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