nato decision-makers only discovered how frightened Soviet leaders were several months later. This knowledge had a profound influence on president Ronald Reagan’s determination to meet Mikhail Gorbachev face-to-face in Geneva in 1985, where they famously pledged that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”.
What does Putin’s decision to alert Russian nuclear forces tell us about his intentions and state of mind and would he really push the nuclear button? Reassuringly, the Russian increase in alert status has not been accompanied by overt preparations for nuclear attack, and Putin has reaffirmed the Reagan-Gorbachev statement – both bilaterally with President Biden last June at another summit in Geneva, and then as part of a P5 statement reaffirming the same commitment on 3 January.
The closest historical parallel to the current situation is the Cuban Missile Crisis that took place 60 years ago this October. The United States, in a mirror image of 1983, was the superpower that this time was on high alert (Defcon 2, the highest readiness short of nuclear war itself). By contrast, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev did not alert a single nuclear missile or bomber.
The crisis was defused and the Soviet missiles removed when president John F Kennedy committed the United States to a non-invasion pledge of Cuba and a secret deal was agreed to remove US Jupiter missiles in Turkey that so worried Khrushchev. This face-saving formula ensured that neither leader had to make a humiliating climb-down.
What characterised Kennedy and Khrushchev’s approach during the missile crisis was the view that nuclear weapons conveyed no clear political or military advantage over an opponent who had invulnerable second strike nuclear forces. There is no evidence that the US possession of a seven to one nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union emboldened Kennedy to manipulate the shared risks of nuclear conflict for political and military ends.
The key question raised by Putin’s increase in Russia’s nuclear alert status is how far he views nuclear weapons in the same way Kennedy and Khrushchev did in 1962. Or alternatively, does he view them as psychological instruments of coercion that can be manipulated for purposes of intimidation and blackmail.
Such a view has been articulated by some US nuclear strategists across the decades, but it has never shaped US-Russian behaviour in times of crisis. Is this pattern of Russian behaviour changing in the hands of Putin? If so, what are the possibilities open to the Russian leader to manipulate the shared risks of a nuclear conflict, and to what end?
One clear intention behind the Russian nuclear alert was to deter Nato from providing greater military support to Ukrainian forces. But if this was the intention, it has done nothing to stop Nato governments from shipping arms to Ukraine. That said, Nato governments have – for now – ruled out a no-fly zone, recognising the risks of escalation if Nato aircraft were to shoot down Russian aircraft entering the zone and suppress Russian air defence systems.
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The nightmare scenario is one in which Nato becomes militarily more involved in support of Ukrainian forces and this leads to Russia becoming increasingly desperate for success on the battlefield. In such a context, where Nato is an active party to the conflict, and against the backdrop of the most crippling sanctions imposed on Russia by the international community, there is the spectre, given Putin’s nuclear mindset, of him ordering the use of smaller, so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons. The goal here would be to reverse the military situation in Ukraine and shock the west into passivity, petrified that any response could lead to further nuclear use.
Nato governments, then, are on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, if they are deterred from supporting the Ukrainians militarily, then they will be accused of succumbing to Russian nuclear blackmail. Such an outcome could embolden Putin to further military adventurism. The decision over whether to transfer the Polish MiG-29 fighter jets is a key test-case here.
On the other hand, if Nato steps up its military involvement and Ukrainian forces push the Russians back militarily, then Putin may become increasingly desperate. Desperate leaders who believe the net is closing are the hardest to both deter and reassure, and if this dangerous cocktail of fear and insecurity is coupled with nuclear weapons, then all the ingredients are present for a dangerous escalation of the crisis.
The reluctant conclusion may be that reducing the risks of nuclear use depends on finding an “off-ramp” that simultaneously does not reward Putin nor leave him humiliated or desperate. Putin has core security interests at stake in this crisis and they will have to be acknowledged in any settlement. This is the lesson from the peaceful ending of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Yet in the face of a clear-cut act of Russian aggression and the appalling suffering of civilians that this has led to, a golden bridge – Sun Tzu’s famous term for a face-saving formula that preserves an opponent’s dignity and respect – may be a bridge too far.
Dr Rishi Paul is a policy fellow and programme manager at the British American Security Information Council (Basic)
Nicholas J Wheeler is a professor of international relations at the University of Birmingham and non-resident senior fellow at Basic
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