Nato and the West must heed Russia’s warnings to avoid nuclear holocaust
- If Russia is not bluffing about its willingness to use nuclear weapons, ignoring its legitimate security concerns could doom the world
- With no prospect of a ceasefire, the challenge is how to reduce tensions. As a first step, Nato could unilaterally pledge not to be the first to use nuclear weapons against Russia
Unlike US president John F. Kennedy, who was bold yet careful enough to reach agreement with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev on removing Soviet missiles from Cuba in exchange for the US promising not to invade Cuba in 1962, current US President Joe Biden has been provocative. He has called Putin a war criminal and said “this man cannot remain in power”.
We are closer to a nuclear war now than we were during the Cold War. No one can tell when or where Putin might use nuclear weapons. But if he feels he must rely on nuclear weapons as a game-changer in a grinding war in which Russian troops have so far fought poorly, the likelihood he will use them will continue to simply grow.
If Putin believes he is chosen to be St George who slew the dragon – a symbol that is part of Russia’s coat of arms – the weapon he will use is not a long spear but a nuclear missile, of which Russia has more than anyone. The targets might be one or two European countries rather than Ukraine, which, home to what Putin called “one people”, is also close to Russia.
Nato can afford to make such an offer as it would not compromise its deterrent capabilities. It is hard to imagine why the 30-member transatlantic alliance with unmatched conventional forces would need to use nuclear weapons first against one adversary.
As a second step, Nato could pledge to halt any further expansion in exchange for a Russian promise not to use nuclear weapons first. Moscow might find this proposal worth considering since its stated primary concern has been Nato’s eastward expansion.
Nato could easily argue it is not that it wants to expand but that countries fearful of Russia want to join. There is some truth to that, but it is still not justifiable. The more popular Nato becomes, the more insecure Europe will be.
Does Finland have to break with eight decades of neutrality that has created a stable and pragmatic relationship between Moscow and Helsinki? This move would more than double the length of the alliance’s border with Russia and risk adding to Moscow’s feelings of insecurity.
The third step is to negotiate new security arrangements in Europe, including but not limited to a security guarantee for Ukraine. This might include a pledge not to deploy nuclear weapons in Russia’s periphery, which Moscow sees as its sphere of influence, but the key is to negotiate a new conventional armed forces treaty.
The Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, signed in 1990, eliminated the Soviet Union’s quantitative advantage in conventional weapons in Europe. It set equal limits on the number of tanks, armoured combat vehicles, heavy artillery, combat aircraft and attack helicopters that Nato and the Warsaw Pact could deploy between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains.
The new treaty should set a limit on Nato’s quantitative advantage in conventional weapons in Europe given the apparent disparity between Russia and Nato today. As a condition, Nato could ask Russia to reduce its nuclear stockpile, which is bigger than that of the US, France and Britain combined.
The war in Ukraine stems from Nato’s neglect of Russia’s warnings against its expansion. If Nato also neglects Russia’s warnings that it could use nuclear weapons, a nuclear war that leads to a global disaster the world managed to avoid during the Cold War would be a testimony to infinite human stupidity.
Senior Colonel Zhou Bo (ret) is a senior fellow of the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University and a China Forum expert