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The threat from a nuclear Russia requires global focus on a diplomatic way out of conflict in Ukraine

4 min read

We are at a critical moment in Euro-Atlantic security. The unthinkable and unjustifiable horror of Russia’s invasion of its peaceful neighbour, Ukraine, is a reality.

The region is enduring the bloodiest conflict 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 first 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 attack – let alone a nuclear one.  However, that does not dismiss or diminish the risk. 

Russia’s intentions are no longer clouded, and their capabilities are clear

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 conflict in and around Ukraine has been a potential flashpoint 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 conflict began as Russia expands its target list to Nato’s borders and escalates its efforts to win the war.  Against this backdrop, there is a growing risk of—and a potentially catastrophic inattention to—an escalation or miscalculation leading to nuclear war.

This risk is exacerbated by new technologies including cyber threats, and new military deployments that should cause leaders to reflect on the adequacy of the decision time available to them to prevent or de-escalate a crisis.  Emerging technologies such as evasive hypersonic missiles or robotic nuclear torpedoes could compress decision-time significantly.  When combined with artificial intelligence including machine learning, humans may be removed from being “in” or “on” the decision-making loop, especially when responding to a perceived or real attack.  

Amplifying these concerns is the unrelenting impact of the growth and 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 horrific conflicts.  One of the best accounts of how this tragedy began, by historian Christopher Clark, details how a group of well-meaning European leaders— “The 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.  

"The first and most essential step toward reducing the risks of a consequential mistake is a ceasefire in Ukraine to end the unjustifiable loss of innocent civilian lives. Dialogue, diplomacy and negotiations are the only acceptable route to resolving the conflict in a way 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 a Labour peer and former defence secretary. He is chair of the European Leadership Network for Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament and Non-proliferation, vice-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and Convener of the TLG.

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