Russian President Vladimir Putin had earlier suggested that he would consider using nuclear weapons if confronted with a NATO military response in Ukraine war, or if faced with an existential threat to his nation. If the war spreads to a NATO country like Poland or if President Putin uses a tactical nuclear weapon against Ukraine — a direct NATO-Russia confrontation could take place, with a clear danger of nuclear escalation. Dmitry Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Security Council had also warned NATO that if Sweden and Finland join the U.S.-led military alliance, then Russia would deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles in a European exclave in the Baltic Sea. Russia has its Kaliningrad exclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.
In his 2021 end-of-year speech, President Putin had also noted that he is “extremely concerned about the deployment of elements of the US global missile defense system near Russia.” In particular, he accused the United States of using its missile defense deployments as a guise to deploy offensive systems targeted at Russia.
After the recent blast on the Crimea bridge and the setbacks Russian military is facing, now there are real concerns that a cornered Putin may actually go nuclear and use tactical nuclear weapons on Ukraine.
A few days back, US President Joe Biden has warned that the world could face “Armageddon” if Putin uses a tactical nuclear weapon to try to win the war in Ukraine. “We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis,” he said.
Can the human race survive a nuclear war between NATO and Russia? There has only been one previous nuclear war — the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the World War II. The circumstances and the nuclear regime have vastly changed since then. When WW II occurred, the US was the only country with nuclear weapons. There was no nuclear deterrence, no threat of mutual assured destruction.
Mutual assured destruction is a principle of deterrence founded on the notion that a nuclear attack by one superpower would be met with an overwhelming nuclear counterattack such that both the attacker and the defender would be annihilated.
The explosive power of the current inventories of nuclear weapons held by NATO and Russia is beyond comprehension.
As of early 2022, experts estimate that Russia has a stockpile of approximately 4,477 nuclear warheads assigned for use by long-range strategic launchers and shorter-range tactical nuclear forces. Of the stockpiled warheads, approximately 1,588 strategic warheads are deployed — about 812 on land-based ballistic missiles, about 576 on submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and possibly 200 at heavy bomber bases. Approximately another 977 strategic warheads are in storage, along with about 1,912 nonstrategic warheads. In addition to the military stockpile for operational forces, a large number – approximately 1,500 – of retired but still largely intact warheads await dismantlement, making a total inventory of approximately 5,977 warheads.
At the beginning of 2021, it is assessed that US Defense Department maintained an estimated stockpile of approximately 3,800 nuclear warheads for delivery by 800 ballistic missiles and aircraft. Out of these — experts estimate that approximately 1,800 warheads are currently deployed, of which roughly 1,400 strategic warheads are deployed on ballistic missiles and another 300 at strategic bomber bases in the United States. An additional 100 tactical bombs are deployed at air bases in Europe. The remaining warheads — approximately 2,000 are in storage as a so-called hedge against technical or geopolitical surprises. It is estimated that US has a further 1,800 retired nuclear weapons. Other NATO members, UK and France possess 225 and 290 nuclear weapons respectively.
A 2008 study looked at a Russia-US nuclear war scenario, where Russia would target 2,200 weapons on Western countries and the US would target 1,100 weapons each on China and Russia. In total, therefore, 4,400 warheads detonate, equivalent to roughly half the current inventories held each by Russia and the US.
Nuclear weapons held by other states were not used in this scenario. This kind of an all-out nuclear war has a 440-Mt explosive yield, equivalent to about 150 times all the bombs detonated in World War II. This full-scale nuclear war was estimated to cause 770 million direct deaths and generate 150 to 180 Tg of soot from burning cities and forests.
The devastation causes so much smoke that only 30-40 percent of sunlight reaches the Earth’s surface for the subsequent six months. A massive drop in temperature follows, with the weather staying below freezing throughout the subsequent Northern Hemisphere summer.
A nuclear winter is not just a short term blip. Temperatures will drop below freezing in summer for several years thereafter, and global precipitation falls by half by years three and four. It takes over a decade for anything like climatic normality to return to the planet.
By this time, most of Earth’s human population will be long dead. The world’s food production would crash by more than 90 percent, causing global famine that would kill billions by starvation. In most countries less than a quarter of the population would survive by the end of year two in this scenario.
It was this shared understanding of the consequences of nuclear Armageddon that led to the 1985 statement by then US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
As recently as January 2022, The Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapon States on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races reaffirms that stand. “The People’s Republic of China, the French Republic, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America consider the avoidance of war between Nuclear-Weapon States and the reduction of strategic risks as our foremost responsibilities. We affirm that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. As nuclear use would have far-reaching consequences, we also affirm that nuclear weapons – for as long as they continue to exist – should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.”
Even as the war rages in Ukraine, humanity may still repose faith in their leaders that the world may not face a nuclear Armageddon or a World War III may not take place.
[Representational image, by Cristian Ibarra/Pixabay]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The author is an alumnus of IIM, Ahmedabad and a retired senior corporate professional.