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Friday, June 7, 2024

A challenge to Nuclear Taboo

Countries developed a taboo against the use of nuclear weapons, coming to understand them as so horrific as to be essentially unusable except in the most extreme cases of last resort. But recent events—most notably Putin’s attempt to use nuclear threats to hold the world hostage as he wages war on Ukraine—are calling into question the future of this taboo.

By the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons were thought to have become military artifacts. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has challenged the discourse that in modern statecraft, nuclear weapons are less useful tools. But the nuclear saber-rattling by Russia challenges this claim that complete nuclear disarmament is improbable. The taboo on nuclear disarmament has vanished. The Russo-Ukraine war has shown the importance of nuclear deterrence.

The Russian defense ministry spokesperson stated in a press briefing in August that “Russia can use nuclear weapons if it is attacked with nuclear weapons or its existence is threatened.” President Putin has also threatened that “Moscow will use nuclear weapons to defend its sovereignty”.  The official nuclear posture of Moscow is that “the use of the nuclear arsenal is possible only in response to an attack as a self-defense measure and in extreme circumstances.”

The recent counter-offensive of Ukrainian armed forces compelled the Russian army to retreat from the Kharkiv region. The choices for the Russian President have become bleak. Either, Putin needs to prolong the war till winter or accept a humiliating defeat. But if the military front cannot be stabilized then Putin will go for drastic options like using nuclear weapons.

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Understanding the matter better

Nuclear weapons make wars costly for states and due to fear of “mutual assured destruction” states do not go for nuclear options during the conflict. But Herman Kahn criticized the “theory of mutual homicide,” which states that mutual annihilation in the case of nuclear war makes the leaders think that it is insane to start such a war. This theory is successful in deterring a nuclear war only if both parties to the conflict accept it completely. It is not surprising to know that Russians view this concept of “mutually assured destruction” with skepticism. Soviets neither conceived themselves as deterred nor embraced this concept. This traditional view of MAD has not changed among Russians either.

Some analysts argue that if Ukraine had nuclear deterrence, then Russia would never have invaded Ukraine. The nuclear disarmament by Ukraine in 1994 was a blunder. Ukraine gave up the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal in exchange for security guarantees from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. While writing in Foreign Affairs in 1993, Mearsheimer argued that Ukraine must have nuclear deterrence. It was necessary for Ukraine to have nuclear deterrence in the presence of a powerful nuclear state, Russia, in its backyard. Ukraine cannot rely on conventional deterrence against Russia because Kyiv is no match for Moscow in terms of conventional symmetry. In addition to this, the guarantees given by western nations to Ukraine seemed theoretically perfect, but this was never a practical strategy.

Nuclear weapons reduce the possibility of international conflict. During 1900-1945, around 50 million Europeans died in two major wars while in the Cold War, from 1945-1990, only 15,000 people died. The reason for this reduction in the number of deaths was the presence of nuclear weapons in hands of both major players US and the USSR.

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Nuclear weapons have sobering and pacifying impacts

It is not to argue that the presence of nuclear weapons completely ends the chances of conflicts rather there will be conflicts fought at the conventional level. This leads to the “stability-instability paradox” which means “stability at nuclear level breeds instability at conventional level”.

Nuclear weapons help to achieve political goals. The Russian rhetorical use of nuclear weapons is to deter the interference of western countries in Ukraine which is the major aim of Moscow. Moscow can use smaller and less powerful nuclear weapons in the ongoing crisis. The statement of the Russian President regarding the involvement of third parties and the threat of unprecedented consequences made analysts think that Moscow might use nuclear weapons. Sergei Lavrov, in March, argued that the third world war would be fought with nuclear weapons.

Russia wants to win this ongoing war with Ukraine, which means that it can use nuclear weapons when faced with an odd situation. While talking about Ukraine’s attack on the Russian-controlled nuclear plant, Zaporizhzhya, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev argued that “the European Union also has nuclear power plants. And accidents can happen there, too. “In the event of any such attack, the US will enter the war due to a responsibility to protect as enshrined in NATO’s charter. Mearsheimer gave three scenarios where Putin could order the use of nuclear weapons. First, if NATO or the US intervenes in the conflict; second, if Kyiv takes back its lost territory; and finally, if war becomes costly for Moscow and a protracted stalemate occurs, then due to domestic backlash to end the war, Putin might use nuclear weapons.

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To conclude, once a nuclear weapon of any kind is used, it will lead to an all-out nuclear war. Both the US and Russia will try to avoid it, but given the situation and the degree to which both have tied their reputations to the outcome of this conflict, one cannot ignore the possibility of nuclear weapons. Nuclear deterrence is important to ensure the security of the state.


The writer is working as a Junior Research Assistant at the Institute of strategic studies Islamabad. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.