From the very start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the risk of it escalating into a nuclear conflict has been a feature of much commentary about the war. From explicit as well as thinly veiled mentions of it by Russian President Vladimir Putin to the warnings of Western observers about the dangers of any direct confrontation between NATO and Russian forces, the nuclear dimension to this war has never been far from the surface.
While the risk of Russia using nuclear weapons, even absent NATO’s involvement in Ukraine, does exist, it is in all likelihood minimal. Nevertheless, the war in Ukraine underscores the role that nuclear deterrence plays in conventional engagements, as well as the need for Western policymakers and strategists to think seriously about the dynamics that creates.
The war in Ukraine is in many ways already a conflict taking place in a nuclear atmosphere. First, Russia enjoys a liberty of action to conduct major offensive operations in Ukraine in large part due to the fact that it is sheltered behind its nuclear capability. But the nuclear dimension has also been present in other ways, both subtle and obvious. In his speech on Feb. 24 announcing the beginning of the Russian invasion, Putin mentioned Ukraine’s alleged interest in acquiring nuclear weapons as one of the reasons for the operation. Belarus’ constitutional referendum on Feb. 27, which allowed for the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory, also raised eyebrows. And Russia’s military operations near Ukrainian nuclear power plants raised fears of an incident involving radioactive material.