Hal Brands of the American Enterprise Institute warns readers about a sad fact in today’s world.

The Ukraine war is the first great-power nuclear crisis of the 21st century — and it won’t be the last. Since February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin has rattled his nuclear saber in hopes of isolating Ukraine and intimidating it into submission. The US has responded by threatening Putin with terrible reprisals if he uses nuclear weapons, and by cooperating with Western allies to sustain Ukraine despite Moscow’s threats. The nuclear risk-taking is both a throwback to Cold War-era superpower crises and a preview of what lies ahead.

America is immersed in sharp security competitions with Russia and China. For both countries, nuclear weapons are central to their programs for regional expansion and their preparations for a potential showdown with the US. As Washington and its rivals joust for influence around the Eurasian periphery, they will come face-to-face in crises where nuclear weapons cast ominous shadows. To safely navigate the next great-power nuclear crisis, America will need to learn the lessons of this one.

At first glance, the lesson might seem to be that nukes don’t matter. Nuclear weapons haven’t saved Moscow from its Ukrainian quagmire. They haven’t deterred Kyiv from fighting back fiercely, or prevented the US and its allies from waging a ferocious proxy war that has killed tens of thousands of Russian invaders. If nuclear weapons can’t give Russia a decisive edge against a smaller, weaker neighbor, then are they really so important?

The short answer is yes. Nuclear weapons have profoundly influenced the war in Ukraine, albeit in subtle and sometimes hidden ways.

Without nuclear weapons and nuclear threats, Russia might well have lost the war by now. And without the backing of a US nuclear arsenal harnessed to the security of Washington’s allies, Ukraine might have lost, because Russia could have more brutally coerced the countries whose aid is keeping Kyiv alive. Uncomfortable as it may be to recognize, the primary lesson of the Ukraine war is that nuclear coercion will be essential to prevailing in the rivalries that define our age.