Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Why Washington Should Take Russian Nuclear Threats Seriously

| May 05, 2022

Historically, states have escalated when facing the prospect of imminent defeat—and Putin has a track record of following through on his threats.

Back in February, I told Roger Cohen of the New York Times that "I find it difficult to believe that any world leader, including Mr. Putin, would seriously contemplate using nuclear weapons in any of the scenarios we have here, for the simple reason that they understand the consequences." I still think the odds of a nuclear strike are low, but I'm finding it easier to imagine the possibility than I did a couple of months ago.

To its credit, the Biden administration has been somewhat mindful of the risk of escalation, which is one reason the president said early on that he would not send U.S. troops to fight in Ukraine. The assumption behind this policy is that escalatory dangers will be minimized so long as Americans aren't pulling triggers and actively killing Russians. President Joe Biden & Co. clearly hope this is the case, and military experts such as Lawrence Freedman agree.

There is a sound basis for this position. Avoiding a direct clash of arms between U.S. and Soviet forces was a key unwritten rule of the Cold War, and it was a good one. Had Americans and Soviets started shooting at each other in those years, the risk of accidental or inadvertent escalation would have been considerable. For similar reasons, keeping U.S. forces outside the fray is the right move today.

Unfortunately, this policy is not an absolute barrier to unwanted escalation. Historically, states escalate not because of who they happen to be facing on the battlefield but because they are failing to achieve their war aims and may even be facing the possibility of a major defeat.

During World War I, for example, stalemate on the Western Front led both sides to widen the war: The Germans began unrestricted submarine warfare, the British tried to weaken the Ottoman Empire by sponsoring an Arab revolt and attacking Gallipoli, and both sides used poison gas and bombed civilian targets....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Why Washington Should Take Russian Nuclear Threats Seriously.” Foreign Policy, May 5, 2022.

The Author

Stephen Walt