Senior Russian military leaders reportedly recently discussed how they might use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, while other Russian officials were suggesting that Kyiv might detonate a “dirty bomb”—suggestions widely dismissed as a setup for a false-flag excuse to escalate the war. And even before all that, President Joe Biden reckoned that the world was closer to “Armageddon” than any time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Cause for concern? You bet. But if you’re looking for new ideas to address Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts at nuclear blackmail in Ukraine, you won’t find them in the Biden administration’s new statement on nuclear policy. Known as the Nuclear Posture Review, or NPR, the report is a disappointing defense of the status quo. It breaks little new ground, and it fails to respond to the Ukraine moment. Reading it, you might almost forget that the world is facing the most serious nuclear threat in 60 years.
President Putin has repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons to keep the United States and NATO from getting too involved in the war. The NPR notes that Russian leaders view their nuclear arsenal “as a shield behind which to wage unjustified aggression against their neighbors.” Not only do these reckless actions increase the risk of nuclear war, but they also threaten the future of U.S.-Russian arms control and could give non-nuclear states new motivations to get the bomb.
That Biden’s NPR has no answer for this is not surprising. The report was drafted before Russia invaded Ukraine in late February and then hastily updated before its classified release in March. Little, if anything, appears to have changed before the release of the unclassified version on Oct. 27.
Lacking fresh thinking on the Ukraine crisis, the Biden team has fallen back on the old Cold War playbook: when in doubt, build more nuclear bombs. Biden lends his support to essentially all the new nuclear weapons proposed by his predecessor, including a new $260 billion intercontinental ballistic missile and new lower-yield warheads for missiles on Trident submarines. As a candidate, Biden said the Trump administration’s new Trident warheads were a “bad idea,” and that having them would make the U.S. “more inclined to use them.” Now that he’s president, Biden opposes just one Trump-proposed nuke—a new and unneeded sea-launched cruise missile—that will likely win support in Congress anyway due to the administration’s tepid effort to stop it.
Building new nukes we don’t need will not solve the Ukraine crisis, but it could get us into another expensive and dangerous arms race. One of the more troubling assertions in the NPR is that “By the 2030s the United States will, for the first time in its history, face two major nuclear powers as strategic competitors and potential adversaries.” This sets the stage for a future administration to argue, erroneously, that the Pentagon needs a larger nuclear arsenal—say, as big as Russia’s and China’s combined. This could lead to a new arms race with both Moscow and Beijing.
What should we do instead? In the short term, the Biden team needs to talk with Russia’s leaders, as it has started to do. These talks should not yet be about ending the war in Ukraine, but we need to set clear expectations with Russia about preventing the war from going nuclear or spreading beyond Ukraine’s borders. As Biden has rightly said, we must do all we can to prevent direct U.S. conflict with Russia, which would lead to World War III. Biden has so far successfully balanced support for Ukraine while withholding U.S. forces, a no-fly zone, and more sophisticated weapons.
In the longer term, we need a new international coalition that can isolate Putin and his dangerous nuclear behavior as much as possible. For example, Putin is threatening first use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine. Biden considered a no-first-use policy and a related sole-purpose policy, but rejected them, even though he had endorsed both in the past. This is a missed opportunity. China is a long-term supporter of no first use, and leader Xi Jinping, a key Putin ally, recently said that the international community should “jointly oppose the use of, or threats to use, nuclear weapons.” With the right policy behind him, Biden could be calling for global condemnation of Putin’s first-use threats. As it stands, Biden’s nuclear policy looks a lot like Putin’s.
Getting Putin to change his bad-boy nuclear saber-rattling will not be easy. We must convince him that his current trajectory will lead to greater and greater isolation. If Putin wants Russia to become a larger version of uber-isolated North Korea, then so be it. But if Moscow eventually wants to come in from the cold, we must make it crystal clear what needs to change.
One of the underappreciated lessons of the Ukraine crisis is that the West would be better off if nuclear weapons were not part of the conflict. Russia might have not invaded if it did not have nukes to hide behind, and the United States could play a bigger role in helping Ukraine if it did not have to worry about Russian nuclear escalation. As Putin is showing, the bomb is a weapon of the weak and only serves to neutralize the U.S. conventional military advantage.
The Biden NPR missed a golden opportunity to update our nuclear policies for a new era. We cannot meet the Ukraine moment with Cold War thinking. President Biden must, and can, do better.