The Ukrainian Crisis and Strategic Stability
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Head of the Center for International Security of IMEMO, RAS Full Member, RIAC member
The dramatic events in Ukraine, which unfolded from the end of February 2022, marked the end of an historical period of more than half a century. Relations between the USSR/Russia and the West have come full circle and returned to the Cold War, once again bringing the powers closer to the fateful line
almost crossed in the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. First of all, presently the reasons for contemplating the use of Russian nuclear forces might allegedly include not only an attack on Russia and its allies using nuclear or conventional weapons, but also NATO’s direct involvement in local military operations on the territory of Ukraine, the provision of assistance to it with arms supplies, economic sanctions and even aggressive statements against Russia. In the West, this topic is widely discussed, including at the governmental level, despite Moscow’s offi ial statements that it does not have any nuclear plans. Secondly, the impact of the Ukrainian tragedy on strategic stability is that it directly affected the negotiations between Russia and the United States on strategic weapons, which were once again “frozen” after a successful debut in July 2021 in Geneva. Third, the current confl has had a detrimental effect on the overall climate of political relations between states in Europe and beyond, which has always been an important foundation for arms control negotiations. If the worst-case scenario is avoided, then sooner or later the Ukrainian problem will be resolved peacefully, no matter how difficult and distant such an outcome may seem now. After that, or even in the process of moving towards peace, it is possible to resume the dialogue between Russia and the United States on arms control. This has been the case in the past, starting with the easing of tensions after the Cuban Missile Crisis and the signing of the 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. After that, while resolving periodic crises, the responsible powers concluded dozens of treaties on nuclear weapons and other lethal means, which made it possible by the end of the 1980’s to end the Cold War, curtail the arms race and rid the world of the specter of a nuclear Armageddon for the ensuing thirty years.
Arbatov, A.G. (2022). The Ukrainian crisis and strategic stability. Polis. Political Studies, 4, 10–31. (In Russ.) https://doi.org/10.17976/jpps/2022.04.03
The dramatic events unfolding in Ukraine since late February 2022 have marked a turning point in the evolution of European and global politics over the last fifty years. This was a period of an unprecedented détente between Russia and the West—starting, flourishing, declining, and finally collapsing. Without going deep into the genesis of this historic stage in international relations, it should be recognized that the world will substantially change even if we avoid the worst-case scenario is avoided, namely the Ukrainian crisis escalating into a nuclear warfare.
However, even under a more favorable scenario, it is very likely that the current conflict and international crisis will reverse much of what has been achieved over the last decade of tireless political, diplomatic, military and technical efforts primarily undertaken by the USSR/Russia and the U.S. These efforts were launched 60 years ago after a peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile crisis that nearly brought humanity to a nuclear disaster—in fact, closer than any other international confrontation. That moment marked the start of moving away from the Cold War. Great powers took steps—backtracking, glitches, and positive breakthroughs—intended to settle conflicts in a peaceful way, advance the process of arms control, and establish strategic stability as a safeguard against a nuclear cataclysm. Given all the changes in the world order in the last decades, the unfolding military conflict in Ukraine has completed the full circle in the relations between Russia and the West, returning the world back to the Cold War and bringing the powers back to the fateful line.
It should be remembered that the past year provided reasons to hope for the best. After the New START  was ratified in 2011, the fifty-year-long strategic dialog between Moscow and Washington was put on an unprecedented ten-year-long hold, but this pause seemed to be drawing to a close.
Not only did the Trump Administration draw this pause out, but it also actively embarked on destroying the arms control system. In 2019, the U.S. denounced the INF Treaty, paving the way for deploying hypersonic missiles in Eastern Europe, with short flight-time to Moscow. The Administration destroyed the Open Skies Treaty in 2020, threatening to withdraw from the Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and refusing to prolong the New START at the end of Trump’s tenure. That Administration also set the precedent of delivering lethal weapons to Ukraine (Javelins, advanced anti-tank weapons). Under Trump, the U.S. expanded the race in nuclear and high-precision conventional weapons as well as in missile defense systems and military-space programs. The U.S. demanded that its allies significantly increase their military spending and abandon the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
With the Democratic Administration coming into the White House, the New START was prolonged for another five years, until February 5, 2026. In June 2021, a full-fledged Russia–U.S. summit was held in Geneva as a precursor to consultations on strategic stability. During the first rounds, the parties formed two working groups: on “principles and objectives for future arms control” and on “capabilities and actions with strategic effects.”
This process was suddenly interrupted with Russia’s diplomatic demarche of December 16, 2021 in the form of two draft treaties (with the U.S. and NATO), with a flavor of an ultimatum with demanded that NATO abandon its plans for expanding into Ukraine and other post-Soviet states and containing other proposals on arms control and military activities. Russia’s documents did not appear to have been carefully elaborated legally and militarily, they largely duplicated each other, and even contradicting one another on some matters (for instance, on limiting intermediate-range missiles, on withdrawal provisions).
Neither the U.S., nor NATO generally consented on abolishing the expansion, although they did consent to several other of Russia’s proposals on arms control, primarily on non-deployment of short- and intermediary-range missiles in Europe with inspections in situ (to ascertain that Russian missiles do not exceed the permitted range while U.S. missiles are not deployed in missile-defense launchers in Romania and Poland) .
There is still no explanation for why these initiatives arrived so suddenly and why Russia chose to put them forward in that manner and at that moment, as this apparently had no connection with the dialog on strategic stability initiated in Geneva. An even greater mystery is the precise moment when the Kremlin made the fundamental decision to launch the special military operation.
Russia’s December diplomatic initiatives coincided with a large military command concentrated close to the Ukrainian border; large-scale naval exercises followed, including deployment of the Navy’s ships into the Black Sea. The West, therefore, came to believe that Moscow’s diplomatic challenge had been calculated to meet with a rejection and intended as a pretext for military actions against Ukraine to force it to return to Russia’s traditional sphere of influence .
Most independent military experts in Russia, however, did not believe that Moscow was getting ready for war; instead, they suggested Russia was trying to put pressure on Ukraine and NATO to force them into political concessions . Russian experts can hardly be blamed for their mistaken predictions. Unlike their counterparts in the West, they relied on repeated statements made by Russian officials, who repudiated Western predictions of Russia’s “upcoming invasion” into Ukraine and explained major military events as planned military exercises in Russia and Belarus.
For instance, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov said in late January, “If starting or preventing a war with Ukraine solely depends on Russia, we can say with certainty that there will be no war.” Then, however, he qualified his statement meaningfully, “We do not want any wars. But if our interests are rudely trampled upon, we will not allow our interests to be ignored either.”  However, most of the Russian public only heard the first part of his statement, especially since the Ministry of Defense announced on February 16, 2022 that it was completing military exercises and pulling troops from Ukraine’s borders to home bases, which was broadcast on television for several days .
Then, the Security Council of the Russian Federation held an extraordinary meeting on February 21, 2022; and the recognition of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic followed soon. On early morning of February 24, Russia launched its special military operation (SMO) in Ukraine. The West responded with unprecedented multi-staged sanctions, with deliveries of weapons and military equipment to Kiev and with ceasing the U.S.-Russia dialog on strategic stability, even though Moscow was ready to go on with it .
Military Operation and Nuclear Deterrence
Special Warheads and the Special Military Operation
This conflict already has—and will continue to have—a major influence on strategic stability, and this influence is yet to be comprehended. Both Russia’s and Ukraine’s official rhetoric and briefings as well as their mass media are flooded with facts and assessments of the developments—for obvious reasons usually directly contradicting each other .
Suffice it to note here that, according to official statements, the operation is going as it should, sticking to the plan, although as of March 25, Russia lost 1,301 troops killed and 3,825 troops wounded . In an interview to Sky News, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesperson, bitterly said, “We have sustained significant troops losses, this is a huge tragedy for us.”  These emotions are understandable since the losses sustained in the special operation were ten times greater than average monthly “irreversible losses” in the Afghan war . It is also not known whether that was the reason for altering the tactics of the operation starting on March 26 or whether it was planned from the outset to cease the offensive from the north and to re-deploy troops into the Southeast of Ukraine.
In the meantime, Russia’s military operation in Ukraine has affected the state’s approach to nuclear weapons. In his momentous address on February 24, 2022 (one that launched the military operation), President Putin made two remarks directly pertaining to nuclear weapons. First, he said, “As for military affairs, even after the dissolution of the USSR and losing a considerable part of its capabilities, today’s Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states. Moreover, it has a certain advantage in several cutting-edge weapons. In this context, there should be no doubt for anyone that any potential aggressor will face defeat and ominous consequences should it directly attack our country.” 
Then, the President issued a menacing warning, “I would now like to say something very important for those who may be tempted to interfere in these developments from the outside. No matter who tries to stand in our way or all the more so create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history. No matter how the events unfold, we are ready. All the necessary decisions in this regard have been taken. I hope that my words will be heard.” 
The first statement aligns with the official Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation that defines conditions for Russia’s using nuclear weapons. First, “the Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to use of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction against the Russian Federation and (or) its allies.” Second, nuclear weapons may be used “in case of an aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is threatened.” 
Another policy paper, “On the Fundamentals of Nuclear Weapons State Policy of the Russian Federation” (2020), specifies two scenarios for the first provision. First, it specifies “receiving reliable information on the launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and (or) its allies.”  The second scenario involves “the enemy using nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction against the territory of the Russian Federation and (or) its allies.” Apparently, what is meant here is a nuclear attack with the use of other weapons apart from ballistic missiles.
Finally, another cause to use nuclear weapons is “the enemy affecting critically important state or military facilities of the Russian Federation whose incapacitation would result in disrupting nuclear forces’ retaliation.”  Since aggression with nuclear weapons and conventional weapons is mentioned separately, this case apparently means cyber and other attacks against the information and command-control system of Russia’s strategic forces .
The second quoted statement that President Putin made in his address on February 24, 2022 expands the provisions of the Military Doctrine and of the Fundamentals of Nuclear Policy, hinting at a nuclear strike against those “who may be tempted to interfere in these developments from the outside.” “Developments” clearly means the special operation in Ukraine, and this is something different from “an aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is threatened.” Now, this is Russia’s military operation in another country and Moscow’s readiness to use the most powerful weapons against those who stand in its way, although there is no specifics on what type of NATO’s intervention would prompt such a crushing response (direct use of military forces, air or maritime blockade, supplies of heavy weapons).
As if in substantiation of the Military Doctrine, President Putin presented an expanded interpretation of a “threat to the existence of state.” Speaking about NATO’s possible expansion into Ukraine, he pointed out that “for the United States and its allies, it is a policy of containing Russia, with obvious geopolitical dividends. For our country, it is a matter of life and death, a matter of our historical future as a nation. This is not an exaggeration; this is a fact. It is not only a very real threat to our interests but to the very existence of our state and to its sovereignty. It is the red line which we have spoken about on numerous occasions. They have crossed it” (italics mine – A.A.) .
To confirm that “all necessary decisions have been made,” President of Russia said at his meeting with Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov on February 27, 2022, “Top officials of NATO’s leading states make aggressive statements about our country. Therefore, I am giving order to the Minister of Defense and to the Chief of the General Staff [of Russia’s Armed Forces] that deterrence forces of the Russian Federation are put on a special combat alert regime.” In substantiation of this step, the President additionally pointed out hostile economic actions of Western states, “I am referring to the illegitimate sanctions everyone knows about.” 
These steps and statements of Russia’s leadership imply a broader interpretation of nuclear deterrence and thus affect strategic stability. In particular “aggressive statements” and “illegitimate sanctions” by foreign states were not envisaged as a reason to use nuclear weapons in the Strategic Stability Concept approved by Moscow and Washington in 1990 [Joint statement... 1990]. They are also absent from Russia’s 2018 Military Doctrine and the Fundamentals of Russia’s Nuclear Policy of 2020.
Certainly, the innovations in Russia’s nuclear policy following the start of the SMO do not evidence the Kremlin’s intention to start a nuclear war—rather; they are designed to bolster deterrence of NATO’s undesirable actions. At the same time, any expert in the area knows that the line between nuclear deterrence and real nuclear warfare is rather blurred and it can easily be crossed amid active military hostilities. Russia’s Fundamentals policy paper on the subject reads, “Nuclear deterrence rests on the readiness and determination of the Russian Federation to use such weapons.”  President Putin himself explained this provision in plain language, “We have every instrument for that, such instruments as no one else can boast. We shall not boast, we will use them should such a need arise.”  In some way, nuclear deterrence is indeed “boasting” meant to have a political effect on the potential adversary, while waging nuclear warfare is practical use of this class of weapons.
No wonder that Moscow’s words and actions prompted an uproar in the West. As usual, specific steps meant by “special alert regime” were not explained, but the official response of the U.S. and assessments provided by independent experts did not record noticeable increases in the activity of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces (SNF). Based on the data provided by commercial satellites available from open sources, U.S. experts concluded that “special alert reagime” most likely referred to the operations of the SNF command centers .
Be it as it may, the U.S. and NATO did not respond to Russia’s steps in kind, stating there is no need for that since they are quite certain that their deterrence potential is fully up to the task at its regular combat readiness. At the same time, not to exacerbate the situation, the U.S. postponed a test launch of an old ICBM Minuteman-3 in March, soon canceling it altogether 23]. That same month, the U.S. quietly tested its newest hypersonic air-breathing weapon concept 24]. This was a response to the criticism expressed by the Congress of the U.S. technologically lagging behind Russia; this criticism was particularly ramped up after Russia’s Kinzhal hypersonic missiles delivered strikes against Ukrainian facilities; these strikes were highly publicized by the Russian media.
The U.S. and Russia’s nuclear forces mutually entering special alert regime might prompt the escalation mechanism of “strategically resonance,” which is fraught with a real military clash involving the use of nuclear weapons. In the past, this scenario was fortunately avoided, although Washington and Moscow did approach the dangerous line during the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis, the 1973 Middle Eastern War and the 1983 crisis over U.S. intermediary-range missiles deployed in Europe (which coincided with a false alert of Soviet missile attack warning system ).
Three years ago, the President of Russia noted, referring to the relations with the West, “There are mutual grievances, different approaches to handling certain problems… but this is no reason to bring things to a Cuban crisis-scale confrontation.” Russia, he said, does not want it, but then he added, “But if some over there want it, well, they are welcome.”  Today, the confrontation between Russia and the West has approached this level, and the likelihood of an escalation fraught with nuclear weapons used has become an important topic of the conflict in Ukraine, similar to what happened 60 years ago.
Back then, dozens of intermediate-range Soviet missiles were either secretly deployed or being rapidly installed in Cuba. The U.S. planned a massive conventional air strike against missile bases and a landing operation, but fortunately, two days before the scheduled date, Moscow and Washington reached a compromise [Kennedy 1969: 96–97]. The USSR agreed to withdraw the missiles and all nuclear weapons from Cuba, while the U.S. agreed not to attack it (they also privately promised to remove their Thor and Jupiter intermediate-range missiles from the UK, Italy, and Turkey, which was done shortly).
Today, due to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum (that guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for the removal of Soviet nuclear weapons from the country), Ukraine does not have either its own or U.S. nuclear missiles. At the same time, there were no armed hostilities in October 1962, and only one person died during the crisis, namely the pilot of an American spy plane downed over Cuba. Now, combat actions in Ukraine have been going on for several months, with air and missile strikes delivered, many thousands of Ukrainian and Russian military personnel and civilians died, while there is growing destruction of economic and residential facilities.
In the past, the U.S. Navy blockaded Cuba, creating the danger of a direct clash with Soviet commercial ships and submarines (with nuclear torpedoes on board). Today, Russia’s Navy controls the Sea of Azov and the Northern Black Sea, delivering missile strikes that target Ukraine’s strategic facilities, but it is also a target for Ukraine’s coastal anti-ship missiles and those missiles Ukraine receives from abroad.
Back then, Cuba, the “Island of Freedom”, concerned the USSR and the U.S. only, while their allies were solely worried about the danger of war spreading to Europe. Today, the entire NATO believes Ukraine to be a cardinal international security issue, which is why the Alliance provides increasing military aid to it, while the conflict might escalate into Russia’s military clash with the whole of NATO.
Already in 1962, American cities were vulnerable to several dozens of Soviet nuclear weapons delivery vehicles, but the U.S. had a far greater overall potential, both in strategic nuclear weapons and in intermediate-range weapons at its forward bases (in one estimation, the ratio was 5,000 U.S. warheads vs. 300 Soviet nuclear warheads [Baranovsky 2021: 205]). Therefore, in case of war, Washington planned a disarming (counterforce) nuclear strike—first, against the enemy’s military facilities, and then, possibly against the enemy’s cities. Moscow could deliver a limited pre-emptive strike that would be followed by Washington’s devastating retaliation . Now, the two powers have a stable strategic balance.
The U.S. general-purpose forces decisively dominated the Caribbean, while the Warsaw Pact had a major advantage over NATO in Central Europe. Today, foreign sources (in the absence of official Russian information) claim that Russia has manifold superiority in tactical nuclear weapons [Kristensen, Korda 2020: 102–117]. Russia’s conventional armed forces have advantage over NATO in Eastern Europe, but the West enjoys a major superiority in the overall Euro-Atlantic space [Arbatov 2021: 50–51].
In 1962, a nuclear war could instantaneously break out, following a U.S. air raid against Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba and their retaliatory strike against American cities. This strike could be sanctioned by Army General Issa Pliyev, Commander of the Group of Soviet Forces in Operation Anadyr [Khrushchev 1994: 357] should the U.S. attack and communication with Moscow lost. That would entail America’s massive nuclear missile and bomber strike against the USSR [Kaplan 1983: 369]. Today, a disaster may occur following a few days of escalation in a direct military conflict between the armed forces of Russia and NATO.
In Russia, discussions of this likelihood are scarce since they may entail criminal consequences should they be interpreted as counteracting the SMO. Here is one rare public statement made by a political scientist, with access to the authorities and claiming to reflect their opinions with a veneer of shock value, “I don’t know what the outcome of this war will be, but I think it will involve the partition of Ukraine, one way or another. Hopefully there would still be something called Ukraine left at the end. But Russia cannot afford to “lose”, so we need a kind of a victory. And if there is a sense that we are losing the war, then I think there is a definite possibility of escalation.” 
Contrary to such hints, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov said, “Russia is not considering the option of using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, we are only talking conventional weapons.”  In this case, the Minister did not qualify his statement in any way, but, with past experience in mind, the West did not trust it. Western experts believe that, the main scenario envisages Moscow’s decision to use low-yield tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. This is a prediction for a contingency of SMO forces suffering defeat in some area or for the operation turning into protracted position war with growing Russian losses and impossibility to break the situation to score victory in the campaign .
Another cause is seen in Ukraine’s strikes against the Russian territory (including Crimea) . This drew the focus of attention to the planned deliveries of American М207 and М142 HIMARS multiple rocket launcher to Ukraine; in additional to rockets, they can launch ATACMS or PrSM tactical guided ballistic missiles with the range of 300 and 500 km respectively (similar to Russia’s 9М723 Iskander M systems). Moscow warned that such systems would pose a threat to Russia’s territory, which might lead to a dangerous conflict escalation. Washington responded by saying it would so far abstain from delivering these missiles to Ukraine confining itself to only supplying rocket shells (with the range of up to 80 km).
Escalation is also believed possible over Lithuania’s attempt to block Russia’s land access to the Kaliningrad Region, which may prompt a direct clash between Russia’s military and NATO troops stationed in the Baltic states and Poland . Another scenario considered is Russia delivering a strike against facilities or communication lines in border regions of NATO states adjacent to Ukraine and involved in supplying weapons and military equipment Moscow sees as a direct threat to Russia , especially as deliveries move from light anti-tank and anti-air weapons (Javelin, Stinger) to heavy and more effective, longer-range systems. Presumably, that will entail increased Russian military losses and maybe Ukrainian army launching a counter-offensive in some areas. Along with exhausting Russia’s military resources, this objective is publicly proclaimed by some US officials and leaders of individual NATO states .
The Russian political scientist, quoted above, says the following on this subject, “...Sooner or later, and rather sooner than later, we will have to consider the question of cutting the channels for supplying weapons to Ukraine, which is a pure act of hostility on the part of the West. It could result in escalating strikes against military facilities outside Ukraine. And against transportation corridors. Certainly, all transportation corridors in the west of Ukraine need to be cut. However, this is an objective for the military-political authorities. Prolonging the conflict in Ukraine increases the likelihood of the so-called horizontal and vertical escalation, or conflict expansion, or maybe even moving it to a higher, frightening level of weapons. Sadly, this question is becoming increasingly pressing.” 
This awesome warning to Ukraine and the entire Western world is somewhat open-ended, namely, concerning the other party’s possible response. A strike against NATO territory will immediately “activate” Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and start a direct Russia–NATO conflict up to massive mutual use of nuclear weapons. Russia’s President indirectly confirmed it when he said in his Address to the Federal Assembly on March 1, 2018, “Any use of nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies, weapons of short, medium or any yield will be considered as a nuclear attack on this country. Retaliation will be instantaneous, with all the attendant consequences.”  Similar response from the West is logical to expect. Responding to speculation on Russia’s possible use of nuclear weapons, U.S. officials have recently made statements in the spirit of the worst cold war years, saying, “They must be ready for Russia using various kinds of weapons with catastrophic consequences. Now, both the U.S. and other members of the trans-Atlantic community persevere in conveying to Putin that this step would not only be a disaster for Ukraine and the world but would also have catastrophic consequences for Putin himself and for Russia.” 
Finally, the third group of scenarios considers inadvertent conflict escalation pursuant to clashes (or firefights) of ships and aircraft, to other incidents, errors in assessing the adversary’s intentions and actions, technical glitches or unauthorized actions of military personnel. The Cuban crisis offers several examples of such incidents over mere two weeks, all in the absence of real military clashes [Kennedy 1969; Khrushchev 1994]. Prolonged hostilities in Ukraine and around it and substantial losses will increasingly generate such situations. This likelihood is exacerbated by computer information processing, by shorter decision-making time, by the destructive power, speed, autonomy, and increased range of weapons systems. The danger is all the greater amid cyberattacks at information and control that has grown manifold during the Ukrainian conflict [Sharikov 2022] .
Certainly, foreign scenarios imputing first use of nuclear weapons to Russia prompt major objections. The U.S. may also spearhead such an escalation as the U.S. has paid much attention to the limited nuclear war concepts since the 1960s. Under Trump, an entire “package” of nuclear weapons development was adopted in support of this concept . Contrary to the reservations about retaliation, the U.S. has planned—and still plans—to be the first to use nuclear weapons should Russia’s military operation shift into the territories of the Baltic states and Poland and should NATO fail to prevent it through conventional weapons. Washington’s policy papers openly say so .
In view of geostrategic asymmetry, Russia would inevitably perceive a tactical or intermediate-range nuclear strike as a strategic attack even if it did not involve ICBMs classified as strategic weapons at START talks. It is no accident that “The Fundamentals of Nuclear Weapons State Policy” lists “the enemy using nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction against the territory of the Russian Federation and (or) its allies”  along with a missile attack as grounds for Russia’s nuclear retaliation. In this case, a rapid escalation in a nuclear strike exchange is virtually inevitable. Some Western experts have recently estimated that it would entail total immediate losses of about 90 million people for NATO states and Russia . Most probably far greater fatalities would ensue in the following months owing to secondary effects from nuclear explosions .
In view of these apocalyptic scenarios, some comments on certain psychological phenomena are in order. Russian political and expert circles as well as the Russian public share a latent conviction that the West is more afraid of nuclear war than Russia—sometimes, this conviction manifests on the official level.
Indeed, the West has a far higher quality of life than Russia and a much lower tolerance of human casualties as has been repeatedly demonstrated by NATO’s local wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nonetheless, the experience of conventional local warfare cannot directly be transferred onto nuclear warfare. In the former case, support from the broader public for the government’s actions does have key importance. That explains why Washington and its allies have unequivocally refused to become directly involved in the military hostilities in Ukraine. But that cannot be applied to nuclear war since the decision to start it can be made by the President at his sole discretion and since no public support is needed to wage it; incidentally, the public will be the first mass victim of such a war.
History does not confirm the perception f the West’s greater “timidity” in the face of a nuclear threat, although political elites, parliaments, academic community, and media in the West have a broader knowledge of nuclear weapons and strategy than their counterparts in Russia. During the Cuban crisis, nuclear forces of both parties were brought to top combat readiness, and the White House did not yield to the Kremlin, even though both seized on the opportunity to reach a mutually acceptable compromise. During the 1973 Middle Eastern crisis and following the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, the U.S. unilaterally put its strategic forces on high alert. Russia did so in 2022 as it did, judging by some signs, in 2014 during the unification with Crimea . In both latter cases, the U.S. did not respond in kind as it did not see any threat of a nuclear war.
It is, however, hardly prudent to hope for similar restraint in nuclear escalation of the Ukrainian crisis. Practice shows that underestimating the enemy in a conventional conflict is fraught with harsh consequences, and in case of nuclear weapons it might prove disastrous for all parties involved.
The current confrontation has another important psychological aspect. For the last 20 years, the thinking about nuclear weapons and nuclear war—as it had emerged by the late 1980s in the elites and public of the Soviet Union and the West—have been revised, gradually and imperceptibly. The revised ideas have been enshrined in the trademark Gorbachev-Reagan formula that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”, which paradoxically were officially reproduced by the “nuclear five” on the eve of the Ukrainian crisis .
In this opinion, international conflicts have always been happening, but combined with nuclear weapons, they are a threat to the survival of our civilization. Nuclear war cannot be continuation of policy by other means, since the use of such weapons would be a national suicide. Therefore, states should negotiate nuclear disarmament despite their political and ideological differences. Any limited use of nuclear weapons is highly likely to escalate to a global disaster.
After the Cuban crisis, this mindset was recognized by the majority of ruling circles and the public in the West and the East. Disarmament talks started and were crowned with a series of fundamental treaties  launching a fifty-year journey that comprised ten treaties and agreements on limiting and reducing strategic weapons and intermediate-range missiles . This journey was the crucial tool for putting an end to the cold war and transitioning to an unprecedented détente and comprehensive cooperation between great powers and their alliances.
The historical paradox is that successes in reducing the nuclear threat moved these issues to the periphery of public focus in international security. Financial, economic, climatic, epidemiological, and other problems moved to the foreground, while security matters came to be dominated by issues of nuclear proliferation, ethnic and religious conflicts, international terrorism, and other types of cross-border crime.
In the meantime, new generations of politicians, military and civilian professionals arrived. Khrushchev and Kennedy fought in World War II when Moscow and Washington were allies (Khrushchev had lost his son while Kennedy had been gravely wounded and suffered from his wound for the rest of his life). They and their contemporaries knew war first-hand, not from heroic films; they had seen the misery, tragedy, blood, and filth of real warfare. In their memory, the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh. They witnessed the tests of thermonuclear weapons and knew their monstrous destructive power. Despite a massive arms race, they competed for supremacy in their commitment to nuclear disarmament in the face of the global public opinion. These qualities in the mindset of the leaders of two great powers had a great effect on their handling of the Cuban missile crisis.
Today’s generation of leaders came to power amid globalization and all-encompassing international cooperation, with the threat of nuclear war virtually reduced to zero. For them, nuclear war is an abstract concept, while nuclear weapons are symbols of national power and practical political instrument. Military and civilian experts of a new generation enthusiastically developed new takes on nuclear weapons. These armchair heroes, that had never been under real enemy fire, see a war as a thrilling game and doubt virtually all above-mentioned nuclear weapons postulates born out of the hard experience of the cold war. They pass disdainful and perverse opinions on the fifty years of arms limitation talks [see Karaganov, Suslov 2019]. Sweeping aside nuclear taboos of the past, they advance the concepts of flexible and selective nuclear weapons use, primarily speaking about tactical weapons. (Incidentally, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima that killed 90,000 people had the power of 15 kilotons and would be classified today as a low-yield tactical warhead.) With contrived practicality, they claim that a nuclear war would not necessarily entail catastrophic consequences for humanity and that it can achieve military advantage .
For a while, these trends were restricted to a strategic theory in narrow expert circles and to arms programs deep in the bowels of military industrial complexes. Low-yield nuclear warheads and high-precision defensive and offensive long-range non-nuclear arms, various hypersonic missiles, space weapons, autonomous strike systems, and cyberwar means were being developed.
In the meantime, domestic and foreign political trends in Russia, Europe, and the U.S. that do not come into the scope of this articles built up alienation and mutual grievances between Russia and the West. In violation of promises given to the Soviet leadership in 1989–1990, NATO expanded eastward and included Ukraine into its possible future members. It is no accident that the confrontation ultimately found its epicenter in Ukraine that wanted to accede to NATO and abandoned the Minsk agreements on settling the conflicts in the Donbass and Lugansk regions. With the Ukrainian crisis, military and strategic innovations entered the realm of practical policies, of very real, not just abstract, planning of military operations with a view to their possible “horizontal” and “vertical” escalation.
In October 2016, President Putin said at the Valdai Forum in Sochi that “nuclear weapons are a factor of deterrence and a factor of ensuring peace and security worldwide.”  The Ukrainian conflict is putting this theory to a severe practical test.
However acute the current crisis might be, nuclear weapons should certainly remain outside its scope with the exception of cases provided for in Russia’s doctrinal documents. This not only applies to the words and actions of the leaders of state, but also to members of parliament, independent experts and journalists who should not bolster their self-esteem through irresponsible threats and exhortations thereby exacerbating an already dangerous situation. In this regard, one can but agree with Minister Sergey Lavrov who said, “The risks are quite significant now, I would not want them to be artificially inflated. There are many people willing to do that. The danger is serious and real, it must not be underestimated.” 
Consequently, while the parties in Ukraine have not yet reached a ceasefire and armistice agreement, Russia’s and NATO’s principal priority should be preventing “vertical” and “horizontal” escalations of the conflict. It entails maintaining a permanent communication channel between military commands (similar to the Syrian “deconfliction” mechanism) in order to avoid military incidents, prevent possible errors, unclear situations, and wrong assessments of each other’s actions. The parties should also cease stoking the atmosphere of intransigence, of overthrowing the leadership of the parties involved and wreaking vengeance on them since without the leaders’ retaliation consent escalation cannot be prevented and future peaceful settlement of the conflict cannot be achieved.
Nuclear “Frost” in the Summer of 2022?
Since this benign term is oftentimes interpreted quite arbitrarily, it is necessary to keep in mind its original meaning: it did not imply any kind of global harmony, but defined a very specific strategic concept approved by both Moscow and Washington and used as a foundation for strategic arms talks. The 1990 Joint Statement [Joint statement... 1990: 197–199] defined “strategic stability” as the parties’ strategic relationship that remove the incentives for delivering a first nuclear strike. Accordingly, future SNART treaties were to take into account the interaction between strategic offensive and defensive arms; reduce the concentration of warheads on strategic delivery vehicles, and give preference to survivable weapon systems.
A year later, these principles were enshrined in START I, and then left a more or less palpable imprint on six subsequent treaties in this area . Dynamic models of the Russia–U.S. strategic balance [Wilkening 2014: 123–140; Dvorkin 2017: 66–67] demonstrate that there is no possibility of any party delivering a massive disarming (counterforce) nuclear strike capable of preventing devastating retaliation. Thereby, in the logic of the 1990 Statement, the incentives for a first nuclear strike is eliminated and, consequently, the motives for a preemptive strike in fear of an enemy’s disarming strike is removed as well. This generally accorded with the understanding of strategic stability at the time and during the subsequent decade.
Paradoxical as it may sound, when strategic stability was enhanced at the top level covered by START treaties, it produced ideas that it was possible to use conventional weapons and selectively use nuclear weapons both locally and regionally without provoking escalation to a massive global exchange of nuclear strikes. In June 2019, a Joint Chief of Staff’s paper was leaked to the media stating, “The use of nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability. … A nuclear weapon could be introduced to the campaign … to escalate the conflict to sue for peace on more-favorable terms. … Integration of nuclear weapons employment with conventional and special operations forces is essential to the success of any mission or operation” (italics mine – A.A.) . Accordingly, the US is developing a “multi-domain” war strategy that involves warfare with closely integrated land, sea, air, space, and cyber operations .
Russia permits no such leaks, but, for instance, publicly accessible materials from the intellectual elite of the Aerospace Forces evidence the trend in today’s Russian military thought, “The Russian Federation is capable of transitioning from the policy of nuclear deterrence aimed at a potential adversary to implementing intimidation policies by inflicting unacceptable comprehensive defeat upon the adversary with all types of weapons as part of preemptive actions if facing the impending threat of a local war” (italics mine – A.A.) .
In connection with these strategic innovations, the effect the Ukrainian conflict has on strategic stability manifests, first, in new takes on nuclear deterrence that is inextricably linked with strategic stability. The latter is currently nothing else but a certain type of strategic relations between states based on mutual nuclear deterrence with no party having incentives for delivering a first strike [Joint Statement... 1990: 197–199]. Now, in addition to prior ideas, nuclear deterrence addresses not only the potential of a nuclear strike and a large-scale conventional aggression of the other party, but also NATO’s eastward expansion, its involvement in local military hostilities at the territory of Russia’s adversary, aiding that adversary though weapons deliveries and even threatening statements and economic sanctions against Russia.
Second, the influence of the Ukrainian crisis on strategic stability is in its direct effect on Russia–U.S. talks that Washington froze after their successful beginning in July 2021 in Geneva. Historically, talks on limiting and reducing arms have been the principal means of enhancing stability of the two nuclear powers’ strategic relations. Without that, an arms race inevitably leads to the growth of the first strike potentials that could only be reduced on a mutually negotiated basis. Additionally, without arms control the transparency and predictability of strategic balance is undermined.
Incidentally, the situation would have been far more dangerous today if it were not for the achievements of arms control. It should be remembered that pursuant to the INF Treaty (1987), START I (1991), and parallel unilateral initiatives of the USSR/Russia and the U.S. (1991–1992) thousands of strategic nuclear warheads, intermediate-range missiles and tactical nuclear arms were removed from Ukraine  [Arkin, Fieldhouse 1985: 252–263]. Otherwise, the current crisis would have been developing with Ukraine in possession of nuclear missiles, which would have made the analogy with the Cuban crisis mush closer. The importance of this matter for Russia is evidenced by Russia’s response to the remarks NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made in December 2021 on the possibility of moving U.S. tactical air bombs eastward from Germany and President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky’s statement on the possibility of Ukraine withdrawing from the Budapest Memorandum . Both were mentioned as motives for Russia’s special operation.
It is no less important that it is due to past arms control treaties (from SALT I in 1972 to New START in 2010) that no party now is concerned about an adversary’s disarming strategic nuclear strike and does not count on winning a nuclear war. That, however, does not eliminate the danger of a conventional local conflict uncontrollably escalating into a nuclear clash.
Third, and final, the current conflict’s effect on stability manifests in its effect on the overall climate of international political relations. Historically, easing tensions in Europe went hand in hand with arms control talks. The process of settling Germany’s post-war borders, the status of West Berlin, the success of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe were tangibly conducive to concluding ABM and SALT I treaties, the INF Treaty, the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, START I, radical mutual withdrawal and elimination of tactical nuclear weapons of the U.S. and the USSR/Russia. The European military and political détente enshrined in the 1997 Founding Act and the 1999 Istanbul Document was encouraging radical reduction of nuclear weapons and bolstering the stability of the superpowers’ strategic relations in the 1990s–2000s (START II, START III framework agreement, SORT, New START).
The Ukrainian conflict became the acutest and potentially bloodiest crisis in Europe since 1945, it revived the real threat of a nuclear war that seemed to have been completely eliminated in the early 1990s, and it deeply wrecked political foundation of Russia–U.S. strategic stability.
Politics And Stability
Three Scenarios for the End of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict
Half a century of practical control over nuclear weapons have convincingly demonstrated that talks in this area can limit the intensity of arms race and its economic expenditures, ensure transparency and predictability of states’ military and political relations, thus reducing the threat of war. However, arms control in and of itself cannot prevent conflicts between states if these conflicts are generated not by military rivalry (as was the case with intermediate-range missiles in the 1980s), but by a clash of the parties’ geopolitical, economic and ideological interests.
As long as nuclear weapons exist, treaties legally limiting them are no guarantees against nuclear war, they can only reduce its relative likelihood in crises. Political relations between states are primary both in decisions to use military force in conflicts (including nuclear weapons), and in the state and prospects of arms control.
The Ukrainian events have vividly demonstrated these dialectics. Following multiple reductions of nuclear arms and stabilization in Russia–U.S. strategic relations over the last 30 years, the likelihood of nuclear weapons use is now higher than ever since 1945, with the exception of the 1962 Cuban crisis.
Today, Russian media sometimes claim that the Ukrainian conflict has only two possible outcomes: Russia’s victory or nuclear war. It is not entirely clear what victory means since public discourse offers varying interpretations of the SMO’s objectives, while these are to be ultimately defined by Russia’s top leadership. In contrastr, everything is perfectly clear with nuclear war: it would be Russia’s worst and irreversible defeat in its thousand-year-long history since it would mean physical elimination of the Russian people, their state, and habitat. Russian leaders repeatedly noted the disastrous nature of this scenario . It would become an incomparably greater disaster than the Mongol invasion, the Time of Troubles (of the early XVII centurt), the collapse of Tsarist and Soviet empires when Russia had a chance to revive again and again. The fact that Ukraine, states of the West, and likely the rest of the word would also be “turned into nuclear ashes” could only be a consolation for people with the suicide bomber mentality.
If the worst-case scenario, i.e. the nuclear escalation of the conflict, is avoided, then, sooner or later, the Ukrainian problem will be peacefully resolved no matter how difficult and remote this outcome seems now. Its general outlines can already be seen; they were first sketched out at the Russia–Ukraine talks in Istanbul in late March 2022: first, it is a cease-fire agreement and massive humanitarian aid to civilians in the territories gripped by military hostilities. Such an agreement becomes possible when the Kremlin decides that the SMO’s objectives have been achieved and Ukraine and NATO abandon the unrealistic goal of inflicting a military defeat on Russia. Based on an (internationally controlled) armistice, peace talks should be launched on Ukraine’s neutral and nuclear-free status, on multilateral guarantees of its sovereignty and of its territorial integrity within negotiated borders, on an unbiased investigation of war crimes, on prohibiting any manifestations of Nazism, on compensations to the victims, on rebuilding what has been destroyed, on legitimizing the status of the Russian language, and on lifting anti-Russian sanctions.
After that, or even while moving toward peace, Russia and the U.S. might resume their dialog on arms control. It had happened before. Less than a year after the Cuban crisis, the first 1963 partial nuclear test ban treaty was concluded. Four years after the events in Czechoslovakia, the ABM/SALT I treaties were signed. Soviet troops entering Afghanistan and failed ratification of SALT II (1979) only by five years delayed the talks that were crowned with signing the INF Treaty (1987) and START I (1991). Soon after NATO’s aggression against Yugoslavia, SORT treaty (2002) was concluded that paved the way for New START (2010).
Overcoming humanitarian, moral, political, and economic consequences of the conflict in Ukraine will likely be a more difficult and protracted endeavor. However, the resumption of arms control and normalization of relations between Russia and the West is imperative for the foreseeable future.
Russia–U.S. dialog should preferably be resumed before the prolonged New START expires in February 2026. Issues to be handled in Geneva are exceedingly complicated since in the summer and fall of 2021, the U.S. proposed reducing both strategic and tactical nuclear weapons (including those in stirages)  [Gottemoeller 2020], while Russia suggested the limitation of nuclear and non-nuclear offensive and defensive strategic weapons . Prohibition on deploying intermediate-range missiles (IRM) in Europe remains a priority , although following the denunciation of the INF Treaty in 2019, it would be hard to fully revive given the U.S. intention to deploy such missiles in Asia to deter China.
Involving China in the strategic talks will become a big problem, since it stepped up the buildup of its strategic nuclear forces in the summer of 2021, which will allow it to catch up with the U.S. and Russia, even overtaking them in the next 10–15 years and shifting the global and regional balance of power [Arbatov 2022]. It is even more difficult to involve other nuclear states in the process of nuclear disarmament. Nonetheless, the experience of the past decades demonstrated that given a favorable international situation, even the hardest arms control problems can be resolved.
A peace treaty on Ukraine could serve as a premise for renovating the European security architecture based on sovereignty and territorial integrity guarantees for neutral nuclear-free states. The new system should be enhanced by reviving the control of arms and military activities on the continent. In addition to prohibiting the INF it involves deep reduction of NATO’s and Russia’s general-purpose forces, withdrawing from forward bases and reducing tactical nuclear weapons, agreeing on many other steps proposed by Russia in December 2021.
Given the current situation, such projects may seem to be naïve wishful thinking. However, those who participated in and witnessed the historical developments of the last decades may recall the situation and the sentiments in 1983: the war in Afghanistan at its height, unrest in Poland suppressed, South Korean Boeing being downed in the Far East, the situation with China on the brink of war, U.S. intermediate-range missiles deployed in Europe, nuclear arms limitation talks frozen. Back then, the future looked exceedingly gloomy, too...
However, merely four years later, the INF Treaty was concluded, followed by the treaties on conventional forces in Europe and on deep reduction of strategic arms, Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan, relations with NATO and China were radically improved - the Cold War ultimately ended and nuclear arms race was curtailed. Naturally, that did not happen by magic, it was a result of consistent efforts of many people who managed to liberate mankind form the ghost of a nuclear Apocalypse for the next three decades.
First published in Russian in Polis. Political Studies, 4, 2022.
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6. “Russia Began to Pull Troops…” Op. cit.
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8. A detailed consideration of the military conflict is outside the scope of this article for two reasons. First, amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code of the Russian Federation prohibit, under criminal penalties, the use of any data, save for official Russian information that naturally only reflects one party’s stance and does not leave room for objective academic analysis. Second, the situation is developing dynamically, and any overview will inevitably become outdated by the time this article is published. The subject matter of this article also extends to economic and general international and political consequences the Ukrainian crisis has for Russia and the rest of the world.
9. “Peskov Reported Significant Russian Losses in Ukraine” (in Russian). Vedomosti, April 07, 2022. https://www.Vedomosti.ru/politics/news/2022/04/07/917177-peskov-soobschil-o-znachitelnih-poteryah-rossiiskih-voisk-na-ukraine?ysclid=l3osb3jol5 (accessed May 25, 2022).
11. In ten years of the war in Afghanistan (1979-1989), about 15,000 troops died.
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17. Generally, the US has a very similar nuclear doctrine. Its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (in the absence of a more current document” states, “Given the diverse threats and profound uncertainties of the current and future threat environment, U.S. nuclear forces play the following critical roles in U.S. national security strategy. They contribute to the: Deterrence of nuclear and non-nuclear attack; Assurance of allies and partners; Achievement of U.S. objectives if deterrence fails; and Capacity to hedge against an uncertain future.” See: Nuclear Posture Review. Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2018, Washington, D.C. https://media.defense.gov/2018/Feb/02/2001872886/-1/-1/1/2018-NUCLEAR-POSTURE-REVIEW-FINAL-REPORT.PDF (accessed March 1, 2018).
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20. On the Fundamentals of Nuclear Weapons State Policy of the Russian Federation. Op. cit.
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24. This system was called HAWC (Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept). See. Losey St. Op. cit.
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27. Pentagon estimates that a massive strike would entail about 800 million killed in medium-term prospect in the USSR, China, their allies, and adjacent neutral states [Ellsberg 2017: 100–104].
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33. It may refer to aviation and armored vehicles of the USSR’s former allies or from the arsenals of the US and Germany, increased-range counterbattery fire weapons (like AN/TPQ-36), heavy artillery, multiple rocket launchers, anti-ship missiles (Harpoon), anti-aircraft/anti-missile systems (Patriot in addition to Soviet S-300), Switchblade, Reaper, Predator assault drones. See: Lamothe D., Demirjian K. Pentagon looks to vastly expand weapons for Ukraine. The Washington Post, April 12, 2022. https://www.washngtonpost.com/national-security/2022/04/12/pentagon-ukraine-weapons (accessed May 14, 2022).
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39. As a means of delivering limited nuclear strikes, some Trident-2 ballistic missiles on submarines carry low-yield nuclear warheads W76-2; sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCM) Tomahawk (TLAM-N – Tomahawk land-attack nuclear missile) that were put out of naval service in 2011 were to be deployed again; variable-yield guided air bombs (В61-12) were adopted for tactical and strategic aircraft with a view to deploying them in Europe as well as in other locations; development of new air-launched cruise missiles (LRSO – long-range stand-off missile) is going on. Later, the Biden Administration abandoned the SLCM Tomahawk program, but this decision met stiff opposition of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Congress.
40. Nuclear Posture Review. Op. cit.
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43. In addition to radioactive pollution of the ground, of air and water flows, it also refers to the destruction of today’s socioeconomic and governmental infrastructure and to “nuclear winter,” a sharp climate cooling owing to smoke in the atmosphere from large-scale fires.
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46. These were the treaties on partial nuclear test ban (1963), non-deployment of weapons of mass destruction in outer space (1967), and nuclear non-proliferation (1968).
47. These were the ABM Treaty and SALT I (both 1972), SALT II (1979), the 1987 IRNF Treaty, START I (1991), START II (1993), New START Framework Agreement (1997), the 1997 US–Russia agreement on delimitating strategic and tactical missile defence, SORT (2002), New START (2010).
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51. These are START II (1993), START III Framework Agreement (1997), the 1997 U.S.–Russia agreement on delineation of strategic and theater missile defenses (1997), SORT (2002), and New START (2010).
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(votes: 9, rating: 4.89)
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