Published in Foreign Affairs
During the first week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian leaders repeatedly raised the prospect of a nuclear response should the United States or its NATO partners intervene in the war. Russian President Vladimir Putin concluded his speech announcing war in Ukraine by warning that “anyone who tries to interfere with us … must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never before experienced in your history.” He subsequently emphasized Russia’s “advantages in a number of the latest types of nuclear weapons” while ordering Russian strategic nuclear forces on alert. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov returned to this theme a few days later, noting that a third world war would be a nuclear war and urging Western leaders to consider what a “real war” with Russia would entail. The message was crystal clear: nuclear escalation is possible should the United States or its NATO partners intervene in Russia’s war against Ukraine.