Putin has been rattling his nuclear saber. Biden has recognized that, worst case scenario, this could be Armageddon. Should we be worried?

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The world has been perilously close to an apocalypse on a number of occasions. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is one of the most famous. It actually involved several examples, with the closest being when the Soviet submarine B-59 surfaced after a US warship had been dropping practice depth charges. The submarine, incommunicado, believed them to be real, and that a conflict had begun. The Captain wanted to release a retaliatory nuclear torpedo, but the second in command, Vasily Arkhipov, who was required to be in agreement to give the go-ahead, refused permission to launch the warhead.

Apocalypse averted.

In 1995, the Norwegians launched a rocket to study the Northern Lights. Misinterpreting this,
Russian President Boris Yeltsin became the first world leader to activate the Russian nuclear briefcase, putting ballistic missile submarines on high alert.

History may ultimately designate the closest as 2022, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine and threatened the world with nuclear war.

You may think this sounds alarmist, but this has literally happened.

In response yesterday, at a Democratic fundraiser, US President Joe Biden referenced that fateful 1962 event, saying, “We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Biden declared that Putin’s military is “significantly underperforming” and that the authoritarian leader is “not joking when he talks about the use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons.”

Irradiating and destroying tranches of land and infrastructure of a country you are trying to occupy or rule, win over the hearts and minds of or utilize, is insanity.

Although there has been no intelligence to suggest that Putin is manoeuvering hardware and nuclear equipment in preparation for such a move, this rhetoric from both sides has promoted a growing concern for the existential future of the world.

This is all after Putin rattled his nuclear saber in a recent speech:

I would like to remind those who make such statements about Russia that our country also possesses various means of destruction, and in some cases they are more modern than those of Nato countries. When the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we, of course, will use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people.

This is not a bluff. And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weathervane can turn and point towards them.

As worrying and destructive as nuclear war sounds, it is worth taking a healthy dose of practical realism to mitigate anxiety.

There are several things to consider.

First, NATO and the US have good intelligence on where Russia stores its nuclear capabilities. This should give plenty of advance warning of Putin’s intentions. Second, the use of nuclear would not be a case of a single man pressing a button but would need the agreement of multiple Russian figures—layers of potential Vasily Arkhipovs.

Then there is the NATO ability to take out weapons before they are launched or during their flight. Further, the US and NATO have directly warned Putin and his administration of the consequences of following through with such intentions. As is generally understood, this would most probably involve conventional war retaliations, such as the immediate sinking of the Black Sea Fleet. NATO, as a combined force including the US (and witnessing the very poor form and capability of the Russian military), would have the ability to liquidate much of the Russian military in a fairly short timeframe.

But perhaps most importantly, nuclear strikes—almost certainly the smaller tactical warheads with much smaller, battlefield applications—would not only fail to achieve Putin’s objectives, but would actually be counterproductive.

A tactical nuclear strike, perhaps to take out a Ukranian command structure, base, or area of a battlefield, would render the whole area largely inaccessible to the Russian forces themselves. Iodine tablets, and outdated and poorly maintained infantry fighting vehicles that had some anti-radiation capacity 40 years ago, will do little to protect Russian troops.

Irradiating and destroying tranches of land and infrastructure of a country you are trying to occupy or rule, win over the hearts and minds of or utilize, is insanity.

Further, prevailing winds in Ukraine will have the distinct possibility of pushing radiation back across borders and into Russia.

To make matters worse, one of Russia’s only meaningful allies, and an ally that is at pains not to commit to supporting the imperialistic tendencies of the invader, recently acquired 10% of all Ukrainian arable land. Over the past decade, China has taken to buying huge areas of land to help produce food for its population to consume, or to profit from in general. There will be a lot of pressure from the Chinese for Russia not to ruin that investment.

Every which way you look at the nuclear wargaming and potential scenarios, Russia loses. In this way, we should be able to take some heart from such calculations.

That said, Biden added on Thursday that “I don’t think there is any such a thing as the ability to easily use a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”

Biden as well as anyone knows the value of providing an “off-ramp” for Putin. The problem is, it is not immediately clear that there is such a way out.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has been somewhat grounded in announcing the official position. “Russia’s talk of using nuclear weapons is irresponsible, and there’s no way to use them without unintended consequences. It cannot happen… We won’t be intimidated by Putin’s rhetoric,” she told reporters aboard Air Force One.

The good news is that Jean-Pierre declared the US is not changing its position: “We have not seen any reason to adjust our own nuclear posture, nor do we have indications they are preparing to use them, but Putin can de-escalate this at any time and there is no reason to escalate.”

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

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