Nuclear weapons have rewritten the rule-book of international affairs. The similarities between the current events in Ukraine and German expansion in the 1930’s are strikingly clear, yet the only reason why history has not repeated itself is the presence of nuclear weapons. Still recovering from the Great War, we appeased Hitler in the 1930’s because we could not afford to wage war of the scale required. Hitler was appeased by the international community because no single nation or alliance had the strength to wage a war of the scale needed. The international community appeases President Putin today, not because of potential economic costs or the scale of the challenge, but because of the threat of nuclear war. That threat is not going to disappear.
As long as nuclear weapons exist, the threat of their use is more significant and influential than an army of millions of soldiers. North Korea is an excellent example of this. Despite being a small, isolated, rogue nation with inferior military technology, it was described by President George W Bush as one of three countries in the ‘Axis of Evil’, that is, the three greatest threats to American security. Now, for the first time in human history, the threat of nuclear war is being used as a weapon – rather than a defence – in its own right. President Putin is testing the integrity of the deterrence of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD): the idea that nuclear weapons mean the utter destruction of both sides of a war. If Putin succeeds in his mission, then it will set the precedent that any nuclear power can inflict unopposed aggression onto the international community, which would be the most dangerous development in international relations since the invention of nuclear weapons themselves. Using nuclear weapons to end a war is one thing; using them to escalate a war is entirely another.
MAD was the underlying principle of the Cold War that prevented the escalation of the war to nuclear fallout, a deterrence strategy that continues to dominate international relations to this day. Deterrence in the form of overwhelming military technology and power can be seen throughout human history, and has been a structured part of international relations since the Westphalian Order established in 1648. The Westphalian Order enabled a sustained period of peace to exist among the European superpowers until 1914. It worked by establishing a balance of power in Europe, operating under the principle that a state’s sovereignty could be protected from invasion by the creation of alliances and the build-up of considerable military strength. This idea of deterrence through overwhelming military technology and power has been a continuous thread in international relations, and what we are seeing in Ukraine today is a test of that theory – and its effectiveness.
Since the invention of nuclear weapons, military intervention has risked the complete destruction of a nation, and this is the reality that world leaders are currently facing. President Putin knows this, bolstering this with his terrifying promise that any nation that obstructs Russia’s goals in Ukraine would face “consequences such as they have never seen in their history”, in turn putting Russia’s nuclear forces on ‘special alert’. This is effectively blackmail on a scale never seen before. In the past, the worst potential outcome of war for a nation was a loss from which it would have to rebuild from. Since the invention of nuclear weapons, the worst potential outcome is the destruction of a nation from which it cannot rebuild. Whereas world leaders of the last 70 years have accepted this as the premise of unwinnable wars, President Putin has used this as a way to force the rest of the world into submission.
With this in mind, the precedent that could be set by Putin’s potential success in Ukraine means an overhaul of what MAD means in international affairs. At present, it means that wars are unwinnable; therefore wars will not be waged against the sovereignty of another nation. However, if Putin is successful, MAD will mean terrifying anarchy among nuclear powers, where deterrence is no longer a strong enough defence. Nuclear powers can essentially ‘do what they like’ without consequence, as the more belligerent nations threaten to use their nuclear arsenals as weapons rather as deterrents. In turn, aggressive nuclear powers can use their nuclear arsenals to prevent international resistance to their expansionist foreign policy, rather than using their nuclear arsenals as a self-defence.
If the principle of MAD were to be cast aside in international politics, there are many potential conflicts that could ignite, particularly – and most dangerously – between nuclear powers. The most significant conflicts could involve China, with their territorial claims over Taiwan and the Aksai Chin and the Tibet regions on the Indian border, among others. Because of the Taiwan Relations Act, it would be difficult for the USA not to become involved militarily if Taiwan were to be invaded, which would see war between the USA and China. A conflict between China and India has the potential to be even more dangerous, as they are both nuclear powers with a long history of fraught diplomatic relations – even in the 21st century there have been border clashes. If Russia is able to set the precedent that by threatening to use nuclear weapons, a state can assert expansionist foreign policy, then there is very little that the rest of the world can do to resist this without risking total annihilation. Furthermore, although the West has so far been able to exercise proactive opposition against Russia’s invasion by imposing significant economic sanctions, only time will tell whether these will be enough. Because of the West’s reliance on Chinese goods and manufacturing, it is unlikely that a similar package of sanctions could be imposed if China pursued an equally aggressive foreign policy as Russia; begging the question of what could the West do? The complexity of negotiating and imposing economic sanctions under the shadow of nuclear weapons demonstrates the impact that Russian victory in Ukraine could have on the status quo of international relations.
Conclusively, Russian victory in Ukraine could become the most dangerous development in international relations since the invention of nuclear weapons themselves. It can be strongly argued that the presence of nuclear weapons has created a state of international peace, albeit a fragile one. MAD has prevented conflict from escalating to a domain where nations consider the use of nuclear weapons to be the only means to self-determination. However, MAD only works if there is credibility to the threat of the use of nuclear weapons. If President Putin is successful, MAD would be undermined to the extent that it is no longer an effective deterrent, resulting in the restoration of a state of international anarchy.
Despite the current conflict in Ukraine and Russia’s aggressive actions and rhetoric, war is still unwinnable – at least for now. On one hand, the West has united itself to an unexpected degree, certainly unexpected to President Putin, and has done everything it can to aid Ukraine without escalating the conflict. On the other, President Biden has stated outright that there will be no direct American military action, and unless Russia directly attacks a NATO member, NATO direct involvement is very unlikely. For the people of Ukraine, a Russian victory would be disastrous. For the planet and the future of mankind, a Russian victory would be terrifying.