On Thursday night the president of the United States warned that the risk of nuclear “Armageddon” was the highest it’s been since the Cuban missile crisis 60 years ago. Presidents don’t exactly throw the A-word around every day, so we should probably talk about this a bit more.
The path to nuclear
According to Biden and foreign policy experts, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been making increasingly rash decisions after suffering mounting battlefield losses to Ukrainian forces (decisions like conscripting 300,000 reservists and illegally annexing four Ukrainian territories). And a growing number of Russians, including one inside Putin’s inner circle, are criticizing his management of the war.
What’s the probability of Putin resorting to Nukes?
With Putin facing intense pressure to show results, President Biden warned that Russia’s leader is “not joking” about potentially using nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. Putin hasn’t explicitly said he would resort to such tactics, but in a televised speech last month he did declare that Russia would “use all the means at our disposal” if its territory was threatened and that “this is not a bluff.”
What does Russia have at its disposal?
The Federation of American Scientists estimates that Russia has about 4,500 active nuclear warheads. Most of them are strategic nuclear weapons that cover long distances (think: nuclear holocaust), while the rest are tactical, more-limited weapons that Russia would be likelier to deploy in this war. But the word “limited” when applied to a nuclear warhead still translates to unimaginable destruction—some tactical nukes are more powerful than the atomic bombs the US dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
What’s the West’s plan to deter Russia?
Let’s take a deep breath and put down the canned beans. While Biden foresees a possible end to the world, other US defense officials don’t consider this a code-red moment. “We do not presently see indications about the imminent use of nuclear weapons,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said last week. Other analysts have argued that when Putin said, “This is not a bluff,” it actually was a bluff to scare off other countries from helping Ukraine.
Still, Putin’s escalating threats have some analysts claiming that the threat of nuclear war is vastly underappreciated in society and that Armageddon is not quite as “unthinkable” as you might… think.