How can we resolve the nuclear dilemma in light of the invasion of Ukraine? Anant Saria writes.
Through 2021 and early 2022, the world witnessed the amassing of Russian troops and military equipment along the borders shared with Ukraine. The troop build-up was closely followed by the international community and included repeated warnings from the United States intelligence about the eventual invasion of Ukraine. On 21 February 2022, Russia recognized two pro-Russian separatist regions in the east of Ukraine – Donetsk and Luhansk – as ‘independent’.
Following this, and contrary to Russia’s reassurances to the international community, Russian troops were ordered to advance beyond Russian borders into Ukrainian territory to ‘safeguard’ Ukrainian citizens and for ‘peacekeeping’. The western response to the Russian aggression has been the imposition of ‘unprecedented’ sanctions on Russia, including the decision to exclude Russian entities from the international financial SWIFT mechanism used for the international transfer of funds. The world witnessed alarming nuclear posturing from Russia after the sanctions and a warning to western nations promising unprecedented consequences in response to direct interference in the conflict.
The aggression by Russia toward Ukraine has brought into question the understanding of international politics & security. It has brought to the forefront several concerns regarding our understanding of nuclear deterrence and the risks of nuclear security.
On 27 February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he had placed his country’s nuclear arsenal on a ‘special combat duty regime’ – triggering concerns of dangerous escalation of the war within, and outside, Ukraine. This announcement served the purpose of signalling and nuclear posturing to the western states that any direct interference to stop Russia from achieving its ‘national security objectives’ could possibly be met with nuclear retaliation. This signalling is meant to ensure western non-interference by invoking nuclear deterrence and threatening consequences ‘never before experienced in your history.’
Such use of nuclear threats has resulted in a greater divergence in the understanding of the role of nuclear weapons in contemporary international security. On the one hand, it strengthens the resolve that the existence of nuclear weapons clearly can result in a catastrophic nuclear war based on the ‘recklessness’ and resolve of one political leader.
Therefore, the abolition of nuclear weapons is essential for peace. It has also proven to negatively extend deterrence beyond state security, into coercive non-interference when the aggressor is a nuclear weapons state. On the other hand, the rhetoric that the Russian aggression could have been avoided if Ukraine possessed nuclear weapons seems to have gained momentum, supported by the ‘nuclear proliferation for peace’ hypothesis by Robert Jervis while talking about the ‘Nuclear Revolution’.
The divergence in the stance on nuclear disarmament between Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) and Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS) is also well understood. The Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is the product of such disagreement and the lack of notable progress amongst NWS toward their legally binding obligation to pursue Nuclear Disarmament under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The TPNW has rendered nuclear weapons illegal under international law and is gearing towards the establishment of an international norm against nuclear weapons.
The NWS have continued resisting the TPNW and insisted on seeking ways to pursue nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament under the NPT with a ‘step-by-step’ approach. In a year when the state parties to the NPT, as well as the TPNW, are both scheduled to meet to pursue non-proliferation objectives, there is hope that the nuclear posturing by Russia will add momentum, pressure and resolve to the political will of global leaders to make progress on nuclear disarmament. This must begin with a reconsideration of our reliance on nuclear deterrence and its ability to avoid war and prolong peace.
In his new article, Joseph S. Nye states that ‘Mutual assured destruction is a condition, not a policy.’ The logic of deterrence is largely hinged on human psychology and threat perception. We understand that human psychology defaults to a ‘fight or flight’ response in situations of insecurity. Since the decision making power would lie in the hands of a few (or even one) humans, we are forced to rely on the decisions of the few in situations of nuclear threats and insecurity. Balancing the chances of catastrophe on the blade of primal instincts should not sound like an attractive prospect when in possession of weapons of an apocalyptic yield.
The current crisis has illustrated another role of nuclear deterrence first-hand. Nuclear deterrence eliminated the threat of direct military interference by western powers. This was cemented by repeated Russian warnings to western states to ‘stay out of the war’ and by nuclear posturing. The possession of nuclear weapons probably played a role in the Russian decision to take the risk of military aggression in Ukraine. In an attempt to avoid nuclear catastrophe and decrease tensions, the Western leaders were largely forced to ‘appease’ Russia and reiterate military non-interference.
The explicit declaration of military non-interference by western powers provided reassurance to Russia that a direct confrontation between the two nuclear powers was not a possibility. This seems to have played a dual role. First, it assured the avoidance of miscalculations and misperception of nuclear and ‘existential’ threats – thereby avoiding a quick nuclear escalation. Secondly, and paradoxically, it weakened nuclear deterrence and guaranteed the lack of an existential threat to Russia in response to an invasion of Ukraine.
Military non-interference led the West to the predicted use of economic power in the form of sanctions. David Baldwin’s explanation of the fungibility (inter-usability) of power between economic and military means in international relations, and the use of one kind of power to impact policies in the other, paves the way to understand the logic behind sanctions to deter aggression. However, the economic sanctions have not had the desired effect. The Russian aggression continues alongside nuclear posturing and warnings by Russia to the west about retaliation to the ‘act of war’ by economic means. There are scaling concerns that if Russia determines any future sanctions as an ‘existential threat,’ it could resolve to the use of tactical or non-tactical nuclear weapons.
In light of the failures of Nuclear deterrence and economic coercion, there is a need to rethink deterrence in the nuclear age. Governments of the world have a responsibility to use the rekindled momentum on the international stage to address the challenges of contemporary international security and the opportunity of the meeting of state parties for two international non-proliferation and disarmament agreements to revisit the contemporary understanding of deterrence. The introduction of nuclear weapons has effectively derailed the classic balance of power in international security. Innovative measures are needed to restore this balance.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought to light the need to determine the role of nuclear weapons and their effects on the objectives of peace. The international community faces difficult questions for international security.
Nuclear proliferation cannot be the answer to peace via nuclear deterrence. Nuclear proliferation also accelerates the chances of nuclear disasters – accidental or not. The apocalyptic nature of these weapons also means that one such detonation would have catastrophic effects. The TPNW and the NPT conferences this year provide the world leaders with the opportunity to bridge their differences and use the platforms to accelerate non-proliferation and disarmament goals.
The discourse within these conferences must begin with discussions about our understanding of the balance of power and deterrence. It must also discuss the lack of the intended impact of economic sanctions on Russia’s decision and continuity over the invasion of Ukraine. This highlights the need for the development and empowerment of non-apocalyptic deterrence and the discussion on the steps to ensure conflict prevention in the international realm.
Resolving the nuclear dilemma asserts the need for a long-term view and approach to arrive at a global solution to eliminate the risk posed by nuclear weapons. Long-term policies and solutions in turn cannot be sustained without the inclusion of youth and next-generation leaders. Inclusion of youth voices in global international discourse allows the citizens of the future to have an input in determining that future. At the same time, it will ensure the continuity of the core aspects of policies and ensure that the progress made is not undone. It will rather accelerate the efficiency of the resources dedicated and build upon the existing frameworks and agreements. This safeguards the progress in trust-building and peace initiatives to last beyond regime changes, and amplify their effectiveness over time.
The work of delegates and the team at Youth4TPNW understands this long-term view and is determined to make considerable contributions to advocacy and the policy through engagement with state parties, partner organizations and the proceedings which will determine the progress made within the framework of TPNW and larger non-proliferation discourse.