The War in Ukraine May Actually Be Strengthening the Nuclear Taboo

The War in Ukraine May Actually Be Strengthening the Nuclear Taboo
A sign reading “No nuclear weapons never again!” can be seen at a protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin, Germany, March 5, 2022 (Sipa photo by Jan Scheunert via AP Images).

Last week, at the International Studies Association’s annual conference in San Francisco, nuclear security expert Michael Smetana of the Peace Research Center in Prague brought together leading scholars studying the strength of the “nuclear taboo” over the past years for a roundtable discussion. The topic: how much the nuclear taboo had been weakened by the war in Ukraine and Russia’s nuclear brinksmanship.

As the program noted, “Moscow has accompanied its use of brute force with more or less explicit nuclear threats to deter Western military involvement.” The speakers were tasked with “connecting the claims about the alleged erosion of the ‘nuclear taboo’ with the broader logic of the global nuclear order and its contemporary dynamics.”

While the answer was as varied as you might expect from a panel of social scientists, the scholars agreed on one thing: Threats themselves, whether from Putin or anyone else, are not a great barometer of any change in the nuclear taboo. For one thing, as Lauren Sukin of the London School of Economics pointed out, the nuclear taboo is about non-use, so mere nuclear threats can’t be considered a violation. Rather, they should be viewed as a form of signaling. Moreover, as Rebecca Gibbons of the Center for Strategic and International Studies put it, nuclear deterrence theory has always been based on threats, in the form of the principle of mutually assured destruction and the nuclear arrangements that support it.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.