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“The United States is the only country in the world that has twice used nuclear weapons, destroying the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and setting a precedent…”
Those words by Russian president Vladimir Putin say everything. For months, Russian media has raised the issue of a nuclear war, often commenting how such a war wouldn’t be bad, as “we’d go to heaven”. At least back then it wasn’t by government officials or by Putin himself, but now it is clear: Russia is running out of options in its failing war in Ukraine, and it sees the nuclear button as a last-ditch option. Such an act could see a first strike on Ukraine, and even NATO states such as the United States, Britain, France or Germany, to name a few. In the months since the start of its war with Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Russia has become more and more belligerent as it grows more globally isolated, and its defeats and war crimes in Ukraine are criticized by a global audience. International rhetoric has become more dangerous, as it now threatens total global thermonuclear devastation over what Russia perceives as a “holy war” against the West. The US and NATO have made remarks stating any nuclear attack on Ukraine would be considered an attack on NATO itself and the consequences would be “devastating”. Such rhetoric has been unseen in human history, even compared to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which saw a far more regulated and stable Soviet leadership attempt to communicate with America over its intention to keep Cuba in its sphere, but not start a nuclear war to do so.
This new Russia is far more dangerous, for its leadership is much more unstable with the current war. It is far more autocratic than Nikita Khrushchev could have ever dreamed of, and its military has suffered repeated setbacks and even major defeats in Ukraine. In turn, Russia has resorted to riling its population for a “holy war”, invoking images of a crusade against what they perceive as “Western Judaic Nazism” and calling upon all Russians to prepare for a nuclear war without fearing the consequences of such a thing.
It is clear that rationality left Russia months, if not years ago. Vladimir Putin and the Russian state claiming that the atomic bombings of Japan back in WWII sets a precedent for this current world order show that the state is no longer a rational actor in possession of nuclear weapons. It should then be observed that if such a world actor had nuclear weapons, the threat of nuclear destruction of the rest of the world increases dramatically. This is unlike North Korea, who despite its leadership and its many aggressions, is clearly not intending to use nuclear weapons at any point in the future, for it knows its position in the geopolitical spectrum and hence knows it cannot use one viably. Russia however, has one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals and this alone can create the dangerous sense of overconfidence and a sense of being able to “win” a first-strike maneuver against the US/NATO/Ukraine. The increasingly ultranationalist and even religiously fanatical rhetoric only backs this greater danger: A fanatic listens to his feelings, not his mind, and nuclear weapons demand theuse of human thought and comprehension, not sudden whims.
What can the US and its allies do right now? Recent remarks by US and NATO officials have warned Russia of “catastrophic consequences” should a nuke be used in Ukraine. We as citizens can certainly prepare for an escalation of the situation. Our society is not prepared for major contingencies, but we can rectify that if we ready ourselves now by being aware of such a danger and hence preparing what to do in such an event.