Could the Russian invasion of Ukraine escalate to nuclear war? It’s unlikely but not impossible. That should terrify us.
The world is closer to nuclear combat now than it has been at any other time in the last half-century. Both Russia and the United States have developed tactical nuclear weapons designed for use on battlefields. Some of them are one-third as powerful as the atomic bombs with which the United States incinerated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Soon after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his army to invade Ukraine last month, he took the wildly irresponsible step of publicly announcing that he was placing his nation’s nuclear forces on “high combat alert.” He has made clear that he considers a hostile Ukraine to be a mortal threat to his country. If his forces do not quickly win this war, and especially if other countries come to Ukraine’s aid, he may be tempted to use his full arsenal — including nuclear weapons. I doubt he would do it, but I also doubted he would invade Ukraine in the first place.
President Biden deserves credit for not replying to Putin’s nuclear threats with counterthreats. Yet Americans are now caught in a spiral of emotion even more intense than the anti-Saddam frenzy that preceded our invasion of Iraq. Relentless images of Russian bombing and suffering Ukrainians provoke outrage and demands for punishing revenge. That can lead us to lose sight of the terrible stakes. By arming Ukraine and seeking to smack Russia, we may be sleepwalking toward the ultimate nightmare.
Using nuclear weapons in Ukraine would break a longstanding taboo and turn Putin into the most despised world leader since Hitler. More important, the situation could quickly escalate. When the Pentagon conducts “war games” based on this possibility, the result is always the same. In these simulations, one side uses a battlefield nuclear weapon, the other side responds in kind, and soon both countries’ cities are in ashes.
“It escalates; it doesn’t stop,” says Joseph Cirincione, a fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, in Washington, who is a leading student of nuclear weaponry. “Each side thinks their use will be decisive. There’s no way to avoid these risks. And if Putin feels he’s losing, the risk increases. Russia’s doctrine of ‘escalate to de-escalate’ is specifically designed for these situations. It says that if Russia is losing, they will use nuclear weapons first. The military believes in this doctrine, which means that if Putin gives the order, they will likely obey.”
Russia’s arsenal of battlefield nuclear weapons makes the Ukraine crisis uniquely dangerous. The firing of a single nuclear-tipped rocket — to destroy a Ukrainian town, to wipe out an enemy combat formation, or even simply as a demonstration — might well set off quick and disastrous reactions.
The Western response to this invasion has been strong and nearly unanimous. Some of it is symbolic virtue signaling that borders on silliness. Russian conductors have been fired from the Munich Philharmonic and La Scala in Milan after refusing to condemn the invasion, and the International Cat Federation has banned Russian cats from competition. Other reactions, however, are deadly serious and could affect global politics for decades.
Harsh economic sanctions on Russia will reshape life in what until last month seemed to be emerging as a stable and prosperous globalized society. Major oil companies have pulled out of Russia despite its position as one of the world’s leading oil producers. Germany is sharply increasing its defense budget. Finland and Sweden are considering applying for NATO membership. Switzerland broke with its longstanding policy of neutrality to adopt the European Union’s potent sanctions against Russia. Each of these steps may be seen as reasonable. Together, they could give Putin the sense that he is being forced into a corner and has no choice but to use his ultimate weapon.
In 2008, four ancient veterans of geopolitical conflict — Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn, and William Perry — warned that the steps the world was taking to address the threat of nuclear war were “not adequate to the danger.” The danger has increased since then. “The goal of a world free of nuclear weapons is like the top of a very tall mountain,” the four statesmen wrote, drawing on more than a century of combined experience in dealing with nuclear security. “But the risks from continuing to go down the mountain or standing pat are too real to ignore.” Yet we do ignore them. More Americans seem afraid of taking the COVID vaccine than are afraid of nuclear war.
Both Russian and American military planners have placed nuclear combat on their list of possible tools in wartime. It’s right there on the “threat continuum” after covert action, sanctions, cyberattacks and conventional war — as if it’s simply another step up the coercive ladder. Until we remove that step, the danger of holocaust will hang over our planet.
Nuclear war is beyond our lived experience and even our imagination. The prospect seems distant and improbable. It isn’t. One way to lessen the immediate danger would be for the United States and NATO to declare unequivocally that we will never use nuclear weapons in Ukraine and ask Russia to pledge the same. Then, if we emerge from this crisis alive, all nuclear powers should devote themselves urgently to assuring that we never reach such a dangerous threshold again.
The responsibility lies mainly with Russia and the United States, which have more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. If these two countries could assure each other that neither would ever be the first to use those weapons, the world would instantly become far safer.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.