THE POLISH INSTITUTE OF INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS
Nuclear-Backed “Little Green Men”
Nuclear Messaging in the Ukraine Crisis
WARSAW - JULY 2015
Author: Jacek Durkalec
This study was commissioned by the Nuclear Security Project (NSP) of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). The views expressed in this report are entirely the author’s own and not those of the Nuclear Security Project. For more information, see the NSP website:http://www.nuclearsecurity.org.
Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine have exposed the challenge of Moscow’s approach to conflict.
1 The element most highlighted is its use of “hybrid warfare,” epitomised by the so-called “little green men”—Russian soldiers albeit without insignia who played an instrumental role in the annexation of Crimea. These “little green men” were used in conjunction with other hybrid tactics such as the covert engagement of Russian forces on the ground, economic pressure, and an unprecedented disinformation campaign. The hybrid warfare tools were, however, not used alone. The credibility and effectiveness of this hybrid warfare campaign was backed up by Russia’s potential to use its full spectrum of military capabilities, including conventional and nuclear forces. Russian tactics that exploited ambiguity of intent and attribution have been surprising and confusing, and they have created difficulties for NATO, which is determined to effectively address them.
Of all the components of Russia’s approach to warfare, the nuclear element is the most controversial. There are divergent opinions whether Russia’s nuclear weapons have played any important role during the Ukraine crisis and whether the crisis should have any implications for NATO’s nuclear policy. According to some observers, the Ukraine crisis did not have a nuclear dimension, or at least not to a significant degree. For example, according to a report by the International Security Advisory Board of the U.S. Department of State from December 2014:
The annexation of Crimea and continued attempts to destabilise eastern Ukraine constitute a crisis. This crisis involves nuclear states but is not a nuclear crisis and we should take no action implying otherwise. The United States and NATO have a clear nuclear policy. Nothing about the Ukrainian crisis warrants changing that policy.The conclusions of this report differ from the above judgment. There is evidence that indicates that nuclear weapons have played an important role during the Ukraine crisis. One may, for example, describe the Ukraine crisis as a nuclear crisis per the logic of Paul H. Nitze’s argument:
Whether or not atomic weapons are ever again used in warfare, the very fact of their existence, the possibility that they could be used, will affect the future of wars. In this sense Korea was an atomic war even though no atomic weapons were used. In this sense even the Cold War is an atomic cold war.However, during the Ukraine crisis not only the “very fact of nuclear weapons existence” has played a role. Russia’s activities in and around Ukraine have been accompanied with unprecedented dissemination of nuclear weapons-related information, originating from the Kremlin. It is reasonable to infer that during the crisis Russia has deliberately sent nuclear messages
1 The author would like to thank William Alberque, Artur Kacprzyk, Łukasz Kulesa, and Prof. David S. Yost for their invaluable comments and suggestions to earlier drafts of this report. The report greatly benefited from the author’s research at the National Security Affairs Department of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, funded by an “Etiuda 2” scholarship awarded by the Polish National Science Centre. The author is also thankful to U.S. experts and officials with whom he conducted interviews in Washington D.C. in June 2015, participants in the PISM seminar “NATO Deterrence and Defence: In the Shadow of the Ukraine Crisis” in December 2014, and for the invitation to NATO’s Nuclear Policy Symposium in October 2014 in Wrocław, Poland, where some arguments included in the report were initially presented. Any shortcomings are, however, the author’s sole responsibility.
2 For insightful analysis of Russia’s approach to warfare, see: D. Johnson, Russia’s Approach to Conflict— Implications for NATO’s Deterrence and Defence, NATO Defence College Research Paper No. 111, April 2015, http://www.ndc.nato.int/news/current_news.php?icode=797.
3 “Report on U.S.–Russia Relations,” International Security Advisory Board, U.S. Department of State, 9 December 2014, p. 14,http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/235118.pdf.
4 P.H. Nitze, “Atoms, Strategy and Policy,” Foreign Affairs, January 1956;
5 one of the epigraphs in: R.K. Betts, Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance, The Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C., 1987, p. 1.
6 The Polish Institute of International Affairs to NATO and that Russia’s nuclear muscle flexing has been an integral part of Moscow’s approach to warfare in the Ukraine crisis. Since March 2014, an abundant number of Russian statements and activities have fallen under the definition of a nuclear threat, understood as:
[A]ny official suggestion that nuclear weapons may be used if the dispute is not settled on acceptable terms. Such threats can be signals of intentions—hints through public statements, diplomatic channels, or deliberate leaks about internal discussions or plans. Or they could be signaled through observable preparation or exercising of nuclear capabilities beyond normal peacetime status, indicating greater readiness to execute wartime missions. In general, the latter should seem the more potent gesture, on the principle that actions speak louder than words.The nuclear dimension of the Ukraine crisis also is corroborated by NATO’s response to Russia’s nuclear messages. The Alliance has responded in a very restrained manner and rightly avoided engaging in tit-for-tat nuclear messaging with Russia. At the same time, however, the Ukraine crisis exposed NATO’s communication gaps and corresponding challenges to the effectiveness of NATO’s nuclear deterrence and assurance.
While some steps, such as basing nuclear weapons in Central and Eastern Europe, would be inappropriate,6 NATO adaptation to a new nuclear landscape in Europe is required. NATO has wide options that go beyond doing nothing or undertaking the unnecessary steps. NATO Allies should consider rebalancing their thinking towards nuclear deterrence, a re-examination of their nuclear crisis-management tools and exercises, refreshing declaratory policy and re-designing their nuclear communication strategy.
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