Enabled by deterrence? The Ukraine War and nuclear weapons

by | Nov 29, 2022 | Nuclear, Ukraine | 0 comments

Author: Declan Penrose

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shaken the world as we all try to understand how and why this has happened. Of course, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, but even for Putin, attempting to annex an entire state is truly shocking. How did Putin even think he could get away with this? The inconvenient truth for nuclear deterrence is that nuclear deterrence likely emboldened Putin’s ambitions.

Deterrence works both ways

I have seen several online debates by western academics on Twitter about whether nuclear deterrence has worked in the case of Ukraine, with several saying it has because a NATO state has not been attacked and no nukes have been used. At the heart of the nuclear non-proliferation regime that surrounds the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was a compromise between the “nuclear haves” and the “nuclear have-nots”. This was that the incumbent, “responsible” and “logical”, nuclear states could keep their arsenals, for now, to deter a “rogue” state that may attempt to use them in the future. So long as the “good” guys have nukes, the “bad” guys can be deterred. These reductive and gendered binary assumptions alone are problematic. However, what should be obvious here is that if the good guys can deter the bad guys with nukes, then so can the bad guys deter the good guys. Russia has deterred the rest of the world, particularly NATO, from directly intervening in their illegal invasion because no one wants nuclear war. Nuclear deterrence, therefore, has worked for Russia, but to what extent?

Russia has failed spectacularly, and publicly, to achieve its goals in Ukraine. Furthermore, despite being deterred from directly intervening, Ukraine has received immense military aid from mostly NATO states. While this highlights the limitations of deterrence, Russia and NATO will likely become even more reliant on their nuclear deterrents. This is because Russia has inadvertently shown the world how inept and poorly trained its conventional military is. This will be further encouraged by the expansion of NATO near Russia in response to the invasion. Adding to this, the US already stores over 100 nuclear weapons in Europe and is speeding up plans to store upgraded warheads in Europe. This makes it hard to see a way out of the current tensions as NATO and Russia point more nuclear warheads at each other. This should serve as a timely reminder that deterrence is not peace, it is a standoff that could go off at any moment.


Russian nuclear rhetoric

Throughout the war, Putin and others in the Russian hierarchy have made several nuclear warnings and escalatory comments. These have ranged from “we have the right to use nuclear weapons in response to an existential threat” to boasting about the size of their nuclear arsenal. Those who have read Carol Cohn and Cynthia Enloe will not have to look hard to see the hyper-masculine posturing here. Putin has attempted to make Ukraine and NATO believe that he is willing to use ‘tactical’ nuclear warheads in Ukraine. He has seemingly hoped that it would stop NATO from supplying Ukraine with military aid, and Ukraine from taking back stolen land. Putin’s bluff continues to be called, leading to the recent Russian withdrawal from Kherson.

On the 27th of September, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reasserted that Russia had the right to use nuclear weapons to defend its territory. This carried more meaning than before because Russia was now seeking to annex much of its occupied territory in Ukraine. By officially annexing these territories, Russia was hoping to legitimise its claim to these lands and add weight to its nuclear deterrence to stop Ukraine from taking them back. On the 30th of September Russia annexed Kherson, yet undermined this warning by fleeing the city just 6 weeks later with no retaliatory nukes in sight. Russia’s nuclear rhetoric has lacked credibility throughout, yet what happens if we incorrectly assume Putin is bluffing? Nuclear states rely on strategic ambiguity to make their use threshold unclear, yet this uncertainty could also lead to a state inadvertently meeting those criteria.


Can we escape nuclear deterrence?

It has been a difficult decade for the nuclear disarmament movement. Most nuclear states have undertaken massive nuclear arsenal modernisation programmes and tensions between nuclear states have been rising. Not only have US/NATO and Russia relations been declining for a long time but there are tensions with China, which is also significantly expanding its nuclear arsenal. I still have not mentioned the nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan which many experts say remains the most likely site of a nuclear exchange. Trump withdrew the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran which halted its nuclear weapons programme, and it currently looks unlikely the deal can be revived. Israel will not even admit it has nukes and North Korea has grown increasingly escalatory since a potential nuclear deal with South Korea and the US collapsed in 2019. More nuclear weapons will not calm these tensions, nor does nuclear deterrence.

The insecurity makes disarmament talks seem impossible to many, yet a new treaty to abolish nuclear weapons has been created. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was negotiated in 2017 and came into force in 2021. It currently has 91 signatories and 68 state parties. It was borne out of frustration with the nuclear states and the NPT’s lack of progress towards disarmament. No nuclear states have even taken part in any associated event and all their allies typically boycott TPNW negotiations. However, the TPNW seeks primarily to bring normative change by stigmatising nuclear ownership, rather than literally banning the bomb immediately. This normative pressure is hoped to push the nuclear states towards disarmament talks. The TPNW, and the many activists who advocate for nuclear disarmament, have brought the issue to more people’s attention, in the public and in government. Can they succeed? They simply must. For how much more nuclear deterrence can we survive?


The deterrence debate on Twitter:

Mariana Budjeryn (@mbudjeryn) on 6th March 2022: thread

Nuclear Knowledges (@NKnowledges) on 7th March 2022: response

War on the Rocks (@WarOnTheRocks) on 19th June 2022: tweet and article

Bruno Tertrais (@BrunoTertrais) on 3rd October 2022: thread


Cohn, Carol. “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals.” Signs, vol. 12, no. 4, 1987, pp. 687–718. JSTORhttp://www.jstor.org/stable/3174209.

Enloe, Cynthia. Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. 2nd ed., University of California Press, 2014. JSTORhttp://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt6wqbn6.


Short bio

Declan Penrose is a PhD student in the politics department at the University of Manchester and a policy intern in the Inclusive International Security Programme at the British American Security Information Council (BASIC). He researches nuclear weapons, feminism, and peace studies, and his thesis is on the relationship between feminist nuclear disarmament activism and academia.

Contact: declan.penrose@postgrad.manchester.ac.uk

Twitter: @DeclanP95

LinkedIn: Declan Penrose