Our attention has diminished, the nuclear threat from Russia has not

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As Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine continues his sixth month, the risk of a catastrophic nuclear war between Russia and NATO grows with every bloody day. This might surprise Americans, for whom the conflict is now essentially an abstraction. But unless the Russian and Ukrainian leaders find a way out of this destructive conflict, the tiny but real chance of Armageddon will pile up like interest on a loan.

There are several red flags suggesting that we are in more danger than we realize – far more so than when the invasion began. Russia uses the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, Zaporizhzhia, as a shield launch artillery attacks, a situation conducive to disaster. How would Western countries react to a collapse triggered by Russian misdeeds, or caused by an airstrike or an errant Ukrainian drone? What if Russia unleashes a Chernobyl-like disaster and tries to blame someone else as a pretext for nuclear escalation? Russian President Vladimir Putin is credibly suspected to engineer false flag attacks in the past, so it’s not crazy to think he’d do it again on a grander scale.

But the greatest risk is, paradoxically, the situation itself: Ukraine’s success in repelling the first Russian push on kyiv, avoiding the rapid decapitation of the regime Putin has sought out and turned war into a drudgery that offers little hope of either side achieving its maximum goals. Nuclear powers facing defeat or quagmire have considered introducing these terrible weapons in the past – US President Harry Truman in the darkest hours of the Korean War, the French during the 1954 Siege of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam and the Soviets during the Yom Kippur War.

Just because those who envisioned global annihilation in the past have moved away from the abyss doesn’t mean today’s leaders will do the same. On the contrary, the fact that Ukraine seems so important to Putin – more so than Vietnam or Korea or perhaps even Cuba to the Americans – only risks him violating the nuclear taboo even higher. Add the accumulated grievances of the war – the global humiliation of the start of the war, the deaths of thousands of Russian soldiers at the hands of Western weapons, the economic misery and emigration caused by the sanctions – and you can see how someone one might decide to behave irrationally.

A photograph shows a bust of the founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, in a forest inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone on May 29, 2022.
DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images

Would Russia use nuclear weapons to break the deadlock or to permanently wipe entire swaths of western Ukraine off the map? As disconcerting as it may seem, Russia has shown no reservations about inflicting inhuman violence on civilian populations in the past.

This is not a purely theoretical concern. Current Russian military doctrine reserves the right to use nuclear weapons both in retaliation for a nuclear attack as well as in the event of “aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in danger”. That’s why it’s so unnerving to hear those close to Putin talk about existential threats.

In a terrifying interview with the New York Times Last month, Russian political scientist and Putin adviser Sergey Karaganov warned of the “growing likelihood of a global thermonuclear conflict ending human history”. Arguing that Russia would settle for nothing less than the ‘liberation’ of eastern and southern Ukraine from the ‘kyiv regime’, Karaganov also hinted that Putin saw the conflict in precisely the kind of apocalyptic terms. which could lead to a nuclear escalation. “For Russia,” Karaganov says, “this conflict is about preserving not just its elites, but the country itself.”

This is not a call for Ukraine’s surrender. But it is important for Ukraine’s allies, who continue what Bonnie Kristian called “not not war” to have an exit strategy, clearly communicated red lines and open channels of communication with Moscow. Putin’s statement to the UN that “there can be no winner in a nuclear war, and there is no should ever be unleashed” is a good start, but only a speedy end to the war can truly lift the specter of calamity from the world.

David Faris is an associate professor of political science at Roosevelt University and author of It’s time to fight dirty: How can Democrats build a sustainable majority in American politics?. His writings have appeared in The week, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Washington Monthly, and more. You can find him on Twitter @davidmfaris.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.



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