Not since the Cold War has the specter of nuclear war hung so heavily over a president’s crisis diplomacy.
As President Joe Biden meets with fellow NATO leaders, calls for a ceasefire in Ukraine are growing more urgent than ever — to alleviate the widespread human suffering but also to dial back what veterans of nuclear planning consider an alarming potential for it to spiral into a clash of atomic superpowers.
The nuclear brinkmanship from Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent weeks is unprecedented: He ordered a snap nuclear war game before the invasion and days later put his nuclear forces on high alert. And the Kremlin has repeatedly signaled it could resort to nuclear weapons — an option explicitly reserved in Russian military doctrine — if it determines the West’s intervention in the conflict goes too far.
Again on Tuesday, in an interview with CNN, Putin’s chief spokesperson refused to rule out the use of nuclear arms in the conflict.
So far, Biden has sought to dial down the tensions. The Pentagon has not changed the alert status of U.S. nuclear forces and military leaders have publicly said they have not detected Russian actions suggesting they are preparing to use nuclear weapons. The Pentagon also took the unusual step early in the conflict of putting off a regularly scheduled test of an intercontinental ballistic missile to avoid fueling nuclear tensions.
Yet as the conflict drags on, and Russia’s conventional forces suffer surprisingly heavy losses while its economy reels, the prospect that Putin might resort to using weapons of mass destruction is increasing. Moscow has already demonstrated that it’s willing to use hypersonic missiles for the first time in a war.
With limited contact between the Kremlin and Western capitals, the risk that Moscow’s intentions could be misread with catastrophic consequences will only grow more acute, according to numerous specialists.
“There has always been a chance of mistakes, but I think the chances are much higher,” said former Sen. Sam Nunn, the longtime chair of the Armed Services Committee and now co-chair of the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative. “I think we are in a different era in terms of blunders.”
It is a high-wire act confronting Biden as he tries to stiffen the spines of NATO countries for what is expected to be a long struggle. Allies are helping Ukraine fend off its bigger aggressor — including sending more arms and U.S. troops to defend NATO’s eastern borders — while not pushing Putin over the edge.
Russia invaded Ukraine as cooperation between Washington and Moscow on nuclear arms control has been unraveling in recent years. The two countries have walked away from several treaties to control the deadliest weapons, including one that outlawed intermediate-range nuclear missiles that could threaten Europe.
The only remaining nuclear pact between the two sides is the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which limits deployed strategic weapons to 1,550 each. Biden and Putin agreed last year to extend it until 2026.
But the treaty does not cover any of the thousands of smaller, or “battlefield,” nuclear weapons in their respective arsenals, including at least 2,000 in Russian stockpiles, according to public estimates.
Two Defense Department officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, say they are vigilantly gathering intelligence on Russian military moves for any sign that it might be taking such weapons out of storage or preparing for deployment units trained in nuclear or chemical warfare.
‘Raising the ante’
Longtime observers of Russian nuclear policy have been startled at how reckless the Putin regime has been with its nuclear threats compared to leaders in Moscow during the Cold War.
“The communist party of the Soviet Union was incredibly disciplined about this,” said Rose Gottemoeller, a former undersecretary of state for arms control who has negotiated treaties with Russians and served as NATO deputy secretary general from 2016 to 2019. “There were only a few Soviet leaders who were allowed to speak about nuclear doctrine and strategy, and they did so in a very carefully scripted way.
“We are in a more difficult crisis than anyone could have predicted with this constant nuclear saber-rattling that has been going on,” she added. “We have to take what [Putin’s] people say seriously, because he was serious about invading Ukraine when many of us hoped he would turn away at the last minute.”
The dearth of diplomacy and growing distrust only fuels the risk of “mushroom clouds appearing on the battlefield,” Izumi Nakamitsu, United Nations high representative for disarmament affairs, warned on Tuesday.
She hearkened back to the numerous instances during the decades-long standoff between the United States and then-Soviet Union when the two sides nearly came to nuclear blows. But diplomacy — and a good bit of luck — prevailed.
“We are all aware of the close calls and near-misses,” she said at an event hosted by The Stimson Center. “Unfortunately, I fear we have forgotten many of those difficult lessons. A simple glance at a headline today can point to how acute nuclear risks have become.”
Those concerns are shared across the spectrum by advocates for nuclear disarmament and those who believe a more robust U.S. nuclear arsenal is needed to deter adversaries.
“I really am worried here that the war is going so badly for Putin … it raises the possibility of Putin feeling like he needs to escalate to win his way out of this conflict,” said Tim Morrison, a former Trump White House nuclear policy adviser who is now a researcher at the Hudson Institute, a hawkish think tank.
That, he continued, “is right in the wheelhouse of Russian [military] doctrine for a low-yield nuclear or even chemical [weapons] use.”
Morrison added that he fears the situation could unravel to the point where Putin is “raising the ante, climbing the rungs of the escalation ladder to make the point to NATO ‘hey, you guys really need to knock it off with arming the Ukrainians, I will no longer tolerate this.’”
Russia has already ratcheted up the war with its hypersonic missile launch in Ukraine last week, and it has also been accused of dropping phosphorus bombs, which are banned under the Geneva Convention (though using the chemical to obscure troop movements or illuminate targets is not).