The Ukraine Crisis and the Global Nuclear Order

The Ukraine Crisis and the Global Nuclear Order

By Sylvia Mishra, Janne E. Nolan Nuclear Security Fellow

In this article, Truman Center for National Policy’s Janne E. Nolan Nuclear Security Fellow, Sylvia Mishra, explores how Russia’s actions are a significant blow to the global nuclear nonproliferation order and undermine nuclear risk reduction efforts and disarmament initiatives. Mishra also warns of the possibility of an arms race and the potential dangers posed by a greater reliance on nuclear weapons.  

In launching his “special military operation” and threatening “consequences… [like] you have never seen in your entire history,” Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, has openly engaged in nuclear saber rattling.  Noted scholar Caitlin Talmadge has explained that Putin’s nuclear threat was intended as a shield to keep the West out of Russia’s conventional military operations. This textbook Russian strategy (to threaten nuclear weapons use in order to offset its conventional inferiority) is aimed at preventing the United States and NATO’s  direct involvement. It also gravely undermines the global nuclear nonproliferation order and threatens to distort several nuclear conventions and security assurances to non-nuclear armed countries.

Putin’s aggression towards Ukraine sets a dangerous precedent by abrogating a longstanding convention (The Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances) and undermining the wider framework of security assurances and guarantees that nuclear weapons states (NWS) offer to non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS). The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) represents a grand bargain between NWS and NNWS, aimed at preserving global peace and security while preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. As an NPT signatory, Russia has pledged to disavow the use of negative security assurances: not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against NNWS. Putin’s actions undermine the NPT and offer a clear example of bullying behavior.

The theory of nuclear brinkmanship holds that states exert coercive pressure by taking steps that raise the risk of confrontation by showing effective resolve and enhancing their bargaining position, thereby coercing an opponent into making concessions. Putin’s nuclear toolbox – founded upon an ‘escalate to de-escalate’ strategy of nuclear threats and orders to put nuclear deterrent forces on alert  - is classic nuclear brinkmanship aimed at coercing Ukrainian concessions and to keep the West out.

Russian nuclear signaling and escalation is not new. At the height of the Crimea crisis in 2014, Russia conducted military exercises to counter nuclear strikes. As Jacek Durklace writes, an integral part of the Russian approach to conflict is nuclear arms flexing and backing up the credibility of threats with nuclear messaging (including threatening statements, bomber flights, and exercises). However, despite parallels to previous Russian actions, this evolving Ukraine crisis appears to be different and more dangerous. Moving to launch readiness signals a lowering of thresholds for use, and conducting nuclear exercises in the middle of a crisis is highly escalatory behavior.

On March 1st, several Russian nuclear submarines conducted drills in the Barents Sea and units of the Strategic Missile Forces dispersed Yars road mobile intercontinental ballistic missile launchers in forests to practice secret deployment. While Russia has previously conducted nuclear exercises amidst a crisis, scholar James Acton raises an important question concerning whether these strategic systems will return to their bases or continue to be deployed. If they remain deployed, Russia is one step closer to nuclear preparedness. The use of nuclear-capable cruise missiles like Kalibr (though considered a part of Russian non-nuclear deterrence forces) also raises concerns, and the involvement of third-party actors like Belarus and its offer to host Russian nuclear weapons is further destabilizing. William Alberque commented on a less noticed change in Belarus’s constitution that would allow Belarus to host nuclear weapons on its territory for the first time since 1996, overturning efforts of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program to denuclearize Belarus.

At a time when the political divide between nuclear ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ is growing - especially due to the lack of progress on implementation of Article VI of the NPT (an NWS commitment towards global disarmament) - Russian actions accelerate this growing divide. NNWS are taking note of the stalling patterns of NWS and bullying behavior. As countries prepare for the upcoming NPT Review Conference, the health and longevity of the NPT will continue to be fiercely debated.  

The Ukraine crisis may lead to several worrying developments. The crisis might accelerate NWS’ nuclear modernization. Several NWS and rogue state actors like North Korea might adopt wrong lessons from the crisis and further intensify their own reliance on nuclear weapons. Several countries are likely to expand their defense spending - a trend highlighted by a recent SIPRI report, which suggested that global military expenditure was 7.2 percent higher in 2019 than it was in 2010. In a historic announcement, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz committed to spending $113 billion on defense in 2022. It will not be surprising if several other European nations  rethink their own security and defense policies in the face of Russian aggression. In an already brittle security environment in Europe, security dilemmas are going to increase, further challenging the already fragile global nonproliferation order.

Amidst the Russian provocation, the Biden Administration’s response so far has been restrained. A senior official government official emphasized the P5 Joint Statement that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. Moreover, the Administration has also confirmed that the U.S has not changed the status of its nuclear forces, which is both useful and stabilizing, and avoids triggering an action-reaction cycle.  The United States canceling its ICBM test launch is another effort in the same direction of signaling de-escalation and slowing the pace of the conflict. U.S Leadership is critical to ensuring that nuclear nonproliferation efforts adapt to new realities following Russia’s invasion. At the core of effective nuclear deterrence strategies should be developing viable off-ramps from escalation, an emphasis on declaratory policies of non-use of nuclear weapons on NNWS, and investments in designing effective nuclear crisis communication strategies.