The tit-for-tat coded rhetorical threats would sound fantastical and John le Carré-esque if they weren’t so real. In September 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin cited U.S. “precedent” in using nuclear weapons in Japan and said Russia would “use all the means” at its disposal to “defend” itself in its war against Ukraine. About two weeks later, President Joe Biden said on CNN that the Pentagon did not need to be directed to prepare for a nuclear confrontation and warned that even accidental nuclear war could “end in Armageddon.” The U.S. military also took the unusual step, in October, of publicly disclosing the locations of its Ohio class submarines in the Arabian Sea and the Atlantic — within range of Russia. Each can unleash 192 nuclear missiles in one minute.
The Pentagon and the Kremlin rattling rusty old nuclear-tipped sabers is scary enough; these two powers possess more than 90% of all nuclear weapons between their two arsenals. But the new phase of this three-quarter-of-a-century-old rivalry includes Russian missile tests in April and October 2022, and a reported foray by the nuclear-capable submarine USS Rhode Island into the Mediterranean in November.
How likely is the use of nuclear weapons in the Russia-Ukraine conflict? Matthew Bunn, an analyst at Harvard, puts it at 10% to 20%, based on Putin’s public statements and increasing desperation after Russia’s military setbacks. Usually, those might be pretty safe odds, but in the context of weapons far more powerful than the bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki 77 years ago and killed tens of thousands of people in flashes of light, those odds are not nearly slim enough.
One of the more likely scenarios discussed is Russia firing a so-called tactical nuclear warhead into Ukraine. Any U.S. or NATO military response, even without nukes, would risk an escalation into a broader nuclear conflict. A 2019 simulation by researchers at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security showed how one tactical nuke could trigger a total nuclear exchange that kills 34 million people in just five hours.
Even this vocabulary of “tactical” weapons and nuclear “exchanges” reduces the real dangers of a nuclear attack to the scale of a skirmish on a Risk game board. The reality is that life after any nuclear war would be pretty awful for all survivors, even for those of us who live relatively far away from the flashpoints. An August 2022 paper in Nature Food found that a full-scale nuclear war between the United States and Russia would shroud the planet in 150 million tons of soot, making food production nearly impossible and starving most of humanity. The ejection of nearly 50 million tons of soot into the upper atmosphere from fires following a hypothetical regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan would decimate crops and fish globally, leaving more than 2 billion people dead within two years. These nightmare scenarios don’t even include the death and suffering from hazards like radioactive fallout and scorching sun exposure after the ozone layer is shattered by an atomic blast. As writer and activist Jonathan Schell puts it: “The birth of nuclear weapons in 1945 opened a wide, unobstructed pathway to the end of the world.”
Clear and present danger
U.S. peace activists are calling for the United States to play an active role in de-escalating the Russia-Ukraine war, given the nuclear threat and the war’s immense human toll. The tactics range from brokering a ceasefire to bringing both sides to the negotiating table to address grievances, including the ways the United States has encouraged the expansion of NATO since the end of the Cold War.
If the world can make it back from this brink, then perhaps a silver lining to this devastating, 21st-century war might be a new urgency behind the work for nuclear disarmament. The public has been reminded of the vast U.S. and Russian stockpiles of more than 4,000 nuclear warheads each, of which a total of more than 3,000 are actively deployed. To avoid finding ourselves here again, we need nuclear disarmament.
As long as there are nuclear weapons, they are — like Chekhov’s gun — waiting to go off.
We know it’s possible to move the world toward disarmament because we’ve done it before. During the Cold War, an enormous movement — made up of lobbyists and Greenpeace activists, scientists and Catholic nuns and priests, Black Power proponents and Pan-Africanists, Pacific Islanders and Native American nations, lawyers and hippies, and so many others — turned the tide toward disarmament. Through a series of arms control agreements, Russia and the United States reduced their nuclear arsenals by about 87% from a peak of a combined 63,000 warheads in the mid-1980s.
As public attention moved away from nuclear weapons, weapons manufacturers fought to maintain and increase their market share in a changing world. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman lobbied and threw around campaign contributions to push for increased weapons spending and more open markets for their weapons, including the expansion of NATO into former Soviet states. By 2009, the United States was spending $29 billion on the maintenance, operation and upgrading of its nuclear arsenal. Now, the only remaining arms control agreement between the United States and Russia expires in 2026, and Russia pressed pause on scheduled talks in November 2022. The United States is investing up to $1.5 trillion over the next 30 years on updating and modernizing its nuclear weapons and their air, sea and ground delivery systems. We don’t have hard numbers for Russia, but they are spending billions as well.
Tough times require bold vision. We can’t rest until the weapons are eradicated. Our demand can be nothing short of abolition.
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