December 19, 2023

The Real Russian Nuclear Threat

To hear U.S. officials tell it, there is little risk that the war in Ukraine will lead to nuclear escalation. “We don’t have any indication that Mr. Putin has any intention to use weapons of mass destruction—let alone nuclear weapons,” said White House spokesperson John Kirby in January. At a Senate hearing in early May, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines stated that Russia was “very unlikely” to use its nuclear arsenal. Yes, CIA Director William Burns said a February speech, the United States must take Putin’s nuclear saber rattling seriously. But the purpose of such rhetoric, Burns continued, was “to intimidate us, as well as our European allies and Ukraine.” It was not to signal that Russia was actually thinking about using its weapons.

From the moment the country launched its invasion, Moscow has tried to intimidate the world by gesturing at its weapons.

Washington’s incredulity is to some extent understandable. The advent of the war triggered fears of outright nuclear conflict between the West and Russia. That period of somewhat frenzied speculation has passed. The war has since settled into a grinding—but conventional—stalemate. To be sure, U.S. officials are still concerned that Russia may use tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield. “I worry about Putin using tactical nuclear weapons,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in June. The risk, he continued, is “real.” But officials do not appear to believe that the war in Ukraine could lead Russia to use its nuclear arsenal against a NATO state, however furious it is at the West for supporting Ukraine.

That is a mistake. U.S. officials have it backward. It is actually quite unlikely that Russian President Vladimir Putin will use a nuclear weapon on the battlefield in Ukraine, but it is very possible that he will move toward using one against NATO. Unlike the West, Putin may not fear a nuclear standoff: he is well versed in Russia’s nuclear arsenal and the tenets of nuclear deterrence, and possibly sees himself as uniquely suited to navigating a nuclear crisis. And Putin has been remarkably consistent that Russia is willing to use nuclear weapons against NATO to defend its interests in Ukraine. Even eight years ago, in a television interview done a year after Russia invaded Crimea, Putin declared that he had been ready to place Russian nuclear forces on alert to prevent Western forces from interfering in Moscow’s takeover of the peninsula.

Read the full article from Foreign Affairs.