The Logic of Escalation: Nuclear Threats in Belarus and South Korea
by John Whitehead
Twice this year, within the span of roughly a month, two powerful nations issued threats based on their nuclear weapons arsenals. The first was Russia, which is stationing nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus and training Belarusians in how to use them. The second was the United States, which is sending a nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea and apparently plans to give South Korean authorities a greater role in US nuclear planning. Both policies are intended to intimidate other nations and both worsen the nuclear threat to humanity.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus on March 25. (Tactical nuclear weapons have an explosive power that is relatively low, although still catastrophically destructive.) In mid-April, the Russian Defense Ministry said that members of the Belarusian air force had been trained to use the weapons.
Later in April, US President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol announcement an arrangement in which South Korea would play a role in planning for any possible use of nuclear weapons against North Korea. As the new policy, known as the Washington Declaration, runs, “The United States commits to make every effort to consult with [South Korea] on any possible nuclear weapons employment on the Korean Peninsula.” As a further sign of US willingness to use nuclear weapons in Korea, Biden ordered a submarine armed with nuclear missiles to make a stop in South Korea. The Declaration and comments by administration officials suggest further visits by nuclear-armed US forces may follow.
The governments involved in both these recent decisions have justified their actions by pointing to other nations’ actions. Although Putin presumably is calculating that moving Russian nuclear weapons closer to Ukraine will give him at least a psychological advantage in his war on that country, he also has criticized American nuclear policies.
“The United States has been doing this for decades. They have long placed their tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of their allies,” Putin commented, referring to the American practice of stationing tactical nuclear weapons in countries such as Germany and Italy. US nuclear weapons in other countries have been a target of Russian criticism in the past. The recent Russian decision can thus be seen as following an American precedent.
More broadly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was influenced by fears about potential western threats to Russia. Policies to gain an advantage in the Ukraine war can thus be understood as a further response to this perceived threat. In this vein, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko invoked nuclear weapons as protection against “the scoundrels abroad, who today are trying to blow us up from inside and outside.”
Meanwhile, the US-South Korean Washington Declaration is aimed at countering a potential threat from North Korea, which also possesses nuclear weapons and tested a new long-range missile earlier in April.
Yoon commented that “Our two countries have agreed to immediate bilateral presidential consultations in the event of North Korea’s nuclear attack and promised to respond swiftly, overwhelmingly, and decisively using the full force of the alliance, including the United States’ nuclear weapons.” Biden was even blunter, saying “a nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States, its allies or…partners — is unacceptable and will result in the end of whatever regime were to take such an action.”
Granted, both the Russian/Belarusian and US/Korean decisions arguably make only a modest difference on a practical military level. Nuclear weapons are massively dangerous regardless of precisely where they are stationed. Neither Russia nor the United States is sharing actual control of their nuclear weapons with other countries. In those respects, the decisions don’t represent a significant change from the status quo.
However, on a subtler, political level both decisions are significant. The nations involved in these decisions are both following a logic of escalation: facing ongoing conflicts or other circumstances they find threatening, they are responding with nuclear threats.
Such escalation to nuclear saber-rattling has two notable consequences:
First, it increases international tensions and risks prompting some retaliatory response. Will the next step be for western nations or North Korea to respond with new threats and provocations of their own?
Second, it sends the message that nuclear weapons are acceptable tools for achieving a political goal. This message runs contrary to efforts to stigmatize nuclear weapons and build a global consensus that such weapons should never be used. The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, for example, reflects such an understanding that nuclear weapons are devices humanity needs to leave behind. The recent round of nuclear threats run in precisely the opposite direction.
We need to de-escalate tensions among nuclear-armed nations. We should denounce and oppose the nuclear threats that policymakers in many nations sadly continue to rely on.
To protest the threats posed by nuclear weapons, please join the Consistent Life Network in our quarterly peace vigils outside the White House. The next Vigil to End the Nuclear Danger will be Saturday, May 13th.
For more of our posts on nuclear weapons, see:
Nukes and the Pro-Life Christian: A Conservative Takes a Second Look at the Morality of Nuclear Weapons
To Save Humanity: What I Learned at the “Two Minutes to Midnight” Conference