Nuclear Brinkmanship Today: What is at Stake and What to Do?

Alessia Mazuelos

Ever since the Cuban Missile Crisis sixty years ago in 1962, when the United States faced off with the Soviet Union during the Cold War and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, fears and tensions of nuclear conflict appeared to be long gone. Today, the Russian invasion of Ukraine began the biggest war in Europe since the Second World War, and with Russia’s nuclear capabilities at the tip of President Vladimir Putin’s fingers, the West and the international community are increasingly anxious about the possibility of the war becoming nuclear. After all, up until February 24th 2022, “many people have forgotten that we continue to live in a MAD — mutually assured destruction — world”.

Photo Source: The Telegraph

As the war in Ukraine goes on, many Western experts and policymakers, including the Biden administration, have pointed out that Russia’s miscalculations and failures on the ground could potentially lower their guard. However, the Kremlin has recently demonstrated that regardless of battlefield setbacks, its will for victory persists which has translated directly into recent conversations between senior Russian military leaders on when and how they might utilize tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. In response, NATO went through with its routine nuclear exercises in October despite Russian warnings and Josep Borrel, the EU’s foreign policy chief, has ensured a nuclear strike against Ukraine would result in “such a powerful answer” that the Russian army would be “annihilated,”. Yet, the West remains in fear of the escalating nuclear tensions.

The real question lies in how the West should respond to the possible threat of nuclear weapons being employed in Europe, especially considering that warnings, threats and nuclear posturing could lead to escalation. For instance, Joe Biden warned that the risk of nuclear “Armageddon” is at its highest “since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis”, particularly in the face of imminent signs of the Russian military significantly underperforming. Building on this, Xi Jinping and Olaf Scholz have stressed Sino-German cooperation on “jointly oppos(ing) the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons”, consequently condemning the Russia’s nuclear threats and calling for a ceasefire since a nuclear action will be “crossing a line” for the international community, and will not be addressed lightly in response.

The nuclear crisis of 1962 is also known for the successful act of US-Soviet diplomacy which many attribute to Kennedy’s mastery of the instruments of diplomacy and negotiation, and to Nikita Khrushchev’s willingness to engage in such balanced approaches. However, the ongoing crisis today is at a dead-end due to Vladimir Putin’s ‘strongmanship’ or what international-affairs scholar, Nina Khrushcheva, calls his “full-blown despotic, ruthless megalomaniac (nature) on par with Stalin and Mao”. This has become the biggest obstacle Ukraine and the West must overcome; otherwise, if the Russo-Ukrainian war goes nuclear, it will surpass brinkmanship and veer into total destruction. Policymakers and diplomats are on edge awaiting Russia’s next moves and the war’s continuing developments, but they must remain alert and act with a steady hand as Putin’s hand will certainly not shake when pressing the ‘red button’.


Powell, Alvin. “60 years after Cuban Missile Crisis, nuclear threat feels chillingly immediate.” In The Harvard Gazette, National & World Affairs. October 17, 2022.

Cooper, Helene; E. Barnes, Julian; and Schmitt, Eric. “Russian Military Leaders Discussed Use of Nuclear Weapons, U.S. Officials Say.” In The New York Times. November 2, 2022.

Grobe, Stefan. “Europe’s week: Russian missiles strike Ukraine & nuclear tensions escalate.” In Euronews. October 12, 2022.

Al Jazeera and News Agencies. “Biden says risk of ‘nuclear Armageddon’ highest in 60 years.” In Aljazeera, Russia-Ukraine war. October 7, 2022.

Connolly, Kelly. “China and Germany condemn Russian threat to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.” In The Guardian, China. November 4, 2022.

King, Daniel. “There Are Many Words for Vladimir Putin. Is “Strongman” One?” In Mother Jones. February 27, 2022.

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