Will the world go back to the days of an imminent nuclear holocaust, that seemed so likely in the 1960s and 1970s? Maybe not, but nuclear shadows are already lengthening.


New Delhi: When Vladimir Putin readied for the invasion of Ukraine, amongst his final actions was an exercise of Russia’s nuclear forces which tested the readiness of its nuclear arsenal and the delivery systems of ships, submarines, aircraft and missiles that would carry them across the globe. Ostensibly it would have also checked the communication systems to ready the weapons for launch and the codes to activate the actual launch. Coming as it did, just a month before the invasion of Ukraine and accompanied by much publicised photos of Putin himself watching the exercises, it was a clear statement of how far he was willing to go in pursuit of his eventual aims.
The nuclear threat has come up thrice during the war, mainly voiced by the Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who warned that “World War III will be a nuclear war”—a thinly veiled warning that should external forces enter the conflict, it could resort to nuclear means. The bombast cannot be completely discounted as an idle threat. And when the West did launch the most powerful weapon in its arsenal—sanctions—Russia went ballistic (pardon the pun). It compared the crippling sanctions to a nuclear strike on its economy and it placed its nuclear forces in a state of “Special Readiness Alert”, a heightened state of readiness that would reduce the time taken to launch a nuclear attack should that dreadful situation arise.
Western nations have not responded to the threats so far, but the US did cancel a long-planned test firing of its Minuteman III ICBM to “avoid raising tensions”. Russia’s nuclear deterrence seems to have worked, but there is more to it than just a possible strike. When advancing Russian forces took over the now defunct Chernobyl nuclear plant—a plant still encased in a steel and cement dome to contain its catastrophic radioactive leak of 1986—the mere movement of tanks and heavy vehicles increased the radioactivity levels in the area. Zaporizhzhia, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, was hit by an artillery shell which set a building ablaze, but fortunately did not affect the reactors. Russia has its sights on all five of Ukraine’s nuclear reactors and should military action initiate a leak in any of them, it could lead to a radioactive disaster that can engulf all of Europe and even touch the east coast of the US.
Ukraine gets over 40% of its electricity from its nuclear power plants which generate 13.8 Giga watts of power. By taking them over Russia blocks its electric supply, making it dependent on Russian oil and gas. As part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine held a massive arsenal of 1,900 nuclear weapons and delivery means on its soil; almost one third of the Soviet arsenal. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, it willingly surrendered its nuclear weapons in return for security guarantees from NATO and Russia. Most of the weapons were transferred to Russia for the paltry sum of $1 billion. Others were dismantled and their cores used as nuclear fuel for their reactors. Today, there is a sense of regret in Ukraine that had it merely held on to its nuclear capabilities, perhaps it could have deterred a Russian attack.
This in itself sets a wrong signal to other nations. Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, perhaps even Syria and Turkey amongst others may decide to seek nuclear weapons as a guarantor of security. Iran especially—which is now just six to seven months away from developing a nuclear weapon—will be loath to re-enter a nuclear deal, which will require it to abandon its nuclear program (especially after being betrayed by Trump earlier). It could go ahead with developing its own nuclear weapons as a hedge against a future attack by the US or any other adversary. This could set off a nuclear race in the Middle East, with Saudi and Israel following suit. And of course, Pakistan and North Korea will be similarly emboldened. So, nuclear proliferation, which the world tried so hard to contain over the past few decades, will be back.
Will the world go back to the days of an imminent nuclear holocaust, that seemed so likely in the 1960s and 1970s? Maybe not, but nuclear shadows are already lengthening. According to SIPRI, the world has stockpiles of over 13,080 nuclear weapons. Russia has the largest with 6,257; the US with 5,500; China with 350; and France and UK hold around 250 each. Pakistan with 165 weapons and India with 156 follow, and Israel and North Korea too have their own clandestine stockpiles. Fortunately, the purpose of these weapons has been just deterrence—as it should be. But by raising of the nuclear spectre in the Russian-Ukraine war, it has indirectly reduced the nuclear threshold for future wars.
But will nuclear weapons be used in this war? It seems unlikely, but then Putin’s unpredictability means that it cannot be completely ruled out. They seem to be already preparing the grounds, by accusing Ukraine of developing chemical and biological weapons and trying to acquire nuclear weapons. Russia, in any case, is not averse to using NBC weapons, and had reportedly used chemical munitions during the reduction of Grozny in the Chechnya conflict. The use of tactical nuclear weapons is also part of their warfighting doctrines and senior Russian commanders have shown a propensity to use them during war games.
As the war gets longer and more difficult, Russia will expand the scope of violence and weaponry. They have reportedly used “Vacuum Bombs”—a thermobaric munition whose destructive power is just short of a nuclear device (minus the radioactivity). Should Russia find itself suffering unexpected reverses and is unable to attain its military aims through conventional means; or fear a likely intervention by NATO, it could be tempted to use nuclear weapons for rapid conflict termination. It could resort to a limited nuclear strike—maybe detonating a tactical nuclear device with a low yield of .2 of .3 kilotons or so. Using it as a low air burst (which enhances its effects but reduces the radioactive spread) on a vital target like an airfield or large concentrations of troops and tanks could enable them to attain their military objectives rapidly in its wake. And of course, the psychological impact will be immense. What could be the response in a situation like this? Ukraine has no weapons of its own and the only countries which could retaliate in kind are UK, France and US. But would they do it? Would the US risk a strike which can invite a nuclear attack by Russia’s impressive arsenal of hypersonic missiles which can penetrate US defences and hit their very mainland? I don’t think so.
At this juncture Russia’s nuclear posturing seems to be just that—posturing. But a low-yield tactical strike cannot be completely ruled out, especially if it finds itself with its back to the wall. It would be the equivalent of nuclear salami-slicing, which may evade immediate retaliation, and though it seems unlikely, it cannot be discounted all together.
It is precisely that element of uncertainty that Russia seems to be banking upon as it plays a dangerous game of nuclear “I dare”. But irrespective of how the nuclear threats pan out, or how the war ends, one thing is now getting increasingly clear. The nuclear genie has come out of the bottle, and getting it back again will prove long and difficult. The nuclear shadows seem to be returning.
Ajay Singh is the author of five books and over 200 articles. He is a recipient of the Rabindranath Tagore International Award for Art and Literature 2021