University of Cambridge > > Centre for Research in Contemporary Problems > 'Everything you always wanted to know about Atomic Warfare but were afraid to ask': Nuclear Strategy in the Ukraine War era

'Everything you always wanted to know about Atomic Warfare but were afraid to ask': Nuclear Strategy in the Ukraine War era

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact D. A. Floudas.

A wine reception in The Old Library, Emmanuel College will follow the lecture


Thursday 29 February 2024, 6:00 for 6:15 pm

Queen’s Lecture Theatre, Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine constitutes a poignant reminder of the enduring relevance and potential devastation associated with nuclear weapons. For decades, the possibility of such catastrophic conflict has not seemed so imminent as in the current world affairs.

This lecture presents a comprehensive analysis of nuclear strategy for the 21st century. By examining the evolving geostrategic landscape the talk illuminates key concepts such as nuclear posture, credible deterrence, first & second strike capabilities, flexible response, EMP , variable yield, counterforce & countervalue, limited war and escalation dominance, thereby providing a nuanced understanding of the delicate balance of power in the nuclear arena in modern conflicts. Furthermore, this lecture concentrates on the era that started with the war in Ukraine, offering insights into how recent geopolitical developments influence nuclear doctrines.

Through conceivable real-world scenarios, attendees will gain perspective on the multifaceted challenges posed by newer technologies and potential escalation dynamics involving global nuclear actors and will be encouraged to ‘ask the questions they have always been afraid to’.

Such scenarios include:

  1. A non-weaponised or sub-critical test within Russia to intimidate opponents into understanding Russia’s resolve and capabilities. Prior norms have restricted testing since 2000, apart from North Korea. In case of a full surface test, Russia could detonate in uninhabited areas within its own vast territory with minimal fallout. While clarifying military strength, demonstrations risk hardening resistance without incentivising surrender.
  2. Coercive atomic threat to compel Ukraine or its supporters to make concessions. By leveraging the spectre of nuclear warfare, Russia could expect to achieve its objectives through intimidation and fear. However, the effectiveness of such a strategy is questionable, as it may provoke a strong international response and further galvanise support for Ukraine.
  3. Demonstration detonation over/under the Black Sea to signal resolve without targeting Ukraine itself; possibly amidst negotiations to gain diplomatic leverage, whilst limiting human casualties to zero or causing a mild, non-destructive tsunami.
  4. Ukraine could decide to launch a pre-emptive strike on Russian nuclear facilities or weapons, fearing an imminent attack. Such an action would have a high risk of failure and might even provoke a nuclear retaliation from Russia. It could also lead to a broader conflict, as neighbouring countries might feel compelled to intervene.
  5. Limited tactical strike against Ukrainian military or infrastructure to weaken capacity and morale. Russia’s 2000+ non-strategic arsenal could target positions using short-range missiles with 0.3 – 5 kiloton yields. Objectives like crippling Kharkiv defences might create no-go zones hindering advances. However, Ukraine might maintain drone and cyber offensive capabilities regardless.
  6. Electromagnetic Pulse attack designed to disable critical infrastructure in Ukraine and NATO countries without radioactive fallout. This aims to hinder the war effort and economy without provoking the same conventional military response as a blast. However, an EMP attack affecting NATO shall still be considered an act of war warranting retaliation.
  7. A weapon could be deployed accidentally or without proper authorisation. This could occur due to a technical malfunction, miscommunication, human error, or the actions of rogue elements. The consequences of such an event could be catastrophic, leading to a rapid escalation of the conflict and potentially triggering a global crisis.
  8. Sub-strategic offensive targeting NATO in the European theatre, so as to fracture allied resolve, against arms routes in Poland, Baltic stockpiles, British naval bases, American troop concentrations in Germany etc. Putin may perceive defeat or deposition as an existential threat, viewing such an option as self-preservation despite adverse consequences.

Doors open at 6:00 pm. Lecture at 6:15 pm. Discussion at 7.30 pm. Drinks reception at 8:00 pm, The Old Library, Emmanuel College.

About the speaker:

Demetrius A. Floudas is Adj. Professor at the Law Faculty of Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University in Kaliningrad and Fellow of the Hellenic Institute of Foreign and International Law. He is an international lawyer and regulatory adviser who has lived and worked in Russia and Ukraine for a decade, advising the Ministry of Economic Development & Trade and the Federal Antimonopoly Service. He served as Team Leader for the Russian Accession to the World Trade Organisation and was for several years Visiting Professor at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO). In a series of lectures at Hughes Hall, he has for many years predicted that an armed conflict in Ukraine was becoming increasingly plausible

In addition, D. Floudas has provided commentary on matters of Foreign Affairs & International Relations to a number of international think-tanks, with his views frequently appearing in the media worldwide (BBC TV & Radio, Voice of America, Financial Times, Daily Telegraph, Washington Post, Politico and others) including in Ukraine and Russia (Vedomosti, Hromadske TV, RIA-Novosti, Russia Today, RBK TV et alia)

He is Senior Adviser to the Cambridge Existential Risks Initiative.

The lecture will be followed by refreshments

This talk is open to all members of the University, upon prior registration:


Additional Information may be obtained by writing to:

The Director, CERI


Tel: +44 (0) 1223 311179


This talk is part of the Centre for Research in Contemporary Problems series.

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