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Nuclear Escalation Management UPSC NOTE


Conflict in Ukraine and its implications on nuclear escalation management between major nuclear powers

  • The conflict in Ukraine and the recourse to nuclear rhetoric have revived concerns about nuclear escalation management between the major nuclear powers. 

  • Russia began its “special military operation” in Ukraine. U.S. attempts to deter Russian aggression had failed.

  • On February 7, 2022, Mr. Putin warned that “if Ukraine attempts to take back Crimea, European countries will be in conflict with Russia, which is a leading nuclear power superior to many NATO countries in terms of nuclear force”.

  • Russian officials tried to downplay the nuclear threat by pointing out that Russia would resort to nuclear use only if faced with an existential threat.

  • While U.S. officials tried to convey reassurance to their European allies that while Mr. Putin’s threats were to be taken seriously, there were no indications of unusual activity at nuclear sites.

  • Ukraine is not a NATO member and so does not have the security of the nuclear umbrella provided by U.S. policy of ‘extended deterrence’.

  • Russia’s resort to nuclear rhetoric failed to deter NATO involvement though it influenced its pace and timing. 

  • Therefore, both Russia and the U.S. are operating in a grey zone, taking turns at escalatory rhetoric even as they probe each other’s red lines. 

  • There is no Warsaw Pact, and NATO has expanded to include a number of former Warsaw Pact members. 

  • The Ukraine conflict has persuaded Sweden and Finland to give up their long-standing neutrality and seek security under NATO’s nuclear umbrella.

  • Russia’s nuclear doctrine issued on June 2, 2020 specifies two conditions under which Russia would use nuclear weapons:

  • 1. “…in response to the use of nuclear weapons and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it/or its allies” .

  • 2. “in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is put under threat”. 

  • Mr. Putin has declared more than once that Ukrainians and Russians are one people with a shared history. 

  • Russia, therefore, does not see Ukraine as entirely ‘sovereign’.

  • There is the oft-cited escalate-to-de escalate approach, that implies using tactical nuclear weapons to overcome a stalemate on the battlefield, thus forcing a termination of hostilities on favourable terms. 

  • In its 2022 National Security Strategy, the U.S. rejected this by declaring that first use would not lead to de-escalation on Russian terms, “but alter the nature of conflict creating potential for uncontrolled escalation”.

  • U.S. caution is reflected in calibrating the supply of more sophisticated weapons by continuously probing Russian red lines even though Ukrainian demands continue to grow. 

  • Meanwhile, it suits Russia to increase ambiguity.

  • It is also likely that since Russia failed to achieve its military objectives, its thresholds are evolving.

  • Nuclear signalling today is taking place in uncharted political territory. 

  • New guard rails are necessary if the nuclear taboo has to be preserved.

Lessons from cold war

  • With their huge arsenals that provided for assured second strike capability, neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union had an incentive to try a surprise first strike. 

  • This realisation was crucial in shaping nuclear deterrence theory.

  • Thomas Schelling, whose writings during the 1960s and 1970s shaped nuclear deterrence thinking (he won the Economics Nobel in 2005), concluded that nuclear weapons were not usable but had political utility in terms of preventing a war with another nuclear power. 

  • Clearly, Schelling was looking at the situation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union which had no territorial dispute. 

  • Schelling also concluded that even though any use was “irrational”, the nuclear threat had to be “credible” in order to deter. 

  • This introduced a degree of uncertainty into the equation. 

He concluded that the key to making nuclear deterrence credible is through escalation and raising the risk, that in the final analysis, “leaves something to chance”.



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Learnerz IAS | Concept oriented UPSC Classes in Malayalam: Nuclear Escalation Management UPSC NOTE
Nuclear Escalation Management UPSC NOTE
Learnerz IAS | Concept oriented UPSC Classes in Malayalam
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