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What to know about the threat of nuclear war

A Soviet-era top secret object Duga, an over-the-horizon radar system once used as part of the Soviet missile defense early-warning radar network, seen behind a radioactivity sign in Chernobyl, Ukraine, on Nov. 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)
A Soviet-era top secret object Duga, an over-the-horizon radar system once used as part of the Soviet missile defense early-warning radar network, seen behind a radioactivity sign in Chernobyl, Ukraine, on Nov. 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)

On January 3rd of this year, the world’s five largest nuclear powers, including Russia, issued the following joint statement:

A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

But, one month later, Russian troops invaded Ukraine.

It’s a move that alarmed the world, and seems to fly in the face of that statement, which also says:

“Nuclear weapons — for as long as they continue to exist — should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.”

Today, On Point: Russia, and the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal. Where are the weapons, how are they controlled and what could trigger a launch?


Matthew Bunn, professor of the practice of energy, national security and foreign policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, director of the Oslo Nuclear Project at the University of Oslo. (@Malfrid_BH)

Dr. Ira Helfand, former president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Author of the article Ukraine and the Threat of Nuclear War. Why do we fail to consider the danger?

Also Featured

Pavel Podvig, senior researcher in the Weapons of Mass Destruction Program at United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. (@russianforces)

Sharon K. Weiner, visiting researcher at Princeton’s Science and Global Security Lab. (@SharonKWeiner)

Show Transcript

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: On February 21st, just days before Russian President Vladimir Putin began his attack on Ukraine, Putin gave a speech, warning NATO against interfering.

VLADIMIR PUTIN [Tape]: Whoever would try to stop us and further create threats to our country, to our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and lead you to such consequences that you have never faced in your history. We are ready for any outcome.

CHAKRABARTI: Putin was talking about nuclear weapons. Three days later, he invaded Ukraine, and then on February 27th, he made his threat explicit.

PUTIN [Tape]: Top officials of leading NATO’s countries are making aggressive statements about our country. Therefore, I’m ordering the Minister of Defense and the chief of the General Staff to put the strategic nuclear forces on special alert.

CHAKRABARTI: Special alert is the Russian military’s highest level of alert. So Putin’s statement is serious. But it should also be noted that Russia, France, the United Kingdom and of course, the United States maintain almost 2,000 nuclear warheads on various states of high alert. They could all be launched on short notice, according to estimates from the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

Still, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called Putin’s threat a ‘bluff.’ In an interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit, Zelenskyy said: ‘It’s one thing to be a murderer, it’s another to commit suicide.’ And White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on ABC News:

JEN PSAKI [Tape]: This is really a pattern that we’ve seen from President Putin through the course of this conflict, which is manufacturing threats that don’t exist in order to justify further aggression. And the global community and the American people should look at it through that prism.

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. On the one hand, it is reasonable for political leaders to ask the world to keep a level head. But on the other hand, I question Psaki’s insistence on ‘manufactured threats that don’t exist.’ Because nuclear weapons do exist. The threat has existed since the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. So Putin posturing, that’s the prism that Jen Psaki says we should use now. But of course, prisms refract. They actually show us more than the regular eye can see. They break up one bright beam and reveal many component parts. So when someone like Pavel Podvig looks through that prism, what does he see?

PAVEL PODVIG: I see paths that would actually trap Russia or the United States and its allies into situations in which they would feel that nuclear weapons could be used or should be used, or how they would feel that that’s the only way out of this. Normally, I would trust the people to make reasonable decisions. But then again, I mean, looking back, what, two weeks now, I was definitely convinced that an invasion of Ukraine makes absolutely no sense. I still believe that that’s the case. But nevertheless, it happened, and it sort of forced quite a few people to recalibrate their assumptions of what is reasonable, and rational and what is not.

CHAKRABARTI: Podvig is a senior researcher in the Weapons of Mass Destruction program at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. And he offers what I think is a more powerful prism through which to view this moment. Things that make no sense but still happen.

So should we recalibrate our assumptions of what’s irrational and what is not? Well, Podvig says strategic nuclear missiles could be launched in minutes. But he says Russia’s non-strategic weapons, which he says are more likely to be deployed in an initial attack, take much longer to prepare.

PODVIG: You would need to take weapons out of storage, bring them to a certain location, install them on missiles or load missiles on their launchers, and only after that, the actual attack would be possible. And again, we’re talking about a series of steps and a fairly large number of people involved, and that would probably involve a degree of planning, as well.

CHAKRABARTI: Even if there are a large number of people involved, does Putin have the singular authority to order a launch?

PODVIG: There is, of course, quite a bit of uncertainty about how exactly the system is set up. So the honest answer is we don’t really know whether the president can launch a nuclear attack on his own. It appears that in some circumstances that might be possible. And at the same time, it would probably take a number of steps, and it would involve a number of people in the decision, so it would be the result of certain deliberation in the top leadership.

CHAKRABARTI: Nevertheless, Pavel Podvig says given Putin’s authoritarian control in Russia, would anyone stand in his way?

PODVIG: The president is the commander in chief. And if necessary, he could probably force that decision through the chain of command.

CHAKRABARTI: So today we want to recalibrate those assumptions, get a level-headed but realistic look at what could happen intentionally or unintentionally that might lead to the launch of a nuclear weapon. And we also definitely want to talk about what the world could do now, to be sure that never happens. So we’ll begin today with Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer. She joins us from Oslo, Norway. She’s the director of the Oslo nuclear program at the University of Oslo. Målfrid, welcome to On Point.

MÅLFRID BRAUT-HEGGHAMMER: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

CHAKRABARTI: I wonder if you could start with what might be a clear indication about how seriously Norway is taking this threat. I understand you got a notice from your children’s school pertaining to the increased nuclear threat. Can you tell us about that?

BRAUT-HEGGHAMMER: Yes. I think this is a way in which a lot of people in my country and in my neighborhood are really beginning to feel the seriousness of the situation, and how this is close to home in many ways. So we received requests from schools and kindergarten to accept that our children could take iodine tablets in the event of an incident. And so I think that really hit home in a lot of ways.

CHAKRABARTI: And so are schools telling parents in Norway that iodine pills may be given to children? Also, I understand that there are reports of more people in Norway building bomb shelters, et cetera.

BRAUT-HEGGHAMMER: People are certainly starting to ask questions where the nearest shelter is. There is increased focus and attention to these kinds of facilities that were very familiar during the Cold War. But honestly, for the past couple of decades, people haven’t really thought much about. And so on the subway, I hear people talking about nuclear war, which really is not an everyday conversation in Oslo. So it is certainly something that is really beginning to concern a lot of people, and for good reason. We are, after all, neighbors with the largest nuclear weapons arsenal in the world. And so this is part of our neighborhood, even if we haven’t thought much about it in a long time.

CHAKRABARTI: So do you think the concern is warranted? Because you heard me quote what even President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said, what Jen Psaki from the White House was saying about Putin bluffing and manufacturing threats that don’t exist.

BRAUT-HEGGHAMMER: I think that it is very important that we’re not panicking and that we’re not intimidated in a way that perhaps President Putin is hoping that we might be. At the same time, these are real weapons. They’re not abstract constructs. There are many of them. And in any scenario where there was a conventional war in Europe and a nuclear weapon states’ president is speaking of nuclear weapons in this way. Certainly, I am concerned. I think we all should be.

CHAKRABARTI: So what we’d like to try to accomplish this hour is to get a much deeper understanding beyond headlines about what is essentially the decision tree or the possible scenarios that could lead to the unthinkable. So could you lay out what you do see as a possible scenario that might lead to the intentional or unintentional launch of a nuclear weapon?

BRAUT-HEGGHAMMER: Well, I think that this kind of exercise is something that a lot of states have done, especially after 2014 and the annexation of Crimea. So these are thought exercises that many have engaged in. Some of them involve a potential demonstration of a nuclear weapon near Norway. So, these are scenarios and prospects that also sort of feel quite close to home. As you pointed to, there are two different kinds of pathways. One intended escalation, the other unintended. To start with the unintended one, that could be a situation where in a conflict, the situation could rapidly develop to a point where one party decides to use nuclear weapons. But that this occurs as the result of perhaps confusion, misinterpretation, rather than as a strategic decision intended to achieve a certain effect.

The other scenario would be unintended escalation. And this is a kind of scenario that observers of nuclear weapons and of Russian nuclear doctrine, that they have talked about and debated for a long time. Many years ago, there were discussions within Russian nuclear doctrine about the possibility of using a nuclear weapon fairly early on in the conflict to stop the situation from escalating further. But this was a very different kind of scenario than what we have in the Ukraine. These were deliberations relating to a conventional war on Russia. So I think it’s important that we separate the situation today from those kinds of scenarios.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s really important. And Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, I have more questions to ask you when we come back. We just have to take a quick one minute break. And then when we return, we’re going to talk a little bit about what Norway and Sweden and some neighboring countries, even changes, that they’re making right now to avoid the unthinkable.

Related Reading

New York Times: “Putin Is Brandishing the Nuclear Option. How Serious Is the Threat?” — “Over the weekend, as his military laid siege to Ukraine for the fourth day, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear forces into a higher state of alert, the first time the Kremlin has done so since the Russian Federation was established in 1991.”

The Nation: “Ukraine and the Threat of Nuclear War” — “As the crisis in Ukraine deepens, it is appropriate to consider what the actual consequences of war there might be. An armed conventional conflict in Ukraine would be a terrible humanitarian disaster.”

Chatham House: “How likely is the use of nuclear weapons by Russia?” — “On 21 February, as part of his televised speech that heralded the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin issued what was interpreted as a threat to use nuclear weapons against NATO countries should they interfere in Ukraine.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.