Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

Putin’s Doomsday Threat

| April 5, 2022

How to Prevent a Repeat of the Cuban Missile Crisis in Ukraine

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has stalled and its forces have pivoted to the battleground in the east, the war is entering a new, darker, and more dangerous phase. Mariupol provides a preview of that future. The Vladimir Putin who bombed the Russian city of Grozny into rubble in order to “liberate” it, and who joined Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in razing Aleppo, certainly has no moral reservations about mass destruction. Moreover, the war in Ukraine is now unambiguously Putin’s war, and the Russian leader knows that he cannot lose—without risking his regime and even his life. So as the fighting continues, if he is pushed to choose between making an ignominious retreat and escalating the level of violence, we should prepare for the worst. In the extreme, this could include nuclear weapons.

With mounting evidence that Russian forces have engaged in horrific killings of innocent civilians, the United States and its European allies are facing increasing pressure to intervene in ways that risk widening the war. U.S. President Joe Biden has mobilized a global coalition that is now imposing on Russia the most comprehensive portfolio of painful sanctions the world has ever seen. He has effectively canceled Putin and his supporters, making them pariahs in much of the Western world. Together with NATO allies, the United States is also supplying extensive quantities of arms to the Ukrainians, who are courageously fighting for their freedom. Many Americans, however, as citizens of the most powerful nation on earth, will be asking what more the Biden administration can do. Already, a chorus of pundits and politicians has been calling on Biden to impose a no-fly zone over regions of Ukraine or to transfer Polish MiG-29 aircraft to Kyiv.

What these demands fail to take into account, however, is a central lesson of the Cold War: if military forces of nuclear superpowers should ever be engaged in a hot war in which each is killing or seriously considering choices that could kill hundreds or thousands of the other, the escalation ladder from there to the ultimate global catastrophe of nuclear war can be surprisingly short. The textbook case is the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“Putin’s Doomsday Threat.” Foreign Affairs, April 5, 2022.