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C Raja Mohan writes: Russia’s nuclear threat may force Europe to build a nuclear arsenal

Vladimir Putin's miscalculations in Ukraine are leading to an inevitable change in the European security order to the detriment of Russia

Moscow’s nuclear doctrine states that it will use nuclear weapons in a conventional war in the event of an attack on Russia and if the very existence of the state is threatened. (AP File Photo)

In a major move last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine and its Western backers. “When the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal,” he said, in an implicit reference to nuclear weapons. To underline the seriousness of his threat, Putin added it “is not a bluff.”

This is certainly not the first time the Russian leader has rattled the nuclear sabre. Soon after he launched the Ukraine invasion in February, Putin issued a similar warning and ordered his armed forces to put Russian nuclear weapons on alert. What is different this time is Russia’s weakening position in Ukraine. The recent setbacks on the battlefield have persuaded Putin to order the mobilisation of a larger number of troops and call for an annexation of the occupied territories in eastern Ukraine. The nuclear threat appears to be part of an effort to salvage a modicum of political gains from a “war of choice” that has gone terribly wrong. Putin’s nuclear threat did not make a difference the last time around; this time he is signalling a greater commitment to using nuclear weapons by claiming that the occupied territories are now a part of Russia, and organising referendums to lend a veneer of political legitimacy to their annexation. That brings us to the link between Russia’s “territorial integrity” and the threat to use nuclear weapons.

Moscow’s nuclear doctrine states that it will use nuclear weapons in a conventional war in the event of an attack on Russia and if the very existence of the state is threatened. By turning the “occupied territories” into “Russian territory”, Putin is arguing that attempts by Ukraine and its Western supporters to liberate occupied territory would be met with a nuclear response. For those who can’t see the nature of the threat this time, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former president and a close associate of Putin, has made the threat explicit. He has declared that Russia will use nuclear weapons, not just tactical nuclear weapons but also strategic ones, to defend the “new Russian territories”.

Putin will hope that the danger of a nuclear war would encourage those in the West who seek a compromise with Russia (at the expense of Ukraine, of course) and bring the war to a quick close. But Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy has dismissed the nuclear threat and vowed to fight on until the occupied territories are brought back under Kyiv’s control. The US has warned Russia against the use of nuclear weapons, and is likely to continue its armed support to Ukraine.

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That puts the nuclear ball back in Putin’s court. Will Putin court the dangers of a full-scale nuclear war with the West for a few additional districts in Ukraine? Using nuclear weapons for offensive or coercive purposes has not been easy. The prospect of a national suicide has often acted as a self-deterrent. Even if it turns out to be a bluff, Putin’s threat will have a major effect on the global nuclear security debate. That Russia, one of the architects of the post-War global nuclear order, can threaten a non-nuclear weapon state like Ukraine with the use of atomic weapons, has compelled many major powers in Europe and Asia to take a fresh look at their nuclear policies. Making matters worse is another troubling dimension of Putin’s policy — the Russian President is using the nuclear threat to annex the territory of a neighbour it has seized through armed aggression. Several questions arise.

First, would Putin have ordered the invasion of Ukraine if Kyiv had nuclear weapons? Ukraine, which inherited a large nuclear complex when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, voluntarily gave up nuclear weapons in 1994 in return for guarantees of its security. Those assurances turned out to be worthless when Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. The utility of nuclear weapons in preventing aggression by big powers appears to be an enduring one. While many in Ukraine might regret the decision to give up nuclear weapons, there is little that Kyiv can do to immediately reverse that decision.

What about Europe? Europe has much to lose if Putin continues his territorial expansionism backed by the nuclear threat. Might Europe consider the development of its own nuclear weapons? On the face of it, the idea of a European nuclear bomb would seem odd. Barring France, all the members of the EU have voluntarily given up their nuclear weapon options by signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. While giving up their own atomic weapons, the EU members have relied on the US nuclear umbrella. Under the arrangement, the US had nuclear weapon-sharing arrangements with five NATO countries — Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.


The last few years have seen NATO come under stress. Donald Trump challenged the very premises of the American commitment to protect Europe and questioned the European reluctance to spend more on its own defence. Trump also accused the Europeans of free-riding on US commitments while conducting ever larger commercial business with Russia. Trump’s threat to walk out of NATO has compelled the European states to rethink their security policies, emphasise the need to build their defence capabilities, and develop more “strategic autonomy” vis-a-vis the US. One element of this debate has been the question of Europe developing its own nuclear weapons.

The easiest way would be to turn the French nuclear arsenal into a European deterrent. France, however, has traditionally insisted that its arsenal is for its own national security. But in early 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron articulated a change. He declared that the French nuclear strategy has a “European dimension”. France’s nuclear forces “strengthen the security of Europe through their very existence,” Macron said. There has been some talk of Germany financing the expansion of the French arsenal. The problem, however, may be less about building nuclear assets than developing a nuclear doctrine and command structure.
While the discourse on a Eurobomb gains traction, the immediate focus might well be on strengthening NATO’s nuclear forces and boosting the US nuclear umbrella over Europe. This might involve new deployments of US nuclear weapons in Europe, wider nuclear sharing arrangements, and stronger conventional deterrent capabilities.

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One of the main objectives of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was to rearrange European geopolitics in favour of Russia. Putin might well succeed, but not in the manner that he might have hoped. His profound miscalculations in Ukraine are leading to an inevitable change in the European security order to the detriment of Russia.

The writer is senior fellow, Asia Society Policy Institute, Delhi and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

First published on: 27-09-2022 at 04:00:45 am
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