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NATO’s nuclear deterrence should begin not on the Russian-Polish border, but on the Ukrainian-Russian one

Photo: US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan with US President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Special Climate Envoy John Kerry at the White House in May
Source: Stefani Reynolds via Getty Images

At the end of September, the Russian Federation, after holding demonstrative pseudo-referendums in the occupied territories, has announced a new illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory. Luhansk and Donetsk regions have "joined" within administrative boundaries, while uncertainty remains regarding Zaporizhia and Kherson regions. At the time of the illegal annexation, Ukraine kept control over settlements in all four regions. Thus, according to its domestic legislation, Russia interprets this as an occupation of its territory.

According to the National Security Concept of the Russian Federation, the state maintains the right to use nuclear weapons first. Among the signatories of the NPT, Russia is the only country that has recognised the possibility of using nuclear weapons not for defense or response, but for an attack. However, russian officials in their speeches previously stated that the military-political leadership of Russian Federation would take such a step in the event of a threat to the existence of their state. This principle can be interpreted broadly, because Vladimir Putin has a specific interpretation of existing threats. For example, Ukraine, which implements an independent foreign policy and is not under the influence of the Kremlin, is already considered by the Russian president as a threat to his state.

Considering that the illegally annexed territories of Ukraine are defined as Russian in the Russian constitution, Putin can already call the advancement of Ukrainian troops in the occupied territories a red line provoking the use of nuclear weapons. Thus, the holding of referendums and the consolidation of the South and East of Ukraine in the Russian constitution is a clear raising of stakes. This is a signal to the West that the occupied territories cannot be liberated.

However, Ukraine has no other choice but to liberate the captured cities, despite nuclear blackmail. In response to another annexation, Volodymyr Zelensky raised the stakes for his part - he rejected the possibility of negotiations with the current Russian leadership, and Ukraine applied for an accelerated entry into the North Atlantic Alliance. At the same time, Ukrainian diplomacy has intensified: in the direction of obtaining additional weapons to strengthen military capabilities and within international organizations. Through its actions: illegal annexation and rocket attacks on Ukrainian cities, the Russian Federation strengthened its support for Ukraine. The EU adopted a new sanctions package, the Rammstein Coalition decided on additional military assistance: NATO countries are strengthening Ukrainian air defense, Germany and France will supply additional howitzers, and the United States has announced a new large-scale aid package.

At the UN, the General Assembly on October 12 overwhelmingly adopted a resolution condemning Russia's annexation of four regions of Ukraine. The document notes: "the conducted "referenda" have no legal force and cannot be the basis for any change in the status of these regions, including their annexation to Russia." After the non-recognition of the annexation by the international community, an important decision was made by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Organization has declared the Russian Federation a terrorist regime. In fact, this decision does not change the state of affairs, but the very precedent of such a characterization of the Russian government by an international organization is important, which can lead to further delegitimization of the current Russian government in the eyes of the international community as well as the recognition of Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. The next steps should be the exclusion of the Russian Federation from international organizations, in particular the UN. Russia has been violating the charter and principles of the organization for years, and after a full-scale invasion, the state has no moral right to remain not only in the Security Council, but simply to be a member of this organization. The reaction to the attempted annexation of part of the country cannot be only condemnation. Even though Russia is a nuclear state, in order to preserve the existing international relations system that has developed after 1945 and is built around the United Nations, Russia must be excluded.

However, even diplomatic isolation, full or limited, will not be enough to change the behavior of the Russian Federation in the international arena and prevent the use of nuclear weapons by the aggressor country. Already now, according to the British edition “The Guardian”, the EU and NATO countries are discussing the possibility of such a scenario and ways to prepare the population to prevent chaos and panic in their countries if Russia explodesa nuclear bomb in or near Ukraine.

At the same time, there is no effective containment of the Russian Federation from such actions yet. Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, threatened Moscow with "catastrophic consequences," without being specific. French President Emmanuel Macron said that France would not use nuclear weapons against Russia in the event of a retaliatory strike on Ukraine. For this, Macron was criticized by Ben Wallace, because France thus "revealed his hand." The most decisive comment was made by the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell. He stated that Russia would receive a conventional response after the use of nuclear weapons, but as powerful from a military point of view that the Russian army would be completely destroyed.

However, most likely, partner countries will choose to increase assistance to Ukraine in response to the use of nuclear weapons by Russia. Perhaps it will be the delivery of ATACMS missiles, MQ-9 Reaper drones, or A-10 aircraft. However, a strike on the Russian Armed Forces on the territory of Ukraine or the destruction of the Black Sea Fleet, as suggested by Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, are unlikely scenarios, taking into account the current US strategy. The White House is trying to control the escalation and avoid a direct confrontation with the Russian Federation. For this reason, Ukraine has not yet received ATACMS missiles, modern aviation and modern tanks from partners. For the same reason, Ukraine remains outside the North Atlantic Alliance. Washington will not change its strategy if Russia uses tactical nuclear weapons against the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

However, this strategy is a failure. Nothing deters Vladimir Putin, and in recent years, especially since the election of Joe Biden, the head of the Kremlin has been raising the stakes. Russia understands only force, and therefore it is necessary to increase pressure on the aggressor in all dimensions, without waiting for the use of weapons of mass destruction. In the diplomatic dimension, Russia should be excluded from the UN. A country that is trying to change existing borders through a war of conquest in violation of the laws and customs of war has no place in an organization. In the military dimension, it is necessary to strengthen the capabilities of the Armed Forces of Ukraine by providing modern aviation, tanks and medium-range missiles. Liberation of the whole of Ukraine is a matter of time. The more forces and means Ukraine has, the faster the war will end. Otherwise, Ukraine will liberate its territories, but over a longer period of time and with bigger human losses. At the same time, deterrence from a Russian nuclear strike must be decisive. Only in the event of a direct threat from the United States and Great Britain, the Russian Federation can refuse to strike with nuclear weapons.

Ukraine is left outside the security guarantees and the NATO nuclear umbrella. This allows for a nuclear escalation by Russia, which will be the final nail in the nuclear non-proliferation regime. NATO's nuclear deterrence should begin not on the Russian-Polish border, but on the Ukrainian-Russian one. Such an approach will not become an escalation, but on the contrary, it will become a deterrent. After all, the world is not on the verge of a large-scale nuclear war. The World is on the verge of losing the taboo on the use of nuclear weapons, which is fraught with danger in the medium and long term and therefore requires decisive action from the leaders of nuclear states.