Senior Colonel Zhou Bo (ret) is a senior fellow of the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University and a China Forum expert
No one knows how long the war in Ukraine will last. But everyone knows the worst nightmare is Russia decides to use a tactical nuclear bomb. Russian leaders have repeatedly hinted at this. Now some prominent Russian scholars such as Sergei Karaganov and Dmitri Trenin have joined the choir. They called for tactical nuclear weapons attacks on a NATO country, say, Poland, to “break the will” of the West and convince it that Russia’s nuclear threats are not a bluff.
If Russia’s warning on using nukes is a bluff, this tactic has already worked in that letting people mulling over if Moscow will use nuclear weapons or not is successful deterrence itself. But what if this is not a bluff? The west is nibbling away its own redlines, however gradually, by sending more and more sophisticated weapons to Kyiv that were considered taboos in the beginning, so why one can rest assured that Moscow won’t use nuclear weapons, eventually? The battlefield is in a stalemate.
Kyiv’s drone attacks were found in Moscow. Ukrainian President Zelensky warned that the war is “returning to Russia”.
Now that the threat of an unspeakable horror against humanity looms larger, perhaps a short-cut is China and the US reaching an agreement of no first use of nuclear weapons that will be joined by Britain and France and finally, Russia. Here is a lesson learnt. In the wake of the Indo-Pakistan nuclear tests in 1998, in a rare move to show solidarity, China and the US quickly came to a joint declaration of de-targeting their nuclear weapons against each other. This led to a joint statement among the five nuclear-weapon states in 2000 that their nuclear weapons are not targeted at each other or at any other states.
Similarly, in a joint statement issued by the five nuclear powers in January, 2022 -- a month before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they agreed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”. If indeed a nuclear war cannot be won, then why can’t they pledge no first use of nukes in the first place? No first use doesn’t exclude nuclear retaliation; therefore, it won’t neutralize a nuclear power’s ability in deterrence.
For China, no first use of nuclear weapons is an iron-clad policy since its detonation of a nuclear device in 1964. Therefore, such a time-honored policy won’t change because of its rapprochement with Russia. The Biden administration declared that it would only “consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.” Such a policy is not so far away from that of Beijing.
The US can afford to make a no first use commitment more than any other countries. Today, the United States has overwhelming conventional military superiority. One can hardly cite a mission that the United States could not accomplish with conventional weapons.
The assertion that US needs nuclear weapons to defend its allies is questionable too. So far, DPRK- a de facto nuclear weapon state, is the only country that has repeatedly played with nuclear blackmails. It has even officially declared to use preemptive nuclear strikes in a new law, but this is a strategy of drawing attention. Unless the survival of Kim Jong-un ’s regime is in jeopardy, it is hard to understand why he would launch a suicidal nuclear attack on South Korea or Japan that will surely invite devastating retaliation. The whole Korean peninsula is only 1100 kilometers. The lingering radioactive dust will make any victory meaningless.
In 2001, Russia and China agreed not be the first to use nuclear weapons against each other. If Beijing and Washington agree on no first use, then it is entirely possible for Britain and France, two American allies, to reach the same deal with China.
The challenge is how to get Russia in, but it is not entirely impossible. President Putin should know nuclear weapons are not really game changers. No matter how formidable they seem, they didn’t help the US in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghan wars. They didn’t help the Soviet Union in Afghan war. They haven’t helped Russia in mitigating Ukraine’s strong resistance against Russia’s invasion, either.
This probably tells why in spite of his thinly-veiled hints, Putin has never overtly threatened to use nuclear weapons. Instead, he reiterated in a China-Russia joint declaration during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow in March that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”.
If the deepest concern of the US-led NATO is Putin might eventually resort to use of nuclear weapons, it needs to offer him an off-ramp, that is, NATO unilaterally promise no first use against Russia in any circumstances now. This is affordable for NATO. The largest military alliance in the world has 31- member states, three nuclear weapon states and its conventional forces far outnumber that of Russia. It is hard to imagine why it should launch a nuclear strike on Russia first.
Perhaps the final solution to defuse nuclear threats in European continent lies in NATO’s thinking of the unthinkable: a pledge of no further expansion after Sweden joins NATO. NATO membership is confined to European countries. After Sweden’s entry into NATO, there aren’t many countries queuing in line anyway. Only three countries, namely, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine are found on the waiting list.
Apparently, Bosnia and Herzegovina won’t add much weight to the military strength of NATO. Georgia already had a war with Russia, in part because of its wish to join NATO. At a time when no one can tell what is the endgame, NATO doesn’t need soul searching to know a “forever war” with a nuclear power is lethally dangerous.
(This article was first published on South China Morning Post on Sep.4, 2023.)