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Making Assumptions About the Future of Russia and the Russian War Against Ukraine – the Nuclear Factor

Aug 03, 2023

Assumptions about the global implications of the war are important for every enterprise or person involved in cooperative or other relationships worldwide. In this context, it is necessary also for those not following in detail the military development in and around Ukraine and Russia to acquire a basic understanding of what is currently at stake.

Against this background, the intensified public debate, which has been taking place in Russia over the summer about Russian options for the future, illustrates the complexities of the current situation and the difficulties of making simple forecasts. The situation clearly has escalated – not least by the declared deployment of nuclear weapons to Belarus. The debate did, of course not start this summer. It has been going on a larger scale since 2014 (when nuclear weapons were printed on t-shirts with positive text). More intense since Putin threatened nuclear weapons in his declaration of war on February 24, 2022. Also, every self-respecting talk show since February 24, 2022, has advocated Russian nuclear weapons use. In this way public opinion has been accustomed to nuclear weapons.


An article by Sergey Karaganov, a political scientist infamous for his extreme views in different directions provoked an unusual number of strong reactions – for and against. He argued that Russia cannot win the war unless it demonstrates an evident willingness to use tactical nuclear weapons not only against Ukraine but selected European states. As a first preparatory measure, significant steps along the escalation ladder towards nuclear war should be taken on the assumption that the West will be unable/unwilling to respond. Yes, Russia will have to expect severe condemnations from the West and the rest of the world, including China and India. But in the end, it is the victor in the war who decides what is right or wrong. Russia has a divine duty to defend its place in history. Several prominent commentators aligned in the debate with Karaganov, arguing the need to create genuine fear in the West.


To be expected, this argumentation has been refuted, not only by Putin himself but also by several nuclear and strategic experts in Russia, notably Alexey Arbatov, who even goes so far as to ridicule the argumentation as being amateurish in the analysis of the dynamics of nuclear escalation:


  • Essentially, the debate focuses on the notion of the nuclear taboo, which has been in place and respected since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Once that taboo has been broken, no one can control the further dynamics of escalation.


  • And once Russia takes steps as advocated by Karaganov (for instance, by evacuating Russians and Belarusians from the areas to prepare for launching a tactical nuclear weapon) -  this will be known to the adversary,  crushing pre-emptive Western strikes can be expected using precision conventional weapons.


  • The argument favoring nuclear weapons use also fundamentally underestimates the resilience of the Ukrainian people and those countries with horrendous war experiences, such as Poland.


  • Since the first Iraq war, military forces have learned to disperse to avoid tactical nuclear weapons and more devastating, conventional precision munitions. Arguably no nuclear targets exist in Ukraine, which would bring Russia closer to victory.


  • And as for the West, it is argued that using tactical nuclear weapons on the part of Russia would open the gates for an overwhelming onslaught using conventional weapons against Russian assets, including the Baltic and Black Sea navies.


  • And for the over 100 states outside the West that have signed up to prohibit nuclear weapons, this would turn Russia into a toxic actor in the international arena with whom no one could afford to interact.


  • Nuclear weapon states such as China, Pakistan, and India, which do not feel secure on their present level of nuclear and conventional capabilities, face atomic threats from their neighbors. Breaking the nuclear taboo would mean a forceful destabilization of their security.


  • And for all those states contemplating acquiring nuclear weapons of their own - currently, nine such states are openly discussed in Moscow, including Japan and South Korea, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. This would be the final convincing argument that no agreements on paper are valid proof of security.


So far, the criticism against Karaganov from Arbatov In sum these diverse arguments, of course, represent a very different take than if one would start from the notion that the use of relatively low yield tactical nuclear weapons do not necessarily have dramatic effects beyond a very limited area.


Putin and the Russian government have repeatedly confirmed the intention to stick to the declaration by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council in early 2022:


"We affirm that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. As nuclear use would have far-reaching consequences, we also affirm that nuclear weapons—for as long as they continue to exist—should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war."

At the same time Putin – after having rejected the notion of nuclear use and clearly, with the intention of creating continued uncertainty - added:

“For Russia, it is possible if there is a threat to our territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty, an existential threat to the Russian state. Nuclear weapons are created to ensure our security, in the broadest sense of the word, and the existence of the Russian state.”


Given the fact that also the American President takes the nuclear threat seriously there is a need to considerably elevate the attention to current developments, which may fundamentally influence trust in international stability over the coming months and possibly years.


It is, against this background important also for the private sector to maintain caution when it comes to engagements which may be affected severely by the military situation in and around Russia.


Enormous attention by analysts in the West is currently devoted to inferring the intentions of Putin and, indeed, of the Chinese leader Xi. But no one has so far been able to put forward a convincing argument describing the bottom line of these two leaders. Experiences from the Cuban missile crisis show that leaders’ perceptions and intentions may shift considerably from one hour to the next.


There is a need to raise the general knowledge among military and security policy experts as demonstrated by several public training sessions produced by American and other thinktanks and led by high level NATO military experts. A case in point is a recent video by Jamestown with the title “Demystifying Russia’s Tactical Nukes and Raising the West’s Nuclear IQ”.


Lars-Erik Lundin