The threat of nuclear weapons creates a completely new situation

30 March 2022

Portrait of Erik Melander

A lot has changed in a short time in the discussions around nuclear weapons, says Erik Melander.

When Putin threatened use of nuclear weapons, the world saw the emergence of a new security situation. “Deployment of nuclear weapons is now seen as a genuine threat,” says Erik Melander, professor of peace and conflict research and director of the new Alva Myrdal Centre for Nuclear Disarmament at Uppsala University.

A lot has changed in a short time in the discussions around nuclear weapons, says Erik Melander. From a fairly stable situation with a strong taboo against the use of nuclear weapons, to today’s more unpredictable situation.

“A year ago there seemed to be no urgency around the nuclear issue and nuclear disarmament. It is now very difficult to take in that there is serious consideration of whether Russia could use nuclear weapons in a conflict.”

A Russian doctrine states that nuclear weapons can be used if a situation is developing so very badly that the very existence of the state itself is threatened.

“This sounds like a huge threat, but its interpretation can be somewhat elastic,” says Erik Melander. “The theory seems to be that if use of conventional fighting forces does not work, nuclear weapons could be used to ‘rock your opponent on its heels’ and impose such suffering that your opponent gives up and backs down.”

Different levels of attack

It is called a ‘de-escalation’ of a conflict and can be carried out at various levels. The lowest level would be for a small, tactical nuclear weapon to be detonated over a desert or other unpopulated area.

Erik Melander, professor of peace and conflict
research. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

The next level would be something that strikes conventional forces, for example an air base or a communication hub, but would not be aimed at civilians.

“It would, however, be even worse if an attack were aimed at a city. This would really shock and create stress. And then you can think it could get worse and worse.”

The idea is to use one or more nuclear weapons, so-called tactical nuclear weapons. The goal is for your opponent to surrender or back down, but in fact there are several different potential reaction patterns.

“No one knows which way it could go. There is a fear that it could escalate all the way to total nuclear war. No one knows how the US would respond to Russian use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.”

Different exercises related to nuclear weapons

Two nuclear exercises or scenario war games with the nuclear weapons described in literature were held while President Obama was in power. In one of the exercises, the scenario concerned the United States responding to a nuclear attack using conventional weapons.

“They argued that they could show firmness and still inflict high levels of damage on their opponent, because NATO and the United States are stronger in that respect.”

But in another round of the game, the Americans responded with nuclear weapons, and more nuclear weapons than the Russians, to show that ‘we are not backing down’. So no one knows what it could lead to.

“The mere fact that there is talk of using nuclear weapons in this way is very peculiar. In the past, it was thought that there is a kind of taboo against the use of nuclear weapons – that they are inhuman and awful. These types of discussions and reasoning lower the threshold and normalize the idea that nuclear weapons can be used. This is very frightening.”

A ban on nuclear weapons

At the same time, there is a groundswell of public opinion, which in various ways increases resistance against the weapons. One example is the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which was recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

“This work helps to reinforce this taboo and emphasize how horrendous these weapons are. Even if the chance that nuclear powers would get rid of their nuclear weapons altogether seems very remote, there is a point to working to strengthen the taboo and raise the threshold for use of nuclear weapons.”

Whatever happens in the future, there is a risk that some form of arms race will take place after the war in Ukraine, and that may also include nuclear weapons.

“On the other hand, negotiations will also be needed and some of these issues will be regulated. A lot of very positive work needs to be done.”

Interest in stabilizing the situation

He tells us that in pre-invasion negotiations, both Russia and NATO showed a certain amount of interest in discussing nuclear weapons, certain types of confidence-building measures and inspections.

“Such tools existed at the end of the Cold War but have since then simply faded away or have been abandoned. Whatever the outcome of the present situation, this is something that will come back on the agenda. New such arrangements will need to be created and agreements negotiated.”

The idea behind this is that it is in the interests of both parties that the conflict does not escalate because of mistakes or because there is an unnecessary amount of tension between the parties. For example, no one should need to worry about surprise attacks.

“Both sides share an interest in stabilizing the situation. In addition, both sides would gain by having fewer nuclear weapons, by having a kind of balance but at a lower level. This is what happened during the Cold War, so it is possible to agree and make improvements, even between enemies.”

The Alva Myrdal Centre for Nuclear Disarmament (AMC)

  • Established in 2021 at Uppsala University to provide education, research and policy support in matters of disarmament.
  • Studies the entire disarmament process: conditions and obstacles, negotiation and decision-making as well as implementation and verification. Combines insights from different disciplines, such as peace and conflict research, applied nuclear physics and international law.
  • AMC, in cooperation with other stakeholders, disseminates knowledge about nuclear disarmament by organising conferences and workshops. Contributes to public awareness of disarmament issues and to the public debate about the challenges facing disarmament.
  • The Swedish Government tasked Uppsala University to establish the National Knowledge Centre for Nuclear Disarmament after evaluation by the Swedish Research Council and in consultation with the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority and the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI).