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Matthew Bunn

James R. Schlesinger Professor of the Practice of Energy, National Security, and Foreign Policy


Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has shaken several foundations of the international order – and raised the specter that nuclear weapons might be used in combat for the first time since 1945.  In the fall of 2022, as Ukrainian forces broke through and retook major portions of the area Russian forces had seized, U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly estimated a 50-50 chance that Russia would use nuclear weapons.   In the 1990s, Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons left on its soil when the Soviet Union collapsed in return for promises – including from Russia – that it would not be attacked and that its sovereignty and territorial integrity would be respected.  Within Russia, frequent government nuclear threats and signals, combined with near-constant public discussion of the possibility of carrying out nuclear attacks, appear to be “normalizing” the idea that using nuclear weapons could be a reasonable tool weapon of war.  Meanwhile, Russia also seized Ukrainian nuclear facilities, creating huge dangers of a catastrophic nuclear accident – and accused Ukraine of being the one preparing to build nuclear weapons or use a radioactive “dirty bomb.”  This course will explore these events, the still-evolving lessons they offer about conventional and nuclear deterrence, and what they mean for the broader international order (including nuclear risks elsewhere).   Additional background material will be provided for students with little prior knowledge of nuclear weapons issues.  Assignments will include policy memos and a crisis simulation.