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Is the threat of a nuclear war real?

As Finland announces its intention to join NATO and Russia faces unexpected setbacks in Ukraine, will a beleaguered Vladimir Putin follow through on his nuclear threats?

“The short answer is it’s all too real,” said Darryl Kimball, executive director of the non-partisan Arms Control Association, at a May 6 EMS briefing where experts deciphered the likelihood of Putin unleashing nuclear warheads in Europe.

Kimball is the publisher and contributor for the organization’s monthly journal, Arms Control Today.

“We are in a heightened state of nuclear danger, the likes of which we have not seen for over 30 years,” he said.

Putin threatens lightning strikes

In April, Putin promised retaliatory lightning strikes if NATO and the west intervened in Ukraine.

“We need to be watchful,” warned Kimball, as nervousness grows over the danger of nuclear war from threats that were unprecedented in the post-Cold War era.

Who owns the World’s Nukes?

According to the Federation of American Scientists, Russia and the US own 90% of all nuclear warheads. Each country has military stockpiles of over 4000 warheads that could trigger a nuclear explosion.

Nuclear War Map of Who Has Nuclear Warheads

Russia has 1000 to 2000 short range missiles, while NATO and US have over 100+ tactical nuclear warheads stored in NATO countries

All are extremely deadly, noted Kimball. If nuclear war broke out, “more than 91 million people could die in the first few hours.”

If fighting started in Europe, nuclear escalation would begin with short range tactical weapons used in battlefields or at sea. Once nuclear-armed adversaries deploy long range missiles or rockets, it could quickly become an all-out conflagration.  Initial blasts would kill millions, followed by millions of deaths from radiation exposure. Global heath and economic systems would collapse.

After a Global Thunder wargame simulation in 2018, US Strategic Command General John Hyten warned, “It ends bad.”

The risk of war is low but not not zero

As long as the war continues in Ukraine, we face a heightened state of nuclear risk, said Kimball. Nuclear defense doctrines govern each country’s nuclear strategy. Russia can deploy nuclear weapons in response to an attack with weapons of mass destruction, or, “if a conventional war threatens the very existence  of the state.” The US uses its arsenal primarily as a deterrent but reserves the option for nuclear use to counter conventional, biological, chemical and cyber-attacks, and other “extreme circumstances.”

But, contrary to common myth, experts agreed that nuclear weapons do not limit or  prevent major wars. Instead, they  spark aggression between nuclear armed adversaries, like India and Pakistan for example, and make wars more dangerous.

Deterrence policies create unacceptable, unsustainable risks, Kimball observed. “We need to reinforce the taboo against nuclear use.”

How does this end?

Ceasefire negotiations have stalled as Russian strikes continue, unable to quell the Ukraine counteroffensive.

What really concerns the experts is that when the  START nuclear pact between US and Russia expires in 2026, we could be living in a world with no legally binding guardrails.

Andrew Nynka, editor-in-chief of the US-based Ukrainian Weekly, fled Ukraine on foot when the war began. He believes that Putin “would rather see his enemies divided and mired in a discussion” over his intentions. It’s a key part of the information war that Putin is skillfully using to divide his enemies, “without diminishing the real possibility of a nuclear threat.”

In negotiations with Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov demanded lifting sanctions, said journalist Elena Kuznetsova. “Experts say that it’s very unlikely that a country, which asks to lift sanctions, will use nuclear weapons.”

In Kimball’s view, the mixed messaging from Russia is deliberately vague. Putin’s remarks on nuclear use are designed to keep NATO and US out of direct military involvement in Ukraine and away from the Putin regime.

“I don’t think he plans or wants to use nuclear weapons – because doing so could lead to mutual nuclear destruction.”

It seems inconceivable that less than two months ago, the odds of nuclear war would unseat COVID19 as the top threat in a world struggling to recover from the pandemic.  

Uncertainty hangs over the outcome of this conflict and threatens to create the greatest nuclear crisis since the height of the Cold War.

“When people talk about WW3, this is just the tip of the terrible iceberg,” said Kimball.

image: from Twitter/

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Meera Kymal

Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at DesiCollective. At India Currents, she covers immigration policy and reform, civil rights, the pandemic, and climate...