A Dangerous Gamble: The Russia-American Nuclear Game in the Ukraine Crisis

Since the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Russia and the United States have been engaged in an almost open nuclear game.

Since the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Russia and the United States have been engaged in an almost open nuclear game, but in different forms and with different objectives. Both Russia and the United States are well aware of the presence of the nuclear weapons factor in this conflict. Russia’s main objective is to deter the United States and NATO from directly intervening in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The U.S., on the other hand, tends to believe that Russia will not or dare not use nuclear weapons and can therefore boldly provide military support to Ukraine. Both sides are at loggerheads, but both carry an internal logic of self-escalation that carries deadly risks.

A week before the start of the special military operation, on February 17, Russia held nuclear exercises. On the fourth day of the Russo-Ukrainian military conflict, February 27, 2022, President Putin ordered strategic containment forces, including nuclear forces, to be placed on special operational readiness. This marked another step in the U.S.-Russian nuclear game. In his speech announcing the implementation of the special military operation, president Putin said that if there is an attempt to interfere, Russia will immediately respond and subject it to serious consequences never before experienced in its history. It is conceivable that the only thing capable of causing such unprecedented consequences would be nuclear weapons, which is a very stern warning.

However, unlike in the 2008 Georgian conflict and the 2014 Crimea incident, the United States and NATO reacted swiftly and firmly. Not only were they not deterred, but they immediately began to assist Ukraine, including militarily. Under these circumstances, the natural way to maintain the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence was to continue to raise the stakes, making the nuclear danger more real and realistic, so that the U.S. and NATO would feel that this was not a bluff and would back off.

The U.S. and NATO cannot ignore the risk of nuclear war, having developed a set of options to deal with Russia’s possible use of nuclear weapons, but despite differences of opinion, the overall judgment of the U.S. is that a nuclear strike by Russia is unlikely and, if used at a tactical level, would be unlikely to directly endanger the U.S. homeland. White House spokesman Psaki dismissed Putin’s warning as an “empty threat”. Secretary of State John Blinken accused Putin of making nuclear threats and demanded that he stop “empty talk” about nuclear war. At the NATO Vilnius Summit in July 2023, NATO condemned Russia’s nuclear rhetoric and coercive nuclear signaling, and called on Russia to reconfirm the January 2022 Joint Statement on the Prevention of Nuclear War and the Avoidance of Arms Rivalry, signed by the heads of the five nuclear powers, warning of the serious consequences of Russia’s possible use of nuclear weapons, but the NATO response did not see a sense of urgency that nuclear war was imminent.

The tendency toward cautiously optimistic estimates has dared the United States to increase its military assistance to Ukraine. Concluding that Russia is unlikely to launch a nuclear strike, the U.S. and NATO have not been afraid to break through the “red line” drawn by Russia, and have continued to deepen their involvement in the Russia-Ukrainian conflict. They have adopted the tactics of “boiling frog in warm water”, carefully assessing the risks, step by step, making Russia irritated but not so angry as to cause it to take asymmetrical nuclear strikes.

The first heavy weapons provided to Ukraine by NATO countries were the old Soviet tanks, which the U.S. and NATO were not directly involved in, but were implemented through the former Warsaw Pact countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Providing Ukraine with aging tanks has the dual benefit of meeting Ukraine’s needs and cleaning up Soviet-style weapons that NATO state-members no longer need, and with relatively low sensitivity.

Subsequently, the U.S. and NATO countries began supplying advanced artillery directly to Ukraine. This crosses another threshold, breaking the taboo of the United States not to provide Ukraine with heavy weaponry, and the provision of HIMARS rockets and M777 howitzers by the U.S. to Ukraine has become the focus of public opinion for a while. In order to calm Russia and not to overreact, the United States said that it asked Ukraine not to use these weapons against the “Russian mainland” and keep the range to a shorter distance.

Following the provision of artillery to Ukraine, the United States and NATO were planning to provide Ukraine with airplanes in another escalation of the West’s confrontation with Russia. The approach adopted by the U.S. and NATO continues to be to provide old Soviet fighters first, still through the hands of the former Warsaw Pact countries. With the consent of the U.S. and Germany, Poland and Slovakia transferred a large number of MiG-29 fighters to the Ukrainian Air Force.

The supply of old Soviet tanks and airplanes to Ukraine was successfully accomplished, which opened the door for the direct supply of tanks and airplanes by the United States and NATO. After a short time of indecision, Germany reversed its position and announced in January 2023 that it had agreed to supply Ukraine with advanced Leopard-2 battle tanks, and the United States decided to supply Ukraine with M1 Abrams battle tanks. In May 2023, the U.S. also announced that it had agreed to supply Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets. At this point, the U.S. and NATO have provided Ukraine with the basic heavy weapons needed for modern warfare, including airplanes, tanks, and artillery, as well as a large number of other weapons and equipment of various types. But this was still not the limit. In July, the U.S. decided to supply Ukraine with cluster bombs, which are highly lethal to personnel, pushed the confrontation to an even higher point.

The Russia-Ukrainian conflict has brought the world violently to the brink of nuclear war, and the world has come so close to it that some people even consider it’s even more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis. This situation was unimaginable a few years ago, and one cannot but be surprised and dismayed. However, if we look back, we can feel that the occurrence of all this is not as sudden and incomprehensible as it seems at the first glance, and that it has the soil for brewing and forming, and is not born out of thin air and without a reason.

The fundamental crux of the problem lies in the U.S.-Russia relations, which are both the basic background and the direct cause of the current nuclear crisis. Simply put, as the world’s two super-nuclear powers, the relations of Russia and the U.S. are inseparable from nuclear risk; as long as the two countries form a military-strategic confrontation, nuclear risk naturally exists, and the deeper the confrontation, the greater the risk, and once they come to the level of direct or indirect military confrontation, it will bring the world to the brink of nuclear war.

The Russia-Ukrainian conflict is the most serious military stand-off between Russia and the U.S. in last three-quarter century, and although it has been called a “proxy war”, the United States is almost directly involved in it in the traditional understanding, and the two countries just don’t want to “poke the last layer of window-paper” to keep the superficial reasons for avoiding a big war. But there is no doubt that the U.S. is present and is party to the conflict. Since the outbreak of the conflict, U.S. military aid to Ukraine has amounted to $43.7 billion, while Russia’s military budget for 2020 was only $61.7 billion. 2023 will see a significant increase in Russia’s military budget, which will be only slightly more than $100 billion. According to other sources, the Western aid to Ukraine since February 2022 has amounted to 160 billion dollars, of which military aid amounted to 75 billion dollars, with the United States taking the leading role in the aid to Ukraine, which amounted to 113 billion dollars. In fact, Ukraine could not support itself, militarily or financially, without the support of the U.S. and, more broadly, the West. Russia sees the United States and NATO as its main rivals, and its nuclear containment and threats are therefore mainly directed at the United States and NATO rather than Ukraine, and it is from this that the nuclear game has been emerging.

In a certain sense, the current state of U.S.-Russia relations is even worse than during the Cold War. During the Cold War, there was still basic mutual respect between the United States and the Soviet Union, and there was a tacit consensus to abide by common rules, there were acquiescent boundaries of interests, there were mechanisms of constraints, there was mutual nuclear inspection, and there was also a “hotline” between the White House and the Kremlin for emergency contact, but now all these are basically gone, Russia and the U.S. will be given a complete free hand in the field of nuclear arms control, and the two countries will enter a state where they are not bound by any rules or institutions. The nuclear game between the two is going with the flow, blindly moving forward in groping and guessing.

Before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a period of détente and even amity between the United States and Russia (USSR), a period of harvest in the field of nuclear disarmament, with the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), a significant reduction in the number of nuclear warheads, and an increase in the level of mutual trust between the two countries. In 1982, the USSR committed itself to the no-first-use of nuclear weapons, and in November 1985, at the U.S.-Soviet summit in Vienna, the so-called Reagan-Gorbachev paradigm emerged, which said “a nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought.” Although they were not the first to create this paradigm, it is true that it is due to them that it has become widespread. It was a period when nuclear risk was at its lowest and the possibility of nuclear war had almost completely disappeared.

After a brief romantic period following the end of the Cold War, Russia-American relations have undergone a shift in direction, gradually becoming worse and worse, until they became open adversaries. The relationship between the U.S. and Russia in the military-strategic and nuclear spheres has changed accordingly, becoming increasingly hostile, and the two countries have shifted from a construction-oriented direction to a destruction-oriented trajectory in the field of arms control.

The United States withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002, the INF Treaty in 2019, and the Open Skies Treaty in 2020, followed by Russia’s withdrawal from that treaty in 2021. In February 2023, Russia announced the suspension of the New START treaty, followed by the abrogation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) in May. In November 2023, Russia has completed the withdrawal of its ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty in order to be on an equal footing with the United States, which has never ratified the Treaty. Thus, the arms control systems that had been painstakingly built up were almost totally dismantled. At present, the New START, which has been suspended by Russia, will probably not be extended after its expiration. Against the background of the Russia-Ukrainian conflict, it will be difficult to start new negotiations, and if no new agreement can be reached when the treaty expires in 2026, Russia and the U.S. will completely be laissez-faire in the field of nuclear arms control, and the two countries will be entering a state where they will not be bound by any mutually accepted rules or systems.

The military doctrines of Russia and the United States are changing accordingly as well, with the mutual targeting of each other as enemies becoming more explicit and overt. In U.S. defense and military strategy documents, the language against Russia has become increasingly harsh, with the latest 2022 U.S. National Defense Strategy Report positioning Russia as the most pressing threat, including a nuclear threat to the U.S. homeland. The 2014 Russian Military Doctrine identified two conditions for the use of nuclear weapons, namely, an enemy attack on Russia with nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, or an attack on Russia with conventional weapons that pose a threat to the survival of the Russian state. The 2020 Russian Military Doctrine added two more conditions, namely, the receipt of credible information on the launch of ballistic missiles to attack the territories of Russia and/or allies; an attack on Russia’s critical state or military facilities, the destruction of the functioning of which would result in a loss of nuclear countermeasure capability. At the annual Valdai conference in October 2023, President Putin succinctly articulated the conditions for Russia’s use of nuclear weapons as two, one of which could be a nuclear attack on Russia and the other is a threat to Russia’s national survival.

Each country’s nuclear strategic doctrine sets out the conditions for the use of nuclear weapons, however, the doctrines are generalized, inevitably have some ambiguity and openness to interpretation. Decisions ultimately depend on the interpretation and judgment of the decision-maker. In other words, theory is static, while reality is dynamic. This also means that there is no safety valve in the bilateral nuclear game, which does not necessarily escalate in accordance with the theoretical order explained in textbooks, and no one knows at which step the nuclear switch could be triggered.

Since the beginning of the nuclear age, a large number of complex theories have been produced around the issue of nuclear weapons, which have also evolved in line with the nuclear arms control situation and the development of nuclear technology, and different and opposing points of view have always existed, both in the United States and in Russia. Naturally, regardless of the position, all the assumptions of nuclear theories are virtual, and none of them have been or can be tested in a real nuclear war. The high level of tension between Russia and the United States, and especially the outbreak of the Russia-Ukrainian conflict, have led on the one hand to an increasing number of warnings about the renewed nuclear danger, and on the other hand to the activation of a number of offensive views and concepts.

For example, the viewpoints of the failure of nuclear deterrence, which holds that since people have become convinced that nuclear weapons cannot be used and are no longer worried about nuclear war, the function of nuclear deterrence has failed, and the fear of nuclear weapons therefore needs to be brought back to realistic policies in order to restore the fear of nuclear war and its deterrent effect. Another example is the theory of limited nuclear war, which posits that due to the miniaturization of nuclear weapons and the precision of their delivery, the lethality of nuclear weapons can already be controlled in a smaller range, which is only equivalent to bombs of greater power, and that they can already be used as weapons of war, and that limited nuclear war or hybrid war can therefore be fought, and that victory in the war can be achieved. There is also the theory of nuclear disaster exaggeration, which holds that some concepts of nuclear war have exaggerated the degree of disaster it may cause, and that the so-called nuclear winter, destruction of the earth, and extinction of human beings will not occur. All of these provide a theoretical basis for the conduct of nuclear war and contribute to the transformation of the use of nuclear weapons from an abstract concept to a realistic policy.

It is not difficult to reveal the reasons for the nuclear game between the U.S. and Russia, but it is difficult to find a way out of the dead end. Improving U.S.-Russian relations is the fundamental solution to both the symptoms and the root causes of the problem, but the likelihood of this in the foreseeable future is minimal. Even if there is hope for the future, it is still too far away to quench the thirst of the near future. Many would naturally prefer a ceasefire of the Russia-Ukrainian conflict. Undoubtedly, a ceasefire is the right way to think and the indispensable way to avoid escalation. However, an unconditional ceasefire implies status quo, which, in the current situation, means that Russia will keep the lands it now controls and that Ukraine will stop fighting to regain them, a prospect Ukraine has repeatedly rejected. And a ceasefire under Ukraine’s peace program would require Russia to withdraw its troops, something Russia would never agree to. Therefore, although a ceasefire is the right direction to follow, it is very difficult to quickly find mutually acceptable conditions for a ceasefire in the current situation.

Could Russia and NATO then engage in some kind of interest exchange, with mutual commitments, such as that NATO would not deploy nuclear weapons close to Russia, or that NATO would not admit Ukraine to the organization, in exchange for assurances from Russia that it would not use nuclear weapons? Neither Russia nor NATO would accept this. NATO has always insisted on the autonomy of its state-members in deciding on defense matters, and the bloc does not accept the veto power of other countries over NATO’s decision-making, and it will not give Russia a guarantee that it will not deploy nuclear weapons in the territories of its member states, including the newcomers of Finland and Sweden. For Russia, on the other hand, renouncing the use of nuclear weapons would not be consistent with its nuclear strategy and, more to the point, it would be virtually tantamount to removing Russia’s most powerful armor. For Russia, nuclear weapons are its “talisman”, which is the last resort for its security, and giving up nuclear deterrence will enable the U.S. and NATO to let go and intervene or even directly participate in the war without fear. NATO has a huge advantage in terms of overall strength, and it might be difficult for Russia to win in a conventional war.

Appeals and demands by other neutral states that a country should not use nuclear weapons are also a way of preventing the use of nuclear weapons, which is politically necessary. It expresses an attitude and creates a certain amount of international pressure. But appeals alone are far from enough, since they do not address Russia’s security concerns, and Russia will not be convinced if its security concerns are not met. Russia has always insisted that its nuclear strategy is defensive, that it is the United States and NATO that are pushing for nuclear war, and that the danger does not come from Russia, but from the United States and NATO. As N. Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, said, the U.S. policy is increasing the risk of use of nuclear weapons. Moreover, Russia believes that the West has used weapons with a nuclear component, such as a depleted uranium bomb, and it calls for the prevention of nuclear war as well.

Indeed, the U.S. and NATO have shown no weakness on the nuclear issue, and have gone toe-to-toe with Russia. The NATO Vilnius Declaration of July 2023 reaffirmed NATO as a nuclear alliance, which meant that NATO had pushed its nuclear borders in the direction of Russia after expanding northward. NATO held the Firm Midday nuclear exercise in October 2022, which was routine but the rare participation of U.S. B-52 strategic bombers made it unusual. To maintain nuclear superiority, the United States plans to allocate $634 billion between 2021 and 2030 for the modernization of its nuclear forces.

At present, the Russia-American nuclear game is still on an upward trajectory, and neither side has fully achieved its goals; Russia’s actions has not prevented the United States and NATO from getting more and more deeply involved in the war, and the deepening involvement of the United States and NATO has not overwhelmed Russia. The two sides have formed a stalemate, but in the military implications, its seriousness is no longer on a level compared to the early stages of the conflict, and both sides are faced with the problem of how to break the stalemate and achieve a breakthrough. Compromise does not yet seem to be an option for either side. For Russia, if the situation in battlefield takes the direction to deteriorate, it can only continue to increase the level of the nuclear threat, which means moving closer to the threshold of use of nuclear weapons. From the U.S. perspective, after already providing weapons such as airplanes, artillery, tanks, cluster bombs, and even ATACMS, if it still can’t get Russia out of the conflict, unless it accepts the reality that it can’t win and change policy to negotiate peace, it will have to continue to raise the stakes, either by increasing the number of heavy weaponry, or by providing more powerful weaponry, which will mean pushing Russia further and further into the corner, stimulating a higher risk of Russia resorting to nuclear weapons. In a two-way spiral of stimulus, the risk of loss of control is always there, and it will grow.

What can be expected now is that, before the crisis subsides, the United States and Russia will not lose a minimum degree of rationality and restraint, will not go to the point of no return, will leave room for themselves and its opponent not to take risks in desperation, and will also leave time and opportunity to seek a better way out.

Both the United States and Russia should get rid of the temptation to completely defeat its opponent. As two major world powers and the strongest nuclear powers, the total defeat of its opponent would mean world war and nuclear war. The U.S. and Russia need to have the necessary limits on their war goals and cannot aim to completely defeat each other strategically—actually, this is not possible. The U.S. has often stated that the objectives of the war are of Ukraine’s own choosing, and that the U.S. will support them all but will not make decisions for Ukrainians. Even if this were true, the achievement of the objectives would depend, to a considerable extent, on the United States, without whose financial and military support it would be impossible for Ukraine to achieve any strategic victory. In this sense, the U.S. can still influence the choice of Ukraine’s war goals.

The United States and Russia should try to confine the stand-off to the local level and avoid its geographical expansion. This is an important way to prevent an escalation of the conflict, which the United States and Russia can and should be willing to do. Of course, this is not to say that a localized military action is acceptable, but to prevent it from escalating further and causing greater harm in the first place when the conflict cannot be stopped for the time being.

The United States have an incentive to keep it localized, been cautious and dissuasive of Ukraine’s attack on the Russian inland and its retaking of the Crimea, although it has stated that the final decision is in Ukraine’s hands. It is not that the U.S. disapproves of Ukraine’s goals, but it fears a massive Russian retaliation and the expansion of the battlefield into Europe, with the U.S. being directly involved.

Russia should also have the desire to keep it localized. Since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukrainian conflict, it seems the situation on the battlefield has changed, and as it stands now, for Russia, the preservation of the new four territories and Crimea should be its basic focus. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to solve the territorial problem and there is no solution in sight that could be accepted by both sides, and the localized Russia-Ukrainian conflict is likely to continue for a long time, even if it does not escalate. Under this background, reducing its intensity and narrowing its scope would therefore be a step towards the peace process.

The international community, especially countries of the Global South, should also do something as there should be more voices speaking out firmly against nuclear war, expressing their positions more clearly and exerting their influence on all sides. Notably, this should be directed at all nuclear powers, not just one of them. It is true that the party that uses nuclear weapons first will certainly be condemned and opposed by the whole world in the harshest terms. This does not mean, however, that the party that pushes for the intensification of the situation is completely blameless. More importantly, if a nuclear war occurs, disaster has already struck and condemnation will not help. Therefore, the first step is to avoid the worst-case scenario. The international community should make it clear that there are greater interests and higher values than the Russia-Ukrainian conflict, and that nuclear war is not only a bilateral matter for Russia and the United States, as it concerns interests and destiny of all nations, and it will be a destructive act against all the humanity and civilizations.

From our partner RIAC

Zhao Huasheng
Zhao Huasheng
Professor, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai, Expert of the China Forum