Nuclear Risks Rise as Russia and the West Prepare for Protracted Conflict

Nuclear Risks Rise as Russia and the West Prepare for Protracted Conflict

As hopes for a diplomatic off-ramp fade, the war in Ukraine is poised to roil the European continent—and further destabilize the international system—with no end in sight.

As Russia’s war in Ukraine stretches into its second month, the risks of catastrophic nuclear escalation between Moscow and the West continue to mount.

Spurred by the war in Ukraine, Finland and Sweden are reportedly moving ahead with a possible bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). “Everything changed when Russia invaded Ukraine,” said Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin on Wednesday during a joining conference in Stockholm with her Swedish counterpart, Magdalena Andersson. “I think people’s mindsets in Finland, also in Sweden, changed and [were] shaped very dramatically because of Russia’s actions. This is very clear and that caused a need for a process in Finland to have a discussion about our own security choices,” said Marin.

It was reported earlier this week that Finland is poised to apply for NATO membership before the end of May, with Sweden to soon follow. London has voiced support for the expansion of NATO into Finland and Sweden. “Sweden and Finland are free to choose their future without interference — the UK will support whatever they decide,” tweeted British foreign secretary Liz Truss. NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has echoed this message, telling CNN earlier in April that the two northern European countries would be “very much welcomed” if they choose to join NATO. The Biden administration has so far been more ambivalent in its public messaging, but has reportedly held behind-the-scenes consultations with Helsinki and Stockholm regarding their possible NATO bid.

Russia has threatened that the NATO accession of Sweden and Finland, which would bolster the alliance’s presence in the Baltic Sea and potentially militarize the 800-mile-long Finnish-Russian frontier, will prompt a new wave of nuclear escalation. “If Sweden and Finland join NATO, the length of the land borders of the alliance with the Russian Federation will more than double. Naturally, these boundaries will have to be strengthened,” said Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president who now serves as deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council. “There can be no more talk of any nuclear-free status for the Baltic — the balance must be restored,” he said, implying that the move would prompt Russia to station nuclear weapons in the Baltic region in retaliation.

The West has shrugged off the Kremlin’s warnings: “Russian threats towards the Nordic & Baltic states are not new and only strengthen our unity,” Truss said in a tweet. Carl Bildt, a former prime minister of Sweden, dismissed Medvedev’s statement as a “fairly empty threat,” pointing to the alleged presence of nuclear weapons in Russia’s central European enclave of Kaliningrad.

NATO’s newfound willingness to entertain security options that would previously have been rejected as too risky and needlessly provocative highlights the contours of an emerging, post-February 24 approach to Russia policy. “The age of engagement with Russia is over,” declared Truss at a dinner earlier this month with her NATO counterparts. NATO must instead base its approach on “resilience, defence and deterrence,” she said, adding that the core principle of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act—namely, that the two sides “do not consider each other as adversaries”—is now dead.

As Russia prepares for a new offensive in the eastern Donbass region, the West is doubling down on what has been an unprecedented program of military aid to Ukraine. Washington is not just giving Ukraine weapons but telling it where to point them. According to recent reporting, the Biden administration has significantly loosened internal guidelines with the aim of allowing the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence services to share real-time targeting information with the Ukrainian military. The Biden administration is still reportedly reluctant to provide Ukraine’s armed forces with targeting information against Russian forces in Russia. But with mounting pressure from Republicans and Democrats who argue that the United States is not doing enough to support the Ukrainian war effort, it appears to be only a matter of time until that line is crossed as well.

Even as they continue to provide the weapons and intelligence information to keep the war going indefinitely, NATO’s major members have effectively constrained Ukraine’s bargaining position in ongoing peace talks. “We need to ensure that any future talks don't end up selling Ukraine out, or repeating the mistakes of the past," announced the British Foreign Ministry. "We remember the uneasy settlement of 2014 which failed to give Ukraine lasting security. [Vladimir] Putin just came back for more. That is why we cannot allow him to win from this appalling aggression." The European Union, meanwhile, has demanded that the Kremlin “immediately and unconditionally withdraw all forces and military equipment from the entire territory of Ukraine,” adding that Russia must “fully respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence within its internationally recognised borders.” In other words, any peace deal that would allow the Kremlin to save face appears to be unacceptable to the West. Any relevant concession, whether in the form of guarantees against NATO expansion or flexibility regarding the status of certain territories to Ukraine’s east, is treated as all but a moral crime.

A majority coalition of Western governments appears to be working not to facilitate a negotiated settlement to end the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Ukraine, but to draw the Kremlin into a years-long quagmire that would make the Afghan mujahideen pale by comparison.

Kiev is being encouraged by its Western benefactors not to consider pragmatic, creative solutions aimed at swiftly ending the bloodshed, but to pursue a maximalist agenda on the battlefield and the negotiating table. Some congressional Republicans are pressuring the Biden administration to facilitate Ukrainian counter-offensives to retake all territories occupied by Russia, including Crimea and the breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DNR and LPR). As the fighting shifts eastward, calls to help Ukraine take the fight to Russia will likely grow louder. The intention among many Western lawmakers is to back Moscow into a corner; but what might happen if they succeed?

There is no indication that the Kremlin, which is convinced its existential interests are at stake in the ongoing conflict, has any intention of backing off in the face of the West’s maximum pressure campaign. To the contrary, all current signs point to further escalation. CIA director William Burns warned on Thursday that if Russia proves unable to reverse its military setbacks in Ukraine through conventional means, Moscow could eventually make the decision to employ low-yield tactical nuclear weapons. As hopes for a diplomatic off-ramp fade, the war in Ukraine is poised to roil the European continent—and further destabilize the international system—with no end in sight.

Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.

Image: Reuters.