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We Need to Talk About Nuclear Weapons Again

Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats plunge the West into a debate it’s not ready for.

By , a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague, and , a professor of international security at the University of Nottingham.
Activists wearing masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden pose with mock nuclear missiles in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Jan. 29, 2021.
Activists wearing masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden pose with mock nuclear missiles in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Jan. 29, 2021.
Activists wearing masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden pose with mock nuclear missiles in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Jan. 29, 2021. JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

At the beginning of the Ukraine invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his country’s nuclear forces to be placed on high alert and ominously threatened Russia’s adversaries with “consequences you have never seen in history.” By doing so, he added a frightening nuclear dimension to his unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine that has destabilized Europe’s post-1945 security system. Western political and security officials have been left reeling, both from the attack on a neighboring country and the heightened Russian nuclear alert. Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove has pointed out that that although Putin was known for being a prudent risk-taker, his penchant for taking risks has grown. Some even doubt he is still a rational actor. These doubts have been reinforced with the reckless Russian shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine.

Putin’s actions have plunged NATO back into what long seemed like a bygone age: the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, when the risk of hot confrontation and unpredictable escalation into nuclear conflict was a real possibility. In an attempt to manage that risk, both sides practiced the skills of military strategy and weighed their actions by the arcane theology of nuclear deterrence. Applying this Cold War mindset today is a major challenge for several reasons.

One reason Putin’s nuclear threats caught the West on the back foot is clearly Western capitals’ inexperience in engaging over the nuclear issue. Expertise that existed during the Cold War on Soviet military thinking was allowed to dissipate as Russia’s threat diminished. As Alexey Arbatov, a former member of the Russian State Duma and deputy chairperson of the State Duma’s Defense Committee, pointed out, “In global politics, particularly when it comes to nuclear issues, words are deeds.” Following the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, both Soviet and U.S. leaders exercised great caution in their rhetoric on nuclear weapons. The current situation may be considerably worse than the Cold War since previous generations of leaders gained experience in dealing with crises relating to the threat of nuclear war, allowing them to navigate the dangers and avert a nuclear catastrophe.

At the beginning of the Ukraine invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his country’s nuclear forces to be placed on high alert and ominously threatened Russia’s adversaries with “consequences you have never seen in history.” By doing so, he added a frightening nuclear dimension to his unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine that has destabilized Europe’s post-1945 security system. Western political and security officials have been left reeling, both from the attack on a neighboring country and the heightened Russian nuclear alert. Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove has pointed out that that although Putin was known for being a prudent risk-taker, his penchant for taking risks has grown. Some even doubt he is still a rational actor. These doubts have been reinforced with the reckless Russian shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine.

Putin’s actions have plunged NATO back into what long seemed like a bygone age: the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, when the risk of hot confrontation and unpredictable escalation into nuclear conflict was a real possibility. In an attempt to manage that risk, both sides practiced the skills of military strategy and weighed their actions by the arcane theology of nuclear deterrence. Applying this Cold War mindset today is a major challenge for several reasons.

One reason Putin’s nuclear threats caught the West on the back foot is clearly Western capitals’ inexperience in engaging over the nuclear issue. Expertise that existed during the Cold War on Soviet military thinking was allowed to dissipate as Russia’s threat diminished. As Alexey Arbatov, a former member of the Russian State Duma and deputy chairperson of the State Duma’s Defense Committee, pointed out, “In global politics, particularly when it comes to nuclear issues, words are deeds.” Following the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, both Soviet and U.S. leaders exercised great caution in their rhetoric on nuclear weapons. The current situation may be considerably worse than the Cold War since previous generations of leaders gained experience in dealing with crises relating to the threat of nuclear war, allowing them to navigate the dangers and avert a nuclear catastrophe.

Today’s Western leaders and policymakers, however, do not have the benefit of this experience. Even after the Kremlin began a major rearmament program around 2007 and became militarily embroiled in Georgia, Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and Syria, this body of expertise was not systematically rebuilt. Similarly, the logic of nuclear deterrence, with its subtleties of signaling and risks of inadvertent escalation, has not been exercised for a very long time. Those in positions of power will have to quickly relearn the lessons acquired by their predecessors.

A second reason why the nuclear dimension of Putin’s war comes as such a shock to the West is that the old framework of European security and U.S.-Russian agreements mostly dating from the end of the Cold War has gradually disappeared. These supported the structuring of the West’s military competition with Russia and provided guidelines for the regulation of the relationship. Yet these agreements became the casualties of increasingly tense relations between the two sides. In 2007, Russia suspended its participation in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, signed in 1990 to regulate the size of military forces on the continent. In 2019, the United States announced its withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that prohibited nuclear missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (310 to 3,420 miles). Other nuclear arms control agreements that have been abrogated include the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, from which the United States withdrew in 2002. Only the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, signed in 2010, remains in place. A dangerous vacuum now exists in the security domain between the East and West.

With the West’s advantage in conventional forces, Russia has openly expressed its readiness to escalate from a conventional to a nuclear war.

A third factor making nuclear doctrine more complicated today is that deterrence itself may be less relevant in the contemporary environment. As early as 2007, U.S. statesmen—such as former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Sen. Sam Nunn, and former Defense Secretary William Perry—argued that nuclear deterrence had become ineffective and dangerous, bringing with it a risk of unintentional use of nuclear weapons. This state of affairs has been exacerbated by new technological developments. In 2018, Putin announced plans to deploy a number of new nuclear systems, including hypersonic glide vehicles, underwater nuclear drones, and a nuclear-powered cruise missile. At the same time, developments in cyberwarfare pose new threats that could have disastrous consequences if the command-and-control systems of any nuclear weapons state were to be damaged by reckless hackers.

Unfortunately, Putin has shown no interest in reducing the importance that Russia attaches to its nuclear arsenal and is unrestrained in his use of dangerous rhetoric. On the contrary: There has been a heightened emphasis on such systems as guarantors of Moscow’s international prestige. In a 2014 speech, Putin referred explicitly to Russia’s strategic weapons when he declared that other states “should understand it’s best not to mess with us.” With the West’s advantage in conventional forces—made even more apparent by the Russian military’s slower-than-expected advance in Ukraine—Russia has been open in expressing its readiness to escalate from a conventional to a nuclear war. According to the amended Russian military doctrine approved in 2014, “The Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is threatened.” For anyone who has followed Putin’s rhetoric of late, it is very easy to imagine him viewing the thwarting of his geopolitical objectives as synonymous with Russia’s very existence being at stake.

In the face of the Russian challenge, the West needs to think about both short-term and long-term strategies. In the short term, the United States and its allies should focus on proposals that could persuade Putin to withdraw his military forces from Ukraine and desist from threatening the territory of neighboring countries. For example, in return for dismantling sanctions and giving the Kremlin security guarantees, NATO will have to develop a strategic posture that reassures front-line members while avoiding the buildup of forces on Russia’s border. In the longer term, NATO must strive to rebuild a security architecture that addresses some of the leading areas of tension between the East and West, both conventional and nuclear. Arms control has a vital part to play in closing vulnerabilities and helping to create confidence among potential adversaries. Although it cannot transform an adversarial relationship, it can generate an atmosphere in which dialogue comes to replace confrontation and where the discussion of fears can begin to establish trust.

In this bleak moment, aspirations to cultivate a new security system in Europe may appear idealistic. Yet the alternative is a downward spiral that could ultimately lead to an East-West conflagration, either by design or miscalculation. Past experience, such as the shift from detente to renewed U.S.-Soviet confrontation in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the early 1980s, shows us how a period of dangerous East-West confrontation was followed by an unexpected era of landmark arms control agreements that were crucial and pivotal for restoring trust.

Azriel Bermant is a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague.

Wyn Rees is a professor of international security at the University of Nottingham.

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