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Rogue States Like North Korea Win if Putin Uses Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine

Nuclear Weapons Test
Image: Creative Commons/YouTube Screenshot.

Rogue States Win if Russia uses Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine: Great anxiety has arisen because of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s oblique nuclear threats in the Ukraine war. There has been much talk of an escalating nuclear conflict with the West. Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky seems to think this possibility is substantial. Such a strike would have major implications around the world, particularly for weaker countries with – or considering – nuclear weapons. If Russia normalized the use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield, these weaker states, who suffer from major conventional disadvantages, could see an opening to use their own nuclear weapons in conflict to equalize the playing field with their competitors.

Putin is Unlikely to use Nuclear Weapons

Scenarios about the ‘day after’ a nuclear strike – what ramifications there would be for future conflict – depend on first use by a major nuclear power, which all have pledged to avoid barring existential threats to the homeland. Russia does not face this in Ukraine. Defeat in Ukraine, and national and personal humiliation for Putin, is not the same as a Ukrainian threat to the integrity of the Russian state. Were Putin to go nuclear anyway, the geopolitical blowback would be massive.

Further, it is not clear what target in Ukraine is large and important enough to run such a risk. To affect the course of the actual conflict, the Russians would need to hit a target near the frontlines. That in turn would endanger Russian forces themselves. Finally, only a massive, strategic nuclear strike on a Ukrainian city would terrorize Ukraine into surrender. In the face of a low-yield battlefield nuclear use, Zelensky would likely keep fighting.

Only a move akin to nuclear genocide might actually push the Ukrainians to give up.

Great Powers like the Nuclear Taboo

But if Russia did take this step, other states would benefit from Putin’s breaking of the ‘nuclear taboo.’

Russia itself would be severely penalized. China, India, and third-world neutral states would drift away from it. NATO would almost certainly enter the fight, potentially in direct ground conflict with Russia if it nuked a city and killed hundreds of thousands of people. Russia would be expunged from much of the global economy, and its citizens would be pariahs around the world. Its isolation would last a decade or more.

Strong states too would not benefit from the breaking of the taboo. Powerful states like the US, China, Europe’s largest countries, Japan, and so on, do not need nuclear weapons for many purposes. Indeed, they have them really for one purpose – to deter other states from using nukes against them. (Germany and Japan live under the US nuclear umbrella, ‘borrowing’ deterrence from the Americans.) There is no other point in possessing these weapons.

The great powers, by definition, are already conventionally powerful. They can fight traditional conflicts reasonably well and hope for victory. They are also strong enough that they can survive a defeat – such as the American loss in Vietnam and Iraq – and move on. Conventional conflicts are rarely existential for great powers. So they are content with the nuclear taboo, as it sidelines all sorts of frightening escalatory possibilities, and buttresses their conventional dominance in world politics.

The Nuclear Taboo Punishes Rogue and Weak States

By contrast, the countries which would benefit the most from a Russian nuclear strike are the weakest ones who nonetheless have nukes (or want them) – specifically North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran. All of these countries in locked in contests with conventionally superior opponents:

South Korea alone outweighs North Korea economically and conventionally militarily; with US alliance assistance, the power gap is yawning.

Pakistan faces a massive challenger in India. It is conventionally outgunned, and it is political riven and economically sclerotic in comparison.

Iran, as a Shiite state in a mostly Sunni region, faces a massive counter-coalition, plus the hostility of Israel and the US.

Given these intense security dilemmas, North Korea and Pakistan have built nuclear weapons, and Iran is close. These powerful weapons help equalize conventional inequalities, plus they deter a first strike by the other side.

Normalization of Battlefield Nuclear Weapons Helps Rogue States

Nuclear weapons could also help rogues win a battlefield conflict if nukes could be used like traditional weapons. If North Korea could nuke massed formations of the South Korean army, it might conceivably win a second Korean war before the Americans could arrive in large numbers and without a strategic strike on the United States.

North Korea Missile

North Korean Missile Launch. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Here the nuclear taboo harms the rogue state. It acts as a powerful disincentive to use a battlefield nuclear weapon. Who knows what will happen on the day after? Rogues are relatively weak and do not want to run the risk. But if Russia uses one first, Russia will suffer the (assumed massive) first mover penalties. Russia will be the first state to normalize nuclear weapons use on the battlefield, a condition which these countries could then exploit.

Putin likely does not care about any of this. He has been unhelpful on the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, and Russia’s strategic needs will drive his decision to go nuclear or not in Ukraine. But there will likely be many changes in world politics on the day after. One of those will a greater willingness by other states to use nukes too. And the world’s weak nuclear states will benefit the most from that.

Expert Biography: Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_KellyRoberEdwinKelly.com) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University and 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.

Written By

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. 403Forbidden

    October 16, 2022 at 10:53 am

    It’s not ‘rogue states’ that win from putin using nukes, but rogue globalists that lose (and lose big time) in the use of nukes against neo-nazis.

    The wotld today is in chaos & great upheaval.

    Rampant inflation, mass migration, worsening climate change, huge natural disasters, daily senseless violence and drugs, world now has them all.

    Rogue globalists like biden & xi jinping stand to lose everything if putin were to use nukes.

    Biden’ll have to bang his balls hard dithering whether to hit other ‘boogermen’ first before retaliating against russia for its use of nukes.

    Biden going for all-out retaliation will have to put xi jinping in his crosshairs and xi unable to hit back will instead target nearby countries like japan.

    Both are therfore rogue globalists who stand to lose if putin whips out his nukes.

    Biden should never have had dogbarked so relentlessly at putin. Neo-nazis were killing ethnic russian inhabitants of donbass.

    Biden should have squarely targeted xi for failing to stem initial covid outbreak in wuhan in jan 2020 that has now killed well over a million american citizens and exporting massive opioids to US consumers.

    Biden needs to leave office and let harris take over, leave putin alone & issue international arrest warrant for xi.

  2. Yrral

    October 16, 2022 at 11:40 am

    Are you sure Google France Nuke Russia

  3. Ben d'Mydogtags

    October 16, 2022 at 12:21 pm

    The FEAR of nuclear weapons, their mystique and legendary status as a single-blow war-ender, gives them most of their deterrent power. The fact they have not been used in wartime since 1945 only deepens their aura as an ultimate weapon.

    If Putin pops a nuke as a demonstration or even if he fires one against Ukraine troops or cities and then the Ukrainians fail to cower, fail to immediately surrender, if they resolve to resist regardless of costs, the taboo value of nukes will evaporate.

    Russia’s performance to date burst the bubble of Russian regional hegemony. If Putin uses a nuke and it does NOT abruptly end the war he will squander his last claim to being a global power.

    That would usher in a new era of nukes being just another weapon, a horrific weapon, but no longer an unusable one. That LESSENS the power of states like NK, PAK and ISR and demotes former superpowers like FR and UK. It WEAKENS the rationale for non-proliferation. It encourages more conflict worldwide with far higher casualties.

    History repeatedly shows nations will undertake decades-long guerilla wars that wreck their economies and decimate their populations. Tell my why they would not likewise embark on a nuclear exchange?

  4. John

    October 16, 2022 at 1:30 pm

    Our allies need to wake up, Germany, SK,Japan,Australia.
    Biden still opposed to enhancing US nuclear forces hoping for Utopian arms control which China and NK have ruled out and Russia refusing New Start inspections.
    If our allies want to live they need to get their own nuclear deterrence.
    The new US defense strategy signals failure through power point talking points.

  5. Jon

    October 16, 2022 at 9:51 pm

    This concern only becomes operative if Russia accomplishes its goals in Ukraine, and the impact extends far beyond the use of nuclear weapons and ‘Rogue States’. Russia’s conception of its justification for the war rests on the concept that powerful nations may take what they want from weaker nations. This contradicts at least 150 years of diplomacy and treaties, including all post-WWII agreements.

    If Russia uses nuclear weapons and is subsequently defeated, then it marks a death knell for the viability of nuclear weapons as blackmail, or as tactical weapons. Indications are that following a Russian use of nuclear weapons, there would be an extensive conventional response from NATO. A nuclear response is not necessarily required. Russia would become a pariah in the world, and use of nuclear weapons would be less permissible in the future.

    If Russia is conventionally defeated by Ukraine, it is a victory for national sovereignty and democracy. It will be a further victory for the Geneva Conventions and the UN. And it will reinforce the principle that strong nations cannot simply make unlimited demands on weaker nations.

  6. Rick

    October 16, 2022 at 10:55 pm

    The lack of a significant response from the West would be the issue. To deter any future use of nukes would require making an example out of Russia thru the total destruction of their army. It must be so painful that other rogue nations would avoid that same fate.

  7. Arash P

    October 17, 2022 at 1:09 am

    North Korea is a “rouge state” because it didn’t play by the rules made by the US and other Great powers and refused to remain as a non-nuclear state.

    And now they have the audacity to test nukes and missiles that US tested way back in 1950s!

    The so called “rules based order” is nothing but a rigged game, put together by likes of US to perpetuate their hegemony over the world.
    I’m proud that I’m from Iran. One of the countries that is actively challenging this rigged game.

  8. Jim

    October 17, 2022 at 12:36 pm

    The best way to prevent tactical nuke use (or any other kind).

    Drop the “regime change” mantra.

    Think, regime change, think existential.

    Think conventional war… and let the chips fall where they may… (without the constant clamoring for regime change).

    We’ll get through this thing one way or another.

    Kick it to existential…

    Anything can happen.

    As the leading country in the world, we should have a peace policy.

    Hey, what a phrase, “Peace & Prosperity!”

    … haven’t heard that one in a long time.

  9. Tamerlane

    October 17, 2022 at 3:32 pm

    “If Russia is conventionally defeated by Ukraine (with American arms, command and control, supply, logistics, and love intelligence and targeting assistance” the likelihood of nuclear weapon’s use goes up massively.

    “It will reinforce the principle that strong nations cannot simply make unlimited demands on weaker nations”, though that principle is the dominant principle which the United States uses to intervene the world over in the domestic sovereign affairs of other nations (Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yugoslavia etc)…

  10. John

    October 17, 2022 at 4:40 pm

    This headline should read “Rogue States Like North Korea Win If The West Submits To Putin’s Nuclear Blackmail”

  11. Tamerlane

    October 17, 2022 at 5:12 pm

    It’s not simply “nuclear blackmail” to use nukes to protect a country’s existential interests. Ask yourself, as an intellectual exercise, precisely what we would do were the situation reversed:

    Were Mexico to join (or attempt to join) a ChiCom expansionary alliance on our doorstep, complete with ChiCom equipping, training, and provision of arms to Mexico City, we would intervene south of the border, whatever the legalities (and rightfully so). Were the attempts of our government to install a more pliable and pro-American regime in Mexico City not successful, we surely would destabilize that country and if not directly occupy, at the very least support separatist/autonomy movements in Sonora and TJ… if we did commit and directly intervene in such a scenario, and conventionally were being pushed out by Chinese directed and armed forces, and the specter of ChiCom forces protected by their nuclear umbrella on our border loomed, I don’t think it would be beyond the realm of possibility for us to use WMDs to secure our homeland from such an existential threat, nor do I think it is intellectually or rationally impossible to comprehend just how a Russian would reach that conclusion here today, after watching NATO march across Europe towards Russia, cutting off chucks of other sovereign countries and making them independent states against the will of the country who they belonged to (Kosovo), or simply engaging in aggressive wars of choice/regime change, like that in Libya.

    The prudent and wise strategy here would be to avoid “putting Baby (Russia) in a corner” from which they cannot extricate themselves save by resorting to nuclear weapon.

  12. Walker

    October 31, 2022 at 11:03 pm

    “Rogue states win if we let Russian threats of using Nukes in Ukraine deter us.”

    There fixed it for you.

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