When Presidents George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in Moscow in 1991, removing about eighty per cent of all strategic nuclear weapons then in existence, the hope was that the nuclear sabre-rattling days of the Cold War would be permanently over. Just over three decades later, the Soviet Union’s successor, Russia, has stirred talk of nuclear warfare once again.
A message posted on Telegram by the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, reveals much of the thinking behind Russia’s nuclear doctrine. Medvedev states that the use of nuclear weaponry is justified in two scenarios: if Russia or its allies are attacked with equivalent arms or if conventional warfare threatens the existence of the Russian state itself. It is the latter scenario that is most concerning, given its ambiguity and what it means for the war in Ukraine. The current Ukrainian counteroffensive is putting pressure on Russian gains: in the southwest, Ukrainian forces are currently advancing towards Kherson; in the northeast, the military has gained much territory east of Kharkiv. These recent developments prompted Russia to trigger a partial mobilization of its forces, signalling a major escalation of the war, as it seeks to shore up personnel shortages and consolidate its gains in the Donbas and other regions.
The thinking behind mobilization is ultimately political, given that it is unlikely to shift the initiative on the battlefield. Partial mobilization may allow for more Russians to be conscripted but it is constrained by Russia’s ability to train and transport troops to the frontline. Russia’s strategy, therefore, is one of consolidation. Its prolongment of the war through this winter may force European nations to the negotiating table as the inflationary and energy pressures induced by the Kremlin begin to bite. The Russian-engineered referenda in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson provinces are a part of this consolidation process, paving the way for formal annexation.
The integration of these provinces by Moscow may fulfil one of Medvedev’s ‘justifications’ for nuclear war, should newly annexed territory come under attack by Ukrainian forces. Russia, therefore, may be tempted to use a tactical nuclear weapon, which can be launched from a short or medium-range missile, if its ability to conduct conventional warfare deteriorates, a strategy of ‘escalate to de-escalate.’ A scenario like this would be catastrophic, tipping the world into uncharted territory not seen since the end of the Second World War.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned of ‘severe consequences’ for Russia should this occur; detail of what these consequences might entail was kept deliberately vague. Russia’s nuclear playbook (which varies from a ‘warning shot’ in the Black Sea, to turning Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant into a ‘dirty bomb,’ to the deployment of a low-yield tactical nuclear weapon) is what will ultimately dictate NATO’s response. The West, in this case, has a number of options: they could escalate sanctions further by getting the support of Asian and African countries, cutting off major markets for Russian oil and gas; they could also implement a no-fly zone over Ukrainian airspace, effectively imposing an aerial demilitarized zone. There have even been suggestions that Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty could be invoked if member nations in Europe interpret the radioactive fallout, from a nuclear attack in Ukraine, as a direct attack on them.
Medvedev paints a different picture. He argues that NATO would not directly intervene in such a scenario, given the potential for global nuclear annihilation; revealing the sizable gamble that the Russian top brass would be taking. Non-intervention from NATO is unlikely, given that it would set a precedent that nuclear-equipped nations could use their arsenals to advance territorial claims without repercussions. However, Medvedev’s reasoning calls into question the uniformity of NATO that is commonly presupposed. There may be a gulf between the risk appetite of Germany, for example, in escalating with Russia. The United States potentially jeopardizes any NATO response from the beginning. The probability of nuclear war remains low; Russia’s tactical stockpile, despite rhetoric, is not yet on the move. This should not, however, draw European nations into a false sense of security. For now, there are too many wildcards to be certain.