Nuclear Weapons Are Back On The Radar

Where there is strategic conflict, nukes always come into play.

Jonathan Zawada for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

For three decades after the end of the Cold War, fear of nuclear conflict was relegated to the back shelf of our many worries, fading into historical memory along with the benign visage of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, appearing in a Pizza Hut commercial. As history has since taken a darker turn, nuclear weapons are once again back on the radar.

Nuclear fears are a function of geopolitical tensions. When tensions are dampened, so are fears. When they are heightened, so are fears. Though the number of nukes is far less today than at the height of the Cold War, the danger is arguably greater now because there is a major active war on the European continent for the first time since the bomb was detonated in 1945.

In its way of riveting mass attention at key moments, Hollywood has reimplanted the terror of “the bomb” in the forefront of our minds. In an unsettling coincidence, the film “Oppenheimer” swept the Oscars this week just as revelations emerged that Russia had drawn up operational plans for the deployment of tactical battlefield nukes in the hot war raging in Ukraine.

According to the New York Times, the C.I.A. briefed President Joe Biden in October 2022 that “under a singular scenario in which Ukrainian forces decimated Russian defensive lines and looked as if they might try to retake Crimea — a possibility that seemed imaginable that fall — the likelihood of nuclear use might rise to 50% or even higher.” Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chief of Staffs until last September, called the situation a “nuclear paradox”: “The more successful the Ukrainians are at ousting the Russian invasion, the more likely Putin is to threaten to use a bomb — or reach for it.”

Though the specific circumstances of that showdown have passed, the animating dynamic of Putin’s logic remains: If he feels trapped, the Russian autocrat appears willing to turn to nukes as a last resort.

A Splintering West

For the moment, the situation seems to have shifted in Putin’s favor. Short of armaments, Ukraine has suffered serious setbacks on the battlefield at the hands of Russian forces, leading to a rough stalemate on the ground while the unity of the West is splintering.

The U.S. Congress has stalled in bickering over new funding for Ukraine’s defense, triggered by Republicans’ insistence on U.S. border security first. Donald Trump has threatened, if he returns to power, not to honor America’s pledge to defend any NATO member under attack if they don’t boost their own defense spending appropriately. Even if and when the Ukraine funding ultimately comes through, this partisan reluctance speaks volumes and spreads deep doubts about America’s reliability.

Europe, too, is divided. In a sign of more to come as the cost of solidarity grows, Poland’s farmers are protesting the import of Ukrainian agricultural goods that undermine their livelihoods. And, as the end of free-riding on America’s defense spending draws nearer no matter who takes power in Washington after the November election, comfortable citizens across the continent will face the hard choices between guns and butter they have long been able to avoid. When push comes to shove, what will they be willing to forego to stand up to Russian intimidation or worse?

The prime minister of Denmark recently opined that Europe needs to stop being “naïve” about the Russian threat and “step up and scale up” its defense spending. “From a European perspective we have to admit that we haven’t used enough money on our own defense and security,” she told the Financial Times. When Denmark cut defense spending after the Cold War, she said, “we were able to spend more money on welfare or tax reductions. We need to start the conversation that if the world is changing in the direction I think it will, then you cannot spend your penny, or your dollar, or your euro, or your krone two times.”

The leaders of the core nations of the European Union, France and Germany, are not only openly accusing each other of not doing enough to arm Ukraine; they are also at odds over end goals. For French President Emmanuel Macron “Russia must not win the war” or the rest of Europe will be at risk from Putin’s aggression. For German Chancellor Olaf Scholz the goal is that “Ukraine must not lose,” which is widely interpreted to mean a settlement with Russia that would keep an independent Ukraine intact even if it can’t recover all its lost territory militarily.

NATO Strength, Russian Insecurity

While all this squabbling is surely music to Putin’s ears, the rest of what is happening is boxing in his vision of Russia’s strategic long-term interests — and thus likely enhancing, not diminishing, the risk of nuclear brinkmanship down the road.

Aside from Putin’s claim that Ukraine is a historically and spiritually inseparable part of Russia, he justified his invasion as self-defense against being surrounded up to his very borders by the hostile Western forces of the NATO alliance. Yet the reaction to his aggression has yielded the opposite result. Last week, long-neutral Sweden, following Finland — which has one of the longest land borders facing Russia — finally officially joined the alliance, transforming the Baltic Sea, so critical for Russia’s naval defense and trade routes, into a “NATO lake.” The isolated exception is Kaliningrad, an exclave nestled between Poland and Lithuania that hosts Russia’s Baltic Fleet and is believed by Western intelligence to store nuclear weapons.

While this new geopolitical fact ostensibly makes the West more secure, it also introduces into the Baltic region the “nuclear paradox” Gen. Milley spoke about. The more secure a NATO lake may make Europe, the more insecure it makes Putin’s Russia. More states than ever that now belong to NATO are in a direct, face-to-face line of contact with Russian forces plying its icy waters. The risk this presents is that any confrontation in the Baltics where Russia lacks conventional military advantage can too readily escalate to a nuclear threat. 

It would be a great historical tragedy if NATO avoided world war so far by staying out of a direct confrontation with Russia in Ukraine only to be drawn into armed clashes in the Baltic region precisely because that is where its interacting presence is most preponderant.

The potential of such a direct clash one day between Russia and NATO is already being foreshadowed in remarks by Macron and Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, both of whom have floated the idea that deployment of NATO troops in Ukraine should not be taken off the table if that is what is needed to stop Russian aggression before it advances elsewhere.

NATO allies were able to avoid Putin’s tentative use of tactical nukes in 2022 not only because of deft diplomacy and credible deterrence, but also because he could still see a way out of battlefield defeat. All indications are that might not have been the case if his invasion was terminally doomed. In other words, the less he felt threatened, the less he felt the need to threaten the use of nukes.

To the extent NATO more frontally touches Russia’s zone of interests in the Baltics, we should worry that the opposite dynamic may unfold.  

The real Robert Oppenheimer came to understand regrettably that the genie he let loose could not be put back in the bottle, that wherever there was strategic confrontation among major powers, nuclear weapons would come into play. These days that also includes China, which is rapidly building up its own forces.

Unfortunately, that is the reality we face today as history seems to have returned, in some ways more perilously, to where we left off a little more than three decades ago.