The prospect of a nuclear holocaust has always been terrifying. But in the last years of the Cold War and the three decades that followed its end, the existential challenge of nuclear weapons became less of a clear and present danger.
Sure, in the post-1991 era, nuclear war could still happen by mistake. It could break out between two actively hostile nuclear powers like India and Pakistan. It could be triggered by a disgruntled new nuclear club member like North Korea. And, of course, a conflict between the superpowers themselves—United States, China, Russia—could escalate to a nuclear exchange because of miscalculation, misinformation, or simply a few missing synapses in the brains of the leaders.
But what had once been a front-and-center obsession during spikes in Cold War tensions—from backyard bomb shelters to films like The Day After—had become in recent years more like ominous but muted background music. Meanwhile, other existential crises stepped to the fore, like climate change, pandemics, and artificial intelligence run amok. Apocalyptic ends have still loomed large in the public imagination: not so much with a bang any more but a whimper.
Now, after Russia invaded Ukraine last year, nuclear war is once again competing to become the planetary catastrophe de jour. The Russian decision this week to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, possibly bringing them closer to deployment, has analysts in the West second-guessing the Kremlin’s calculations. Would Russian President Vladimir Putin actually go nuclear, either to gain battlefield advantage or to stop a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive from restoring the country’s pre-2014 borders?
This prospect of a nuclear war, however limited, has pushed quite a few peace activists in the West to urge a ceasefire and negotiations at whatever the cost. Policy analysts, too, have warned Ukraine not to overreach, for instance by threatening Russian control of Crimea, out of concern that the conflict could escalate to the nuclear threshold.
The threat of nuclear war should never be treated casually, particularly when such weapons are in the hands of madmen like Nixon, Trump, or Putin. This January, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved their Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds to midnight. It’s never before been so close.
All of this requires a sober assessment of the nuclear risks involved in the Ukraine war and what can be done to minimize them.
The Clock Strikes Almost Midnight
Back in 1991, the Doomsday Clock stood at 17 minutes before midnight. That’s the greatest margin of safety since the clock debuted in 1947. Subsequent U.S. presidents squandered an historic opportunity to rewind the clock even more. Despite the reassurances provided by Barack Obama that he was indeed committed to nuclear disarmament—if not during his presidency then at some undefined time in the future—the clock remained poised several minutes before midnight for most of his tenure in office. When Trump took office, the measurement switched from minutes to seconds. Then this January, the second hand ticked down from 100 seconds to 90.
The Bulletin’s well-reasoned decision to advance the clock places all the blame on Russia. The editorial discusses Russian threats to use nuclear weapons, its violations of international law, its false accusations concerning Ukraine’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has increased the risk of nuclear weapons use, raised the specter of biological and chemical weapons use, hamstrung the world’s response to climate change, and hampered international efforts to deal with other global concerns,” the editors write.
At the same time, the Bulletin stresses the need for the United States to keep open the option of “principled engagement” with Russia to reduce the risk of nuclear war. There is no recommendation that Ukraine or its supporters pull their punches to reduce this risk. Instead, the editors speak of “forging a just peace.”
Although the Doomsday Clock is a powerful visual suggestion that the threat of nuclear war has increased with the conflict in Ukraine, Western politicians and analysts have downplayed the actual risk of a nuclear attack. Here, for instance, is the assessment of the Institute for the Study of War, which produces an influential daily analysis of the military and political developments in Ukraine:
The announcement of the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus is irrelevant to the risk of escalation to nuclear war, which remains extremely low. Putin is attempting to exploit Western fears of nuclear escalation by deploying tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus. Russia has long fielded nuclear-capable weapons able to strike any target that tactical nuclear weapons based in Belarus could hit. ISW continues to assess that Putin is a risk-averse actor who repeatedly threatens to use nuclear weapons without any intention of following through in order to break Western resolve.
It might seem counter-intuitive to argue that Putin is a “risk-averse actor.” Didn’t he invade Ukraine last year without sufficient preparation? Didn’t he put Russia’s economy at risk of serious damage because of the invasion? Hasn’t he cavalierly destroyed several decades of carefully cultivated relations with Europe and the West?
In fact, with the exception of the ill-prepared invasion itself, Putin has been quite careful. He took pains to sanction-proof the Russian economy and replace European oil and gas clients with Asian ones. He hasn’t shifted to a war economy. Nor has he declared an all-out aerial war on all parts of Ukraine (though that’s likely because of Ukraine’s air defenses).
Most importantly, he hasn’t risked direct confrontation with NATO powers. The most logical strategy for Russia at this point is to interdict Western shipments of arms to Ukraine. Back in March 2022, the Russian government warned that it would do so. But it has failed to do so. Partly that’s because Russia lacks capacity and military intel. But it’s also because Putin doesn’t want to draw NATO into the war. It’s been hard enough for Russia to fight against Ukrainian soldiers and a handful of international volunteers. The introduction of NATO battalions would be game over for Russia.
Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons could also draw NATO more directly into the conflict, which no doubt restrains Putin’s hand. The fact that Xi Jinping, on his recent trip to Moscow, explicitly warned Putin not to use nukes only reinforces the prohibition.
Not everyone believes that the risk of nuclear war is “extremely low,” as ISW put it.
Longtime security analyst Carl Conetta agrees that the likelihood of a direct Russian nuclear strike against Ukraine is low. But he identifies other nuclear options for Russia such as
a demonstration blast in remote areas of Russia. Such an action would be intended and likely to have a powerful psychological effect not easily mollified by official US reassurances to NATO allies and other countries. But such a gambit would also involve and/or provoke abruptly heightened levels of strategic force readiness on both sides of today’s strategic divide, and this would be uniquely dangerous.
Conetta also notes that Russia’s nuclear doctrine has shifted over the last year, and the Kremlin may well redefine what constitutes an existential threat to Russia to allow for the use of nuclear weapons. In the end, he concludes that “although the probability of a big power nuclear clash of any magnitude over Ukraine remains low, it would be irrational and irresponsible to act as though we can roll the nuclear dice and never come up ‘snake eyes.’”
Masha Gessen, the prolific critic of Putin, has also sounded a warning about Putin’s willingness to go nuclear. She grounds these fears in an analysis of Putin himself.
He believes that, on the one hand, he is facing down an existential threat to Russia and, on the other, that Western nations don’t have the strength of their convictions to retaliate if it comes to nukes. Any small sign of a crack in the Western consensus—be it French President Emmanuel Macron pressuring Ukraine to enter peace negotiations, or the House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy criticizing what he sees as unconditional aid to Ukraine—bolsters Putin’s certainty.
She concludes that only the threat of massive conventional retaliation by NATO and the West stays Putin’s hand. Also note Gessen’s terrible irony: the more that peace activists call for negotiations to reduce the risk of nuclear war, the more Putin will interpret the successful pick-up of that message as a sign that he can use nukes with impunity.
The Politics of Good and Evil
Superpowers that do evil should not be allowed to continue doing so simply because they possess nuclear weapons. Those who have resisted the spread of U.S. empire in Asia, Africa, and Latin America didn’t lay down their arms or stop protests in the streets because of the threat that Washington would use nuclear weapons. They confronted the evil of U.S. occupation and, in many cases, they succeeded.
Oh, but Putin is different, you might say. The Russian leader is making actual nuclear threats. He is promising to move nukes closer to the front (as opposed to the United States, which hasn’t moved its 100 or so tactical nukes from storage facilities in Western Europe). He is a mad man and will stop at nothing to create his “Russian world” out of territory absorbed from countries on Russia’s borders.
But as should be clear from the above, Putin has stopped short at several junctures. He has committed war crimes, to be sure. But so far he has not listened to the right-wing critics at home who urge him to fight a total war in Ukraine. He hasn’t listened to them because the Russian military doesn’t have sufficient capacity and because he fears the consequences of such a dramatic escalation.
It should go without saying that the United States must keep open lines of communication with Moscow and pursue arms control negotiations. The Biden administration should be careful to focus on the importance of defending Ukraine and avoid any statements that call into question the existential status of Russia or Putin’s regime. Direct NATO involvement in the conflict, which could indeed trigger a world war, should be avoided.
So, it’s up to Ukraine—not only to defend itself but to prevent Putin from using nuclear blackmail to achieve his ends. That might also mean, paradoxically, that it will be up to Ukraine to show restraint in defeating Russia to prevent Putin from using actual nukes to forestall his own end. Ukraine thus must fight against two evils simultaneously: the reality of Putin and the possibility of nuclear war.