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Welcome to the New Age of Nukes

Russia’s posturing may encourage a dangerous wave of nuclear diplomacy.

By , the chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security.
A staff member of a shop in Moscow watches a broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech on Oct. 25, 2006.
A staff member of a shop in Moscow watches a broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech on Oct. 25, 2006.
A staff member of a shop in Moscow watches a broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech on Oct. 25, 2006. ALEXANDER MEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

Nuclear weapons are back, and in a disturbingly visceral way. Vladimir Putin’s saber-rattling—“this is not a bluff” he said, warning of nuclear use in Ukraine—has sparked concern across multiple continents. The Biden administration is publicly warning that “catastrophic consequences for Russia” would follow any use of nuclear arms, and Biden himself has said that the explosion of a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine could end in Armageddon. Even Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that “the international community should … jointly oppose the use or threats to use nuclear weapons,” despite China’s “no limits” partnership with Russia. The world’s most destructive weapons are suddenly back on the minds of the world’s most powerful leaders.

It was not supposed to be this way. A little more than a decade ago, President Barack Obama articulated an expansive vision of a nuclear-free world. His administration’s Nuclear Security Summits, held from 2010 to 2016, aimed to increase the security of nuclear materials and decrease the chances of their use, by governments or terrorist organizations. His successor Donald Trump pursued an expansion of U.S. nuclear capabilities but employed high-stakes diplomacy aimed at inducing North Korea to give up its own. In 2020, candidate Joe Biden pledged to reduce the role nuclear weapons play in the country’s national security policy, reserving them for the sole purpose of deterring a nuclear attack.

Nuclear weapons never went away, of course, and have remained a critical element of national security policymaking for decades. But as Cold War-era anxieties faded from memory, so too did the fear of nuclear weapons retreat from the public mind. Today the chances of nuclear use remain low, but they are higher than before the Russian invasion, and possibly higher than at any time since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. That is dangerous. The taboo against the use of nuclear weapons in combat has remained in place since 1945 for a very good reason: Their destructive power, and the potential for escalatory effects, remains unparalleled. But the return of nuclear arms as a potentially major instrument of foreign policy means that decisions made now may well shape our world for decades to come.

Nuclear weapons are back, and in a disturbingly visceral way. Vladimir Putin’s saber-rattling—“this is not a bluff” he said, warning of nuclear use in Ukraine—has sparked concern across multiple continents. The Biden administration is publicly warning that “catastrophic consequences for Russia” would follow any use of nuclear arms, and Biden himself has said that the explosion of a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine could end in Armageddon. Even Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that “the international community should … jointly oppose the use or threats to use nuclear weapons,” despite China’s “no limits” partnership with Russia. The world’s most destructive weapons are suddenly back on the minds of the world’s most powerful leaders.

It was not supposed to be this way. A little more than a decade ago, President Barack Obama articulated an expansive vision of a nuclear-free world. His administration’s Nuclear Security Summits, held from 2010 to 2016, aimed to increase the security of nuclear materials and decrease the chances of their use, by governments or terrorist organizations. His successor Donald Trump pursued an expansion of U.S. nuclear capabilities but employed high-stakes diplomacy aimed at inducing North Korea to give up its own. In 2020, candidate Joe Biden pledged to reduce the role nuclear weapons play in the country’s national security policy, reserving them for the sole purpose of deterring a nuclear attack.

Nuclear weapons never went away, of course, and have remained a critical element of national security policymaking for decades. But as Cold War-era anxieties faded from memory, so too did the fear of nuclear weapons retreat from the public mind. Today the chances of nuclear use remain low, but they are higher than before the Russian invasion, and possibly higher than at any time since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. That is dangerous. The taboo against the use of nuclear weapons in combat has remained in place since 1945 for a very good reason: Their destructive power, and the potential for escalatory effects, remains unparalleled. But the return of nuclear arms as a potentially major instrument of foreign policy means that decisions made now may well shape our world for decades to come.


Russia’s threats have rightly garnered the greatest attention. Putin escalated his war of aggression by publicly ordering nuclear forces to go on alert (it is not clear that they ever did) and then renewed his nuclear threats months later in the face of battlefield setbacks. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has called his counterparts to warn, without evidence, of a potential plot by Kyiv to detonate a “dirty bomb.” Foreign observers, including top American, British, and French officials, have interpreted the calls as a signal that Moscow might explode a radioactive bomb itself and blame Ukraine. Russian officials have spoken openly about the need for the country’s forces be ready to fight in a radioactive environment.

This may all be nothing more than the rhetorical saber-rattling of a military losing in Ukraine and seeking to change the dynamic. After all, it is not clear that using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine would hand Putin the battlefield success he seeks, and it could lead to revulsion among countries, like China and India, that have thus far not joined efforts to isolate Moscow. It seems certain to harden international opposition to Russia’s war in the West and could even lead the United States to conduct punitive military strikes for the first time.

Moscow has threatened nuclear attacks before without following through and, weeks after making his “not a bluff” statement, Putin said Russia has no plans to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. But Putin’s appetite for risk seems stronger than many thought, as the invasion itself showed, and his word is essentially valueless. After he indicated that there was “no need” for a nuclear strike, reports surfaced suggesting Russian military leaders have discussed just that. The contraindications are of only limited comfort, given the stakes. The unthinkable—nuclear war—is today possible, if still improbable.

This heightened risk has come just as multiple countries are rethinking their own nuclear postures and as old efforts to mitigate the dangers fall away in a new era of international mistrust. China is on pace to quadruple its arsenal to 1,000 warheads by the end of this decade, and Beijing has stonewalled U.S. efforts to engage in even nascent arms control talks. North Korea is on the verge of testing a nuclear weapon for the first time in several years, along with delivery systems of intercontinental range, and there is no realistic chance of Pyongyang’s denuclearization. Iran refuses to return to uranium enrichment levels agreed to in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and the “breakout” time necessary for Tehran to amass the fissile material necessary for a bomb has diminished to less than 10 days. The Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement ended in 2019 and, while the United States and Russia last year extended the New Start Treaty until 2026, its viability after that date is by no means assured.

Allies, too, are reconsidering their options. In South Korea, more than two-thirds of the population now favor the country acquiring its own nuclear arsenal. Last year, Seoul tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile, making it the first non-nuclear country to possess such a capability. Officials in Saudi Arabia have hinted at their desires for a nuclear program and plan to acquire nuclear power reactors. There are shifts even in Japan, where the nuclear taboo runs deep in both policy circles and public opinion. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and before his tragic assassination, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, “Holding discussions on the reality about how the world’s safety is protected should not be considered a taboo.” Prime Minister Kishida, who represents the Hiroshima district, quickly quashed the notion of Japan acquiring nuclear weapons. A senior defense ministry official, however, told the Japan Times that if Ukraine had nuclear weapons, “Russia would not have invaded it.”

The United States has not been immune to this wave. Despite the Biden administration’s early hopes, its newly released nuclear posture review observes that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “is a stark reminder of nuclear risk in contemporary conflict” and that America’s principal competitors continue to expand and diversify their nuclear capabilities. The result, the review says, is that “while we are taking steps to advance the goal of reducing reliance on nuclear weapons, more far-reaching opportunities to move in this direction will require enduring improvement in the security environment.” With no such enduring improvements in the offing, the Biden administration ended two Trump-supported weapons programs but recommitted to a major nuclear modernization projected to cost some $600 billion over its lifetime.

The paradox of nuclear weapons is that they work when not used: They can and do deter aggression. Anyone who doubts their utility need look no further than Georgia and Ukraine, which lack nuclear weapons and which Russia invaded, and contrast them to NATO countries, which enjoy America’s nuclear umbrella and have not seen a shot fired. Or to American wars with Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Serbia but not with North Korea or Russia. NATO moved to end the regime in Libya after it gave up its nuclear program but not before. Leaders have absorbed the differences in fortune between Kim Jong Un, on the one hand, and Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Qaddafi, on the other.

The taboo against acquiring nuclear weapons outside international rules has weakened since the post-Cold War high. Now, if the taboo against their use collapses as well, the world will be a far more dangerous place.

U.S. policymakers must pursue multiple avenues to lessen the danger. The United States’ own nuclear deterrent must be credible and reliable, and Washington should not give up on arms control over the long run, however unlikely the prospects at the moment. Defense officials must fully explore and address the complications posed by new capabilities, like cyber and antisatellite weapons, for nuclear deterrence. And the administration should continue to make clear that any nuclear use by Russia would cross a Rubicon, resulting in the catastrophic consequences it has publicly promised.

How precisely to impose those consequences if Moscow crosses the nuclear threshold in Ukraine is not an easy question. The same steps that would punish Russia could provoke further escalation. But two things are clear.

The first is that if, in the nightmare scenario where Russia detonates a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine, merely imposing costs will not be enough. The effort to accomplish through nuclear war what was impossible through conventional means must be, and can be seen as, unsuccessful, and as a result provide no incentive either for a repeat nuclear attack or for another government to consider one of its own in the future. That would require the United Sates becoming more involved in supporting Ukraine in its war effort, not less. It need not mean direct American military action against Russia, but it likely means all steps short of it.

The second is that 60 years have passed since the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the world ever came to the kind of nuclear Armageddon that Biden has warned about. Only by facing the brink of disaster did leaders internalize how catastrophic any nuclear use would be, how the employment of even one weapon would change the world for the worse, and how unpredictable—and potentially uncontrollable—could be a climb up the escalatory ladder. Today the world remains, thankfully, a long way from that brink. The worry is that we will edge slowly closer to it. Leaders should remember the terror of staring into the nuclear abyss and stay far, far away from it.

Richard Fontaine is the chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security. He worked on the National Security Council staff and at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @RHFontaine

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