Russia’s war in Ukraine has reawakened fears about the bomb—and endangered the principle of deterrence.
n his Nobel Peace Prize speech, in 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, pronounced that “the risk of a global nuclear war has practically disappeared.” Moscow and Washington had veered “from confrontation to interaction and, in some important cases, partnership,” he said. The Soviet Union’s collapse—which birthed fifteen new states, including Ukraine—transformed the world. In the new Europe, Gorbachev added, every country believed that it had become “fully sovereign and independent.” Historians imagined that the end of the Cold War would lead to the demise of the nuclear age, amid new diplomacy and arms-control treaties. The ingrained fears—that kilotons of destructive energy and toxic radiation could decimate a city and incinerate tens of thousands of human beings—began to dissipate. Beyond policy wonks, the word “nuclear” largely dropped from the public lexicon.
Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine has jolted the world back into an uncomfortable consciousness of the nuclear threat. In the past month, official warnings have emerged at a striking pace. “Given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setbacks that they’ve faced so far militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons,” William Burns, the C.I.A. director and a former ambassador to Russia, warned on April 14th. The U.S. assessment of when and why Moscow might use such weaponry has changed, Lieutenant General Scott D. Berrier, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, conceded in testimony to a House Armed Services subcommittee. A prolonged war in Ukraine will sap Russia’s manpower and matériel, while sanctions will throw the nation into an economic depression and undermine its ability to produce more precision-guided munitions and conventional arms, he said. “As this war and its consequences slowly weaken Russian conventional strength, Russia likely will increasingly rely on its nuclear deterrent to signal the West and project strength to its internal and external audiences.” Putin’s aggression is “reviving fears” of a more “militaristic Russia.”