Speech - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Russia's Invasion of Ukraine and Its Impact on the Global Nuclear Order

| Apr. 17, 2024

On April 17, 2024, MTA senior research associate Mariana Budjeryn delivered a lecture about the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the global nuclear order at the U.S. Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration, as part of Administrator’s Strategy Forum. In her lecture, Mariana analyzed the war’s impact on the perception of the role of nuclear weapons in international politics, including its consequences for nuclear deterrence, nonproliferation and arms control, as well as peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Please see below the transcript of Mariana’s speech.



[Text of Speech]

Department of Energy

National Nuclear Security Administration

Administrator’s Strategy Forum

Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine and Its Impact on the Global Nuclear Order


April 17, 2024


Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,


It is my great honor – and my first time – to deliver a lecture here, at the Department of Energy, and I only I wish it were under a different set of circumstances. I have been asked to reflect on the Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine and its impact on the Global Nuclear Order. But before I launch into this discussion, let me begin by saying that as a Ukrainian, someone who was born and schooled in Ukraine, and who still has family and friends there, I extend my gratitude to the United States, the Department of Energy, and each one of you who in your thoughts and deeds have been supporting Ukraine in this hour of need.


But I am also an American. I’m a naturalized US citizen, I live in southern Maine, right on the border with New Hampshire where for years now I see that state’s motto: “Live free or die.” It seemed so much a platitude, until February 24, 2022, when these words gained a whole new meaning for me. Because this is what’s happening in Ukraine today: Ukrainians are fighting and dying in order to be able of live freely, to exercise agency over their own affairs, based on a set of values, such as personal liberty and the rule of law, that are also foundational to this county. 


And so it has been as a Ukrainian and as an American, as well as a scholar of things nuclear, that I have been following this war, daily for the past two years and two months. And I am here to share my reflections on the impact this of this war on the role of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy in the world. 


1. Russia made its war against Ukraine a nuclear crisis. In this war, Ukraine is not only standing up to a larger, wealthier, better-armed adversary, it is also a non-nuclear-weapon state standing up to a nuclear-weapon state.  The war in Ukraine is a conventional war. So far. But it is very much a nuclear crisis with profound consequences for nuclear deterrence, nonproliferation, and disarmament, as well as to the future of peaceful nuclear energy. Not every war waged by a nuclear-armed state is, by definition, a nuclear crisis, but it can become one if a nuclear state chooses so. Russia has chosen to make its war against Ukraine a nuclear crisis. 


In the prosecution of its assault on Ukraine, Russia has relied heavily on nuclear threats and signaling, the main purpose of which has been to project its power, deter any Western support for Ukraine as well as to intimidate Ukrainian leadership and people. Such use of nuclear threats goes beyond the declared Russian doctrine, which states that Russia would use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack on its soil or against its nuclear forces, or in a conventional conflict when the very existence of the Russian state is in peril. 


But when announcing his invasion on February 24, 2022, Russian president Putin threatened consequences never seen in history to those who’d interfere with his plans, and four days later, gave orders to put Russia’s deterrence forces on higher combat alert. Since the beginning of the war, analysts counted dozens such pronouncement that qualify as nuclear threats and nuclear signaling. In September 2022, when announcing the illegal annexation of Ukrainian territories occupied by Russian forces, Putin stated: “And when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. It's not a bluff.” The territory which integrity Putin intended to protect “by all available means” – a known euphemism for a nuclear signal – now allegedly included newly annexed areas. Moreover, in the procession of this war, Russia employed a range of dual-use systems that can also come armed with a nuclear warhead: including Kh-series air-launched cruise missiles carried by strategic bombers, Tu-95’s and Tu-160’s, Iskander short-range ballistic missiles, Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missiles, and most recently the Zirkon hypersonic cruise missiles, against targets in Ukraine.


Finally, there is an ever-present danger of Russia’s use of a tactical nuclear weapon against Ukraine, whether on the battlefield or against a Ukrainian city. October 2022 saw the peak of fears about Russia’s possible nuclear use in Ukraine, when Russian diplomats launched accusations that Ukraine was developing a dirty bomb. At the time, many worried that Russia was building a pretext for nuclear use in Ukraine or else planning a false-flag operation. By now we know that these fears were not misguided: the US intelligence community estimated the risk of Russia’s nuclear use in Ukraine 50% that October. 


Worryingly, Russian nuclear rhetoric is not confined to the Kremlin, it has permeated some corners of defense expert community and is widespread in Russian media and public discourse. Sergey Karaganov and Dmitriy Trenin, are among the analysts, once regarded with respect in the West, who have advocated a nuclear strike against NATO, as a way to show Russian resolve and gain Western respect for Russian interests. Russian political talk shows rarely pass without one of the guests threatening to nuke Ukraine or Europe or both. While it’s tempting to disregard such rhetoric as banter or propaganda with little bearing on nuclear decision making, such nuclear loose talk contributes to the erosion of a nuclear taboo or any moral barriers or inhibitions to nuclear use. It should be noted that some other Russian analysts, such as Academician Alexey Arbatov, have written powerful pieces arguing against nuclear use. But Arbatov has also warned that the current Russian leadership might not have the same view of the role of nuclear weapons and be constrained by the same inhibitions about nuclear use as its Western counterparts or, for that matter, former leaders in Moscow. 


And so, the world is left guessing just what nuclear Russia might be willing and able to do with its nuclear arsenal amid a hot, large-scale conventional war. Neither Russian nuclear doctrine nor our own preconceptions about Russia’s nuclear decision-making seem like reliable guides.


2. Global Nuclear Order Defined. What are the consequences of this ongoing nuclear crisis for the Global Nuclear order then? Before offering some thoughts on this question, it might be helpful to have a definition of the Global Nuclear Order. It is normally understood as a system of national and international practices, policies, institutions, formal and informal norms, and understandings that govern the acquisition, possession, and use of nuclear weapons. British scholar William Walker conceived of the Global Nuclear Order as consisting of two sub-orders, or systems: the System of Deterrence and the System of Abstinence. To this conception, I would propose adding the System of Governance of Nuclear Energy for peaceful uses, since the peaceful atom, shares the same lineage and some of the same science and technology, with its evil military twin and thus carries with it risks of proliferation as well as environmental damage. These three systems are at times and in places complimentary but in other times and places deeply contradictory. The Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the NPT, has been the chief and largely successful attempt to reconcile these three systems: nuclear possession, nuclear abstinence, and peaceful nuclear uses. But the tensions remain because the NPT is ultimately discriminatory: some states are allowed to possess nuclear weapons, while others are prohibited from doing so. Most importantly, the three systems are deeply intertwined, and pulling the thread on one end will send ripples and distort patterns across the entire fabric.


3. The war in Ukraine is a boost to the System of Deterrence. Putin has correctly calculated that Russia’s nuclear arsenal will prevent direct Western intervention on the Ukrainian side and thus his nuclear weapons served as an enabler of his war against Ukraine. Indeed, nuclear deterrence between Russia on the one hand and the United States and NATO on the other, seems to work and induce restraint. While Western nations have imposed punishing sanctions on Russia and have supplied a great deal of armaments and other aid to Ukraine, the US and NATO leaders have repeatedly stated that they will not send troops to Ukraine, have been cautious with arms provisions, and stipulated limitations on end-use. In short, Russian nuclear threats were partially successful in influencing the timing and type military aid to Ukraine. The main reason for Western caution is a justified fear of nuclear escalation. Simply put, the fact that Russia is a nuclear power matters. Perhaps the most eloquent juxtaposition to Western non-involvement in Ukraine, was the recent joint operation of US, UK, and French air forces alongside Israeli air force in intercepting the barrage of Iranian drones and missiles, while Ukraine has been absorbing Russian missile and drone strikes for months at great cost in civilian casualties and destruction of civilian infrastructure.


It is less obvious whether US and NATO nuclear weapons have served as a source of restraint for Putin. It is true that Russia has not dared to attack military targets in NATO countries, such as arms caches in Poland destined for Ukraine, even if according to Russian rhetoric they are already fighting a proxy war with NATO on Ukraine’s territory and have cast Western sanctions as an act of economic warfare. But I am reluctant to credit nuclear deterrence with preventing something that might not have been part of Putin’s plans in the first place. Most likely it is NATO conventional deterrence that’s doing the work, given how stretched Russia’s conventional forces already are in Ukraine, it is doubtful Russia wants to open additional fronts or provoke NATO into direct participation on the Ukrainian side. Indeed, there’s evidence that in October 2022, it was the fear of NATO conventional response that might have contributed to dissuading Russia from using nuclear weapons in Ukraine.


What seems fair to assume is that if Russia were not a nuclear power and if it could not rely on nuclear threats to stave off the possibility of a direct Western involvement, its calculations about invading Ukraine would have been very different. If Russia were not a nuclear power, Western response to Russian aggression in Ukraine would also have likely been different, too. 


This war revealed the asymmetry of risk tolerance between Russia and the United State and its NATO allies. Furthermore, we in the West have a poor idea of what constitutes an escalation and how it is meaningfully different from self-defense. Importantly, the war has also exposed the limits of nuclear coercion – there is one actor which is not deterred and not intimidated by Russian nuclear threats and that is Ukraine. This shows that nuclear deterrence is at least a much a matter of stakes and political resolve as it is a matter of capabilities, force postures, and doctrines. 


4. The war in Ukraine is a blow to the System of Nuclear Abstinence, that is nuclear nonproliferation and arms control. If restraint between Russia and NATO might be a positive example of how nuclear deterrence works, the crucible of Ukraine is a demonstration of what happens to a country that is not protected by a nuclear deterrent, either its own or one extended by an ally. 


The optics of Ukraine’s predicament are all the more regretable because of Ukraine’s own nuclear history. In 1994 Ukraine decided to surrender a vast nuclear arsenal it had inherited from the collapsed Soviet Union. While Ukraine did not inherit a fully indigenous and operational deterrent, it did have options and it did have agency in deciding these options. In the end, Ukraine decided to surrender its nuclear inheritance and join the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state, not least because it wanted to join the international community on good terms, to be an international citizen in good standing. 


Part of the deal Ukraine negotiated in exchange for disarmament was the security assurances to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, the inviolability of its borders and to abstain from threat or use of force, nuclear or otherwise, against Ukraine, pledged in the so-called Budapest Memorandum by three nuclear powers, depositaries of the NPT – the United States, United Kingdom, and the Russian Federation. This document became part and parcel of the international nonproliferation regime. In 2014 it was glibly violated by one of the signatories, Russia, and then again in 2022, with a renewed contempt and brutality, accompanied by nuclear threats. The result is damage to the credibility of the nonproliferation regime and the value of security assurances as a tool of nonproliferation policy. 


There are other, indirect ways in which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine undermines the nonproliferation regime. Article VI of the NPT contains a pledge of all member states – but with special onus on nuclear powers – to conduct negotiations in good faith toward the cessation of arms race and complete and total disarmament. Even before the war in Ukraine, tensions mounted within the nonproliferation regime between nuclear haves and nuclear have-nots over the fulfilment of this commitment. Tension that ultimately led to the signature in 2018 of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that came into force in 2021 that seeks to delegitimize nuclear possession and national security policies based on deterrence. 


It is not a stretch to assume that since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the prospects for meaningful arms control and arms reductions between the United States and Russia are even dimmer. The United States and Russia are hardly on speaking terms. Meanwhile, nuclear weapons seem to be proving their worth for Russia and the United States is coming under increasing pressure to reassure allies in an adverse international security environment. With the last strategic arms reduction treaty, New START, due to expire in February 2026 and no prospects of negotiating a follow-on agreement, the world might find itself without a single arms control treaty constraining the world’s largest nuclear arsenals for the first time in five decades. The lack of progress on arms control is bound to put further strains on the Global Nuclear Order.


5. The war in Ukraine is an unprecedented challenge to the System of Nuclear Energy Governance. Among the many nuclear threats created and manipulated by Russia is the takeover and occupation of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant and its Exclusion zone in February-March 2022 and the continued occupation of Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, and its satellite city of Enerhodar. Russian military forces fired live rounds from tanks and heavy armor on the territory of ZNPP on March 4, 2022, causing damage to the training building, the administration building, and some auxiliary buildings of Reactor no 1. Russian forces then proceeded to turn this nuclear facility into a military base and use it as a shield for firing at Ukrainian positions across the Dnieper river. The Russian plan to disconnect ZNPP from the Ukrainian grid and connect it to the Russian-controlled grid in July-August 2022 resulted in repeated loss of off-site power. Since the beginning of the war the plant completely lost off-site power 8 times! 


On November 23, 2022, Russian missile strikes caused a nation-wide blackout, endangering not only the occupied ZNPP but the other three nuclear power plants with nine reactor units operating on Ukraine-controlled territory. Finally, on June 6, 2023, Russian military blew up the dam and drained the Kakhovka reservoir that provided water for the plant’s cooling systems. All of these actions created unprecedented challenges to nuclear safety and security at ZNPP, challenges for which no best practices, no conventions, no regulations as yet exist.


But perhaps the most terrible affront to peaceful applications of nuclear energy perpetrated by Russia has been its treatment of the Ukrainian operating staff. Some 11,000 ZNPP workers, some 3,000 in critically important roles, including some 200 licensed reactor operators found themselves imprisoned in their place of work and their city. First, certain categories of operating staff were prevented from evacuating. Later, Russian occupying authorities, that include Russia’s nuclear operator Rosatom (still not sanctioned in the West), unleashed a campaign of psychological and physical terror against the Ukrainian staff to pressure them to sign contracts with Rosatom. Those who refused and decided to evacuate, would embark on a perilous journey through the Russian occupied and Russian sovereign territory peppered with numerous checkpoints and filtration camps. Some of them completed a 3,000-kilometer journey, through Georgia and Turkey to Europe and back to Ukraine, circumventing the Black Sea.


Dozens of ZNPP staff has suffered detention and torture in Russian hands, about 100 are still believed to be detained. Today, we know that there are around 10 torture chambers in Enerhodar and some 1,500 people have gone through them – for suspected pro-Ukrainian sentiments, for having served in the Ukrainian armed forces, for suspected collaboration with the Ukrainian security services, for refusal to sign a contract with Rosatom, or for no explainable reason at all. 


Ladies and Gentlemen,


I have just returned from Kyiv, where I carried out interviews for my research, hopefully one day a book, about the Russian takeover and occupation of ZNPP. I talked to evacuated ZNPP personnel, highly trained nuclear engineers, operators of nuclear reactors, who went from their control rooms or turbine halls or fuel storage facilities, to having a bag thrown over their head, driven to a detention facility, tortured with beatings, hot iron, electrocutions, and threats against their family, kept in cells of 9x9 feet, 20 people to a cell, without food or water. Nothing in their education and training as nuclear engineers prepared them for enduring this. Nothing in my training as a social scientist prepared me for hearing their stories. 


All of this is perpetrated by a major stakeholder in the global governance of nuclear energy, the founding member of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the state responsible for over 40% of global uranium enrichment market, and one of the major suppliers of nuclear technology in the world. 


While the International Atomic Energy Agency has really pushed the very limits of its mandate and logistical capabilities to organize its historic rotating monitoring missions to ZNPP, it is also true that the international community finds itself bereft of adequate institutions and tools to deal with this unprecedented threat caused by a hostile military power to the safety and security of a civilian nuclear power plant, the site of some 3,300 tons of nuclear material. Crucially, this threat is not just to nuclear materials and facilities as such but to the people on whom safe and competent operation of these facilities depends. In a world that looks to the expansion of nuclear power – especially in the developing countries – to fuel growth and mitigate climate change, critical rethinking of nuclear security, its human dimension and its intersection with national and energy security, must be a top priority.


6. Learning the right lessons from Ukraine’s predicament. My main argument today is that much more is at stake in this war than the security and territorial integrity of one state. The way this war is prosecuted and the way it will end – and it will end – will have a profound impact the value of nuclear weapons as tools of statecraft. I have discussed the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for the Global Nuclear Order. None of them are particularly encouraging, especially for those of us who uphold nuclear disarmament as a necessary goal of human civilization.  


But the nuclear lessons of the war in Ukraine are still in the making and there are ways we – and by that I mean Ukraine, its Western partners, as well as all those concerned about the future of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy in the world – can shape them. In formulating our response to the Russian aggression and in considering support for Ukraine, there is still time to ensure that:


- Ukraine can prevail over a nuclear-armed Russia, proving that nuclear weapons are not essential for winning wars, but that courage, resolve, resilience and solidarity of allies are. And Western political and military alliance – the wealthiest and most successful in human history – is very well position to contribute to this victory.


- We develop a better and more nuanced understanding of what constitutes escalation in a nuclear crisis and that it is not tantamount to every act of self-defense and support for an ally. 


- Ukraine will not go down in history as a state punished for doing the right thing, that the country that gave up a nuclear option will not perish at the hands of a nuclear state or continue to bleed indefinitely.


- The value of nuclear weapons as tools of political blackmail and coercion is not further elevated in the eyes of existing nuclear possessors and potential proliferators 


- The abuse of nuclear possession for coercion and in pursuit of a war of aggression will not go unanswered and unpunished


- National and international laws and conventions rethink nuclear safety and security to include their human dimension; that the state which has done violence to every norm, convention, regulation, and best practice in safe and secure operation of civilian nuclear facilities does not continue to reap benefits from international nuclear trade.


- Ultimately and long-term, that the Ukraine-sized security vacuum in Europe that served as a permissive condition for Russian aggression is foreclosed with meaningful security guarantees, whatever form those might take. As long as this vacuum exists, it will invite Russian belligerence, creating crises and conflicts that will inevitably bear future nuclear risks. 


I would like to end by parlaying the words of one of my interviewees in Kyiv: “The surest way to provoke Russia is to show weakness.” I am confident that a community of like-minded democracies, the wealthiest and best-armed states in the world has many strengths to manifest and ultimately, together with Ukraine, will prevail.


Thank you.



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