Nuclear Risks: Russia’s Ukraine War Could End in Disaster

The Russo-Ukrainian War could yet go nuclear, and expanding war aims could push Russia over the brink.

By David Arceneaux and Rachel Tecott

This article appeared in The National Interest on July 31, 2022.

As the Russo-Ukrainian War grinds on, both Russia and Ukraine have adjusted their strategic objectives. Russia abandoned its initial goal of seizing Kyiv and installing a pro-Russian government after facing fierce Ukrainian resistance, and is now focusing on conquering Eastern Ukraine and annexing significant portions of Ukraine’s southern territory. Ukraine’s minimum objectives include reestablishing its prewar borders, with political leaders occasionally suggesting that Ukraine should expand its ambitions to reclaiming territory lost to Russia in Crimea and the Donbas region since 2014.

U.S. strategic objectives in Ukraine are also a moving target. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated that the United States not only wants Ukraine to remain a sovereign and democratic country, but also “to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi promised that the United States would support Ukraine “until the fight is done.” President Joe Biden reiterated this point, stating that the United States would support Ukraine for “as long as it takes so Russia cannot, in fact, defeat Ukraine and move beyond Ukraine.”

Analysts and commentators debate how ambitious U.S. support for Ukraine should be. Some scholars have emphasized differences in U.S. and Ukrainian interests and encouraged more limited objectives. Calls for continued and expanded military support have come to dominate the defense policy discourse.

A core point of disagreement between these two camps is the perceived likelihood of nuclear escalation. Whereas those arguing for limited objectives tend to worry about the potential for escalation across the nuclear threshold, analysts in favor of increased support for Ukraine view the costs of concessions as more dangerous than confrontation and tend to view the likelihood of escalation as minimal.

Read more of David’s and Rachel’s article in The National Interest.

Written by David Arceneaux

David is a nonresident fellow with the Independent America project at the Institute for Global Affairs.

Written by Rachel Tecott

Rachel is a nonresident fellow with the Independent America project at the Institute for Global Affairs.

This post is part of Independent America, a research project led out by IGA senior fellow Mark Hannah, which seeks to explore how US foreign policy could better be tailored to new global realities and to the preferences of American voters.

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