Playing Russian Roulette in Ukraine

The risk of the war in Ukraine escalating to a full-scale nuclear war is far greater than our nation realizes. While it is impossible to quantify that risk precisely, I estimate that it is roughly comparable to pulling the trigger in a global version of Russian roulette once each year that this war continues. [1] And, right now, the prognosis is for an extended war that lasts at least that long. This extremely dangerous situation is complicated by the need to ensure that Russia’s aggression does not succeed.

How great is the risk of Ukraine escalating to global nuclear war?

Those who discount the risk of Ukraine leading to a nuclear war are probably right, but probably is an inadequate assurance when our nation’s survival is at stake. In Russian roulette, there would be five chances out of six that America would not be destroyed. But even one nuclear bullet in a gun with six chambers is too much.

A recent article in The Atlantic quotes former Secretary of Defense William Perry as believing that the risk of a nuclear weapon being used in this conflict is even higher than during the Cuban missile crisis. While his estimate was for the use of a single nuclear weapon, once the nuclear threshold is crossed, previously inconceivable dangers rear their heads.

For example, that same article states that, should Putin use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, noted Stanford political scientist Scott Sagan “would advocate American conventional attacks on Russian forces in Ukraine, Russian ships in the Black Sea, or even military targets inside Russia.” And he is far from alone. Should America attack Russian forces or territory, that would almost surely lead to a response by Putin, with unpredictable and potentially catastrophic consequences.

The risk is exacerbated by the fact that, in many ways, the US is already at war with Russia. US intelligence helped Ukraine sink the flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet, the Moskva. Another article states that, “The United States has provided intelligence about Russian units that has allowed Ukrainians to target and kill many of the Russian generals who have died in action.” How would we respond if Russia helped sink an American ship or kill a dozen American generals?

Minimizing Ukraine’s nuclear risk

To minimize the nuclear risk as well as the human suffering in Ukraine, we need to be as objective as possible; define our goals as clearly as possible; and bring this war to a conclusion as rapidly as possible. Currently, we are doing none of those. It’s time we started, and here are some ways to do that.

Be as objective as possible: Most Americans see this war as Russia’s fault, end of story. In contrast, a recent poll conducted through the University of Chicago found that 58% of Ukrainians see the United States as bearing at least some responsibility for the war. Of course, an even larger fraction, 85%, said the same about Russia. But, surprisingly, 70% said that about their own Ukrainian government. People who have first-hand knowledge of how this conflict developed know something that needs to be taken into account as we develop strategies for dealing with this war. [2]

Most Americans also do not know that in 2019 forty members of Congress asked the State Department to declare Ukraine’s Azov Battalion a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Instead, that force was referred to only in heroic terms for its recent defense of Mariupol’s Azovstal steel works, with almost no mention of its ideology. [3]

Being as objective as possible does not mean overlooking the brutality and illegality of Putin’s invasion. But it does require that we move beyond the overly simplified narrative that currently prevails.

Define our goals as clearly as possible: Nancy Pelosi stated our goal as standing with Ukraine “until victory is won.” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin asserted that our goal was to see “Russia weakened to the point where it can’t do things like invade Ukraine.” And, although it later was walked back, President Biden said of Putin, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” 

Which of those goals are achievable? What are the costs to Ukraine of trying to achieve them? What are the effects on the world’s poorest nations as food prices soar? 

And, perhaps most fundamentally, what is their effect on the level of nuclear risk that our nation bears, along with the rest of the world?

Bring this war to a conclusion as rapidly as possible: As this war drags on, Russia is currently making advances (at great cost), Ukraine is bleeding, more people in poor nations are going hungry, and there is an elevated risk of our nation being destroyed in a nuclear war. 

Yet, in ending this war, we also need to be careful not to encourage further aggression. Navigating such a path will be difficult and key first steps are to recognize that:

* the level of nuclear risk is much greater than most people realize; and

* the narrative told in our media is overly simplified.

Until we do those two things, we cannot develop a rational strategy.

Preventing Wars: The Role of Accident Chains

Most wars don’t just happen. They are the result of accident chains — sequences of mistakes that end in disaster, as has happened in Ukraine. The best time to stop a war is early in the formation of its accident chain, before most people are even aware of the danger.

By looking for such accident chains, I became concerned about the potential for a Ukrainian crisis in October 2013, more than eight years before Putin’s 2022 invasion. If enough others had paid attention then, or even a year ago, the current war in Ukraine might well have been averted. Now, the best that we can hope for is an early termination of hostilities before the nuclear risk becomes manifest, Ukraine is bled dry, millions die of starvation, or Russia seizes more territory.

While it is too late to prevent war in Ukraine, several other conflicts demand our urgent attention before they too flare up, cause untold human misery, and threaten our nation’s destruction. Three of these are briefly described below.

China: One of the few events that could precipitate a war with China is if Taiwan were to declare its independence. This sounds ludicrous from our perspective since Taiwan is effectively independent of the PRC, so such an action would change almost nothing. But, as Americans know all too well, civil wars produce emotional landmines, and the one in China ended much more recently than our own. 

While we should not abandon Taiwan, neither should we encourage a declaration of independence that has no real effect other than to increase the risk of war. Unfortunately, we have unwittingly been doing that. The 1995-1996 Third Taiwan Straits crisis came dangerously close to war and was precipitated by just such a mistake on our part. (Once in the linked document, search on Third Taiwan Straits Crisis for details.)

North Korea has not done any nuclear tests since 2017. That is likely to change, partly because North Korea has not seen what it would regard as adequate, reciprocal moves by the United States. Instead, our goal has been “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” which sounds reasonable until it is translated into “unilateral nuclear disarmament by North Korea.” It is the only nation with nuclear weapons on the peninsula and ours are elsewhere. How would we respond if North Korea proposed talks with the goal being our unilateral nuclear disarmament?

We also need to understand why North Korea is wary of any commitments that we make. As one example, it never received the two light water reactors it was promised in 1994 in return for halting construction of two, more proliferation-prone, graphite-moderated reactors. By now, those graphite-moderated reactors would have made enough bomb-grade plutonium for hundreds of nuclear weapons.

Iran: President Obama negotiated a nuclear agreement with Iran (the JCPOA) in 2015 that President Trump killed in 2018, even though Iran was in compliance and its “breakout time” to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb had increased dramatically, to approximately a year. Today, without the JCPOA, that breakout time is back to being measured in weeks.

Attempts to resuscitate the JCPOA are hampered both by Iran’s unwillingness to admit past misdeeds and demands from many in Congress for more stringent limitations on Iran. Given that Iran had exported more than 90% of its enriched uranium when President Trump withdrew from the agreement, Iranian leaders will not agree to more stringent limitations based merely on US promises. As with North Korea, we need to rebuild trust with Iran, just as it needs to do with us. We need a “reverse accident chain” that ratchets down tensions a bit at a time.


A key element in defusing such potential crises early in their accident chains is not to humiliate our adversaries. We made that mistake after World War I when the Treaty of Versailles shamed Germany and laid the foundation for World War II. We cannot make that mistake again. Preventing World War III is a requirement, not an option.

End Notes

[1] A March 2021 paper of mine explained why, in those more normal times, the risk of a major nuclear war was roughly 1% per year. The war in Ukraine has clearly increased that risk, and it is now probably closer to 1% per month, which would correspond to pulling the trigger in “nuclear roulette” once every 16 months. I rounded that to “once each year” due to its approximate nature.

[2]  I authenticated the poll with a researcher at the University of Chicago who was involved in doing it.

[3] While Azoz has become more nationalistic and less neo-Nazi over time, it still has dangerous tendencies. For example,, in 2019, when President Zelensky tried to withdraw forces from the town of Zolote as part of the Minsk Accords to bring peace to the Donbass, Azov veterans refused to leave. War brings out the best and the worst in a nation, so it is not surprising that Putin also has neo-Nazis fighting on his side.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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