Vladimir Putin has been familiar with, if not nuclear threats, at least forms of nuclear intimidation for many years. On the very day of the invasion of Ukraine, did he not remind us: "whoever tries to interfere with us must know that the response (...) will be immediate and will lead to consequences that you have never known before"? He is not the only one, moreover, to publicly wield what amounts to the rhetoric of deterrence. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned the Russian president on 24 February: "Vladimir Putin must also understand that the Atlantic alliance is a nuclear alliance", adding, "I will say no more".
However, if for the moment the conflict on Ukrainian territory remains below the nuclear threshold, it is the spectre of the use of nuclear weapons that determines its origin and conduct.
Russia knows that it is entitled to attack Ukraine because this country does not have nuclear weapons and is not a member of the Atlantic Alliance - a nuclear alliance - by virtue of which it could have been protected by the activation of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty: "The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, (…) will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area." Moreover, it is clear that the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO is one of the reasons for the Russian war of invasion.
On the other hand, Russia is a recognised nuclear power, a nuclear weapon state within the meaning of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), to which the country is a party and even a guarantor. Russia's nuclear deterrent is complete in that it is based on a "strategic triad", i.e. a land-based component, a sea-based component and an air-based component: ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), nuclear submarines armed with strategic ballistic missiles and strategic bombers armed with cruise missiles. According to the accounts drawn up in the bilateral US-Russian framework of the New Start Treaty, renewed for five years from February 2021, Russia deploys just over 520 launchers armed with just under 1,500 nuclear warheads. It is well known that the ground component (ICBMs) is considered to be the heart of the force, and it is essentially on this component that modernisation has focused over the last twenty years, with more than 3/4 of the launchers having been replaced since the beginning of the 2000s. But Moscow has, more generally, undertaken a vast modernisation programme of the entire triad for more than twenty years, completed by announcements, in 2018, of the development of new systems, even if one should remain very cautious about their production and deployment. Ultimately, President Putin knows he is protected from military retaliation or direct involvement of other states in the conflict against Ukraine. The reactions of Presidents Biden and Macron in the hours following the launch of the invasion confirmed this: neither the United States, nor France, nor the United Kingdom will intervene directly in the conflict, but will confine themselves to the provision of arms.
The message is sound: nuclear deterrence is both a defensive and a coercive mechanism. If we go into more detail about the Russian-Ukrainian case in point, nuclear weapons theorists will see in it what the theoretical corpus developed during the Cold War distinguished under the syntagm of the "stability/instability paradox": in other words, the fact that a state possesses a nuclear arsenal backed up by an integrated deterrent system allows it to carry out limited conventional military actions under cover of its deterrent force. For the more pessimistic, this is even an incentive to argue that nuclear weapons do not promote stability in relations between states but rather instability. However, a deliberate escalation from low-intensity conventional conflict to high-intensity nuclear conflict is unlikely in this paradoxical scenario, precisely because the exercise of conventional violence under the guise of a functional nuclear deterrent is manageable if it remains at a level acceptable to the parties involved, as part of a rational deterrent dialogue.
Was the functionality of nuclear deterrence illustrated by the first three days of Russia's invasion of Ukraine called into question on Sunday 27 February when President Putin publicly asked his defence minister to raise the alert level of the country's nuclear deterrent? A documentary broadcast on the public television channel Rossiya 1 a year after Russia's annexation of Crimea featured President Putin saying he was ready to put Russia's nuclear forces on alert if necessary: "We were ready to do so [in the face of] the most unfavourable turn of events," he said. By analogy, the 27 February initiative would therefore illustrate that events on the ground are taking a most unfavourable turn, according to Vladimir Putin, who would have taken the initiative to raise the spectre of the nuclear threat a notch. By raising this threat, the Russian president is firstly showing feverishness, and secondly weakening the very scope of the deterrent message, whose credibility does not sit well with its untimely use. Deterrence is or is not. It cannot be decreed.
Clearly, Russia's military action on 24 February 2022 will be a major historical event in the 21st century. It is not yet possible to detail its effects, but one of the first will certainly be to consolidate the extended nuclear deterrent within the Atlantic Alliance. With the Russian military threat to the whole of Eastern Europe becoming more and more clear, the very purpose of the Alliance is being regenerated, after thirty years of debate on the usefulness of NATO. This regeneration should be reflected in the forthcoming US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), expected to be published in early 2022. Another effect could be, and this is not in contradiction with a strengthening of NATO, an acceleration of the process of European strategic autonomy, which is underway.
For the rest, the effects of military aggression by a P5 country (the group of five nuclear-weapon states under the NPT) against a non-nuclear-weapon state on the integrity of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime, the global nuclear order and regional and international strategic balances will be significant. These will have to be detailed in the weeks and months to come.
Written by Benjamin Hautecouverture
Benjamin Hautecouverture is a historian and political scientist, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research (Paris, France). He is Technical Director for Expertise France, Senior Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, and one of the founders of the European Union Consortium on Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.