Russian President Vladimir Putin enters the hall during the concert marking the 100th Anniversary of Karachay-Cherkessia, Adygea Republic and Kabardino-Balkarian Republic, at the Grand Kremlin Palace, September 20, 2022, in Moscow, Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin enters the hall during the concert marking the 100th Anniversary of Karachay-Cherkessia, Adygea Republic and Kabardino-Balkarian Republic, at the Grand Kremlin Palace, September 20, 2022, in Moscow, Russia. Contributor/Getty Images

War Is No Reason to Put Arms-Control Negotiations on Hold

The possibility that Russia might use nuclear weapons in Ukraine is just one of the nuclear dangers we must address.

From the very beginning, the risk of nuclear war has cast a dark shadow over Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin has used thinly veiled threats to remind the United States and NATO that if they get too involved in the conflict Moscow could go nuclear, with catastrophic consequences. Now, as Ukraine is having greater success on the battlefield and is pushing Russian forces back, there is fresh concern that Putin might use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine out of desperation.

“We are, indeed, responding rather restrainedly, but that’s for the time being,” the Russian leader said ominously on Friday. “If the situation continues to develop in this way, the answer will be more serious.”

Asked what he would say if Putin were considering the use of chemical or tactical nuclear weapons, President Biden said, “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. It would change the face of war unlike anything since World War II.” Biden said the consequences would be “consequential" and that Russia would “become more of a pariah in the world than they ever have been. And depending on the extent of what they do will determine what response would occur."

Unfortunately, the possible use of nuclear weapons is just one of the nuclear risks that has emerged from Russia’s senseless war. We are now seeing worrying ripple effects of a new nuclear arms race, the collapse of bilateral arms control, new incentives for nations to get their own atomic bombs, and the use of civilian nuclear-power plants as weapons of terror. Just as the Biden administration and NATO have done with the risk of nuclear conflict, global leaders must act now to tamp down these additional dangers. 

After six months of devastating war, the Biden administration has so far succeeded in walking the fine line between providing military support for Ukraine while not provoking a U.S. conflict with Russia. The West has rightly heeded Putin’s warnings by not sending troops into Ukraine, establishing a no-fly zone, or sending weapons that could strike deep into Russia. Despite complaints that the West should do more, Ukraine is holding its own thanks to a tireless President Volodymyr Zelensky, brave fighters and citizens, and billions of dollars of military and other support from the United States and NATO. 

But there are dangers ahead. Despite recent Ukrainian successes, the war has no end in sight and there will be more opportunities for escalation. Colin Kahl, defense undersecretary for policy, said in a statement on Friday that “Ukraine’s success on the battlefield could cause Russia to feel backed into a corner, and that is something we must remain mindful of.” Former NATO senior official Rose Gottemoeller said she fears that Russia "will strike back now in really unpredictable ways that may even involve weapons of mass destruction,” including nuclear weapons.

Ukraine’s nuclear lessons

To address the nuclear challenges radiating from Ukraine, we must first learn the right lessons from this crisis. Some see the war as proof that nuclear deterrence works and that we should rely more on nuclear weapons for our security. Indeed, Russia has kept the war inside Ukraine presumably because it does not want to escalate the conflict by attacking a nuclear-armed NATO. But deterrence is a double-edged sword, and Russia is using its nuclear threats to keep NATO out of Ukraine. Russia might never have invaded Ukraine if Moscow did not have nuclear weapons to back it up. Putin’s nuclear arsenal helped to enable this horrific war and could enable others. 

Moreover, deterrence only works if leaders can be trusted to make rational decisions about the costs and benefits of their actions. But Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine appears to have been a major miscalculation bordering on delusion. He reportedly expected Kyiv to fall quickly and for the Western response to be divided, and yet the exact opposite has happened. We cannot expect Putin to suddenly become wise and cool-headed when it comes to nuclear weapons. Depending on deterrence to work with Putin is taking a dangerous gamble. 

The danger that ruthless dictators will continue to use the Bomb as a cover to invade weaker states and that they may make irrational decisions about nuclear use means that nuclear weapons are ultimately a liability for the West. We should seek a world with fewer of them. Yet the United States continues to modernize its arsenal at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, leading us into a dangerous new arms race with Moscow. Instead, we should seek opportunities to avoid huge expenditures on weapons we do not need and that make us less safe.  

But just as nuclear weapons are a liability for the West, Putin presumably sees them as an asset and will not reduce his stockpile easily, if at all. Thus, the United States will need to reduce its nuclear arsenal to encourage Russia to do the same.

It is therefore concerning that, due to the war, U.S.-Russian talks to reduce nuclear arsenals have stalled. The last remaining bilateral arms control treaty, New START, was extended by President Biden and President Putin last year, but it expires in 2026 and it will take significant negotiating time to agree on a new treaty. Without an agreement, there would be no limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles for the first time in 50 years. 

To avoid this dangerous situation, the United States and Russia need to restart talks to replace New START. Both sides say they are ready to do so, but the politics are tricky, as President Biden is understandably reluctant to “normalize” Putin too soon by sitting down with him. It may be that bilateral talks cannot resume in earnest until there is at least a ceasefire in Ukraine. In the meantime, the two sides could meet informally or through intermediaries to exchange ideas. A new agreement should include lower limits on the size of their arsenals, cover new delivery systems and technologies, and address tactical nuclear weapons, among other things. In addition, inspections under the existing treaty must be resumed as soon as possible. 

The Ukraine war also introduces new challenges in stopping the spread of the Bomb. Russia blocked agreement and walked out of the August review conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, over language regarding Ukraine, and it is not clear what other diplomatic mischief Moscow might cause. Moreover, some non-nuclear states may be reviewing their options given the widespread belief that Russia would not have invaded Ukraine if Kyiv had kept the nuclear weapons it had inherited from the Soviet Union. Thankfully, so far there are no signs of states rushing to go nuclear, but this risk highlights the need to shore up international agreements like the NPT and the Iran nuclear deal.

Finally, in Ukraine we are seeing the first time that an operating nuclear power plant has been caught in a war zone and used as a weapon of terror. Since early March, the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, the largest in Europe, has been under Russian control and repeatedly attacked. The plant has come dangerously close to losing power, which could cause the cooling systems to fail and lead to a meltdown of the nuclear fuel. IAEA chief Rafael Grossi led a team to the plant in early September to establish a permanent presence after calling for onsite inspections for months. The facility's last working reactor was recently shut down so it could be cooled and eventually pose a reduced danger, a process that could take months. In the meantime, both sides must agree to a demilitarized zone around the plant. Zaporizhzhia is a reminder that Putin is capable of the unthinkable: in this case attacking an operating nuclear power plant. 

Addressing the interlocking nuclear dangers emerging from Russia’s war in Ukraine will require new ways of thinking. Above all, the United States and NATO will need to balance the need to support Ukraine, prevent nuclear conflict, and seek a diplomatic end to the war. If we want to prevent Russia from using its nuclear weapons to enable more aggression against weaker states, we must find a way to work with Moscow to reduce its nuclear arsenal. As difficult as this may seem, we cannot wish Russia’s nuclear weapons away. It is time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. 

Tom Collina is Director of Policy at Ploughshares Fund, where Angela Kellett is a Hale Fellow.