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Why Russia’s nuclear threats to Ukraine are as empty as Pakistan’s to India

Russia is trying to do what Pakistan tried—engage in aggression and threaten nuclear escalation if the other side responded.

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Russia has raised the stakes in its failing invasion of Ukraine by threatening the possibility of nuclear escalation. But these threats are difficult to carry out and not very credible, though that does not mean they will not be successful. Any time a nuclear power raises such threats, it needs to be taken seriously because the consequences are beyond imagination, even if the threats themselves lack credibility. India has repeatedly been subject to such nuclear warnings from Pakistan since the 1980s. India’s experience should be illustrative in understanding why, much like Pakistani ones, Russian nuclear threats lack credibility, even if they might often succeed.

Pakistan sought nuclear weapons because it faced India, a more formidable conventional military power. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons should have made it secure if security was the primary driving force behind the nation’s nuclear weapons pursuit. But though Pakistan started going after these weapons for security and survival, and though this might continue to be its baseline purpose, it also sought to use nuclear weapons offensively rather than defensively. Pakistan repeatedly threatened nuclear use to prevent India from responding to its provocations, and it often succeeded.

Also read: Four implications of a Russian defeat in Ukraine—one affects India the most

Decoding Pakistan’s modus operandi

Kargil was one example: After seizing territory, Pakistan signalled that it might use its nuclear weapons if India sought to retake the territory. India, of course, refused to bow to this blackmail. However, Indian leaders were careful to keep military action confined to their side of the Line of Control (LoC), which possibly increased the difficulty of its operations and caused greater casualties. One question is what might have happened if Indian forces could not retake the territory by direct assault, and if Indian leaders gave permission to the military to cross the LoC and continue the assault by flanking Pakistan’s forces on the Kargil heights. Thus, Pakistan’s nuclear threats succeeded in imposing some limits on Indian military options, though it ultimately failed because it could not stop India’s assault to retake Kargil.

Pakistan’s nuclear threats arguably succeeded to a greater extent in Operation Parakram in 2002. It also succeeded in deterring Indian military response subsequently—most prominently after the 2008 Mumbai terror attack. India did begin to push back, slightly and carefully, with the Uri surgical strike and the Balakot airstrike in response to Pakistani terror attacks. Not surprisingly, when challenged, Pakistan’s escalation threats proved to be duds.

These examples are illustrative of the conditions when nuclear threats work and when they don’t. They worked only when India was self-deterred from responding to Pakistan’s threats, but when finally challenged, these nuclear threats were difficult to carry through because they were not viable. Pakistan could not escalate in Kargil or respond to the surgical strike or the Balakot attacks. States using nuclear weapons, except in extremis, stand to lose a lot more in war. Indeed, even if they “win”, their victory will be pyrrhic because of the likely devastation caused by nuclear retaliation. Pakistan may use nuclear weapons if its survival itself is threatened, but Indian responses to terror attacks have never reached anywhere near that threshold. Pakistan’s nuclear warnings were understandable because it was a low-cost venture that could work and often did. It is true that we cannot know what a nuclear power’s escalation redlines are, but to assume that it is whatever they say it is will be an encouragement to continuous nuclear blackmail.

Also read: Ukraine can’t be protected without getting hands dirty. Reassurances don’t work for Russia

Russian nuclear threats as empty as Pakistan’s

Why then do those threatened succumb instead of challenging such threats? As in the case of India, this is because the consequences of escalation are horrendous even if the danger is slight. So, States often choose not to risk finding out if the threats are real. As India did repeatedly, they would rather swallow the smaller pain than risk even the slightest threat of escalation. These are human and rational responses because pragmatic, sensible leaders would prefer not to play such dangerous games with their nation’s fate, even if their opponents are more reckless. Thus, US President Joe Biden and other officials have repeatedly dismissed direct US military intervention in Ukraine, fearing nuclear escalation. But sometimes even sensible leaders are pushed one step too far by reckless ones, where they choose the risk of escalation rather than submit to unacceptable threats. It is unclear if we are at that point in the Ukraine war. But Russian threats are like Pakistani ones, reckless gambles that will fail if challenged.

What Russia is trying to do is what Pakistan tried—engage in aggression and threaten nuclear escalation if the other side responded. One oddity here is that Pakistan was taking on a much stronger power, but Russia is threatening to use nuclear weapons against a much weaker country, even though one is supported by the US and NATO. It signals Russia’s decline as a major military power, at least temporarily.

But Russia’s chances of successfully using nuclear blackmail depend on the same dynamic that Pakistan faced. It will work only to the extent that the West is self-deterred, which will work only so far. Russian nuclear threats are not credible because it does not face an existential threat even if the Ukrainian offensives continue to be successful. The Ukrainian successes are confined to Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia and do not, by any stretch, threaten Russian survival. President Vladimir Putin may not see a distinction between his political survival and the country’s but even if so, there is no clear path from nuclear attacks to political survival. If anything, a nuclear attack will probably doom him entirely. Any Russian nuclear attack will strengthen Western resolve and determination to see off Putin. The US and the West will redouble support to Ukraine, at the very least ensuring Russian defeat and ejection from all territories it has occupied. Russia will likely lose even more international support–India will likely wash its hands off Moscow, and even China’s support will be doubtful.

But, like in Pakistan’s case, there is little harm in threatening a nuclear attack even if it is foolish to actually carry it out. If your opponent folds, as India did repeatedly, the gamble pays off. If the opponent calls your bluff, you will only suffer a bruised ego which is probably easier to recover from than a nuclear attack.

The author is a professor of International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He tweets @RRajagopalanJNU. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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