Threat and persuasion are two sides of the same coin and form the staple of influence in all human relationships. The ability to so influence contentious matters determines the exchange rate of the currency of power, which is a relational variable enmeshed in specific contexts. The extent to which Russian nuclear weapons are likely to influence outcomes in the ongoing Ukraine war remains debatable. It would certainly provide enough information for future historians and political scientists to answer the question – what role did nuclear weapons play in the Ukraine war? Unless, of course there is no one left to ask that question. It is an extreme possibility, that some believe has provided the oxygen for the nuclear taboo to survive.
The nuclear taboo has been confined to physical non-use and not to the development of nuclear weapons. In reality, the psychological impact of the unrealised nuclear threat has been the cornerstone of its utility and is used by all nuclear powers as well as those who benefit from its protection under the umbrella of extended deterrence. The threat of using nuclear weapons to prevent others from using them is perhaps justifiable through the internationally recognised right of self-defence. But such a justification loses much of its sheen when nuclear threats are hurled at powers that are not nuclear powers or do not enjoy the benefits of extended deterrence. Viewed through that prism, Russian nuclear threats when directed against Ukraine would appear unjustifiable.
Russia’s nuclear assertions are politically unpardonable because the prevailing war situation falls far short of the conditions outlined in the Presidential Order, titled, ‘Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence’ signed by Vladimir Putin on 2 June 2020 that states, “The Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy”.
Time for international community to step up its efforts
Russia’s nuclear drumbeat and the trajectory of its military reverses, including the recent damage to the Crimea bridge, have raised concerns regarding the possibility of crossing the nuclear threshold, commencing with the use of non-strategic or tactical nuclear weapons. However, the US intelligence agencies have continued to state that they have not yet seen any moves by Russia in that direction. But US President Joe Biden while speaking last week at a private Democratic function stated, “I don’t think there’s any such thing as an ability to easily use a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.” The statement can also be interpreted as an indication that the US could retaliate with nuclear weapons. For without such retaliation, the possibility of Armageddon does not arise.
The fact that Biden was speaking at a private event where the media was present, combined with a later clarification that the statement was not based on any additional intelligence inputs, introduces the element of ambiguity that nuclear threats rely upon for their effectiveness. On the psychological plane, nuclear threats have now been exchanged between Russia and the US. It is therefore time that the international community steps up its efforts and does whatever it takes to keep the nuclear taboo alive. India may be ideally placed to lead such an effort.
The danger of nuclear weapons coming into play is intimately linked to the ongoing conventional military exertions of both sides. The idea that application of low-yield nuclear weapons can have military benefits was conceived of by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) during the Cold War era when it was believed that it could provide military benefits and deter the Soviet Union from launching a military offensive.
It is another matter, that there was great uncertainty about exercising control over the escalation possibilities. A point that Biden has now reiterated. These impractical nuclear strategies were not tested during the Cold War as conventional deterrence did not break down. In Ukraine, deterrence at the conventional level has already failed, and it seems that the protagonists and antagonists of non-strategic nuclear weapons may have switched sides. Now, political and military realities are bound to send shivers down the political spines of leadership on either side. Coincidentally, the political and strategic ambience could be conducive for India to play a role in minimising the threat of nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war.
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How should India lead the call?
India’s credentials to lead the effort is a derivative of two coincident factors. First, because of its political posture with regard to the Ukraine war, its diplomatic channels are open to all the parties that are directly or indirectly involved in the war. Second, being a nuclear weapon power, it is along with China, doctrinally committed to a No First Use (NFU) policy. Both these vectors could contribute by providing the political grounds for India to lead a call that could obviate the danger of any nuclear use in the Ukraine War. The issue is how should India lead the call?
Ideally, India and China should jointly work to call upon Russia and the US to commit themselves to an NFU pledge in the ongoing war. It could be accompanied by an assertion that whichever party uses nuclear weapons first would have to face stringent international measures to isolate it. This may be a difficult ask due to the ongoing strains in China-India relations. But it is not beyond the pale of diplomacy and is worth a try.
Simultaneously, India could introduce a resolution in the Security Council calling upon all parties directly/indirectly involved in the conflict to execute a No First Use pledge in the context of the Ukraine War. It would be interesting to observe the position that the US and its allies would take on the issue, as they are mutually bound by the assurances of ‘Extended Deterrence’ given to nations ostensibly protected under their nuclear umbrella.
It will certainly expose the concept of ‘Extended Deterrence’, which Shivshankar Menon, India’s former National Security Adviser, described as “it stretches credibility to believe that a state would invite or risk a nuclear attack on its population and cities for the sake of an ally, no matter how loyal or valuable,” in his foreword for the recently published book, The Sheathed Sword, which I co-edited with Aditya Ramanathan of the Takshashila Institution.
The larger issue for India, and indeed for the world at large, is that it is time to eliminate and discard all calls for the irresponsible use of nuclear weapons by the very same powers that had only recently, in unison, affirmed that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. India’s inaction at the present juncture would tantamount to going against the grain of its claim of being a responsible power.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Tarannum Khan)