Expert: Risk of nuclear war over Ukraine is low

President of Russia and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Vladimir Putin makes a speech in Red Square during a Victory Day military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the victory in World War II, on June 24, 2020 in Moscow, Russia. (Credit: Sergey Guneev - Host Photo Agency via Getty Images)

When Americans woke up to the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Cold War worries about Russia’s nuclear arsenal were suddenly back at the forefront of many people’s minds.

Gary Samore, professor of the practice of politics, and director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University has a unique perspective on the rapidly-developing events.

Samore served in the US government for more than 20 years, focusing on nuclear arms control and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, especially in the Middle East and Asia. In that capacity, he served both President Clinton and President Obama as the senior official in the National Security Council responsible for nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Here, Samore discusses the prospects of a nuclear confrontation and the next steps for the Biden administration:


Putin has threatened “consequences you have never faced in your history” for “anyone who tries to interfere with us.” This would appear to be an unveiled threat that he will use nuclear weapons. How seriously should western powers take this threat?


The risk of nuclear war over Ukraine is very low. A direct clash between NATO and Russian forces is unlikely because the US and NATO have no intention of sending their military forces to defend Ukraine against the Russian invasion, and Putin is unlikely to order a Russian attack on the NATO countries that border Ukraine (Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary).

In addition, Putin knows that any nuclear use against the US or its NATO allies would trigger US nuclear retaliation against Russia.


What does it mean that Putin has put Russia’s nuclear arsenal on high alert? And does it make strategic sense that the US is not following suit?


Putin’s decision to put Russian nuclear forces on high alert is probably intended as a warning to the US and NATO not to intervene in the Ukraine conflict. If so, the warning is completely unjustified because the US and NATO have no intention of getting directly involved militarily in the war.

I think the Biden administration is wise not to overreact by increasing the alert levels of US strategic forces, which would be unnecessary.


What are the next steps for the Biden administration?


Biden has three main challenges in the weeks and months ahead. The first is effective implementation of sanctions against Russia, which requires coordination with European and other countries who will resist additional sanctions, such as a boycott of Russian gas and oil exports. (The sanctions will not stop Putin from completing Russian military operations in Ukraine, but they will impose long term costs on Russia.)

The second challenge is to upgrade NATO’s military presence and capabilities in the Baltic states and Eastern Flank. This will probably require a permanent US military presence to deter Russian military threats to these countries, assuming Russia consolidates its position in Ukraine. The third issue—and the most sensitive—is whether to extend US support and military assistance to any Ukrainian resistance that might emerge to Russian occupation.

This would increase the cost to Russia, but also risk expanding the conflict to neighboring states that are supporting the resistance.