By John Erath
In a previous post, I argued that Russia was using nuclear deterrence to enable its aggression against Ukraine. Over the last six weeks, tensions have not subsided, with Putin making demands that would alter the rights of sovereign states to determine their own security and western governments warning of consequences should Russia invade. Concerns about a possible escalation are high, as are warnings about how a Ukraine conflict could increase the possibility of nuclear war. While the use of nuclear weapons remains unlikely, there are two especially pernicious nuclear-related aspects of the Ukraine crisis that merit examination.
First, it should be kept in mind that when the Soviet Union dissolved, there were nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory that became the property of the newly independent state. After much negotiation, Ukraine made the decision to give up these weapons, returning them to Moscow’s control, a move that was widely praised. As part of the arrangement, Russia signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Russia specifically agreed to not use force or the threat of force against Ukrainian territory.
Consider the implications.
Ukraine gave up nuclear capabilities with the explicit understanding that this would not undermine its security. Now, it is subject to aggression and intimidation by a nuclear-armed neighbor, raising questions about the choice made to give up such weapons in the 1990s. Iran, North Korea and other states possibly considering nuclear weapons will be watching carefully and could come to the conclusion that Ukraine is vulnerable to coercion and loss of territory because it made the decision to give up its nuclear weapons. This would be disastrous for global non-proliferation efforts.
The second consideration may be even more serious. By threatening to move nuclear-capable missiles into Belarus — and possibly even non-strategic nuclear weapons — Putin is sending the message to the West that involvement in Ukraine carries nuclear risks. That is to say that Russia is exploring a new use for nuclear weapons — to bully the world into accepting its policy of seeking to dominate the former Soviet space.
Putin knows that practically no one outside Russia thinks a Russian sphere of influence would be a good outcome, but there is little appetite for risking nuclear war to prevent it. This is the danger. If nuclear weapons are so useful that they can force states to acquiesce to situations those governments would strongly oppose, why pursue disarmament?
It would be a mistake to look at this as a binary choice. There are policy options that can raise the opportunity cost of war while improving the conditions for arms control. Western governments have threatened severe sanctions on Russia should it “invade,” (a poorly defined term — and inaccurate as Russian troops are already on Ukrainian soil). The potential of sanctions represents a real parallel to Moscow’s approach.
Putin is using the implicit threat of nuclear war to force the west to accept his vision for “historic Russia.” Should the likely damage to Russia’s economy lead Putin to reconsider military action, it would undermine the case for nuclear blackmail as an instrument of diplomacy and incentive to maintain and enhance nuclear forces. Sanctions alone will not be effective, but they need to be part of the strategy to manage the crisis. Confronting Russia militarily and allowing Putin a free hand both raise the risk of nuclear catastrophe. They should not be the only policies considered.