Written evidence submitted by Dr Nick Ritchie, Dept. of Politics, University of York


Clarifying UK priorities: delegitimising nuclear
confrontation and sustained conflict resolution


1.       A number of policy-makers have insisted that Russia’s actions in Ukraine and its more assertive nuclear practices both reinforce a need for a discrete UK nuclear weapons capability and revalidate the practice of nuclear deterrence. Policy-makers and advisors in the UK and other NATO countries have argued that NATO must revisit its nuclear weapons policy and nuclear weapons deployments. This is very dangerous. Both NATO and Russia risk cementing a deeply hostile and overtly nuclearised confrontation between NATO/Europe and Russia over Ukraine and the ‘post-Soviet space’. This, in turn, risks heightened misperception and miscalculation by overplaying the very limited capacity for nuclear threats to control a crisis. It also risks legitimising the possibility of and planning for a nuclear war in Europe as somehow commensurate with the interests at stake, which it is surely not.


2.       This submission challenges the framing of the current crisis with Russia by placing the conflict in context, and highlighting the polarisation and ‘re-nuclearisation’ of the NATO-Russia relationship and the dangers involved in these developments. It argues that UK policy should be grounded in two foundational common interests between NATO and Russia: 1) reducing the salience of nuclear weapons and nuclear threats and avoiding escalation of the crisis to nuclear exchange at all costs; 2) developing a mutually satisfactory relationship between NATO/Europe and Russia based on an acknowledgment that Russia is essential to a stable European security environment.


I. Context

3.       Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was a clear violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and a breach of international law (in particular Article 2 of the UN Charter). It has led to violent conflict in Ukraine’s south and east with disastrous humanitarian and wider economic effects and exacerbated insecurity in countries bordering Russia, particularly former Soviet republics. The broader context is the deterioration of Russia-US/NATO relations from the mid-2000s. Russia-US/NATO relations reached new highs following the 9/11 attacks and the emergence of a common enemy in Al Qaida. By the mid-2000s the relationship was crumbling culminating in a post-Cold War low in the Russo-Georgia war in August 2008. The deterioration centred on the latest phase of NATO expansion in 2004, Russian interpretations of the ‘colour revolutions’ in Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004-05, and Kyrgyzstan in 2005 as part of a Western conceived conspiracy to drastically reduce Russia’s influence and, at worst, “a dress rehearsal for installing a pro-U.S. liberal puppet regime in the Kremlin”[1], and deep concern at the brand of neo-conservative unilateralism practiced by George W. Bush in his first term. This was captured in Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Munich Security Conference in 2007 when he said ‘Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force – military force – in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts. As a result, we do not have sufficient strength to find a comprehensive solution to any one of these conflicts. Finding a political settlement also becomes impossible…One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?”[2] The Obama-Medvedev ‘reset’ after Georgia failed to take hold and Putin returned to the presidency determined to restore Russia’s role as an independent great power in a ‘polycentric world’.


4.       This was fuelled by hydrocarbon exports, creeping authoritarianism through the silencing of political opposition, and an increasingly nationalistic policy discourse. Russia’s political and economic resurgence through the 2000s facilitated the Kremlin’s resistance to further political and economic integration on Western/US terms that was increasingly framed as Cold War geopolitical containment and capitalist encirclement. The Putin administration remained deeply concerned about the possibility of a Western-supported popular uprising that could depose his government. Putin was reportedly alarmed at the public assassination of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi by NATO-backed rebels and the possibility of suffering a similar fate. This was compounded by popular protests in Moscow from 2011-2013 challenging the legitimacy of the State Duma elections in 2011 and his re-election to the presidency in March 2012, and then the ‘coup’ that deposed Viktor Yanukovych and triggered civil war, according to Putin.[3]


II. The relationship is becoming polarised and militarised

5.       This provides the broader context in which mutual threat conceptions between NATO and Russia are becoming increasingly polarised, essentialised and militarised. The specific crisis in Ukraine centred on corruption, cronyism, electoral fraud and frustrated expectations of economic development. This set of issues has largely faded from view in the UK where policy discourse has coalesced around themes of Western resistance to Russian chauvinism, traditional inter-state military security, forging consensus within and political cohesion of the European ‘West’, economic punishment, and military deterrence. It frames the crisis as symptomatic of geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the West ignited by Moscow with Ukraine as a proxy.


6.       This is a familiar narrative, fostered energetically by Moscow, that generates and reproduces enmity through a process of mutual ‘othering’ in which both sides view the other as implacably hostile, duplicitous, and dangerous. This is reminiscent (and perhaps an extension) of the mutual othering that defined the Cold War confrontation in which the Soviet Union was framed in the West as possessing a relentless drive for global military domination, determined to seize Europe in its entirety, and developing a disarming nuclear first-strike capability to destroy the US nuclear arsenal and coerce the US during political crises.[4] This was later shown to be largely inaccurate since the Soviet Union was much more risk averse than assumed.[5] It was symptomatic of the political psychology of threat conceptions whereby exaggerated threats become normalised “because of emotional beliefs, incomplete information, institutional dynamics, and cultural practices. Threat becomes culturally routine, embedded in political institutions, and acquires an almost taken-for-granted quality”.[6]


7.       The process of othering also tends to personalise or essentialise a conflict around an individual, for example Hitler, Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and now Vladimir Putin. Much commentary in the UK and US has reduced the current conflict to trying to figure out ‘what Putin wants’ and lamenting the replacement of the supposedly reasonable Medvedev with a mercurial and ruthless successor. Essentialising a conflict in one individual, however, obscures the importance of historical and social context, not least Russia’s post-Cold War historical experience with NATO and the West.[7]


8.       A comparable process is now underway that reflects a reflexive cultural recourse to a Cold War explanatory model to account for each others’ actions, to categorise the Ukrainian crisis, and to frame appropriate responses.[8] We are witnessing an intensifying security dilemma in which steps taken to advance the security of NATO member states or prospective members are seen as threatening by Moscow, which takes political and military steps to counter NATO preparations, which reinforces worst case analyses in NATO, prompting additional steps that cement hostility.[9] Offensive steps become indistinguishable from defensive measures, threat perceptions harden, intentions become difficult to read, and risks of escalation grow. As the European Leadership Network observed in August 2015: “Russia and NATO both seem to see the new deployments and increased focus on exercises as necessary corrections of their previous military posture. Each side is convinced that its actions are justified by the negative changes in their security environment. Second, an action-reaction cycle is now in play that will be difficult to stop”.[10]


9.       This is reflected in a series of actions and responses by Russia and NATO from the expansion of NATO in 2004 to the present. The latest NATO measures include the outcomes of its summit in Wales in September 2014 (namely the NATO Readiness Action Plan, the NATO Response Force and its Very High Readiness Joint Task Force)[11], Western sanctions against Russia and cancellation of trade talks and some commercial ties, and provision of military assistance and material to Ukraine.[12] The United States responded with Operation Atlantic Resolve in 2014 as a specific response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.[13] Its centrepiece is the European Reassurance Initiative to “support increased capability, presence, readiness, and responsiveness to deter further destabilization in Central and Eastern Europe”. [14] This involves rotating US armoured and airborne brigades to Poland and the Baltic states (including additional F-15s to support NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission that began in 2004 when the Baltic states joined NATO), more military training exercises, forward positioning of military equipment, new military infrastructure to improve bases in the region, and military assistance to the three Baltic states and Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia (which are not NATO allies). In February 2016 US defence secretary Ashton Carter increased the Initiative’s funding from $789 million to $3.4 billion for FY2017.[15]


III. ‘Re-nuclearisation’ of European security

10.   A worrying part of this process has been the overt re-nuclearisation of the NATO-Russia relationship and the wider crisis over Ukraine. Russia has deliberately intensified its nuclear weapon operations and threats in crude attempts at deterrence and intimidation.[16] This has taken the form of a resumption of strategic bomber patrols (beginning in 2007 before the Georgia and Ukraine conflicts), increased activity by submarines that can carry nuclear weapons, a significant increase in close military encounters between NATO, Swedish, Finnish and Russian military forces[17], ‘Zapad’ military exercises simulating a conventional nuclear attack on Poland in 2009 and 2013[18], extensive continental and regional nuclear exercises[19], major military exercises in Russia’s Western Military District, insistence on the right to deploy nuclear weapons in Crimea[20], and nuclear threats to European allies, including Denmark in public[21] and the Baltic states in private (as reported via the ‘Elbe group’ discussions of former senior US and Russian intelligence professionals[22]).


11.   NATO has responded with plans to review its nuclear strategy.[23] Polish representatives have been suggesting the US relocate some its NATO nuclear forces to Poland.[24] US Strategic Command has taken additional steps to link its Bomber Assurance and Deterrence missions to NATO regional exercises under Operational Atlantic Resolve.[25] UK officials have urged NATO reinstate Cold War planning exercises to transition from conventional to nuclear warfare.[26] It has been reported that a UK Trident submarine will be deployed as part of any new conventional-to-nuclear exercises for the first time since the Cold War.[27] Other commentators have argued for a more forceful nuclear response from NATO against what is seen as an implacable and dangerous enemy that will only respond to military counter-threats and enhanced conventional and nuclear deployments and capabilities.[28] This has been compounded by the desiccating nuclear arms control agenda with no prospect of a follow on to the 2010 New START agreement, mutual accusations of serious violations of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, Russian withdrawal from the US-led Nuclear Security Summit process, and the dissolution of the Cooperative Threat Reduction programme in 2012 to secure nuclear material and deactivate nuclear delivery vehicles in the former Soviet Union.[29]


12.   The crisis in Ukraine has also been used by UK politicians to reinforce for the case for Trident replacement as a necessary response to international political uncertainty generated by Russia.[30] Defence secretary Michael Fallon said in February 2015 that ‘Russian aggression is a direct threat to NATO’, that Moscow had ‘lowered the threshold’ for nuclear use after Crimea and that ‘The main answer to that is to make sure that we modernise our own deterrent.”[31] He insisted in February 2016 that UK nuclear weapons were needed ‘now more than ever’ in response to Russia’s actions.[32] Policymakers and MPs have also used Ukraine’s plight to revalidate the practice of nuclear deterrence. It is claimed that if Ukraine had retained its Soviet nuclear missiles and managed to develop an indigenous infrastructure to safely manage and maintain them then Russia would not have intervened.[33] This is a doubtful counter-factual given Moscow’s perceived interests at stake and Putin’s deliberate if clumsy strategy of ambiguity, denial, and deception with respect to Russian military involvement[34] (so-called ‘special’ or ‘non-linear’ war[35]).


IV. Core common interest in reducing nuclear danger

13.   There are significant risks with current policies and narratives on both sides that polarise, essentialise and further militarise the current conflict. Actions that enhance the role of nuclear weapons in NATO/Western-Russia relations are symptomatic of this but they also exacerbate and entrench ideological polarisation through the embedding of mutual enemy images and the possibility of nuclear conflict as an appropriate and acceptable outcome. This generates two core challenges that reflect two foundational common interests: 1) reducing the salience of nuclear weapons and nuclear threats and avoiding escalation of the crisis to nuclear exchange at all costs; 2) developing a mutually satisfactory relationship between NATO/Europe and Russia based on an acknowledgment that Russia is essential to a stable European security environment.


14.   The first challenge is to recognise the mutual (NATO-Russia) and wider global (society of states, the human community, and natural environment) interest in avoiding escalation to nuclear exchange at all costs. A deepening process of othering will intensify deterrence-based arguments that the only way to prevent violent conflict between NATO and Russia is to more visibly and deliberately threaten nuclear devastation given the implacable and neo-imperial character of the other and the perceived importance of demonstrating resolve.


15.   This approach carries severe risks. It is based on a belief (the ‘rational actor model’ of nuclear deterrence theory) that the threat of nuclear violence will always induce sufficient a degree of caution into the minds of adversaries as to preclude the escalation of conflict to the level of nuclear use.[36] However, historical and psychological research suggests otherwise – and it is this that must induce caution when considering the role of nuclear weapons and threats of nuclear violence in the current conflict.[37] Research has  shown that the practice of nuclear deterrence has the potential to foster violent conflict as well as the potential to deter it. In 2015 US scholar Michael Krepon asked ‘Can deterrence ever be stable?’ He argued that deterrence stability is a mirage, that nuclear weapons do not create stability and security but incentivise risk taking and intensify crises. A number of studies have explored nuclear near misses where the risk of the collapse of conflict into nuclear violence was worryingly high, not least the Cuban Missile Crisis.[38] There have been incidents where misperception and paranoia could have pushed humanity over the nuclear brink, including the Able Archer crisis in 1983. There have been episodes where the idea that the presence of nuclear weapons makes it somehow ‘safe’ to engage in shooting wars because nuclear deterrence would prevent escalation has been severely tested, such as the India-Pakistan Kargil confrontation in 1999.[39] The abstract rationalism of nuclear deterrence theory developed during the Cold War obscured the idea that deterrent threats could have the reverse effect of galvanising resistance for reasons of national pride, domestic politics, or international status.[40].


16.   Numerous studies have highlighted the contingency of nuclear deterrence in practice.[41] These challenge the idea that nuclear weapons bring certainty, ‘insurance’, a guarantee of protection, and a common, rational logic of crisis escalation and control between nuclear-armed adversaries in crisis conditions. Analysis of the Cold War nuclear confrontation shows that it was not the stable, predictable relationship of assured destruction it is often portrayed as today. It was highly dangerous, plagued by uncertainty, fuelled by worst-case assumptions and planning with very serious risks of a deliberate or inadvertent cataclysmic nuclear exchange.[42] General Lee Butler former head of America’s Strategic Command summed it up well in 1998: ‘While we clung to the notion that nuclear war could be reliably deterred, Soviet leaders derived from their historical experience the conviction that such a war might be thrust upon them and if so, must not be lost. Driven by that fear, they took Herculean measures to fight and survive no matter the odds or the costs. Deterrence was a dialogue of the blind with the deaf’.[43] A central strategic lesson of the Cold War is that over confidence in the efficacy of a nuclear deterrent threat is deeply problematic and can be dangerously counter-productive.[44]


17.   The fallibility of nuclear deterrence as a relational practice between adversaries and the consequences of its failure by accident or design is a danger of the highest order. implicating crisis participants and non-participants alike. This is of paramount concern because even if the probability of something going wrong is considered small – either with nuclear weapons technology, organisational procedures, or the practice of nuclear deterrence in a crisis – the effects of the deliberate or accidental detonation of even a single modern nuclear weapon in a developed country promise to be catastrophic. Recent UN research shows that multiple nuclear detonations would be unmanageable.[45] Recent evidence suggests that even a relatively modest nuclear exchange would have devastating and global effects on the natural environment.[46]


18.   Other studies have revealed the high risk of nuclear war during the Cold War.  Economist Carl Lundgren recently analysed the probability of nuclear war arising from three broad scenarios: an international crisis leading directly to nuclear war; an accident or misperception leading to nuclear use; and an escalation of a conventional war to nuclear use.[47] His Bayesian statistical analysis calculates that the ‘posterior combined risk of nuclear war during the Cold War [the best estimate after evidence of nuclear crises and mishaps is observed] was 44.3 per cent’ and that ‘The first sixty-six years of the nuclear age produced a 61 per cent chance of a nuclear war’.[48] He states that this is equivalent to a 2.1 per cent chance per year, or an average frequency of one nuclear war every 47 years. Lundgren highlights research conducted in the 1980s by political scientist Michael Wallace, mathematician Linn Sennot, computer scientist Brian Crissey on the probability of nuclear war using data from 1978-1983 on US false alarms. They arrive at the conclusion that ‘there is an almost 50% chance of a war-threatening false alarm of some type occurring during severe length crisis’, defined as a 30-day crisis comparable to the Cuban Missile Crisis.[49] Lundgren concludes: ‘Fighting the Cold War with nuclear armaments and nuclear threats was a perilous wager. The probability of a failure resulting in nuclear war exceeded the probability of making an incorrect call while flipping a coin. The world must find a way to unwind this desperate gamble.’[50]


19.   The possibility of nuclear use is not abstract. A recent study by the RAND Corporation examined examined the shape and probable outcome of a near-term Russian invasion of the Baltic states through a series of war games. It concluded that Russian forces could reach the outskirts of the Estonian and/or Latvian capitals of Tallinn and Riga, respectively, in at most 60 hours. This would leave NATO with very few options, all of them bad. One was to launch a counter counter-offensive to try and liberate the Baltics that could invite a Russian tactical nuclear response if it felt its conventional forces faced strategic defeat. A second was to escalate the conflict by threatening Moscow with a nuclear response if it did not withdraw from the territory it had occupied (as it threatened to do to avert defeat during the Cold War).[51] The risk of spiralling conflict to the nuclear threshold and beyond is a risk that must be mitigated as a matter of priority given the unacceptable and unmanageable humanitarian and environmental consequences of a nuclear exchange in Eastern Europe.


20.   Yet the reality of the dangers of nuclear use are too often overlooked in UK nuclear weapons discourse. Nuclear weapons are framed as ‘the deterrent’ implying an unproblematic and inherent capacity to deter in precisely the ways that policy planners expect. They are presented as an ‘ultimate insurance policy’ implying some guarantee of protection. Or, more dangerous still, is the idea that possession of nuclear weapons will ‘ensure no aggressor can escalate a crisis beyond UK control’ as Prime Minister Tony Blair argued in 2006 – an assumption that must be treated with scepticism given the likely asymmetries of interests at stake between adversaries.[52] Thinking like this obscures the basic reality of of nuclear deterrence as a dangerous game of nuclear brinkmanship based on ‘threats that leave something to chance’ according to Schelling – the chance being nuclear war.[53] This, in turn, tends to obscure the basic reality that ‘in the real world of real political leaders…a decision that would bring even one hydrogen bomb on one city of one’s own country would be recognized in advance as a catastrophic blunder; ten bombs on ten cities would be a disaster beyond history; and a hundred bombs on a hundred cities are unthinkable’, as Presidents Kennedy and Johnson’s National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy put in in 1969 .[54] Reagan formalised basic reality in his 1984 State of the Union address when he declared ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’. The same logic applies today (and, interestingly, was reiterated by Vladimir Putin in 2015).[55]


21.   This speaks to the foundational importance of concrete measures to reduce rather than enhance the salience of nuclear weapons in the current situation based on mutual recognition of this most basic of collective security interests. The primary threat here is not Vladimir Putin but the danger of conflict spiralling into nuclear violence.


V. Core common interest in reassurance and engagement

22.   The second and related challenge is to engage in ‘security dilemma sensibility’ that reflects upon the risk of worst-case planning and recognises the importance of viewing responses through the other’s eyes. In their excellent book on the security dilemma in contemporary international politics, Booth and Wheeler define this sensibility as ‘the ability to understand the role that fear might play in their attitudes and behaviour, including, crucially, the role that one’s own actions may play in provoking that fear’.[56]


23.   Continuous worst casing of Russian actions risks entrenching an overtly nuclearised conflict with the associated dangers outlined above. The current worst-case narrative frames Russian actions as symptomatic of a revanchist neo-imperial project to reconstruct a pro-Moscow buffer zone of compliant satellite states underpinned by a resurgent and expansionist bloc ideology of state capitalism and klepocratic authoritarianism. The annexation of Crimea is framed as a fundamental challenge to the entire post-cold War European order and even a challenge to the post-WWII international order.[57] Yet this narrative does not appear to capture the centre of gravity of Moscow’s foreign policy in the Georgian and Ukrainian confrontations or former President Dmitry Medvedev’s assertion of ‘privileged interests’ in its ‘near abroad’ after the short war with Georgia in 2008. Russian actions, whilst illegal, destabilising and perilous for the parties involved, seem to reflect an increasingly militant resistance to the encroachment of ‘the West’, its values and institutions. In that respect it is primarily defensive, from Moscow’s perspective (though more pre-emptively so in Ukraine than Georgia).


24.   Deeply disturbing as the Georgia and Ukraine crises are (not least for those whose lives have been lost or destroyed), the Western narrative summarised here fails to capture Moscow’s apparent insecurity and fear. What is required instead is a different reading of UK and NATO security and the role of nuclear weapons in the current conflict over Ukraine and the broader adversarial context that has developed. This requires seeing the conflict and Moscow’s ‘nuclear euphoria’[58] for what it is: symptomatic of a Russian narrative of victimhood, resistance, and resurgence and an almost hyper-masculine foreign policy in which nuclear threats are deployed to try and sow political fear abroad and mobilise support at home for autocratic rule through displays of nuclear strength from a position of political, military and economic weakness. As Alexei Arbatov has argued, Moscow's ‘nuclear bravado’ is a political message to the US and NATO to refrain from a military intervention: ‘It is targeted at the West to impress upon its leaders the exceptional importance of this region for Russia's national security interests’.[59]


25.   Again, context is key. We know that NATO-Russian relations have been something of a rollercoaster since the end of the Cold War with numerous highs and lows. We have seen concerted efforts to build a common security relationship between NATO and Russia beginning with the latter’s participation in NATOs’ Partnership for Peace programme in 1995, the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997 with its Permanent Joint Council, and a new NATO Russia Council in 2002 following a reassessment of common security challenges following the 9/11 attacks. Russian foreign and defence policy statements have also acknowledged Moscow’s important role in global governance in the face of new transnational security challenges that now dominate security agendas (international terrorism, drugs trafficking, organised crime, global poverty, energy security, WMD proliferation, climate change, and so on).


26.   But it is also clear that Russian and European interests have diverged considerably, underpinned by mutually-antagonistic (or anxiety-generating) political ideologies that pitch European liberalism against an authoritarian ‘Putinism’.[60] We know, for example, that Russia has remained deeply suspicious of US primacy and fearful of Western containment. It has interpreted NATO expansion, the development of missile defences, the emergence of an international human rights agenda, and US-led military interventions Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya quite differently to many in the West. Moscow has regarded the latter as transgressions of basic norms of sovereignty symptomatic of the US’ ‘unilateral domination’[61] in the same way the West now regards Russian actions in Georgia and Ukraine. As Averre argues, Moscow stresses ‘concerns over heightened “global competition”, stemming from the West’s attempts to undermine traditional principles of international law and continue a neo-Cold war containment of Russia”.[62] This was reflected in Russia’s 2000, 2010 and 2014 military doctrines that frame NATO as its primary threat.[63] 


27.   The current crisis and its broader context reflect the mutual mismanagement of post-imperial Russia’s insecurity after Yeltsin in terms of what sort of state it is and how it should act. It is an insecurity framed (rightly or wrongly) by a narrative of post-Cold War humiliation and containment. It has resulted in the reassertion of a Russian identity of great power autonomy framed in terms of righteous, nationalistic and often xenophobic resistance assimilation into a decadent Western hegemony (Moscow’s ‘othering’). This demonstrates the failure of NATO and Russia to develop a mutually acceptable European security apparatus that both reassures former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact members wary of Russian power and reassures Russia about the West’s long-term intentions towards it. President Dmitri Medvedev set out Moscow’s principles for a new European security architecture in 2008 that made little headway in the West and were reiterated in 2016.[64] The creeping nuclearisation of the crisis is symptomatic of the depth of the current fracture.


28.   This context highlights a second overarching common security interest: working consistently with Russia on the slow and painful process of conflict resolution, diplomacy and compromise to develop a mutually satisfactory working relationship on European security and other areas of common security interest without sacrificing basic value commitments. This requires acknowledging that the NATO/European-Russian relationship is ‘too big too fail’ and that an exclusionary overt ‘containment’ and militarised ideological confrontation is to be avoided given the foreseeable mutual long-term pain and high risk for all involved. Appreciating the wider social and historical context is not an exercise in appeasement, being an apologist for Moscow’s actions, or downplaying the significance of Russia’s recent threats and actions. It is not about ignoring or wishing away the increasing authoritarianism of the Kremlin under Putin, the worrying silencing of political opposition, and its shuttering of civil society space. But it is about accepting the long term requirement for careful management of European-Russia relations, that common interests will require cooperation, that Putinism is likely to characterise Russian politics for some time, that the West’s capacity to contain and deter has diluted as power as diffused in the international system, but that NATO and the West are nonetheless operating from a position of considerable strength compared to Moscow.


VI. Agency

29.   The current crisis is symptomatic of a broader set of challenges of political and economic development and transition in post-Soviet states, including Russia. It is grappling with this set of challenges that will shape our security. This encompasses a set of difficult and long-term issues that can often get relegated because they are rooted in human security and development rather than military state security and Western conceptions of inter-state order. Preventing the collapse of the Ukrainian economy and aiding post-war reconstruction, reconciliation and demilitarisation are clear but difficult long-term security priorities that will invariably require Russian involvement and cooperation.


30.   Moreover, this type of crisis is not new and it raises a broader set of questions about the relationship between Russian aspirations and interests and realizing a sustainable set of European security understandings and practices. Like it or not, it is clear that Russia is integral to a stable European security environment and that it is counter-productive to dismiss its security concerns as wholly illegitimate. The question, then, is one of how: how can we work collectively with what may well remain a semi-authoritarian Russia over the next decade or two to build a mutually acceptable European security environment, accepting that Russian political practices are at odds with European liberalism? What do we think that might look like over that time period building on Cold War and post-Cold War successes and failures? This is speaking to a set of problems that entangle regional inter-state order and human security needs and aspirations.


31.   Here, it is vital to acknowledge our agency: we in the ‘West’ have national and collective choice in how to interpret the current nuclear noise, what we think Moscow expects to achieve, how we understand ‘security’ in the present context, and how we might respond.  Instead of re-validating the efficacy of nuclear threats, Russia’s nuclear actions and Western responses point to the central importance of dialogue for crisis management and conflict resolution in the short term, and a common security agenda over the longer term. This speaks to a different set of priorities that include preventing the collapse of the Ukrainian economy, providing humanitarian and reconstruction support for Ukraine, and reaching common understandings on nuclear and wider military restraint, all of which will require some degree of Russian cooperation.[65] More broadly, it requires prioritising investment in ‘cooperative security efforts aimed at enhancing stability, mutual security and predictability through dialogue, reciprocity, transparency and arms limitations’ that have eroded over the past decade.[66] There is certainly a role for maintaining a conventional capacity to respond to Russian paramilitary or proxy interventions in NATO allies, but whilst pushing hard on meaningful dialogue. There seems to be some appreciation of the counter-productive effects of reciprocating Russia’s nuclear messaging that lend Russian threats undue credence and political weight and reinforce Russian enemy images. Instead the response has been more measured – one of political reassurance to worried allies based on established commitments and enhanced responsiveness – though with creeping momentum towards escalation and a spiralling security dilemma.


32.   From this standpoint it is not clear what constructive role, if any, UK and NATO nuclear deterrent threats have to play, in particular given the very real challenges and risks involved. Priority should be placed on firmly downplaying and delegitimising any role for nuclear weapons in managing the current confrontation irrespective of Russia’s nuclear activities. It is not necessary or in the UK’s, NATO’s or the wider ‘West’s’ interests to embed relations with Russia in a permanently re-nuclearised confrontation. As Egon Bahr and Gotz Neuneck argued in 2015: “It is neither intelligent, nor in European interests, to raise again dramatically the threat of nuclear war…These weapons’ effects are so overwhelming and catastrophic that any concept of using them in a ‘limited’ way is completely disconnected from reality.”[67]


14 February 2016


[1] Trenin, D. (2009) ‘Russia’s spheres of interest, not Influence’, The Washington Quarterly, 32: 4, p. 12.

[2] Putin, V. (2007) ‘Speech at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy, Munich, 10 February.

[3] Putin, V. (2015) ‘UN General Assembly Speech’, United Nations, New York, 28 October. Available at <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/09/28/read-putins-u-n-general-assembly-speech/>.

[4] Lebow, R. and Stein, J. (1994) We all Lost the Cold War, (Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press), pp. 350-63.

[5] See MccGwire, M. (2006) ‘Nuclear Deterrence’, International Affairs, 82: 4, pp. 771-784.

[6] Gross Stein, J. (2013) ‘Threat Perception in International Relations’ in Huddy, L., O’ Sears, D. and Levy, J. (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 8.

[7] Stephen Walt makes this point in (2014) ‘Why are we so busy trying to “figure out” Vladimir Putin? Foreign Policy, 1 April. Available at <http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/04/01/why-are-we-so-busy-trying-to-figure-out-vladimir-putin/>.

[8] Shevtsova, L. (2014) ‘The Putin Doctrine: Myth, Provocation, Blackmail, or the Real Deal?’, The American Interest, 14 April. Available at <http://www.the-american-interest.com/articles/2014/04/14/the-putin-doctrine- myth-provocation-blackmail-or-the-real-deal/>.

[9] On security dilemmas and their mitigation see Booth, K. and Wheeler, N. (2008) The Security Dilemma: Fear, Cooperation and Trust in World Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan). On NATO and Russia see Kramer, M. (2013) ‘Russia, the Baltic Region, and the Challenge for NATO’, PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 267, July.

[10] Task Force on Cooperation in Greater Europe (2015)Avoiding War in Europe: how to reduce the risk of a military encounter between Russia and NATO’, European Leadership Network, London, August.

[11] NATO (2014) ‘Wales Summit Declaration’, 5 September. Available at <http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_112964.htm>.

[12] Sanctions have been applied by the US, EU, Japan, Australia, Canada and other non-EU European countries including Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and Moldova. On NATO see ‘NATO’s Practical Support for Ukraine’, NATO Fact Sheet, June 2015. Available at <http://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2015_06/20150624_1506-Factsheet_PracticalSupportUkraine_en.pdf>.

[13] United States European Command (2016) ‘Operation Atlantic Resolve’. Available at <http://www.eucom.mil/operation-atlantic-resolve>.

[14] United States European Command (2015) ‘EUCOM provides update on the European Reassurance Initiative’, 20 April. Available at <http://www.eucom.mil/media-library/article/33026/eucom-provides-update-on-the-european-reassurance-initiative>.

[15] BBC News (2016) ‘US to “quadruple defence spending for Europe’”, 2 February. Available at <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-35476180>.

[16] Sokov, N. (2014) ‘The “return” of nuclear weapons’, OpenDemocracy, 28 November. Available at <https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/nikolai-sokov/‘return’-of-nuclear-weapons>.

[17] Kearns, I., Kulesa, L. and Frear, T. (2015) ‘Russia-West Dangerous Brinkmanship Continues’, European Leadership Network, 12 March. Available at < http://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/russia--west-dangerous-brinkmanship-continues-_2529.html>.

[18] Day, M. (2009) ‘Russia “simulates” nuclear attack on Poland’, Daily Telegraph, 1 November. The joint Russia-Belarus Zapad (‘West’) exercise simulated repulsion of a NATO attack on Belarus.

[19] (Geneva: UNIDIR,Research Group,, P.abelled sia. It is this set of challenges security paradigm, ng to and managing the current Keck, Z. (2014) ‘Russia’s military begins massive nuclear war drill’, The Diplomat, 29 March. Available at <http://thediplomat.com/2014/03/russias-military-begins-massive-nuclear-war-drill/>.

[20] Reuters (2015) ‘Russia says has right to deploy nuclear weapons in Crimea: report’, 11 March. Available at <http://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-crimea-nuclear-idUSKBN0M710N20150311>.

[21] Milne, R. (2015) ‘Russia delivers nuclear warning to Denmark’, Financial Times, 22 March.

[22] Laurinavičius, M. (2015) ‘Opinion: Russia's nuclear blackmail and new threats of covert diplomacy’, The Lithuania Tribune, 9 April. Available at <http://en.delfi.lt/opinion/opinion-russias-nuclear-blackmail-and-new-threats-of-covert-diplomacy.d?id=67654958>.

[23] MacAskill, E. (2015) ‘NATO to review nuclear weapons policy as attitude towards Russia hardens’ The Guardian, 24 June; Kristensen, H. (2015) ‘Adjusting NATO’s nuclear posture’, FAS Strategic Security blog, 7 December. Available at <https://fas.org/blogs/security/2015/12/poland/>.

[24] (2015), ‘Poland considering asking for access to nuclear weapons under NATO programme’, The Guardian 5 December. Available at <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/06/poland-considering-asking-for-access-to-nuclear-weapons-under-nato-program>.

[25] Breedlove, P. (2015) ‘Statement of General Philip Breedlove, Commander U.S. Force Europe’, House Armed Services Committee, 25 February, p. 24.

[26] Holehouse, M. (2015) ‘Britain backs return of 'Cold War' nuclear drills as Nato hardens against Russia’, The Telegraph, 8 October. Available at <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/11920563/Britain-backs-return-of-Cold-War-nuclear-drills-as-Nato-hardens-against-Russia.html>.

[27] Gutteridge, N. (2015)Britain plans to deploy Trident for first time since Cold War in face of Putin aggression’, Daily Express, 9 October. Available at <http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/610983/Britain-deploy-Trident-Vladimir-Putin-aggression-Cold-War-Russia-NATO>.

[28] Kroenig, K. (2015) ‘Facing Reality: Getting NATO Ready for a New Cold War’, Survival, 57: 1; Durkalec, J. (2015) ‘Nuclear-backed “Little Green Men”: Nuclear Messaging in the Ukraine Crisis’, Polish Institute of International Affairs, July; Murdock, C. et al (2015) ‘Project Atom: A Competitive Strategies Approach to Defining U.S. Nuclear Strategy and Posture for 2025–2050’, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C., May. See also Kulesa, L. (2014) ‘NATO at the Crossroads – Again’, ELN Policy Brief, European Leadership Network, August.

[29] See Arbatov, A. (2015) ‘An Unnoticed Crisis? The End of History for Nuclear Arms Control’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Moscow, 16 June. Available at <http://carnegie.ru/2015/06/16/unnoticed-crisis-end-of-history-for-nuclear-arms-control/ians>

[30] Norton-Taylor, R. (2014) ‘Ukraine boosts case for nuclear weapons, say Trident supporters’, The Guardian, 20 March.

[31] Croft, A. (2015) ‘UK Concerned over “Threatening” Russian Nuclear Strategy’, Reuters, 6 February. Available at <http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-ukraine-crisis-fallon-idUKKBN0LA1PF20150206>; Becker, M. (2015) ‘Nuclear Specter Returns: “Threat of War is Higher than in Cold War”’, Der Speigel, 13 February. Available at <http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/munich-conference-warns-of-greater-threat-of-nuclear-conflict-a-1018357.html>.

[32] Fallon, M. (2016) interviewed by Kirsty Wark, Newsnight, BBC, 4 February.

[33] See, for example, Stewart, B. (2015) Official Report, Hansard 25 February, Col. 239, Vol. 593.

[34] See Rublee, M. (2015) ‘Fantasy Counter-Factual: A Nuclear-Armed Ukraine’, Survival, 57: 2, pp. 145-56.

[35] Pomerantsev, P. (2014) ‘How Putin is reinventing warfare’, Foreign Policy, 5 May. Available at <http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/05/05/how-putin-is-reinventing-warfare/>; Freedman, L. (2014) ‘Ukraine and the art of limited war’, Survival, 56: 6, pp.7-38.

[36] See Payne, K. (2011) ‘Understanding Deterrence’, Comparative Strategy, 30:5, pp. 393-427 for an overview and critique.

[37] See Jervis, R. (1976) Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press); George, A. and Smoke, R. (1974) Deterrence in American Foreign Policy (New York: Columbia University Press), and MccGwire, M. (1986) ‘Deterrence: The problem not the solution’, International Affairs, 62: 1, pp. 55-70.

[38] Krepon, K. (2015) ‘Can deterrence ever be stable?’, Survival, 57: 3, pp. 111-32.

[39] The most recent being Schlosser, E. (2013) Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Control (New York: Penguin Books).

[40] DFI International/SPARTA, Inc. (2001) US Coercion in a World of Proliferating and Varied WMD Capabilities: Final Report for the Project on Deterrence and Cooperation in a Multi-tiered Nuclear World (Washington, D.C.: Defence Threat Reduction Agency), p. 21.

[41] Adler, E. (2009) ‘Complex Deterrence in the Asymmetric-Warfare Era’, in T. V. Paul, M. Morgan and J. Wirtz (eds.) Complex Deterrence: Strategy in the Global Age (University of Chicago Press: Chicago), pp. 88-90.

[42] See Sagan, S. (1993) The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton, Princeton University Press,); Pry, P. (1999) War Scare: Russia and America and the Nuclear Brink (Westport, CT, Praeger); Lebow, R. and Stein, J. (1994) We all Lost the Cold War (Princeton N.J., Princeton University Press).

[43] Butler, G. (1998) ‘The Risks of Nuclear Deterrence: From Superpowers to Rogue Leaders’, speech to the National Press Club, Washington, D.C., 2 February.

[44] See, for example, MccGwire, M.  (1986) ‘Deterrence: The Problem not the Solution’, International Affairs 62: 1, pp. 55-70 and Wilson, W. (2007) ‘The Winning Weapon? Rethinking Nuclear Weapons in Light of Hiroshima’, International Security 31: 4, pp. 162-179.

[45] Borrie, J. and Caughley, T. (2014), An Illusion of Safety: Challenges of Nuclear Weapon Detonations for United Nations Humanitarian Coordination and Response (Geneva: UNIDIR).

[46] Helfand, I. (2013) ‘Nuclear famine: two billion people at risk’, 2nd ed., International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Physicians for Social Responsibility; Robock, A. and Toon, O. (2010) ‘Local Nuclear War: Global Suffering’, Scientific American, No. 302, January, pp. 74-81.

[47] Lundgren, C. (2013) ‘What are the Odds? Assessing the Probability of a Nuclear War’, The Nonproliferation Review, 20: 2, p. 362.

[48] Ibid, pp. 371 and 370.

[49] Wallace, M., Crissey, B., and Sennott, L. (1986) ‘Accidental Nuclear War: A Risk Assessment’, Journal of Peace Research 23: 9, p. 23.

[50] Ibid p. 373. For analysis of Cold War nuclear mishaps see Phillips, A. (1998) ‘20 Mishaps that Might Have Started Accidental Nuclear War’, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, January. Available at <www.wagingpeace.org/articles/1998/01/00_phillips_20-mishaps.php>; Sagan, S. (1993) The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton: Princeton University Press), and Gregory, S. (1990) The Hidden Costs of Deterrence: Nuclear Weapons Accidents (London: Brassey's).

[51] Shlapak, D. and Johnson, M. (2016) ‘Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank’, Rand Corporation, Available at <http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR1200/RR1253/RAND_RR1253.pdf>.

[52] Ministry of Defence and Foreign and Commonwealth Office (2006) The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent, Cm 6994 (London: HMSO). pp. 5, 18.

[53] Schelling, T. (1960) The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press), p. 187.

[54] Bundy, M. (1969) ‘To Cap the Volcano’, Foreign Affairs 48: 1, pp. 1-20.

[55] Putin, V. (2015) ‘Meeting of the Valdai Club International Discussion’, Sochi, 22 October. Available at <http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/50548>.

[56] Booth, K. and Wheeler, N. (2008) The Security Dilemma (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), p. 7.

[57] See for example Hague, W. (2014) ‘Russia’s Actions in Crimea’, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 18 March. Available at <https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/russias-actions-in-crimea> and Burke-White, W. (2014) ‘Crimea and the International Legal Order’, Survival, 56: 4, pp. 65-80.

[58] Golts, A. (2014) ‘Russia’s Nuclear Euphoria Ignores Reality’, The Moscow Times, 6 October, Available at <www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/russia-s-nuclear-euphoria-ignores-reality/508499.html>.

[59] Arbatov, A. (2015) ‘Commentary: Protecting Nuclear Sanity’, Defense News, 15 June. Available at <http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/commentary/2015/06/15/commentary-protecting-nuclear-sanity/71262990/>.

[60] Laqueur, W. (2015) Putinism: Russia and its Future with the West (New York: St. Martin’s Press).

[61] Putin, V. (2015) ‘Meeting of the Valdai Club International Discussion’, Sochi, 22 October. Available at <http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/50548>.

[62] Averre, D. (2010), ‘Russia: A Global Power?’ in Kirchner, E. and Sperling, J. (eds) National Security Cultures (Abingdon: Routledge), p. 266.

[63] Trenin, D. (2014) ‘2014: Russia’s New Military Doctrine Tells it All’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Moscow, 29 December. Available at <http://carnegie.ru/commentary/?fa=57607>.

[64] Medvedev, D. (2008) ‘Speech at World Policy Conference’, Evian, 8 October. Available at <http://archive.kremlin.ru/eng/speeches/2008/10/08/2159_type82912type82914_207457.shtml>; Medvedev, D. (2016) ‘Speech at the Munich Security Conference’, Munich, 13 February. Available at <http://www.rusemb.org.uk/fnapr/5434>.

[65] Kearns, I. Hilde, P. and Kulesa, L. (2015) ‘Managing Difference and Redefining Common Interests with Russia: A European Perspective’, Policy Brief, European Leadership Network, March.

[66] Bahr, E. and Neuneck, G. (2015) ‘Forum: NATO and Russia’, Survival, 57: 2, p. 133.

[67] Ibid., p. 130.