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Competition in Risk-Taking: Russia’s War Against Ukraine and the Risks of Nuclear Escalation*

By Peter Rudolf

Russia has voiced nuclear threats since the very beginning of its war of aggression. These are evidently intended to deter supporters of Ukraine from military intervention. Thus, the possibility of a nuclear crisis – with a potentially uncontrollable escalation – has been there from the start. By incorporating occupied regions of eastern Ukraine into Russia in September 2022, President Putin has sent out a further signal, and limited his options because now Russia’s own territorial integrity is at stake.

In deterrence theory, demonstrative risk-taking aimed at getting the other side to give way or make concessions is called “brinkmanship”. The other party – in this case, the U.S. administration – is forced to assess the actual readiness for nuclear escalation. As it apparently does not rule this out, the dilemma intensifies: how to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia while providing Ukraine with effective support to defend and reclaim its territory – in the form of weapons supplies and other military/intelligence assistance. Furthermore, a massive U.S. response (already announced) to any Russian use of nuclear weapons could set in motion a spiral of escalation. In addition, if the Russian military even prepares to use a nuclear weapon, there is the risk of an inadvertent expansion of the war.

Given these highly risky alternatives, the U.S. administration may at some point have to make a decision and define the limits to its support for Ukraine.

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