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How High Is Risk of Nuclear War Between Russia and US?

August 06, 2019
Simon Saradzhyan

This blog post is a joint product of the Russia Matters project and the Belfer Center's U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism (IPNT). 

Is the risk of a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia now higher than at the height of the Cold War? Yes, it is, according to an article former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn have penned for Foreign Affairs. “Not since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis has the risk of a U.S.-Russian confrontation involving the use of nuclear weapons been as high as it is today,” the co-chairs of the Nuclear Threat Initiative warn in their commentary published on Aug. 6, 2019. To back their claim, the two American statesmen describe an imaginary scenario in which Russian air defense systems shoot down a NATO aircraft that has accidentally veered into Russian airspace during a wargame in Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave in 2020. This incident sets off a chain of events in which NATO rushes air squadrons to the region, while “a cyberattack of unknown origin is launched against Russian early warning systems, simulating an incoming air attack by NATO against air and naval bases in Kaliningrad.” With only minutes to confirm the authenticity of the system’s alert, the Russian military-political leadership orders conventional cruise missiles to be launched from this exclave at NATO’s Baltic airfields, according to the scenario. NATO then responds to this missile attack with its own strikes on Kaliningrad. “Seeing NATO reinforcements arrive and fearing that a NATO ground invasion will follow, Moscow concludes that it must escalate to de-escalate—hoping to pause the conflict and open a pathway for a negotiated settlement on Moscow’s terms—and conducts a low-yield nuclear strike on nuclear storage bunkers at a NATO airfield,” Moniz and Nunn write. “But the de-escalate calculus proves illusory, and a nuclear exchange begins.”

The scenario Moniz and Nunn outline is not without contestable points. For instance, even if Russia’s early warning system—which includes not only over-the-horizon Daryal and Voronezh radar systems, but also satellites—issues a false alert due to a cyber-attack, Russia’s S-400 and other air defense systems’ radars would remain functioning. These radars, which operate independently of Russia’s System of Warning of Missile Attack (SPRN), are capable of detecting targets up to 600 kilometers away, which would enable their crews to verify if an air attack is evolving east of Berlin or Warsaw. As important, neither of the scenarios for use of nuclear weapons, which are described in Russia’s current military doctrine, align with Moniz’s and Nunn’s scenario. The 2014 document states that “the Russian Federation shall reserve the right to use nuclear weapons” in two scenarios (or a combination of the two). One is “in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies.” The other is “the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” The scenario Moniz and Nunn describe does not feature use of weapons of mass destruction by NATO against Russia or its allies, nor can NATO air strikes on the Kaliningrad exclave, located more than 900 kilometers away from Moscow, qualify as a situation that jeopardizes the very existence of the Russian state. In fact, the authors themselves point out that the proposition that Russia plans to use nukes for purposes of “escalating to de-escalate” is “often denied by Russian officials and academics.” Russian experts are not the only ones who are skeptical of the de-escalation proposition. For instance, Dr. Olga Oliker, one of America’s leading experts on Russian nuclear posture, has presented evidence showing why Russia’s so-called de-escalation strategy is likely a “non-existent problem.” Also, if we were to define risk as a combination of probability and consequences, then the latter would have been graver in the 1980s, when the combined number of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons peaked, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

However contestable the points in Moniz’s and Nunn’s scenario, that does not mean we should be complacent about the growing risk of nuclear war. In fact, a number of experts concur with the risk assessment made by Nunn and Moniz (the latter has made such an assessment on a number of prior occasions, too). For instance, Ambassador William Burns of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has reportedly assessed that nuclear tensions are now at their highest point since the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, while some go back even further. For instance, Director of the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research Renata Dwan has stated earlier this year that “the risks of the use of nuclear weapons … are higher now than at any time since World War II." Former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry is also apprehensive about that risk. Perry has warned that “because of the ongoing hostility between the U.S. and Russia, we are recreating the conditions that could lead to a nuclear war by miscalculation.” “Today, just as in the Cold War, we face the possibility of an accidental war destroying our civilization,” he wrote. Professor Timothy Colton of Harvard University has also warned that “there is a very real risk of returning to a time when miscalculations in Moscow or Washington can at any moment lead to the destruction of life on earth.” In addition, Stephen Cohen of New York University has warned of the “looming danger of war with Russia” and so have Lawrence Krauss and Robert Rosner of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (though the last two did not specify with what country). On the Russian side, foreign policy expert Sergei Karaganov has stated that in his view the risk of war is increasing, and “in many ways, it is more dangerous than it was in the last twenty-five years of the Cold War era.” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has also warned that U.S. deployment of land-based missile systems near Russia’s borders after the demise of the INF Treaty could lead to a stand-off comparable to the Cuban Missile Crisis. “We could find ourselves in a situation where we have a rocket crisis close not just to the crisis of the 1980s, but close to the Caribbean crisis,” Ryabkov said.

Not everyone in the expert community agrees, however, with the view that the risk of a U.S.-Russian nuclear war is now higher than during the Cold War. For instance, Jon Wolfsthal, former special assistant to U.S. President Barack Obama, has noted that “[T]here is much more contact and exchange between U.S. and Russian officials today than during the Cold War. The chances of missing such a massive mismatch between actions and intentions are smaller now.” Sam Dudin of the U.K.’s Royal United Services Institute has taken particular issue with Renata Dwan’s assessment above. “The main problem with Dwan’s position is that, although the risk of nuclear weapons use has increased in recent years, the risk was higher at several points during the Cold War,” such as during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and Sino-Soviet confrontation of 1969, according to Dudin. “The risk of nuclear weapons use is not higher now than at any time since World War II,” Dudin wrote.

Like the expert community, the general public, at least in Russia, is divided on whether the risk of a nuclear war is greater than during some parts of the Cold War. As many as 43 percent of Russians polled by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) in 2016 said they believed that the probability of “a large scale war between Russia and NATO countries” was now higher than during Leonid Brezhnev’s rule in the 1970s, while 17 percent believed it was the same and 21 percent believed it was lower.  Brezhnev took over from Nikita Khrushchev as premier of the USSR two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 and remained in power until his death in 1982. Some 52 percent of Russians polled by FOM in 2016 said they believed “there was a real threat now” of a large-scale war between Russia and NATO, while 40 percent said there was no such threat. More recently, Russia’s leading state-owned pollster, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) released results of a national poll that shows 52 percent of Russians are concerned there will be a nuclear war. Some 60 percent of respondents said the U.S. poses the “greatest threat to Russia related to the use of nuclear weapons,” while 13 percent named China, according to the results released on Aug. 6, 2019. Some 11 percent named ISIS or another terrorist organization, while 6 percent chose the U.K. and 5 percent believe it could be NATO countries, according to the poll, which allowed multiple answers to this question. Some 72 percent of those questioned believe “almost no one” will survive a nuclear war, according to VTsIOM. I could not find a recent U.S. equivalent of the 2016 FOM poll. However, a 2014 poll by Roper Center did find that when asked what respondents “most fear will put an end to humanity,” 35 percent of Americans pointed to nuclear war, 23 percent said a deadly virus, while rapture and global warming each garnered 15 percent of respondents’ votes. A poll conducted by Pew in the same year showed that 23 percent of Americans viewed nuclear weapons as “the greatest threat to the world,” while 27 percent pointed to inequality and 24 percent to religious and ethnic hatred. In Russia, 29 percent viewed nuclear weapons as "the greatest threat to the world” that year, according to Pew’s 2014 poll.

Whatever the risks of nuclear war, they are bound to grow further if the end of the INF Treaty is followed by the demise of New START and U.S. withdrawal from the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, according to Nunn and Moniz. I cannot agree more.

Simon Saradzhyan is the founding director of Russia Matters. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Thomas Schaffner and Angelina Flood contributed to research for this blog post.

Photo by Spencer shared under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.