Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his war against Ukraine on February 24 of this year. Within three days of commencing hostilities, he ordered the Russian military to put its 6,000 nuclear warhead arsenal onto ‘special combat readiness’.
This order was not carried out after the Russian military campaign stalled, the Russian-Chechen massacre of Ukrainian civilians at Bucha was discovered, or after the Russian Black Sea flagship Moskva was sunk.
In the first three days, there was no visible setback sufficient to cause panic in Russian ranks and prompt them to openly brandish weapons of mass destruction.
Clearly, the order was given as part of the war strategy.
At a policy level, the meaning of the order was a clear message to the United States and Nato to stay away and not intervene in Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine and, presumably, topple the pro-West regime of Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The political decision to employ the threat of nuclear force was designed to create a specific military outcome: a licence for Russia to attack Ukraine with immunity from an outside USA/Nato response.
It is the forcing of immunity that makes this war unique. There have been many, many military skirmishes, battles, and confrontations since the second world war, but none have been given immunity from outside intervention, even limited intervention, until now.
It could be argued that amidst all that carnage in the charnel house that is Syria, or the extermination policies of the Myanmar rulers, lack of external intervention allowed the wars to continue unchallenged. However, in Syria it was President Obama’s famous ‘chemical weapons red lines’ squib then asking for Russian intervention that actually allowed the war to continue. In Myanmar, it involved a policy of simply not being bothered.
Neither country had immunity from military intervention – there were just not many national interests at stake requiring intervention beyond the use of diplomacy and limited sanctions.
Immunity from military intervention comes from only one thing: ownership of nuclear weapons and a willingness to threaten their use. When these Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) reside within autocratic dictatorships, you cannot be sure if the willingness to use these weapons, even if that means national suicide, is a bet dictators won’t make.
North Korea is a case in point. The last feudal kingdom on the planet, bellicose and threatening its neighbours by firing missiles over their territories, boasting of its Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile capability to launch weapons at the USA, running drugs all over the world to earn foreign exchange, allowing the starvation of its population – there is not one thing recommending the continued existence of such a regime. Yet it persists. And for three generations. It has licence to pester and a more powerful immunity to be left alone because it has (and has tested) nuclear weapons.
For all its meddlesome behaviour, North Korea is troublesome but containable.
Iran is another case in point. It currently seeks nuclear weapons to ensure regime immunity. Yet it is a much worse case than North Korea because, unlike the regime of Kim Jong-un, the Mullahs seek to expand their ideology all around the Arab world, interfering in states that is creating havoc in an already endlessly troubled region. Putting up proxies for battle in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Openly funding Islamic-based armed groups in Gaza and the West Bank. Attacking US ships and troops. Pursuing and seeking to eliminate Iranian opponents around the world. It uses the licence of military confrontation on its own terms and now seeks regime immunity through the development of nuclear weapons.
I do not know if this means the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) agreement President Obama signed with Iran, President Trump left, and which President Biden wants back in place is or is not a good thing. I imagine the current American Administration sees the deal, even a bad one, as limiting the Mullahs’ progress to WMD. That is a good thing in itself.
The Mullahs, for their part, are desperate for Nukes. When they look closely at Ukraine, Russia, North Korea, and recount the lesson from Libya – Gaddafi voluntarily surrendered his WMD industry and then shortly thereafter was overthrown – they learned a very powerful lesson. Nukes create regime immunity.
While the licence to create war is still very much a choice that States large and small are able to exert, it is the cover to wage war on your own terms, including disregarding the fundamental human right not to target civilians, that the threatened use of nuclear weapons provides.
Every nation that has come to the aid of Ukraine has done so without direct military intervention. Russia wages its war on its barbaric terms, and as its army struggles so its barbarity has worsened. Vladimir Putin and his military elites have unleashed a vicious and cruel war, purposely so it seems as the Russian army falters.
Now, more than ever, nuclear weapons need to be kept out of the hands of tyrannical, authoritarian, despotic regimes. The price of immunity these weapons provide such regimes is too high a price paid in civilian blood by the very people these regimes repress.
Adam Slonim is co-convenor of the Australia Israel Labor Dialogue, a member of the executive of the John Curtin Research Centre and an adjunct fellow at the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre at Victoria University.
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