Future Reviewer

Russia’s Nuclear Option Hangs Over Ukraine and NATO

Some Western officials say Putin’s nuclear threats are all talk. Others are more wary.

As NATO leaders convene for a pivotal summit, there’s one major security threat that allied leaders prefer to talk about only in broad, circumspect terms: the threat of nuclear war.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has thrust the risk of a nuclear showdown between Moscow and the West back into the spotlight. While all allied countries agree the risk of Russia escalating the conflict in Ukraine remains low, there’s a growing gap between the United States and some other allies as to when and how that risk could increase, according to interviews with nearly a dozen current and former NATO officials and security experts.

The nuclear question is an existential one for the alliance, one that’s driven Washington’s calculations on what military aid to send to Ukraine and when, and it has also influenced the debate on when and how to allow Ukraine to join the military alliance as a full-fledged member. That debate is playing out at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, this week, where NATO leaders agreed to “extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance when allies agree and conditions are met.” 

“…The greatest victory is that which requires no battle….”

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Dmitry Trenin, once considered by many in Washington to be the most respected and influential Russian foreign-policy expert in Western circles, has also advocated for Russia to escalate its nuclear threats over Ukraine. “The ‘nuclear bullet’ must necessarily and demonstratively be put into the ‘revolver drum’ the U.S. leadership is recklessly playing with. To paraphrase a now-deceased American statesman, we can say: Why do we need nuclear weapons if we refuse to use them in the face of an existential threat?” Trenin wrote

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Ultimately, Russia’s decision to deploy nuclear weapons won’t come down to elites debating in Moscow, but rather one man: Putin. Bonnie Jenkins, the top U.S. arms control envoy, told reporters in a briefing on Tuesday that the United States and NATO took nuclear threats from Putin seriously and the alliance’s resolve and unity in support of Ukraine served as a major deterrent against Russia.