Oleksii Izhak

Official members of the nuclear club and the UN Security Council, Russia and China, not the outcast countries like North Korea and Iran, have, through their actions, undermined the nuclear non-proliferation regime at the brink of collapse, despite their official statements.

Russia’s prolonged hybrid war against the West has been accompanied by intense nuclear blackmail, significantly eroding the international legal framework for nuclear arms control and rendering the use of nuclear weapons “thinkable.” Russia’s large-scale attack on Ukraine, with regular drills demonstrating Russia’s capability for tactical nuclear strikes, has made the use of nuclear weapons in a European war theoretically possible. This has led to the corrosion of the global nuclear order, which was designed for the gradual reduction of the nuclear factor in world politics.

The threshold for the use of nuclear weapons has decreased. However, at the same time, the threshold of sensitivity to such use has increased. Consequently, nuclear blackmail, relying on a low sensitivity threshold of the victim, gives way to a new nuclear rationality. The high-intensity Russo-Ukrainian war with fortified fronts has brought to the forefront options for the use of nuclear weapons developed during the Cold War. Preparation for the use of such options ceases to be a bluff and blackmail, transforming into a theoretical possibility with a certain military rationale.

In Asia, China’s program of significantly expanding its nuclear arsenal amid its attempts to form an anti-Western alliance with Russia has led to the deformation of the global nuclear restraint system. A new nuclear arms race to achieve parity between the Western and Chinese coalitions that are forming becomes likely. Thus, the global nuclear order, already corroded by the Russo-Ukrainian war, is additionally faced with the prospect of a new global nuclear confrontation.

As in the years of the Cold War, the new tension is likely to lead to attempts at multilateral, multi-faceted negotiations on the issue of nuclear weapons, which will become part of a new world order.

“Thinkability” of nuclear weapon use

The escalation of Russia’s nuclear rhetoric to its maximum has fundamentally strengthened the global nuclear discourse in world politics. This discourse, previously supported by relatively marginal voices like North Korea (DPRK) and Iran, has taken a significant turn due to the Russo-Ukrainian war and the destruction of Ukrainian cities, coupled with the consequences of tactical nuclear weapon use. This has substantially lowered the psychological threshold of the “unthinkable” in the application of weapons in Europe, making its use now “thinkable”.

Simultaneously, the very fact of the world’s psychological adaptation to the “thinkability” of nuclear weapon use has devalued the nuclear rhetoric of Russia, North Korea, and Iran. Nuclear blackmail, against the backdrop of the Russo-Ukrainian war, is losing its effectiveness as an asymmetric tool in international politics. Instead, it is becoming an instrument for undermining the nuclear non-proliferation regime and the emergence of new nuclear states – a prospect that Russia itself would like to avoid.

However, the issue of nuclear weapon application is no longer limited to blackmail. Factors related to the technology of war and the policy of restraint have emerged.

The deployment of deeply layered fortifications in the Russo-Ukrainian war, around which the main combat potential is concentrated, brings military theory back to the times of the Cold War, with a significant reliance on nuclear weapons. Both the breakthrough of layered defense and the elimination of such a breakthrough, if it occurred, during the Cold War years would involve the use of tactical nuclear weapons. In Russia, voices were heard suggesting that the elimination of a Ukrainian breakthrough of Russian fortifications in the occupied territories might require the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Thus, the use of nuclear weapons not only becomes “thinkable” but also theoretically possible.

Nuclear deterrence, in its basic sense of preventing a nuclear war between nuclear states, retains its significance. However, it is implemented in a more tense situation, hindering global disarmament with a trend towards increasing strategic nuclear arsenals. This process may be accompanied by a blurring of the line between battlefield nuclear weapons (tactical nuclear weapons) and nuclear weapons for strategic deterrence (strategic nuclear weapons). The new generation of strategic nuclear weapons, more than ever, may be used on the battlefield in conventional warfare.

The trigger for tension in the global system of nuclear restraint among nuclear states was China’s decision to achieve parity in strategic nuclear weapons with the United States. The destructiveness of this decision lies in the absence of a negotiated parity between China and the U.S., which exists between the U.S. and Russia. Seeking to emulate the framework established by the New START Treaty while simultaneously increasing influence over Russia, China compels the U.S. to react. The U.S. now must formulate a strategy of restraint and implement its current nuclear modernization program with the aim of not reducing but increasing the overall potential of strategic nuclear arsenals of both Russia and China as strategic adversaries. The deformation of nuclear restraint in the policies of major nuclear powers may affect alliances formed with other states, particularly de jure or de facto nuclear powers like the United Kingdom, France, India, Pakistan, and Israel.

The world is entering a period of effectiveness exhaustion of START treaty lines and the initiation of a new process of negotiations on strategic nuclear weapons between the U.S., China, possibly Russia, and other countries. Such negotiations have a chance of success within the next 5-10 years, as no nuclear country, even Russia, appears ready to initiate a global nuclear war. Nuclear countries tend to reduce the risks of exchange with each other through strategic nuclear weapon strikes, despite the “thinkability” and theoretical possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons in a geographically limited battlefield.

The previous cycle of nuclear escalation during the Cold War ended with complex multi-faceted negotiations on conventional, tactical, and strategic nuclear weapons. The established system maintained stability for approximately 20 years and has not yet been completely dismantled (New START is still in effect, although INF and the Open Skies Treaty have ceased to exist). Now, a new domain of international communication has emerged – the informational domain, to which nuclear blackmail can be attributed, with its potentially destructive consequences for international security.

Negotiations on different domains of nuclear issues can, as history proves, be conducted concurrently and practically simultaneously to achieve a fruitful conclusion. However, a new era of nuclear disarmament will not commence until a new balance of power is established. The shortest path to establishing a new balance remains unchanged – strategic victory for Ukraine and the allied coalition, and correspondingly, a strategic defeat for Russia and its allied North Korea and Iran. This will eliminate from the security architecture the provocateur of asymmetric use of nuclear weapons as a means of compensating for weakness in other areas and will make nuclear strategies symmetric, aimed at reducing nuclear risks.

Corrosion of the global nuclear order under the influence of Russia

The fundamental factor of nuclear doctrines and potentials of countries around the world is a common interest in non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, formalized in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) of 1968, which remains in force. The unrestrained doctrines and potentials of nuclear countries would lead to the emergence of a large number of new nuclear states. This is and will remain a catastrophic prospect for the vast majority of countries in the world, both nuclear and non-nuclear.

The shared interest in non-proliferation over the decades has shaped a set of formal and informal commitments of countries worldwide, embodied in defense construction. This can be referred to as the “global nuclear order”. Its basic principle lies in the fact that nuclear weapons, although not prohibited unlike other types of weapons of mass destruction (chemical and biological), have limited options for use. They revolve around preventing the use of nuclear weapons altogether, that is, maximizing the transformation of nuclear weapons into weapons of self-restraint.

In the perspective of decades, in the absence of new production and gradual reduction of arsenals, limitations on the application of doctrines could lead to a world free of nuclear weapons, as envisaged in the NPT and accepted as a strategic goal by the majority of its participants.

Doctrines regarding the use of nuclear weapons have been repeatedly publicly defined in various formats by official (according to the NPT) nuclear states. The reliability of self-restraints by nuclear countries regarding doctrines and potentials is verified by the lack of interest on the part of the vast majority of non-nuclear countries in acquiring nuclear weapons.

The fundamental self-restraint of nuclear countries lies in the fact that nuclear weapons can only be used in two cases: (1) in response to a nuclear attack; (2) in response to a non-nuclear attack, including an attack on allies carried out in alliance with a nuclear state. The first of these limitations relates primarily to strategic nuclear weapons, the second – primarily to tactical ones.

This double formula was embedded in the doctrines and potentials of the United States, the USSR/Russia, the United Kingdom, and France. China, due to limited potential, did not have a clear gradation of tactical and strategic weapons, also lacked allies and distant territories. Therefore, China declared and formally still adheres to the principle of not using nuclear weapons first under any circumstances.

Beyond the doctrines of the NPT the potentials of India, Pakistan, and Israel do not contradict the global nuclear order. The nuclear security interests of India and Pakistan are intertwined. Israel’s doctrine and potential are aimed at repelling existential external threats to its existence. During numerous external attacks, Israel has never threatened to use nuclear weapons, limiting itself to conventional means.

Prior to the start of the Russo-Ukrainian war, North Korea and Iran can be considered doctrinal renegades of the global nuclear order. North Korea formally withdrew from the NPT, and Iran is rapidly approaching the threshold of nuclear weapon development. The ruling regimes of these countries view nuclear weapons as instruments to strengthen internal power and external influence without an overt external threat. However, the nuclear potentials of North Korea and Iran are insufficient to disrupt the global nuclear order.

Although renegade countries have created risks over the decades, the real threat to the global nuclear order comes from nuclear blackmail embedded in Russia’s policy and plans for quantitative—potentially orders of magnitude—expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal.

The threat to the global nuclear order from Russia is more in the realm of intentions and doctrines than potentials. Despite loud programs to create new nuclear weapon carriers, the quantitative and qualitative indicators of Russia’s nuclear arsenal are overall degrading. However, through its nuclear construction programs, Russia has globally revitalized nuclear weapons as a tool of policy and undermined one of the fundamental treaties in this sphere—the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). The U.S. withdrew from it in 2019 after Russia refused to correct violations it had knowingly committed since at least 2013. The physical potential created by Russia’s violation of the INF (the prohibited 9M729 intermediate-range missile) is limited. Nevertheless, Russia destroyed a fundamental treaty for European security for its sake.

Russia has fundamentally expanded its doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons. Formally, it retained the general framework outlined in public international commitments – the use in response to a nuclear attack or in response to a particular type of non-nuclear attack. In the 2018 Military Doctrine, this particular type of non-nuclear attack ceased to be linked to the involvement of another nuclear state. Now, nuclear weapons can be applied “in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is under threat”[1]. The threat to the “existence” can be perceived subjectively and lacks objective indicators, such as the involvement of another nuclear state in the attack. It can be interpreted even as a threat to the ruling regime rather than the state. Moreover, factors threatening the “existence” of the state, with centers in Moscow and St. Petersburg, historically posed more internal risks than external ones.

Before the adoption of the current version of the Military Doctrine, the expansion of the use of nuclear weapons was outlined in the Foundations of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Military Maritime Activity for the period until 2030, approved in 2017. The document states that “in conditions of escalation of a military conflict, the demonstration of readiness and determination to use force with the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons is an effective deterrent factor”[2].

It cannot be ruled out that the Russian government deliberately poses a threat of indiscriminate use of nuclear weapons as a tool of domestic and foreign policy. The extended de facto doctrine of Russia’s use of nuclear weapons is sometimes referred to as ‘escalation for de-escalation,’ although it is unknown how it is reflected in the internal use of the Russian military-political establishment. Its essence is outlined in regular reviews of U.S. nuclear forces (Nuclear Posture Review). The 2018 Review states, Russian strategy and doctrine emphasize the potential coercive and military use of nuclear weapons. It mistakenly assesses that the threat of nuclear escalation or actual first use of nuclear weapons will serve ‘de-escalation’ of the conflict on terms favorable to Russia. These mistaken perceptions increase the risk of a dangerous miscalculation and escalation[3].

In the statements of pro-government Russian politicians, such a concept has long been echoed as existing de facto. The leadership of the Russian Federation has consistently demonstrated readiness to use nuclear weapons.

In the 2022 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, combined with the updated National Defense Strategy and Missile Defense Review, the doctrine of “escalation for de-escalation” is presented as characteristic of some adversaries of the United States: “Some adversaries have developed warfighting strategies that may rely on the threat of nuclear escalation to terminate a conflict on favorable terms. Thus, the ability to deter limited nuclear weapon use is key to deterring non-nuclear aggression”[4]. In other words, Russia’s reliance on the effect of nuclear threat is no longer considered a mistake as such. On the contrary, it requires a response.

At the same time, based on the 2022 Review, the United States does not consider Russia ready to threaten them with a strategic nuclear strike. The “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine pertains to the demonstrative use of low-yield nuclear weapons. The problem for the U.S. is that such use requires a rapid and flexible response with the deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons to avoid further escalation. The U.S. did not have such a tool until the deployment in 2018 of the W76-2 low-yield warhead on a portion of the Trident II ballistic missiles on Ohio-class nuclear submarines.

The expansion of the Russian doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons has influenced the U.S. nuclear doctrine in such a way that the principle of Sole Purpose, using nuclear weapons solely to deter a nuclear attack on the U.S. and its allies, was not implemented. This doctrinal principle is close to the No First Use principle, which is formally part of China’s nuclear doctrine. The administrations of Barack Obama and Joseph Biden were inclined to make the Sole Purpose principle official. However, under the influence of competition from Russia and China, the idea was rejected. In the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, combined with the National Defense Strategy, it is stated: “We conducted a thorough review of a wide range of nuclear declaratory policies—including no-first-use and sole-purpose policies—and concluded that these approaches would lead to an unacceptable level of risk in the face of the range of non-nuclear capabilities being developed and fielded by potential adversaries that could cause strategic harm to the United States and its allies and partners”[5].

The tension of the strategic containment system through China’s nuclear buildup

According to some assessments[6], changes in the U.S. nuclear doctrine (influenced by changes in Russia’s nuclear doctrine) have become one of the factors influencing China’s decision to rapidly increase its nuclear capabilities. Until the 2020s, China’s nuclear arsenal was around 200 weapons, compared to 4-5 thousand in the arsenals of the U.S. and Russia. Now, China is rapidly expanding and modernizing its arsenal.

In 2020, the construction of three positional areas for silo-based launchers (SLBM) began, with the capacity to house over 300 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). In 2021, China successfully tested a hypersonic glider that traveled 35,000 km. This system is now known as the fractional orbital bombardment system. The deployment of a complete nuclear triad has begun, including long-range missiles of land and sea-based platforms, as well as aviation-based missiles. According to the U.S. Department of Defense estimates, by 2030, China may deploy over a thousand nuclear warheads. This compares to the number of nuclear warheads deployed in the U.S. and Russian nuclear strategic triads under the New START treaty – approximately 1.5 thousand units each.

Although the United States and Russia have thousands of undeployed warheads for tactical carriers and in reserve for strategic forces (hedge, removed from carriers but not intended for dismantling), which China lacks, in terms of deployed quantities, the system of strategic deterrence can no longer be bilateral. Even if China has no intention of entering into a nuclear arms race after achieving operational parity with the United States and Russia, the emergence of a third equal adversary forces the United States and Russia to reconsider nuclear construction plans that were previously designed for gradual quantitative reduction of nuclear arsenals. Most non-nuclear countries consider such reduction a duty of nuclear countries under the NPT.

Russia is unlikely to increase the quantitative and even qualitative indicators of its nuclear forces. It may rely on aggregated quantitative indicators for some time in building a balance of power with China. Russia has even fewer options in ensuring nuclear parity with the United States. Therefore, Russia’s choice may be to seek an alliance with China, including a nuclear alliance, in confrontation with the West.

The Sino-Russian nuclear alliance, amid China’s nuclear force buildup that may surpass the degradation of Russia’s nuclear forces, poses a challenge for the United States that requires complex and costly solutions. If a new negotiation process regarding nuclear weapons control between the United States and China, possibly involving Russia, is not launched in the near future, the United States may be forced to adjust the current program of nuclear force modernization to ensure nuclear priority with the China-Russia alliance in the quantities that will emerge by the mid-2030s.

The China-Russia alliance with coordination of nuclear doctrines creates the risk of a nuclear arms race that the alliance of the United States with the United Kingdom and France within NATO has not created and does not create. By the end of the century, European nuclear states do not plan to quantitatively increase nuclear arsenals beyond the current “Chinese” level of a few hundred nuclear warheads. Unlike China, there are no plans to create a fully-fledged nuclear triad with simultaneous deployment of deployed nuclear weapons on land, sea, and in aviation.

Balance in the new system of strategic nuclear deterrence will be achieved either when parity arises between the coalition of NATO countries and the coalition of China and Russia, or when the coalition between China and Russia disappears. The logic of nuclear deterrence that remains valid in relations between nuclear states compels China to abandon an alliance with Russia for the sake of building a nuclear deterrence system with the United States.

In other words, the construction of a stable nuclear deterrence system requires China to push Russia out of the strategic relationship system with the United States, rather than using it as a satellite.

The Great European War and the “return” of tactical nuclear weapons

According to estimates[7], Russia uses only artillery ammunition, about 10,000 units per day, against Ukraine. With an average explosive weight of 7 kg for a 152mm shell, this daily use results in 70 tons of explosive power against Ukraine, more potent than TNT. Over a month, this amounts to over two kilotons of TNT equivalent, just from artillery ammunition, not counting air bombs, missiles, and drones used by Russia in large quantities. This means that every month, Ukraine experiences a firepower equivalent to several kilotons of TNT, comparable to low-yield tactical nuclear weapons.

Furthermore, comparing the destruction of European cities by aerial bombings with conventional bombs and the destruction of two Japanese cities by nuclear bombings during World War II shows that a distributed strike with conventional weapons of a certain total power creates many times more devastation than a single nuclear strike of the same power in TNT equivalent. The advantage of nuclear weapons lies in the fact that a kiloton of a nuclear warhead, delivered to the target, is significantly cheaper than a kiloton of tens of thousands of conventional munitions delivered to the target. Additionally, a nuclear strike can be executed more quickly and unexpectedly.

Therefore, it can be argued that Russia inflicts a monthly firepower strike on Ukraine equivalent to the explosion of a tactical nuclear weapon of more than 10 kilotons of TNT equivalent, comparable to those used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This lowers the threshold of acceptability for Russia to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. Since Russia already causes destruction to Ukraine every month comparable to nuclear strikes on Japanese cities during World War II, nuclear blackmail loses its motivation. It no longer instills fear capable of influencing Ukraine.

At the same time, the high-intensity Great European War that the Russo-Ukrainian war is turning into becomes an operational environment for the main concepts of using tactical nuclear weapons. Russia’s shift to large-scale front-line operations in the war against Ukraine indicates the transformation of tactical nuclear weapons from an instrument of blackmail into a potential instrument for front-line operations in a large European war. The current phase of Russian military operations, involving breakthroughs of Ukrainian fortifications and countering of Ukrainian attacks, would have required the use of tactical nuclear weapons by Soviet forces during the Cold War. The intensive use of Russian nuclear-capable carriers (X-101 and X-22 missiles) and potential carriers (Iskander, Kinzhal, and Caliber missiles) in the war against Ukraine suggests the theoretical possibility of the revival of such an option.

Another indicator of rationalizing the use of tactical nuclear weapons in a Great European war is the option of deploying Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus (which is prepared but unlikely to have happened yet). Russia has more tactical nuclear weapons in its European part than NATO countries in the European continent. However, the quality and readiness of NATO’s nuclear weapons are higher. The nuclear options of a new Great European war that Russia might provoke are considered by NATO countries. The 2022 US Nuclear Forces Review identified the basic tools for responding to Russia’s (attempted) use of nuclear weapons: deployed in Europe are the latest B-61-12 nuclear bombs on F-35 fighter aircraft, W76-2 warheads on Ohio/Trident-2 sea systems, and the new generation LRSO (Long Range Stand Off Weapon) missiles on B-21 and B-52 strategic bombers. These tools can be reinforced by the maritime component capabilities of the United Kingdom and France, and in the aviation component, the strike missile potential of France. The nuclear potentials of US allies in Europe are comparable to the US nuclear potential intended for war on the European theater.

It can be predicted that the issue of withdrawing US nuclear weapons from Europe will lose relevance until there is a fundamental change in Russian policy. It can also be predicted that, due to the rapid review of the status of US nuclear forces and their modernization, Russia will not feel an advantage over NATO in tactical nuclear weapons. This will push it toward negotiations regarding limitations, from which it had previously refrained, putting forth conditions unacceptable to the Alliance.


  1. Russia’s hybrid use of nuclear weapons as a tool of blackmail has exhausted itself. The “thinkability” of using nuclear weapons has led to the rationalization of tactics and strategies for its modern use. Irrational blackmail, close to bluffing, becomes unacceptable for Russia, as the West has developed flexible tools to respond to Russia’s demonstrative use of nuclear weapons, minimizing the risks of escalation to nuclear war.
  2. Initiating a large-scale war in Europe with extensive use of artillery, missiles, and aviation, Russia lowered the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons but simultaneously increased sensitivity to the potential use of nuclear weapons. The destructive effect of Russian strikes on Ukraine is comparable to monthly nuclear bomb applications, similar in power to those dropped on Japanese cities during World War II. This has neither led to Russia’s victory nor Ukraine’s defeat.
  3. Intensive frontline operations, the use of layered fortifications in the Russo-Ukrainian war, bring to the forefront the logic of using tactical nuclear weapons formed during the Cold War years. Key functions of tactical nuclear weapons in large conventional operations then included breaking fortified defenses and eliminating such breakthroughs. Such options may return to the relevant defense doctrines of NATO countries.
  4. China’s plans for multiple increases in its nuclear arsenal, while maintaining its strategic alliance with Russia, create a new line of intense global nuclear confrontation. It lies between the Western and Chinese alliances with the prospect of a new nuclear arms race. The new confrontation line is likely to remain within the paradigm of nuclear deterrence but will deform the global nuclear order. This prospect will prompt multilateral negotiations on nuclear arms control, with the central element likely being the U.S.-China dialogue.
  5. Russia may still use nuclear blackmail for some time, which could be ignored as a bluff. Signs of bluffing include the absence of a rational military purpose for the use of nuclear weapons and the inconsistency of the declared purpose with the means available in Russia.

At the same time, Ukrainian government authorities responsible for foreign policy and security should prepare for the return of relevant options in NATO and Russia’s doctrines that are rational for the use of nuclear weapons, including in the Russian-Ukrainian war. NATO membership will require accepting such options and being ready to bear the Alliance’s shared nuclear responsibility.

In foreign policy, it makes sense to assume that the main line of nuclear confrontation over the next 10 years will lie between the U.S. and China and the coalitions they create. International relations may take on the characteristics of a new Cold War.

[1] The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, approved on December 26, 2014, with amendments in 2018. (2018). Art. 27. URL:

[2] Fundamentals of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Naval Activities for the Period Until 2030,” approved by the decree of the President of the Russian Federation dated July 20, 2017, No. 327. (2017), article 37. URL:

[3] Nuclear Posture Review 2018, р. 30

[4] The 2022 National Defense Strategy of The United States of America Including the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review and the 2022 Missile Defense Review, p.7.

[5] The 2022 National Defense Strategy of The United States of America Including the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review and the 2022 Missile Defense Review, p.9.

[6] M. Taylor Fravel, Henrik Stålhane Hiim, and Magnus Langset Trøan. China’s Misunderstood Nuclear Expansion How U.S. Strategy Is Fueling Beijing’s Growing Arsenal. Foreign Affairs, November 10, 2023.

[7] Setting Transatlantic Defence up for Success: A Military Strategy for Ukraine’s Victory and Russia’s Defeat. Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Estonia, 27 Drcrmber 2023.

© New Geopolitics Research Network


Oleksii Izhak

The information and views set out in this study are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect

the official opinion of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung e.V. or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine.

New Geopolitics Research Network