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Not Just Nuclear Sabre Rattling: Summarizing Recent Signalling

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The fear of actual use of nuclear weapons at least non-strategic appears to be growing and while some may depict the mention of the unmentionables by Russian leadership as sabre rattling, trends on the ground in the War in Ukraine and beyond indicate the possibility of a tactical nuclear strike could be on the horizon.

A miscalculation by either side – US and allies and Russia makes it even more likely.

Firstly, the absence of a ‘no-first-use’ policy of the United States as well as Russia implies that doctrinally the two have not laid limits for the use of nuclear weapons.

Secondly, while it may be presumed that rationally both nuclear ‘super powers’ who have been engaged in arms control talks for decades which have recently collapsed may not be inclined to use nukes and these are being held to seek deterrence by threat, Russian doctrine specifically states that Moscow could use nuclear weapons in the case of an existential threat which may also be applied to say Crimea or the recent states annexed from Ukraine.

If such a scenario is obtained in the ongoing war in Ukraine, Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons has raised concerns with consequent escalation.

Thirdly as James M Acton outlines Ukraine has attacked large Russian radars at Armavir and Orsk,  which are part of Russia’s strategic early warning system to detect American nuclear missiles and launch its own in response. Removal of such an early warning system could be potentially escalatory.

A threat to Russian nuclear command and control will also pose a similar reaction from Moscow.

Fourthly the approval for use of weapons supplied US and other members of NATO to Ukraine has also raised Russian hackles.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated clearly on June 05 that  he could deploy conventional missiles within striking distance of the United States and its European allies if they allowed Ukraine to strike deeper into Russia with long-range Western weapons.

"You should not make Russia out to be the enemy. You're only hurting yourself with this, you know?" Putin said.

Russia has conducted a number of low level escalatory measures as readiness deployment of nuclear arsenal in the past. Some think tanks in Moscow have recently recommended a nuclear test as a signal to the West of seriousness for use of nukes by Russia.

Fifthly given the commitment to extended deterrence by the United States to NATO as well as allies as Australia, Japan and South Korea and Russia to Belarus the scope for use of these expands horizontally to include a conventional threat to these countries as well.  

Importantly the Finnish defence minister, Antti Häkkänen has said in 2023 that nuclear deterrence had led to the decision for Finland to join NATO.

Of the states under the US nuclear umbrella, Poland and South Korea have expressed readiness to host US non strategic weapons.

China has emphasised opposition to deployment of nuclear weapons to South Korea as it would pose danger to regional countries.

Reacting to a report suggesting the United States would deploy these to enhance deterrence against threats from North Korea, Chinese Embassy in the US strongly responded to indicate that this will be seen as a serious escalatory measure.

"If the U.S. deploys tactical nuclear weapons in Asia-Pacific region, it will be a dangerous move that will seriously threaten the security of regional countries and undermine regional peace and stability," said Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington as per the Voice of America. 

While some analysts have dismissed these are merely rhetoric, the risk of a nuclear exchange on the battlefield at least and its follow up may seem closer than during the Cold War.


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