Is the war in Ukraine stumbling into a nuclear phase?

By Derk Jan Eppink (Member of the Parliament of the Netherlands (JA21-ECR), formerly an MEP and a journalist)

Seth Cropsey, a former U.S. top military officer, published his vision on the war in Ukraine in The Wall Street Journal on 27 April, writing: “The U.S. should show it can win a nuclear war.” However, what does “winning” mean in case of a conflict with a nuclear power s prepared to deploy nuclear weapons? The war in Ukraine is increasingly turning into a war between Russia and the United States, albeit on Ukrainian soil. A war by proxy.

On 9 May, Russia celebrated its victory over Nazi Germany with a large parade on the Red Square in Moscow, showcasing Russian nuclear weapons, as a big warning to foreign countries. This includes the Sarmat, Russia’s most modern intercontinental missile.

For a long time after the Cold War had ended, the West saw such parades as empty displays of power. For decades, the United States, the Soviet Union and Europe have been discussing controlling their nuclear weapons: from the SALT I and II Treaties, to START and New START. Over the years, that discussion died down, but the nuclear weapons remained, as they were also modernised in the meantime. Today, a generation of politicians that did not consciously experience the Cold War, with political leaders for whom a nuclear conflict is akin to a Hollywood film, is in charge.

Nuclear power as life insurance

Already in 1957, in his book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, Henry Kissinger described the essence of a conflict with a nuclear power. He stated that a country with nuclear weapons will not capitulate without first having used them. This makes a conflict with a nuclear power by definition different from a conflict with a country without nuclear weapons. For the regime in North Korea, for example, and soon perhaps Iran as well, nuclear power is a kind of life insurance. That certainly applies to the Kremlin.

The war in Ukraine requires that politicians who talk about ‘winning’ – like the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, – gain more insight into Russian nuclear doctrine, which is a legacy from Soviet times. Russian military thinking is based on power and huge explosions with the most powerful guns or bombs, like the hydrogen bomb (nicknamed the Tsar Bomb). Here, destruction comes before precision. This nineteenth-century pattern of warfare was visible during the Tsarist Empire as well as the Soviet era and it can be witnessed today under President Vladimir Putin.

Russia’s status is based on its nuclear power

Russia’s status as a great power is not based on its economy – Russia’s gross national product is about the size of the countries forming the Benelux. Russia’s status is founded on its nuclear power, which rivals the nuclear potential of the United States. In 1982, the Soviet Union made a «no first use declaration»: Moscow would not be the first to deploy nuclear weapons. This promise was made during the discussion about placing American medium-range missiles in Western Europe. This helped the peace movement. It should however be recalled that at that point, the Soviet Union had already stationed SS-20 missiles itself.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Russia abandoned its no-first-use policy, in 1993, and it introduced the strategy of preventive nuclear attack. This involves Russia reserving itself the right to strike first as soon as it faces a nuclear threat. This definition has been increasingly broadened. When the nuclear doctrine was redefined in 2010, it also included a conventional attack threathening the survival of the Russian state and its institutions. In 2020, the doctrine was strengthened further. It now also applies to a conventional attack on military bases in Russia, after which Moscow will use tactical nuclear weapons to deter the attacker. This policy is called «escalate to de-escalate» and it applies in the current war with Ukraine.

A thin dividing line of what constitutes «war»

Today, we find ourselves on a thin dividing line of what constitutes «war». The West, in particular the United States, is supplying more and more valuable military equipment to Ukraine. Initially, the arms deliveries were intended to repel the Russian attack, which partly worked.

The question is whether the supply of modern weapons is helping Ukraine or whether it is fuelling the conflict.

Another question is whether Russia, with its tactical nuclear weapons, is in the process of moving to “escalation in a bid to de-escalate. We are, as it were, slipping imperceptibly into the nuclear phase. That is a major change in the nature of the conflict.

Politicians without a memory of the Cold War will not hear the alarm bells. Then the battle is no longer about Ukraine’s sovereignty, which should be the objective, but about the competitive struggle between two nuclear powers.

The command to deploy nuclear weapons is riskier in Russia today than it was during Soviet times. During the Cuban crisis in 1962, the explosive character of Soviet Party leader Nikita Khrushchev did not seem the best guarantee for a controlled nuclear policy. Fortunately, a hotline was installed: a direct line of communication between the White House and the Kremlin. Under Leonid Brezhnev, who took office in 1964, collective leadership was installed, with more power for the Politburo. Secretary-General Brezhnev was a ruler, but not an autocrat. Putin is a de facto autocrat. Power does emerge from the party, but from the person. The ultimate decision power belongs to him.

A stalemate is needed for a way out of the conflict

The way out of the conflict in Ukraine must be found through negotiations. For that, a stalemate is needed, so that none of the parties has anything to gain. Continuing a war of attrition does not yield anything. Only then will there by a step from the battlefield to the negotiation table.

There, a route to the exit can be found, with questions like: «What should be on the agenda», «what are the goals of each party», and «what room is there for agreements?» With a final compromise, there would be some ‘wins and lose’ for each party. Nobody would be the big ‘winner’.

However, those recklessly pushing for nuclear war will make everyone a loser.

Originally published in Dutch by Elsevier Weekblad

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