Russia clearly started the war in Ukraine but from the Russian point of view this has become a NATO proxy war against Russia in Ukraine. And this is seen from this perspective as the continuation of Washington’s war against Moscow that started in 1918, paused for World War II, paused again in 1991 after the end of the Soviet Union, then continued in 1993 with the eastward expansion of NATO via the Partnership for Peace program, followed by the NATO air strikes against the Serbs in 1995.
Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu recently said there was “no need” to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. That’s good to hear, but what if Russian president Vladimir Putin decides otherwise?
Russia’s policy regarding use of nuclear weapons is to use them “only in response to an attack” per Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov; in self-defense, in other words.
But, how do you define “attack” in a situation when every side thinks it’s playing defense?
Russia is fighting the U.S. and Europe in Ukraine and it may eventually weary and look for a way to terminate the conflict and force NATO into negotiations.
To do so, Russia may elect to use low-yield nuclear weapons against strategic targets, i.e., airfields, non-nuclear power plants, and communication lines used to deliver NATO military supplies, then talks.
Or put another way, the possibility of escalation in the conflict in Ukraine at more than the conventional level is more than possible.
But if this happens, at either the conventional or nuclear leveal. What will the United States or the Europeans do in response? For example, would the U.S. be tempted to make a nuclear response?
Maybe, but it almost certainly would not, because Ukraine is not a NATO ally and it will have outlived its usefulness if Russia refused to get bogged down and instead stopped play in a dramatic fashion. In 1961, French president Charles de Gaulle asked if the U.S. was ready to trade New York for Paris, and six decades later an American leader would again have to ponder that, but for smaller stakes.
The sanctions guys will have a field day. Moscow will secure a cordon sanitaire but may also get that “100 Years of Solitude” Vladislav Surkov alluded to, and Ukraine will be “wrecked” as predicted by Professor John Mearsheimer.
But the real reason for U.S. anger won’t be lives lost or non-proliferation dreams deferred or the fact it was forced to revert to diplomacy – that’s just the eyewash – but the strategic gain from Russia’s handful of small nukes could well be significant. Washington will resent having to negotiate after it failed to press Kyiv to seriously engage with the Normandy format, then ignored Moscow’s December 2021 proposal to negotiate Ukraine’s status re NATO membership.
And even worse, China, Iran and North Korea will draw clear implications from such escalation dynamics.
So, what will those regimes do?
They saw what happened to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi after he cooperated with the Americans and surrendered his nascent nuclear capability. Attacking Libya was U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s attempt to make her bones before her campaign for president, but it also guaranteed that Tehran and Pyongyang would never willingly disarm.
Iran is currently negotiating with the U.S. on restarting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action though it is unclear if talks will be successful. Israel regularly warns it will attack Iran under its “right to self-defense” to keep Tehran from achieving its nuclear weapons goal.
Iran is likely on the path to developing nuclear weapons, though the smartest play by Tehran will be to stay a “threshold” nuclear power, which may keep Israel at bay and, if Israel attacks, will gain Tehran regional and worldwide political support in the wake of an attack.
Iran will probably never make an unprovoked nuclear attack on attack Israel, despite the dire predictions coming out of Jerusalem, which are aimed at excitable elements in Washington.
Regime insiders are making too much money from their business interests, so why provoke a counterattack that will end the payday?
Better to enjoy increased status and influence in the region because everyone believes you are a nuclear threshold state, and continue to fight Israel by continuing the low-level campaign of assassinations, subversion, and sabotage, and new tactics such as supplying drones to local proxies, e.g., Hezbollah.
However, if Israel pre-emptively attacks Iran to deal with their nuclear capability, Tehran may have to put down a marker and, while hitting Israel would be gratifying, driving the U.S. from the Gulf would be best. Israel is useful as a bogeyman so keeping it around helps the Tehran regime.
And make no mistake, Iran will consider the U.S. a co-belligerent as the Americans granted every Israeli request for the weapons used to attack Iran.
The Gulf is too crowded to start slinging around missiles, as it would stop the flow of oil and natural gas – bad for Iran’s wallet – and will end possible rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
But at that point the dance of the seven veils is over, and Iran’s WMD policy can move on from “threaten” and “display” to “demonstrate.”
One option would be to tow a target barge into the Arabian Sea to show off the accuracy its missile + (inert) warhead combination, then start to imply that U.S. forces in the region are at increased risk.
As most of the local U.S. forces are guests in Arab countries, will they still be welcome, especially as Tehran, victim of a Zionist “sneak attack,” may appeal to the publics over the heads of local, U.S.-friendly rulers?
At the least, the host nations may start scrutinizing and limiting the missions the U.S. conducts from their soil – not as good as an exit, but not bad, either. And local rulers will rush to reassure their people that the faraway “American cowboys” won’t start another war that will roil the Middle East.
America’s major strategic advantage is that it commutes to war, and hasn’t fought another country on its border since the 1916 Punitive Expedition against Mexico. But America’s opponents face U.S. forces off their shores or on their territory so they have no option but persevering until victory, i.e., Viet Nam, Afghanistan.
America’s insouciance will fade if it faces an opponent with weapons of mass destruction atop long-range missiles. If you’re a targeted autocrat who may not be as risk averse as the Soviet leaders, you may wonder: If the U.S. can strike far from home, why can’t I?
And if Iran can pull this off, it will further encourage North Korea which this week passed a law that made the right of preemptive nuclear strikes “irreversible” and permanently barred denuclearization talks.
China is the Persian Gulf’s top customer for hydrocarbons and may be the calming influence in a feverish environment. It is knitting closer economic ties to Iran, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and natural gas leader Qatar. China and Israel may sign a free trade deal (the first in the region) by the end of 2022.
Instability in the Middle East caused by America’s regional deputy will bolster BRICS – the informal group of Brazil, Russia, China, India, and South Africa, and that may be the reincarnation of the Non-Aligned Movement. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and NATO member Turkey may soon join BRICS and Indonesia and Argentina (and Iran) are also interested in the group that can informally coordinate responses to America’s actions, supplemented by China’s UN Security Council voice (and veto).
Israel has enjoyed improved relations with its Arab and Muslim neighbors via the Abraham Accords and wants to be considered part of the fabric of the region, not some interlopers from Poland and Lithuania. But local enthusiasm for improved ties with the Jewish state will wane if it starts a war over Iran’s alleged acquisition of nuclear weapons.
An Israeli “self-defense” attack will gain Tehran sympathy (and leverage) and will be an opportunity for China, which has crafted relations with all parties to increase its influence in the region, influence it will use to marginalize Washington, which will suffer it the popular view is it failed to restrain (or secretly encouraged) Israel.
This will leave the field open for Beijing to back “spontaneous” calls for negotiations for a nuclear-free zone that will be rebuffed by Washington and Jerusalem who always agree with calls for “restraint” but rarely make binding commitments.
James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.
Editor’s Note: The return of the nuclear question in a significant way was forecast by our colleague Dr. Paul Bracken. The spillover consequences could see in the decade ahead that
South Korea and Japan might well see the need to acquire some form of a nuclear tipped force. And as the Australians look at the decade ahead in the current strategic rethink, such a development will raise significant implications for the future of Australian national security and defence as well.
The conflict in Ukraine may well be playing out as the 21st century version of the Spanish Civil War.
For a look at the Russian perspective in global context, see the following: