As the war in Ukraine rages, several experts have raised the fear that Russia is becoming more likely to launch a nuclear weapon – writes Stephen J. Blank .
Two serious observers, former Defense Attaché to Moscow, BG Kevin Ryan (USA Ret), and the Israeli scholar Dmitry (Dima) Adamsky, have each argued that the nuclear option, despite diminishing fear of its use by the West, is an increasing likely Russian option.
Suppose Russian President Vladimir Putin does follow through with his nuclear threats. In that case, he will have shown that unsatisfied imperial longings could trigger Armageddon and that conventional war cannot be easily deterred from escalating, breaking the nuclear taboo.
These “demonstrations” highlight, inter alia, the perpetual insecurity inherent in nuclear weaponry. Their very existence may compel their use, which leads states to believe they can attack non-nuclear states with impunity since nobody wants atomic war. When pleasant illusions flounder on the rocks of reality dictators like Putin, who cannot countenance defeat or failure, may ultimately rely on nuclear use, not just threats, to retrieve their positions. Even if Putin uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine, it is difficult to see how that will grant him victory rather than enmesh him and Russia in even greater crises.
Elsewhere this author has argued that nuclear use in Ukraine will not grant Putin victory. Nevertheless, the Russian leader remains wedded to the threat of its use in defiance of what many deterrence theorists believe to be rational assessments of the situation. Putin may not be a rational actor, and human rationality is not universal. Moreover, there is no doubt that should Putin break the nuclear taboo, this will lead other authoritarian leaders in China, North Korea, Pakistan, and potentially Iran, to regard following suit as increasing.
We can also be sure that nuclear use in Ukraine will lead other potential proliferators, especially in the Middle East, to redouble their quest for these weapons, not wishing to share Ukraine’s fate. The possession of these weapons is inherently dangerous and a significant cause of global insecurity while also testifying to a dearth of statesmanship regarding the dangers they pose to humanity.
Not all world leaders held the zero-sum view of nuclear security. Here we might take a page from the vision of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the founding father and first President of Kazakhstan. Based on his own rejection of nukes and popular revulsion at Soviet nuclear testing that had made hundreds of thousands ill, and created environmental disasters in large parts of Kazakhstan, and to forestall international and regional nuclear-based rivalries involving Kazakhstan, he renounced and dismantled Kazakhstan’s Soviet-era nuclear inheritance. This culminated in the creation of a nuclear weapons-free zone in Central Asia. The UN’s five permanent nuclear powers (P-5) guaranteed the agreement.
Nazarbayev even went on to establish Kazakhstan as a recognized centre for conflict mediation processes, grasping that the great power rivalries around Central Asia from Russia, China, India, and Iran could lead to the local loss of agency. These actions are among the reasons why Central Asia, for all its problems, has defied the predictions of major conflict among or within its member states, and the great power rivalries that surround it have also not led to hostilities there. Unfortunately, Nazarbayev’s insight that nuclear weapons add to insecurity and detract from mutual confidence is today in danger of being lost in our time’s increasingly militarized and polarized international order.
Despite the argument made by nuclear proliferators that nuclear weapons are essential because the fates of Iraq, Libya, and now Ukraine show what happens to smaller states which stand in the way of the great power, Russia’s experience indicates that nuclear weapons do not bring it any more status, or usable or successful military power. Despite what a cursory cynic may argue, Nazarbayev’s legacy has stood up to demanding tests of time and reality. Russia’s frequent and habitual brandishing of its nuclear arsenal has failed to achieve enhanced security or status for Moscow—quite the opposite, given the Kremlin’s increasingly eroding soft power and lack of any other leverage.
Meanwhile, despite economic, political, and ecological challenges, Central Asia remains at peace – and a magnet for foreign investment. There is a lesson here for politicians, political leaders, and those aspiring to that status to ponder. It incontrovertibly argues for nonproliferation as a solid foundation for security and regional tranquillity.
We cannot uninvent nuclear weapons. But we can and should do more and think more seriously about preventing their spread and the temptation to use or develop them. As Ukraine shows, the supposed “firebreak” between conventional war and escalation to the nuclear level is no longer anywhere as straightforward as it once was presumed to be. If Ukraine is attacked with nuclear weapons, Russia risks the apocalypse and destroys all future nonproliferation. We require political leaders endowed with the right balance of realism and idealism concerning the dangers of using force. Here, lessons from Kazakhstan and its first President Nazarbayev remain not only timely but urgent.
Dr. Stephen J. Blank is Senior Fellow at FPRI’s Eurasia Program. He has published or edited 15 books and over 900 articles and monographs on Soviet/Russian, U.S., Asian, and European military, and foreign policies.