We’re Closer to a Nuclear Incident in Ukraine Than You Think

There’s a disconnect between Western leaders’ increasingly hawkish public discourse and the quiet consensus among their military experts that any armed encounter with Russia would likely end in a nuclear catastrophe.

Russian Yars ballistic nuclear missiles roll through Red Square for the Victory Day military parade on May 6, 2018 in Moscow, Russia. (Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images)

It all starts with a warning shot. Moscow, looking uneasily at the advance of US-NATO forces, tries a desperate Hail Mary to stop them in their tracks, firing a nuclear missile from Kaliningrad that lands on the border of Poland, Germany, and Czechia. It has the opposite effect. Soon, a German tactical nuclear air strike hits the Russian exclave in response.

Now over the nuclear threshold, both sides launch hundreds of warheads at the other, a “tactical” nuclear war leaving virtually all of Europe and swathes of Russia annihilated. Before long, with minutes to act and with both sides enveloped in the fog of nuclear war, many more hundreds of US and Russian warheads fly across oceans and continents in an inadvertently suicidal attempt to prevent further destruction and stop the other side from recovering and renewing its offensive. In just a few hours, Europe, Russia, and the United States are in ruins, thirty-four million are dead, and fifty-seven million are injured. The survivors face an irradiated future without any modern infrastructure, easily accessible food or medical supplies, and a years-long nuclear winter.

This was the outcome gamed out in 2019 by researchers at Princeton University’s program on Science and Global Security (SGS), who, alarmed by deteriorating US-Russia relations and nuclear arms build-ups by each, drew on data and information about Russian and US nuclear force postures, war plans and targets, and warhead deployments and yields to predict just what exactly a nuclear war between Russia and NATO would look like. The answer wasn’t pretty.

Yet experts warn that this scenario is now a real possibility — far more real than most Americans likely realize.

The Nuclear Stick

The experts Jacobin spoke to all agreed that the risk of the kind of nuclear conflict mapped out by SGS researchers is real. And while it may not be imminent, they said, it needs to be taken far more seriously in the West.

“I don’t think people are nearly alarmed enough,” says Lyle Goldstein, director of the Asia Engagement program at Defense Priorities, who previously served for twenty years as research professor at US Naval War College.

The nuclear danger escalated at the end of September when Vladimir Putin, faced with a faltering war effort, announced the illegal annexation of Russian-held territories in a bellicose speech that alarmed many Russian observers, veering away from official Russian nuclear doctrine by threatening to resort to nukes if Russian “territorial integrity” was threatened ― a category that now counted these newly annexed territories.

Experts are divided on the likelihood of both Putin’s use of nukes and how the United States and NATO would respond. Some have openly dismissed Putin’s threats as merely a bluff that NATO should call.

But others say that would be a mistake. Anatol Lieven, director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, believes Russian nuclear use in Ukraine “would be only in the very, very, very last resort,” due to the damage it would do to Russia’s international standing, as well as the harm to Russian forces and its newly annexed territory. But it’s not an empty threat.

“Talking to Russian experts, the only scenario in which they find that plausible . . . would be if Crimea itself would be in danger,” he says. Even so, he cautions that no one really knows whether or under what circumstances such a step might be taken by Putin, whose decision-making is shaped by a host of external factors: from the state of the battlefield, to the increasingly martial political climate in Russia, to his own grip on power, which has shown signs of slipping over domestic unhappiness with Russia’s military under-performance.

Lieven is not alone. “We are two or three steps away” from Putin deciding to do the previously unthinkable, Carnegie Endowment senior fellow Alexander Gabuev had told the Washington Post earlier this month. Joe Biden himself warned donors that Putin’s “not joking.” One nuclear expert estimates the odds of him using a nuke are 10-20 percent ― “intolerably high,” he said, given the stakes — not far from the reported 20-25 percent estimate of some intelligence analysts, or the 17 percent estimate offered by one Swedish scientist. Dmitri Trenin, a Russian analyst formerly of the Moscow branch of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, cautioned that “the erosion of deterrence and its dismissal as bluff would leave us sleepwalking into big trouble.”

The nuclear risk is only heightened by Russia’s military weakness. A detailed report for Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs concludes that Russia’s inferiority in conventional warfare means it is “far more likely to reach for the nuclear cudgel.” This echoes the warning of director of national intelligence Avril Haines, who back in May said Putin may turn to nuclear weapons if he was facing defeat in the war.

Turning Disaster Into Catastrophe

The pressures pushing Russia to consider using nuclear weapons raise the question of how the United States and other Western countries would respond. Following the familiar logic of nuclear deterrence, senior US officials told Newsweek the Biden administration and its military advisors are considering launching a nuke themselves in response, which, as the SGS program made clear, would likely have cataclysmic consequences.

“If the United States fired a nuclear missile into Russia, without any question whatsoever, Russia would send a missile into America,” says Lieven. “There would be full-scale nuclear exchange, and that would be the end of the world. Humanity as such would survive in extremely poor shape. America, Russia, Europe would not.”

“In almost every one of the tabletop exercise war games that US strategic command and NATO headquarters runs, what inevitably happens is that each side continues to escalate by using more and more nuclear weapons, until you have not a regional war, but a global war,” says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “Those who suggest there can be a calibrated response, that sends Putin the right message but doesn’t push him over the edge, that suggests a degree of control and rationality that simply will not exist in that environment.”

Indeed, all the experts Jacobin spoke to agreed that any direct hostilities between US and Russian forces would likely move rapidly from conventional warfare to nuclear annihilation. “That would quickly escalate into strategic nuclear levels,” says George Beebe, director of Grand Strategy at the Quincy Institute. “The Russians would have no choice from their perspective to retaliate, and since they don’t have the arsenal of conventional weapons to match ours, I think they’d have to go nuclear.”

“Russia knows how outclassed it is,” says Goldstein. “If you think you’re completely outclassed on the conventional level and it’s about to get worse, your only option is to begin to escalate. It would be probably a matter of hours or days before Russia expanded its nuclear strike list, and began to walk the ladder from conventional to nuclear.”

That’s why some experts say the Biden administration should be considering ways of punishing any Russian resort to nuclear arms that don’t involve racing up the ladder of nuclear escalation.

One factor working in favor of such a course is the fact that Russia would almost certainly lose the support or acquiescence of those powers that have so far declined to endorse the cause of Ukrainian defense. Arguably the only success of Putin’s war so far has been in dissuading major powers like China, India, and even NATO member Turkey from supporting Ukraine or joining Western sanctions against Russia. In the case of Saudi Arabia, which just triggered US outrage by cutting oil production in line with Moscow’s wishes, Putin has even managed to keep a key state tacitly on his side. All of this would be jeopardized if Putin’s Russia took the near unprecedented step of crossing the nuclear threshold.

“In that scenario I think China and India and others on the fence would agree Russia was no longer a member of good standing of community,” says Stephen Young, senior Washington representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Young argues for “comprehensive” sanctions to then be leveled, putting “[Russia’s] economy in the tank.”

As Kimball notes, “there’s no need for an immediate rapid-fire kinetic response.” The United States could defer any response for two or three days as it pursues a UN General Assembly resolution authorizing the possible use of force, a pause that “may allow us to see what has happened on the ground” and give “time for domestic opinion to weigh in on Putin,” after which Washington can, in concert with other powers, weigh up what further actions to take.

“We’re now going into a realm where there are dozens of permutations where this crisis can go,” Kimball says. “Biden’s choices, NATO’s choices, go from absolutely terrible to catastrophic, and there’s no quick and simple answer.”

Taking the W

This unsatisfying menu suggests the best option is to stop things from reaching the point of nuclear use in the first place. And that will require talking. According to Hary Kazianis, president of the national security think tank the Rogue States Project, in the only two of the thirty simulations he ran that didn’t end in nuclear war, “direct negotiations led to cease-fire.”

“In times of crisis during that Cold War period there was direct communication between Washington and Moscow to make sure things didn’t get out of hand, to minimize dangers of misperception. We don’t have that dialogue right now,” says Beebe. “That wouldn’t be about finding some sort of permanent peace settlement in Ukraine, but it would and could focus on preventing further escalation and moving ultimately toward some kind of cease-fire. That kind of effort is both possible and quite necessary right now.”

Experts say that, thanks to Russia’s illegal annexations, a comprehensive negotiated settlement for the war of the kind that seemed conceivable when talks were happening in Turkey in March is now next to impossible. In early October, following the Russian land grab, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky formalized his public statement that Ukraine would only negotiate if Putin was removed from power and expanded Ukraine’s war aims to include what Zelensky had once ruled out as too costly: retaking all of the territory it’s lost to Russia since 2014, including Crimea, the reddest of Putin’s red lines.

Biden himself seems to understand the need for an eventual shift away from escalation. In comments at a private fundraising gathering earlier this month, he spoke of the need to avoid pushing Putin into a corner. “Where, where does he get off? Where does he find a way out? Where does he find himself in a position that he does not — not only lose face, but lose significant power within Russia?”

In a news analysis based on interviews with administration officials, the New York Times’s David Sanger, referring to the precedent of the Cuban Missile Crisis, reported, “For weeks now, Mr. Biden’s aides have been debating whether there might be an analogous understanding, a way for the wounded Russian leader to find an out. They have offered no details, knowing that secrecy may be the key to seeking any successful exit and avoiding the conditions in which a cornered Mr. Putin reaches for his battlefield nuclear weapons.”

But at least until recently, the political climate has been mainly pushing in the other direction. Hawkish voices among current and former US and NATO officials have been urging the United States to ignore Putin’s nuclear threats as a bluff and push for total victory on the battlefield. Perennial ultra-hawk John Bolton, David Rothkopf, and others have made prominent calls for regime change. Fiona Hill, and influential former national security official under George W. Bush and Donald Trump, has argued that Washington is already fighting World War III with Russia, and that Americans are deluding themselves that they can continue supplying Ukraine’s war effort and not clash directly with Putin.

Calls for direct US and NATO combat against Russian forces has been echoed by former CIA directors David Petraeus and Leon Panetta, the foreign minister of Poland, and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who warned that “any nuclear attack against Ukraine will create . . . such a powerful answer from the military side that the Russian Army will be annihilated.” Other NATO officials are reportedly privately agreeing that this would be the most likely response.

Richard K. Betts, a professor of war and peace studies at Columbia University, recently outlined the prevailing logic here: if the United States doesn’t respond physically to a Russian nuke, the fear is it would give Putin “a green light to use even more such weapons and crush Ukraine quickly.” Therefore, the thinking goes, the United States must credibly threaten and carry out either nuclear retaliation or conventional strikes, each of such ferocity that Moscow will realize it’s outmatched and back down.

Some prominent Western commentators actively oppose any talks. A member of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research has said that telling Putin “we are too afraid of nuclear threats and so we just want to make a deal” would “set a precedent that would not be very positive.” Yale historian Timothy Snyder and neoconservative war advocate Max Boot have made the same argument in favor of further brinkmanship.

But those calling for moves toward a cease-fire point out that if the concern is deterrence, Russia has already suffered severe costs as a result of the war. Far from appeasing Putin, the Biden administration has gone much further than earlier presidents were comfortable doing in response to Soviet invasions of Eastern Bloc states, in part because they feared the nuclear risks involved. As a result, according to one leaked set of figures, there are more than ninety-thousand Russians dead, wounded, or missing over the last eight months (more than four times the number of US troops killed or wounded over the Afghanistan war’s twenty years), not to mention at least a dozen generals who have been killed and the vast quantities of equipment lost, including 65 percent of its prewar inventory of tanks, four-thousand armored vehicles, and two-hundred aircraft.

Putin, meanwhile, has failed in all of his war aims.

“The initial Russian plan to conquer Ukraine is over. The attempt to capture the whole of the east and south is over. This is a much more limited war,” says Lieven. “Does it not seem a little reckless and hubristic to go for a total victory? Can we not swallow two great Russian victories and defeats, and say now it’s time to bring all this fighting to an end?”

“I would submit that Russia has thoroughly punished itself,” says Goldstein. “This war has been a catastrophe for Russia across the board. It seems to me this is deeply humiliating to Russians and to Putin himself.”

Caught in a Trap

Perhaps that, coupled with the nuclear risks involved, is why there’s now a growing chorus of calls for US-Russia negotiations among the US elite.

Last week, former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Admiral Mike Mullen, became maybe the most high-profile national security establishment figure to do so, urging the United States to “do everything we possibly can to try and to get to the table to resolve the thing.” Putin, he said, was a “cornered animal” and “dangerous,” and suggested the Biden administration “back off” some of its more pitched rhetoric in order to begin negotiations.

Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, currently involved in negotiations to free WNBA star Brittney Griner and marine Paul Whelan from Russian prison, made similar points. Asked if Russian officials all spoke with one voice on either the prisoners or the Ukraine war, Richardson replied that the Russian officials he met with “are ready to talk.” Dan Rice, a US veteran and current special advisor to the commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, seemed to lend credence to this idea, telling CNN he believed Russia’s recent escalations were about “trying to get to the negotiating table, to try to go back to the 2014 lines.”

Back on October 3, Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) called on Washington to “pursue every avenue of diplomacy to seek an end to the war” even as it continued to support Ukraine’s self-defense. A little over a week later, former president Donald Trump told rally-goers in Arizona that “we must demand the immediate negotiation of the peaceful end to the war in Ukraine, or we will end up in World War III and there will be nothing left of our planet all because stupid people didn’t have a clue . . . [about] the power of nuclear.” (Characteristically, Trump has taken several contradictory positions on the war over the months, including urging a game of nuclear chicken with Putin as early as March).

And there are encouraging signs of Russian reluctance to take the nuclear option. The Kremlin swiftly shot down calls for the use of a low-yield weapon from Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who had begun openly criticizing the Russian war strategy. Another prominent war critic, influential military blogger and former military commander for the breakaway Donetsk republic Igor Girkin (known by the alias Strelkov, or “shooter”), has called the prospect of striking with nukes “one’s own territory” (meaning, Ukraine) and “practically one’s own people” something “worse than a crime, it will be a mistake.” Trenin, the Russian analyst formerly of the Carnegie Endowment who came to ultimately support the war, stressed that Putin’s nuclear threats are meant as deterrence, not as escalation, and should be read in the West as such.

Still, none of this could matter in a cycle of brinkmanship.

“History teaches us the best intentions of leaders are often useless once a war begins,” says William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel of the US Air Force and former professor of history. “Look back to 1914, you had a lot of European leaders, all related to each other, and they’re all trying to negotiate a way to avoid war. Yet they all end up rushing to war very quickly.”