During the Cold War, the West faced what it believed to be an ‘existential threat’ from the Soviet Union (and vice versa). These were two power blocs with opposing ideologies whose success depended upon the elimination of the other.
Under these circumstances, there were those in the West whose motto was ‘better dead than red’. In other words, even nuclear war seemed preferable to some than to succumb to Soviet rule.
Today, there are some in the West who think we are entering another Cold War with Russia:
‘Russia has become more aggressive, authoritarian and nationalist,’ says the UK government. ‘We cannot rule out the possibility that it may feel tempted to act aggressively against NATO allies.’
We need to first of all look at what is going on with regard to Russia and NATO, and then secondly look at what, if any, impact nuclear weapons may have on this.
Ukraine and the Crimea
Ukraine has been sharply divided politically since its independence in 1991 between those in the more prosperous and westward looking parts of the country and those in the poorer decaying industrial areas of eastern Ukraine.
This conflict goes back centuries and mirrors to some extent what happened in Yugoslavia, where the more prosperous western parts (Croatia and Slovenia) were looking westward to the eu as their model while the more traditional Russian-facing parts to the east (Serbia) were looking eastward to Russia.
Electoral maps showing voting patterns in Ukraine since independence highlight this sharp east-west divide in Ukraine very clearly. The ‘Euromaidan’ revolution of 2014 and the months and years leading up to it have all been about this political divide over the future of Ukraine, with western Ukrainians wanting Ukraine to join the EU and NATO while eastern Ukrainians wanted closer ties to Russia.
It is likely that Russia has been providing support to the eastern rebels fighting the present Ukrainian government just as it is likely that the us was providing support to the Euromaidan rebels before the removal of President Yanukovych. But this conflict is not about Russia or other outside parties; it is about the internal politics of Ukraine.
What Russia would find very difficult to accept would be for Ukraine to join NATO and take control of the key Russian naval base in the Crimea. The Crimea has always been of strategic importance to Russia/the Soviet Union because it is home to Russia’s only year-round fully ice-free port, Sevastopol. The Russian Black Sea Fleet is based there, along with 15,000 Russian sailors. The naval base itself was leased to Russia when Ukraine got its independence in 1991.
Under the terms of independence, the Crimea was declared an ‘autonomous republic’ within Ukraine. Crimea has always been predominantly Russian-speaking with only a small Ukrainian minority. After centuries of rule by various other empires, including Greeks, Roman, Byzantines, Mongols and Ottomans, the Crimea was incorporated into the Russian empire in 1783.
It was ‘gifted’ to Ukraine in 1954, at a time when Ukraine was still fully part of the Soviet Union. It was thus not a real transfer of ‘sovereignty’ as such.
Ukraine and nuclear weapons
It is sometimes suggested that if only Ukraine had kept its arsenal of nuclear weapons inherited from the Soviet Union, it could have deterred Russia from annexing Crimea or from intervening in support of rebels in eastern Ukraine. Since these were actually Russian missiles under Russian control, the idea that they could have been used by Ukraine against Russia is rather absurd.
What is likely is that had Ukraine still possessed nuclear weapons at the time of the ‘Euromaidan’ revolution and subsequent war in the east, the risk of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of some rebel group or other would have raised alarm bells across the world. Who can imagine anything more dangerous than a country with nuclear weapons in the midst of a civil war, with military units changing sides and a government that is not fully in control of the military or of all parts of the country?
And where does nuclear weapons fit into this picture? What if Ukraine had already been a member of NATO at the time of the Euromaidan revolution? Would the US have come to the rescue of a NATO ally and threatened Russia with its nuclear weapons if they tried to annex any part of Ukraine? How might that have played out in the event of a referendum taking place and Russian troops seizing control of key facilities in Crimea? Would the US then have launched nuclear weapons at Russia as a result?
It is difficult to imagine how nuclear weapons could play any kind of role at all in real-life situations like this, let alone a positive or constructive role.