Since the onset of the Cold War, nuclear weapons were generally regarded as weapons of last resort. They were kept in reserve and their role was solely as a strategic deterrent. In the case of the superpowers, these weapons gave rise to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction which kept the peace between the Western and Eastern blocs.
However, the strategic stability resulting from this destructive stalemate is now being challenged by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Already during the 2014 campaign to annex the Crimean Peninsula, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov emphasized that Moscow sees Crimea as an integral part of Russian territory. He then stated that Moscow has a military doctrine (issued in 2010) that outlines how Moscow would respond to threats to Russia’s territorial integrity. The military doctrine “very clearly” states that the “Russian Federation reserves the right to utilize nuclear weapons” in these situations.
In Ukraine, however, this doctrine has been dramatically expanded to provide a strategic umbrella even when Russian territory is not directly at stake. Four days into the invasion, Putin ordered his defense and army chiefs to put his nuclear forces on “special combat readiness.”
The New York Times on February 27, 2022, commented: “What made the latest nuclear outburst notable was that it was staged for television, as Mr. Putin told his generals that he was acting because of the West’s ‘aggressive comments’ about Ukraine.”
Was Putin trying to dissuade any potential opponent from interfering in his plans, signaling he cannot be stopped or deterred much like a suicide bomber, albeit one armed with nuclear weapons? Indeed, a month later, this posture was reiterated. On March 26, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered his military chiefs “to keep the strategic nuclear forces on high alert.”
Whatever were the Russian president’s motives, as long as he is in power, at least Russian troops attacking sovereign countries deemed by the Kremlin as posing a “threat” to its security interests could expect to be shielded by a blatant waving of the nuclear card from the get-go. The implications to the Baltic states, Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, all former satellite countries of the Soviet Union and now NATO members, could not be starker.
Little wonder that the Biden administration and a host of European chiefs reacted by stating that NATO will defend “every inch” of the alliance’s territory. Yet the question remains whether Putin regards this commitment as credible and what price he is willing to pay to secure Russia against future “threats.”
In the meantime, if Putin’s strategic goals are eventually achieved in Ukraine, the world could plunge into chaos. Armed conflicts in Europe and possibly the Far East will become more likely. The risks of a WWIII erupting will rise concomitantly. Even if not, future conflicts would likely become unlimited in scope and methods of fighting such as indiscriminate attacks on civilians would become a matter of routine. Also, the shielding by a nuclear umbrella of military forces on the attack will likely result in the more frequent and widespread use of non-conventional weapons such as chemical munitions.
Lastly, if Russia eventually succeeds in coercing Ukraine to accept its territorial and other demands, incentives for nuclear proliferation will be exacerbated. Numerous countries will join the race to the bomb, seeking to apply the new Putin doctrine to their particular circumstances.
Given these dire predictions, it is imperative that the invasion of Ukraine be a strategic failure and that Putin’s appetite for future power projections is curtailed for good. Nothing less than the peace of the world depends on assuring this outcome.
Avigdor Haselkorn is a strategic analyst and the author of books, articles, and op-eds on national security issues.