Biden administration officials have recognized the necessity of avoiding any scenario that could lead to a World War III nuclear exchange with Russia. In April, CIA director William Burns warned that “None of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons.” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, when asked about supplying Ukraine with Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) said “[A] key goal is to ensure that we do not end up in a circumstance where we’re heading down the road towards a third world war.”
The American public and the U.S. Congress are concerned with the risk that U.S. support for Ukraine could escalate into war, including nuclear war with Russia. A May Pew poll found that 51 percent of respondents were either extremely or very concerned that U.S. and NATO support for Ukraine would lead to war with Russia (another 31 percent were somewhat concerned). In March, leading Democrats and Republicans in Congress united in opposing a no-fly zone, given the concerns with escalation to a nuclear war. As Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) said “I don’t think it’s in our interest, the interest of Europe, to have the United States and Russia — the two world’s biggest, most equipped nuclear superpowers — going to war directly against each other.” The American public and U.S. Congress’ concern with the risk of war with Russia will serve as a critical failsafe if the Biden administration were to consider taking steps that could escalate to war.
Despite these reasons for optimism, the stakes require continued vigilance. The Biden administration must continue to pay close attention to the signals Russia sends in reaction to Ukraine’s battlefield successes or any new Western military aid to Ukraine. Relatedly, American officials should not assume that they can keep any weapons they supply to Ukraine secret. Finally, the United States also needs to continue to pressure Ukraine to not use Western military aid in ways that are likely to trigger an escalation from Moscow.
Jason Davidson is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council and Professor of Political Science at the University of Mary Washington. He is also the author of America’s Entangling Alliances: 1778 to the Present.