The Nuclear Shadow: US Nuclear Policy in the Wake of Ukraine Crisis

The current quagmire in Ukraine has brought into question the realizable use of nuclear weapons by Russia. Indeed, the growing consensus in Washington about the adoption of the “escalate to de-escalate” military strategy by Moscow has raised the probability of nonstrategic nuclear weapons being used in Ukraine. As a result, the United States’ nuclear policy must be able to maintain a flexible posture to deter the use of nuclear weapons by Russia. Significant stalls in military advances across Ukraine, economic strangulation from the West, and past success from the “escalate to de-escalate” strategy may work together to push Moscow to use nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Ukraine. It is imperative that the United States nuclear strategy incorporates these dynamic shifts into its calculations and is prepared for an apt response in the event of low-yield nuclear weapons being employed.

The ideas presented in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review regarding Russian advantages in nonstrategic capabilities and the necessary postures needed to uphold deterrence couldn’t ring more true today as the Russo-Ukrainian war rages on. In fact, according to the Congressional Research Service, many US analysts believe Moscow currently holds between 1,000 and 2,000 nonstrategic nuclear weapon warheads while the United States maintains 230 nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Furthermore, less than half of the US arsenal is deployed in Europe. Russia holds a quantitative advantage over the US on this front. Therefore, Washington must expand on the posture in the Nuclear Posture Review (2018) of supporting “the capability to forward deploy nuclear bombers and dual-capable aircraft around the world” due to the growing nuclear threat posed by Russia. 

The bargaining between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine has reached failure (war) due to issue indivisibilities. Namely, there was no bargaining space over Kyiv between Moscow and the West. Since the bargaining table has dissipated, strides must be made to supplant cost/benefit analyses and to extend deterrence. Although some argue that current rhetoric from President Putin verifies the claim of the irrational actor status, the evidence speaks a different tune. The United States has fallen behind in military coercion and subsequently created a credibility problem in which Moscow pounced on. A credibility problem has emerged from the US reputation created by the allied response (or lack thereof) to the past Russian incursions, the previous amount of minimal sunk costs tied to the US military in Europe, and the previous success of Moscow by playing games of nuclear brinkmanship. To be sure, Russia has claimed grounds for the war that wouldn’t be affected by a shift in nuclear posturing. Vladimir Putin’s condemnations of Nazism in Ukraine and his messianic calls to save Russian natives living in Ukraine are among some of the rationalities behind the conflict that is outside the periphery of nuclear posturing. However, the only tools currently available for the United States to prompt Russian reassessment of the conflict center around military coercion and nuclear posturing (aside from economic pressure and aid to Ukraine, which is already being done). Indeed, this opens the door for viable policy options; buttress US military capabilities in Europe.

The concurrence of the US aims to deter nonstrategic nuclear use in Eastern Europe and to force recalculations to military operations in Ukraine demonstrates the gains to increasing US military posturing in NATO allies across Europe. In addition, as the Russian advances continue to lag and suffer from Ukrainian counter-offensives, the likelihood of nonstrategic use could be raised as Russian victory grows more improbable. Therefore, the United States must act urgently to supplant and deter Russia from utilizing low-yield nuclear weapons. Indeed, one may contend what shifts in posture will achieve these aims.

The US and NATO allies must communicate to Moscow that there will be robust retaliation in response to Russian nonstrategic nuclear use and to the use of other WMDs more broadly. The articulation of stark red lines, as President Biden has stated with the use of chemical weapons against Ukraine, will be critical to deterring further action by Russia. This hardline vocabulary must be backed up by swelling military presence in Europe to dispel possible Russian assessment of a negative US response to WMD use. This approach has been a mainstay for NATO throughout the crisis, with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently highlighting the hundreds of thousands of allied troops currently in Europe. In addition to buttressing conventional capabilities, the US and allies should consider exercises involving non-strategic nuclear weapons in the region to further demonstrate to Moscow that there is a backbone to our retaliatory claims.

The Russo-Ukrainian war is providing insight into how nuclear-armed superpowers are making risk analyses in the 21st century. The acquisition of nuclear weapons, as Thomas Schelling notes in his book “Arms in InfluenceCris”, has transformed international politics in ways that make brinkmanship and risk-taking more influential in prompting reassessment from an enemy than warfare itself. This, Schelling argues, is the nuclear revolution. The United States stands at an inflection point where the stakes could not be larger, with the Liberal International Order being challenged by revisionist actors in Russia and China. Therefore, the United States should allow itself to reserve the space to increase the risk to deter Moscow from further action. The age of great power competition will prove to be a dance of political risk-taking and the United States must act as the coryphée if it hopes to retain its role as the leader of the free world. 

[Mil.ru, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons] 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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