There is a wide-ranging debate about what NATO’s goal should be in Ukraine, from immediate cease-fire at the present line of contact to full return of occupied Ukrainian territory, including all of the Donbas and Crimea. This wide range of views arises from the uncertain balance between concern, on the one hand, that one country should not be permitted to seize territory from another by force and, on the other, concern about the catastrophic consequences of triggering a nuclear war.
Neither NATO’s mandate nor its resources permit it to prevent all inter-state military aggression. However, as a nuclear-armed alliance it has specific interest in resisting, by conventional means, nuclear-backed conventional military aggression. This is because the demonstration of the lack of utility of nuclear weapons as a shield for conventional territorial aggression would be of great stabilizing and nonproliferation value for NATO and for the world. It would reduce the temptation of nuclear-armed states to seize nearby territory by force and also reduce the impetus for non-nuclear-armed states to acquire nuclear weapons for self-defense. Furthermore, it would make a future NATO policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons much more palatable to our allies.
Let us posit, then, that NATO should define its overarching strategic objective in Ukraine to be that “Russia should not gain territory through nuclear coercion.”
At the outset of Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin put his nuclear forces on a “special regime of combat duty,” and in his speeches of September 21 and September 30, 2022, he threatened to use nuclear weapons to achieve his territorial objectives. Therefore, the strategic objective posited here clearly implies that NATO should back Ukraine in regaining territory occupied by Russian forces since its 2022 invasion. In 2015, Putin indicated that he had been ready to put Russian nuclear forces on alert during the crisis over its 2014 annexation of Crimea. Thus, while the strategic goal defined here indicates that NATO should prioritize aiding Ukraine in regaining territory lost since February 2022, it also provides justification for aiding Ukraine to return fully to its internationally recognized borders. This flexibility is consistent with NATO’s policy of “Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.”
The statements by the Biden administration about the “catastrophic” consequences for Russia of nuclear use seem to have been effective in causing the Kremlin to moderate its threats of late. Realistically, the use of one or a few battlefield nuclear weapons would have little military utility. The scale of nuclear weapon use needed to be militarily significant, by contrast, is large, resulting not only in immense destruction but also widespread nuclear contamination. If Russia were to commit the horrific atrocity of attacking Ukrainian cities with nuclear weapons, full international isolation would be certain and President Biden’s statement about the risk of Armageddon would be particularly apt. Thus, Russia is strongly deterred from using nuclear weapons at any scale—but this does not mean that the risk can be neglected. The near and longer-term risks of nuclear war should motivate NATO to provide President Putin with a means to vacate Ukrainian territory without disgrace, while strengthening strategic stability in Europe.
If NATO achieves the overarching strategic objective posited here—demonstrating the uselessness of a nuclear arsenal as cover for military aggression—this will be a valuable lesson for all nations. To provide an incentive for Putin to accept such an outcome, the United States and NATO should offer to negotiate with Russia on a set of strategic stability arrangements that addresses the concerns implicit in the proposals by Russia to the United States and NATO before the invasion. These arrangements, however, should benefit NATO as well as Russia. Indeed, the Biden administration is attempting to re-open such discussions. Elements of such arrangements could include:
In sum, NATO should adopt an overarching strategic objective in Ukraine that Russia should not gain territory through nuclear coercion. The Biden administration’s clarity about the consequences of nuclear weapon use have been effective, but the risk remains. Therefore, the United States and NATO should offer Moscow win-win steps towards strategic stability in Europe. These steps would be beneficial to the West, address concerns Putin raised in the months before the invasion of Ukraine, and make it politically feasible for Putin to withdraw Russian forces from Ukrainian territory, providing for a more stable Europe, and world, in the future.
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