Ukraine Conflict Risks New U.S.-Russia Arms Race, World Closer to Nuclear War

The thunderous eruption of Europe's worst war in decades has torn asunder already fissuring relations between the world's top two nuclear powers, Russia and the United States, with nuclear threats being discussed as never before in the 21st century only days into the conflict in Ukraine.

What comes next, experts and insiders fear, is an acceleration of the Cold War-era arms race that never truly ended and soon may enter a new, even more dangerous phase.

"I am deeply concerned we have arrived at the most dangerous moment in our collective nuclear history since the Cuban Missile Crisis," Joan Rohlfing, president and chief operating officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, told Newsweek. In fact she said, "this is probably a moment as dangerous as the Cuban Missile Crisis."

In the 75 years since the U.S. introduced the world to atomic warfare in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the standoff between U.S. and Soviet warships in the Caribbean more than half a century ago still marks one of the most fraught moments in nuclear history, bringing the two superpowers to the brink of unleashing their weapons of mass destruction against one another.

Rohlfing has a long career of seeking to rein in the threat of nuclear war. Before joining the Nuclear Threat Initiative and participating in leading projects such as the establishment of the World Institute for Nuclear Security and Nuclear Security Project, Rohlfing served in senior positions at the Department of Energy and the Pentagon.

And now, in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent decision to raise the readiness level of his nation's nuclear triad amid deteriorating ties with the U.S. and its NATO allies, she spells out explicitly why she's concerned in this moment in history.

"We are at a significantly escalated risk of nuclear use," Rohlfing said.

Russia, Yars, ICBM, military, parade, February, 2022
As the conflict in Ukraine marks Europe's worst war in decades, nuclear threats are being discussed as never before in the 21st century, worrying experts and insiders of an acceleration of the Cold War-era arms race between the United States and Russia. Above, Russian personnel stand at attention as the armed forces prepare to move nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles to Moscow for a victory parade in this still from a video published February 25, a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the "special military operation" in Ukraine. Russian Ministry of Defense

President Joe Biden has sought to downplay the likelihood of mounting U.S.-Russia tensions culminating in a nuclear exchange. Asked by a reporter Monday if the U.S. should be concerned about the possibility of a nuclear war, the president simply responded, "No."

But recent reports of a new U.S.-Russia military hotline opened in Europe indicate a growing worry of the potential for direct clashes between the two powers, by design or miscalculation, as both seek to flex their strategic deterrence.

Matching Russia's own nuclear actions, the U.S. has flown nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to NATO's eastern flank, a region that has been at the center of the Kremlin's enmity toward the West due to the alliance's expansion since the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago. Putin, who has been in power for two of those past three decades, has also overseen the collapse of the arms control architecture painstakingly, sometimes begrudgingly, built by Washington and Moscow throughout the Cold War.

First, the U.S. pulled out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 2002, early on in Putin's tenure and shortly after the 9/11 attacks pivoted Washington's attention away from rebuilding U.S.-Russia relations toward fighting the "War on Terror" that continues to this day. Five years later, Moscow withdrew from the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE), arguing that the level of restrictions imposed on Russia no longer made sense in the wake of the USSR-aligned Warsaw Pact's dissolution.

The most recent casualty to non-proliferation efforts was the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), scrapped by former President Donald Trump in 2019 after longstanding U.S. accusations that Russia had violated the accord with the production of a new missile that breached the 500-5,500-kilometer ban on ground-based weapons systems.

Russia, for its part, argued that the U.S. was already in violation of the INF with the deployment in Eastern Europe of missile defense systems that Moscow has argued could not only neutralize the country's own firepower but also be fitted with offensive weapons. The INF's looming death only further pushed Putin to pursue the development of new nuclear-capable platforms he touted as "invincible" to existing and even prospective defenses.

"They didn't listen to us, so listen to us now," Putin proclaimed during his 2018 unveiling of nuclear-capable systems such as the RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, the Avangard hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missile, the 9M730 Burevestnik nuclear-power cruise missile and, perhaps the biggest game-changer of them all, the Poseidon unmanned underwater torpedo, a weapon believed capable of producing fiery, radioactive waves across a radius of thousands of square miles.

The U.S. has largely dismissed Russia's stated concerns, arguing that NATO was solely a "defensive" alliance, so the continued pursuit of Washington and its allies of state-of-the-art weapons of their own and even the continued deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe, meant no offense to Moscow.

But just as the Kremlin watched with wariness at NATO's physical expansion, so too has Russia witnessed a historic rival coalition broaden its military mandate to include intervention in the Balkans and Libya. And after unrest first broke out in Ukraine eight years ago with the ousting of a Moscow-aligned government for one seeking to join the Western alliance, here too NATO took a larger role in arming and training Kyiv's security forces against a Moscow-backed separatist insurgency as Russia moved to annex the Crimean Peninsula amid an internationally disputed referendum.

While Rohlfing emphasized that the U.S. and NATO's past actions in no way justified Putin's intervention last week, she acknowledged a need to reflect on how we arrived at this low point with Moscow.

"At some point when we get out of this crisis, we're going to need to go back and take a careful look at how could we have done better in listening more closely to Russian concerns and addressing them rather than continuing to take actions that they perceived to be a threat to their security interests," Rohlfing said.

Michael Krepon, who co-founded the Stimson Center think tank and previously served in the State Department's Arms Control and Disarmament Agency during the administration of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, also saw missteps in the U.S. approach to European security after the fall of the Soviet Union, errors he felt were now hard to correct.

"Open-ended NATO expansion was, in my view, an error in judgment, but once this door was opened, it was hard to close," Krepon told Newsweek.

He called the U.S. and NATO decision to consider Georgia and Ukraine's bids to join the alliance during the Bucharest summit of 2008 a "supremely bad decision."

"That said, Putin would likely have invaded even if Ukraine wasn't in the queue for NATO membership because Kyiv sought other ways to tie its future to the West," Krepon said. "But the offer of NATO membership was certainly a contributing factor."

And, like Rohlfing, Krepon points to a threat beyond just nuclear weapons that could see Europe flooded with conventional weapons capable of instilling mass "terror" among the populace. He asserted that "the biggest unacknowledged arms control challenge is for conventionally-armed missiles," including ballistic weapons that are "also very fast" as well as "cheaper and they still get the job done."

But he warned that "nuclear weapons delivery vehicles aren't going away." In fact, he said, "they will be modernized, at great expense, and hypersonics will be added as niche weapons for a subset of targets."

Another expert with decades of experience working with nuclear weapons said the U.S. has also wrestled with the series of events that led us to the present crisis.

"Whenever something I do doesn't work out, the first question I ask is, could I have done this differently?" Theodore A. Postol, a nuclear weapons technology expert and professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told Newsweek. "Sometimes the answer is no, sometimes the answer is yes."

But over the course of several U.S. administrations failing to take into account Russia's core security concerns, he argued, "there's no reflection at all."

Postol has worked hands-on with data relating to some of the world's deadliest systems in previous capacities with the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and as an adviser to the Chief of Naval Operations. He recalled a time shortly after the Soviet Union's disintegration in the 1990s, when U.S. and Russian experts worked side-by-side in hopes of building a post-Cold War future for the two nations.

He said it wasn't long, however, before even Russian professionals in his field were alienated by the brazen behavior of a nation that had just recently established itself as the world's sole superpower.

As such, Postol said, "there has been a serious, unabated arms race going on between Russia and the United States that has been uninterrupted by the collapse of the Soviet Union."

"What the Russians have certainly learned is that the United States is proceeding as vigorously as it can with improving its nuclear war-fighting capabilities," he added. "I think that's clear and unambiguous."

While the failure of arms control treaties, now reduced to one remaining key pact, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), over the past two decades is well known, one less-publicized development that proved influential in Russia's own bid for bigger, more powerful weapons was the U.S. production of a burst-height compensating super-fuze for submarine-launched warheads, something that Postol said "essentially doubled" the U.S. nuclear strike capability.

The U.S. improvements help explain Moscow's emphasis on developing weapons that could not be countered, and so does Russia's own awareness of what Postol said are shortcomings in its own early warning systems, a critical capability that could mean the difference between identifying a true nuclear attack or a false alarm.

While the Cuban Missile Crisis is perhaps the most potent example of nuclear brinksmanship between the U.S. and Russia, a number of precarious near-misses have been the result of miscalculations. Among the more prominent of these close-calls is the 1983 Able Archer exercise during which NATO trained for a full-scale nuclear attack against the Soviet Union, which, concerned about a potential coverup for an actual strike, put its nuclear forces on high alert.

But another high-profile incident occurred in the post-Soviet era. In 1995, a joint U.S.-Norwegian team launched a scientific rocket from the Andøya Space center and Russian forces, unable to immediately distinguish the rocket from a Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile, prepared a potential retaliatory strike before it was determined that the object in question was veering away from Russian territory.

Postol said that, at the time, the fact that Moscow and Washington were on relatively good terms played into Russia's calculus in not ordering a quick reaction. Given the current downfall in trust, however, he worried such an incident could bring the world even closer to nuclear destruction.

"If it had occurred today, with them invading Ukraine," Postol said, "I don't think it would have resulted in an accidental Russian nuclear launch. I do not want to overstate that point, but I think it would have brought the Russian forces onto a higher state of alert."

With tensions high, Postol said even the savviest Russian generals may ask themselves, "What might the Americans do?"

"I think they would be very sober because they know that the Americans would be stupid beyond belief to attack them with nuclear weapons," Postol added, "but it would be somewhat dicier because of all these things that are now going on."

Last month, about a week before Putin announced the beginning of hostilities in Ukraine, threatening outside powers with "such consequences that you have never experienced in your history" should they seek to intervene, Russian Security Council Deputy Secretary Mikhail Popov spoke of the difficulties of discerning a threat in the heat of the moment, especially when tensions ran so high.

"Hardly anyone, except specialists, comes to realize that modern systems spot launches of missiles quite quickly but cannot identify whether these missiles carry nuclear weapons," Popov told Russian newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta. "That is why, any missile launch may be perceived as a nuclear strike amid the tense military and political situation."

And even if Moscow and Washington are able to climb out of the rut in their relations, described by Biden as a "complete rupture," to return to strategic stability talks, Postol was skeptical that the kind of "unimaginative" approach he anticipated would do much to make the world safer.

"The United States will not address fundamental problems like the danger from shortfalls in Russia's early warning system, which is an extremely dangerous source of a potential accidental nuclear war, which could lead to an accidental nuclear war and the crisis," Postol said. "And the U.S. continuous effort to increase the war-fighting capability of its nuclear forces will cause the Russians to be more and more likely to take actions to defend themselves that could make the chances of an accidental nuclear war considerably higher."

US, Minuteman, III, ICBM, test, launch
An Air Force Global Strike Command unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test on August 11, 2021, at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The Pentagon said in March 2022 that a subsequent launch scheduled amid soaring U.S.-Russia tensions over Ukraine was postponed after Russian President Vladimir Putin put his nuclear forces on heightened alert over the crisis. Michael Peterson/Space Launch Delta 30 Public Affairs/U.S. Space Force

The view from Moscow is bleak as well.

"We are way past the phase when academics and think-tankers could legitimately invoke the 'risk' of a new arms race," Artem Kvartalnov, a research fellow at the Moscow-based PIR Center and a member of the Germany-Russia-U.S. Young Deep Cuts Commission arms control group, told Newsweek.

"The arms race has already been there since Putin presented Russia's new strategic weapon systems in 2018 and since the U.S. increased funding for many of its military programs around the same time," Kvartalnov said. "What we should fear now is potential new dimensions of this arms race."

For the U.S., a country whose defense budget is larger than the next 11 nations combined, including both China and Russia, the possibilities are nearly limitless.

The Pentagon has faced a number of setbacks in its own hypersonic missile program but a meeting held last month by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and defense industry leaders was aimed toward improving and accelerating efforts to bring to fruition an array of projects currently in the works.

Kvartalnov predicted further U.S. and allied deployments in Europe, culminating in a risky remilitarization of the continent.

"As the invasion of Ukraine will likely result in more NATO rather than less NATO," he said, "military posturing in Europe can reach long-forgotten levels."

Some were less confident in the U.S. capability to keep up with endless military spending in the long term.

"Well, I suppose if you think you could just print money in perpetuity without any consequences, we could have an arms race, but, to be quite frank, I think we're nearing bankruptcy here," Douglas Macgregor, a retired U.S. Army colonel who served under Trump as senior adviser to then-Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, said in response to Newsweek's question during a panel last week.

He argued that, with the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio at upwards of 120%, "we're not healthy."

"We cannot afford this major buildup that people talk about," Macgregor said. "We've wasted trillions on all sorts of bright shiny objects. There has been no strategic focus to guide any of this spending. I think we've about had it."

And while he said the opportunity may be tantalizing to a number of members of Congress, he also felt "our internal affairs are going to constrain us dramatically in the near future."

The situation may prove even more arduous for Russia, where an increasingly restrictive wave of global sanctions in response to Putin's intervention in Ukraine threatens to strangle Moscow's own military modernization program. But a lifeline exists that could prove further geopolitically challenging for Washington.

China has sought to adopt a balanced position on the conflict in Ukraine, one that has shifted Washington's attention from its leading 21st-century rival, Beijing, to the old foe of Moscow. But the U.S. strategy of attempting to take on both powers at once has only driven them to further embrace one another's worldview and form a "comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for the new era," a bond that promises a new kind of bilateral relationship beyond that of Cold War-era blocs and alliances.

The result thus far has been an unprecedented level of cooperation between Beijing and Moscow, one that includes not only trade pacts capable of dodging Western sanctions but also joint military-technical endeavors that both Putin and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping pledged to continue during their summit last month.

Beijing has never been a party to the arms control treaties signed between Moscow and Washington, and Chinese officials have expressed vehement resistance to joining such measures, much to U.S. concern. And while China's far smaller arsenal has shown growth both in size and sophistication in recent years, Beijing, unlike the two leading nuclear powers, maintains a "no-first-use" policy officially precluding that the People's Republic would be the first to introduce a nuclear strike in a non-nuclear conflict.

"We oppose the use of nuclear weapons, and what we see is that the nuclear war will never be won by any parties," Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, told Newsweek during a press briefing Monday. "We oppose any nuclear wars."

But even Beijing has expressed alarm at the level to which Russia and the U.S. were responding to their frictions with nuclear-related steps.

"There are nuclear moves, I don't think this is the proper way to solve the problem," Liu said. "Now, it's to de-escalate the situation."

And while Beijing has offered to play a diplomatic role to defuse the crisis in Ukraine itself, some in the U.S. have called for dramatic military moves, including potential airstrikes against Russian convoys or imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Such moves have been dismissed so far by U.S. officials, but NATO ally Turkey moved to potentially implement an effective blockade of Russian warships attempting to enter the Black Sea by activating the Montreux Convention, a power rooted in longstanding tensions that pushed Ankara to join NATO in the first place.

Given the disintegration of protective measures and the swelling of bad blood between Russia and the U.S., which collectively hold up to 90% of the world's nuclear weapons, Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, told Newsweek she was "very concerned" about dark days to come for arms control.

"The last ten years, we've seen a withdrawal of the arms control agreement, an undermining of international law and multilateralism and an increase in nuclear modernization and spending," Finh said. "That's why we're in such a dangerous situation right now."

"We need to urgently address the situation in Ukraine to protect civilians, and then double down on diplomacy, international law and arms control and disarmament treaties to prevent this from happening again," she added.

With U.S.-Russia diplomacy at the wayside, however, there are lingering concerns over whether the world will get a second chance.

A major confrontation between U.S. and Russian forces has been avoided for a century since Washington and its allies unsuccessfully intervened against Russian communist forces who ultimately went on to establish the Soviet Union in 1922. But 100 years later, another outbreak of war in Europe indicates the dawn of a brave new world where past safeguards may no longer be enough.

"Fortunately, there is no direct war between Russia and the United States at this point," Kvartalnov told Newsweek. "However, recent developments in Ukraine show that military dynamics in Europe have become unpredictable. "

"A war in Europe that nobody could envision has become reality," he added. "Regrettably, we are entering a world where nothing can be ruled out—including direct war."

Russia, Ukraine, war, destroyed, military, vehicles
Destroyed armored vehicles, believed to be Russian, lie in the city of Bucha, west of Kyiv, on March 4. More than 1.2 million people have fled Ukraine into neighboring countries since Russia launched its full-scale attack, sparking one of Europe's worst wars in decades. ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images