What Trump and Musk Don’t Get About Russia’s Nuclear Threats

Putin’s hollow rhetoric warrants no concessions from the West.

Close-up of Putin looking disappointed
Sergei Bobylyov / Sputnik / AFP / Getty

The use of nuclear weapons was just around the corner, or so a number of influential people were claiming not long ago. As the Ukrainian military ran up a series of impressive victories this fall in pushing back Russian invaders, its battlefield success inspired predictions that Russian President Vladimir Putin would turn to nuclear weapons to secure his strategic objectives (whatever those might be). The logical upshot of these claims was that the United States and its European allies should try to prevent a dangerous escalation essentially by selling Ukraine out—that is, by curtailing military support and ultimately forcing it to accommodate Russia’s aggression.

As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s impending appearance in Washington underscores, the U.S. has not been swayed by such warnings, and with good reason. Recent weeks have shown us that Putin’s threats are likely hollow. We have more reasons for skepticism about politicians and commentators who would acquiesce to his attempts at gaining concessions from Ukraine and the West.

The voices talking up the danger of nuclear war include high-profile figures, most notably former President Donald Trump, who are broadly sympathetic to Putin and share his contempt for the democratic West’s multinational military and economic structures. On his media platform, Truth Social, in September, Trump—who in the past has praised Putin as a strategic genius and described the invasion of Ukraine as “savvy”—repeated the Russian leader’s claim about his willingness to use nuclear weapons. At an October rally, Trump declared, “We must demand the immediate negotiation of a peaceful end to the war in Ukraine”—which is to say, a deal that Putin finds acceptable—“or we will end up in World War III and there will be nothing left of our planet.”

In the U.K., prominent Brexit supporters, including the political strategist Dominic Cummings, have been among the people arguing most vociferously for appeasing Putin to dissuade him from using nuclear weapons. After Russia sent troops into Ukraine earlier this year, Cummings, the architect of the Leave campaign, likened Ukraine to Hungary after the Soviet Union invaded in 1956; then-President Dwight Eisenhower didn’t “babble about ‘Munich’ & start a nuclear war,” Cummings wrote on Twitter in March. More recently, as Russia’s military failures raised the possibility that Ukraine might have the strength to retake Crimea—internationally recognized Ukrainian territory that Russia seized and annexed in 2014—Cummings insisted that this would be a “ticket to nuclear war.”

More surprising voices have joined in; Elon Musk made Cummings’s latter argument even more emphatically. In October, days before taking official control of Twitter, the entrepreneur declared that if faced with either losing Crimea or using nuclear weapons, Putin “will choose” to use nukes. Musk, too, has cited the prospect of a nuclear war as a justification for a peace deal that would end the war on terms favorable to Russia. The Russia expert and former Trump adviser Fiona Hill told Politico that Putin “plays the egos of big men” such as Musk, and worried that the Russian leader was using Musk as a messenger. Not surprisingly, Cummings defended Musk.

The views expressed by Trump, Cummings, and Musk intersect with those of certain international-affairs scholars, frequently described as realists, who emphasize the global competition for power, downplay Western rhetoric about promoting democracy and other ideas, and, in many cases, sharply criticize American foreign policy. The political scientist John Mearsheimer, for example, has characterized Russia as a great power and argued that Ukraine must accede to some of its neighbor’s desires. The failure to acknowledge this, he wrote in August, amounts to “playing with fire.” Stephen Walt, Mearsheimer’s frequent collaborator, maintained in May that a nuclear escalation by Russia, though still unlikely, was now “easier to imagine” than it had been a few months earlier.

The realists drastically overestimated Russian strength and grandeur, and they have a history of misreading global power dynamics. True realism would recognize that a variety of participants in the international order have worked hard, and will continue to work hard, to restrain Russia from using nuclear weapons.

Amid Russia’s serious battlefield reverses, India and China—both of which have bristled under the constraints of the American-led global order—stepped up their warnings that under no circumstances should Putin resort to the nuclear option. Around the time that the Russians were preparing to abandon Kherson, which is among the largest of the Ukrainian cities that have fallen under Russian control since February and sits in a province only recently annexed by Moscow, Putin’s most important international partners were demanding an end to his irresponsible saber-rattling.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government reportedly told the Russian defense minister that any use of nuclear weapons must be taken off the table. This was only part of what seems a concerted effort by the Indian government to keep Russia from contemplating the use of nuclear weapons. Out of concern about the issue, Modi has also refused to schedule the annual summit that Indian leaders typically have with their Russian counterparts. The Indians were not holding back.

Perhaps more worrisome for Putin, the Chinese government—which has largely supported Putin—has expressed its strong opposition to any Russian use of nuclear weapons. In November, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke about the subject with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and the public statement they released afterward could not have made for comfortable reading in the Kremlin. Indeed, Xi and Scholz not only opposed any use of nuclear weapons; they went further and condemned even threats to use those weapons. The two leaders didn’t name names, but only one power in the world was threatening to use nuclear weapons at the time.

Xi and Modi understand something that Trump, Cummings, and realist scholars do not: that the use of nuclear weapons by Putin would be a strategic catastrophe for Russia and the world, one that would probably lead to a collapse in whatever international standing Russia has remaining after its failures in Ukraine. If Putin were to use even one nuclear warhead in Ukraine, he would overturn the entire rationale of when and how nuclear weapons would ever be used.

If it now becomes policy that a nuclear-armed state can use nuclear weapons to try to secure territorial expansion and conquest, then the entire edifice of global nonproliferation efforts collapses. A rush by smaller countries to obtain nuclear weapons could transform international relations to the detriment of the world’s current nuclear powers, including China.

This bluntly delivered message seems to have been understood in Moscow. Although Putin recently hinted that Russia may change its official military doctrine to mirror that of the United States, which does not rule out being the first combatant to use nuclear weapons, he had insisted days earlier that Russia would not “run around the world brandishing these weapons like razors.” Moreover, Russia now seems to be trying to fight a conventional war with Ukraine, which, given that Russia is conscripting soldiers, could go on for years.

Regardless, Putin is de-emphasizing the idea of a Russian nuclear strike on Ukraine. This just makes sense, because such an action would leave Russia friendless, potentially lead to greater NATO escalation, and signal to Ukrainians that their only choice is to continue fighting.

Russia wanted to bully the West into abandoning Ukraine, and a number of influential voices in the U.S. and the U.K. have been willing to give in to Putin’s nuclear threats. But the true realist position involves focusing on the huge obstacles constraining Russia from using nuclear weapons in Ukraine.