How Ukraine Could Become a Nuclear Crisis
Chaos creates countless opportunities for mistakes.
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The Russian invasion of Ukraine is not a nuclear crisis. Yet. Concern about the role of nuclear weapons is perfectly understandable, however, now that a paranoid dictator has led Russia into a major war in the middle of Europe, attacking a country that shares a border with four of America’s NATO allies. A nuclear crisis is unlikely, but not impossible.
The Russians are going to defeat the overmatched Ukrainians, and they do not need nuclear weapons to do it. And while Vladimir Putin is, in my view, unhinged and reckless, I see no indication that he is seeking war with the United States or NATO. Nonetheless, there are multiple paths to a dangerous nuclear confrontation that could embroil Moscow and Washington in a situation neither of them expects or wants.
The least likely occasion for a nuclear crisis would be if Russian forces directly and intentionally threaten NATO territory. All of the Atlantic alliance, including the United States and its nuclear arsenal, would be required to come to the aid of the nations in danger. This is the doomsday scenario that NATO was created to prevent, and it would come about only if Putin were seized by an even greater madness than the one driving him to war in Ukraine. If Putin were to decide, for example, that his great crusade to roll back the collapse of the Soviet Union should include recapturing the Baltic states or driving NATO forces from Poland, he would effectively be declaring World War III and throwing the entire world into the abyss. But, again, there is no evidence that Putin intends to take this path.
A far more likely possibility would be a crisis arising from an accident. War is always a risky and unpredictable affair, even when one side is far stronger than the other. Human beings and their machines make mistakes, sometimes with dire results. In 2015, Turkey, a NATO nation, shot down a Russian jet that had strayed over the Turkish border. Two years ago, during the crisis between Iran and the United States after U.S. forces killed Qassem Soleimani, the Iranians shot down a commercial airliner—from Ukraine, no less—in their own country. And let us not forget that the Russian forces now on the march belong to the same military that in 2014 managed to screw up and shoot down a commercial airliner over Ukraine while claiming that it wasn’t even there in the first place.
There are countless opportunities for such errors in the chaos now overtaking Ukraine. The Russians might shoot at NATO aircraft after misidentifying them. Or they might incorrectly believe that Russian aircraft have been attacked by NATO forces. They might suffer a misfire or a targeting error of some kind that puts Russian ordnance on NATO territory. Europe’s a crowded continent, and no place for a jumpy trigger finger, but accidents are an unavoidable part of warfare.
Any one of these mishaps could lead the Russians, or the United States, or both, to increase the alert status of their nuclear arsenals. This would mean that nuclear weapons and their crews—in some cases, with missiles that are already capable of being launched in 15 or 20 minutes—would heighten their vigilance and readiness to proceed with their missions. Such alerts are rare, and for good reason: They move us one step closer to nuclear conflict.
Finally, there is the frightening possibility that Putin will increase the alert status of his nuclear forces for his own reasons, leaving the Americans no choice but to raise their alert status. The invasion of Ukraine was preceded by the Russian Grom (meaning “thunder”) drills, a regular exercise held by Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. The timing was no accident; Putin relies on Russia’s nuclear deterrent as one of its last claims to superpower status, and he could activate another such exercise, or call for a heightened alert condition, if he thinks things are going poorly for Russia.
Perhaps Russian forces, for example, end up taking more casualties than Putin expected, and he wants to blame the West rather than admit the incompetence or errors of his own commanders. He might then use nuclear signaling as a way of creating a narrative for his people that the West is somehow threatening Russia and that he is determined to stand up to Washington. Or he may be paranoid enough to believe that the U.S. and NATO are planning to send forces in to aid the Ukrainians. Or he may simply decide on such an alert merely to bare his teeth if he thinks it might stop the supply of arms and aid to Ukraine.
Such tit-for-tat signaling has happened before. In 1973, when the Soviet Union threatened to send troops into the middle of the Yom Kippur War to save Egyptian forces from destruction by the Israelis, the United States raised its level of nuclear preparedness, its DEFCON, or “defense condition,” as a way of indicating American resolve to prevent a Soviet intervention. The Soviets and the Americans for decades poisoned the air and oceans with nuclear tests that were meant to show strength and determination.
In an escalating-alert-level scenario, each side will start watching the other intensely for evidence of an impending attack. All of the gremlins of error and miscalculation that are already on the loose in Ukraine now will become existential hazards until the crisis—which at that point will be about the United States and Russia, instead of Ukraine—is somehow sorted out.
None of this—we must hope—is likely. And it is needlessly anxiety-producing, even unhealthy, to spend too much time pondering the chances of a nuclear confrontation. But it is imprudent to pretend that the weapons do not exist at all. Nuclear weapons helped keep the peace in the first Cold War. Sadly, we must hope they will do so again in this new, second cold war declared by the Russian president.
Join editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg, Anne Applebaum, and Tom Nichols for a live virtual conversation about Russia’s war on Ukraine and the potential consequences on Monday, February 28, at 3 p.m. ET. Register here.