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The Ukraine crisis is now a nuclear crisis

Russian President Vladimir Putin just put his nuclear forces on alert

A big fire at a petroleum storage depot after a Russian missile attack near Kyiv, Feb. 27, 2022. (Alisa Yakubovych/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
6 min

Russia’s publicly announced nuclear alert has turned the Ukraine war from a crisis involving nuclear powers to an actual nuclear crisis.

With the caveat that we do not have many details about what the Russian alert entails, it is nevertheless a clear sign that President Vladimir Putin does not believe that the conventional military campaign in Ukraine is achieving the political outcomes he wants.

Putin has turned to nuclear weapons because they offer another way to increase pressure on both Ukraine and its international backers to come to the settlement that Russia wants regarding Ukraine’s status. Yet his decision raises serious risks of both deliberate and inadvertent nuclear escalation.

This is a scary moment, but it’s not unprecedented or that surprising. Here is why.

Nuclear signals like this are not new

Putin has explicitly signaled from the beginning of the Ukraine war that he might turn to Russia’s nuclear arsenal if outside powers interfered with his campaign or were perceived to be threatening Russia itself.

In fact, Putin’s initial nuclear threat likely was intended as a shield to keep the West out of Russia’s conventional operations. This highlights what international relations scholars call the stability-instability paradox. The danger of nuclear war may keep nuclear powers from fighting all-out because they fear it would escalate. However, precisely because all-out war would be so mutually damaging, the likelihood of conventional war or even limited nuclear use can increase.

Amid reports of Russia’s lagging conventional invasion, Putin may now believe that climbing up to the next rung on the so-called escalation ladder is the only way to achieve the coercive effect he wants.

Such a move fits with his decision to announce the alert so publicly — rather than keeping it secret, as nuclear matters usually are — to ensure that the world gets the message and other nations have to respond.

Putin’s approach is not new. Countries often rely on their nuclear arsenals to compensate for inferiority with conventional weapons as shown by Pakistan, North Korea, and NATO’s threats to escalate during the Cold War. The idea is to deter conventional attack or prevent conventional defeat through threats of nuclear first use. The world has even seen episodes of explicit signals that nuclear weapons could be used, as Putin has done, by states losing conventional battles in the past: Pakistan versus India in 2001-2002, for example, and Israel versus the Arab coalition in 1973.

There are real escalation risks — both intentional and unintentional

Putin’s alert raises two types of risks that the conflict might escalate into a nuclear conflict: deliberate and inadvertent.

First, the deliberate nuclear escalation risk comes from the possibility that Putin might actually use nuclear weapons, particularly tactical (short-range) nuclear weapons, to achieve his military objectives in Ukraine. Again, this is a major reason countries develop such weapons in the first place — to achieve what they think conventional forces cannot.

It is the same reason that the odds of Russian attacks against civilians have increased in the last day or two. From Putin’s standpoint, nuclear threats are likely just another escalatory lever to force the political outcome Russia wants.

Putin might also turn to medium-range nuclear weapons to coerce neighbors in Europe who are seeking to support Ukraine militarily, diplomatically, or politically. Of course, doing the latter against any NATO ally would be extremely escalatory and invoke U.S. commitments to defend its NATO allies under Article V of NATO’s founding treaty.

Second, raising the alert status of nuclear weapons inherently raises the likelihood of their use — and this is what generates inadvertent nuclear escalation risk. Details are sparse, but we could expect the readiness of Russia’s nuclear forces to now be heightened, and the command and control arrangements governing use of nuclear weapons to possibly be loosened, meaning they could be launched more easily.

Whether Russia has actually practiced these operations and how safely they can be conducted remain unclear. Risks of accidents and unauthorized use could increase. Countries sometimes undertake dangerous measures to signal their readiness to use nuclear weapons, as China did in 1969 when it fueled its rudimentary nuclear weapons in a lengthy border crisis versus the Soviets.

Furthermore, Russia’s alert could prompt counter-reactions in the United States, France and Britain. If they alert their forces as well, the chances of misperception — including Russian misperception of an impending nuclear attack — heighten further. Much depends on whether Russia is alerting its strategic nuclear forces, which would focus on protecting the regime from attack on Russian soil, or its theater forces, which would be oriented toward influencing the military and political situation on the continent.

Worryingly, this is happening in a time of deep distrust and mutual suspicion, in which ambiguous signals from one country are likely to be viewed in the worst possible light by its opponents. This is precisely the sort of environment in which inadvertent nuclear escalation becomes most likely.

In the fog of war, countries may shoot first and ask questions later. This is how the Soviets ended up mistakenly shooting down a Korean civilian airliner in 1983 during a period of heightened nuclear tension with the United States, and why the Iranians did the same thing in the aftermath of the U.S. strike on Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in early 2020.

Putin is a personalist dictator — and that has its own risks

Adding to both the deliberate and inadvertent escalation dangers is Putin’s status as a personalist dictator. As Jessica L.P. Weeks and Jeff D. Colgan explained here at TMC, these autocrats have few constraints on decision-making authority and are very unlikely to get candid information from advisers. Putin, an aging leader by Russian standards, likely views the current crisis as threatening not only his foreign policy goals but also his domestic political prospects at home, including his personal survival and freedom.

Putin may also want the world to worry that he is just enough of a madman to lash out when his back is against the wall. Again, this is a tactic leaders have tried before, including Khrushchev in the Berlin Crises of 1958 and 1961, and President Richard Nixon when he attempted to pressure the Soviets over Vietnam in 1969. This approach did not work well for these leaders — but they were all far more constrained than Putin.

This institutional and personal context may make Putin more risk-acceptant — that is, more willing to gamble on dangerous nuclear threats to save his regime — than other leaders. It also likely makes him more paranoid. These tendencies again reinforce the escalatory dangers stemming from Putin’s recent decision.

Caitlin Talmadge (@ProfTalmadge) is associate professor of security studies in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is the author of “The Dictator’s Army: Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes” (Cornell University Press, 2015).