Russia-Ukraine War and the Growing Nuclear Risks

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The war that Russia has started in Ukraine has also brought the risk of nuclear conflict on the agenda.  Russia has repeatedly signaled its readiness to use nuclear weapons.  The discussions regarding the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant also reveal a different aspect of the nuclear threat.  A nuclear conflict in Ukraine will cause irreparable damages. Fortunately, the foundations of the global nuclear order, which aims to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict, are more solid than thought.

First, it should be underlined that Russia’s nuclear threats are not a definite declaration of intention and contain vague messages that all options are on the table. The Moscow administration raises these threats to prevent the West from directly intervening militarily in support of Ukraine. However, this situation does not mean that the risk of nuclear conflict is insignificant either.

On the one hand, the Russia-Ukraine war adversely affects the global order regarding nuclear arms control; on the other hand, it leads to a review of assumptions about the use of nuclear weapons in conflicts. Therefore, the dissolution of the nuclear weapons taboo comes to the fore as one of the most important issues on the international agenda.

Whether or not there is a nuclear conflict in Ukraine, the current war will have significant psychological effects on the global nuclear order. First, nuclear weapons are ceasing to be a technocratic issue and the interest of the world public opinion in the nuclear issue is increasing. Although the risk of nuclear conflict has not become a part of daily life, as it was in the early years of the Cold War, the assumption that the global nuclear order is stable and institutional has been shaken.

The situation is not only about the Russia-Ukraine war. The arms control regime has already begun to lose its stability, with various steps taken by both the United States (US) and Russia over the past two decades. However, because of the psychological impact of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine on world public opinion, unlike in the early years when the Cold War ended and the risk of nuclear conflict decreased, nuclear weapons have ceased to be an issue of interest to technocrats and political elites.

The practical consequences of the growing public interest in nuclear weapons cannot be foreseen at this stage.  For example, Sweden and Finland by abandoning their long-standing neutrality status, preferred to take refuge under the nuclear umbrella of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The decision of the Berlin administration to allocate more budget to armament is also noteworthy. In fact, it is also understood that the negative point of view of the public about the American nuclear weapons located in Germany has begun to change. Looking at the current picture, it can be predicted that this tendency will continue, and more countries will want to come under the nuclear umbrella of the US. Likewise, it can be asserted that countries that have close relations with Moscow will try to take advantage of the security provided by Russia’s nuclear weapons.

Certainly, not every country can act in the same way.  Greater public interest in nuclear risks could also lead to an anti-nuclear weapons picture. After the heat of the war in Ukraine has passed, people can force their government to an anti-nuclear weapons policy. Which option will outweigh depends on how much tensions in the international system will escalate.  However, in any case, governments, especially in democratic countries, will tend to pay more attention to preferences of the public opinion. Therefore, in the international debate regarding nuclear weapons, the influence of public opinion will be more decisive.

Undoubtedly, the attitude of the American public opinion is one of the most decisive factors. The fact that the US provides nuclear assurances to more countries will be one of the most important issues to be discussed in public. Essentially, this discussion has been going on for a long time, regardless of the situation in Ukraine and nuclear weapons. For example, the previous US President, Donald Trump, has repeatedly stated explicitly and sometimes in a rude manner that allied countries must assume more responsibility for ensuring their own security. There is also the possibility that Trump will be re-elected president in the upcoming elections. Therefore, it is not easy at all to claim that the American voters will look favorably on the expansion of the nuclear umbrella provided by their country.

In short, the NATO memberships of Sweden and Finland can be misleading in this respect. Because these two countries, although they have been neutral for many years, are Western actors in the political, economic, and cultural sense. Instead of creating a burden for NATO, it is thought that they will make positive contribution to the alliance. However, when it comes to granting nuclear guarantees to American allies in Asia, this issue will create much more controversy. This, in turn, will affect the American strategy of balancing China and relations with allies in Asia. Although it is difficult to foresee the consequences of increased public attention yet, it will not be surprising if the US acts more cautiously when providing security guarantees and demands that its allies assume more responsibility.

Eventually, the consequences that the Russia-Ukraine war and the growing public attention on nuclear issues will have on the global nuclear order will become clear over time. The global nuclear order is not on the verge of extinction, but it is far from being stable. The main discussion, on the other hand, is related to how to ensure security in the long term. The question of whether the great powers will pursue a strategy based on nuclear deterrence by acquiring more allies, or whether they will prefer to strengthen the arms control regime again, will determine the future of the global nuclear order. The answer to this question is not clear, but the opinions of the public opinion of the countries will play an important role in this discussion.

Doç. Dr. Emre OZAN
Doç. Dr. Emre OZAN
He completed his undergraduate education at Istanbul University, Faculty of Political Sciences, Department of International Relations in 2008. He received his master's degree from Istanbul University, Department of International Relations in 2010 and his PhD degree from Gazi University, Department of International Relations in 2015. He worked as a research assistant at Gazi University between 2011-2015. Since October 2015, he has been working as a lecturer at Kırklareli University, Department of International Relations. His research interests include security studies, Turkish foreign policy, Turkey's national security policies and international relations theories. Assoc. Prof. Emre OZAN is fluent in English.