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Why Russia Would Start a Nuclear War Over Ukraine

Russia
Tu-160 Bomber. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The US and its NATO allies appear to be moving toward supporting more expansive Ukrainian objectives, most importantly retaking territory in the Crimea and Donbas occupied by Russia in 2014. Moscow’s persistently poor military performance has made the once unthinkable appear possible.

Helping expand and extend the war would be playing with fire. Although Russia’s botched invasion shocked everyone except Ukrainians, and perhaps even them, Moscow might do better on defense than offense, especially if Russian troops believe they are defending their homeland rather than killing supposedly kindred people.

Moreover, the threat of losing—not just failing to seize more Ukrainian land but surrendering previous gains—might cause the Putin government to escalate. Ever-heavier Western involvement, suggesting that Russia’s real adversary is America and its allies, might encourage Putin to double down.

One tactic for Moscow would be to target Western military aid shipments, even in Poland. Doing so would risk retaliation, but so far the US and Europeans have sought to avoid a direct clash. Such a strike might cause the allies to step back, especially since congressional opposition to Washington’s heretofore blank check for Kyiv has started to emerge.

Moreover, Moscow continues to fight with an essentially peacetime force. President Vladimir Putin expected a Ukrainian collapse and thought he would win on the cheap. If he realizes that victory can only be achieved at much greater cost, he could call up reserves and place Russia on full war-time footing. After all, losing his fight over Ukraine would cripple his foreign policy and threaten his hold on power.

Worse, Moscow might turn to WMDs. If the only way to save Crimea and the Donbas was to use chemical and nuclear weapons, the price still might appear worth it. Doing so would be taking a step into the unknown, but for a betting man that might appear better than accepting a catastrophic loss. Diplomatic costs to Moscow, especially with countries which have avoided taking sides so far, would be real but bearable. The allies still would be loath to take military action that could lead to full-scale nuclear war.

Russian escalation would create multiple problems for Washington. One is triggering the fallacy of sunk costs. Having gone all in, or almost, anyway, US officials would be invested even more in a Ukrainian victory. They would be tempted to match and even raise Moscow’s moves. The ultimate cost and risk would be far greater than they would have contemplated at the start.

Moreover, ever more military aid risks raising Ukrainian expectations, as did NATO’s constant promises about bringing Kyiv into the alliance. If the former increased its military aims because the allies made it possible, they would be loath to leave Ukraine in the lurch, seemingly again. They then could find themselves far more heavily committed than they originally imagined.

Finally, both sides would have moved substantially up the escalatory ladder at this point. Each new move would become relatively more dangerous. Once NATO territory or nuclear weapons were involved, the consequences could be catastrophic. Having long ago decided, correctly, that Ukraine did not justify America going to war with Russia, the US could find itself at war with Moscow.

Imagine if Ukraine had come to newly inaugurated President Joe Biden last year and requested a multi-billion military build-up and additional US support just short of war so Kyiv could retake its lost territories. He would have run screaming from the room, followed by his national security entourage. Today officials from the president on down are suggesting objectives that likely can only be achieved through military means—regime change, war crimes trials, and weakening Russia.

Much the same phenomenon is occurring with Finland’s and Sweden’s requests to join NATO. Its leadership has warmly welcomed their request. So have most alliance members, other than Turkey and Croatia so far. The Biden administration appears to be a definite yes vote.

Washington seems determined to defend most every nation on earth. But why should Helsinki and Stockholm be added to America’s defense dole? In fact, they don’t need to join. Moscow has not threatened Sweden (why would it?). Finland has lived a bit more uncomfortably next to its large neighbor, but Moscow has lived up to their peace settlement after Finland fought alongside Nazi Germany to retrieve territory lost during the short but costly Winter War.

Nor is either applicant vital to American security. NATO expansion of late has turned membership into a matter of charity rather than security— most recently adding the picturesque movie set of Montenegro and name battleground of North Macedonia. The US shouldn’t be including more countries in the transatlantic alliance simply because it can. After all, who will be expected to help guard Finland’s 810-mile boundary with Finland? Hint: it won’t be Montenegro or North Macedonia.

The reality is that Russia does not pose a substantial security threat to the US. Moscow does possess the nuclear means to destroy America, but that would result in Russia’s demise as well. Hence both nations’ rush to ease the nuclear standoff after the Cold War. The prospect of mutual destruction is why Biden officials have sought to avoid a clash over Ukraine.

Washington and Moscow have no other significant disputes threatening conflict. As is evident in Ukraine, Russia’s conventional power falls far short of America’s. Although the two governments compete in various regions of the world, the disputes—such as Venezuela and Syria—are of peripheral interest and might be settled if the broader relationship was less contentious. In cases such as Iran, Afghanistan, and North Korea there is potential for, and sometimes has been, cooperation.

Thus, NATO has nothing to do with protecting the US from Russia. And given Europe’s capabilities, the alliance no longer is about helping a desperately weak continent deter a ravenous communist aggressor. As such, adding NATO members undermines American security by expanding US military commitments and adding potential causes of war.

Alas, the administration’s enthusiasm for expanding the transatlantic alliance appears to stem mostly from the anti-Russian symbolism. Although the administration dismissed Putin’s opposition to the possible addition of Kyiv, Biden officials enjoyed the irony of Putin achieving the opposite result that he desired. Alas, the ongoing war is a high price to pay for such a dubious “benefit.”

Adding new members is not in America’s interest. Although Finland and Sweden, unlike Ukraine, are unlikely to trigger conflict with Moscow, their addition to NATO is likely to further poison America’s (and the continent’s) relationship with Russia. Putin is an odious character and his attack on Ukraine is a terrible crime, but treating Moscow as a larger, better armed North Korea, and launching a new Cold War, one in which most of the world other than Europe claims conscientious objector status, is not in America’s interest. Russia ultimately will need to be reintegrated into the international system, which will not be made easier by inflaming Moscow’s already well-developed, and not entirely unjustified, paranoia.

Washington’s job is to protect the US, not wealthy, spoiled allies who believe they are entitled to forever live at Americans’ expense. Policy toward Ukraine and NATO should be based on protecting this nation—its people, territory, liberties, and prosperity. The Biden administration is sleepwalking toward a much larger and more destructive war, which would be disastrous for all.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry. He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Times. Bandow speaks frequently at academic conferences, on college campuses, and to business groups. Bandow has been a regular commentator on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. He holds a JD from Stanford University.

Written By

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry. He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times.

30 Comments

30 Comments

  1. Eric-ji

    May 22, 2022 at 10:13 am

    Wwi was the result of mutual defense pacts.

    The problem with them is they commit a country to go to war when that country is not faced with an existential crisis.

    The USA should only go to war if it faces an existential threat. And only when the majority of the nation demand it. And demand victory.

    Otherwise we face repeating our history of starting & not seeing it through to victory. In so doing we end up abandoning who we started out supporting.

  2. john oak

    May 22, 2022 at 10:49 am

    É necessário ter em mente a logística, embora os EUA tenham mais meios militares do que a Russia, em caso de guerra, é necessário lembrar que a Russia está na Europa, enquanto os EUA precisariam deslocar seu equipamento do outro lado do oceano.Corte a cadeia de suprimento e a mágica acontecerá. Infelizmente a guerra se transformará em uma troca nuclear, pois assim os globalistas já decidiram.

  3. Joe Tierney

    May 22, 2022 at 10:51 am

    Wow! A very welcome sane voice here in the midst of all the shortsighted warmongering in Western capitals!

    One must realize also that, as for the US leadership, the Biden administration, absolutely tanking in every political poll and with the midterms impending, is desperate for some sort of ‘win’ and distraction from its self-made domestic political catastrophe. That administration amounts to a cabal of inane and self-aggrandizing morons who haven’t a single genuine strategic thought among themselves.

    They are increasingly ‘flicking their bics’ next to the ‘nuclear fuse’, as Mr. Bandow so lucidly explains. And the Europeans haven’t the intelligence to push back on the Biden agenda – they are with few exceptions reverting to form, goose-stepping to America’s whistle.

    One wonders if opportunist Mr. Putin, fully aware that his opponents have brought their ‘coloring books’ to his chess match, isn’t now consciously playing the game, baiting them into a situation they cannot win, preparing an escalate-to-de-escalate checkmate.

  4. They Call Me Mister T

    May 22, 2022 at 10:57 am

    I am somewhat surprised that the prospect of European cities being nuked alongside American ones is not being considered. I suppose that from the American perspective it does not really matter. Nonetheless, Russians know that NATO can only kill them once. So why not drag down every country donating to Azov?

    That is an INSANE risk for Americans to take on behalf of a country who remains a core Russian interest.

  5. PB

    May 22, 2022 at 11:10 am

    It appears the Kremlin still has the ressources to fund foreign journalist hit pieces.

    • LagoMaggiore

      May 23, 2022 at 5:31 am

      Exactly.

  6. Steven

    May 22, 2022 at 12:21 pm

    Cyber Command would shut Russia’s nukes down, if they even work.

    • Fred777

      June 17, 2022 at 11:43 am

      Hush, or they’ll disable your Roblox account.

  7. Stuart Willard

    May 22, 2022 at 12:28 pm

    This is scary logic. The US is the only NATO country to initiate Article 5 and the rest of us responded, now it seems he claims the US should not do the same for other members. Equally it was the US in 2008 who insisted on keeping hope for Ukraine to join certainly not most others apart from uK. Well at least we know now who our friends are. Sweden bythewsy contributes considerably to US military projects by the way including your 6th Gen fighter and new trainer and equally so to Britains defence efforts too, it’s loss would do wonders for Russia I suspect as much as our defensive loss.in any sensible world nato would have to defend it so best that Putin knows it, Britain sure does. Let’s get real here the loss of European Independence would leave the US woefully short of friends in the world and empower the China Russia axis to be the most important influence in the World by far within a decade. The US can’t exist in its own bubble, it’s deluded to think otherwise. Putin no threat to Europe you say beyond Ukraine? Really? Success in Ukraine would inevitably lead to conflict elsewhere, Moldova, Georgia and the Baltics almost inevitably if only to prove to China it isn’t a minor useful idiot of a partner. Another highly educated University Don defence expert but Russian, is already claiming this is a test to try out its weapons for a greater NATO conflict, is he any less learned than this one? And let’s be honest pre conflict demands on NATO were designed to be rejected its clear, this a high risk game of steps for Putin. Oh and other Russian tv analysts have long talked of taking Gotland by force, a crucial Swedish island, indeed if they took Sweden it would leave the whole NATO northern front undefendable and free Russian ships control of the Baltic. So no threat to Sweden, they have been threatening them for ages years in fact if implied and increasingly have of late to force docility.

    But worse with no Norway the whole of the NE Atlantic approaches the artic and the North Sea. Britain would be threatened and northern, perhaps all of Europe becoming progressively by necessity Russian client states with the US cut off like Napoleon did with Britain. With China dominating the Pacific and Russia far more active and dangerous in the Atlantic especially as they feed off of those client states wealth like an Ottoman caliphate I wonder how long US economic ( already declining) power will last or any sense of safety in that little proposed bubble of its own making.

    If this is the thinking of those who really should know better in political and academia then the West truly is a spent force and no wonder Putin in his final years thinks he can get away with his last big strike for a lasting testament in history that would far outshine Peter the Great. Even China would have to take it seriously.

  8. speedster

    May 22, 2022 at 4:08 pm

    The gist of the article if taken to its final conclusion would be equivalent to not stopping Hitler in world war 2. Am I the only one to see strong similarities between Hitler’s early military ventures and Putin’s similar ventures. The authors argument is as silly as suggesting that a bank robber should not be stopped, because he had a particular interest in a certain bank. We all know the bank robber would think that was easy, now what other bank should I now rob?

    I take on board that EU countries were not pulling their weight with defence budget percentage , which is now changing with Germany.

    France Germany and Italy unfortunately exported weapons to PRussia after the 2014 ukraine invasion, despite an arms embargo, so it could be said those three countries bear some responsibility for encouraging the 2022 invasion of Putin .

    • John Donkey

      June 17, 2022 at 5:56 am

      Most folks not blinded by MSM coverage see similarities to pre-WWI Europe not WWII. Russia has already been beat back in Ukraine; a negotiated settlement and ending the conflict soon is in everyone’s best interest.

      Or keep poking the bear and see what happens. In the meantime hope you enjoy $6 a gallon gas.

  9. Francis Maikisch

    May 22, 2022 at 6:31 pm

    I dont often agree with Bandow,but in this case he’s on the money. The Uni-party is determined to defend the borders of seemingly every other country on earth except our own. Having just concluded a failed 20 year conflict in Afghanistan that cost trillions we’re now sending billions of dollars to Ukraine, a country that Russia has core interests in. If nukes start to fly we will have brought it on ourselves. I’m a vet, father of a vet. My family is done serving our corrupt government, no matter the foe. The Founding Fathers warned of this. Eisenhower warned of this.

  10. Tiny Tim

    May 22, 2022 at 8:18 pm

    Putin might first consider launching a massive conventional cruise missile attack against the UK which is largely powerless to stop it?

  11. Vladolph Putler

    May 22, 2022 at 10:50 pm

    Pretty “creative” interpretation of both the Finnish and Swedish experience. Russia just flew nukes into Swedish territory in a mock attack. Something they have done more than a few times before.

    If Sweden and Finland are sick of Russia, it’s no wonder why. None of the post Soviet satellites are interested in being under the boot of Russia again.

    Is it in the interest of the US or NATO to allow Putin to rebuild the USSR? Yeah, not so much. And if Putin wants to piss away all of Russia’s serviceable armor, why not help him that endeavor?

    Speedster’s bank robber analogy above ^ is how it looks when you aren’t completely walleyed.

  12. 20/20

    May 23, 2022 at 3:35 am

    This article contains the most accurate analysis of the current situation in Ukraine.

    If Putin begins to lose big in Donbas region, he may escalate by striking military shipments inside Poland. NATO will mostly likely retaliate by launching limited strike against Russia inside Ukraine to avoid looking weak. Russia may choose the escalatory ladder by continuing to strike military shipments and depots inside Poland, at which point the Germans and the French will force the US to stop military aid to Ukraine in order to avoid being drawn into a full scale nuclear war with Russia. The Germans don’t have the stomach for a direct military confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. It is not worth it for them.

    • MN

      May 26, 2022 at 5:27 am

      Europe has no stomach for any war, we have seen to many in the past 100 years. Germany has taken the stance of diplomacy and trade but regrettably forgot that peace has to be enforced by military power, actually most of the countries within Nato have.
      We are now paying the price.
      The US has never seen occupation by foreign powers as most of the countries in Western Europe have. We are war torn over centuries and a new era is at our doorstep.
      China and Russia as it vasalstate are now venturing to set up a new world order where democracy is rooted out and replaced by repressive systems aiming for complete control of peoples. They are quite good at that and becoming better every day.
      I think we need to stand together in the coming years to prevent this from becoming true.
      China is not planning for next four years but for the coming 100 years and their plan is ready. They are the architect of this whole thing… staying silent on the side line and waiting for the opportunity to strike the US and Nato when they are weakened down by a European ongoing conflict sucking away our recources.

  13. TrustbutVerify

    May 23, 2022 at 8:43 am

    I imagine much the same was written about Germany prior to WWII. I am not in favor of a direct role with Ukraine, but Russia and Putin have more plans. Thwarting them now and ending the fantasy for them might well be worth the later cost of not acting…because they do want the Baltic States and Moldova and Georgia and….

    It is best to let them know it is not going to go the way they think it is. The addition of Finland and Sweden re the Baltics, Kaliningrad and the Baltic Approaches to Russia more than justify their membership.

  14. Fenderowner

    May 23, 2022 at 11:55 am

    In effect, Due to its own military incompetence/ miscalculations, Russia has already scaled back its military objectives in Ukraine. The author is suggesting that failing to achieve those revised objectives could lead Putin to use WMDs. Of course, the big unknown: is Putin rational or not? Deterrence normally only works against sane, rational leaders/governments. If he indeed is sane, he has to recognize that NATO has better conventional forces and more nukes than Russia. Having already made two HUGE miscalculations – that Ukraine would cave without a fight and that NATO would not be united against an attack on Ukraine – one has to believe these two bad outcomes are themselves weighing heavily against any thoughts Putin might have about escalating this conflict to one in which there would be even more doubt as to the possible payoffs for Russia. Of course, if he is not rational and Russia is in danger of failing to achieve these revised war objectives, it might then fall to the Russian General Staff or a coup to prevail against a Putin nuclear release order.

    Finally, the US and NATO have to weigh the real possibility that if we stand by here and do nothing under the “threat” of possible nuclear use, then we Likely will be faced with many future “I dare you” actions on the part of bad actors like Kim Jong Il and the Mullahs.

    • Dave

      May 23, 2022 at 6:31 pm

      One thing I don’t see discussed – what would happen if Russia did use nuclear weapons in Ukraine? I’d think that within 5 years, Ukraine would have the strongest military in Europe AND nuclear weapons. And hate Russia.

      It’s horrible to think about.

  15. Fenderowner

    May 23, 2022 at 11:59 am

    Sorry: I meant the son, Kim Jong Un.

    • Stefan Stackhouse

      May 23, 2022 at 3:52 pm

      We might not recognize or like Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but the fact is that they DO consider that to now be an integral part of their territory. That means that any attack by the Ukrainians with a serious chance of taking Crimea back would be considered by the Russians (and not just Putin) to be an “existential threat” and reason to let the nukes fly. I understand that the Ukrainians want Crimea back, and why the rest of us would like to see that happen. But at what cost? Is the repatriation of Crimea worth the loss of Kyiv, for example? Is anyone even thinking this way?

      As to those who keep referring back to WWII and the lessons that could be derived from it, I keep pointing out the obvious difference: Hitler didn’t have nukes, but Putin does. That does make a huge difference, whether we like it or not.

      • Exnavynuke

        May 23, 2022 at 7:00 pm

        One wonders about the bully in middle school. He spends his time beating up one of the nerds and taking his lunch money, until one day the nerd gets the bright idea to bribe the star line-backer to back him up. He’s going to lose his lunch money anyway, so he’s got nothing to lose. Over the next few weeks, the line-backer helps the kid learn to fight; until one day the nerd tells the bully he’s had enough.

        The bully swings, fully believing he’s going to down the fool with one punch. Imagine his surprise when the nerd blocks his left cross and counters with an upper cut! The entire football team surrounds the two and starts shouting encouragement and offering advice to the nerd. With the team’s assistance the nerd is not only avoiding a beating, but doing a credible job defending himself.

        The other bystanders start whispering amongst themselves, reminding each other the bully has been known to bring a gun to school. In fact, he’s wearing his backpack right now. The football team doesn’t seem to be listening, and the nerd is rightly focused on the immediate threat.

        The bully knows that if he reaches into his pack he’s likely going to get smashed by the football team. On the other hand, his fearsome reputation is already in tatters and since he’s a big guy he figures he could probably take a few hits without spending too much time in the hospital. Also, when the team gangs up on him, he might be able to spin a credible story of self-defense that his friends would buy.

        So fellow bystander, I ask you: do you think the bully is going to pull a gun, and will it be a revolver or a machine pistol?

        • CK

          May 23, 2022 at 9:01 pm

          I think the bully pulls out a gun but it jams, the cartridge falls out, and backfires simultaneously because the gun is a WW2 souvenir old grandpa Chester brought back from the war, and bully’s father never bothered to have it cleaned or repaired since it was passed onto him.

  16. Mark Richardson

    May 24, 2022 at 2:50 am

    You really are not very bright.

  17. Will Pearson

    May 24, 2022 at 6:43 am

    This article fails entirely to understand that Putin is an ex-KGB hack who can’t get past the fact that Russia lost its empire, and is determined to regain it piecemeal. Ukraine is just the latest and least well-advised example of this wholly unrealistic policy. Putin will not stop unless he is stopped. That is the reality. Appeasement and shuffling articles as above serve only to encourage a misguided Russian leader, who has failed to move on from the Cold War, and realise that Russia’s best interest is to ally with the West against the real global threat – China.

  18. CK

    May 24, 2022 at 7:27 am

    Strange, I tried to post this earlier and it said “awaiting moderation” and then was never published. Why censor this?

    I think the bully pulls out a gun but it jams, the cartridge falls out, and backfires simultaneously because the gun is a WW2 souvenir old grandpa Chester brought back from the war, and bully’s father never bothered to have it cleaned or repaired since it was passed onto him.

  19. CK

    May 24, 2022 at 8:03 am

    Nvm, looks like there was a delay. Shame we can’t edit/delete posts.

  20. Bill

    June 17, 2022 at 12:38 pm

    Bandow’s analysis is good, however the name-calling of Russia and Putin (“odious”) is unwarranted. Putin strikes me as a more rational actor than does Biden. Maybe he’s afraid of being labeled “Putin’s puppet” as punishment (more name-calling), for trenchant analysis.

  21. Richard Steven Hack

    June 17, 2022 at 2:20 pm

    This is a major load of crap. Bandow is clueless.

    First, Russia is not having “poor performance”. The SMO is continuing perfectly well, on Russia’s pace and time table, with Ukraine losing badly day by day.

    Second, Russia has zero need to use nukes in Ukraine. Russia can commit whatever forces it needs at any time, since they have over 800,000 troops available, not to mention ten times more armor and artillery than currently needed.

    Anyone who believes the mainstream press – most of which comes from the Institute for the Study of War – which is a neocon front run by Victoria Nuland’s sister-in-law – is an idiot.

    If you want real analysis of the situation, follow Alexander Mercouris’ Youtube channel and The Duran youtube channel, and the blog Moon of Alabama.

  22. Ty

    June 17, 2022 at 3:23 pm

    ” Moscow has not threatened Sweden (why would it?).”

    They haven’t threatened Sweden as long as you ignore all the times they threaten to take Gotland, or March 2nd when they flew nuclear bombs into Swedish airspace at the start of the Ukraine war.

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