Among the many disturbing legacies of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one of the most alarming is its seeming confirmation of the utility of nuclear weapons.
The war has given policymakers and publics reason to believe that a nuclear arsenal contributes to national security. If those conclusions go unchallenged, nuclear proliferation is likely to follow. Nothing could be more dangerous.
The nuclear shadow has clouded the Ukraine conflict. Weeks before the invasion, Russia conducted maneuvers with its nuclear forces which, when combined with the marshaling of its military on the Ukraine border, signaled Moscow’s readiness to fight with all its capabilities. Shortly after the invasion began, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he was putting his country’s “deterrent forces” — its nuclear weapons — on “a special regime of alert” and warned that intervention by the West would lead to “consequences you have never seen.”
Other Russian officials officials underscored their country’s nuclear options. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the national security council, reminded the world that Russian doctrine allows nuclear strikes against an enemy that only uses conventional weapons. He added “that we are ready to give a worthy response to any infringement on our country, on its independence.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that the risks of nuclear war are now “very, very significant and should not be underestimated,” while Defense Minister Sergei Shougu said that nuclear “readiness” was a priority. Since Russia possesses the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons — approximately 6,000 warheads — those comments must be taken seriously.
The idea that Russia could resort to such weapons — that its independence or sovereignty could be threatened and thus justify their use — is both absurd and chilling. Its arsenal and the leadership’s capacity for delusion — evident throughout the course of the war — mean that such warnings cannot be dismissed.
To some degree, threats have worked. The prospect of escalation beyond the nuclear threshold has restrained the West from deeper intervention in the conflict. If those governments believe that their direct involvement could push Putin to monstrous decisions, then it is hard not to argue that they have been deterred.
That is certainly the lesson that will be learned by other governments studying this war. If the West has been deterred, then those countries will likely question the value of U.S. security guarantees. They will wonder if Ukraine’s 1994 decision to give up its nuclear weapons — it possessed about one-third of the Soviet arsenal after the USSR collapsed — was a mistake. (it didn’t have the launch codes, so the utility of those weapons was questionable.) That logic was reinforced by Svitlana Zalishchuk, foreign policy adviser to Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, who agreed that giving up those nuclear weapons was a mistake.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un won’t learn anything from the Ukraine experience; rather, it will confirm that his — his father’s and his grandfather’s — pursuit of a nuclear weapon was the right strategy all along. North Korea has been determined to acquire a nuclear arsenal to ensure the survival of its regime. Speaking at a military parade this week, Kim warned that “If any forces try to violate the fundamental interests of our state, our nuclear forces will have to decisively accomplish its unexpected second mission.” Moreover, the military “should be fully prepared to … put their unique deterrent in motion at any time.”
Those remarks were only the most recent signs of Kim’s determination to not only acquire, but hone, a nuclear capability. North Korea has conducted 13 missile tests this year — a record — including in March what is thought to have been an ICBM capable of hitting any target in the United States.
There are also signs that Pyongyang will soon conduct a nuclear test, its first since declaring a self-imposed moratorium in 2017. A test is thought necessary to fulfill the objective Kim laid out in a January 2021 speech of developing “ultramodern tactical nuclear weapons.”
The “reassuring” explanation for this is that Kim is frustrated by his inability to move U.S. President Joe Biden and is trying to get him to pay more attention to North Korea. He wants Washington to make Pyongyang a diplomatic priority, restore its status and address its concerns. He has dismissed Biden’s policy of demanding genuine steps toward denuclearization as a “petty trick” and has ordered his country to prepare for a “long-term confrontation.” The election of a conservative president in South Korea, the loss of a progressive ally in Seoul and Biden’s upcoming trip to Asia all reinforce his determination to act.
The more troubling explanation is that Kim is thinking more expansively about nuclear capabilities, perhaps drawing on the Ukraine experience. In this case, the respect that Western governments have shown Russia, with their restrained response, has encouraged the North Korean leadership to focus on nuclear weapons’ ability to coerce — to force adversaries to bend to its will — rather than their ability to deter. Kim’s presence at an April test of a short-range missile, which some experts think could be the country’s “first tactical nuclear weapon delivery system,” lends credence to this view.
Kim’s reasoning — and those who think like him — is wrong on two counts. First, it mistakenly values nuclear weapons. South Korea and Japan, unlike Ukraine, are treaty allies explicitly protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The ability to strike the U.S. means little given the U.S. ability to utterly destroy North Korea — without even using nuclear weapons.
Second, they fail to recognize the cost of acquiring those weapons. The pursuit of a nuclear capability, in defiance of his international commitments and in violation of international law, establishes Kim and his country as outlaws. The ensuing sanctions and marginalization — which Putin and Russia are now beginning to experience — should be proof that nuclear weapons endanger national security more than they ensure it.