The War in Ukraine Could Lead to Nuclear War

Anatol Lieven

With his original war aims in shambles, a desperate Vladimir Putin is openly threatening nuclear warfare in Ukraine. The rhetoric of nuclear retaliation and escalation is a risk to the entire world, and, yes, you should be alarmed.

Russian citizens drafted during the partial mobilization begin their military trainings after a military call-up for the Russia-Ukraine war in Rostov, Russia, on October 2, 2022. (Arkady Budnitsky / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Interview by
Branko Marcetic

Referencing the “precedent” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Vladimir Putin in a speech last Friday announced the illegal annexation of parts of Ukrainian territory and threatened to use “all available means” to prevent their recapture by Ukrainian forces.

In response, the world heard serious talk of nuclear retaliation and escalation coming from high officials in Washington for the first time in many years.

I spoke about these alarming developments with Anatol Lieven, director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author of numerous books, including Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry (1999).

Branko Marcetic

US officials are talking about responding to any future Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine with a conventional or even nuclear strike on Russia. What would that actually mean?

Anatol Lieven

It would mean the end of civilization. As innumerable studies have shown, it would be exceptionally difficult in those circumstances to avoid escalation to total nuclear war. Even if we managed to avoid that, if the United States fired a nuclear missile into Russia, without any question whatsoever, Russia would send a missile into America. It depends on the scale of the missile and so forth, but even one missile would cause at minimum hundreds of thousands of American dead, more civilian dead than have ever died in the whole of US history. But as I say, it’s more likely at that point 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.

Incidentally, the argument here that this is necessary because it’s up to the Ukrainians — at this point, what is the first country that would be completely destroyed? Has anyone thought of asking ordinary Ukrainians if that is a price they think worth paying? Not now to defend the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainian independence, because at this point those have been secured, by Ukrainian victories with Western support. What we are talking about now is pretty typical postcolonial battles over limited amounts of territory in eastern and southern Ukraine. Anyone who thinks it’s worth risking potentially billions of lives — and people, by the way, all over the world, have never been asked for their opinion on this — has lost touch with certain elements of basic reality and sanity but also certain aspects of basic morality.

Branko Marcetic

Are people taking this seriously enough, or should they be more alarmed than they are right now?

Anatol Lieven

During the Cold War, both sides, both US and Soviet leadership, took great care that wherever else they waged proxy wars against each other they would not do it in Europe, because there, the two sides were too close together, vital interests were involved, and so both Joseph Stalin and Dwight Eisenhower and Eisenhower’s successors avoided doing that. That was not, on our side, an easy moral decision. It meant not supporting the Hungarians in 1956 or the Czechs and Slovaks in 1968. But the decision was made, and made by US presidents who were in no way soft on communism or national security, that the dangers were simply too great.

Of course, it is very difficult morally and emotionally. What President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government have done in Ukraine is a crime, a tremendous crime against international law, a crime against the Ukrainian people, and massive suffering has resulted. But I think we should remember — and this used to be simply accepted on the Left in the United States and among liberals — that opposing Stalinist communism and its expansion in the Soviet Union in the first years of the Cold War, as drawn up in policy by George Kennan, in terms of philosophy by figures like Reinhold Niebuhr, did not generally lead to supporting Curtis Lemay or John Foster Dulles in a global struggle with communism or pushing for policies that could lead to nuclear war.

In other words, we’ve already managed to contain Russia in Ukraine. The risk is that by going for total victory — and the Ukrainian leadership is now talking about expelling Russia from all the territories it’s held since 2014, which in the case of Crimea is a genuinely disputed territory in terms of the wishes of its population, in terms of its previous legal status — the question is: Are we going beyond containment to the search for total victory, which really would risk a nuclear war?

And at that point, we have to remember how, sometimes in circumstances of much lower tension, just how close we came a few times during the Cold War — and of the reasons we didn’t go over the edge, which were that both leaders and in a few occasions junior officers in crucial moments hesitated, because they were well aware of the cataclysmic consequences and the responsibility that they personally bore. I am simply appalled by the lighthearted spirit with which some commentators now talk about the possibility of nuclear war.

I mean, nuclear deterrence was created in democratic societies with the acceptance of democratic majorities for the defense of our societies against existential threats. The cases where it was contemplated using them in proxy wars — most notably by General Douglas MacArthur in Korea, when American soldiers on the ground were losing the war — when on earth was the last time that anyone sensible thought Gen. MacArthur was right and President Harry Truman was wrong when he vetoed that? Where are we going? What’s happened to our minds?

Branko Marcetic

The counterargument is that by giving in to Putin here, we establish a dangerous precedent that might be worth the risk of nuclear war, to avoid other leaders using their nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip.

Anatol Lieven

Of course they use it as a bargaining chip. That once again is why Eisenhower backed off the rollback of Eastern Europe, because the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons. That is why no country — it’s not in any case a practical possibility — but why no country will ever dare directly challenge the United States on its own continent: because America has the capacity to destroy them. It’s why Israel has guaranteed its security with its nuclear deterrent. Pakistan has used their nuclear deterrent to deter what on a number of occasions would have been almost certainly an Indian attack on Pakistan in response to terrorist attacks. It’s a fact. It doesn’t depend on what we say or think or our intellectual argument. It is a fact that nuclear weapons, that every nuclear weapon involves the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, that the massive use of nuclear weapons would mean the end of civilization. It’s not a university debating point.

The other thing is — look, let’s be a little bit honest here. I don’t necessarily agree with them, but I have the greatest admiration for Americans and others who have gone off to Ukraine to fight or to help the Ukrainian people. They walk the walk. Someone sitting in Washington or New York, saying we must risk nuclear annihilation, without really believing it — if these people really believed it, they wouldn’t be babbling this nonsense. It is the spread of irresponsibility into the public realm, and irresponsibility that was not characteristic of any US president during the Cold War.

Branko Marcetic

Joe Biden has from the start drawn a line against US involvement in direct confrontation with Russia and against getting into a nuclear war. Can’t we trust him to act responsibly and maintain that line?

Anatol Lieven

I certainly hope so. In many respects, the Biden administration has walked the line quite carefully and responsibly, and don’t get me wrong, I’m not in any way against helping Ukraine defend itself. But the problem is the administration has stated several times that negotiations for peace or ceasefire are purely a matter for the Ukrainians.

Well, first, that can’t be right. The United States is massively arming Ukraine, funding Ukraine, and running great risks for the sake of Ukraine — nuclear war, but also if you look at global conditions, the threat of recession, inflation in the US, the threat of really deep recession in Europe, food shortages in parts of the world. Of course that gives us a say in trying to bring about a peace settlement. America has tried to intervene in conflicts around the world to bring peace.

The second thing is the Ukrainian government — to what extent this is Volodymyr Zelensky’s own position, to what extent he is trapped by his own hard-liners is very difficult to say — but the Ukrainian government is increasingly adopting a position about the complete recovery of all the territory Russia has held since 2014, which no Russian government will accept. The attempt to recover Crimea or the naval base at Sevastopol would closely resemble an attempt by China to capture Hawaii and Pearl Harbor. It also has that kind of emotional resonance.

In the wake of the latest Ukrainian victories, we are now talking about 85 percent of Ukraine that, whatever happens — whatever happens — will now be fully independent and have the chance to move toward the West. 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. The US administration has an absolute duty to the American people and humanity, to play a part in — not, I fear now, a comprehensive peace settlement, because after these latest annexations, that’s not possible — but a ceasefire that will preserve Ukrainian independence, preserve the territorial integrity of by far the greater part of Ukraine, but not push the Russians so far that nuclear war becomes a possibility.

Branko Marcetic

We’re now seeing calls to neutralize Russia’s threats to use nukes by assassinating Putin. Is this a good idea?

Anatol Lieven

Well, has the American record of attempted regime change over the past — well, going back to the 1950s — generally turned out well. Has it even worked most of the time? When it has, did it produce the results America wanted? I think now indeed, it would be a very, very good thing if Putin were to be gotten rid of, but it has to be a matter for the Russian themselves.

But the obvious response is one word: How? Assassination? You seriously think that’s a good idea, to introduce by the United States the assassination of foreign leaders? This also reflects a total misunderstanding of international law. This is not something one country can do for itself and then act all offended if someone does it to America. When anyone threatens that against the United States — not that anyone has, apart from al-Qaeda and company — that’s automatically and rightly called terrorism. Does America want to make a terrorist order in the world where this kind of thing is an accepted part of policy?

As far as regime change is concerned, how precisely is the United States trying to do that? Total defeat of Russia in Ukraine? Perhaps. I think that probably would bring down Putin. You think you’ll get a better Russian government as a result or a more pro-American government? You could get something even worse and a Russian government that would devote its entire effort for all foreseeable time, not just to build up forces to resume the war in Ukraine, but also to harm America in every way it possibly could. We should remember the United States has been involved in any number of wars over the past twenty-five years, and in none of them has Russia supported US enemies. They may not have approved of the actions, but they didn’t help the United States’ enemies. If they had, a lot more Americans would’ve died.

Branko Marcetic

How do we get out of this? Is there a military solution to this spiral of escalation? And if not, what can we do to prevent not just Putin’s use of a nuclear bomb on Ukraine but a wider nuclear war?

Anatol Lieven

Whatever happens now, the Ukrainians are now going to go on attacking and attacking and attacking. They will never accept, quite rightly, annexation of these new territories that Putin engineered on Friday. After, I fear, months of bloodshed, perhaps by next summer, some combination of two things will have happened. The Ukrainians will have won more victories — probably not a total victory, because Crimea is extremely difficult to conquer from the north, because it’s a peninsula — but to push Russians out of more territory they’ve gained since the beginning of the invasion. Or the Ukrainians will have been fought to a standstill, Russia will have gained more local territory, we don’t know.

In the meantime, very large numbers of Russian soldiers will have died. But if it’s the Ukrainians attacking, the general rule is the attackers suffer heavy casualties as well, or heavier casualties. My assumption is that in either case, there will be a possibility of a ceasefire, basically because it will not seem worthwhile losing more and more and more people for very limited gains or no gains at all. That is just my assumption. I could be completely wrong. All the military predictions in this war have been proved wrong, or almost all of them. But if that’s the case, the United States needs to step in at some stage to bring about a ceasefire.

The thing is we don’t know when or if Putin actually would use nuclear weapons. My sense is it would be only in the very, very, very last resort, because the damage to Russia’s image in the world and the damage to Russian troops and territory occupied by Russia would be colossal. Talking to Russian experts, the only scenario in which they find that plausible — though they could be wrong too — but they say it would be if Crimea itself would be in danger. We’ve drawn certain red lines for the Russians, and we need to draw red lines for the Ukrainians. I know that sounds immoral and so forth, but we are dealing with very serious dangers.

The other thing is, contrary to a lot of Western reporting, the Chinese have been extremely restrained in this war. They have blocked or abstained on United Nations resolutions — as, by the way, have our partners the Indians, every time — but they have not given any significant military or economic aid to Russia. One reason is they’re afraid of Western sanctions before they are ready to deal with those. But obviously another reason is the Chinese didn’t approve of this; there’s every evidence they that they won’t formally accept annexations — they’ve never recognized Russia’s annexations, it’s contrary to their entire international legal position.

My sense after talking to Chinese contacts is that if the Chinese thought that the agenda of American hard-liners, which is the total defeat of Russia and the overthrow of the Russian government, was now the policy of the Biden administration — the Chinese would automatically equate that to the destruction of the Russian state. They see, and not without reason, the government in Russia is now identical to the state, in the way that the Ba’ath government in Iraq was identical to the state, the Muammar Gaddafi regime was in Libya, or the Communist Party is in China.

What I’ve been told is that the collapse of Russia as a state would be such a blow to China’s international interests and position, because it would leave China isolated, it would threaten Chinese energy supplies, it would greatly undermine the Belt and Road Initiative — so that at that point the Chinese government, very much against its own wishes, would be obliged to step in with massive help to Russia. And if China does that, that changes the balance again. Obviously, our help to Ukraine has colossally changed the military balance in this war. China could do the same in the other direction.

Branko Marcetic

In a recent column, looking back to John F. Kennedy’s example in the Cuban missile crisis, you suggested back-channel communications between the United States and Russia might be a solution here. The counterargument is that there’s no point trying to engage with Putin when it seems like he won’t budge on certain concessions on Ukraine or doesn’t want to negotiate.

Anatol Lieven

The point is if you’re talking about diplomacy for a formal peace settlement, of the kind that was talked about early on, of course not. There can’t be a peace settlement on the basis of these annexations, and Putin is trying to make sure no future Russian government can do it either. So a formal peace agreement, no.

But if you look around the world — look at Kashmir, look at Cyprus, divided between the Republic of Cyprus and this Turkish state, look at the unrecognized nature of Kurdistan — there have been a number of cases where without a formal peace settlement, you’ve introduced ceasefires and agreements where you have maintained basic peace for long periods, without completely solving — formally, legally solving — these issues. Taiwan is another example.

When I talk about talks, I’m not talking about formal negotiations for peace. I’m talking about back-channel assurances by both sides as to the limits they will maintain in their actions. As I said in my piece, if Kennedy had been able to assure Soviet leadership before it started installing missiles that he had made the decision not to invade and occupy Cuba — which is why the missiles were deployed, because Nikita Khrushchev was convinced the United States was going to invade Cuba, which of course many American hawks wanted him to do, including his advisers, and the missiles were deployed to defend a Soviet ally. This was completely legitimate under international law but completely unacceptable to the United States.

The point is you need this kind of private, secret communication so that both sides can give reasonably credible assurances about the limits they’ll respect. On the US side, it would have to be that we will back Ukraine to recover the territory that it has lost since February, but we will not back Ukraine to total victory and Crimea, which would very likely trigger nuclear attack.

On the Russian side, it’s easier, I think, because of what’s happened on the battlefield. Once again, Ukrainians have already gained a colossal victory. It’s important to say this again and again and again. That’s not just compared to what Putin wanted at the start of the war, to subjugate Ukraine and turn it into a client state. Now that’s over. I don’t know a single military analyst who thinks it can be achieved now.

But this isn’t just a victory in the context of the last eight months. It’s a colossal defeat in the context of four hundred years, a reversal of four hundred years of history. Now, after that, Russians have backed off, having been defeated. There was this attempt to take the whole of the east and south, the Russian-speaking areas that were not part of historic Ukraine but were conquered under Catherine the Great in the later eighteenth century — that failed too. I know few analysts who think that Russia has any chance of achieving that.

So look, we’ve won two great victories. Does it not seem a little reckless and hubristic to go for a total victory? Can we not swallow two great Russian defeats and say now it’s time to bring all this fighting to an end? I think it is still the legacy of US wars on Native Americans, Mexicans, World War II, that the only acceptable thing is total victory. Actually, if you look at the majority of American wars, they didn’t end that way. Korea ended with a compromise that lasts to this day — not a good one, but barring a nuclear attack on China, it was pretty much the best America could get.

Vietnam involved a peace settlement that led to the victory of the other side. Iraq proved a disaster. Libya proved a disaster. Afghanistan proved a disaster. The search for total victory is not justified by either the history of humanity or world history, except of course — and this is why people go on and on and on about Adolf Hitler — in World War II. What Putin has done is profoundly ugly and criminal, but when people say, “Russian concentration camps, it’s back to Hitler” — well, maybe it’s just back to Abu Ghraib or maybe back to British concentration camps in Kenya. Maybe this isn’t so very, very special. That doesn’t make it good or right, but it doesn’t make it Nazi death camps.

Branko Marcetic

Looking at the political landscape in the United States and NATO countries more generally, is there enough pressure or political space to pursue a more de-escalatory pathway or even look for a nonmilitary way out of this war?

Anatol Lieven

At present, no, but in the months to come, assuming we stay alive, I think it’s possible for two things to happen. In Europe, it depends on how cold the winter is — how cold they are but also how deep the recession is. You could see ultimately major European pressure in favor of a ceasefire at least and the resumption of Russian energy supplies if things get bad enough. But not at present.

In the United States, I think it will be dictated either by a serious lurch toward nuclear war, toward the imminence of the use of nuclear weapons, or as I say, if in fact it becomes apparent that the Ukrainians cannot gain much more territory, that the war is heading toward a stalemate, and that Ukrainian casualties are unsustainable.

So much is absolutely unclear, but on the whole, militarily, what’s absolutely clear now — and this is the meaning of these annexations — is that Russia is now strategically on the defensive. It will hold its existing positions and try to use its firepower to decimate attacking Ukrainian troops while using and losing fewer troops of its own. Will this work? We will have to see. To a considerable extent by now, what happens will be determined on the battlefield and on the economic front.