With the changing world order, major states are working relentlessly to acquire what has been seized from them in the past. The recent Russian attack on Ukraine proves the notion that states will never reiterate the injustices bestowed upon them by their rivals. Aiming to maintain the status quo and ensure security, some states acquired nuclear weapon capabilities. Since the inception of nuclear weapons in the world, they have become a sign of deterrence and of building strategic parity among the adversaries.
The current chaotic situation in Ukraine highlights the history of nuclear weapons when Ukraine possessed 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and approximately 1,240 nuclear warheads left by the Soviets after their disintegration. Could the scenario have been different if Ukraine had those nuclear weapons today? Could the possession of nuclear weapons have prevented the invasion and war, or could it have been a nuclear war?
The answer is not as simple as it seems
The Ukraine crisis imitates those major states that will try to win wars if it involves nuclear weapons. The recent statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov implies that the next world war will certainly involve nuclear weapons and major power, the US, UK, and France will be the culprits behind it. The deterrence capability of nuclear weapons halts states to take aggressive actions because of the devastating effects it possesses. Having said that, it was pertinent that the nuclear bomb destructed Hiroshima (70000–13500 casualties ) and Nagasaki (60000–80000 casualties) back in 1945.
Similarly, within the changing political order states are prone to act aggressively to the imminent threat to their national and international interests. During Cold War, the national interests of the US and USSR were formulated according to their interests. Band wagoning remained the epicenter for developing states to secure their survival. As history tends to repeat itself, the Ukraine crisis portrays that alliance is shaped in accordance with major stakeholder comforts.
The Russian attack on Ukraine is strikingly important to understanding the international political dilemma, where the arch-rivals consistently push each other to the corner time and again resulted in conflict. The West and the US tend to force Russia to accept their NATO and EU expansionism formula for Ukraine, which failed in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. This particular move by the west triggered Russia’s response as a direct attack on their national security, thus adding further fuel to the fire.
Back in 1998, US diplomat George Kennan articulated this perspective, when the US Senate approved the first round of NATO expansion. “I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies.”
Besides, there is another element that can make the ongoing conflict and future conflicts more lethal: the nuclear element. Nuclear deterrence comprises or is dependent upon three things, i.e., confirmed capability, will of response, and the adversary’s mindset. When the adversary thinks that either one of the above conditions is lacking, war erupts because deterrence fails. In the current prevailing crisis in Ukraine, major states (the US and Russia), irrespective of their bitter rivalry, know their adversary’s motives, so they are signaling their moves in clear-cut terms.
Hence, the battlefield, which is Ukraine, is suffering
According to the predominantly theoretical paradigm realism for non-nuclear armed states to seek their weaponization agenda ultimately enhances their chances of survival and improves their security parameters. However, nuclear weapons are more like a porcupine to swallow, which entails security risks, putting humanity at risk.
The debate among the non-nuclear-armed states about acquiring the nuclear capability to achieve the desired deterrence that nuclear weapons provide is overwhelmingly prone to the destructive side. The Ukraine crisis surfaced this ugly reality that states would now seriously think of allying with the nuclear-armed states would ensure their survival in a conflict, if not go down the path of nuclearization. Seemingly, if Ukraine allies with major power, which it did, it is imminent that Ukraine will suffer in the future. An African proverb deemed appropriate for the situation says that “when an elephant fights, it is the grass that suffers.”
Furthermore, if Ukraine did possess nuclear weapons, which it renounced back in the 1990s after the Budapest Memorandum, it would have been a different story. The ironclad guarantees that Ukraine demanded back while singing the agreement were all ripped to pieces when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. The current situation is no different, where powerful states’ security interests surpass those of weak states.
When guarantees by the major states do not comply with those of non-nuclear armed states, then it is certain that a nuclear element will be the key for the states to ensure their security. In this case, it will be Ukraine. However, the nuclear arming debate is not the solution because it will drag countries to the verge of no return, which seems unlikely given the already existing treaties and agreements in place. However, Ukraine will almost certainly rely on a nuclear umbrella guarantee from a major power, which in this case will be provided by the United States, or go down the path of nuclear armament.
Also, it is not in the hands of small states to go nuclear from scratch
Building and mastering a nuclear facility is an overwhelmingly difficult task, as every small state knows. Eventually, if and only if, those states are compelled to go down the road of nuclear power, things will get messy. The United Nations and other regional blocks should make sure and must sensitise the smaller nations about the pros and cons of the nuclear realm and capability.
Furthermore, conflict resolution strategies to avert the conflict altogether must be the focus of states that want to build and sustain a peaceful environment. However, if the danger persists, a state like Ukraine could go down the road of nuclearization. Also, the nuclear element that is involved in adversary relationships all around the world poses numerous challenges to the peaceful coexistence of states (like India-Pakistan, China-US, Russia-US, etc.). So, it is important that the world community must work as a whole to address the Ukraine crisis and should resort to conflict resolution strategies to avert further destruction both at the regional and international levels.
Sikandar Azam Khan is a Research Officer at Balochistan Think Tank Network (BTTN) at BUITEMS, Quetta. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.