Russia may have opened Pandora’s box; President Putin’s apparent willingness to introduce nuclear weapons in a non-nuclear war is a watershed moment with implications beyond Europe and the West. Putin’s intervention and nuclear signaling has the potential to cascade into destabilising trends as the other nuclear possessors might soon feel emboldened to pursue aggressive opportunities for agrandissement and spark similar conflicts over disputed territory using nuclear forces as instruments of blackmail.
Whilst Putin’s failures in Ukraine could ensure that China is cautious about its designs for Taiwan’s ‘reunification’, Beijing is likely to learn from Putin’s mistakes and seek a strategy of ‘least resistance’ as the most effective route in capturing ascendancy over Taipei. Notwithstanding Putin’s miscalculation over western resolve and solidarity in supporting Ukraine, mainland China’s ‘invasion’ of Taiwan continues to remain entirely possible. Should Beijing decide to act, it could choose to take advantage of the West’s focus on Ukraine and cooperate with Russia to withstand western sanctions.
In addition to the China-Taiwan scenario, India and Pakistan might also increase their frequency of clashes. Despite their declared possession of nuclear weapons and Pakistan’s ‘first-use’ policy, the two have a track-record in direct military confrontation. New Delhi and Islamabad have demonstrated on several occasions over the years, a tendency to push each other’s ‘red lines’ on the Line of Control in Kashmir. At the risk of continuing to play a ‘hot hand fallacy’, Putin’s use of nuclear blackmail might adversely influence an uptick in the use of nuclear rhetoric by the two South Asian leaders and create incentives to undertake ‘riskier’ actions that suddenly spiral into nuclear ‘brinkmanship’.
The elements of this loom especially large in South Asia given the unpredictability of nuclear escalation. Escalation in the South Asian context also poses an inherent challenge for the broader international security landscape, in particular to US policy practitioners in deploying ‘time-sensitive’ crisis management, and is exacerbated by the need to insulate hostilities from the other nuclear possessors, each with their own competing security priorities in the current Russia-Ukraine war.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered a seismic shift in strategic relations and alignments across Europe and wider international milieu. Distinct from Cold War security competitions with ‘peer competitors’, the second emerging trend is Putin’s aggressive use of military force to achieve ascendancy over liberal democracies, which has inadvertently strengthened and renewed purpose in NATO. Putin’s pattern of behaviour underscores a strategy designed to expand and consolidate ‘spheres’ of Russian influence, which began with the 2008 war in Georgia and annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Given Putin’s expansionist foreign policy designs, it appears increasingly likely that the world will be more polarised for years to come as European states have announced massive increases in defence spending despite a severe cost of living crisis. Whereas the Biden administration had previously hinted at a change to US nuclear declaratory policy in the Nuclear Posture Review; events in Ukraine likely circumvented the possibility of the US to reduce the role of nuclear weapons through a ‘sole purpose’ declaration.
Ominously, the prospects of constructive engagement at the forthcoming NPT Review Conference are also dim, and the outlook for the nuclear arms control and disarmament regime looks bleak. The New START treaty will expire in Feb 2026 and it is unclear whether and how the states will be able to negotiate a further arms control treaty.
The third emerging trend underscores Russia’s veiled threat to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine and the problem of nuclear weapons as potential tools for coercion and compellence. On March 2nd, in a televised appearance, an irate President Vladimir Putin ordered his military to place Russian nuclear forces on a ‘special regime of combat duty’. Whilst the precise implications of this order remains disputed amongst policy practitioners and experts, with the dominant confusion being if nuclear forces were being ‘alerted’ or readied for action, the key question raised by Putin’s increase in Russia’s nuclear alert status is how far he views nuclear weapons as psychological instruments of coercion that can be manipulated for purposes of intimidation and blackmail.
Notwithstanding such a view being articulated by some US nuclear strategists across the decades, it never shaped US-Russian behavior in times of crisis, but recent Russian nuclear signaling indicates a pattern of Russian behaviour to manipulate the shared risks of a nuclear conflict. During the Cold War, the dominant view expressed by the leaders of the US and the Soviet Union underscored a belief that nuclear weapons conveyed no clear political or military advantage over an opponent who had invulnerable second strike nuclear forces. However, Putin’s recent nuclear signaling infers a belief that nuclear weapons possess utility beyond deterrence and can be utilised as instruments of ‘blackmail‘ and warfare.
Reassuringly, the Russian increase in alert status has not been accompanied by overt preparations for nuclear use, and although Putin has reaffirmed the Reagan-Gorbachev statement – both bilaterally with President Biden last June at a summit in Geneva, and then as part of a P5 statement reaffirming the same commitment on 3rd January – the validity of these statements are questionable given Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine.
Russia’s ‘shock and awe’ incursion into Ukrainian territory and threat to use nuclear weapons early to fulfil war-prosecuting aims has created a ‘brinkmanship crisis’, wherein the immediate priority is to ensure that the nuclear taboo remains intact. To this purpose, the need for ‘off-ramps’, as a mechanism to de-escalate from possible nuclear use, whilst also not giving into aggression, is a complex political objective and challenge not seen since the Cold War.
Whilst the prospect of a deliberate strategic nuclear exchange between Russia and the United States is remote, the possibility of limited nuclear war — for instance through Russian sub-strategic nuclear weapons use in Ukraine as part of an ‘escalate-to-de-escalate’ doctrine – remains a worrying and real prospect. Although at present there is almost no discussion about what would happen if nuclear weapons are used in the Russia-Ukraine war, the danger remains that as long as the West and Mr Putin struggle to find an ‘off-ramp’ by reaching an agreement to cap the war at the conventional level, or if Putin is ‘backed into a corner’, he may be tempted to up the ante and risk escalation. Desperate leaders are the hardest to deter and coupled with nuclear weapons make a volatile mix.