Loose talk costs lives

By Paul Ingram*

30 November 2022

The Russian leadership’s decision to invade Ukraine, its loose talk around the risks of nuclear exchange, and the behaviour of its troops in theatre deserve strong condemnation. Russian action in 2022 has heightened international insecurity, set back cooperation to tackle the biggest issues of our time, and could end up being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people even without using nuclear weapons.

But commentary in western media can also be fast and loose with the truth around the conflict and its origins; and our own reactions to Russia’s actions could have devasting implications. We need to step carefully and maximise the chances of resolving this terrible conflict. We also need to avoid our own loose talk and drawing the wrong conclusions, particularly around the efficacy of nuclear weapons.

NATO Review is no stranger to cavalier and polarising analysis that damages the chances of dialogue with Russia, but its latest article on ‘Russia’s nuclear coercion in Ukraine’ is a particularly partial and painful read. It reflects misleading and dangerous memes frequently repeated within NATO’s echo chambers.

It starts by suggesting that Russia brought back the nuclear spectre to Europe in 2022, when it has been haunting the continent non-stop for 75 years. Blame for the failures to capitalise upon the relative calm of the 1990s and the multitude of events that led up to the invasion of Ukraine go in both directions, but try suggesting degrees of NATO culpability and you’ll now be labelled a Russian apologist.

Let’s start with the article’s claim that ‘Russian President Vladimir Putin has brandished his country’s nuclear sword in an attempt to compel Ukraine to capitulate’. Any consumer of western reports could be forgiven for thinking this, but this statement is untrue in two key dimensions.

First, the Russian intention is clear – to deter NATO from explicitly joining the fight. The warnings focus upon the greatly increased likelihood of nuclear war should nuclear armed states fight one another. So far, the threat has not been aimed at Ukraine in any direct manner, even whilst most talk outside of Russia has implied this.

Secondly, whatever it is that Russia is up to, it is not compellance, which is about attempting to force another state to actively do something (capitulate does not fit this bill!). The article rightly points to strong academic scholarship showing that that nuclear compellance is rarely if ever effective, yet it commits a simple category error in placing Russian ‘nuclear threats’ under this classification.

The article also claims that ‘Putin has used… the threat of nuclear weapons to consolidate [his] territorial annexations’ without evidence. There have been no declarations making any such threat. Russian nuclear doctrine only justifies the possible use of nuclear weapons if the ‘very existence’ of the Russian Federation is under question, or nuclear weapons are used against them. Claims that Russia is set on defending captured territory with nuclear weapons are dangerous because they raise the stakes and bait the Russian leadership into contemplating such foolish ideas. Irresponsible commentators often imply a hair-trigger (nuclear) response if either Russia or NATO territory is invaded, and yet no such doctrine exists. On NATO’s side, Article V simply describes an attack on one member state as an attack on all. There is no explicit commitment to particular (nuclear) retaliation.

There is a more difficult but equally important point to make here. The Russian leadership has not made any direct and explicit nuclear threats on anyone, though its leadership has certainly bragged about its fearsome nuclear capabilities and the dangers that states run in joining the conflict in Ukraine. This may sound pedantic, but Russia is far from being the only nuclear weapon state to engage in the sort of irresponsible rhetoric we have heard in recent months. And overstating Russia’s rhetoric only raises the temperature and encourages escalation.

Perhaps the most dangerous of the article’s claims for the longer term are those reflected widely across our media, that the war ‘strongly underscores the deterrent value of nuclear weapons’. Specifically, it claims that ‘had Ukraine possessed nuclear weapons in 2022, Russia almost certainly would not have invaded’. This is said, even though it then points out that Ukraine never had control of the nuclear weapons on its territory, nor the capability to take control. In any case, the international community was dead set on supporting the plans to repatriate the weapons to Russia. It is true that we probably would not have seen the Russian invasion in 2022 had Ukraine developed its own nuclear arsenal. But this would have been because we would now be living in a very different world, one with more nuclear armed states, probably without an operational non-proliferation treaty, and a Ukraine outcast by the West and more strategically reliant upon Russia.

In today’s world, the evidence that nuclear deterrence itself has worked for both Russia and NATO in this war remains highly speculative, and is rooted in a strong availability bias. Pro-deterrence analysts see nuclear weapons as effective today because they choose to do so and are blind to the alternatives. Would NATO have joined Ukraine in fighting the war or imposing a no-fly zone had Russia not threatened a nuclear response? Possibly. But we cannot be sure. That is a different world. And the consequences could have been far worse. Maybe the Chinese would have joined the Russians.

And where is the evidence proving that nuclear weapons are the principal deterrence preventing Putin’s imperial designs over NATO states? It seems likely that NATO has indeed played a significant role in mediating relationships between Russia and eastern European members, but it is only one of several dynamics at play. We all need a little more humility when making bold conclusions about the counter-factuals and asserting our beliefs in connection with weapon systems that have not seen action for over 77 years. Especially when the consequences of one’s actions – such as competing in a devasting nuclear arms race – are so significant.

It is certainly possible that the opposite effect could emerge, that over the coming months nuclear deterrence may prove to be a chimera. Already it is clear, as stated by the authors, that Russian nuclear weapons have not deterred the Ukrainians. NATO members are not deterred from arming them with sophisticated weapon systems. Outcomes in this war seem to rely far more upon other tactics and military technologies. We are seeing one of several modern wars heavily influenced by smart and targeted disruptive tech involving automated robotics, sensors and accurate long-range missiles.

Those hooked on the idea that a full spectrum dominance is needed at every level of the nuclear escalation ladder in order to achieve deterrence and stability tend to have some kind of prior interest in expanded nuclear forces. The authors of this NATO Review article are clearly nuclear radicals that believe that NATO needs to prepare to fight and win a nuclear war, contradicting several recent official international statements about the impossibility of doing such a thing. They ask, ‘is NATO equipped to respond credibly to Russian threats of nuclear escalation?’, before bizarrely appearing to suggest that aside from the new W76-2 low-yield Trident nuclear warhead, NATO’s only capacity to meet the Russian tactical nuclear threat is the B61 gravity bombs based in Europe.

The B61s and their highly vulnerable dual capable aircraft have no strategic military relevance at all. They are political whims designed to signal political unity behind nuclear deterrence within the Alliance. They are to do with assurance, not deterrence. US military planners choose to rely instead on US conventional or strategic forces with far greater assurance, flexibility and rapid response.

Arms control is more important now than ever, and offers off-ramps if we can draw Russia into the discussions they were demanding and the West refusing on European security prior to the invasion. We cannot allow cynicism or competition to get in the way, whatever the so-called ‘optics’. It does not demand the ‘mutual confidence’ claimed by the authors –negotiators simply needed patience and mutual self-preservation incentives to conclude the defining Cold War agreements over nuclear weapons.

In contrast, emphasising ‘the key questions’ over Russia’s ability to compete in technology development, the authors implicitly suggest that NATO ride out a second extended arms race with a hope of winning (again?). In the meantime, the international community’s capacity to ride out the escalating global catastrophic risks is shot to pieces.

* Paul Ingram is Academic Programme Manager and Senior Research Associate at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge. Paul has several decades experience leading diverse and multicultural teams to impact decisions on existential threats, particularly nuclear war. He was the Executive Director of the transatlantic British American Security Information Council (BASIC) 2007-19, focusing on nuclear deterrence and disarmament issues in the US, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Since 2019 he has worked closely with the Swedish Foreign Ministry crafting the Stepping Stones Approach. The associated 16-nation Stockholm Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament has become a widely-acknowledged glimmer of hope for the NPT Review process.