Is it time for NATO to give Ukraine a nuclear guarantee?

Paul Whiteley, assessing Russia's difficulties and Putin's potential next steps in the offensive against Ukraine, wonders whether it is time for NATO to issue a nuclear guarantee to Ukraine in order to prevent a further escalation of the conflict

Military spending on the conflict

One way of judging how irrational Putin’s war has become is to look at the military spending on both sides of the conflict. This is a good proxy measure of military capacity and the war-fighting capability of nations. Data from the World Bank estimates, for example, that the Russian Federation spent nearly $62 billion on defence in 2020. This is ten times greater than spending by Ukraine, which sits at just under $6 billion.

This data would have indicated to Vladimir Putin that he had a very good chance of defeating Ukraine on its own before the war started. However, this calculation has been completely upturned by the intervention of NATO and other western nations. They have responded to the conflict with arms shipments to Ukraine as well as economic sanctions.

The graph below shows defence spending by the top five NATO member states, in addition to the Ukrainians and Russians, in 2020. In the case of the United States, spending exceeded $778 billion which is more than twelve times that of Russia. The UK alone spent just over $59 billion, slightly less than Russia. Similarly, France spent nearly $53 billion – about the same as Germany. It is clear that Russia cannot win a prolonged war against this combination of military firepower.

2020 defence spending in major NATO countries, Russia and Ukraine, in billions of US $
Defence spending by country

The impact of NATO support for Ukraine

The delivery of western equipment started shortly after the war began. Since then, the effects of NATO military assistance to Ukraine have been obvious. The Next Generation Anti-Tank weapons (NLAW) supplied by Britain have knocked out large numbers of Russian tanks.

In addition, the supply of long-range artillery equipment from various NATO member states has been a game changer. Of particular note are the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) supplied by the United States. Since they were deployed, the Ukrainians have succeeded in destroying a series of strategic targets, including ammunition dumps and Russian bases. This has already reduced the ability of the Russians to continue the massive barrage of shelling against Ukrainian targets.

NATO-supplied weaponry has made a huge difference to the course of the war, helping Ukraine destroy Russian strategic targets and giving them the capacity to launch a counter-offensive

One important Ukrainian success has been the destruction of the bridge at Kherson which supplies the Russian troops occupying that city. This raises the possibility that the Ukrainians may mount an offensive aimed at recapturing it. According to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, Russia has been moving some of its troops from their positions in the east to the south in order to defend Kherson, as well as the Zaporizhzhia region. Thus, the Russians are anticipating a possible offensive, and preparing for it.

If this offensive is successful, it would be a major psychological and military boost for the Ukrainian objective of liberating their country from Russian aggression. It could also be a turning point in the conflict.

Putin’s options

If so, what is Vladimir Putin likely to do about it? Throughout the war – indeed over his entire career – he has always escalated when he finds himself in a conflict situation.

One possibility is that he will use tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield to throw back the Ukrainian offensive. This situation is most likely to arise if the Ukrainians are successful in liberating Kherson and the Russian position in Donbas starts to crumble. US intelligence estimates suggest that more than 75,000 Russians have either been killed or injured in the war so far. So if Putin gets desperate, he might well risk this. At the same time, he might hope to deter retaliation from NATO by threatening western capitals with strategic nuclear strikes.

Throughout the war – indeed over his entire career – Putin has always escalated when he finds himself in a conflict situation

Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat in the US House of Representatives, recently reported on a US intelligence briefing pointing out that the Russian armed forces have a different doctrine from NATO on the use of these weapons. Essentially, they see them as an extension of massive artillery attacks.

NATO options

NATO can pre-empt this before it happens by giving Ukraine a nuclear guarantee. This would take the form of an announcement that the use of tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield in Ukraine would be met by a similar nuclear response from NATO. The announcement would also have to make it clear that strategic nuclear strikes on western capitals would bring rapid retaliation against Moscow and other Russian cities.

NATO can pre-empt tactical nuclear strikes by issuing a nuclear guarantee – and its nuclear weapons are probably more deployable and effective at short notice than the Russian ones

Currently three NATO nations have these weapons: Britain, France and the United States. The official NATO doctrine on their use is as follows:

Nuclear weapons are unique, and the circumstances in which NATO might contemplate the use of them are extremely remote. However, if the fundamental security of any Ally were to be threatened, NATO has the capabilities and resolve to defend itself – including with nuclear weapons.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the three nuclear members of NATO have just over 6,000 nuclear weapons between them. This is just short of the Russian total (6,255). However, given the discrepancies in defence spending between the two sides, the NATO weapons are probably more deployable and effective at short notice than the Russian weapons.

Russian withdrawal

The truth is that Putin’s position in this war is a ‘bad beat’, to use a poker expression. He is holding a losing hand and can only rely on bluster and threats to keep his attempt to recreate the Soviet Union going. If he escalates using the nuclear option in Ukraine it would be suicidal for Russia, providing western nations are resolute. Even Stalin baulked at doing that. In truth, Russian withdrawal is the only route out of this disaster.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Paul Whiteley
Paul Whiteley
Emeritus Professor, Department of Government, University of Essex

Paul's research interests lie in electoral behaviour, public opinion, political economy and political methodology.

He is the author or co-author of some 27 books on these topics and more than 100 academic articles.

He was appointed a Fellow of the Academy of Social Science in 2009 and a Fellow of the British Academy in 2012.

Paul is an active blogger and broadcaster, commenting mainly on contemporary British politics.

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