On February 24, 2022, Russian forces invaded Ukraine, marking a significant escalation in the Russo-Ukrainian War that began in 2014. Since then, Russian and Ukrainian troops have been battling for power in Ukraine, leading to the deaths of tens of thousands. As the war continues to rage on, tensions continue to mount. Most notably, following a series of losses in late September, Russian President Vladimir Putin released an ominous statement saying that “if the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will without a doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people.” Although nothing has come out of this and many of Putin’s other threats regarding nuclear deployment, considering that Russia holds the world’s largest nuclear arsenal at 6,257 (followed by the United States’ 5,550), one must consider the possibility of nuclear war resulting from Russia’s struggles in Ukraine and ask what that means for the rest of the world.
Since Russia first invaded Ukraine, Putin has regularly reminded the world of his country’s nuclear capacity and has even publicly placed Russia’s nuclear forces on “special combat readiness,” holding high-profile nuclear drills. What, one is forced to ask, would nuclear conflict with Russia look like?
Though the particulars are uncertain, analysts predict that if Russia were to resort to nuclear weapons, they would likely use them for small tactical strikes either in combat or as warning shots. The destruction caused by these weapons would largely depend on their size, but regardless, the radiation released from such explosions could kill thousands and render an area uninhabitable for years. Considering Russia’s proximity to Ukraine, these weapons could have a negative effect on Putin’s homeland as well. Depending on the winds, the radiation released from these explosions could blow back into Russian territory, harming Russian soldiers and civilians.
Throughout Russia’s invasion, the United States’ policy regarding Putin’s use of nuclear weapons has been consistent: in the event of a nuclear attack the US would “respond forcefully”. In May, President Biden said that “any use of nuclear weapons in this conflict on any scale” would “entail severe consequences” implying that the US would retaliate in the event of nuclear war.
But an all-out nuclear war with Russia seems unlikely. On October 27, Putin stated that he has no intentions of using nuclear weapons in Ukraine. According to Putin, Russia sees “no need for that [nuclear conflict in Ukraine]” and in the past few days, Russia has played down the possibility of nuclear war. While many, including President Biden, are skeptical of Putin’s claims that he has no intention to use these weapons, it is clear that both sides understand the risk and ramifications of nuclear warfare, making it hard to believe that such a conflict could be a possibility.