By Elia Gerola

For a detailed, visual explanation of the world’s nuclear deterrence balances, check out our up-to-date infographic, which will soon be in the book Atlas of Wars and Conflicts in the World (first English edition).

European and global nuclear stability was severely destabilised on Sunday 27 February 2022. There are two pieces of news that, in terms of timing and possible scope, signal an escalation in the course of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. On the one hand, Russian President Putin’s order to put the country’s nuclear forces on ‘high alert‘. On the other, the result of the Belarusian constitutional referendum that decreed the loss of “nuclear neutrality” status for Belarus, an important ally of Moscow, sanctioning a further step backwards for nuclear disarmament in Europe (after the Trump-led US withdrawal from the INF and Open Sky treaties) since the Cold War.

Putin’s decision to put Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert was announced on live TV, justifying the decision as proportionate to NATO aggression and Western economic sanctions. Analysts, however, emphasise that such a decision, rather than having an immediate material value deriving from the threat of tactical use, i.e. on the battlefield, of the weapon of mass destruction par excellence, has above all a crucial symbolic value, capable of putting further pressure on the Ukrainians and their Western allies. In fact, it should be noted that of the more than 5,900 Russian nuclear warheads, about 1,500 are already in a constant state of alert, operational and ready for use, as part of the regime of mutual deterrence with the other nuclear States, in particular: USA.

Another element to report concerns the declarations of the former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, now Deputy Head of the Russian Security Council, who said that heavy economic sanctions, such as those that exclude Russia from the payment circuit regulated by the SWIFT protocol, allow Moscow to have the pretext to reshape its ties with Western countries and thus also to legitimately exit the last bilateral arms control treaty in force between the White House and the Kremlin, which has just been renewed until 2026 and has survived the Trump presidency, the so-called New START. This limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 and the number of operational launch vehicles (missiles and bombs) to 800, which can be deployed by the US and Russia.

Finally, the situation was complicated by the outcome of the Belarusian constitutional referendum, the results of which determined that Belarus would renounce its status as a neutral nuclear power and would be able to allow another state to deploy nuclear weapons on its territory. The popular vote was called by the dictatorial regime led by Alexander Lukashenko, now considered by many to be just a puppet of Putin in Minsk, but in power for over 27 years. In addition to the questioning of the country’s nuclear status, the people were also asked to vote on whether the current President should be allowed to remain in power until 2035, and whether he should not be prosecuted for his actions as Head of State once his term of office has expired. According to data provided by the Minsk government, but not recognised by the western international community, about 78% of the population voted, and 65.2% were in favour of renouncing nuclear neutrality.

At the polling station, President Alexander Lukashenko declared that should NATO deploy advanced nuclear weapons in Poland or Lithuania, he would ask Russia to do the same on its territory. In short, the possibility of military escalation in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is becoming increasingly important. In fact, according to many analysts, the pincer invasion ordered by Putin is not proceeding as smoothly and quickly as the Kremlin would have expected.

Moreover, the very speed with which the economic sanctions have been approved by European and Western states may have been underestimated. Thus, backed into a corner, the Russian President, who for two decades now has reiterated that Russia’s nuclear posture would be “defensive and punitive”, i.e. using nuclear weapons only in the event of a threat to the survival of the Russian state or to punish nuclear aggression on its territory, could be induced by the facts to decide to use nuclear weapons on the battlefield, in a tactical manner and with only two precedents in the history of Humanity, dating back 75 years: Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The use of nuclear power on Ukrainian soil would have devastating implications, first and foremost in human terms, but also in terms of infrastructure and the environment. There would also be an enormous symbolic value that such an action would have, as expert Francesca Giovannini points out. “Thinking the unthinkable”, the Harvard academic in fact stresses how Putin has staked a great deal on this conflict and how there is therefore not only Russia’s international prestige but also his own, as Head of State and now undisputed leader of Russia at stake. Consequently, the risk of irrational and extreme moves, even by a seasoned leader of his experience, cannot be underestimated.

To date, one thing is certain, as expert analysts such as Kristensen and Korda point out in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientist: on the Russian-Ukrainian border there are dual-use mobile land vehicles, i.e. capable of transporting and detonating both conventional and nuclear devices. The risk of nuclear escalation and the use of nuclear weapons for demonstrative and symbolic purposes therefore remains high, but they conclude by pointing out that from the satellite images and intelligence information in their possession these ground vehicles do not appear to be armed with nuclear weapons or guarded by military convoys that would normally defend nuclear carriers.


Cover image: Unsplash