There are two pressing questions about the war in Ukraine that must be answered. One, did the American deterrence fail? Two, is there space for war under the nuclear overhang? The answers aren’t simple. Despite huge American nuclear weapons capabilities, Russia invaded Ukraine. A nuclear war has been prevented so far but other forms of warfare are still in full swing. The nuclear risk remains high.
Ukraine is not only in trouble for its geographic location but also because it neither has nuclear weapons nor NATO’s extended deterrence. Like pre-1991 Poland, it has a geographical curse of an unwanted war in which NATO and Russia seek a pound of flesh in each other’s zone of influence. Unlike Poland, the U.S. has not provided even ambiguous nuclear insurance to Ukraine.
There is no commitment and no deterrence breakdown
In 1994, in exchange for giving up third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world to Russia, Washington and London guaranteed Ukraine’s—also Belarus and Kazakhstan—security by signing the Budapest Memorandum. Major commitments included respecting the independence and sovereignty; refraining from the threat or use of force and economic pressure; providing assistance if one of these became a victim of aggression or a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used; and refraining from the use of nuclear arms.
The U.S. has only resorted to the rhetoric of NATO’s so-called “open door policy” but has not offered membership to Ukraine. If Ukraine was a NATO ally, the U.S., UK, and France would have been bound by the Treaty’s Article-5collective defence commitment that an attack on one is an attack on all.
Some in Ukraine regret the decision to cede the country’s nuclear arsenal to Russia
Even some of the NPT’s non-nuclear-weapon States would regret giving up their sovereign right to have the ultimate deterrent. More importantly, the 30+ nations under American extended deterrence commitment would be nervous and would need reassurance whether the U.S. would sacrifice Washington for Berlin, Warsaw, The Hague, or Tokyo.
Instead of using its vast nuclear capabilities, the nuclear-armed NATO is fighting for its credibility against Russia in Ukraine by ‘other means.’Nuclear deterrence has also remained intact because the U.S. ruled out the consideration of sending American troops to Ukraine and even deploying aircraft to support the country.
NATO is effectively using a hybrid of information, economic, diplomatic, military aid and grey zone warfare to browbeat Russia. It is too soon and complicated to predict Moscow’s response if it sees an impending failure to achieve its objectives in Ukraine. What will be the tipping point? Russia’s nuclear doctrine of 2020 and its nuclear signaling over Ukraine indicate that it may walk its talk. In the document “Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence”, Moscow presented four scenarios that might force it to use nuclear weapons.
First, in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/ or its allies. Russia and the U.S. have been contesting the presence of over two-hundred biological laboratories within Ukraine that U.S. was possibly used for military research. The U.S. and allies also rejected the Russian claims of chemical weapons manufacturing facilities in Ukraine. Any use of biological or chemical weapons in Ukraine could escalate to the nuclear level.
Second, an “aggression against Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the State is [jeopardised]” is a scenario forcing Russia to use nuclear weapons. Such eventuality cannot be ruled out.
Two other scenarios that could elicit Russian nuclear response are “once it receives [confirmed] data on the launch of ballistic missiles attacking [its] territory” or an “attack against [Russian] critical governmental or military sites, [whose] disruption would undermine nuclear forces response actions.” These four scenarios must be considered to predict Russian behavior.
It is said that credibility is the magic ingredient in nuclear deterrence and the most difficult to conjure. Misreading signals between adversaries can be disastrous. In March 2022, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov warned that World War–3 can only be nuclear. In February 2022, Russia did nuclear exercises on Belarussian soil and then after a referendum, Minsk agreed to host Russian nuclear weapons, renouncing its non-nuclear status. These all are strong signals to deter NATO from foraying into the Russian zone of influence and consequences of granting Ukraine NATO membership.
Despite all warmth and commitment, the U.S. and its NATO partners have not acceded to Kyiv’s pleas for membership of the Alliance. Russia has credibly deterred NATO from putting boots on Ukrainian soil. However, NATO is successfully using other means to prevent Russia from achieving its objectives. Thus, it is easy to conclude that deterrence hangs in balance by a thread under increasing strain.
Whether nuclear overhang provides space for war, alludes to the oft-referred stability-instability paradox. Some believe that nuclear deterrence creates stability by reducing the probability of a direct war between two powers, but it also leads to instability by increasing the probability of minor or indirect conflicts. There are, however, few wrinkles in this assumption. The test of this theory holding water depends on how one defines war and sets the limits to crossing the nuclear Rubicon.
Nuclear deterrence is not a panacea to all ailments
We generally agree that it cannot deter terrorism because terrorists are not rational actors. However, some leaders charged with the responsibility to push the button aren’t responsible enough and are perceived as irrational actors. That is why there has been a raging debate in the U.S. that the nuclear buck should not stop with American president alone. Likewise, Prime Minister Modi of India has the propensity of being unstable and irrational.For instance, at the peak of crisis over Kashmir in February 2019, he threatened Pakistan with Qatal Kee Raat (night of murder).
Nuclear irresponsibility and irrationality can be a national habit
On March 11, after a wait of 48 long hours, India made history by accepting that it had “accidentally” fired the BrahMos supersonic missile inside Pakistan. It was an irresponsible act, not expected of a state that aspires to sit permanently at UNSC’s high table and has the third-largest nuclear enterprise after the U.S. and Russia. The leadership of India ought to explain why it chose to remain woefully silent for two days instead of immediately informing Pakistan. Was a mad colonel in the command of their strategic forces or a Dr Strangelove in their scientific community responsible for this? Such insider threat is graver than a technological fault.
March 9 missile-firing incident was not the first act of irresponsibility in India. The known list includes nuclear-armed Arihant submarine deployment during the 2019 crisis, cases of nuclear material thefts, nuclear submarine accident, nuclear accidents and weaponization of outer space by testing anti-satellite weapons. There could be other known unknowns.
Jury is still out on whether actions like resorting to a limited conventional war, non-contact warfare and missile incursions constitute deterrence breakdown. This is so because at times the states maintain ambiguity in delineating or following up on their declared nuclear thresholds. A state can fall into a commitment- and credibility trap if it draws clear redlines. Ambiguity can also serve to maintain deterrence because the adversary remains vulnerable and can’t play below the threshold.
Since 2003-04, India has been seeking space for war under a nuclear overhang
After the 2001-02 Twin Peakcrisiswas triggered by the attack on Parliament and similar false-flag operations, India is increasingly frustrated over its inability to achieve a notion of victory. Earlier, the crises used to diffuse by the time the Indian military could mobilise at a great cost. Later, as in 2019, it received a bloody nose in an attempt at non-contact warfare. Thanks to credible deterrence, limited conventional war strategies, launching phantom surgical strikes, engaging in non-contact, and grey zone warfare have failed.
Heightened nuclear risk is the lingering challenge of attempts at creating space for war. Only rational actors and responsible nuclear powers can understand this fact. The response to the BrahMosfiring incident of March 9 is the latest proof of Pakistan’s pragmatism and restraint. Even India knows that Islamabad won’t blink in using nuclear weapons if push comes to shove.
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Nuclear deterrence is at play at this moment. Although there is no space for war under a nuclear overhang, some irresponsible nuclear powers continue to experiment at great peril. There is a dilemma associated with the command and control of nuclear weapons i.e. these must “always” be available for use and should “never” be used either inadvertently or accidentally. Only responsible nuclear powers stand a better chance to overcome this dilemma.
Dr. Atia Ali Kazmi is a Senior Research & Policy Analyst at NUST Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad, and author of The Road to Balance in Asia Pacific: Geopolitics of American Rebalancing and Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.