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Is Russia signaling a new and more restrained posture on nuclear weapons use?
Mick Ryan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) postsin the not-yet-totally-ruined Twitter has about some recent remarks of Vladimir Putin on the Ukraine war, including:
[T]he headline is the nuclear issue. Putin is walking back some of his more bellicose statements, now claiming that Russia would not use them first. This is positive (if he is genuine), but what does this really mean? He is enlarging the corner he has painted himself into with his #Ukraine invasion. Currently, he has minimal strategic room for manoeuvre. By ruling out nuclear first use, he further reduces any potential for NATO direct intervention in the war.
Alys Davies reports for BBC News:
Vladimir Putin has said the threat of a nuclear war was rising, but insisted Russia had not "gone mad" and would not use its nuclear weapons first.
The Russian president insisted that his country would only use weapons of mass destruction in response to an attack.
This AP wire story from NPRreports:
Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged Wednesday that his "special military operation" in Ukraine is taking longer than expected but said it has succeeded in seizing new territory and added that his country's nuclear weapons are deterring escalation of the conflict.
"Of course, it could be a lengthy process," Putin said of the more than 9-month-old war that began with Russia's invasion Feb. 24 and has displaced millions from their homes, and killed and wounded tens of thousands. Despite its length, he showed no signs of letting up, vowing to "consistently fight for our interests" and to "protect ourselves using all means available." He reiterated his claim that he had no choice but to send in troops, saying that for years, the West responded to Russia's security demands with "only spit in the face."
On its face, this just seems to be a milder restatement of his previously declared position. Of course, in diplomacy subtle difference in framing can contain important signaling, which hopefully those immersed in the details of diplomatic phrasing can properly decipher.
At least in the BBC's version, Putin is not "ruling out nuclear first use," which is how Ryan reads it. Russia and the US both having a policy of not ruling out first use of nukes. Biden had suggested a switch to no-first-use. But in his review of the policy this year, he retained first use
Senior U.S. officials said that Biden has decided not to follow through on his 2020 pledge to declare that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies. Instead, he approved a version of a policy from the Obama administration that leaves open the option to use nuclear weapons not only in retaliation to a nuclear attack, but also to respond to non-nuclear threats.
Biden’s policy declares that the “fundamental role” of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is to deter a nuclear attack, but will still leave open the option that nuclear weapons could be used in “extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners,” officials told ACT. According to a March 25 report by The Wall Street Journal, this might include nuclear use to deter enemy conventional, biological, chemical, and possibly cyberattacks.
Biden's promise of adopting a no-first-use policy looks like another empty Democratic Presidential candidate's promise that was discarded on taking office. But it's important not to oversimplify. The NATO strategy during the Cold War was that in a case of a Soviet invasion through the famous "Fulda Gap," the US would use tactical nuclear weapons against the Red Army to provide time to put much larger NATO forces into place.
The Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies had a much larger number of troops stationed in central Europe. An alternative NATO no-first-use strategy would have required the US to station much larger numbers of its own forces in Europe and also to erect massive defensive installations including large, extensive trenches on the West German border. Whatever the advantages such a policy might have provided, it would certainly have been much more expensive and would have carried risks of its own.
It's also important to remember that when Russia talks about using nukes only in response to attack on its territory, it formally considers Crimea and four oblasts that in international law are Ukrainian territory to be Russian territory now. So whatever change in tone Putin's latest statements may include, it's hard for us regular citizens to see what's new about this in terms of actual policy.
And there's also this
The United States has opposed Ukraine’s desire to hit targets within Russia since the war began, citing concerns about potential escalation. Given President Joe Biden’s strong stance, Kyiv promised Washington earlier this year that it would not strike Russian territory directly.
The Biden administration has also limited the types of weapons that it is willing to send to Ukraine, much to the chagrin of Kyiv’s most fervent supporters in Congress, who have long called on Biden to give Ukraine long-range missiles.
And new reporting indicates that the Pentagon has gone further than simply limiting the missiles and launchers that it sends to Kyiv. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Department of Defense quietly modified U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) such that they cannot launch long-range missiles before shipping them off to Ukraine.
Of course, we always have to keep the "fog of war" in mind. Is this Ukraine doing things its most important (de facto) ally the US considers to be too risky? Or is the US winking at Ukrainian attacks inside the internationally recognized territory of Russia?
Strikes inside Russia are certainly "fair" in the sense that when two countries at war, of course both parties can attack each other's territories. It's not a violation of the laws of war, although an unprovoked invasion of another country is. (Yes, that applies to the Iraq War, too, as I and others have been saying since before it started in 2003.)
But the US and other NATO countries have an interest in controlling the scope of the war to the extent possible, based on their own calculations of risks and benefits. In any case, no one seems to be pretending at the moment that Ukraine hasn't attacked targets inside the legal territory of Russia.
The attacks “underscore the difficulty the Biden administration faces in trying to control the risks of escalation in this war,” according to George Beebe of the Quincy Institute.
“Despite our efforts to manage these risks, both the Russians and the Ukrainians can take actions that escalate the war in dangerous ways and increase the chances of a direct clash between the United States and Russia,” said Beebe, who previously led Russia analysis at the CIA. (Echols, 2022)
Ryan, Mick (2022): Twitter 12/07/2022 <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-63893316> (Accessed: 2022-08-12)
Davies, Alys (2022): Putin: Nuclear risk is rising, but we are not mad. BBC News 12/07/2022 <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-63893316> (Accessed: 2022-08-12)
Associated Press (2022): Vladimir Putin acknowledges Russia's war in Ukraine is taking longer than he expected. NPR 12/08/2022 < ttps://www.npr.org/2022/12/08/1141496360/vladimir-putin-acknowledges-russias-war-in-ukraine-is-taking-longer-than-he-expe> (Accessed: 2022-08-12)
Kimball, Daryl (2022): Biden Policy Allows First Use of Nuclear Weapons. Arms Control Today, April 2022 <https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2022-04/news/biden-policy-allows-first-
Echols, Connor (2022): Ukraine hits targets deep inside Russia in break with Biden administration. Responsible Statecraft 12/06/2022 <https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2022/12/06/ukraine-hits-targets-deep-inside-russia-in-break-with-biden-administration/> (Accessed: 2022-08-12)