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Dartmouth professor passes on lessons of nuclear nonproliferation with Ukraine and Putin’s threats in background

  • Nicholas Miller, associate professor in the government department at Dartmouth College, is an expert on nuclear proliferation and has been posting on Twitter about the fears of escalation in relation to the war in Ukraine. Miller teaches on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to valley news photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Nicholas Miller, associate professor in the government department at Dartmouth College, teaches a class on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • After his class, Nicholas Miller, associate professor in the government department at Dartmouth College, hands out midterms to his students Abygail Grexton, left, and Lili Stern on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to valley news — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/9/2022 11:28:25 PM
Modified: 5/9/2022 11:28:24 PM

HANOVER — Nicholas Miller wants to make one thing perfectly clear in case anyone has questions.

Russia’s nuclear weapons work just fine.

The Dartmouth College government professor, a leading scholar on the history of nuclear proliferation and international security, took to Twitter last week to deflate, sometimes with dry humor, arguments by amateur military analysts that Russia’s nuclear forces likely have not been maintained and therefore do not present the end-of-the-world threat understood by, well, mostly everybody.

“Basing your escalation plans on the theory, ‘Russia won’t go nuclear’ is iffy, at best,” Miller wrote in response to one Twitter poster’s theory that only 25% of Russia’s 1,550 deployed nuclear weapons are likely “fully operational” while the rest fall between “incomplete fission” and duds.

“Basing them on the theory, ‘Russia will try but their nukes won’t work’ is downright insane,” he warned.

Then when a British TV journalist with 187,000 followers on Twitter joined the debate by relating he once visited a Russian “nuclear site” where the “missile launchers were too rusty to move,” Miller observed in weary exasperation: “Make it stop.”

Anxiety about the possibility of nuclear war, after decades when such fears had receded from memory in the long climb out of the Cold War, has taken hold again as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior Russian leaders, echoed by a barrage of threats made by pundits on Russian TV talk shows, are all plainly signaling that Russia stands ready to unleash weapons of mass destruction against its enemies if they overstep in defending Ukraine.

A tenured professor at only 35, Miller is teaching a course in international relations and a seminar on the Cold War this semester. More than most people his age — and perhaps more than most people altogether — Miller has studied and written extensively about how government policies have at different times in history both tolerated and curbed proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Yet despite his Gen Y bona fides, Miller is concerned that many in his generation and younger are ignorant about the incomprehensible horror of nuclear weapons where “duck and cover” school drills are a searing Cold War memory for their parents and grandparents.

And that ignorance has profound effect in misjudging the risks in escalation.

A scan of any social media platform, for example, will show many comments calling for NATO troops to intervene on the ground in Ukraine or to enact a “no fly zone” over the country to more forcefully deter the Russians and their jets and helicopters from penetrating Ukraine airspace.

A direct military confrontation between the West and Russia could quickly spiral out of control, Miller said, and lead to incalculable consequences.

“A lot of the rhetoric in the last few months during the war in Ukraine from people in the U.S. and Western Europe seems to be based on like a lack of knowledge of the Cold War and not understanding why the Cold War stayed cold,” Miller said during an interview in his book-lined office on the second floor of Silsby Hall on the Dartmouth campus last week.

“The No. 1 rule for the Cold War was the U.S. and Soviets never directly confronted each other in a big way because both sides knew that carried extreme risks of escalation,” Miller said.

Miller grew up in a small town in Maine and majored in government at Wesleyan University before going on to get his doctorate in political science in the security studies program at MIT and spent several years teaching at Brown before coming to Dartmouth in 2017.

His 2018 book, Stopping the Bomb: The Sources and Effectiveness of U.S. Nonproliferation Policy, was based on his prize-winning dissertation.

Both the U.S. and Russia’s nuclear arsenals — not including the nuclear weapons held by countries such as the U.K., France, China, Pakistan, India and North Korea — each contain about 6,000 warheads, of which about 1,600 are “deployed,” meaning capable of immediate use. Nuclear weapons today are 50 to 80 times more devastating than the one the U.S. exploded over Hiroshima in 1945.

Whether or not nuclear weapons increase or destabilize international security among “great powers” has long been debated among scholars. One school posits that nuclear weapons deter wider conflict because the costs of escalation could in itself risk self-destruction.

But Miller said nuclear weapons could also encourage an aggressor by restricting an opponent’s options out of fear of escalation and the Ukraine war could be one such example.

“Russia basically calculates: ‘We can invade Ukraine and we know the U.S. and NATO aren’t going to directly get involved because they’re afraid of nuclear war.’ And so that gives them kind of a shield that they can use to engage in aggression,” he said.

In the context of Ukraine, one concern among military experts is that, unable to subdue Ukraine by force, Putin might detonate a so-called “tactical” nuclear weapon, a “low-yield” bomb yet one potentially still more powerful than those used against Japan 77 years ago. The purpose ostensibly would be to intimidate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into submitting to Russian demands.

But, as catastrophic as Russia using a “tactical” nuclear weapon in Ukraine is to contemplate, Miller said it still might not trigger an equal response by NATO and the U.S. against Russia.

Stressing that he thinks the odds of nuclear war remain “quite low,” Miller nonetheless warns “it’s possible that Russia might use them against Ukraine in a very limited way,” which would “obviously be a horrific event.” Such an attack might not lead to the West to respond with nuclear weapons but instead to retaliate with conventional forces.

Miller gives Biden high marks for containing the situation by not intervening with U.S. forces in direct combat — a move that Russia has repeatedly warned is a red line — even in the face of calls by some, such as Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill) and Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) for more aggressive confrontation with Russia.

“I see the Biden administration so far being very prudent and following that rule. Maybe it helps that Biden is older and he obviously remembers” when the tensions were continually high between the U.S. and Russia, Miller said.

Miller said he does not give much credence to the tirades of pundits on state-controlled Russian TV who are egging on Russia not to be afraid to use nuclear weapons against NATO countries and the U.S.

“It’s hard to know which signals from Russia to take totally seriously versus which are just kind of for (domestic) public consumption,” Miller said, adding that he views the nuclear talk as a tactic “to manipulate fears of nuclear war to (Putin’s) advantage.”

“I don’t think Putin’s thinking like that,” Miller said, explaining the Russian president “would not be cavalier about using nuclear weapons. It’s not unthinkable but a nuclear attack against NATO countries would only be conceivable in an extremely desperate situation that we’re nowhere near yet.”

Contact John Lippman at

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