The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal ('dagger') is a Russian nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile. It has a claimed range of more than 2,000 kilometers, Mach 10 speed, and an ability to perform evasive maneuvers at every stage of its flight. Photo: Wikipedia

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has witnessed repeated allusions to nuclear threats, first by President Vladimir Putin, and then by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov talking of World War III involving nuclear strikes.

And on Friday, Ukraine claimed that its Zaporizhzhnia nuclear power plant – Europe’s largest – had come under direct fire from Russian forces and that this could trigger a global nuclear crisis. This brought recollections of the Chernobyl explosions, meltdown of nuclear power reactors and radiation leaks sending shockwaves across Europe in 1986.

All this has triggered a chain reaction from world leaders and international institutions, igniting fresh debates among nuclear theologists. If not World War III, this is surely expected to trigger another nuclear arms race among nuclear-weapons states (NWS) and provide further boost for nuclear aspirant states (NAS) like Iran and nuclear-capable states (NCS) like Japan, South Korea or Germany.

The question being asked is what if, in the 1994 Budapest Agreement, Ukraine had not surrendered its nuclear assets by accepting “security assurances” given by Russia – along with the US and UK – would Russia have invaded it?

The Ukraine conflict stands out as the biggest attack on any European nation since World War II. At this writing, more than a million Ukrainians have already fled their country.

Also, since the establishment of the Russian Federation in 1991 this is the first time that the Kremlin has brandished its nuclear weapons and done so with inordinate frequency.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky meanwhile continues making pleas for direct face-to-face talks with President Putin. Even when Western leaders like President Joe Biden want the world not to worry and believe that President Putin will not carry forward his nuclear threats, Russian actions speak louder and demand a serious scrutiny.

Russian roulette

To begin with, rather early on in his so-called “special military operations” in Ukraine – as Western nations were as yet only assessing its import and contemplating their counterstrategies – Putin issued his first warning to them by saying, “Whoever tries to interfere with us should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never experienced in your history,” while also reminding them that Russia “is today one of the most powerful nuclear states.”

On February 27, Putin held his first meeting with his top commanders including Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and his military strategist General Valery Gerasimov. Putin ordered them to put Russia’s nuclear forces on a “special regime of combat duty alert.”

This was an unfamiliar term for nuclear theologists, yet its import was more than sufficient to convey that he wanted the world’s deadliest weapons to be kept ready for a possible launch or, at least, wished the world to believe so.

US President Joe Biden was the first world leader to respond, saying “Americans should not be worried,” as his Press Secretary Jen Psaki clarified that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had no “appetite or desire” for a conflict with Russia.

Only in January all five national leaders of NWS – Britain, China, France, Russia and the US – had signed a joint statement where they had “affirmed that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

The gravity of Putin’s nuclear threats, however, was to be gauged from the fact that only hours after he “ordered” Russia’s nuclear weapons to be put on high alert, America’s $200 million “doomsday plane” – designed to act as a flying control center in the event of a nuclear war – was sent on a four-hour training sortie, raising the specter of worst-case scenarios.

Nuclear provocation

Last Wednesday, Moscow informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Russian forces had taken control of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, though that was contested by Ukrainian authorities.

Russia explained this move was meant to monitor radiation and nuclear safety measures of this plant, which operates six of Ukraine’s total 15 nuclear reactors. Russia has explained it in terms of preventing Ukraine from staging any “nuclear provocation” but perhaps implying one more warning to NATO nations.

Remember, the Russian forces had begun their invasion of Ukraine with the capture of Chernobyl, which houses an inactive nuclear power plant where an explosion in 1986 had resulted in a meltdown of nuclear reactors and release of radiation killing more than 4,000 people.

In their immediate response, the Board of Governors of the 31-member IAEA – the UN nuclear watchdog – on Thursday passed a stern resolution urging Moscow to “immediately cease all action against, and at, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plan and any other nuclear facility in Ukraine” while “deploring” Russia’s invasion. Russia and China voted against the resolution, claiming it was based on “politically motivated lies and mistakes.”

A more detailed response came from Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov addressing an online press conference to reiterate his earlier comment that “it is clear that World War III can only be nuclear” and then dismissing the IAEA response as nothing but a fixation “in the heads of Western politicians,” adding that “the idea of a nuclear war is spinning constantly, and not in the heads of Russians.” Really?

Currency of power

Some have called nuclear weapons the real “currency of power” in international relations. Now this ongoing Russian nuclear posturing surely reinforces their thesis that alludes to examples of big powers not being in able to hurt even the weakest of nations provided they had nuclear weapons. North Korea provides the most potent example. 

Surely, Russia would not have even contemplated invading Ukraine if it had not surrendered its nuclear weapons that it had inherited from having been part of the Soviet Union.

Ukraine along with Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Soviet successor state Russia inherited various nuclear assets and establishments of the former USSR.

However, on December 5, 1994, at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Conference in Budapest, in three identical copies of a Memorandum on Security Assurances signed by Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, they surrendered their nuclear weapons and joined the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as non-nuclear-weapon states.

Yet that same Russia, which had signed above-mentioned Budapest Agreement as a guarantor against any threat or use of force against its sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, is now seen pulverizing Ukrainian cities, and Ukraine’s other guarantors in that arrangement – the US, UK, France and China – have had but disjointed and inapt responses, too little and late to save Ukrainian pride.

This will not just make NWS rethink expanding their nuclear arsenals but will push NAS and NCS to pursue nuclear weapons. Only on Thursday, the IAEA reported that, as of February 19, Iran had compiled 33.2 kilograms of 60% enriched uranium – up from 17.7kg when it was last reported in November – which is more than enough to produce the required quantity of weapons-grade material for its first nuclear device. 

This comes in the midst of the US, UK, China, France, Germany and Russia negotiating with Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal that had lifted sanctions on Tehran in exchange for tight restrictions on its nuclear program.

The recent past has also seen NWS modernizing and expanding their nuclear arsenals. The 2021 Integrated Review of the UK had suddenly reversed its decades of gradual disarmament policies and announced a significant increase in the upper limit of its nuclear inventories.

The recent “discovery” of three new ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) fields in western China has led to all kinds of speculations.

Last week, the chief of the US Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard, warned the US Congress that Chinese may soon surpass the US in its land-based strategic nuclear forces which is bound to have serious implications. The NCS like Germany, Japan and South Korea may also begin to rethink the “currency of power” thesis.

Conclusion

Has President Putin unleashed this nuclear genie without much cost/benefit analysis? Or is this his “shock and awe” strategy gone wrong? Russia has large stockpiles of hugely destructive conventional warheads, a whole range of ballistic missiles including cruise and hypersonic missiles that could ensure controlled gradual escalation even against NATO forces.

Plus Russia has vast stockpiles of more than 14,000 nuclear warheads and 1,600 deployed tactical nuclear weapons. Other estimates put Russia’s total active warheads at 5,977 compared with NATO’s 5,943. Let alone using nuclear forces, NATO has amply clarified that it neither has nor plans to deploy any of its forces in support of Ukraine. 

Surely Russia’s nuclear threats have no legitimacy against a weak and vulnerable neighboring nation like Ukraine. Does this mean that President Putin has been guided by using this conflict to reinstate Russia’s superpower profile? Has Russia forgotten the nuclear arms race of the 1970s that finally led to the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union from the early 1980s?

History, they say, repeats itself as either farce or tragedy, but can those who study history let it pass by without intervening? It is clearly too costly to ignore.

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU

Swaran Singh

Dr Swaran Singh is professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; president of Association of Asia Scholars (asiascholars.in); adjunct senior fellow at The Charhar Institute, Beijing; senior fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka, Colombo; and visiting professor, Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies, Kunming (China).