The Extension of Russian Nuclear Weapon Use Risk to the Ukrainian Theatre, a British Pugwash Note

On 21 September President Putin said: “If the territorial integrity of our nation is threatened, we will certainly use all the means that we have to defend Russia and our people.”

On 30 September he reiterated the point at the signing of treaties for the accession to the Russian Federation of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, and the Kherson and Zaporozhye Regions – “We will defend our land with all forces and resources”  – adding that the United States had created a precedent for nuclear use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Meanwhile, on 22 September the Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council said that any weapons in Moscow’s arsenal, including strategic nuclear weapons, could be used to defend territories incorporated into the Russian Federation.

On 26 September, however, striking a different note, Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov told a Russian TV audience: I want to emphasize that … there have been no changes in Russian doctrinal approaches to this topic [nuclear weapon use]. Everything remains in the same vein and within the same framework set by our Military Doctrine, as well as the Fundamentals of State Policy in the Field of Nuclear Deterrence.”

The military doctrine to which Deputy Minister Ryabkov referred is, in essence: “The Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction against it and (or) its allies, as well as in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation using conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is threatened.”

The timing and context of President Putin’s warnings suggest that he wants it to be perceived that Ukrainian operations in the newly annexed territories can be seen as threatening the territorial integrity of Russia and can therefore trigger Russian use of nuclear weapons.

Since Kyiv, with NATO encouragement, appears determined to attempt the recovery of lost territories, is the conflict in Ukraine now generating a greater nuclear risk than when Russian nuclear use seemed possible only if NATO were to strike Russia using nuclear weapons, or were to threaten Russian survival with conventional forces?

Yes, but only in so far as the Ukrainian theatre now falls, it seems, within the parameters of the relevant Russian military doctrine and this has widened the scope for miscalculation. However, the following considerations suggest that the probability of Russian nuclear weapon use is still not high.

First, it is hard to imagine Ukrainian military operations in the territories just annexed by Russia ever constituting a threat to the very existence of the Russian state.

Second, the use of one or more nuclear weapons against Ukraine, which is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a Non-Nuclear-Weapon State (NNWS) would outrage many of the 185 other NNWS NPT parties, not least because these states are in possession of assurances from Russia and the four other NPT Nuclear-Weapon States that they would not use nuclear weapons against NNWS.

If Russia were to try to limit the ensuing damage to its global interests by claiming a defensive rationale for its use of nuclear weapons, such a claim would lack credibility. Ukraine did not initiate the current conflict. The intent of its military operations is to repel Russian aggression.

Third, Russian decision-makers must reckon with the possibility that Russian nuclear use in the Ukrainian theatre would trigger a nuclear response from NATO, and that the ensuing risk of nuclear escalation could not be managed or contained. Even a limited nuclear exchange could lead to a “nuclear winter” (the sun’s rays obscured by the large amount of soot and smoke released into the atmosphere) which would have a dramatic effect on climate and ecosystems, threatening famine. That is a strong argument for nuclear restraint. It would surely occur both domestically and to Russia’s friends.

Nonetheless, given the increased risk of miscalculation – or even of irrational decision-making – nuclear risk reduction, a global imperative, requires urging the parties to this conflict to cease hostilities and helping them to re-engage diplomatically.