Strategic Comments

JIIA Strategic Comments (2022-02)
Russia's Military Aggression against Ukraine and Nuclear Saber-rattling

Hirofumi Tosaki (Director, Center for Disarmament, Science and Technology, The Japan Institute of International Affairs)
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JIIA Strategic Comments (2022-02)

Papers in the "JIIA Strategic Commentary Series" are prepared mainly by JIIA research fellows to provide commentary and policy-oriented analyses on significant international affairs issues in a readily comprehensible and timely manner.

A Military Aggression under Nuclear Saber-rattling

After deploying up to 190,000 troops near the Ukrainian border, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a presidential decree recognizing the independence of the two pro-Russian "republics" in eastern Ukraine and "dispatching peacekeeping forces." Russia launched attacks against Ukraine on February 24.

During this period, Russia has repeatedly reminded Ukraine as well as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member countries of the existence of its nuclear deterrent. For instance, at a press conference after the France-Russia summit on February 7, President Putin said that if Ukraine joins NATO and decides to reintegrate Crimea by force, European countries would automatically be drawn into a war with Russia, one of the world's leading nuclear-weapon states, and there would be no winner in that war.

In addition, according to open-source satellite imageries and other sources, prior to the outbreak of aggression, Russia deployed various dual-capable missiles around Ukraine capable of reaching European NATO member countries, including Iskander short-range ballistic missiles, 9M729 ground-launched medium-range cruise missiles, and Kinzhal air-launched hypersonic missiles. On February 19, President Putin oversaw a large-scale missile exercise in which various types of missiles were launched, including Islander, Kinzhal, Zircon sea-launched hypersonic and Kalibr sea-launched cruise missiles as well as a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Furthermore, in his address declaring war on February 24, President Putin reiterated a nuclear threat: "As for military affairs, even after the dissolution of the USSR and losing a considerable part of its capabilities, today's Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states. Moreover, it has a certain advantage in several cutting-edge weapons. In this context, there should be no doubt for anyone that any potential aggressor will face defeat and ominous consequences should it directly attack our country."

Then, on February 27, President Putin stated, "Western countries are not only taking unfriendly economic actions against our country, but leaders of major NATO countries are making aggressive statements about our country. So I order to move Russia's deterrence forces to a special regime of duty." The next day, the Russian defense minister announced that its nuclear force units, including the Strategic Rocket Forces and the Northern and Pacific fleets, had been placed on the "combat duty."

After Russia's previous invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014, President Putin clearly said that "we were ready to do that" when asked whether there had been a possibility of putting Russia's nuclear forces on combat readiness if the situation in Crimea had developed to Russia's disadvantage. In the Ukraine invasion of 2022, it would not be surprising if Russia includes more blatant nuclear intimidation or even actual use of nuclear weapons as an option, depending on how the situation develops.

Russia's Nuclear Doctrine

Russia's abovementioned nuclear saber-rattling greatly contradicts its nuclear strategy and doctrine. According to its "Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence" issued in June 2020, Russia "considers nuclear weapons exclusively as a means of deterrence, their use being an extreme and compelled measure." The document also made it clear that the purposes of Russia's deterrence are to "[guarantee] protection of national sovereignty and territorial integrity of the State, and deterrence of a potential adversary from aggression against the Russian Federation and/or its allies." In addition, Russia clearly said in this document that it "takes all necessary efforts to reduce nuclear threat and prevent aggravation of interstate relations, that could trigger military conflicts, including nuclear ones."

The document also listed "[t]he conditions specifying the possibility of nuclear weapons use by the Russian Federation as follows": 1) arrival of reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies; 2) use of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction by an adversary against the Russian Federation and/or its allies; 3) attack by adversary against critical governmental or military sites of the Russian Federation, disruption of which would undermine nuclear forces response actions; and 4) aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy."

Furthermore, Moscow stated in its national report submitted to the 10th Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference (which was scheduled to be held in January 2022, but was postponed), inter alia: "Russian policy on nuclear deterrence is strictly defensive by nature, and it is aimed at protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state", and "With a view to preventing both nuclear conflict as well as any other military conflict, the Russian Federation acts in such a manner as to avert situations that could lead to dangerous aggravation of relations at the international and regional levels and to exclude the outbreak of nuclear war, and is also taking the necessary steps to reduce the nuclear threat."

It is obvious that Russia's invasion of Ukraine is a clear violation of the UN Charter and a unilateral change of the status quo by force, that the nuclear threats made in the course of this invasion have no legitimacy, and that they are in sharp contrast to the nuclear strategy and doctrine that Russia has announced to the international community.

Possibility of Nuclear Weapon Use

At least at the time of writing this paper, it seems that the possibility of Russia actually using nuclear weapons is not high, if one considers the matter rationally. The main component of Russia's invasion of Ukraine is conventional forces. Considering the impact on the governance of Ukraine after seizing control, Russia would be unlikely to use nuclear forces there. In addition, NATO is not obligated to defend Ukraine, which is not a member state, and the US and its NATO allies have made it clear that they will not intervene militarily. The day after Russia ordered a "special regime of duty," a senior US Defense Department official said that no notable movements of Russia's nuclear forces had been confirmed. Needless to say, the threshold for deciding to use nuclear weapons, which have not been used in any wars for more than 75 years since August 1945, remains high. However, war is always accompanied by uncertainty.

For instance, Russia might attempt to "escalate to de-escalate"--that is, make demonstrational use of a small number of nuclear weapons with minimal damage to show its resolve to escalate to nuclear war--aiming to compel Ukraine and NATO countries to make concessions if Ukrainian resistance exceeds Russia's expectations and Moscow cannot overthrow the regime or otherwise capture Ukraine at an early stage, or if Russia is increasingly dissatisfied with severe non-military sanctions against Russia as well as military support for Ukraine by the US and other NATO countries.

It is not out of the realm of possibility that Russia may decide to use nuclear weapons "warningly" or "punitively" as a result of unexpected escalation due to clashes with Russian forces when NATO countries transport military support supplies to Ukraine. Should Russia launch another military provocation after its invasion of Ukraine or even use force against NATO member countries among the Baltic states or those in Eastern Europe, the risk of employing nuclear weapons will increase dramatically. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has been inferior to NATO in terms of conventional forces, and the former has consistently maintained a posture of complementing these with nuclear weapons, as well as approximately 2,000 non-strategic nuclear warheads as a capability to make this posture possible.

In highly tense situations such as armed conflicts, the potential for inadvertent use of nuclear weapons due to accidents, misunderstandings or misidentifications may increase. It has been pointed out that cyber-attacks could act on nuclear weapons systems and lead to accidents such as malfunctions, or that nuclear weapons could be used accidentally due to misperceptions that the attacks targeted nuclear weapons systems.

In addition, the fact that short- and medium-range missiles, of which Russia has launched several hundred during its invasion of Ukraine and which it emphasizes as an effective deterrent and response capability against NATO, can mount both nuclear and conventional warheads is also one of the factors increasing the nuclear risk. It is unclear for countries other than Russia which warheads have been mounted on Russian missiles. Should Russian missiles carrying nuclear warheads be attacked, Russia might dare to launch a nuclear retaliation, claiming that it was an attack on its nuclear capability. During armed conflicts, short- and medium-range missiles deployed close to the enemy territories are vulnerable to its attack, and the incentive to use them before they are destroyed or neutralized by the attack may increase. While it is reported that a referendum held in Belarus on February 27 on amending the constitution to allow it to host Russian nuclear weapons was approved, Russia's deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus could further increase the risk of their early use.

Furthermore, the irrationality--at least in the eyes of Western and other democratic powers--of the grounds for Putin's decision to invade Ukraine and the arguments for its "legitimacy" cast doubt whether he will choose not to act irrationally on the nuclear issue.

Countering Changes to the Status Quo

As tensions increase in the midst of strategic competition, experts in Japan, the United States, and Europe have been strongly concerned about two possibilities regarding nuclear issues. One is the possibility of the "stability/instability paradox," in which a country that intends to unilaterally change the status quo by force attempts to use its military forces at the local or regional level for achieving its objectives, while deterring the US's and its allies' military counterattacks and interventions by threatening to use its highly reliable nuclear capability. The other possibility is an actual use of nuclear weapons, especially for the above-mentioned "escalation deterrence." With Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the former has become a reality and, with regard to the latter, Russia is increasing the pressure by moving up the ladder rung by rung toward the actual use of nuclear weapons.

To further elaborate, the process from the Ukraine crisis to the invasion has shown that one of the biggest factors in the risk of nuclear weapon use in current international relations is the attempt by authoritarian states to make unilateral changes to the status quo by force. It is not easy for status quo powers to deter and respond to such actions taken with decisive determination. However, allowing such actions may lead to further unilateral changes in the status quo and consequently to greater nuclear risks. The significance of strongly opposing Russia's aggression against Ukraine, imposing severe sanctions on Russia, and providing proactive support to Ukraine goes without saying. Advance consideration of options for imposing a more serious price on Russia should the aggression escalate to the nuclear level would also contribute to deterring the use of nuclear weapons, which would still be a high threshold.

Even after this war, it is not so unlikely that some countries will attempt to change the status quo unilaterally by force, against the international order and rules, while utilizing a nuclear shadow--and using nuclear deterrence in a way that is clearly different from declaratory policies, including nuclear strategies and doctrines. The possession of power to maintain the status quo and a rule-based international order will inevitably continue to be a part of international relations, at least for the foreseeable future. Therefore, Japan and other democracies need more than ever to maintain and strengthen their deterrence and response capabilities to deny unilateral changes to the status quo by force.

(The original of this article was published on March 2, 2022)