President Vladimir Putin announcing Russia's invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. Courtesy of kremlin.ru / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
Putin’s decision to elevate the alert status of Russia’s nuclear forces is both a signal of how much Ukraine means to the Russian leader, and a deterrent against future Western actions. European allies must continue to present a unified response, while also exploring opportunities for de-escalation.
Until now, nuclear weapons have largely been in the background of the Ukraine conflict. That changed when Russian President Vladimir Putin elevated Russia’s military status to ‘special service regime’, including its nuclear forces. In practice, this ‘special status’ could mean higher readiness and survivability of the Russian nuclear command authority along with its nuclear forces.
Putin is a nuclear bully. He has much more at stake in Ukraine than NATO does and is willing to escalate the crisis to get his way. None of this is new. What this announcement signals, however, is two things: resistance to the Russian invasion is hurting, and Putin is getting desperate. While the first point should inspire hope for Ukraine and Europe, the second necessitates caution because options for a face-saving resolution to the crisis, without resorting to massive casualties, are dwindling for Putin. But there are still a few off-ramps left, and NATO can also play a role in reducing risks of further escalation.
Any analysis of Putin needs to come with a degree of humility. He has proven to be mercurial; both perceptive in understanding Western red lines and reluctance to use force, but also short-sighted in anticipating Ukrainian, NATO and Russian responses. This latest move, therefore, can be read in at least three ways.
First, this could be a response to Western actions and a means to push back against sanctions, which were mentioned in the announcement. From a Western perspective, this might seem asymmetrically escalatory. But Russia’s 2020 nuclear doctrine states that the role of Russia’s nuclear forces is not only deterrence, but also to guarantee ‘the protection of sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state … and in the event of an outbreak of a military conflict – the preclusion of the escalation of military actions and their cessation on conditions acceptable to the Russian Federation and (or) its allies’. So, while Western sanctions might not obviously threaten the sovereignty of the state, they do have the potential to dramatically undermine the Russian economy, not to mention the leadership’s personal wealth.
The change in nuclear status should be seen more as a symbol of Putin’s willingness to take risks with nuclear threats, rather than necessarily his willingness to use nuclear weapons
A second option is that the announcement could be a response to Ukrainian resistance and is intended to bully the country into submission. Nuclear weapons are a powerful reminder of Russia’s military strength. According to the same nuclear doctrine, if Russia perceives it is losing the conflict in Ukraine with unacceptable conditions, that could suggest the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. This would be an incredibly dramatic decision and seems extreme. The change in nuclear status should be seen more as a symbol of Putin’s willingness to take risks with nuclear threats, rather than necessarily his willingness to use nuclear weapons. Putin has consistently demonstrated a strong appetite for risk. Escalation is about stakes. And the stakes for Putin in Ukraine are high.
Third, the decision to increase the alert status of all Russian forces, including nuclear weapons, could be an anticipatory deterrent against further Western support for Ukraine. The majority of military analysts believe that Russia will ramp up its attacks on Ukraine and the worst is yet to come. Until now, Russian troops have been careful to avoid any civilian casualties, but the next stages of the conflict could include a massive aerial assault on Kyiv and a ground invasion with little regard for life or property. The heightened nuclear alert status could be intended to deter Western powers from directly intervening in the crisis when the conventional fighting escalates.
Is NATO willing to fight a nuclear war over Ukraine? Probably not. Its options, therefore, must strike a delicate balance between deterrence and de-escalation. In response to Putin’s announcement, NATO’s priorities should be deterring Russian aggression against NATO members and reassuring allies. Actions to date, including the recent decision by Germany to increase defence spending and provide military assistance to Ukraine, have demonstrated remarkable resolve and unity on the part of NATO. The Allies must continue to send a strong, unified message of approbation against Putin, while also avoiding escalation and exploring opportunities to de-escalate and ultimately resolve the war.
But Putin seems to be intentionally driving past all the off-ramps. He has consistently proven willing to escalate the crisis in Ukraine. His risk-taking is brazen. So, while NATO and the EU attempt to walk a fine line between deterrence – with ever-increasing sanctions and military aid to Ukraine – and de-escalation, Putin consistently pushes the crisis further along. Ultimately, the Ukrainian people will be the ones to suffer the most from his actions.
Putin is the one who has introduced nuclear threats to this crisis; NATO does not need to resort to similar desperation
The international community needs to respond strongly to Russia’s shocking attack. Nevertheless, any denouement to the crisis will require a face-saving option for Moscow. For Putin, the greatest threat to Russia since the end of the Cold War has not been NATO expansion, but the Colour Revolutions on Russia’s borders. Maintaining domestic support and his personal hold on power is his top priority. Getting out of the crisis, therefore, will require not only that he feels secure about Ukraine’s future status, but also that he feels secure at home. At present, it is hard to envision such a scenario, but the priority should be slowing the pace of conflict and facilitating crisis communication.
There are at least three off-ramps available. First, Putin and Zelensky might agree to a ceasefire and move the conflict to the negotiating table. That does not necessarily entail a peaceful conclusion to the conflict, as Russia could re-engage militarily, but it would provide a short-term easing of the pressure on both sides. Second, Putin could claim victory and seize Donetsk and Luhansk, exaggerate the military achievement to audiences back home, and leave the rest of Ukraine. Again, this could simply turn into yet another frozen conflict in the region, and will likely only drive Ukraine further towards the West. Finally, an outside party could intervene and offer to mediate the crisis. This would provide a strategic pause.
If Putin continues to drive past these off-ramps, however, it is hard to envision a resolution to the conflict that doesn’t include a growing number of civilian casualties. Bullies should be met with strength, but events to-date have demonstrated that NATO’s true strength comes from unity and non-military options. The best it can do for now is to stay that course and continue to insist it does not present a military threat to Russia. Putin is the one who has introduced nuclear threats to the crisis; NATO does not need to resort to similar desperation.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.
Dr Heather Williams