Russia-Ukraine: The Dangers of Nuclear Brinkmanship

What would the world’s response be if Putin, suffering more setbacks in this war that he expected to win quickly, were to use a low-yield nuclear weapon somewhere near Ukraine? What happens if the nuclear genie is let out of the bottle?

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The shelling and subsequent fire at Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant early on the morning of Friday, March 4 briefly raised the spectre of nuclear catastrophe, 35 years after a fire in Chernobyl spread plumes of contamination through parts of Europe.

Though the fire has been brought under control and, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), radiation levels have not been affected, President Zelensky has accused Russia of nuclear terrorism. American and EU leaders have echoed his concern, focussing attention on a potential vulnerability in this volatile situation. 

Coming on the heels of President Putin’s nuclear warnings over the past ten days, has the threat of nuclear war raised its head in Europe, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall? 

For the first time since 1962, a nuclear weapon state (as defined by the Non-Proliferation Treaty; NPT) has put its nuclear forces on a heightened state of alert in the middle of rising tensions, apparently moving to a point where a nuclear order could be transmitted. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries and France have been measured in their response to Putin’s nuclear brinksmanship, with the United States postponing a long-planned test of its Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles so as not to provide any provocation. 

But the potential for miscalculation remains high. Russia’s doctrine was revised in 2020 to bring the nuclear option on to the table, not just in response to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons (which had been existing in Soviet and then Russian policy) but also “for the prevention of an escalation of military actions and their termination on conditions that are acceptable for the Russian Federation and/or its allies.”

Also read: Russian Attacks Spur Debate About Nuclear Power as Climate Fix

Europe is at an inflexion point. Having allowed Putin to get away with the annexation of Crimea in 2014; having apparently accommodated Moscow over Georgia in 2008; having watched quietly as the brutal war in Chechnya played out over a decade and a half from 1994; Western European capitals appear to be drawing a line: thus far and no further.

Putin, perhaps, was not expecting resistance; or at most, a line in the sand. However, NATO and the European Union have reacted swiftly and, so far, unitedly. German Chancellor Olaf Sholz announced on February 27 that Germany would raise its defence spending to above 2% of GDP and pledged €100 billion for a fund to modernise Germany’s military. “With the invasion of Ukraine,” he told the Bundestag (the German federal parliament), “we are in a new era.’”

While NATO countries have carefully avoided directly engaging Russia militarily, they have supplied ammunition, weapons, missiles and humanitarian aid. Turkey, a NATO member, has gone further and, under the Montreux Convention, closed its straits to Russian naval ships not registered at a Black Sea base, thereby limiting Russian naval access to Ukraine. 

The EU, the US and the UK have also imposed a cascading series of sanctions on Russia which are aimed at punishing the supporters of the regime, denying Moscow the chance to use its massive reserves and squeezing Russia out of a seamless global payments system.  

Putin has reacted angrily. He specifically justified the heightened nuclear alert as a response to the “illegal sanctions”, “aggressive statements” and “unfriendly measures” adopted by NATO countries.

Of more concern than Putin’s rhetoric is the manner of its delivery: the Russian president has appeared increasingly remote during his highly staged interactions with his advisers in which the physical distance between them could well mirror the power differential at the very top. Who is advising the Russian president, and is there anyone counselling restraint? The televised meeting of his National Security Council on February 24, where he extracted agreement for his ‘special operations’ in Ukraine from each member, was not a meeting of equals or an open exchange of views.

Watch: ‘Putin’s Invasion Has Converted Imminent Diplomatic Victory Into a Major Political Setback’

Almost ten days after Russia invaded Ukraine, this ‘special operation’ is not going well. Unlike 2008 and 2014, the international consequences have been swift and damaging. If Putin was expecting a repeat of the war in Georgia, which was over in five days with a ceasefire that favoured Russia, he has been disabused. This war will become more brutal, as the increasingly fierce attacks on Mariupol, Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Kyiv demonstrate. 

The conflict in Chechnya since 1994 has established that Moscow reacts violently to suggestions of being thwarted, or worse, humiliated. The first war in Chechnya, which ended in a stalemate, claimed between 30,000-100,000 civilian lives. Chechnya remains a suppurating sore in Russia’s side; civilians, including children, have been caught in the crossfire between Moscow and the rebel warlords who have tried to claim independence for this restive region.

It is worth remembering that the Kremlin apparently used a narcotic gas to end a hostage crisis in Moscow in 2002, when Chechen rebels took over 900 people hostage in a theatre. One hundred and thirty hostages died – not from injuries, but apparently as a result of the gas, the use of which was first not acknowledged, and the identity and formula of which are still not known. 

This is not to say that Putin is definitely threatening nuclear war. However, complacency would be dangerous. Observers of Putin point out that he has unleashed nuclear and chemical terror on the world before. Alexander Litvinenko, a vociferous critic of Putin, was effectively turned into a dirty bomb when he was poisoned with polonium in 2006 in central London. The Kremlin is also alleged to have been behind the chemical weapons poisoning of Alexei Navalny, another critic of Putin and perhaps the only credible opposition to him in recent years; and of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence agent, and his daughter Yulia.

In the latter case, traces of the deadly nerve agent, Novichok, were found around Salisbury, England, for months after, and claimed the life of an innocent resident after the perfume bottle used to transport the agent was discarded by its users in a charity bin: there was enough Novichok in the bottle to kill hundreds. Putin has already used Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) with impunity: not every use results in a mushroom cloud that blocks out the sun.

And herein lies the danger. Three-quarters of a century after nuclear weapons were first – and last – used in anger, the world has settled into an uneasy coexistence with the military atom. This peace has rested on the norm that, despite the existence of tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, after 1945, nuclear weapons have not been exploded in conflict – the so-called nuclear taboo.

Russia is sitting on a nuclear inventory of 5,977 warheads, of which 1,588 are deployed on long-range delivery systems, some of which have huge destructive capability. Those are the stuff of nuclear apocalyptic scenarios. That still leaves a large number, perhaps 1,000, ‘smaller’, so-called non-strategic or tactical nuclear weapons, with lower yields.

‘Lower’ is a purely comparative term, for almost eight decades after nuclear weapons were first developed, the yield of weapons can range from 2 Kilotons (KT) to 1,000 KT. It might be instructive at this point to remember that the bomb that flattened Hiroshima had a yield of 15 KT. One person’s low-yield weapon is another person’s destroyer of worlds.

The question to grapple with now is: what would the world’s response be if Putin, suffering more setbacks in this war that he expected to win quickly, were to use a low-yield weapon somewhere near Ukraine? What happens if the nuclear genie is let out of the bottle?

There is much that we do not know about the war in Ukraine, about Putin’s thinking in launching this aggression, or about how this is going to end. What we do know is that the Russian bear is angry, potentially thwarted and fairly isolated. That should be enough to worry us for now.

Priyanjali Malik is an independent researcher who primarily focuses on security and politics in the Indian subcontinent, especially nuclear politics.