Has the Russia-Ukraine war blown up the global nuclear order?

By Lauren Sukin | June 28, 2022

illustration of chess pieces made of flags of the nine nuclear weapons states falling over with Ukrainian flag in the backgroundIllustration by Thomas Gaulkin

The Russian nuclear saber-rattling that has accompanied the invasion of Ukraine represents a level of nuclear risk unprecedented since the end of the Cold War. One wonders how global nuclear politics will adapt to these changing circumstances. The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war poses major challenges for several core international institutions and issues, from the upcoming Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference to President Biden’s proposed arms control efforts with Russia and China.

Perhaps the most pressing nuclear security question coming out of the war is whether Russia will use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin and various spokesmen for the Kremlin have repeatedly made statements threatening the use of nuclear weapons and defining conditions for their use that could allow the Russian military to attack Ukrainian forces with nuclear weapons. Indeed, Russia has used the same language in the context of the invasion as can be found in its nuclear doctrine. Russian nuclear doctrine specifically reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to any “existential threats,” including any non-nuclear threats that meet a nebulous ‘existential’ threshold.

Unfortunately, Russian disinformation around non-existent Ukrainian efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, the Russian intellectual tradition that thinks of Ukraine as rightful Russian territory, and Putin’s personalistic leadership style all mean this criterion could fairly easily be met. At a recent workshop held by Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and the Global Security Institute, former US ambassador to Ukraine Steve Pifer explained: “The concern I have is that, if Russia is losing this war… that is not existential for Russia, but it is perhaps existential for Putin, and that is where I start to get concerned about the use of nuclear weapons.” That Putin might be willing to use nuclear weapons to preserve his own power is a harrowing possibility—one that his position as an autocratic leader may enable. If Putin favors nuclear use, he is unlikely to experience pushback either from within his government or from the general Russian public. Dissuading and deterring Russian nuclear use, then, must remain an essential political objective for the United States and its NATO allies.

While some have argued that any nuclear use from Russia would likely be limited to a single demonstration—such as a high-altitude test, which would be intended not to cause any direct casualties—others have predicted more dire forms of possible Russian nuclear use. For example, Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, says that “if Putin is going to use a nuclear weapon, he’s going to use it. He’s not going to do a demonstration.” After all, Russia has little need to demonstrate its nuclear capabilities; the extent of its resources is well known. A nuclear demonstration could even be counterproductive, showing that Russia is unwilling to use nuclear weapons tactically and thereby undermining nuclear deterrence.

These complex dynamics suggest that, should Putin feel the need to use nuclear weapons to offset military losses (or simply to stay in power), Russia could ultimately use nuclear weapons on the battlefield. And we may already be edging closer to that possibility. Former deputy secretary general of NATO and former US under secretary of state for arms control and international security Rose Gottemoeller puts the chances of Russian nuclear use at “greater than one percent.” After all, Russia has already suffered significant losses, including—by Ukrainian estimates—up to 30,000 fatalities, the ascension of Finland and Sweden to NATO’s ranks, as well as damage and destruction to thousands of pieces of its heavy military equipment, including the sinking of Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s prized Black Sea fleet.

To prevent global catastrophe, governments must first admit there’s a problem

Philip Taubman, the former Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times, tells me: “I think it’s impossible to over-state the pathetic performance of the Russian military during the initial stage of its invasion in Ukraine. Combine that with the American rhetoric about degrading the [Russian] military to the point where they can no longer pose a threat, and you are inevitably pushing the Kremlin toward nuclear weapons. That is the singular danger of this war, more than anything.” Even a limited nuclear strike on an isolated military base or in a remote area would do irreparable and long-term environmental damage, shatter expectations around civilian immunity and the non-use of nuclear weapons in warfare, and even potentially spiral out of control.

Fortunately, there are some steps the United States can take to reduce the possibility of Russian nuclear use. The United States can work to make it clear to Russian leaders that there would be a major global response if Russia were to use nuclear weapons. Engaging Russia’s partners—including China, India, and states throughout the Global South—to reaffirm the threat of political and economic fallout from any nuclear use would be essential. The United States can also continue to reiterate its security guarantees to its allies in order to strengthen extended deterrence. “The best way to prevent [Russian nuclear use is by] thinking about how to deter a crisis like this from ever happening again,” says Stanford University professor Scott Sagan. “All of the options now are very risky and very frightening. We should be privately telling the Russians that the use of nuclear weapons against a city is a war crime, and we have a history of tracking down war criminals.”

Unfortunately, even if Putin refrains from using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, the course of the war has already contributed to eroding the nuclear taboo, or the tradition of the non-use of nuclear weapons. Russia’s nuclear threats and its attacks on nuclear facilities, including the Chernobyl exclusion zone and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, represent major departures from the norms that guided previous conflicts. Rebuilding these norms will be a critical global challenge moving forward.

Russian attacks on nuclear power plants may also complicate the future of energy security. European states are now faced with an important conundrum. To reduce reliance on Russian oil and gas, they may need to revitalize their domestic energy programs, including nuclear power and renewables. But energy transitions can take decades. At the same time, Russia has long held a central role in the global construction of nuclear power plants, exporting nuclear technology and nuclear fuel as well as managing nuclear waste. Continued global development of nuclear power will be exceedingly difficult to do independently of Russia. Moreover, Russian actions have stressed one of the many possible risks of operating nuclear power plants. By attacking nuclear power plants and even forcing operators to work multi-day shifts at gunpoint, Russia not only violated a critical norm against warfighting at or near nuclear facilities but also emphasized the vulnerability of these facilities to terrorists, mercenaries, and foreign militaries. Gottemoeller even likens Russia’s actions against Ukrainian nuclear facilities to “nuclear terrorism.”

The ongoing war in Ukraine is also likely to shape the development of military strategy in Europe, including through the decision-making process around the new NATO Strategic Concept. NATO’s current doctrine was designed with a focus on developing new goals and areas of cooperation for its members during peacetime. But today’s wartime conditions will demand a different strategic design for the new Concept. A regrouped effort to counteract Russian aggression and a renewed focus on nuclear deterrence are both likely to be up for discussion at the Madrid summit to be held June 28-30, 2022, where NATO members will write and adopt the new Concept. At the summit, NATO states will be challenged to devise a strategy that at once highlights the importance of deterring Russian nuclear aggression and, at the same time, promotes norms and policies of nuclear restraint, including through arms control and disarmament efforts.

Texas wildfires force major nuclear weapons facility to briefly pause operations

While the war highlights the pressing need for expanded arms control arrangements with Russia, returning to the agreement made by Presidents Biden and Putin to conduct strategic stability dialogues will be exceedingly difficult. Can the conditions for productive arms control with Russia be restored? Pifer tells me he is pessimistic. “There are two things that would have to change,” he says. “Putin has to leave [office] and there have to be real policy changes by his successor to demonstrate that Russia is changing course.” Yet continuing to push for limits on non-strategic nuclear warheads and designing ways to integrate European allies into the monitoring and verification processes for future arms control efforts will be critical, even if there is an uphill battle ahead. The United States can also continue to work toward disarmament and nonproliferation efforts elsewhere around the world, including through arms control dialogues with China. These efforts can help contribute to global strategic stability, even if cooperation with Russia is, for the moment, unlikely.

However important, international arms control and nonproliferation efforts will be more difficult in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Hecker explains that Putin has “blown up the global nuclear order… The global order has allowed us to have the benefits outweigh the risks of nuclear energy. And I see that order being destroyed by what Putin has done in Ukraine, every facet—from nuclear deterrence, to nonproliferation, to the prevention of nuclear terrorism, and the future of nuclear power.” That fallout will undoubtedly extend to the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference, which begins on August 1, 2022, as Russia’s nuclear threat-making has exacerbated demands for strengthened extended deterrence and shaped warming interest in nuclear proliferation among NATO and other US allies. Managing dual pressures from the need for stronger nuclear deterrence alongside condemnations of the failure of the United States and other nuclear powers to progress toward disarmament will force US officials to walk a thin tightrope throughout the review conference.

The Russia-Ukraine war will have dire consequences for the future of the nuclear order. Not only has the war raised the specter of a possible nuclear use, but it has also devolved norms around the use of nuclear weapons and the protection of nuclear facilities during wartime. Russian nuclear aggression has decimated the chances of continued cooperation on arms control, nuclear power production, and nonproliferation efforts. But if the United States is to work toward the challenging, yet all-important goal of global strategic stability, it cannot do so alone. Cooperation between the United States and Russia has long been a cornerstone of the global nuclear order. Restoring and reinforcing that order will require finding ways to bring Russia once again to the negotiating table.

Together, we make the world safer.

The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent nonprofit organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.

Get alerts about this thread
Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jack Gilroy
1 year ago

Russia, attacked by the West multiple times over the centuries, has justifiable paranoias in light of NATO’S encroachment along its borders. If NATO. wants peace with Russia and wants to reduce the growing possibility of Russian tactical nuclear use, it needs to be doing just the opposite of what it is now doing–increasing the paranoia of Russia with more bases, American troops sent to Poland and Romania, missiles in border nations on Russia’s western flank—all building to another Cuban Missile style crisis.

1 year ago
Reply to  Jack Gilroy

Putin chose war; a defensive alliance had nothing to do with it by his own admission. If we end up in a nuclear crisis, it will be Putin’s doing. His bellicose threats of using nukes are escalating the nuclear tensions, as are his proclamations that sanctions are war.

He is either bluffing, or he expects to use nuclear weapons. I say raise our nuclear forces to the highest level of alert and see if his rhetoric continues. If a bluff, he will back down. If he expects to use them, well, we were going to get there anyway.


Receive Email