Western arms control experts are asking whether old taboos on the use of nuclear weapons are still valid in an age of ascendant illiberalism, underscored by Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. During the Cold War, it was generally assumed that reason would prevail, thus preventing either the Soviet Union or the United States from going nuclear. But many specialists and scholars these days believe the only certainty concerning the potential future use of weapons of mass destruction is uncertainty.
“Nuclear weapons are back … once again central to international politics, along with renewed Great Power competition,” said Cynthia Roberts, a professor at Hunter College in New York and a leading expert on international security. She added that Russian aggression in Ukraine has brought the “prospect of nuclear war back into the realm of possibility.”
Roberts moderated a recent panel discussion, organized by Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies, that surveyed the shifting WMD landscape. She cited the Biden administration’s recent nuclear posture review, which cautioned that the United States is entering an “unprecedented era” when it faces two “potential [nuclear] adversaries” – Russia and China – as opposed to the Cold War, during which Washington just had to contend with the Soviet Union.
China’s rise is just one factor altering the nuclear-weapons-use calculus. Some panelists also pointed to 21st century technological innovations – especially the advent of social media and rapid advances in artificial intelligence – as potential enablers of illiberalism. The ebb of rationality, they add, heightens the risk of a nuclear button being pressed, or some other weapon of mass destruction being used.
“The liars are taking over the world,” said one panelist, Stephen Van Evera, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The Enlightenment is in danger because of the new media and the fact that we no longer have vetted information that controls how the public sees things.”
Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling, combined with Russia’s withdrawal in early 2023 from the New START Treaty, has raised fears that Russia could resort to using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. What Putin and his generals had expected to be a walkover has turned into a quagmire, exposing the Russian military as poorly led and ineffectual. While experts at the Saltzman Institute event considered the possibility to be slim at present, no one dismissed as impossible the idea of a nuclear device being detonated.
Scott Sagan, a Stanford political scientist, said he believes Putin is keeping his options open. “What we know about leaders in crises, what we know about leaders who sometimes try to gamble for resurrection, suggests when you’re losing, you might take very rash decisions,” he said.
Sagan added that the Soviet-era constraint of collective decision-making seems to have eroded in Putin’s Russia. “Dictators surround themselves with yes-men,” he noted. “If you don’t have a rational actor at the top, you need checks and balances down below.”
Charles Glaser, a professor at The George Washington University, said a variety of scenarios could result in the use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine. “We need to keep in mind that there could also be rational uses of nuclear weapons. They would be very dangerous, but very dangerous isn’t necessarily irrational,” Glaser said. For example, he continued, if Putin feels that Russia is on the verge of experiencing a major setback, such as the loss of Crimea, he might be tempted to employ tactical nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip to force a peace settlement that forestalls a disaster that might threaten his grip on power.
Van Evera voiced fear about the potential for nuclear escalation in Ukraine, saying the “balance of resolve” there is tilting against the United States. “This is the first time the U.S. has gotten itself into a conflict … with another nuclear power that … believes it cares more about the stakes at issue than the U.S. does,” he said. “One of the sort of rules of nuclear statecraft, in my view, is don’t get into a face-to-face confrontation on issues where the other side cares as much as you do, or cares more.” Such a showdown will be decided by the balance of resolve.
The panelists wrestled with the vexing question of what the United States should do if Russia uses a nuclear weapon. The expert consensus appeared to lean toward massive U.S. conventional retaliation because such a response would minimize the risk of escalation.
Glaser noted that although Russia has experienced lots of battlefield reverses, “Putin hasn’t lost badly yet,” and thus hasn’t really faced a situation in which he would be tempted to order a nuclear strike. “If he uses nuclear weapons, we don’t quite know what happens next,” he added. “His limited use could lead to a really bigger nuclear war.”
Any forceful U.S. response to the potential Russian use of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine would certainly entail risks, but inaction could be even riskier, one panelist asserted. “We don’t have the luxury or doing nothing in the face of aggression,” said Etel Solingen, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine. “Doing nothing is sometimes equivalent to raising the risk of catastrophe. This is the lesson of 2014.”
Solingen was referring to the tepid U.S. and European Union response to Russia’s armed takeover of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, as well as Kremlin-backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas Region who invaded shortly after Crimea’s occupation. “It was Putin’s perception of [Western] inaction [in 2014] … that could have well led to [Russia’s attack on Ukraine in] 2022,” Solingen said.
Editor’s note: Eurasianet has previously received funding from the Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies, which organized the panel.