By John Erath
Despite nuclear threats and blackmail, the deepening crisis in Ukraine should provide evidence of the value of arms controls and non-proliferation. Done correctly, it may serve as a means to increase international security, and allow Russian President Vladimir Putin a path toward deescalation without rewarding him for nuclear blackmail.
Governments and media worldwide were shocked February 27 to learn that Russia had placed its nuclear forces on high alert, citing vague “threats” from NATO. This was another step in an expanding dance of nuclear threats and blackmail surrounding Putin’s war.
Just one day earlier, Former President and current Deputy Chief of the Russian Security Dmitri Medvedev said that in response to western sanctions, Russia would review its relations with the west and could withdraw from the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Mixing bluster with bravado, Medvedev tried to downplay the efficacy of sanctions while pushing all the buttons he could imagine would get the west’s attention. Western media, from the beginning of the attacks on Ukraine, have sounded alarms over a possible nuclear dimension. In the case of New START, Medvedev and his boss are well aware of the consternation in both Europe and North America over the possibility that the treaty might have been allowed to expire last year. Sadly, Russia seems to be intent on shielding its war of aggression against a neighbor from international response by threatening global security with nuclear weapons.
This is a curious reversal of the Russian position on New START. In the runup to the Treaty’s 2021 extension, Putin was strongly in favor of its renewal as a curb on a strategic arms race. Clearly, other factors than strategic stability have become priorities in Moscow. It is possible that Ukrainian resistance has proved greater than expected, and, given Putin’s oft expressed opinion that Ukraine is not a real country, Russia attributes its slower-than-expected progress to foreign military aid. If so, it is consistent with recent Russian behavior to resort to intimidation to limit security assistance. It also implies that the sanctions imposed thus far and the limited supplies of materiel to Ukraine have had at least some effect.
Alerting the strategic forces and Medvedev’s threat to New START are not the first instances during the current crisis that Moscow has shown itself willing to rattle its nuclear saber. Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s borders was accompanied by “exercises” of its nuclear forces, a clear message to anyone considering supporting Kyiv. In his pre-invasion address, Putin was more specific, threatening “ominous consequences” while referring to his country’s strategic capabilities.
That this is a worrisome trend is an understatement. Putin is using the threat of global catastrophe to facilitate military aggression. Contrary to hopes that the role of nuclear weapons could be reduced on the path to eventual elimination, they are actually key to a strategy aimed at setting up Putin as a de facto colonial overlord in the former Soviet space. Should this strategy succeed and the Ukrainian government be replaced by a Russian puppet, it will not only bode ill for the prospects for nuclear disarmament, but will establish a new and sinister application for nuclear weapons, increasing their currency and motivating more governments to consider acquiring them.
The loss of New START would be a particularly painful step, although not only for the commonly cited reason that it provides the last numerical limitation on U.S. and Russian strategic weapons. Both parties already have more than sufficient weapons for deterrence purposes. The real loss would be in the transparency provided by the treaty’s information and verification regime. Without this data, greater uncertainty will arise regarding both sides’ intentions, and prospects for an unnecessary arms race increase in the absence of knowledge. Hopefully, Moscow understands that New START remains in its interest, and we will have to bear Medvedev’s bluster as part of the same sort of disinformation that tries to portray the United States as responsible for the ends of other arms control agreements such as the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
What, therefore, can be done to answer such threats? Strategic patience is a large part of the answer. While it is imperative not to reward Putin for nuclear blackmail, it also remains important not to overreact by making nuclear threats or throwing away the important tool that is arms control.
Although any progress on arms control may seem a distant prospect, the potential benefits to a good agreement in the future are worth keeping the door open. At the same time, just as Putin’s uncloaked aggression has undermined any argument that Russia was protecting Russians, maintaining strong U.S. support for an arms control process when Moscow is turning its back will demonstrate where the real threat to global security lies and increase international pressure on Putin.
Higher alert levels underline the importance of maintaining a dialogue to limit the danger that nuclear weapons might be used. It is important to keep in mind that this is a long game, and arms control is a means to increasing international security and not an end in itself. Cutting off all avenues for negotiation could unwittingly strengthen the role of nuclear weapons in Russian strategy. Remaining open to talks, particularly on limiting destabilizing non-strategic weapons could make a path to deescalation available for when Russia chooses to take it.
Putin’s war against Ukraine has led the world to reconsider a number of assumptions, not only about Russian behavior, but about the role of nuclear weapons and efforts to prevent their spread. Although the higher alert of Russian nuclear forces and Medvedev’s threat to withdraw from New START may smack of desperation, they are indicative of Moscow’s pushing the boundaries of leveraging its nuclear capabilities to achieve its goals. It should be seen for what it is: an attempt to get the west to back off by exploiting political divisions and fear. It should not be the reason to abandon a policy tool.