Conventional [sic] wisdom denotes that NATO intervention in the War in Ukraine was deterred due to possession of nuclear weapons by Russia. Indeed, this remains indisputable and indicates continued value of nuclear deterrence. However, what is also evident is the danger of incremental nuclear escalation in multiple dimensions – horizontal and vertical which can raise long term concerns.
First is the geopolitical divide as indicated in the coloured map above where there are three large blocks one led by the United States of America, the second by a Russia/China dyad and the third countries not fully aligned with either. While the number of countries in the third block are the largest their relative political, diplomatic and economic power is limited. On the other hand there is now an open “enmity,” arising in the two blocks US and Russia/China most recently highlighted in release of the Russian foreign policy.
Secondly the utility of a nuclear arsenal, to wage a war against a non nuclear adversary – by Russia against Ukraine and usurping large tracts of territory while legitimising the same through mock instruments of legality was most evident in 2022.
An inverse deduction is that possession of nuclear weapons will deter launch of aggression including as a politico-military instrument for regime change by nations which fear such an eventuality.
This lesson will not be lost on countries as Iran which are on seen as Threshold States – those just a few steps away from acquiring nuclear weapons. North Korea had learnt this through the example of Libyan strongman Muammar Gadaffi disrobed of power after he had abdicated his nuclear weapons option.
More countries may now be looking at the seeking atomic weapons. There is an ongoing debate in South Korea for acquiring the capability, redeploying US atomic weapons on the Peninsula as well as higher level of assurance of “extended deterrence,” provided by the United States. The conservative government in Seoul led by hawkish President Yoon Suk yeol is actively engaged in this debate.
Thirdly flaunting nuclear weapons by Russia in recent months. This is another facet of incrementalism in escalation is progressive declarations by Russia during the last one year with reference to atomic weapons capability, signalling in terms of validation exercises and now the announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin of deployment in Belarus.
There was shock when Mr Putin announced that he had agreed with Belarus to deploy 'tactical' nuclear weapons in that country. Days after Russian troops launched nuclear-preparedness and training drills with the nation's Yars intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system.
Fourthly in terms of shift in voluntary bilateral nuclear confidence building measures through sharing of information, Russia announced suspension of the country’s participation in the New START treaty and will not allow U.S. inspections of its nuclear sites. In turn U.S. has announced that Moscow and Washington have stopped sharing biannual nuclear weapons data as envisioned by New START. U.S. informed, “Russia that it will no longer exchange key data on its strategic nuclear forces following Moscow’s decision to suspend its participation in the New START treaty cutting long-range nuclear arms”.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow had halted all information exchanges with Washington envisioned under the 2011 New START nuclear pact, including missile test warnings later clarifying that Russia will stick to pledge of notifying U.S. about missile tests in line with a 1988 U.S.-Soviet agreement. There is ambiguity here.
Fifthly increase in the number of nuclear warheads is another major indicator of incremental enhancement of capabilities by nuclear weapons states. The Nuclear Weapons Ban Monitor published by the NGO Norwegian People's Aid on March 29 has indicated that the number of nuclear warheads in the world in 2023 increased to 9,576 - the collective destructive power of 135,000 Hiroshima bombs.
The increase may seem marginal at 136 from the 9,440 held a year earlier but Russia, China, India, North Korea, and Pakistan continued to expand their stockpiles of warheads in 2022 says the Monitor. 'This increase is worrying, and continues a trend that started in 2017,' editor of the Nuclear Weapons Ban Monitor, Grethe Lauglo Ostern, said in a statement and warned that unless the trend of new warheads being added does not stop, 'the total number of nuclear weapons in the world will also soon increase again for the first time since the Cold War.'
Sixthly possibility of Russian employment of nuclear weapons in case of setback or loss of face in the Ukraine War which will be internally There are also indicators from Russia which have been accepted by proliferation watchers as of concern of use of a non strategic [commonly known as tactical] weapon in case of a danger to territorial sovereignty – which has become ambiguous given that there is no clear time frame for the same. This comes even as Ukraine’s war objective has crystallised as regaining lost territories including Crimea. Russian leaders have issued clear warnings that attempts to regain Crimea could lead to use of nuclear weapons.
In fact UK’s Chatham House, Russia and Eurasia expert Keir Giles has gone even further to warn that in case a conventional win is not possible in Ukraine, Russian President Vadimir Putin could use a nuclear weapon. He writes: 'A nuclear strike could be ordered if there is no longer any possibility of claiming conventional victory and a powerful destructive attack on Ukraine is perceived as the only means of avoiding admission of a clear defeat.
The moment ‘Putin feels his options are exhausted is likely to be the most significantly dangerous decision point,' he concluded. Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta and Russia's Nobel Peace Prize laureate is also concerned over limits of the Kremlin’s confrontation with the West and thus possibility of a nuclear war.
"Two generations have lived without the threat of nuclear war," Mr Muratov told the BBC, "But this period is over. Will Putin press the nuclear button, or won't he? Who knows? No one knows this. There isn't a single person who can say for sure."
Taken cumulatively these developments mark an incremental increase towards nuclear proliferation adding up to an Armageddon in the future at the hands of an irrational leader unafraid of consequences willing to take down the world for fear of loss of power.