Dmitry Trenin: Bring Nuclear Weapons Back into the Strategic Equation
Dmitry Trenin, a research professor at the Higher School of Economics and a lead research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, as well as a member of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), has weighed into the recent international debate surrounding the use of nuclear weapons, sparked by Sergei Karaganov in an article titled “A Difficult but Necessary Decision” published June 13 in Russia in Global Affairs. Karaganov, the head of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and dean of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, argues that a tactical nuclear strike by Russia in the Ukraine conflict could save humanity from an even greater catastrophe.
Trenin’s response was published in English translation on the RIAC website under the title “The U.S. and Its Allies Are Playing ‘Russian Roulette;’ You’d Almost Think They Want a Nuclear War”. He first acknowledges Karaganov’s point that the fear of the use of nuclear weapons to resolve conflict is fading in policy and military circles. Indeed, although nuclear weapons have never been “off the table” for Russia, that has not “deterred the U.S. and its allies from becoming directly involved”, and escalating, step by step, the delivery of weapons to Ukraine and then testing at each stage the Russian reaction, which he refers to as “playing Russian roulette”. Nonetheless, Trenin argues that following Karaganov’s suggestion could ultimately lead to nuclear Armageddon. Rather than that, Trenin proposes that the Kremlin must clarify the situation in which Russia would use nuclear weapons.
Trenin further points out that “the U.S. has now set itself the task—unthinkable during the Cold War — of trying to defeat another nuclear superpower in a strategically important region, without resorting to atomic weapons, but instead by arming and controlling a third country”. Evidently, the Americans believe that “the Russian leadership is bluffing on their warnings about the use of nuclear weapons”, and did not even respond to the Russian deployment of nuclear weapons to Belarus. “Such ‘fearlessness’ is a direct result of the geopolitical changes of the last three decades and the change of generations in power in the U.S. and the West in general.
“The fear of the atomic bomb, present in the second half of the twentieth century, has disappeared. Nuclear weapons have been taken out of the equation. The practical conclusion is clear: there is no need to be afraid of such a Russian response. This is an extremely dangerous misconception.”
Trenin counters the argument posed by Karaganov by acknowledging that while the U.S. may not immediately respond with nuclear weapons once Russia used them in Ukraine, later escalation could lead to asymmetric responses by the U.S. leading to a full-scale Russia-NATO war with a potential nuclear exchange.
Therefore, the Kremlin should “clarify and modernize our nuclear deterrence strategy, taking into account the practical experience of the Ukrainian conflict”. This process should be “accompanied by a credible dialogue with both our strategic partners and neutral states, explaining the motives and objectives of our actions”. The prospect of using nuclear weapons “should be an incentive to limit and stop the escalation of the war and ultimately pave the way for a satisfactory strategic balance in Europe.”