By Xite Yang*
Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the Western alliance has imposed sweeping sanctions against Russia in scope that has far exceeded Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expectations.
With the intention to show that he is still in charge of great power, Putin has ordered Russian nuclear deterrence forces on high alert. In fact, on the same day when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, Putin delivered a warning, ” whoever tries to stand in our way or create threats for our country and people should know Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to consequences that you have never faced in your history.”
Recently, Putin signaled the use of nuclear deterrence again to demonstrate that he is ready to protect Russia’s “territorial integrity” by using nuclear weapons. Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told CBS News that he doesn’t think Vladimir Putin is bluffing over nuclear threats and a nuclear war “could be a reality”. In the past, Zelenskyy often said that when Russia threatened to use nuclear bombs to intimidate the world, it is a mere bluff. Therefore, Zelenskyy’s uncharacteristic speech this time has made many feel that a nuclear war is imminent.
Will the Russia-Ukraine conflict really turn into a nuclear war? Chan Kung, the founder of ANBOUND think tank, made a clear judgment on this in early March this year: a nuclear war will not happen at all. Building upon the nuclear deterrence theory, he proposed the concept of “nuclear equilibrium” and believed that such an equilibrium actually restricts the possibility of future nuclear wars.
In the nuclear warfare theory, ” nuclear deterrence” means that the enormous power of nuclear weapons is used as a factor to prevent their actual use, i.e., a basis for bargaining. In the actual application of nuclear deterrence, leaders who are well-prepared in their strategy would be less likely to intimidate others with nuclear weapons. However, Chan Kung believes that this theory is now outdated. The nuclear deterrence theory was very popular after the birth of nuclear weapons. It is generally believed that deterrence is achieved mainly through two aspects, i.e., ” punishment” and ” denial”.
Since the beginning of the new century, with the development of nuclear technology and the popularization of nuclear weapons in the world, more and more countries have begun to possess nuclear weapons, which makes one question and challenge the value of nuclear deterrence theory.
Chan Kung proposed the theory of “nuclear equilibrium”. This theory mainly includes two points: First, it is the nuclear equilibrium that prevents nuclear war, not any nuclear weapons agreement nor the humanitarian motive of the weapon-possessing nations. It is the fear of the mutual-destruction that creates the equilibrium, and this has been the case for decades. Second, nuclear equilibrium emphasizes the balance of power. Second, nuclear equilibrium emphasizes the balance of power. It is only when different countries own similar amounts of nuclear weapons that the equilibrium could exist. As for those countries with only dozens or hundreds of nuclear weapons, it is practically not much of use, and they can be destroyed at any time.
As Chan Kung pointed out that during the early stage of the war in March, Putin’s actions are neither “nuclear deterrence” nor “nuclear intimidation”, but “nuclear propaganda”. The target audience of this act by the Russian President was not the outside world, but to impress the Russian public. Therefore, it is a form of propaganda to project his image as a strong man. To be specific, he wanted to ensure the legitimacy of his political power.
Is there no risk of human beings encountering a nuclear war at all?
On a possible Russian nuclear attack against Ukraine, Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau recently said in an interview with Polish radio RMF FM that NATO would have a conventional response. Asked whether NATO troops would enter Ukraine, Rau said he does not rule out that possibility. However, he added that NATO may strike Russia with aircraft and missiles, but not necessarily launch them from Ukraine. At the same time, a retired U.S. general who still maintains close ties with the military also stated a few days ago that the West’s response to Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons may include NATO’s war intervention, such as the establishment of a no-fly zone in the Baltic Sea.
For Chan Kung, the responses from the West are neither strong nor rational enough to prevent the outbreak of a nuclear war. On the contrary, they might stimulate the actual outbreak of it. In fact, Chan Kung has criticized ‘responses regarding the nuclear war from the cowardly and ignorant Western and American politicians as well as amateur strategists. Recently, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan warned Putin of ‘catastrophic’ consequences if he uses nuclear weapons. But Sullivan did not describe the nature of the planned U.S. response. This kind of intimidating language, which is strong on the outside but weak on the inside, is probably very difficult for a seasoned geo-politician like Putin to take it seriously. In Chan Kung’s view, these Western politicians are trapped in the challenges at hand, and they recklessly change the rules of the nuclear war casino. They promote the generalization of the use of nuclear weapons and try to reduce the “price” of atomic chips so that more nations dare to do nuclear gambling. This will inevitably bring our world into an unprecedented and extremely dangerous state.
Chan Kung points out that what the United States can do now is to act according to the theory of “nuclear equilibrium”. To prevent Putin from taking desperate risks, the United States must convince him that it will not tolerate Russia if he pushes the nuclear war button. According to the nuclear equilibrium theory, whoever triggers a nuclear war first must take sole responsibility, because that results in the imbalance of nuclear power. Thus, the United States will have no choice if Russia starts a nuclear war. The counterattack will be overwhelming, and entire Russia can be destroyed. When Russia is erased from the planet, the denuclearization of the world will be restored, and the state of nuclear equilibrium is achieved again. The United States tried to “eliminate” Russia, or to be more correct, the Soviet Union before. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States almost launched nuclear missiles and deployed nuclear submarines and militia nuclear missiles, which was the moment when Washington and Moscow came closest to nuclear conflict. We human beings are never far from nuclear war and may be destroyed at any time.
The world is now at a critical geopolitical moment, which is a technical decision-making one. If the politicians and relevant actors of nuclear powers do not have the courage to make professional responses to nuclear threats, it will only encourage the proliferation of nuclear war in this world. Only by understanding the use of a powerful security mechanism such as “nuclear equilibrium” can we guarantee that the risk of a nuclear war is “controllable” if not truly “safe”.
*Xite Yang is a researcher at ANBOUN