Finally, a voice of reason and moderation in Russia.
Arbatov is no flake. He’s the head of the authoritative Center for International Security at the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
His interlocutor notes that, “recently, a State Duma deputy wrote in his blog: ‘Should we use nuclear weapons? Why should we feel constrained if it’s a matter of our determination in the event of a threat to the territory of the Russian Federation’?”
Arbatov makes short shrift of such primitive views:
“This is not the first statement of its kind. Many commentators, politicians, and even officials freely improvise on this topic. Moreover, sometimes they demonstrate complete ignorance in these matters, ignorance of real history, the real situation, or real weapon systems. One can only wonder why it is so easy to wag one’s tongue vengefully on such serious topics that concern issues of life and death not only of the peoples of Russia, the USA and Europe, but of all human civilization.”
But then he goes to provide the possibly good news:
“What is really important is that the people who are authorized to make statements on these issues—the president, the foreign minister, and the defense minister—all say that Russia is not considering the possibility of using nuclear weapons. And our military doctrine also does not envisage the use of nuclear weapons in response to the transfer of Leopard or Abrams tanks to Ukraine. Of course, military doctrine is not holy scripture, and the authorities are free to follow it or not follow it. But, in any case, this document spells out only one reason for the use of nuclear weapons, except in response to a nuclear attack or an attack using other means of mass destruction. This reason could be aggression with the use of conventional weapons, which threatens the very existence of the Russian state. It is quite obvious that the transfer of even hundreds of Western tanks to Ukraine will not call into question the existence of our state.”
“And,” asks the interviewer, “if the Armed Forces of Ukraine occupy territories that Russia now considers its own, can this be a reason for a nuclear response?” He had in mind the Crimea as well as those parts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson provinces currently occupied by Russia.
Here’s Arbatov’s sensible response:
“One can, of course, hint at such a response as a form of deterrence policy. But in my opinion, this cannot be a real reason for nuclear war. Because the new subjects of the Russian Federation are not essential to the very existence of the Russian Federation. After all, it had already existed without them.”
This is big, even if it’s a legalism that may be foreign to the Kremlin’s way of thinking.
But even bigger are the circumstances in which nuclear arms might be used:
“What can really cause an escalation is the transfer of Western long-range missiles to Ukraine in response to the shelling of its infrastructure by the Russian Federation. So that Ukraine can respond tit for tat. If these missiles strike deep into Russian territory, including Russian cities, then some of them may fly into residential areas. And now this can already turn the situation into a completely different quality, when the use of nuclear weapons will be considered in all seriousness.”
Ukraine has no intention of striking Russian civilian targets and has explicitly stated that its missiles would continue to be directed at ammunition dumps, gas and oil depots, and concentrations of Russian troops.
Indeed, says Arbatov, “the military value of [tactical nuclear] weapons is very small. And the political cost will be monstrous. No matter how relatively low-yield it is, this will be the second use of nuclear weapons in the history of mankind. I think it is for this reason that such a scenario is not considered at the official level. But various observers continue to discuss it, apparently wanting to show their dashing and courage.”
Is Arbatov whistling in the wind? Is he Russia’s only sane commentator? One can but hope that his views are becoming the norm among those policy analysts and policymakers who are beginning to realize that the only way out of an unwinnable war is Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine’s occupied territories.
A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”