As Russia digs in, what is the risk of nuclear war? ‘It’s not zero.’
A major war is raging on the borders of Russia and NATO. Fast adventure western military support. Russian threat of direct retaliation. An atmosphere of siege and desperation in the Kremlin. Increasing uncertainty around the red lines on each side.
As Russia and NATO increase their standoff over Ukraine, nuclear strategists and former US officials warn that there is a remote but growing risk of an unintended slide into direct conflict – even, in some scenarios, An atomic exchange.
“The prospect of nuclear war,” the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, warned this week, “is now back in the realm of possibility.”
Leaders on both sides insist that they consider such a war to be unthinkable, even as they prepare and issue proclamations on how they might carry it out. But experts say the fear is not a deliberate escalation to the war, but a misunderstanding or excitement gone too far, spiraling out of control as each side scrambles to respond.
Some experts say the war in Ukraine exaggerates these risks to a level not seen since the Cuban missile crisis, and is in some ways far more dangerous.
NATO forces, intended as defensive, are largely near Russian borders, with most of Russia’s forces trapped in Ukraine, unusually vulnerable. Facing economic devastation and domestic unrest, Kremlin leaders think a Western conspiracy is already underway to oust him.
Russia has said it considers weapons and other increased military aid that Western governments are sending to Ukraine for war, and means it could attack NATO convoys. Over the weekend, Russian missiles struck a Ukrainian base mere miles from Polish territory.
“Those are the things that really worries me about the growth here,” said Ulrich Kuhn, a nuclear strategist at the University of Hamburg in Germany.
“The employment potential of nuclear weapons is extremely low. But it is not zero. It is real, and it may increase,” he said. “Those things can happen.”
The Kremlin has turned to a nuclear saber-rattle that may not be entirely free of danger. Russian war planners, plagued by fears of a NATO invasion, have implied in recent policy documents and war games that they may believe Russia can return such power through a single nuclear attack – a gamble that the Soviets can take. -The leaders of the era dismissed the unimaginable.
It would be impossible to predict the outcome of such a strike. A recent Princeton University simulation, projecting each side’s battle plans and other indicators, predicted it would be likely to trigger a tit-for-tat exchange, advancing strategic weapons such as intercontinental missiles. occurred, could kill up to 34 million people within a few. hours.
Alexander Vershbow, deputy secretary-general of NATO from 2012 to 2016, said that while Western leaders had concluded that Russian plans to use nuclear weapons in a major crisis were serious, the Kremlin risked any accident or missteps for war.
With Russian forces clashing in the Ukraine conflict, which Moscow’s leaders have portrayed as existential, Vershbow said, “this risk has certainly increased over the past two and a half weeks.”
Murky Red Lines
Since at least 2014, when Russia’s annexation of Crimea has led to high tensions with the West, Moscow has pursued a policy of potentially using nuclear weapons against any threat to the “existence of the state”. clarified.
Russian statements have since expanded on this to make it easier to unintentionally cross the country’s nuclear tripwire.
In 2017, Moscow published a vaguely worded theory that it could “demonstrate readiness and determination to employ non-strategic nuclear weapons” in a major conflict, which some analysts believe. —that can describe a single nuclear launch.
Evgeny Buzynsky, a retired member of the General Staff of the Russian Army, described the purpose of such a strike as “a de-escalating factor, to show intent.” Some versions call for the explosion to hit an empty area, others to attack enemy soldiers.
The following year, the President of Russia, Vladimir V. Putin, said that Russia could use a nuclear weapon “within seconds” of an attack on Russian territory – raising fears that a border skirmish or other incident, if anything else If I get it wrong, it could set off a nuclear attack.
A 2020 Russian government paper seemed to extend these situations further, mentioning the use of drones and other equipment potentially triggering Russia’s nuclear red lines.
These policies are designed to address a problem that Soviet leaders never faced: a belief that, during the Cold War, NATO would quickly and decisively win a conventional war against Russia.
The result is a reluctant but genuine embrace of a seemingly limited nuclear conflict as manageable, even winnable. Russia is believed to have stockpiled at least 1,000 smaller, “non-strategic” warheads, as well as hypersonic missiles, in preparation that would zip them across Europe before the West could respond.
But Russian military strategists continue to debate how to calibrate such a strike so as to force NATO to back down without starting a wider war, underscoring concerns that such a needlepoint It may be impossible to spread – and Moscow may try anyway.
“The growing dynamics of conflict between the US and Russia could easily turn into nuclear exchanges,” said Dmitry Gorenberg, an analyst on Russian military policy.
Partly that’s because, unlike the proxy battles of the Cold War, Ukraine’s war is raging in the heart of Europe, with NATO and Russian forces a relatively short drive from Moscow and many western capitals with massive crowds. Have applied.
This is partly due to Russia’s reduced nuclear range and increased sense of vulnerability.
But Moscow also believes that a kind of NATO-Russia conflict has already begun.
Russian strategic doctrine is built around the fear that the West would instigate economic and political unrest within Russia in the form of an invasion.
With Mr Putin now facing economic devastation and mounting opposition, “a lot of the pieces of his nightmare are already coming together,” said Samuel Charp, who studies Russian foreign policy at the RAND Corporation. .
Under these circumstances, Moscow may misconstrue moves to build NATO forces, or military support for Ukraine, as a preparation for an attack designed to complement Russian nuclear policy.
“Among the volunteers of the NATO countries, all this NATO weapons, reinforcements from Poland and Romania,” said Mr. Charp, “they could connect the points we did not intend to connect and decide that they should be pre- needs to be evacuated.”
In such an environment, some mishaps or miscalculations – eg, a wrong strike or clumsy provocation by one side that lead to a stronger retaliation than expected by the other – may, in only a few steps, escalate to the point of triggering an attack in Moscow. leery of.
Russo-Ukraine war: the main things to know
Zelensky’s Appeal. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is trying to pressure the Kremlin with a series of video messages to democratic countries. On Wednesday he addressed the Congress; President Biden is expected to approve $800 million in new military aid later in the day.
Mr. Putin has already said that direct Western intervention in the Ukraine war could trigger Russian nuclear retaliation. Now, each uptick in Western support for Ukrainian forces tests those limits.
“Part of our problem is that I’m not sure we know clearly where the lines are,” said Dr. Gorenburg, “which is why we’re all hemming and looking back and forth to the question of providing aircraft.” There is just uncertainty about how the Russians will take it.”
German analyst Dr. Kuhn was concerned that American domestic politics might also play a role. Should Russia use chemical weapons or commit another crime, US leaders could face enormous pressure to retaliate more than Moscow expected.
Many in Washington are already calling for no-fly zones or other direct intervention, arguing that US weapons would deter Moscow from nuclear retaliation.
But clearing Ukraine’s airspace will require striking airfields within Russia and anti-air defenses that also serve to protect Russia’s borders. Analysts cautioned that such a fight could easily spiral out of control or trigger fears of the Kremlin pushing NATO into Moscow, prompting Mr Putin to launch a nuclear strike of last resort.
Chivivis, a former US intelligence officer for Europe, recently wrote that the “war games by the United States and its allies” all led to speculation that Mr Putin would be a single if facing limited fighting with NATO. nuclear attack. Or he blamed the West for the major setback in Ukraine.
The truth is that even Mr. Putin certainly may not have known his nuclear red lines. But US fears of a Russian nuclear escalation could also be dangerous.
Any nuclear conflict, although initially limited, carries a looming risk of what strategists call “use it or lose it”.
Both sides are aware that rapid nuclear strikes could destroy their military forces in Europe, even their entire nuclear arsenal, leaving them defenseless.
This means that both sides face incentives to launch widely before doing so first – even if leaders believe the conflict may have been accidentally started.
Recent advances in short-range missile technology mean leaders now have minutes to decide whether to launch rapidly, widely and with only partial information from the ground under pressure to launch It’s growing quite a bit.
Late in the Obama administration, two US war simulations imagined a casual skirmish between NATO and Russia that Moscow met with a single nuclear attack.
In a first, Pentagon leaders proposed a retaliatory nuclear strike to signal resolution. But a White House civilian official, Colin H. Kahl, instead convinced him to stand up and isolate Moscow diplomatically. Mr. Kahl is now Under Secretary at the Pentagon.
But the second simulation ended with US nuclear strikes, underlining that Washington cannot fully anticipate even its own actions in the face of such a crisis.
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