June 25, 2024

Nuclear Games 2024: Playing Requires Strategy, Not Just Policy

Tam McDonald/www.defenceimagery.mod.uk
Image of HMS Vengeance returning to HMNB Clyde, after completing Operational Sea Training. HMS Vengeance is the fourth and final Vanguard-class submarine of the Royal Navy. Vengeance carries the Trident ballistic missile, the UK's nuclear deterrent.
Image of HMS Vengeance returning to HMNB Clyde, after completing Operational Sea Training. HMS Vengeance is the fourth and final Vanguard-class submarine of the Royal Navy. Vengeance carries the Trident ballistic missile, the UK's nuclear deterrent.

Time and again, the nuclear dimension of Russia’s war against Ukraine comes into the spotlight. Moscow is keen to squeeze every bit of advantage that possession of nuclear weapons confers when coercing and deterring its adversaries.

“Reflexive control” of various western publics, as well as “chest pumping” domestically, often reaches ridiculous levels. Worse still, it has been constraining the policies in some of Ukraine’s key allies, who felt it was necessary first to limit the types of the supplied weapons and then to impose restrictions on their use against legitimate targets on Russian territory.

Yet, as the loose talk by the Kremlin and its proxies is losing its potency, what might Russia try to do to maximise the psychological impact of its nuclear sabre-rattling? And what will NATO do about it?

Old Tricks

On the surface of things, it certainly seems that the edge of the oft-repeated threats by Dmitri Medvedev and similar figureheads has been wearing thin. They no longer stop Kyiv’s allies such as the United States from gradually lifting the restraints on the use of long-range weapons across the Russian border. Nor do they prevent France from mulling the deployment of a multinational training mission to Ukraine. They are still effective with some audiences like Elon Musk’s followers on X, but the policy impact of this bottom-up pressure is limited at best. In any case, the mere fact that Russia possesses nuclear weapons is enough to keep the key policy restraint in place. NATO as a whole and its individual member states seek to avoid a direct clash with a nuclear-armed Russia. Moscow, too, is keen to steer away from that scenario, opting for sabotage instead, for the same reason: NATO is a nuclear alliance.

What actions can Russia undertake to regain the coercive potential of its nuclear signalling? In fact, it has already started to pursue some options. The recent joint exercises with Belarus have meant to test the procedures and skills by using sub-strategic nuclear weapons with the nuclear-capable ground-, air-, and sea-based missile systems. This precedent should serve to highlight the preparedness of the regime in Moscow to resort to nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances, despite Putin’s statements reassuring that such circumstances are not on the horizon. The implied message, however, is that Russia’s adversaries are ignoring its resolve and preparedness at their own risk. If that is not enough, there are other nuclear tricks up the Kremlin’s sleeve that fall short of the threshold: for example, occasionally moving warheads from the regional storage facilities to the sites at the designated launch units.

New Uncertainties

Another way to restore some potency of nuclear weapons as an instrument of psychological influence is to increase the uncertainty around the circumstances of their use. Putin hinted that the preconditions in which Russia could resort to nuclear weapons, under its military doctrine, could be reviewed. Moscow’s actual behaviour has put to rest at least some of the concerns about the interpretation of the formulations in the current doctrine. For instance, an attack on targets in Crimea does not equal an attack on Russia itself or a threat to its existence, despite Moscow claiming that the illegally annexed peninsula is part of Russian territory. Thus, to create more uncertainty, there will be some new formulations added to keep the other side guessing about their application — especially as the interpreter-in-chief of those new formulations will be Putin himself. In this regard, the signalling, disciplining, and organising value of the doctrine should not be taken as fully reflecting the actual self-preservation concerns and needs of the regime. Those continue to evolve, depending on the overall situation, and play out in a specific context. It is quite immaterial which doctrinal clauses will be employed (if at all) to justify the actual use of nuclear weapons if and when the regime’s survival is at stake.

The third way to unnerve the west in the nuclear domain is to resume nuclear tests. There have been signs that Russia has been preparing for such a move, and it also seems to have some very practical need to do that. Aware of corruption, theft, negligence, and a culture of misreporting within the system, the regime itself can no longer be sure its warheads will work properly. Last year, Putin withdrew Russia from the Comprehensive Nuclear Ban Treaty of 1996, thus freeing his hands for a dramatic resumption of tests. If carried out, a nuclear test would most certainly galvanise a host of anti-nuclear activists across the west and make the job of policymakers there a lot more complicated. Moreover, the divisive impact on the Alliance would be almost instant.

A Case for Strategy

Upholding nuclear deterrence remains a paramount job of NATO and its three nuclear powers — a job that they seem to be taking more seriously lately. The US officials indicated they might have to consider increasing the nuclear arsenal to counter Russia and China’s ambitions and maintain strategic stability. The UK government has already stated its intention to enhance it by over 40%. Even the usually slow-moving and overly cautious NATO nuclear policy community has begun considering some posture adjustments. This may potentially lead to, for instance, increasing readiness to deploy B61 “gravity bombs” within much shorter timeframes than a few months — a state of play in which the Alliance has been slumbering since 1994. After promising as recently as the 2023 Vilnius Summit to “take all necessary steps to ensure the credibility, effectiveness, safety and security of the nuclear deterrent mission,” they must now follow through in a way that makes Moscow take notice. Russia must realise that its nuclear suasion will always be met with counter-suasion, backed up by an appropriate posture and capabilities.

The cost, effort, and challenges of upgrading, sustaining, and expanding nuclear capabilities are very steep. At the same time, conventional capabilities need an urgent and expensive boost across the Alliance. Yet, it is a necessary element of both hedging against the uncertain future and maintaining confidence among the Allies that they — and the Alliance’s unity and cohesion — will not fall victim to aggressive “nuclear sanctuarisation” by Russia in a scenario of a conventional war with NATO. Were that to happen, Moscow’s theory of victory would probably require going nuclear early on in order to signal its resolve and high stakes. The very basis of keeping such risk in check will be eroded unless we invest in nuclear capabilities that Moscow sees as credible and effective. Nor will we be able to help Ukraine, or anyone else still outside the Alliance, if we remain exposed to the Kremlin’s nuclear intimidation while our own options in the nuclear domain stagnate or even shrink and whither.

The problem is that NATO treats the nuclear domain as a static and fairly generic policy area — in the same category as, for example, climate change or outer space. It is yet to become the remit of a dynamic and adaptive strategy able to actively influence a particular adversary’s decision-making calculus and perceptions, as well own public discourse in a specific context — currently, Russia’s war against Ukraine. It also needs to anticipate the adversary’s moves and establish ways to dissuade those, or at least to defuse their effect. As Colin S Gray once wrote, “Nuclear strategy is not an oxymoron. The strategy may be poor, […] and it may not work well, but strategy there will be.”[i] Russia seems to have a strategy, even though it is flawed and not neatly written down for academic reference. Does NATO have one?

[i] Collin S Gray, Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare (2005), 290.


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