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To prevent the next Ukraine, we need clarity about the role of nuclear weapons

As Russia’s brutal war with Ukraine approaches the one-year mark, there is no end in sight. Both sides appear fully committed to winning; neither is prepared to back down. As Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates, former secretaries of state and defense respectively, wrote recently, “When it comes to the war in Ukraine, about the only thing that’s certain right now is that the fighting and destruction will continue.”

And yet, given Ukraine’s stunning successes, Russia’s poor military performance and the massive military aid flowing from the United States to Kyiv, some might ask, why is this taking so long? Two words: nuclear weapons.  

Ukraine has done a remarkable job of pushing Russian forces back, thanks in part to U.S. military support and a hollowed-out Russian army. Even so, from the very start, President Biden has been clear that he does not want direct conflict between U.S. and Russian troops, which he said could lead to World War III. To avoid this, Biden has wisely put limits on U.S. assistance: no U.S. troops in Ukraine, no no-fly-zone over Ukraine and no U.S. weapons that can reach into Russia.

For example, although Ukraine has pledged not to use American-supplied weapons to strike Russian soil, the Biden administration secretly modified the Himars rocket launchers it gave to Ukraine so they can’t be used to fire long-range missiles into Russia. And Ukraine’s recent drone strikes far into Russian territory – with its own weapons, not ours – has caused clear concern in the Biden administration. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters: “We have neither encouraged nor enabled the Ukrainians to strike inside of Russia.”

The Biden administration is walking a fine line by arming Ukraine with increasingly sophisticated conventional weapons while seeking to avoid nuclear escalation. In Biden’s view, we can’t allow Russia to take Ukraine, nor can we ignore Russia’s nuclear threats. Senior Russian military leaders have reportedly discussed how they might use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and President Biden has said that the world is closer to “Armageddon” than at any time since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

And as U.S. intelligence has made clear, if Russia keeps losing this war, there is a real danger that Russian President Vladimir Putin could get desperate and decide to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine to get Kyiv and the West to back down. This makes the end game in Ukraine tricky. We want Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to win, but we don’t exactly want Putin to lose if that means pushing him over the nuclear brink.

If nuclear escalation were not a factor, there is no doubt that the United States would do more to help Ukraine and that this could make a huge difference in the war. Just imagine what Zelensky could do with Western troops, fighter jets and more lethal weapons. Were it not for Russia’s nukes, Ukraine could have won the war by now, saving countless lives.

Moreover, Russia might not have invaded in the first place if it did not have nuclear weapons to hide behind. It is unlikely Putin would have made such a dangerous move if he did not have a way to keep U.S. and NATO troops on the sidelines. As Putin is showing, the bomb is a weapon of the weak and serves to neutralize the U.S. conventional military advantage.

Yet as much as Russia’s nuclear forces are prolonging the war, the prospect of reducing nuclear weapons has gotten harder now that Russia’s conventional forces have been exposed as weak, making Moscow more reliant on its nuclear forces than ever. Russia recently cancelled a meeting with Washington to discuss nuclear arms control, blaming U.S. support for Ukraine.

There is no way to reduce Russia’s nuclear arsenal without its cooperation, so we must convince Putin that his current trajectory will lead to greater and greater isolation. If Putin wants Russia to become a larger version of reclusive North Korea, then so be it. But if Moscow eventually wants to come in from the cold, we must make it crystal clear what needs to change.   

The Biden administration can start by building an international coalition of nations that support nuclear arms reductions to bring greater pressure on Russia. The administration needs more than good rhetoric here — it needs to take concrete action. We must find a way to win Moscow’s support to replace the New START treaty (the last remaining bilateral agreement that limits U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals) before it expires in three years.

No, we can’t snap our fingers and make Russia’s nuclear weapons disappear, and Putin is not about to get rid of his trump card. But having clarity about the role of nuclear weapons in this war (that they are benefitting Russia and undermining U.S. and European security) should inform U.S. nuclear policy going forward. As should be clear by now, the West would be much better off in Ukraine if no one had the bomb.

Tom Z. Collina is the director of policy at Ploughshares Fund and an author, with former Defense Secretary William J. Perry, of “The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump.”

Tags Biden nuclear threat nuclear weapons Nuclear weapons Russia Russia-Ukraine war Ukraine Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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