The War in Ukraine and Nuclear Weapons: What Should We Fear?
The War in Ukraine and Nuclear Weapons: What Should We Fear?
Russian threats to use nuclear weapons in the event of NATO interference in the war in Ukraine, but above all the combination of ambiguities in Russian doctrine, the existence of so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons, and the possibility of delegated, accidental, or unauthorised use all contribute to a serious increase in the risk of nuclear weapons being used as a direct or indirect consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This is all the more reason to conclude that nuclear weapons, far from ensuring international security, serve as a shield for aggressor countries convinced of their impunity.
Threats to use nuclear weapons
The traditional Cold War and post-Cold War “grammar” of nuclear deterrence, in which threats to use nuclear weapons were both implicit and defensive, backed by demonstrations of capability, underwent a dangerous reversal with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These threats took several forms:
- On 19 February 2022, immediately prior to the so-called “special military operation”, Russia held drills of its “strategic deterrent forces” in the presence of Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko. Drills of this kind are usually conducted in the autumn. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, the purpose of the exercises was to “test the readiness” of the forces involved and the “reliability of strategic nuclear and non-nuclear weapons”. For the Russian chief of staff, Valery Gerasimov, their main objective was “to train strategic offensive forces to inflict a guaranteed defeat on the enemy”. The drills involved firing missiles from TU-95 bombers and submarines and, according to the Kremlin, “the planned objectives ... were fully achieved, with all missiles hitting the set targets”.
- Two days earlier the Belarusian president had announced that his country was ready to “host Russian nuclear weapons” in case of a Western threat and that the country’s constitution would be amended to this end by referendum on 27 February.
- On 24 February, in announcing the invasion of Ukraine, Putin issued a thinly veiled warning: “those who would try to interfere with us must know that Russia's response will be immediate and will lead to consequences that you have never experienced before”.
- The Russian president continued his verbal escalation on 27 February by announcing that he was ordering “the minister of defence and the chief of staff to put the deterrent forces of the Russian armed forces on special combat alert”. According to most experts, this higher level of alert was to be reflected in the reinforcement of command-and-control centres, as Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov confirmed.
- On 18-19 March the Russian Ministry of Defence announced the launch of two Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic missiles in Ukraine, which destroyed targets described as military. These air-to-ground missiles are said to be impossible to detect and intercept, and can be equipped with nuclear warheads.
- On 20 April it was the turn of the new Russian Sarmat intercontinental missile (designated Satan 2 by NATO) to be test-fired with great publicity. Also presented as “invincible” because it is undetectable, this missile can carry at least ten nuclear warheads and/or hypersonic gliders with nuclear warheads.
- Two months after the beginning of the fighting in Ukraine, when the situation of the Russian army was not to its advantage and Western military aid to Kyiv had increased, Putin reiterated his threats against Western countries in a speech in St Petersburg on 27 April: “If someone from the outside tries to intervene in Ukraine and create strategic threats for Russia, our response will be lightning fast. We have all the tools [to respond] that no one can boast of. And we will not be bragging about them; we will use them if necessary”.
- As for Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, after assuring the world on 19 April that Moscow would not use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, he affirmed on 25 April that, even if Russia did everything possible to avoid a nuclear war, this risk was now “considerable”, “serious and real”, and should not be “underestimated”.
- In an escalation of rhetoric, the extravagant 60 Minutes programme on official Russian television on 28 April claimed, using a map to illustrate its point, that it would take “only 200 seconds for a Sarmat nuclear missile, fired from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, to reach and destroy Paris”. However, as fact-checking sites have pointed out, the Sarmat missile has not yet been deployed, Kaliningrad does not contain intercontinental missile silos and the 200-second figure does not reflect the actual duration of an intercontinental missile’s flight.
- During a simulation exercise on 4 May Russian forces ostensibly included Poland and neighbouring Lithuania as targets for short-range Iskander nuclear-capable missile attacks from Kaliningrad.
- As the latest Russian official to brandish the nuclear threat, former president Dmitry Medvedev warned Finland and Sweden on 14 April of the consequences of joining NATO: “no sane person” would want the consequences of this move — “increased tensions along the borders, Iskander missiles, hypersonic weapons, and nuclear-armed ships literally at arm’s length from their own homes”. On 12 May he repeated this warning to NATO: “NATO countries pumping weapons into Ukraine, training troops to use Western equipment, sending in mercenaries and the exercises of Alliance countries near our borders increase the likelihood of a direct and open conflict between NATO and Russia. Such a conflict always has the risk of turning into a fully fledged nuclear war”.
- On 1 June, as a reaction to President Biden’s speech on US military assistance to Ukraine, Russia’s ministry of Defence announced that Russian nuclear forces were conducting new drills in the Ivanovo region near Moscow with Yars intercontinental nuclear missiles, about 1,000 military personnel and 100 vehicles. The exercises involved practicing “intensive manoeuvering actions on combat patrol routes” by Russia's so-called Strategic Missile Forces.
An ambiguous nuclear doctrine
After several drafts and revisions, the Russian nuclear weapons use doctrine was clarified on 2 June 2020. According to some experts, this doctrine broadens the conditions under which Russia can use nuclear weapons and marks a shift towards first use. It provides four hypothetical situations in which Moscow reserves the right to resort to nuclear weapons:
1) The arrival of reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies,
2) The use of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction by an adversary against the Russian Federation and/or its allies,
3) An attack by an adversary against critical government or military sites of the Russian Federation, disruption of which would undermine nuclear forces’ response actions,
4) Aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.
It is especially the last condition that gives rise to concern, given the lack of definition or the subjective nature of the concept of “existential threat” that underlies it. Does it refer to the threat of the total destruction of the country (but it is difficult to see how this could result only from the use of conventional weapons) or a threat to the survival of the current regime (e.g. from a coup d'état) (see the IDN's analysis in 2020)?
Today, in the context of the war in Ukraine, none of the four hypothetical situations seems to exist that would justify the intentional use of nuclear weapons by Russia against Ukraine or, a fortiori, against NATO. In their threatening remarks Putin and Lavrov referred to “bellicose statements” by Western leaders or to Western military assistance to Ukraine. These reasons do not conform to any of the four hypothetical conditions for nuclear weapons use.
Other Russian allegations, however, could prove to be more dangerous. They involve accusations that Ukraine is trying to acquire nuclear weapons or already possesses chemical and biological weapons (and thus weapons of mass destruction) that it could use against Russia.
Already in his 24 February speech justifying the invasion of Ukraine, Putin accused the Ukrainian leadership of “claiming possession of nuclear weapons”. This is in fact a misinterpretation of clumsy remarks made in April 2021 by the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany in support of Kyiv's application for NATO membership: “Either we are part of an alliance like NATO and also contribute to making this Europe stronger ... or we have only one option, which is to arm ourselves”. Kyiv would then “perhaps also consider its nuclear status”.
Another pretext invoked by Russia to claim Ukrainian “nuclear blackmail” was the request by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, on 21 February 2022, the day after Moscow recognised the separatist Ukrainian republics, for the UN Security Council to discuss the situation in light of the terms of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. In this agreement Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom had committed themselves to respecting Ukraine's territorial integrity in exchange for its denuclearisation, i.e. the transfer to Russia of nuclear weapons inherited from the Soviet Union (and which had remained under Russian control). On 1 March 2022, in his video address to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Sergei Lavrov bluntly accused Ukraine of wanting to acquire nuclear weapons, saying: “Ukraine still has Soviet nuclear technologies and the means of delivery of such weapons”. However, as a state party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Ukraine is regularly inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has never raised the slightest suspicion of the country’s ability or willingness to divert peaceful nuclear activities to weapons purposes.
As for Ukraine's alleged possession of chemical weapons, on 16 March the Russian Ministry of Defence claimed to have seized Ukrainian military documents proving the existence of toxic depots for a chemical attack that would be attributed to Russia. On 21 March there was an incident in which a bombing raid blamed on Russia caused ammonia to leak from a fertiliser factory in Sumy. In response, Russia accused Ukraine of having planted mines at the site to provoke a chemical attack on Russian forces. In fact, it was allegations of Russian use of chemical weapons in Mariupol that alerted the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and led it to respond on 11 April. Ukraine is also a state party to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention and has been regularly inspected by the OPCW, which has never found anything suspicious. In contrast, Russia, despite having officially completed the destruction of its stockpiles in 2017, remains suspected of having retained or having the capacity to rapidly produce nerve agents (“novichoks”), which it has allegedly used for targeted assassinations of opponents in Britain. On 11 May Russia again accused the Ukrainians of destroying a tank of ammonium nitrate with the aim of blaming Russian forces.
Finally, with regard to biological weapons, which are also prohibited by the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention to which both Russia and Ukraine are parties, Russia has repeatedly claimed that the US Department of Defense was funding laboratories on Ukrainian soil for the production of pathogens for germ warfare. The Russian military reportedly seized documents proving that these laboratories had been ordered to destroy samples of plague, cholera, anthrax, and other pathogens at the start of the Russian offensive. When Russia brought these accusations to the UN Security Council on 11 March, in addition to formal denials from Ukraine and the United States, the Council heard Izumi Nakamitsu, the Secretary-General's High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, say, “The UN is not aware of any biological weapons programme [in Ukraine]”.
It is true that, upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States launched a multilateral funding programme for the elimination of weapons of mass destruction in Russia and several former Soviet republics, including Ukraine, which was not only accepted, but also co-funded by Moscow until 2013 within the G8 framework. In Ukraine this programme continued in the form of support for the detection of dangerous pathogens and the safety and security of biological laboratories. These facilities, far from housing secret military programmes, have remained fully transparent and open to many international observers. The Russian accusations therefore amount to pure disinformation.
“Tactical" nuclear weapons and the risk of uncontrolled use
According to the Federation of American Scientists, which maintains the most reliable estimates of the Russian nuclear arsenal, out of a total inventory of 5,977 nuclear weapons, three categories can be identified:
- So-called strategic weapons, with a long range (above 500 km) and high destructive power (50-800 kt), amounting to a total of 2,565 weapons (in the form of land- or submarine-launched missiles, air-to-ground missiles, and airborne bombs),
- So-called non-strategic (or “tactical”) and defensive weapons, with a shorter range (less than 500 km) and lower destructive power (10-350 kt), estimated at 1,912 (launched from bombers or in the form of missile warheads or torpedoes),
- Weapons awaiting dismantling, estimated at 1,500.
The main characteristic of these so-called non-strategic weapons is that, unlike some 1,588 strategic weapons, they are not considered to be deployed. This means that the nuclear warheads are stored separately from their delivery systems (missiles or bombers), and their deployment for use in battle would take sufficient time to allow for the verification of an alert or negotiation with the adversary to avoid escalation, and would be fairly easily detected by observation satellites. For their part, the approximately 100 US B-61 gravity bombs stored in hangars in five NATO member countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey) are considered deployed because, even if they are not already attached to combat aircraft, this procedure could take place quickly.
As for the destructive power of Russian tactical nuclear weapons, it ranges from a few kilotons to 350 kt (for the record, the Hiroshima bomb had a yield of 15 kt). When Putin ordered the Russian deterrent forces to be placed on alert on 27 February, one of the signs that might have raised concern would have been the deployment of non-strategic nuclear weapons. Apparently, at this stage this was not the case. This is probably what led the US leadership to announce that, for their part, no change in the US alert level was warranted. At most, White House spokeswoman Jen Paski pointed out: "Provocative rhetoric like this regarding nuclear weapons is dangerous, adds to the risk of miscalculation, should be avoided and we'll not indulge in it”.
Indeed, the main nuclear risks associated with tactical weapons result from a combination of factors:
- Delegation of authority to launch a nuclear strike: although the order to launch a nuclear strike must come from the Russian president, the military has physical control over the release and authorisation codes. The general staff is therefore able to launch a missile with or without the president's green light either directly from a command centre or after delegating the firing order to commanders of land, air, or submarine forces. The idea is to retain a launch capability in case the political leadership is incapacitated. However, as we experienced during the Cold War with a dozen serious incidents, a decentralised control system based on the principle of “launch on warning” increases the risks of miscalculation, misinterpretation or extremely dangerous inappropriate initiatives.
- In addition to the risks inherent in a conflict situation – even an indirect one, as is currently the case between Russia and NATO – there are potential risks from new technologies such as cyber warfare or space warfare, as a recent IDN study explains. It is easy to imagine what could happen if state or non-state actors virtually penetrated nuclear weapons command-and-control sites, or observation or communication satellites on which the command-and-control systems of these weapons depend. The poor performance of the Russian military in Ukraine raises concerns about the vulnerability of these sites, including to unauthorised nuclear launches.
Conclusion: nuclear weapons make the world more insecure and ensure impunity for aggressors
Most government and research responses to Russian aggression against Ukraine have argued that nuclear deterrence had protected the Western nuclear powers and their allies and justified increased military budgets, including for the modernisation of nuclear forces. The then-French minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, responded to Russia's nuclear threats with a warning: “The Atlantic Alliance is also a nuclear alliance”. With global military spending already exceeding US$2 trillion in 2021, and despite the analysis of Moscow's demonstrated military weaknesses, the Russian invasion has prompted more countries to increase their arms budgets, and two neutral countries, Finland and Sweden, to seek NATO membership and the protection of the US nuclear umbrella.
In reality, as ICAN-France spokesperson Jean-Marie Collin points out, “we see that having a nuclear weapon is the best way to go to war. The fact that Russia has nuclear weapons dissuades other countries from helping Ukraine, because there is a fear of nuclear weapons. Thus, the nuclear weapon is a war-creating factor”. Formulated differently by a group of French experts, the main question is: “Doesn't nuclear deterrence, intended as a protection, turn out to be a weapon that encourages its possessor to carry out all kinds of abuses with impunity, including against civilian targets, as in Mariupol and Bucha?”
For the French philosopher Gaspar Koenig, “it is likely that Putin, in his historical fantasies, sees himself as the avenger of Greater Russia. Even if it means annihilating the entire planet. Moreover, how can we not fear an atomic 'black swan' when two thousand nuclear weapons are ready for use at any time in the world, when diplomatic and military escalation can quickly get out of control, and when responsibility for triggering the event more or less depends on a single human brain?”
These are all reasons to reinforce efforts to eliminate all nuclear weapons, which, far from guaranteeing the security of the world, threaten it at every moment.
This article was published in its original French version by Initiatives for Nuclear Disarmament (IDN) on 23 May 2022 (https://www.idn-france.org/nos-publications/guerre-en-ukraine-et-armes-nucleaires-de-quoi-faut-il-avoir-peur/). All translations of non-English texts are by the authors.
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