Russian leader Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with the head of Russia's Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, a big business lobby group, at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 2, 2022.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with the head of Russia's Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, a big business lobby group, at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 2, 2022. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Will Russia Go Nuclear?

Probably not, but that ultimately depends on factors out of our control, including Putin himself.

President Joe Biden had a quick answer when he was asked on Monday whether Americans should be concerned about nuclear war. “No,” he said.

Well, not so fast. The question was motivated by Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s recent threats to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, where he is leading a brutal and unjustified war. Putin will probably not go nuclear, but that ultimately depends on factors out of our control, including Putin himself. Given the catastrophic consequences of atomic weapons, that should be deeply concerning.

Indeed, according to recent polling, 63 percent of Americans are worried about Russia launching a nuclear attack. And no wonder. Before the invasion even started, Russia test-fired nuclear-capable missiles as part of “planned” exercises as tension rose. Soon after the invasion, Putin reminded the world that Russia “remains one of the most powerful nuclear states” and he threatened “consequences you have never faced in your history” for “anyone who tries to interfere with us,” a clear nuclear threat to anyone who might come to Ukraine’s aid.

Then on Sunday, Putin told his top defense officials to put Russian nuclear forces on “special combat readiness,” a heightened alert status that could raise new dangers. The Biden administration did the right thing by not raising its alert levels in response, which could have led to Russian escalation. Instead, U.S. ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield rightly criticized Putin for “another escalatory and unnecessary step that threatens us all.”

Soon after, Moscow’s ally Belarus approved a constitutional change that would allow Russian nuclear weapons to be based there—again. Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko said he could ask Russia to return nuclear weapons to Belarus if the West transfers nuclear weapons to Poland or Lithuania. (For what it’s worth, Russian state media confirmed that Lukashenko said this, then denied he said it.) Thus, we could have nuclear weapons back in Belarus, and possibly Ukraine, after they were removed 30 years ago.

So, is this just saber-rattling or a more serious reflection of Putin’s intensions?

It is not inconceivable that Putin could use nuclear weapons in Ukraine if he thought he might lose the war without them. A defeat in Ukraine would be a severe blow to Putin’s standing back home, one that he might fear could cripple his ability to survive as president. Putin also has reason to worry about increased economic sanctions from the West, which so far have sent the ruble crashing by almost 30 percent. At what point does a threat to Russia’s economy become a threat to Putin himself?

At the same time, Putin must be aware of the international backlash that using nuclear weapons in Ukraine would cause. A nuclear attack, depending on the size, could kill tens of thousands to millions of people in a country that has no nuclear weapons because it gave them back to Russia in 1994. The Bomb has not been used in combat for 77 years and its use now would be devastating not only to Russia’s already-low standing but to global peace and security. Yet Putin might not be deterred from going nuclear against Ukraine, because he may think he could get away with it. Washington, for example, would be highly reluctant to attack Russia with conventional or nuclear weapons for the obvious reason that Moscow might then attack the United States. 

Russia could also blunder into using nuclear weapons by mistake. Even if Moscow does not increase its alert levels, some of its forces are already ready to launch within minutes. A paranoid Putin who imagines signs of an incoming attack might give such an order. False alarms have happened before and are a particular concern in an age of cyberattacks where nuclear command-and-control systems in both the U.S. and Russia are vulnerable.   

What if Putin has become unstable? James Clapper, former director of national intelligence, said, “I personally think he’s unhinged. I worry about his acuity and balance.” In Russia, as in the Unites States, the president has unilateral authority to launch nuclear weapons. This must change.

Russia bears full responsibility for its shockingly irresponsible actions. And yet there is much that both sides could have done to avoid this situation. Nuclear history is filled with missed opportunities. Thirty years after the Cold War, we still have excessive U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals on alert, ready to launch in a first strike. We must revive the political will to change these dangerous policies.

The United States and Russia, which together control 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, have downplayed their dangers for far too long, and now we are paying the price. If we can get out of this crisis without a nuclear bomb being used in anger, we need to refocus our energies on reducing nuclear risks. Should Americans be concerned about nuclear war? Unfortunately, yes. Ignoring it will not make us safer.

Tom Collina is director of policy at Ploughshares Fund and co-author, with former Defense Secretary William Perry, of the book “The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump."