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Could Putin Resort to a Nuclear Strike?

Image credit: Kremlin

By Jean-François Caron

Since the invasion of Ukraine last February, it seems like this question has never been so central in people’s minds: will Vladimir Putin use nuclear weapons as a way out of a conflict he has no chance of winning with conventional military means? Indeed, recent reports have indicated that a train has left the Sergiyev Posad base near Moscow in the direction of Ukraine where the unit in charge of the safe-keeping, maintenance, transportation and disposal of Russia’s nuclear arsenal is located, while many embassies of countries close to Russia have recently asked their nationals to evacuate the country: rumours that have fueled Moscow’s willingness to use these weapons of mass destruction at a time when its troops have been suffering major setbacks ever since the Ukrainian armed forces launched a major counter-offensive.

How realistic is this fear? Putin still has reasons to expect that the tide of the war will eventually turn in his favour without having to resort to this extreme option. He has certainly been entertaining with great hopes the prospect of an eventual reduction of US support for Ukraine after the midterm elections. But a nuclear strike remains a scenario that we cannot discard.

A few elements should be taken into account. Russia’s nuclear doctrine has always been articulated around the idea of self-defence and Vladimir Putin knows full well that attacking a foreign country that also possesses such weapons (or an ally of a country that possesses them) would likely result in his own self-destruction according to the principle of mutually assured destruction. This makes a potential offensive strike against a foreign country a rather unlikely possibility. 

On the other hand, we tend to forget that the use of nuclear weapons in one’s own country has been a common occurrence during the Cold War. Indeed, more than 2,000 nuclear bombs have been detonated by the United States, Soviet Union, China, Great Britain and France since 1945, with 520 of them being atmospheric explosions. Since all of these tests were performed on these states’ national territory (or in territories under their control), none of them were perceived as acts of war by the international community. In light of this precedent, Vladimir Putin may very well resort to tactical nuclear strikes against targets located on Russia’s territory by claiming that these explosions do not constitute a casus belli but are rather matters of Russia’s national sovereignty.

However, the matter becomes problematic if these strikes are performed in areas deemed to be on Russia’s soil, but that are contested by the international community, namely the four regions that have been annexed by the Kremlin following the recent referendums held in Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia. Such a tactical strike with a Hiroshima-size bomb (the equivalent of around 15 kilotons of dynamite that has—all things being equal of course—a rather limited fireball radius of destruction of about 230 meters) in one of these regions would send a strong message to Kyiv aimed at forcing it to the negotiating table: try to regain control of these territories that are now an integral part of Russia (at least, according to the Kremlin’s rhetoric), and your men will have a taste of nuclear fire. The Kremlin would argue that there are more than 2,000 historical precedents to back up its claim that it is not an act of war. It would also be in keeping with its nuclear doctrine, as these strikes would be used to push back enemies that have invaded the territory that Russia claims to be its own and which represent, according to a view held by many in Russia, an existential threat.

The big unknown would of course be the other nuclear powers’ reactions. How would the United States, France, Great Britain and China react to such a strike? If everybody agrees that a nuclear strike against a foreign country constitutes a casus belli and justifies retaliation, things are significantly less clear when a state is resorting to the use of nuclear weapons on its own territory. And although the West has not recognized these annexations and is still considering these four regions as integral parts of Ukraine, they would still have to consider what kind of retaliation against Russia represents strategically a wise course of action, begging the question of how far the West is willing to go to defend Ukraine.

If the Biden’s administration Nuclear Posture Review remains unknown because of its classified nature and has solely said, through the voice of National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, that a tactical nuclear strike on the part of Russia would lead to “catastrophic consequences”, thus leaving some doubts on what would be the nature of Washington’s reaction, French President Emmanuel Macron has for his part confused people on October 12 by saying that France’s nuclear doctrine was established around the country’s fundamental interests, namely the defense of its territory and the protection of its population, and that as a consequence “it would not be challenged if Russia were to resort to a nuclear tactical strike in Ukraine.” With dissensions within the ranks of NATO’s allies, this could be Putin’s calculation, knowing that the absence of retaliation with nuclear weapons on the part of the West could constitute a de facto recognition that these annexed territories are now parts of Russia. In other words, even if it is not part of Russia’s nuclear doctrine, Putin may conclude that escalating the conflict to such an extreme is actually the best way to deescalate it.

February 24, 2022, will go down in history as a date that has shown Vladimir Putin’s willingness to gamble. If he had the nerve to force events one time, we should not doubt that he may be willing to do so one more time. In light of the numerous shortcomings that his armed forces have shown since the start of the invasion, the general feeling at present may be that he no longer stands a chance of winning this war through conventional military means and that the possibility of a military defeat would virtually signify his own demise as head of state. With his back against the wall and playing for his political survival, he may well be tempted to hit us with a move that has the potential to seriously divide Western powers, especially at a time when public opinion has shifted to other concerns, namely inflation, shortages of fuel and the growing prices of natural gas.

Now that Europeans are starting to feel the impact of their support for Ukraine and have a glimpse of the sort of sacrifices that they will have to endure in the coming weeks and months, many are starting to question the European strategy that was unanimously chosen last February and some political leaders are openly expressing their worries in this regard. It remains an open question whether the “democratic man” – accustomed to peace, security and comfort – is prepared for the difficulties he is about to face in the name of defending superior political values.

Jean-François Caron (@jfrcaron) is an Associate Professor at Nazarbayev University (Kazakhstan) and a Senior Fellow at IPD.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  

Panelists:

Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security

 

Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.

Panelists:

Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.

 

Panelists:

Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 

Panelists:

Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 

 

Panelists:

Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.

 

Panelists:

Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor