With his threats to use the bomb, Russia’s president has overturned the nuclear order.
One hundred days ago Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine by warning of a nuclear strike. Having exalted Russia’s atomic arsenal and promised Ukraine’s subjugation, he threatened countries tempted to interfere with consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history”. Russian tv has since tantalised viewers with chit-chat about Armageddon.
Even if he never uses the bomb in Ukraine, Mr Putin has thus already upset the nuclear order. After his threats, nato limited the support it was prepared to offer, with two implications that are all the more worrying for having been drowned out by the drumbeat of Russia’s conventional campaign. One is that vulnerable states that see the world through Ukraine’s eyes will feel that the best defence against a nuclear-armed aggressor is to have weapons of their own. The other is that other nuclear-armed states will believe that they can gain by copying Mr Putin’s tactics. If so, someone somewhere will surely turn their threat into reality. That must not be this war’s devastating legacy.
The nuclear danger was growing before the invasion. North Korea has dozens of warheads. Iran, the un said this week, has enough enriched uranium for its first bomb. Although the New start treaty will limit Russia’s and America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles until 2026, it does not cover weapons such as nuclear torpedoes. Pakistan is rapidly adding to its arsenal. China is modernising its nuclear forces and, the Pentagon says, expanding them.
All this proliferation reflects the weakening of the moral revulsion that restrains the use of nuclear weapons. As memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki fade, people fail to grasp how the detonation of a small battlefield weapon, of the sort Mr Putin might lob, could escalate into the tit-for-tat annihilation of entire cities. America and the Soviet Union only just coped with a two-sided nuclear stand-off. There is insufficient alarm at the prospect of many nuclear powers struggling to keep the peace.
The invasion of Ukraine adds to this malaise. Even if Mr Putin is bluffing, his threats eat away at the security guarantees given to non-nuclear states. In 1994 Ukraine surrendered the ex-Soviet nuclear weapons on its territory in exchange for undertakings from Russia, America and Britain that it would not be attacked. By seizing Crimea and backing separatists in the Donbas regions in 2014, Russia flagrantly broke that promise. America and Britain, which pretty much stood aside, broke their promises, too.
This gives vulnerable states an extra reason to go nuclear. Iran may judge that, whereas renouncing the bomb will win it no lasting credit, having one would now stir up less trouble than in the past. If Iran tested a bomb, how would Saudi Arabia and Turkey respond? South Korea and Japan, which both have the know-how to arm themselves, will place less faith in Western commitments to protect them in a more dangerous world.
Mr Putin’s strategy of issuing nuclear threats is even more corrosive. In the decades after the second world war, the nuclear powers contemplated deploying atomic weapons in battle. But in the past half-century such warnings have been issued only against countries, such as Iraq and North Korea, that were themselves threatening to use weapons of mass destruction. Mr Putin is different because he is invoking atomic threats to help his invading forces win a conventional war.
And it seems to have worked. True, nato’s support for Ukraine has been more robust than expected. But the alliance has hesitated to dispatch “offensive” weapons such as aircraft. Although America’s president, Joe Biden, has sent vast amounts of arms, this week he demurred from providing missiles able to strike deep inside Russia. Others in nato seem to think that Ukraine should settle with Russia, because inflicting a defeat on Mr Putin could back him into a corner, with dire consequences.
That logic sets a dangerous precedent. China could impose similar conditions if it attacked Taiwan, arguing that the island is already Chinese territory. More states may amass more battlefield weapons. That would flout the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, under which they are pledged to work for disarmament.
Mr Putin’s damage will be hard to repair. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which came into force last year and is backed by 86 states, calls for their abolition. However, countries with weapons fear leaving themselves more vulnerable, even if collective disarmament might make sense.
Arms control, with scrupulous verification, is worth pursuing. Russia may be wary, but it is impoverished. Nukes cost money and it needs to rebuild its conventional forces. America could retire its land-based missiles without compromising its security in exchange for Russian cuts. Both sides could agree on technical measures, such as not to strike nuclear command, control and communications infrastructure in a conventional conflict. Ultimately, the aim should be to bring in China.
Those talks will be easier if Mr Putin’s nuclear tactics fail—starting with ensuring he does not strike Ukraine. Mr Biden wrote this week that America has not detected preparations. But countries such as China, India, Israel and Turkey with access to the Kremlin should be warning Mr Putin of their fury if, God forbid, he actually uses a nuclear weapon.
Sparing Ukraine from a nuclear attack is essential, but it is not enough. The world must also make certain that Mr Putin does not prosper from his aggression today, as he prospered in 2014. If, once again, he believes that his tactics worked, he will issue more nuclear threats in the future. If he concludes nato can be intimidated, persuading him that he must back down will be harder. Others will learn from his example. Ukraine therefore needs advanced weapons, economic aid and sanctions on Russia in order to force Mr Putin’s army into a retreat.
Those countries that see this as just a passing European fight are neglecting their own security. And those arguing in the name of peace that Ukraine needs a truce with Russia right now, to avoid being bogged down in a war it cannot win with an enemy that has already lost its sting, could not be more wrong. If Mr Putin thought nato lacked resolve Russia would remain dangerous. If he were convinced that his nuclear threats had been the difference between defeat and a face-saving stalemate, Russia would be more dangerous than ever. ■
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This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline "A new nuclear era"