‘Who will blink first?’ Is nuclear war between Russia and the US possible?
Discussions about strengthening nuclear arms control have been ongoing for decades, but have recently receded into the background, with leading powers now hurling direct threats at each other.
Despite the obvious catastrophic consequences of a nuclear war, in which world leaders have repeatedly noted there would be no winners, Moscow and Washington continue to warn that they are ready to use their arsenals in extreme circumstances.
Experts have expressed hope that these statements are nothing more than attempts at blackmail. However, sooner or later, this kind of talk could lead to a critical situation similar to the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Soviet Union and United States held atomic pistols to each other’s heads.
To make matters worse, the entire system of international agreements on disarmament has practically collapsed, leaving little hope for improvement in the near future.
In the first year of his presidency, back in 2000, Vladimir Putin proposed that Russia and the US radically reduce nuclear warhead levels – to 1,500 units. He noted that it would be realistic to accomplish this by 2008, and that it should have been possible to shrink the arsenals of both countries even further in the future.
Russia, according to Putin, did not see any obstacles to more reductions in strategic offensive weapons.
“But the main thing now is for Russia and the United States to start moving together or in parallel to radically lower ceilings on nuclear warheads without delay,” the president said.
Putin’s proposal was never heeded and twenty two years have passed. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), as of the beginning of 2022, the US had the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons on alert – 1,774 'deployed' warheads placed on missiles or located on bases of operational forces. The US boasts a fully-fledged nuclear triad that includes air, land, and sea components.
Russia has only 1,588 deployed warheads but has a larger total inventory than Washington - 5,977 to 5,428, according to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).
Other nuclear states certainly have far fewer warheads at their disposal. France, according to the SIPRI, has 290 warheads (10 deployed), and the UK has 225 as of 2022 (60 deployed).
Little is known about the Chinese nuclear arsenal though it is believed that at the beginning of this year, it numbered over 350 warheads. A report by the Federation of American Scientists concludes that Beijing's stockpile is increasing.
Be that as it may, the main tension in the nuclear club today is between the US and Russia. Many consider the situation to be volatile, especially considering the increasingly combative statements coming from Moscow and Washington.
In light of the conflict in Ukraine, public concern about the possibility of a global nuclear conflict is on the rise. This was first actively discussed on February 27, when Putin ordered the Russian deterrent forces to be put on special combat alert. The Strategic Deterrence Forces are the basis of the Russian Armed Forces' combat power, intended to deter aggression against Russia and its allies, as well as defeat an aggressor, including in a war with the use of nuclear weapons.
It is important to note that Moscow has repeatedly stated that the country’s nuclear doctrine does not imply preventive strikes, confirmed by the president himself. That is, nuclear weapons would only be used if an aggressor launches a nuclear attack on Russian territory, or if the very existence of the state was under threat due to a conventional assault.
Analysts have repeatedly returned to the question of whether a real nuclear confrontation between Russia and other states armed with atomic bombs is possible. In August, then-British Foreign Minister and PM candidate Liz Truss said she would use nuclear weapons if necessary. Prior to that, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Washington would consider using its nuclear arsenal only in emergency circumstances, such as to protect the vital interests of the US, its allies, and partners.
Talk of a possible nuclear conflict re-emerged on September 21, when Putin said that Russia would use all means at its disposal if faced with a threat to its territorial integrity. He pointed to the fact that Washington is directly pushing Kiev to expand the hostilities to Russian territory. Putin also noted that Western countries openly state that Russia should be defeated on the battlefield by all means, and deprived of economic, political, cultural, and in general, any, sovereignty.
According to the president, western powers are using nuclear blackmail, pointing to statements by high-ranking representatives of leading NATO states about the possibility and permissibility of using weapons of mass destruction against Russia.
“I want to remind those who permit themselves to make such statements concerning Russia: Our country also has various weapons of destruction at its disposal, and in certain components, more modern than those of NATO countries. If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff,” Putin said.
Following that, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in an interview with CBS that Washington would respond to Moscow on the possible use of nuclear weapons. He noted that the White House had warned Russia about the catastrophic consequences of using such weapons.
On October 7, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky called on NATO to launch pre-emptive strikes on Russian territory, a statement that clearly did little to improve the situation. However, the very next day, he denied that he meant the use of nuclear weapons. As the Ukrainian leader explained, he was talking about new sanctions by Western countries to prevent nuclear war.
Later, Zelensky repeatedly expressed his belief that Putin would not use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine conflict.
Putin himself said on October 27 that Russia has no need to launch a nuclear strike on Ukraine, since there is no political or military sense in doing so. He once again pointed to Russia’s nuclear doctrine, which describes the cases in which nuclear weapons may be used.
Is the use of nuclear weapons possible?
Political analysts consider the actual use of nuclear weapons by the US or Russia unlikely or even practically impossible. Konstantin Blokhin, a leading researcher at the Center for Security Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, dismissed statements about the possibility of a nuclear strike on Russia as instruments of informational and psychological pressure - blackmail by the US against Russia. Its main purpose, he contends, is to send Russia a clear signal that if it does not stop its special military operation, a third world war – this time nuclear – will begin.
But if this war happens, it will be the last in the history of mankind, civilization will roll back to the Stone Age.
“The United States has got something to lose. Everyone has got something to lose. They will not start any war, and definitely not because of Ukraine. Ukraine is an instrument of deterrence, a hotbed of tension at our borders, nothing more. This is all a bluff,” Blokhin told RT.
He drew a parallel with the Star Wars program, which was developed under former US President Ronald Reagan and provided for the creation of an extensive defense system that integrated laser-armed satellites, air and ground-based anti-ballistic missile systems, and electromagnetic railguns. Its main goal was to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles launched by the USSR or other potential adversaries.
Washington hoped that the realization that the vast majority of warheads launched towards the US would be destroyed would force the USSR to accept the fact that a nuclear confrontation would be hopeless.
“In those times, things were very much the same as now. But back then, we believed it. And now, the goal is to scare us so that Russia will stop its actions. Therefore, we should consider this calmly. No one will start a nuclear war because of Ukraine,” Blokhin said.
He also compared what is happening today to the Cuban Missile Crisis, but noted that in the 1960s, the confrontation was more acute.
“Ukraine is a faraway country for the United States, while Cuba is close. It was Khrushchev’s revolver pointed at Kennedy’s head. And humanity was on the verge. Today, there is no question of any parallel,” he said.
According to Vladimir Vasiliev, a senior researcher at the Institute for US and Canadian Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, it would be premature and rash to openly raise the issue of using nuclear weapons. The main question is the likelihood of using nuclear weapons along the lines of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
According to Vasiliev, America’s hopes that Russia’s military operation would play out in favor of Kiev and the collective West, and that the billions of dollars in aid sent to Ukraine would lead to a strategic defeat for Russia, have not been justified.
“In this respect, the question of a relative calm or even paralysis arises. Perhaps the West expects that in the near future, it will be able to escalate tensions, and that this may eventually spin out of control. And when that happens, the threat of using nuclear weapons would be the last resort,” he told RT, adding that the West will resort to this threat if it considers Russia’s winter campaign in Ukraine successful.
Vasiliev noted that it is difficult to say exactly how the West will be provoked into this, but perhaps the issue of putting the world on the brink of a nuclear conflict and moving the conflict into a certain qualitative phase, forcing Russia to retreat, is being discussed now.
He pointed out that since February 24, when the military assault began, there has been no cardinal shift in the conflict. Now, however, the scope for supplying Ukraine with military equipment is dwindling, the infrastructure of the Ukrainian economy is being destroyed, and the conflict is becoming hybrid, so “an attempt by the West to grab a nuclear pistol is very likely.
“The West can put the world on the brink of a global conflict, to see who blinks first, and use this fact to create elements of a strategic turning point in the course of the special military operation in Ukraine. Perhaps the West is really considering such plans today due to rather complicated economic considerations,” Vasiliev said.
In light of current events, many are going back to Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, where he raised the topic of disarmament, a subject still relevant today.
“No one feels safe! Because no one can hide behind international law as behind a stone wall. Such a policy is, of course, a catalyst for an arms race... The potential danger of destabilizing international relations is linked to the obvious stagnation in the field of disarmament,” the Russian president said in Munich.
Over 15 years have passed but Putin’s statement has, if anything, only become more relevant. Since then, much has transpired: the Open Skies Treaty and the INF Treaty on the elimination of intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles have been terminated, and in general, as many experts believe, the entire system of international agreements on disarmament is collapsing.
After the termination of the INF Treaty, only one bilateral arms control treaty between the US and Russia remains – the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START), which is in effect until 2026.
“Its execution is still frozen because there is no trust between the United States and Russia, there is no transparency, consultations. I think there will be no disarmament in our lifetime. New START will be extended, but no new document will be signed,” Blokhin said.
Vasiliev isn’t any more optimistic and also believes that there are no prospects for nuclear disarmament. He noted that the system of international agreements is complex, but today the whole mechanism has been destroyed, and countries have no incentive to deal with the problem unilaterally.
“As a rule, they are unilaterally engaged in the modernization of their nuclear forces. From the point of view of the possibility of a nuclear conflict, today there is no point in talking about disarmament,” he said.