In Ukraine Conflict, Nuclear Escalation Is Possible, But Not Likely, Expert Says
As the conflict in Ukraine continues, fears of nuclear escalation between Russia and the West are to be expected. But as Texas A&M University professor Matthew Fuhrmann explains, it’s important to keep those fears in perspective.
Currently, Russia has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, a fact Russian President Vladimir Putin has leveraged with relative success to discourage NATO intervention in Ukraine. But at this stage in the conflict, the likelihood of nuclear weapons actually seeing use remains low, said Fuhrmann, a professor of political science and co-author of the book “Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy.”
“Nuclear weapons make the situation very serious,” Fuhrmann said. “We should be aware of the possibility of nuclear escalation, but at this point, we shouldn’t exaggerate the likelihood of it.”
In a rare but not unprecedented move, Russia has attempted to signal its willingness to use these weapons by putting its nuclear forces on alert. And Putin has warned of dire consequences awaiting third parties like the U.S. should they choose to take military action in defense of Ukraine.
“You can think of this as a case where a nuclear power, namely Russia, is using its nuclear arsenal as a shield behind which it can become more aggressive,” Fuhrmann said. “There’s a long-standing concern that nuclear weapons allow countries to do just this kind of thing.”
However, it’s difficult to make a nuclear threat appear credible, Fuhrmann said, especially in cases where a nation invokes the nuclear option in an attempt to change the geopolitical status quo.
The sheer destructive power that makes nuclear weapons an effective tool for strategic defense also makes it hard to imagine them ever being launched.
“If you’re thinking about a strategic nuclear weapon like the ones on missiles housed in silos in various parts of the middle of the United States, those things are designed to destroy cities,” Fuhrmann said. “And that makes them potentially very useful for deterrence, but it also makes one question whether you would actually use it. The stakes have to be very, very high for other countries to believe that you would use such a destructive weapon.”
Still, the United States and its allies have remained cautious, resisting repeated calls for a NATO-enforced “no-fly zone” over Ukrainian airspace. This is consistent with a longstanding historical trend in which the nuclear powers of the world have generally taken great care to ensure they never come into direct military confrontation, lest the situation spiral out of control. The U.S. military’s atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 are still the only time that one nation has launched a nuclear strike against another.
Many of today’s nuclear weapons are far more powerful than the ones dropped on Japan. But as Fuhrmann notes, it is the smaller, less powerful nukes that could be a cause for concern in the Ukraine conflict.
These “tactical” nuclear weapons are designed for use on the battlefield, and their comparatively low destructive power makes their use more conceivable compared to their larger strategic cousins.
“Because they’re smaller and inflict relatively less damage, the conditions under which they might be used are potentially wider,” Fuhrmann said. “So that’s another reason why some people are concerned about nuclear escalation in Ukraine.”
As other experts have noted, the Russian military has run a variety of drills and simulations over the years in order to practice a transition from conventional to nuclear war — the idea being that a nuclear strike could help Russian forces regain the upper hand in a conflict that is not going their way.
But even if Russia were to opt for one of these smaller bombs, the consequences for breaking the decades-long nuclear taboo would be dire, Fuhrmann said. Much of the international community has already arrayed strongly against Russia in the wake of its invasion into Ukraine, with Western nations unleashing far-reaching sanctions designed to cripple the Russian economy. By pressing the nuclear button, Putin would risk alienating the few remaining powers that have not yet turned their back on him.
“Nuclear use is not in the interest of any country,” Fuhrmann said. “So if that were to happen, I can imagine that countries like China would start to rally against Russia in a way that they’re not currently.”
Militarily, even if the U.S. and its allies did not retaliate with nukes of their own — opting instead to rely on a vast arsenal of conventional weapons — the consequences for Putin and his government could still be catastrophic, Fuhrmann said.
“For Russia, you have to ask whether the stakes involved here are big enough to justify what the United States and others might do and are likely to do were Russia to use a nuclear weapon first,” he said. “It’s not hard to imagine that leading to a situation where, at the very least, the Putin government is toppled.”
Fuhrmann said he believes the Russian leadership is not currently in a desperate enough position to take that risk. Therefore, the chance of nuclear escalation in the immediate future remains quite small. And ultimately, while it’s good to acknowledge and understand that small chance, Fuhrmann said it’s important not to lose sight of the countless tragedies already wrought by the conflict and the other crucial questions this invasion has raised.
“One of those,” Fuhrmann said, “is how you respond to this kind of land grab or this kind of invasion in a way that doesn’t expose the United States to unnecessary risk but also makes it clear that this kind of action is not acceptable in contemporary international politics.”