Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, we have been following the concern of world leaders about a nuclear threat. In the last week, the warning came from both William Burns, of the US intelligence agency, the CIA, and from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself. Asked about the matter by a television network, Zelensky acknowledged that he was distressed by the issue. He said that, in his view, “all countries should be concerned.” Burns, days earlier, had claimed that, if desperate, the Russian government could make use of low-powered nuclear weapons.
Burns was referring to what experts call “tactical weapons.” Unlike the so-called “strategic” weapons, they have a shorter range and lower explosive intensity. They also have different means of delivery. They do not have an intercontinental range and have a less comprehensive destructive capability. Still, they are weapons whose use would not only represent significant damage to Ukraine, but also the beginning of a new phase of the conflict.
When it comes to nuclear weapons, the discussion includes not only the size of a country’s arsenal, but, above all, its willingness to use it, and what criteria it adopts to do so. Russia not only has the largest stockpile of warheads in the world (estimated to be somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000), but also guides its use based on a vague and imprecise doctrine. The country’s official documents speak of employment only in the face of “existential threat”. In this sense, they leave space to accommodate different narratives and interpretations as to what would be risks that affect the survival of the State.
It is not by chance that Western leaders, especially North American ones, have been describing, for some years now, the Russian criteria for the use of nuclear weapons based on the expression “scaling to de-escalation”. This is the perception that the Putin government would be willing to use part of its tactical arsenal to conduct one-off nuclear attacks as a way to forge the eventual retreat of adversaries and, consequently, compel the other side to negotiate more favorable to the Russians.
If confirmed, such a move would not only pose a heightened risk to Ukrainian civilians, but also two other things to keep in mind: 1) the harbinger of an unprecedented escalation to the conflict, as NATO would be pressured to react proportionately; and 2) the death blow that would crown the already widespread crisis of multilateral institutions.
Nuclear weapons are considered the last frontier of global politics. Since at least 1945, international codes have tried, as much as possible, to restrict the use of this type of resource. The very expectation of countries that own these weapons is that they keep them for the simple fact that, in doing so, they imagine that they will not be challenged to use them. This is the logic of deterrence. Nuclear weapons are not only a material but mainly a symbolic response to the security dilemma that exists in the anarchic world. When they are no longer seen in this way to become just “another resource at our disposal”, they offer unprecedented damage not only to those who suffer from possible attacks, but also denote serious violence against all forms of acting, thinking and feeling within the international system. They are, therefore, the ultimate expression of human barbarism.