Threat of Nuclear Conflict is Higher Now Than in the Cold War

The risk of a nuclear war is becoming greater than it was in the first Cold War because Russia under President Vladimir Putin is much weaker – and therefore more likely to use nuclear weapons – than the Soviet Union at the height of its power under Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. It is only as a nuclear superpower that Moscow retains parity with the US in their capacity for mass destruction.

Putin carried out some nuclear sabre-rattling at the start of his war in Ukraine byputting his nuclear forces on a higher level of alert, saying that he was determined to deter foreign interference in his military campaign. Many dismissed his threat as rhetorical at the time, but since then his ill-planned invasion has continued to falter, showing up Moscow’s conventional military forces as weaker than anybody had supposed.

Political leaders in the West now talk blithely of supporting regime change in Russia or imposing a no-fly zone on Ukraine, which would involve shooting down Russian planes and attacking anti-aircraft missile batteries inside Russia. These threats may not always be serious, but they are likely to be taken seriously in a paranoid Kremlin. With much of the Russian army tied down in Ukraine for the foreseeable future, Putin will increasingly look to his 1,000 to 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons to even up the balance against Nato in Eastern Europe.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).