During the first stage of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, foreign observers discussed the prescient nuclear threat Russia poses. With approximately 1,500 nuclear warheads in deployment and another 3,000 in reserve, Russia has always been a serious threat to world stability. In light of calls to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine, the threat of nuclear war became a tangible possibility.
A no-fly zone over Ukraine, despite what the phrasing might suggest, is not a passive intervention; it would require actively shooting down and engaging with both land and air-borne enemy units on and off Ukrainian territory. Since these calls for a no-fly zone have rapidly stagnated in the last month or so, discussions of nuclear threat have waned. Nonetheless, Europe remilitarized itself and is continuing to prepare itself for the worst: nuclear war.
Putin aimed to demilitarize Ukraine; in due process, he has managed to remilitarize the EU.
With the recent Russian testing of ICBMs on April 20 2022, and Putin’s call to put his nuclear forces on a “special regime of combat duty,” the reception toward the Russian nuclear threat is mixed. On the one side, cynics claim that Russia is merely boasting its military might to prevent any military intervention from the liberal order, as it did during the first stage of their invasion.
They further point to previous Russian policy toward their usage, namely that they would only be used in the case of an existential threat to the Russian Federation as we know it today. More fearful observers point to Putin’s instability and unpredictable behavior in recent months and claim that there is no way to know for certain if Putin will use tactical nuclear weapons, which can be deployed relatively close to friendly forces.
Because of the real threat Putin poses to EU stability, EU deterrence strategies have significantly changed. Prior to 24 February 2022, the day of Putin’s full-scale invasion, they showcased a heavy reliance on:
- economic sanctions,
- the promise of nuclear disarmament, and
- an interventionist U.S. foreign policy.