Author: Dr Manpreet Sethi, Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies
Keywords: Putin, Russia, Ukraine, Recapture, Nuclear
Many tactical developments have swiftly taken place in the last month in the theatre of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. First, in the early part of September, Ukraine claimed that it had inflicted a series of defeats and heavy losses on Russia by recapturing 1000 sq. km of territory and 20 villages in its south and east. In response, on September 21, President Putin ordered a ‘partial mobilization,’ increased funding for weapons production, and support for referendums in four Russian-occupied regions. He also reiterated that Moscow would defend its interests ‘by all means.’ These words have been widely and seriously interpreted as a signal towards the use of nuclear weapons.
Given President Putin’s propensity for taking actions that were considered unthinkable just eight months ago, it is difficult to assert that the possibility of the deliberate use of nuclear weapons by Russia is zero. No one had imagined that a full-scale land invasion in violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of another nation was possible in Europe in the 21st century. Putin made it happen. Now, would he go as far as using nuclear weapons in a premeditated, rationally thought-out action?
Going purely by logic, the actual use of nuclear weapons looks problematic owing to the difficulty of finding the right target. If Russia chooses to use them in Ukraine, a country that Putin wants to annex, then it would amount to capturing a radioactive wasteland that will have to be looked after for years. Meanwhile, if Russia uses nuclear weapons against another European nation that is a NATO ally, it would bring the wrath of nuclear NATO upon itself. Nuclear retaliation, then, would nullify the gains Russia may seek with the first use. So, the well-thought-out use of nuclear weapons to gain politico-military objectives appears difficult and even dangerously foolish. However, the inadvertent use of the weapon due to miscalculation, misperception, or accident cannot be dismissed, especially if Russia raises nuclear alert levels to a situation where the authority to use low-yield weapons is delegated to battlefield commanders. Given that tensions are high, disinformation campaigns are intensifying the fog of war, the country’s actions may make it stumble into nuclear use.
In case nuclear weapons do get used, deliberately or inadvertently, they could impact the global nuclear future in at least two ways. One possible scenario may involve the use of a low-yield, so-called tactical nuclear weapon, against a military target to signal the resolve to further escalate if Ukraine/West don’t surrender. US/NATO have been contemplating their optimum response to such use. Most Western analyses, including statements by former milipotary officials of the USA, recommend a non-nuclear but overwhelming conventional resnse against Russia. If that really happens, the conflict would most likely expand, with the US and its European allies directly sucked into it. The risk of a large-scale conventional conflict acquiring more ominous nuclear overtones would remain, though the can of nuclear use might get kicked further down the road.
Meanwhile, if first nuclear use begets no nuclear retaliation, a frightening consequence could lie ahead. While such a response from the West would ensure containment of the nuclear conflict and thus rescue the world from severe nuclear damage, it would nevertheless, carry the risk of normalising the use of such weapons in future conflicts too. This would be a scary scenario since ‘conventionalising’ the use of nuclear weapons would open a Pandora’s box on the idea of proportionate nuclear war-fighting. Once the norm of nuclear non-use is broken, the possibility of more states resorting to such use will raise the risk of escalation in each conflict. And there can be no guarantee that such use would go unanswered every time. This would place the world in a rather precarious position.
On the other hand, if Russian nuclear use results in nuclear retaliation, the consequences would be far-reaching in economic, ecological, socio-political, and humanitarian terms. Breathless Western writings appearing by the dozens every day are convinced of the inevitability of nuclear use because of Putin’s ‘quickly closing military options.’ But is that really the case? A country of the size, military capability, and capacity of Russia can surely be expected to have more arrows in its quiver than transitioning a special military operation from partial mobilisation to nuclear use. Instead of creating a perception that President Putin is cornered, it would be better to let him feel that he has options to consider, including initiating negotiations with the ‘right’ interlocutors in the ‘right’ channel.
Meanwhile, there could be a third scenario where the conflict may end without the actual use of nuclear weapons. If this happens, two interesting lessons may be drawn. On the one hand, it could strengthen the hand of those who favour disarmament. They could use the episode to illustrate the non-utility of nuclear weapons for achieving worthwhile politico-military objectives. It would demonstrate the difficulties of finding the right target for nuclear weapons, especially when two nuclear weapon states have assured second-strike capabilities. Therefore, despite all its nuclear brinkmanship and bluster, Russia did not find it prudent to actually use the weapon for a military objective. Such a conclusion will strengthen the norm of non-use and reinforce the understanding that the nature of the weapon makes it suitable only for deterrence through retaliation. Nations may then be motivated to accept no first use as a risk reduction measure.
On the other hand, those in favour of deterrence could also use this episode to buttress their argument that the presence of nuclear weapons kept the conflict constrained. There could emerge a sense of complacency that if this conflict could be waged in the constraining shadow of nuclear weapons, and also ended without their use, so could others in the future. Hence, more may feel that retaining nuclear weapons for hedging is the right strategy.
Evidently then, whether this conflict ends with or without nuclear use, it is going to have significant consequences for proliferation, non-proliferation, deterrence, and disarmament. New lessons will be learnt in all dimensions. And, unless these lessons take us towards strengthening the norm of non-use of nuclear weapons and universal nuclear disarmament, a proliferation of nuclear risks is certainly on the anvil.
 “Russian Army suffered heavy losses, Ukrainian Army recaptured more than 1,000 sq km of land & 20 Villages,” Defence View, September 10, 2022, https://www.defenceview.in/russian-army-suffered-heavy-losses-ukrainian-army-recaptured-more-than-1000-sq-km-of-land-20-villages/. Accessed on October 5, 2022.
 Holly Ellyatt, “Putin mobilizes 300,000 troops for war in Ukraine and warns he’s not bluffing with nuclear threat,” CNBC, September 21, 2022, https://www.cnbc.com/2022/09/21/russia-ukraine-war-putin-announces-partial-military-mobilization.html. Accessed on October 5, 2022.