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Russia-Ukraine Crisis From A Nuclear Prism


Author: Mr Abhishek Saxena, Research Associate, CAPS

Keywords: Russia-Ukraine Crisis, Russian Nuclear Strategy, NATO Nuclear Strategy, Stability-Instability Paradox, Great Power Competition.

The Russian invasion (“special military operation”) of Ukraine, an inherently conventional military operation carried out under the veiled nuclear threat to deter external intervention, has significant implications for deterrence theory and non-proliferation regime. The argument that Ukrainian nuclear weapons might have deterred the Russian military invasion sends a clear signal to states like North Korea and Iran not to give up nuclear weapons and keep hedging. The closing gap between the conventional capabilities of Russia and NATO and the Russian demonstration of conventional military power might cause NATO countries to argue for an increased role of nuclear weapons in NATO’s military strategy. Also, Russia’s invoking nuclear weapons in a regional crisis indicates the growing significance of nuclear weapons for the emerging great power competition.

Nuclear Rationale

At 5 am (Ukrainian time) on February 24, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. What was initially anticipated by Russia to be an unchallenging military adventure is building up to be a challenging and long-lasting military standoff as Russian troops are making much slower progress and facing mounting casualties.[1] In a thinly veiled nuclear threat, President Putin warned that any external interference would be “responded immediately” and will have unprecedented consequences.[2] As western countries swiftly imposed economic sanctions[3] on Russia and transferred weapons and ammunition to Ukraine[4], Putin responded by increasing the readiness of Russian deterrence forces, putting nuclear command and control on ’special service regime’.[5]

      The nuclear brinkmanship demonstrated by Russia is a classic case of the stability-instability paradox.[6] The cold war era concept argues that nuclear and conventional military balances are interrelated and interact in a manner such that the stability at the strategic balance of terror lowers the stability at the conventional level of violence and vice-versa.[7] By signalling that any western intervention might lead to nuclear catastrophe, Russia is exploiting the nuclear stability—lack of incentive to carry out nuclear first strike or mutual assured destruction (MAD)—to carry out conventional military operation. It is unlikely that Russia would use nuclear weapons against Ukraine or the United States; but it is trying to scare the west to back down through intimidation.[8] Fortunately, the West understands Russian coercive tactics and has not raised the nuclear alert levels quite sensibly.[9]

What if Ukraine had Nuclear Weapons?

The argument that if Ukraine had not given up the nuclear arsenal (under Budapest Memorandum) inherited from the former Soviet Union after the dissolution of the USSR; the Russians would not have invaded Ukraine.[10] In other words, nuclear-armed Ukraine would have deterred Russia from launching a military invasion. Experts take the above argument with scepticism since Ukraine never had control over the nuclear weapons stationed on its territory; Russia had the launch codes.[11] Also, it would have cost Ukraine quite a bit, both economically and in terms of international political repercussions, to hold on to nuclear weapons.[12]

        Irrespective of what might have happened if Ukraine had nuclear weapons, the ill-informed debate has vital lessons for nuclear pariah states, nuclear hedgers, and nuclear aspirants: Nuclear pariah states like North Korea will reach the conclusion that they must never give up the nuclear button; Nuclear hedgers like Iran will conclude that they must keep hedging against the development of nuclear weapons; and the countries facing severe security concerns (such as South Korea, Japan, and Saudi Arabia) will intensify efforts in the direction of building nuclear weapons—the ultimate guarantor of state’s security. Thus, the ongoing Russian military operation in Ukraine sets a wrong precedent for the nuclear non-proliferation regime.[13] As aptly argued by a columnist in Bloomberg, “Putin has taught them that to disarm is a mistake, no matter what you’re promised, because sooner or later you’ll encounter somebody, well, like him.”[14]

Russian conventional capabilities and NATO’s nuclear strategy

Western European countries lived under the constant threat of military invasion from their conventionally superior adversary—the Soviet Union—during the Cold War. To deter an imminent conventional attack from its communist neighbour, NATO adopted the flexible response strategy in 1967.[15] The strategy was designed to enhance deterrence at all levels: conventional, tactical, and strategic―by providing flexible nuclear response options. It envisioned asymmetrical response options against a large-scale conventional invasion by the Soviet Union. The centrality of nuclear weapons in NATO’s military strategy reduced after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The successor of the Soviet Union—the Russian Federation—was conventionally distraught and no match against the conventional capabilities of NATO.

       The demonstration of western conventional strike capabilities during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and, more recently, the under-par performance of Russian conventional forces during the Georgia war produced a significant wake-up call and triggered the modernisation of Russian conventional forces.[16] The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and the intervention in Syria from 2015 demonstrated Russia’s modernised conventional capabilities. Russia has also shown its modern conventional military power in the ongoing “special military operation” in Ukraine.[17] As Russia has closed the conventional gap with NATO and demonstrated enhanced conventional strike capabilities, some NATO countries might argue for increasing the prominence of nuclear weapons in NATO’s defence strategy.

Nuclear weapons and great power competition

Nuclear weapons were central to the cold war competition. During the cold war, the idea of strategic stability revolved around nuclear parity or the nuclear balance of forces between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, with the end of the cold war and the dissolution of the USSR, nuclear weapons lost pre-eminence, and the focus shifted to conventional precision strike weapons. With the re-emergence of great power competition, nuclear weapons would likely again gain prominence. The signs of the increasing importance of nuclear weapons are already visible in the nuclear strategy of the United States, Russia, and China. The fact that nuclear deterrence has been invoked even in the ongoing regional crisis would bolster the increasing importance of nuclear weapons amidst intensifying great power competition.




[1] Shashank Joshi, “The woes of the Russian war machine are big and real. Are they also temporary?”, The Economist, February 28, 2022, Accessed on February 28, 2022.

 [2] Max Fischer, “Putin’s Case for War, Annotated”, The New York Times, February 24, 2022, Accessed on February 26, 2022.

 [3] “List of sanctions against Russia after it invaded Ukraine”, Al Jazeera, March 1, 2022, Accessed on March 3, 2022; Cheryl Lyn, “Singapore to impose sanctions on Russia, including export controls and certain bank transactions: Vivian Balakrishnan”, CNA, February 28, 2022; Nick Cumming Bruce, “Switzerland says it will freeze Russian assets, setting aside a tradition of neutrality”, The New York Times, February 28, 2022, Accessed on February 28, 2022; “Sweden to send military aid to Ukraine – PM Andersson”, February 27, 2022, Accessed on February 27, 2022.

[4] “Which countries are sending military aid to Ukraine?”, Al Jazeera, February 28, 2022, Accessed on March 2, 2022; Christopher F. Schuetze, “Russia’s invasion prompts Germany to beef up military funding”, The New York Times, February 27, 2022, Accessed on February 28, 2022;

 [5] “Putin orders “special service regime” in Russia’s deterrence force”, TASS, February 27, 2022, Accessed on February 27, 2022.

[6] Caitlin Talmadge, “The Ukraine crisis is now a nuclear crisis”, The Washington Post, February 27, 2022, Accessed on March 1, 2022.

 [7] Glenn Snyder, “The Balance of Power and the Balance of Terror”, in Paul Seabury, ed., The Balance of Power, (San Francisco: Chandler). For a general understanding of the concept, see Rajesh Rajagopalan, “What Stability-Instability Paradox? Subnational Conflicts and the Nuclear Risk in South Asia”, South Asian Strategic Study Unit, Research Paper No. 4 (2006), Accessed on March 2, 2022.

[8] Heather Williams, “Putin is a Nuclear Bully”, RUSI, March 1, 2022, Accessed on March 3, 2022.

 [9] Joe Gould, “No Changes Coming to U.S. Nuclear Posture After Russian Threat”, RealClearDefense, March 2, 2022, Accessed on February 3, 2022.

 [10] William J. Broad, “Ukraine Gave Up a Giant Nuclear Arsenal 30 Years Ago. Today There Are Regrets.The New York Times, February 5, 2022, Accessed on February 17, 2022.

[11] Cheryl Rofer, “Could Ukraine Have Retained Soviet Nuclear Weapons?” Nuclear Diner, February 7, 2022, Accessed on February 17, 2022.

[12] Mariana Budjeryn, “Why Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons — and what that means in an invasion by Russia”, NPR, February 21, 2022, Accessed on February 23, 2022.

[13] Paul Iddon, “Ukraine’s fate puts a big question mark over nuclear disarmament efforts”, Arab News, February 28, 2022, Accessed on March 2, 2022.

[14] Andreas Kluth, “Putin Has Unleashed a New Age of Nuclear Proliferation”, Bloomberg, March 2, 2022, Accessed on March 3, 2022.

 [15] John S. Duffield, “The Evolution of NATO’s Strategy of Flexible Response: A Reinterpretation”, Security Studies, vol. 1, no. 1 (1991), pp. 132-156.

[16] Roger N. McDermott & Tor Bukkvoll, “Tools of Future Wars — Russia is Entering the Precision-Strike Regime”, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, vol. 31, no. 2 (2018), pp. 191-213, Accessed on December 24, 2021; Bettina Renz, “Why Russia is Reviving Its Conventional Military Power,” Parameters, vol. 46, no. 2 (2016), Accessed on December 21, 2021.

[17] For example, see the list of modern long-range strike systems used by Russia in Ukraine (prepared by CSIS Missile Defense Project):


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