Clausewitz’s dictum that war is politics by other means, if ignored, can pave the path to total war. The instrumental nature of the tools of statecraft, like military, diplomacy and economy is often blindsided to political rationale during wars. The war in Ukraine that has been ongoing for four weeks now has not been an exception. The logic driving the modalities of application of the instruments has to subserve the political objectives sought to be achieved. If nuclear weapons come into play, it would undoubtedly be an existential threat to humanity. The central problem is that the use of nuclear weapons can acquire a logic of its own that is disconnected from political rationality.
Russia cast the nuclear shadow over the world on the 24 February with the announcement of the invasion of Ukraine, dubbed as a ‘special military operation’. Though no mention of nuclear weapons was made, the wording could not have left room for any other interpretation – “To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside – if you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history.” NATO was the obvious target. On 27 February, Putin ordered that nuclear weapons be put on special alert and cited aggressive statements by the West as the reason. On the same day, the government of Belarus, Ukraine’s northern neighbour, announced that a referendum had approved constitutional changes that would allow Russian forces and nuclear weapons to be stationed in the country.
By the end March, with Russia not being able to achieve a quick military victory, the discourse on nuclear weapons in the West appears to be drifting to Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW) or Non-strategic Nuclear weapons. Both descriptions are aimed to uphold the notion that their relatively limited destructive power makes them more usable, sidestepping the credibility problem posed by threats based on nuclear weapons with greater yield. This is an extremely dangerous illusion of nuclear strategy that the West and Russia individually continue to nurse.
No tool of the instruments of statecraft is strategic or tactical by itself. Whether it is used strategically or tactically depends on the political effects its application can generate. An assassin who kills the President of one of the world’s most powerful countries with a pistol can create strategic effects. That does not mean that the pistol is a strategic weapon. What it implies is that what makes a weapon strategic or tactical is a derivative of the effect it creates.
Any use of nuclear weapons of any yield will have a strategic effect as it would be the first time they would be used after August 1945. And if the exchange is between nuclear powers, then the potential for escalation is evidently its main strategic effect. Therefore, Tactical Nuclear Weapons or Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapon are terms that defy possibilities of outcomes, as the nomenclature would suggest.
Addressing the credibility problem through an unreal and unnatural nomenclature has increased the probability of the use of nuclear weapons. Once used against another nuclear weapon power, nuclear strategy has no answer as to how escalation can be controlled. To expect that the adversary would only retaliate on a proportional scale and a like for like nuclear exchange can be brought to a halt is at best wishful thinking that does not cater for military realities and emotions that will be released after the first nuclear weapon is fired. To expect that leaders will be able to take cool and calculated decisions is a delusion. It is impossible to guess as to what could follow after the initial nuclear weapons are fired.
In the recent past, both the US and Russia have tried to harness TNWs in the name of strengthening deterrence. In 2020, the US started deploying a new low-yield warhead on some of its nuclear submarines. The justification was that the US did not have a prompt and usable nuclear capability that could deter Russia’s use of tactical nukes. The advocates argued that Russia had developed an ‘escalate to deescalate’ nuclear strategy wherein it plans to use nuclear weapons, if it were losing a conventional war with NATO. Russia has officially refuted the existence of such a strategy. It maintains that it 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 in jeopardy’. The policy was reiterated through its official spokesman on 22 March 2022. On 24 March, fiery speeches by Russia’s chief negotiator Vladimir Medinsky and Foreign Intelligence Chief Sergei Naryshkin had an overarching theme that Russia is facing an existential crisis. On 26 March, Prime Minister Medvedev repeated the formulation.
Rhetorical introduction of nuclear weapons
In the information domain of the Ukraine War, the US has sought to play up the possible use of TNWs by Russia. And Russia has sought to highlight their allegations of the US being involved in the development of bioweapons in Ukraine. To aver that Russia’s conventional war reverses in Ukraine may call for use of TNWs seems a stretch of imagination, as it still has considerable conventional capability in its arsenal apart from the political and strategic risk nuclear use entails. Russia continues to definitely use its nuclear weapons as a shield against NATO’s direct involvement. Fortuitously, thus far, despite the rhetoric, there are no reports of either side having stepped up their nuclear alert levels.
Ironically, the early, though rhetorical introduction of nuclear weapons into the broader dynamics of the Ukraine war, has perhaps induced greater caution within NATO. The unknowable and dangerous factor is whether Putin will misjudge NATO’S actions and attempt greater risks in a desperate attempt to speedily throttle the spirited Ukrainian resistance. Hidden in such risks could well be the trigger for an accidental nuclear exchange and accidents can happen in unimaginable ways. As things stand, there is no possibility of getting away from the nuclear threat as long as the Russian invasion is not rolled back.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)