Russian President Vladimir Putin, who continues to invade Ukraine, said on May 7 that the “threat” of nuclear war is increasing. While insisting that the use of nuclear weapons is only a means of defence, he once again threatens to use nuclear weapons. How will the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) respond?
Paul van Hooft, a 44-year-old senior researcher at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, a Dutch think tank, points out the importance of “ambiguity” in nuclear strategy, in an interview for Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun.
(note: the article is written in Japanese; below you may find a Google Translate version)
Q: What do you think of Mr. Putin’s statement that “the threat of nuclear war is increasing”?
Mr. Putin has made remarks about the use of nuclear weapons several times, but the tone seems to be weaker than before. The U.S. has not reacted significantly, other than saying that “use of nuclear weapons will lead to serious consequences.” Germany and other Western European countries have also taken a firm stance so far.
Even in China, which is said to be pro-Russian, President Xi Jinping has spoken negatively about the nuclear threat. Rationality suggests that the use of nuclear weapons could lead to limited military success and major political failure with key allies .
In short, Mr. Putin has bluffed, and so far it has not worked. Perhaps he himself has come to realize that the “nuclear threat” is not as effective as he hoped.
Q: On the NATO side, German Chancellor Scholz expressed his recognition on the 8th that pressure from the international community on Russia has reduced the danger of using nuclear weapons. Is it safe to understand that the threat is gone for the time being?
I think the consistent stance of the United States and other NATO members has made it clear to Mr. Putin that a nuclear threat has few benefits and a high cost.
That doesn’t mean that the threat of the use of nuclear weapons has disappeared. If the survival of the Putin regime is threatened, there is a possibility that the nuclear threat will be intensified again. For example, it is unlikely for the time being, if Russia completely loses control of eastern Ukraine or the Crimea.
NATO will continue to adhere to its strategy of not escalating tensions and at the same time not making compromises or concessions, while emphasizing that Russia’s use of nuclear weapons will have serious consequences.
Q: Ukraine is not a member of NATO. If Russia were to use nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory, how would NATO respond?
NATO has a “nuclear sharing” mechanism in which member countries share the security and responsibility of nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, it was requested by member states who sought assurances that the United States would really defend Europe by using nuclear weapons in the event of an emergency.
If Russia uses nuclear weapons, NATO will discuss a response under this framework in the Nuclear Programme Group (NPG), which consists of 29 member states except France. However, in reality, the final decision is in the hands of the President of the United States.
Currently, there are a total of about 100 tactical nuclear bombs deployed in five countries in Europe: Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Turkey, all of which belong to the United States. NATO consults and makes decisions on responses at the NPG, but the final decision on whether to respond with nuclear weapons depends on what the President of the United States thinks.
Q: Within NATO, France and the United Kingdom are also nuclear-weapon states. French President Emmanuel Macron made it clear in October that Russia’s use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine and surrounding areas “does not apply to a situation where France responds with nuclear weapons.”
France and Britain will basically consider the use of nuclear weapons if their own country or its allies are attacked. France, in particular, does not participate in NATO’s NPG and traditionally goes its own way. Mr. Macron probably made such a statement because he did not want to be forced into a situation where he had no choice but to use nuclear weapons.
I feel that France’s position sends a message that it does not want to push Russia that far and escalate tensions. However, given NATO’s nuclear strategy, which emphasizes “ambiguity” (deliberately not stating what criteria it will use nuclear weapons), Mr. Macron’s remarks were criticized for being too clear.
This is because it is advantageous in terms of nuclear deterrence to make Russia think that France may also use nuclear weapons.
Q: What do you mean by the “ambiguity” of NATO’s nuclear strategy?
It’s a strange way of saying it, but it may be similar to psychological warfare, to poker games. Fear of nuclear weapons is an important factor in nuclear strategy. They might use nuclear weapons. If they were to be used, it could lead to a nuclear war, and the damage to each other would be enormous. You have to manipulate the fear that your enemies have, try to discourage the enemy by creating uncertainty and fear. However, the enemy should not fear that you yourself are acting on your threat.
Q: This is because the enemy should not attack out of fear.
Right. They should always be seen as dangerous to some extent, but make it clear that you don’t do anything too dangerous. That ambiguity is important. You have to be rational with your peers. However, it should not be so rational that the enemy will know what is in store. How much madness dwells in the eyes of the opponent holding the cards? We have to figure it out. It’s just right not to overdo it, but not too little, and to leave it a little ambiguous. That’s the kind of bargaining you need. Especially this time, it will be even more difficult because the element of Ukraine being a non-member state comes in.
Q: Can you control Putin’s fears?
No one knows what’s in Mr. Putin’s head. However, even if Russia crosses the red line of using nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory, NATO has many options. It depends on in what form Russia uses it, whether it really destroys cities, or just explodes them in the air, or uses dirty bombs. Depending on the outcome, NATO could take its response a step further with conventional weapons. For example, an attack on the Black Sea Fleet or the destruction of Russian missile launch bases is conceivable. There is also the possibility of setting a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine, which has been avoided so far. You can limit Russian air strikes, but you want to avoid that because it means a direct confrontation with Russia.
The full Japanese article by Toru Tamagawa can be found on the Asahi Shimbun website or downloaded as a PDF here.