Image: Atomic Landscape from Wix
The reality of a nuclear catastrophe shook up the World with the mention of the N (Nuclear) word by the Russian leadership even as the War – Special Military Operation for Moscow continues apace in Ukraine.
Several developments have led to serious consideration by nuclear experts across the World the possibility of use of nuclear weapons and for the first time on the European Continent.
Even if the posturing, “may be purely strategic, a form of saber-rattling designed to signal Russian strength and determination. But it has made the unthinkable a little more thinkable. If Putin decides to use even one nuclear weapon, the world will enter territory untrodden since the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945,” says Rose Gottemoeller a former official of NATO.
Here are some considerations of why the N Word is increasingly being raised-
Statements from Moscow
On Sunday March 06, President Putin ordered the country’s nuclear forces on high alert amid Russia’s war in Ukraine having completed a fortnight and obviously not going as per plan with strong resistance from Kyiv [sic].
Russian President stated that the decision was based on “aggressive statements” from NATO and Western sanctions freezing Russia’s hard currency reserves.
Russia appears to regard economic sanctions as aggression impacting sovereignty as a trigger to use or threat to use nuclear weapons.
Mr Putin’s words in this respect are ominous, “Whoever tries to hinder us, and even more so, to create threats to our country, to our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate. And it will lead you to such consequences that you have never encountered in your history,” the Russian president said in what was a stark warning to NATO.
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council and a former President of Russia and long time Prime Minister while responding to French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire comments on all-out economic and financial “war” against Russia echoed this theme.
As per AP Medvedev said, “Today, some French minister has said that they declared an economic war on Russia. Watch your tongue, gentlemen! And don’t forget that in human history, economic wars quite often turned into real ones.”
Of course, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has spoken in different voices on several occasions recently on use of nuclear weapons, creating a degree of ambiguity which is seen as a part of the overall nuclear strategy.
The Russians have apparently prepared for the eventuality of use of nuclear weapons with a possible escalation scenario. Prior to the Special Military Operation or offensive in Ukraine Exercise “Grom,” or “thunder” was held by Russia’s strategic. Now it is evident that this was possibly a contingency that President Putin was preparing for in case the Ukraine offensive did not succeed or there was a stalemate or worse still an escalation involving NATO.
On March 1 Associated Press reported that Russian nuclear submarines held drills in the Barents Sea and mobile missile launchers were deployed in the forests in Siberia after President Vladimir Putin ordered his nuclear forces put on high alert.
Importantly Belarus has approved a constitutional change that would allow Russian nuclear weapons to be based there—again after these were pulled out of the country post break up of he Soviet Union.
There are many possibilities that are envisaged in build up to a nuclear scenario, one of the most likely being an accidental escalation.
For instance shooting down of a military or non military aircraft erroneously or otherwise may lead to Russian leadership review the options for a response. Another scope of miscalculation is accidental Russian missile landings in a NATO country forcing the alliance to respond in defence of a member.
No Conventional Breakthrough
Given poor performance of the Russian forces in Ukraine so far, possibility of use of tactical nuclear weapons may increase in case there is no breakthrough in diplomacy or on the war front.
This is the projection of course from Western media sources and analysts which in the context of preventing a nuclear showdown it may be well worth believing even if the same is what has come to be know as advanced debunking.
For the first time the possibility of irrationality creeping in nuclear decision making has shaken up conventional thinking on use of atomic weapons even though many organisations have been flagging such concerns in the past such as “International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations”, have been warning of a miscalculation that could result in a human calamity.
James Clapper, former director of national intelligence is quoted to by Defense One to have considered irrationality by President Putin due to unhinging, “I personally think he’s unhinged. I worry about his acuity and balance.”
President Joe Biden had a quick answer when he was asked whether Americans should be concerned about nuclear war. “No,” he said.
More over in response to raising of alert level by Russia, the US said that they would not change the alert level of its forces, nevertheless a higher readiness posture of weapons systems particularly on the mainland can be anticipated.
In contrast to the nuclear rhetoric from Russia, the Pentagon has in fact postponed an ICBM test much to the announce of some US senators. "In an effort to demonstrate that we have no intention in engaging in any actions that can be misunderstood or misconstrued, the secretary of defense has directed that our Minuteman-III intercontinental ballistic missile test launch scheduled for this week to be postponed," Defense Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon.
At the same time NATO members have reminded Russia of their own nuclear arsenal.
France’s foreign minister said that Russian President Vladimir Putin, when making threats about using nuclear weapons, needs to understand that NATO, too, is a nuclear alliance, but he ruled out NATO-led military intervention to defend Ukraine. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said “Yes, I think that Vladimir Putin must also understand that the Atlantic alliance is a nuclear alliance. That is all I will say about this,” Le Drian said on French television TF1 as reported by Reuters.
Long Term Implications for the Non Proliferation Regime
Long time observers of the nuclear non proliferation regime as Rose Gottemoeller lament that Russia which had led the non proliferation regime for decades may now be turning away into a “rogue state,” and recounts how during various crisis in the past then Soviet Union and the United States had worked together to prevent nuclear escalation. The invasion of Ukraine may change this dimension she feels after the threat by Dmitry Medvedev to leave the New START treaty and shutter the embassies in Moscow suggests. The Ukraine crisis may even subort the NPT review conference now planned in August and if held it may be just a damp squib.
What ever be the outcome of the Ukraine crisis and hopefully saner counsel will prevail and peace wil be restored, the nuclear proliferation debate will never by the same again.