The threat from a nuclear Russia requires global focus on a diplomatic way out of conflict in Ukraine
We are at a critical moment in Euro-Atlantic security. e unthinkable and unjusti able horror of Russia’s invasion of its peaceful neighbour, Ukraine, is a reality. e region is enduring the bloodiest con ict in generations. Relations between Russia, its allies and the west are now, and will likely remain, dangerously adversarial. Unfortunately, the threat of escalation leading to possible use of a nuclear weapon for the rst time in more than 76 years appears all too real. It is with us now and could persist for some time.
Russia’s intentions are no longer clouded, and their capabilities are clear. Countries rarely undertake war without a political purpose. Russia may see military action in Ukraine as a means of supporting their diplomatic demands for Ukraine to renounce its drive for Nato membership; or they may have every intention of defeating the Ukrainian military, removing the government in Kyiv, and annexing Ukraine as was done eight years ago in Crimea.
As the war began, Vladimir Putin unsheathed Russia’s nuclear saber, ordering his generals to put Russia’s nuclear weapons on a higher state of alert in response to what he termed “unfriendly economic actions” and “aggressive statements” by Nato countries.
Could the ongoing war in Ukraine, and Putin’s nuclear threats, lead to nuclear war? A rational leader in Russia must surely understand that Russia faces no threat of a ack – let alone a nuclear one. However, that does not dismiss or diminish the risk. Putin is the “sole authority” for nuclear use in Russia – is he now, or will he remain, a “rational actor” with the inevitable stress and uncertainty that comes with leading a country in war?
Since 2014, the unresolved con ict in and around Ukraine has been a potential ashpoint for catastrophic miscalculation between Russia and the West. We are now seeing that play out.
Tensions are higher now than at any point since the con ict began, as Russia expands its target list to Nato’s borders and escalates its e orts to win the war. Against this backdrop, there is a growing risk of – and a potentially catastrophic ina ention to – an escalation or miscalculation leading to nuclear war.
is risk is exacerbated by new technologies including cyber threats, and new military deployments that should cause leaders to re ect on the adequacy of the decision time available to prevent or de-escalate a crisis. Emerging technologies such as evasive hypersonic missiles or robotic nuclear torpedoes could compress decision-time signi cantly. When combined with arti cial intelligence, humans may be removed from being “in” or “on” the decision-making loop, especially when responding to an a ack.
Amplifying these concerns is the unrelenting impact of the evolution of social media, including disinformation campaigns. In such a world, rational and determined actions by governments have never been more important.
We are now more than three years past the centenary of the end of the First World War, one of the world’s most horri c con icts. One of the best accounts of how this tragedy began, by historian Christopher Clark, details how a group of well-meaning European leaders – “e Sleepwalkers” – led their nations into a war with 40 million military and civilian casualties. Today, we face similar risks of mutual misunderstandings and unintended signals, compounded by the potential for the use of nuclear weapons – killing millions in minutes rather than over four years of protracted trench warfare.
As I wrote with my co-convenors of the Euro-Atlantic Security Leadership Group: “e rst and most essential step toward reducing the risks of a consequential mistake is a cease re [in Ukraine] to end the unjusti able loss of innocent civilian lives. Dialogue, diplomacy and negotiations are the only acceptable route to resolving the con ict that can stand the test of time. We must return to diplomacy and dialogue to ensure current disputes on core issues are negotiated and not fought.”
Lord Browne is chair of the European Leadership Network for Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament and Non-proliferation, vice chair of the Nuclear reat Initiative