Moscow May Be Pushed to ‘Nuclear Escalation’ If US Overreacts to Ukraine: Report

Moscow May Be Pushed to 'Nuclear Escalation' If US Overreacts to Ukraine: Report
  • The US should not overreact to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a new Costs of War Project report warns.
  • The report underscores that the war has shown Russia’s military is much weaker than previously thought.
  • If the US overreacts, it could push Moscow toward “nuclear escalation,” the report states.

If the US and NATO overreact to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with drastic increases in defense spending and conventional forces in Europe, it could push Moscow toward “nuclear escalation,” a new report from Brown University’s Costs of War Project that was shared exclusively with Insider warns.

“The horrific conflict resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to develop into a volatile situation for European security with the grave possibility of a wider war,” the report says. “In turn, these escalatory pressures have led to calls for significantly enhanced United States defense spending. Yet, it is important that the US not succumb to threat inflation, or ‘speech that gives an exaggerated sense of danger,’ in regards to public and official perceptions of Russia.”

The Cost of War Project report underscores that Russia is “a weaker conventional military power than many in the US had imagined,” as evidenced by its disastrous performance in the war in Ukraine thus far.

In August, the Department of Defense said that the US estimates that Russia had suffered as many as 80,000 casualties in Ukraine — an astonishing number in just six months of war. Russia is also estimated to have lost thousands of armored vehicles.

Though Ukraine was widely expected to be swiftly defeated by Russia prior to the war’s onset, Ukrainian forces have held off the Russian invaders and ensured that they failed to take Kyiv in the early days of the conflict. More recently, Ukraine launched a blistering counteroffensive that has pushed Russia’s forces into retreat.

Meanwhile, the US and its Western allies have moved to isolate Russia both economically and politically. Taken together, all of these factors have placed Russian President Vladimir Putin in a precarious political position, both at home and abroad.

Along these lines, the Costs of War Project report argues that “there is no additional cause for intensified fear of a Russian military threat to the US nor for the resultant expansion of the Pentagon budget.”

“If the US and NATO increase their military spending and conventional forces in Europe, the weakness of Russian conventional military forces could prompt Moscow to rely more heavily on its nuclear forces,” the report said, adding that “because the Russian military is relatively weak , an over-reaction to Russian aggression could push the Russian leadership toward nuclear escalation.”

The report states that the “greatest threat of nuclear war could lie in the West’s overreaction to Russia’s aggression.”

‘Priority reducing nuclear risk’

A Russian nuclear missile is seen during a parade in Moscow.

A Russian nuclear missile rolls along Red Square during the military parade marking the 75th anniversary of Nazi defeat, on June 24, 2020 in Moscow, Russia.

Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images


The report says that though it might seem contrary to conventional wisdom, the US defense budget doesn’t need to grow. “Rather, cognizant of Russia’s conventional military weakness, the US military budget can instead be trimmed,” it adds.

Though Ukraine has drastically altered assessments of the threat posed by Russia’s conventional military, Putin still has at his disposal the largest nuclear arsenal in the world — 5,977 nuclear warheads, by the Federation of American Scientists, with thousands readily available for delivery to distant targets via land-, air-, and sea-based platforms. Western officials and Russia watchers have warned that if the Russian president feels backed into a corner, it could increase the risk of him using a nuclear weapon in Ukraine. The consequences of such a move could be catastrophic, with global ramifications.

Earlier this week, Retired Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan told Insider that as Ukraine recaptures territory he’s now “even more concerned” about nuclear-weapon use.

Lyle Goldstein, a professor of international and public affairs at Brown who authored the Costs of War Project report, emphasized that as the world approaches the 60th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, “it is imperative to mitigate Cold War-type tensions with Moscow and prioritize reducing nuclear risk.”

“Russian aggression in Ukraine requires an international response,” said Stephanie Savell, co-director of the Costs of War Project. “However, it does not justify increased US military budgets, which could ultimately escalate tensions with Russia and once again lead us down a dangerous path.”

“The US military budget is poised to surge above $800 billion, in part due to the conflict in Ukraine. But higher spending isn’t the solution,” Savell added, stating that the research in the new report “lays the foundation for a more honest conversation in the US about what’s truly going to promote peace for people in the region, and for the world.”

‘Not nearly as powerful as we thought’

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Contributor/Getty Images


The report’s assessment echoes the conclusions of top Russia experts and military analysts.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a strategic defeat. So far the Kremlin has not been able to achieve its strategic level objectives and it has incurred significant costs. Russia’s military is going to have to be rebuilt,” George Barros, a military analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, told Insider this week.

“The conventional ground army ground force that the Kremlin has spent the last two decades on creating — seeking to create a modern military — that force has been just largely degraded and in a large part destroyed in the past six months of war in Ukraine,” Barros went on to say. “It’s very true to say that the conventional Russian ground force has taken a significant beating in Ukraine.”

Similarly, Robert Orttung, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University whose research focuses on Russia and Ukraine, told Insider that the war in Ukraine is “going to change the assessment of Russia’s military strength dramatically.”

He said the Russian military is “not nearly as powerful as we thought it was.”

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