Nuclear Deterrence and Russia’s War in Ukraine

By Robin Wright for The New Yorker: In his Nobel Peace Prize speech, in 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, pronounced that “the risk of a global nuclear war has practically disappeared.” Moscow and Washington had veered “from confrontation to interaction and, in some important cases, partnership,” he said. The Soviet Union’s collapse—which birthed fifteen new states, including Ukraine—transformed the world. In the new Europe, Gorbachev added, every country believed that it had become “fully sovereign and independent.” Historians imagined that the end of the Cold War would lead to the demise of the nuclear age, amid new diplomacy and arms-control treaties. The ingrained fears—that kilotons of destructive energy and toxic radiation could decimate a city and incinerate tens of thousands of human beings—began to dissipate. Beyond policy wonks, the word “nuclear” largely dropped from the public lexicon.

Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine has jolted the world back into an uncomfortable consciousness of the nuclear threat. In the past month, official warnings have emerged at a striking pace. “Given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setbacks that they’ve faced so far militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons,” William Burns, the C.I.A. director and a former ambassador to Russia, warned on April 14th. The U.S. assessment of when and why Moscow might use such weaponry has changed, Lieutenant General Scott D. Berrier, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, conceded in testimony to a House Armed Services subcommittee. A prolonged war in Ukraine will sap Russia’s manpower and matériel, while sanctions will throw the nation into an economic depression and undermine its ability to produce more precision-guided munitions and conventional arms, he said. “As this war and its consequences slowly weaken Russian conventional strength, Russia likely will increasingly rely on its nuclear deterrent to signal the West and project strength to its internal and external audiences.” Putin’s aggression is “reviving fears” of a more “militaristic Russia.”

Russia’s war in Ukraine has reawakened fears about the bomb—and endangered the principle of deterrence. Illustration by Sadia Tariq

The Kremlin’s successful test, on April 20th, of a missile capable of flying at hypersonic speeds and carrying up to ten nuclear warheads anywhere in the world—and of outsmarting defense systems—contributed to the ominous optics. “This truly unique weapon will force all who are trying to threaten our country in the heat of frenzied, aggressive rhetoric to think twice,” Putin boasted on state television. Last month, Washington cancelled its own test of an intercontinental missile to “manage escalation,” the Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, testified.

There is a thin line: when a democratic majority becomes a mob, the biggest threat to democratic and parliamentary dispensation is the rise of despots and demagogues leading emotionally charged mobs.


Russia has not yet repositioned its nuclear forces, Burns said, despite sabre-rattling about a heightened state of readiness. Nor is its new missile ready for deployment. But Putin’s reckless war now has a “distinct nuclear dimension”—with lessons that extend far beyond Ukraine and that will endure after the war is over, the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C., concluded this month. Putin’s invasion “underscores the reality that nuclear weapons don’t prevent major wars,” Daryl Kimball, the organization’s executive director, told me. “U.S. and NATO nuclear weapons have proven to be useless in preventing Russian aggression against Ukraine.” The war has imperiled a long-standing premise of deterrence—having a bomb to avoid being bombed. Kimball reflected, “When nuclear deterrence fails, it fails catastrophically.” More here: