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The Threat of Nuclear War
Following are excerpts from a recent paper by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an organization originally founded by former senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar.
The risk of nuclear weapons use in the Euro-Atlantic region is on the rise – and it is higher than it has ever been since the end of the Cold War (according to a recent study with leading security experts from the U.S., Russia and Europe).
The study examined the risk of use of nuclear weapons, not just the risk of nuclear exchange or nuclear war. In other words, the study did not exclude the possibility of unilateral nuclear use. Indeed, respondents identified the possibility of unilateral nuclear use by Russia to quell a conflict on its borders as a risk of particular concern. Other possible nuclear-use scenarios identified by respondents include a rapid escalation due to miscalculation or accident (such as a mid-air collision between NATO and Russian warplanes), an escalatory response to a Russian incursion into the Baltic States, and a Russian reaction to NATO military intervention in Crimea or eastern Ukraine.
Of all the risks examined, it is the risk of miscalculation that is of most concern. Absent a major incident, the likelihood of deliberate nuclear exchange under current circumstances is low. But it is the possibility of a major transformative event, such as a mid-air collision or a skirmish along NATO or Russian borders, that is on the rise. Such an incident involving the world’s two largest nuclear powers could plausibly shift alert postures and lead to a rapid series of escalatory measures precipitated by miscalculation and exacerbated by mistrust.....
Moscow and Washington diverge not only in their interpretation of recent events in Ukraine but also in the basic narratives that describe their relations during the entire post-Cold War era.
The Russian narrative is characterized by a combination of grievance and resolve. Prominent Russians frequently claim that Western powers took advantage of Moscow’s weakness after the Cold War to shift NATO borders east and bomb Russia’s allies in the Balkans. Western support for Ukraine’s European Union association agreement, Western sanctions against Russia, and Western demonstrations of military support for allies on Russia’s borders appear to reinforce this narrative of Russia as victim of Western bullying. Prominent Russian officials thus argue that they face no choice but to demonstrate resolve lest they invite further Western aggression against their most vital national interests.
The Western narrative is starkly different. The United States and its NATO allies view Russia as a revanchist power aggressively attempting to reclaim influence and territory in neighboring countries that desire a break from their Soviet legacies. Western officials chastise Russia for employing tactics such as hybrid warfare, manipulation of gas exports, and other forms of economic and military intimidation to achieve its political aims. They argue that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine represent a major break with the post-war order in Europe, an order that has prioritized respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty. Russia’s behavior in Ukraine and the potential for Russian intervention in the Baltic States necessitate demonstrations of resolve lest the West invite further Russian aggression.
These competing, irreconcilable narratives breed heightened threat perceptions, driving a vicious cycle of confrontation and escalation. By themselves, these threat perceptions would not necessarily lead to nuclear use, but – combined with the factors described below – they create dangerous conditions under which misunderstandings could escalate to unprecedented levels of confrontation between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.
Part II next time.
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