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How seriously should the U.S. take Putin's nuclear threat?

·National Security Correspondent
·16 min read
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With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — the largest military campaign in Europe since World War II — underway, many observers and analysts are concerned about the potential for further escalation. That worry intensified recently when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he was ordering a higher state of nuclear readiness.

The comment immediately sparked fears over the prospect of nuclear conflict between Russia and NATO. These were the precise fears that loomed for decades during the Cold War, when regional conflict carried the threat of spiraling into a global war with the Soviet Union.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sits during a Russian Security Council video meeting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Alexei Nikolsky/TASS via Getty Images)

But how seriously should the U.S. take Putin’s nuclear threat? Yahoo News dug into that and other key unanswered questions about the current war in Ukraine — like what Putin hopes to achieve by launching the invasion, what a potential peace deal might look like, and how long-term misperceptions about Russia by U.S. policymakers may have inadvertently helped precipitate this conflict — with Stephen Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international affairs at Harvard University.

Walt, a preeminent analyst of U.S. foreign policy, is a proponent of the realist school of international relations, which emphasizes how countries’ core security fears drive their external policies. Walt argued that Putin shouldn’t be viewed as an unhinged, irrational actor, but rather as someone who is likely making rational choices on the world stage based on his own conception of his country’s self-interest.

“I think it was a reminder to everybody that this is serious business, and everyone should conduct themselves accordingly, and be careful with what they’re trying to achieve,” Walt said of Putin’s latest comments.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Yahoo News: On Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia was putting its nuclear arsenal on a higher readiness status — though precisely what that has entailed is unclear. Yesterday, the Pentagon said that the U.S. had not seen evidence of Russia changing its nuclear force posture, and President Biden said he did not think Americans should worry about the threat of nuclear war.

Do you agree with Biden’s statement? Was Putin’s mention of its nuclear weapons an attempt to coerce the U.S. and Europe into backing down from its military and economic support for Ukraine and its harsh sanctions on Russia? Was it designed for domestic Russian consumption? Or was it actually the transmission of a credible threat of nuclear escalation?

A Russian nuclear missile and soldiers in dress uniform are seen in Red Square, Moscow.
A Russian nuclear missile in Red Square at a military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Nazi defeat on June 24, 2020, in Moscow. (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Stephen Walt: I’m not sure if it’s any of the above, maybe the third option. I think this was essentially an attempt at deterrence, a reminder, in my view, from Putin to the rest of us that Russia is a nuclear-armed power and that it regards the issue of Ukraine as a vital interest. And that therefore outside powers should think very carefully about how they proceed here.

So for example, it would be a warning to the West, basically: Do not get militarily involved. Don’t start thinking about sending troops here. Don’t start thinking about a no-fly zone over Ukraine, as some people have proposed. He’s basically saying, we really care about this, and we have options if things start going against us in a serious way. So I think it was in that sense — at this level, at least, just a warning.

Now, how dangerous it is is almost impossible to say. If in fact there hasn’t been a significant change in command and control and other tactical elements — in other words, the ways in which local commanders are either authorized or not authorized to behave — if that hasn’t changed very much, it’s probably not immediately very risky. To the extent that you have forces on higher levels of alert, forces where the level of central control may be relaxed at least to some degree, maybe that does at least under some circumstances increase the danger of accidents, misunderstanding, the kind of thing that nobody wants to see.

How much it raises that probability is really hard to know, in part because right now there aren’t any signs that outside powers are preparing to intervene militarily.

It’s worrisome but not, I think, alarming, if that’s a distinction I can make. And one way to think about it is, if the risk of some kind of nuclear use was one chance in a billion a month ago, and now this has raised it to one chance in a hundred million, that’s a significant shift, but on the other hand, it’s still very unlikely. And of course I’m making up those numbers.

Again, I don’t think it was the first step toward nuclear use or anything like that. I think it was a reminder to everybody that this is serious business, and everyone should conduct themselves accordingly, and be careful with what they’re trying to achieve.

There’s a lot of debate currently about Putin’s own behavior. Whether he’s behaving like a rational actor, or whether he has somehow come unglued — there’s speculation that he’s alienating after two-decades-plus in office, or COVID lockdowns, or some type of rumored health issue. Do you think Putin and Russia are behaving rationally, given their own conception of their self-interest, or not?

Leonid Pasechnik, head of the Luhansk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, head of the Donetsk People’s Republic, and Russian President Vladimir Putin sit at widely distanced desks in a large hall during a ceremony.
Leonid Pasechnik, head of the Luhansk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, head of the Donetsk People’s Republic, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS via Getty Images)

Possibly. I don’t fully subscribe to this view that Putin’s lost it completely. I always like to remind people, and occasionally remind my students, that plenty of leaders that we regarded as fairly smart and fairly sensible did dumb things in the past. Everyone’s favorite current example is, of course, the American decision to invade Iraq. Which went better militarily than the Russian campaign is currently going but ultimately was a strategic disaster. And a whole bunch of smart people, some with PhDs, with all sorts of resources at their disposal to figure out what was going on in the world, went ahead and did that too.

So if we can do Iraq, Russia can do something and miscalculate like what they’re doing now in Ukraine.

I think there’s no question that Putin miscalculated on a number of fronts. I think he underestimated the Ukrainian opposition to what he’s doing. I think he might have genuinely believed that the [Volodymyr] Zelensky government was not very stable, not very popular, and not they’d be greeted as liberators, but that there wouldn’t be strong objections.

I think he almost certainly underestimated the Western response to this, how unified Europe has been and the extent of actions that have been taken by a number of countries. I believe he felt that if he got to Kyiv quickly and didn’t have a lot of Ukrainians die, get a puppet government in there, they would take some hits, there would be some sanctions, be some protests, and then it would eventually all die down and in a couple of years things would be back to normal.

Everyone needs to start realizing that they are not going to get everything that they want or may have hoped for here.

So I think there’s no question here that Putin miscalculated badly. Does that mean he is irrational or out of touch? Maybe. I don’t think irrational — out of touch, possibly. That he did not hear, or was not able to hear, dissenting views, because there’s nobody in his inner circle that will tell him that. That’s always a problem.

But — and this is the very important point — from his perspective, if the goal was to prevent Ukraine from reorienting into NATO and into the West, he may still succeed. And if that was his objective, and that objective was more important than anything else, he may well succeed, at least for the foreseeable future. He may be able to tell himself that this was costly, but it was necessary.

How likely, or unlikely, do you think a major escalation of the conflict might be — even if nonnuclear in nature — with other countries entering as belligerents, or with fighting spreading to a second or third country?

A person stands looking at a partially destroyed military building in Brovary, Ukraine.
A military facility destroyed by recent shelling in the city of Brovary outside Kyiv on Tuesday. (Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images)

I think that’s a more likely concern. From the very beginning, outside powers have been signaling that they’re not going to get involved militarily. Biden said months ago that the United States is not going to send troops to fight in Ukraine. And you haven’t heard leaders in Europe saying that they’re about to do that as well.

But warfare has its own logic. And depending on how things play out with outside powers resupplying Ukraine, and that’s already underway, if in fact Russia does get bogged down there, is unable to achieve its objectives — unable to seize Kyiv, unable to take Kharkiv, etc. — and starts to get increasingly desperate, then I could see them starting to contemplate military action against those people who are trying to reinforce Ukraine. I don’t think that would mean invading other countries, I’m not even sure that would mean bombing other countries, but starting to interdict the supplies coming in. And that then starts to raise the possibility of a war expanding.

Let me suggest one other possibility. One outcome is that Russia succeeds militarily in occupying the main cities in Ukraine and deposing the Zelensky government, and sets up a puppet government of its own. Having done that, it could easily face some type of long-term resistance and insurgency, and people or governments will try to support that insurgency from outside.

At that point, you could also imagine Russia beginning to turn to all the neighboring countries and saying, what you’re doing is engaging in an act of war and we will take action against you if you don’t cease and desist. If you don’t control the movement of people and weaponry across borders, and so on.

Now, I’m not saying that would happen, but that’s a scenario where you could suddenly see the conflict getting wider than it currently is.

What would be required for meaningful steps for de-escalation to take place? What kind of assurances do you think Russia would need? What kind of postwar settlement could the U.S. and EU live with, and the Ukrainians? Do you see a path to actually off-ramping from this crisis?

Ukrainian service members walk next to military vehicles amid smoke and debris.
Ukrainians at the site of a fight with a Russian raiding group in Kyiv on Saturday, according to Ukrainian service personnel at the scene. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)

I can see paths to off-ramping but I think they have become more difficult to reach in the short term. In a sense, and this is true for most conflicts, a settlement comes when everyone realizes they can’t achieve what their original goals might have been, and therefore they have to cut some kind of a deal. People in the United States are accustomed to thinking in terms of unconditional surrender — you get everything you want — and in a situation like this, it’s unlikely.

In a sense, all the interested parties have to understand they’re not going to get everything they might have hoped for. Let me spell that out. Russia is going to have to come to realize it’s not going to get a compliant satellite state that it effectively has de facto control over. Russia has to come to that conclusion, and I’m not sure Russia has yet.

Everyone’s forgetting, this war is very early on, and Russia is a lot stronger than Ukraine. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll win, but people should not be giving themselves high fives and declaring victory at this point in the proceedings.

But Russia may come to understand that it’s not going to get a compliant satellite, if they thought they were going to be reunifying Russians and their happy Ukrainian brethren, that that’s not going to happen. And that therefore they’re going to have to accept less than that.

Ukraine may have to accept the fact that it’s not going to be able to join NATO, full stop. That’s something they could aspire to, but NATO may ultimately decide that that’s not a smart idea. It’s Ukraine’s sovereign right to want to be in NATO, and it’s NATO’s sovereign right to say, we don’t think that’s a good idea. And so Ukraine may not ultimately get what it wanted or hoped for.

Do you think Russia has been clear, over the years, about why it considers Ukraine’s neutral status as core to its own security interests? Did Western policymakers not heed those signals?

Two young women protesting the Russian invasion of Ukraine hold up a sign reading: No war.
Elena Quiles and Oleksandra Yashan protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Thursday at the White House. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

I think they’ve been crystal clear about this. Russia has been protesting NATO enlargement since it began, and those protests got elevated in 2008 when the United States proposed Ukraine and Georgia for NATO membership. And then of course we saw they were willing to use force in 2014, when in their minds we had arranged what they would call a coup, the ouster of a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine, in order to further pull it into the West. And that’s when they seized Crimea.

I’m not defending the Russian actions here, but if people hadn’t realized how serious this was to the Russian government, they just weren’t paying attention.

Let’s turn the lens toward the U.S. for a minute. You have argued really clearly in your work generally, and about the current Ukraine crisis specifically, against the moralizing, or liberal internationalist tradition, in American foreign policy. How do you think this moralizing approach to international politics has colored, or discolored, the U.S.’s view of Russia’s own long-stated position on Ukraine? What did U.S. policymakers miss that was right in front of their noses?

Probably the most obvious one is that we assumed that our benevolent intentions were abundantly apparent to Russia. That if we just said often enough that NATO enlargement is not directed at Russia, and if we genuinely believed that to be true, that of course Russians would eventually see it our way. We could not fully take aboard the possibility that no matter what our intentions may have been, and how often we said it, this would be regarded as threatening. And I think that was a lack of imagination on our part.

The second failure is, I do think people in the West, more so in Europe probably than in the United States, kind of believed that the use of force was no longer particularly legitimate, and certainly not in places like Europe. That great powers didn’t do things like this. Yes, the United States might go beat up on some countries in the developing world, but great powers didn’t fight in Europe anymore, that this was off the table.

There was a striking recent interview where Fiona Hill, a former top Russia U.S. national security official, said that in 2008 senior U.S. intelligence analysts assessed that the promise of future NATO accession to Georgia and Ukraine might cause Russia to launch a preemptive war to prevent this scenario — but that the U.S. government never really planned for this possibility. Then, three months after the Bucharest Declaration, setting the stage for NATO’s further expansion, Russia invaded Georgia. And as soon as Ukraine began a big westward tilt in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and launched a war in the Donbas.

Was the Bucharest Declaration a mistake? Should Georgia and Ukraine have ever been promised potential NATO membership? And what do you think about the limits of NATO membership generally — where should enlargement have ended?

NATO leaders, including then-President George W. Bush, sit during a meeting at the Bucharest Summit.
NATO leaders at the Bucharest Summit in Bucharest, Romania, on April 2, 2008. (Pierre Hounsfield/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

I think the Bucharest Declaration was a colossal mistake. The original mistake of course was the [George W.] Bush administration’s decision to propose them as candidates for NATO membership. That it would be this process, that it wouldn’t happen right away. Everybody else in Europe, everybody else in NATO, said this is a crazy idea. They kind of cobbled together a compromise based on what the Bush administration wanted and what the rest of NATO wanted, and that was the Bucharest Declaration, which says they will be members, but not now: someday.

And this was the worst possible outcome. You’ve waved a red flag at the Russian bear but you’ve also said they’re not in yet. Worst of all possible worlds. So that was a huge mistake, and was one of the critical steps that got us where we are today.

The question of how far NATO enlargement could have gone: NATO could have gotten away with the first step, which was Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999. And if it had stopped there, Russia was pretty weak when that happened, and they could have reconciled, well, these are not countries on Russia’s border, and so on. I think once you started expanding into the Baltic states in 2004, and once you started talking about countries like Georgia and Ukraine, which were integral parts of the Soviet Union, even in ways the Baltic states weren’t, then you’re now taking it a step substantially further, and that was certainly the way it was perceived in Russia.

By the way, this is all happening in a broader context in which the United States has abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a major arms control agreement with Russia; we’ve gone into Iraq; we’ve helped overthrow [Moammar] Gadhafi in Libya after the Russians had abstained on the U.N. resolution thinking it was more or less a humanitarian mission.

So if you’re a Russian, and you’re sort of saying, “What’s going on here, it’s that the United States thinks it can do whatever it wants, anywhere it wants, and that includes placing us in positions where we feel directly threatened, and where, oh by the way, they occasionally talk about trying to promote democracy in Eastern and Central Europe and maybe in Russia itself.”

Again, from a Russian nationalist point of view, it’s very easy to see this as all of a piece, and that’s very much the way Putin has come to see it.

Some of the stuff that he believes, if we take his words at face value — about conspiracies, fascist forces, all that stuff — is nonsense. Whether he believes it genuinely or is using it as propaganda, I don’t know. So some parts of the Russian worldview are overly paranoid. But not everything.