Observations of an ex pat: Putin has rewritten the nuclear playbook

Putin has rewritten the nuclear playbook and the world is a more dangerous place for it.

The reason? Because if one nuclear power changes their rules then the others have to reconsider theirs, and Putin has changed the rule book to make the use of nukes more likely.

Nuclear weapons in the past have been classified as a defensive weapon. Their purpose was to deter an enemy attack rather than to launch one.

Some countries—mainly China and India—have adopted a “No First Use” policy which means they will only use their nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack from another power. Beijing has a proposed a No First Use agreement with the US and been rejected.

The US, UK and France (the three nuclear NATO countries) have gone for the “Flexible Response” doctrine which means they will fire their missiles if faced with losing in the face of an overwhelming conventional weapons attack. This is more or less the policy of Pakistan, Israel (which refuses to admit to ownership of a nuclear arsenal) and even North Korea.

Barack Obama considered switching to a No First Use policy but was talked out of it by European allies who feared that it left them vulnerable to a conventional weapons attack from the large Russian army.

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1982 pledged No First Use. The sincerity of the promise was questioned at the time and it was dropped in 1993 by the Russian successor state. Boris Yeltsin felt at the time that the deterioration of conventional weapons dictated greater reliance on the nuclear arsenal.

Then in 2020 came the Russian Presidential Executive Order on Nuclear Deterrence which made it clear that Russia reserved the right to use nuclear weapons to protect what it decided was its territory. This obviously includes the bits of Ukraine which it has annexed since 2014.

Putin has turned his nuclear arsenal from a purely defensive weapon into an offensive weapon by threatening to use them as part of a conventional weapons war for territorial gain.

He doesn’t even have to use the weapons. The threat of use can be enough to either force Ukrainian capitulation or territorial concessions or deter NATO from supplying military and economic aid. It has already successfully deterred the Western Alliance from sending troops.

Of course, Putin’s veiled and unveiled threats could be a giant bluff. As any poker player will tell you, that doesn’t matter if the bluff works.

It may be argued that the existence of nuclear weapons an implied threat since Hiroshima. Yes, but Putin has made it explicit and in doing so moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock that much closer to midnight.

If Russia comes out ahead of the game in Ukraine then Putin has opened the door to other nuclear powers using their conventional forces backed up by the threat of nuclear attack if the conventional option fails. These include North Korea and, probably in the near future, Iran.

That is why this week’s G20 summit in Bali condemned not only the use of nuclear weapons but also their “threatened use.”

Two of the key signatories of the summit communique (which also deplored Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) were China and India. They are important backers because their support for the communqiue implicitly reinforces their commitment to a No First Use policy and moves them towards the Western camp in the Ukraine War.

Xi Jinping has clearly made his concerns about the Russian nuclear rhetoric known to Putin. Otherwise, he would not have signed the communique or denounced the threatened use of nuclear weapons when he met last week with German Chancellor Olof Scholz.

Chinese pressure could persuade the Russian leader to scale down the threats. But the words have been spoken. The policy has been changed. Putin has released a new version of the nuclear genii. It is, however, just possible to stuff it back into the lamp. But to do so requires the defeat of Russia.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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  • Paul Barker 19th Nov '22 - 9:15am

    Is this true ? What I have seen from Putin is Trump-style hot air & bluster. Certainly his spraying threats around is new for a Major Power, though its standard behaviour for North Korea but does it really change anything if no-one believes him ?

  • I have slowly come to the conclusion that these threats are a device to split the west. France and Germany were more open to a negotiated settlement than other states but have hardened their position. But public opinion in many countries is still a tool to be used to influence their governments A matter of hard hearts and soft hearts

  • @Paul Barker: Several things in response. One is that the fact is that Russia is a major power with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and so a threat to use that arsenal carries more power than one from North Korea. That is not to say that we should not be concerned about North Korea as well. It is a matter of degrees.
    Secondly, you may not believe is bluff. Others may. I don’t know. I thought he was bluffing about invading Ukraine. He wasn’t. The point is that Putin is using the bluff as a weapon to break international law and take over another country, or, at the very least, a major part of it. That is a rewrite of the nuclear playbook.

  • There is no way of uninventing things. We must start to concentrate upon how we can live in peace. Let us spend money on studying how people can live in peace with one another.
    It is interesting to see the effort that the regime in Russia is putting into persuading its own people that the war is worth it.
    Perhaps a good idea would be to examine the way in which we run our own society in the U.K. – and ask is this really the best we can do.

  • Had Nazi scientists been able to develop a nuclear warhead in time, there can be no doubt that Hitler would have deployed atomic weapons against Soviet Troops and probably on V2 rockets fired at London too.
    President Truman had no qualms in rationalising the Atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 to save the lives of American troops that would have been expended in an invasion of the Japanese mainland. The firebombing of Tokyo in the spring of 1945 had actually resulted in more Japanese casualties.
    Churchill, likewise, would not have hesitated in dropping an atomic bomb on Dresden in the spring of 1945 and Stalin would have done the same to Berlin.
    Mao may well have used Atomic weapons against Taiwan if he had them in 1950, but the Korean war took attention away from the invasion of Taiwan. General MacArthur wanted to drop between 30 to 50 tactical atomic bombs on Chinese air bases and other depots strung across the neck of Manchuria.
    In the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, General Cutis Le May was pushing Kennedy to be allowed to bomb nuclear missile sites in Cuba.
    When Reagan announced the deployment of Pershing II missiles in West Germany and large-scale exercises were conducted in 1983 the USSR put its nuclear forces on full alert at its highest level of readiness.
    This is the issue with war. What was unthinkable in the beginning becomes a necessary response as the loss of lives mount or the possibility of defeat in battle looms.
    Russia will ultimately have to leave Ukraine. Let us pray that it does not leave a nuclear wasteland behind it.

  • Having Trident has not made the UK safer. As a result, we have more nukes aimed at the UK per Sq. mile than anywhere on earth. Generals do not want them. They did not prevent the Falklands, terrorism, Russian incursions into UK waters or airspace, or Russia’s various invasions.

    The additional 100 nuclear missiles recently purchased by Johnson from USA could never be used, because if the first tranche had been launched from the Submarines, they could never return to base to reload, because it would be a smoking radioactive ruin.

    Even launching the missiles out of the subs would be reliant upon USA to target them otherwise they would fall back to the sea uselessly and since the USA holds the 2nd largest number themselves, they could do whatever damage they want without our 3% of the world’s supply. If they did not wish to use their own missiles and attract opposing ones, the UK would act as a handy magnet for incoming missiles, thereby keeping them from falling on the USA.

    After USA’s bombardments, assuming they went ahead comprehensively, what targets do you think would be left for the UK’s? Municipal bus stations or army training grounds perhaps?

  • 2)

    In any case Russia probably knows where the subs are because it will have recorded the noise profile and would be able to track them via sub and satellite.

    Nobody wants the bases anywhere near themselves and if Scottish separation should happen, it would need to be moved to Portsmouth in all probability, at enormous cost, in a big conurbation and quite close to London.

    The whole thing is a gigantic white elephant, making us less safe, not more and costing a fortune, with most of the money going to USA. There are far better calls on public money.

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