This article is part of the Debatable newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it on Wednesdays.
Over the weekend, as his military laid siege to Ukraine for the fourth day, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear forces into a higher state of alert, the first time the Kremlin has done so since the Russian Federation was established in 1991.
“This is unprecedented in the post-Cold War era,” Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington nonprofit, told NBC. “There has been no instance in which a U.S. or a Russian leader has raised the alert level of their nuclear forces in a middle of a crisis in order to try to coerce the other side’s behavior.”
Since the end of the Cold War, it has been easy enough for most people to disregard the possibility of a nuclear attack; the conflict in Ukraine has thrust it back into view. How troubling is Putin’s escalation, and in what ways might the prospect of a nuclear exchange shape the outcome of this conflict? Here’s what people are saying.
What does Putin’s order mean?
Russia and the United States control 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Those weapons can be delivered by aircraft — as were the two atomic bombs that the United States used against Japan in World War II — or via submarine- or land-based missiles.
During the Cold War, as Robert Burns of The Associated Press explains, the United States and Russia maintained several times their current number of nuclear weapons, and kept them more closely at the ready. Shortly before the Soviet Union’s collapse, President George H.W. Bush took U.S. nuclear-armed bombers off alert in an effort to slow the nuclear arms race.
But both nations have kept their land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles at a constant state of readiness. Capable of being launched within minutes, these missiles provided the bedrock of the “mutually assured destruction” strategy that U.S. nuclear doctrine credits with avoiding nuclear exchanges throughout the Cold War.
How Putin’s order will change the status quo isn’t yet clear: In his televised announcement he issued only a vague command to his generals for “special combat readiness.”
“If Russia’s alerts look anything like ours, this means that the crews and institutions that control strategic missiles, submarines and bombers will be told to make preparedness a higher priority,” Tom Nichols writes for The Atlantic. “They will cancel leaves, conduct inspections, check their communications and so on, and their intelligence organizations will devote more time and attention than usual to monitoring for indications of possible launches against Russia.”
On Tuesday, the Russian military announced it had conducted drills involving nuclear submarines and mobile land-based missile launchers. But it’s not yet known — at least among the public — whether the exercises were directly related to Putin’s order or if they marked a change in the country’s standard nuclear operations.
“Both Russia and the United States conduct drills that replicate various levels of nuclear alert status, so the choreography of such moves is well understood by both sides,” David E. Sanger and William J. Broad report for The Times. The United States and its allies monitor Russia’s nuclear forces around the clock, so “a deviation from usual practice would almost certainly be noticeable.”
How worrying is Putin’s escalation?
History is full of instances in which nuclear powers publicly threatened to use their arsenals. Matthew Kroenig, a professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown, pointed to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the 1969 border war between the Soviet Union and China, and the 1999 war between India and Pakistan, among other examples. (More recently, President Donald Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” after it conducted long-range missile tests.)
Perhaps one of the closest precedents to the current moment occurred during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Arab states, then allied with the Soviet Union, launched attacks on Israel. As Nichols recounts, the Nixon administration responded by raising the United States’ nuclear alert level, albeit with no formal announcement.
From a strategic standpoint, many experts say that there is no reason for Putin to use nuclear weapons: His goal, according to Paul Hare, a senior lecturer in global studies at Boston University, is to “swallow Ukraine” and restore the historical power of imperial Russia — not to instigate a nuclear exchange, which, if it did not bring about civilization’s end, would make him a pariah not just to the world’s democracies but also to China.
Among those who see Putin’s order as incongruous with that goal, the move has raised questions about his state of mind. “It makes no sense,” said Graham Allison, a Harvard political scientist who worked on the project to decommission thousands of nuclear weapons that once belonged to the Soviet Union. He noted that the incident is “adding to the worry that Putin’s grasp on reality may be loosening.”
Other experts, though, are skeptical of such conjecture. “I don’t fully subscribe to this view that Putin’s lost it completely,” Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard, told Yahoo News. “I always like to remind people, and occasionally remind my students, that plenty of leaders that we regarded as fairly smart and fairly sensible did dumb things in the past.”
It’s also possible to see the alert as an attempt by Putin to guard against the threat of overthrow that he may see as the ultimate goal of the countries issuing sanctions. In the view of Pavel Podvig, an expert on Russia’s nuclear forces at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, Putin’s announcement could make his government less vulnerable to decapitation.
Still, some experts and military officials warn that the risk for mistakes in a heightened state of alert is worrisome. “What would happen if the Russian warning system had a false alarm in the middle of a crisis like this?” Jeffrey Lewis, a senior scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said on NPR. “Would Putin know it was a false alarm? Or would he jump to the wrong conclusion?”
“I don’t think we should look at this as a threat by Putin to use nuclear weapons against the United States, against Europe, against NATO,” said Kimball. But, he added, “it’s a point in which both sides need to back down and move the word ‘nuclear’ from this equation.”
The United States seems to be doing just that. The Biden administration could have countered Putin’s order by putting its bombers, nuclear silos and submarines on a higher alert level. Instead, the White House made clear that it had not changed. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations also told the Security Council on Sunday that Russia was “under no threat” and chided Putin for “another escalatory and unnecessary step that threatens us all.”
How nuclear weapons are shaping the terms of the Ukraine conflict and beyond
Since the dawn of the Cold War, the logic of mutually assured destruction held that nuclear weapons would act as deterrents to full-scale nuclear conflict. One school of thought known as “nuclear revolution theory” posits that the proliferation of nuclear weapons has made the world safer by increasing the risk of aggression. The advent of nuclear weapons did coincide with a decades-long decline in war-related deaths among nuclear-armed states.
But another theory holds that nuclear weapons can make conventional warfare more likely rather than less. It’s known in academic circles as the “stability-instability paradox”: Because nuclear-armed states feel secure in the knowledge that neither side will chance annihilation, they develop a larger risk appetite for crisis, escalation and violence at a smaller scale than full-blown war.
Viewed through the lens of the stability-instability paradox, nuclear weapons may have actually laid the groundwork for the current conflict. “Russia can be relatively confident that the United States and its allies won’t come to Ukraine’s defense directly, because such a clash carries the threat of nuclear war,” Zack Beauchamp writes for Vox. “This could make Putin more confident that his invasion could succeed.”
Perhaps the most destabilizing effect of Russia’s invasion, then, could be a renewed global thirst for nuclear weapons as a means of protecting national sovereignty, Ivan Krastev writes in The Times. He notes that at the Munich Security Forum this month, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine stated that his country had made a mistake in abandoning the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union. In the face of a nuclear-armed China and North Korea, a large majority of South Koreans have also come to favor the development of a domestic nuclear weapons program. (The current prime minister of Japan, it should be said, has remained resolute in his country’s commitment to nonproliferation, calling the idea of hosting U.S. nuclear weapons “unacceptable.”)
“I sense a period ending,” writes Mary Elise Sarotte, a historian at Johns Hopkins University, in The Times. “I am now deeply afraid that Mr. Putin’s recklessness may cause the years between the Cold War and the Covid-19 pandemic to seem a halcyon period to future historians, compared with what came after. I fear we may find ourselves missing the old Cold War.”
Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.