Russia’s nuclear threat worked

The war in Ukraine reaffirmed the relevance of nuclear weapons as a major deterrent in global conflicts. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, a major power has publicly threatened to deploy tactical nuclear weapons. And the threat worked: the West carefully calibrated its arms deliveries to Ukraine to avoid giving Russia a reason to resort to nuclear escalation. Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine would not have happened had Ukraine not relinquished its nuclear arsenal under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, which included US safeguards and Russians to respect and defend its territorial integrity.

Revolutionary powers such as North Korea and Iran have followed these developments closely. For Iran, a rising Shia power, its nuclear program represents an insurance policy against surrounding Sunni powers, all allies of Israel and the United States. North Korea’s nuclear logic is not much different.

There are few realistic options to stem the trend of nuclear proliferation. One development that would make a difference would be for the five major nuclear powers to set an example and begin to drastically reduce their arsenals. The obstacle here comes from the disparity between American conventional military power and that of China and Russia. For France and Great Britain, the maintenance of nuclear weapons is a question of status.

If leaders of the caliber of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev – capable of overriding their respective security establishments – reappear, they could potentially lead such a nonproliferation movement. But such leadership does not seem imminent.

Another possibility would be to establish a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. But that could only happen if agreements were reached on major conflicts in the region and Israel gave up its supposed nuclear capabilities.

I am not optimistic about any of these scenarios. Ultimately, however, whether a regime possesses nuclear weapons is not the main issue. It is the nature of the diet that counts.

Ukraine made a mistake by entering into negotiations with Russia at a very early stage of the war, when the impression was still that the Russian army was unstoppable. A mutually damaging stalemate offers a better opportunity to reach a peace agreement. Unless Russia introduces nuclear weapons into the equation, we may be getting closer to such a stalemate, in part because the United States and its allies have wisely calibrated their weapons supply to prevent a defeat. Ukrainian without provoking the escalation of Russia.

The Ukrainians should not enter into negotiations if the price of admission is to accept Russia’s request not to join NATO. This should be a concession in a negotiation process, not a precondition to it.

That said, as I argued recently, peace is about balance and stability, not justice. The just result – Russia’s complete withdrawal from Ukraine and the reversal of its annexation of Crimea – would be political suicide for Putin and a huge setback for Russia’s international position. Far from being a cooperative participant in a European security system, a defeated Russia, as a humiliated nuclear superpower, would pose a lasting threat to it.

Western powers should be part of the peace process, not only because they are part of the conflict, but also because they are the ones with the power to compensate Russia for any concessions it makes. This compensation should take the form of a European security system that addresses key Russian concerns and preserves the neutrality and territorial integrity of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Finally, to deal with Ukraine’s dual identity, the ethnic Russian regions of Donetsk and Lugansk should enjoy significant autonomy within a federal state, as stipulated in the 2015 Minsk II regulation.

For too long, Europe has remained comfortably anchored in a “post-historical” world, while outsourcing its security to American taxpayers. The war in Ukraine marks the end of the myth that history “ended” with the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It also justifies the Latin adage, Si vis pacem, para bellum (‘If you want peace, prepare for war’). A strong and united NATO would help secure peace.

But any European security architecture that emerges from the war in Ukraine must include buffer zones between Russia and NATO. Ukraine, which will likely have to give up its aspirations to NATO membership under any peace deal, should be one such area. Sweden and Finland, with its 1,340 kilometer border with Russia, should be two more. The alternative is a long border in a permanent state of friction, war or the imminent threat of war.

For the foreseeable future, peace must be based on disengagement. Ending Europe’s dependence on Russian energy would contribute to peace, as it would force Russia to diversify its economic model, increase Russia’s stake in global stability, and push the country to become a more active participant in the global economy.

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