What we got wrong about nuclear risk reduction

Existing risk reduction tools are designed to prevent risks associated with misperception or inadvertent escalation. They are not tailored to the type of intentional escalation and risk-taking that Russian President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated with regards to Ukraine. Preventing further escalation and nuclear use will require strengthening deterrence and developing new risk reduction tools.

In recent years, states and civil society groups have encouraged a number of initiatives to reduce the risks of escalation and use of nuclear weapons. While these efforts are an important contribution to nuclear stability, events in Ukraine demonstrate that they have largely been focused on the wrong type of nuclear risk. Putin has intentionally escalated the crisis in Ukraine — and is a bully. Reducing the risk of nuclear use in Ukraine, therefore, will require a new approach. The forthcoming public release of the U.S Nuclear Posture Review is an important opportunity for U.S. government stakeholders to advance a new risk reduction agenda.

Nuclear risks during crises can take various forms. First are risks of inadvertent escalation, such as misperceptions about intent or miscommunication. This includes an entanglement scenario, such as that outlined by James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, whereby an attack on conventional command and control also disables nuclear command and control. The second set of risks are caused by accidental escalation, such as mistargeting. Both of these remain potential scenarios in Ukraine, depending on how NATO responds. Thus far, international risk reduction efforts have been largely focused on such inadvertent or accidental escalation.

But the invasion of Ukraine is escalation of a different sort — it is intentional escalation. Russia’s strategic doctrine is made up of offensive and defensive components, to include intimidation and imposing costs in an effort to manage escalation. While often misrepresented as “escalate to de-escalate,” Russia’s holistic approach to strategic deterrence ultimately is about intentional risk manipulation. Prior to the invasion it was largely assumed this risk manipulation and aggression would cross domains and include large-scale cyberattacks and complex “wormhole escalation.” The conflict has remained conventional in nature so far, but the potential for escalation to include cyberattacks or the use of a weapon of mass destruction remains.

Existing risk reduction tools include crisis communication channels and hotlines, along with the Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers. In recent years, there has been a focus by the international community to develop new risk reduction tools. One such effort is the Stockholm Initiative, which involves 16 nations and in June 2021 issued a paper on risk reduction efforts. One of the group’s recommendations was to advance, “policies and doctrines that could reduce the role of nuclear weapons in security policies, prevent escalation leading to the use of nuclear weapons and lessen the danger of nuclear war, including transparency on nuclear doctrines and arsenals, political statements promoting restraint, providing robust negative security assurances including of a legally-binding nature, commitment not to develop/deploy certain categories of nuclear weapons or delivery systems, and reducing the operational status of nuclear weapons.” These and other efforts are largely intended to develop rules of the road to regulate crises and risks, along with reducing reliance on nuclear weapons overall.

One of the biggest drawbacks to existing risk reduction measures is that they are based on transparency and a normative approach. Putin has proven willing to defy norms. And any conversations to promote “transparency” or shared commitments to risk reduction should be met with a degree of skepticism. For example, only one month before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia along with China, France, the United Kingdom and United States jointly stated that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” The invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s nuclear threats throw the sincerity and value of these efforts into question.

Thus far, risk reduction efforts failed to prevent the crisis in Ukraine, but now they must shift to managing the crisis and preventing further escalation. This will require balancing a commitment to deterrence with leadership on risk reduction. Deterrence is a means of crisis management and convincing Putin that further escalation — including any use of a weapon of mass destruction or attack on a NATO ally — will be met with a swift and painful response should be a priority. NATO’s nuclear status is one of the best means of preventing an attack on a member and reassures understandably anxious nations in the region. A strong U.S. nuclear deterrent is the foundation of the alliance and should be reinforced in the implementation of the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review and in forthcoming NATO strategic documents.

The United States should also engage with international risk reduction efforts, such as the Stockholm Initiative. The invasion of Ukraine is a reckoning about the practicality and utility of existing risk reduction forums and recommendations. Rather than abandon these efforts altogether, however, Washington can play a leadership role in shaping them to reflect the geopolitical landscape and developing a richer risk reduction toolkit. Ideally, other NATO allies would also prioritize such efforts. Risk reduction, arms control and security cooperation are not mutually exclusive from a strong deterrent. An integrated arms control strategy, to reflect integrated deterrence, can offer a new approach to risk reduction and identify a broader, more agile set of tools.

Heather Williams, Ph.D., is the director of the Project on Nuclear Issues and senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She was previously a visiting fellow with the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School and a senior lecturer in defence studies at King’s College London. Follow her on Twitter: @heatherwilly

Tags nuclear threat Putin Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Ukraine war Vladimir Putin

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