Will Ukrainian battlefield successes kill nuclear deterrence?

The post-Second World War decadal confrontation between the former USSR and the West, known as the Cold War, spawned both the theory and practice of deterrence. Conceptually, and practically deterrence, in the context of almost nuclear parity between the two entities, meant Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).  Broken down, and roughly it meant that if a nuclear threshold (not to be confused with nuclear break out) was breached by one party, the other would respond with ‘massive retaliation’ decimating this party. In a convoluted way, MAD held peace till the former USSR dissolved on account of mostly internal contradictions. Obiter dictum, nuclear deterrence could also be used by states to pursue other policies under its shield. Deterrence, as a security concept was then applied by most states (It also has/had pure military connotations). If deterrence became central to the security problematique, then what do military successes of Ukrainians against Russian forces mean? Will deterrence continue to hold? Will it obtain peace?

Admittedly speculative, Ukraine’s latest military advances, may not have occurred without some outside and superior advice. War and success or failure in the same, is to belabor the obvious, about strategy. Or, in other words, it’s how you organize and use your forces – no matter how limited or superior these are- it is superior strategy and organization that determine both your tactical and strategic successes. If speculation about Ukrainian forces being offered superior advice on strategy and battlefield tactics is right, then it may be that Western strategists have offered it. The advice would naturally be predicated on a robust understanding of the posture -historical and contemporary – of Russian forces, their generalship and its reflex, factoring in of Russian’s strengths, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. In other words, the Russian military approach would have been war-gamed and then presented to the Ukrainians who then may have incorporated these into their military maneuvers and tactics.

If this theory holds, then it would not be lost on Vladimir Putin. The Russian president’s ostensible premise for invading Ukraine – NATO expansion, regime change in Ukraine etc- appear to be just these: ostensible rationales. The real agenda does not appear to  be to reclaim the former USSR but to create a Greater Russia- a Russia that is in Putin’s eyes redeemed and restored to its civilizational glory. There then is both prestige and maximalist inherent in Russia’s war aims. This is overlaid by the realignment of global politics and international relations – the kind that suggests a Cold War 2.0 is in the making. Against this larger backdrop and canvas, what lessons would Putin draw from his troops’ debacle?

That the West is serious and determined to thwart his agenda is the answer. Given that the war has dragged on for six months now and that yesterday’s military advance of the Ukrainians was not only a military debacle but also carried a demonstration and rhetorical effect that would boost Ukrainians morale(in effect shaping them as a nation and thus strengthening their resolve), Putin basically has two choices.

One is total war. This would call for all out mobilization of the Russian polity, society and the state. But this approach has clear limitations: it would not only exhaust Russia but leave it drained against the backdrop of unprecedented sanctions. Besides the obvious economic problems this poses, the approach is fraught with political risk for Russia.

The other , more dark and more ominous is that Putin may consider nuclear deterrence a dead letter, so to speak. This would entail not just the implied threat of nuclear weapons but their actual use. Of course, this is an apocalyptic measure but when zero sum thinking dominates, apocalypse now could in the minds of the leader of a state mean a better option than a retreat- something that could be very costly for Putin politically. The hope and the wish here is that good sense prevails and nukes are not used – either as a first or last resort.

But even if nukes are not used, what does all this mean for deterrence?

I think given the grand realignment and rejigg that is taking place in the chessboard of international politics, deterrence or more accurately nuclear deterrence, while not entirely dead, would lose its value in terms of nuclear weapons and the doctrines governing their use as the ultimate security guarantor. Yesterday’s Ukrainian advances and Russian losses are ominous. The hope, to repeat is, that none of this comes to pass. But states across the world would have taken notice and there would be paradigm shifts in the offing. But all said and done, if deterrence as the ultimate security guarantor will fail, then what governs relations between states in an anarchic world? What can lead to relative peace? What can prevent nuclear Armageddon?

To answer this question, I will hark back to the theory I have propounded in some of my essays: wars are not , necessarily and always a ‘continuation of state policy’ These , often times, begin  in the minds of statesmen. This, of course , is a theory, but if it holds, then perhaps only statesmen can end it.

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)

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