Unthinkable Rhetoric: Nuclear Weapons and the Ukraine War

Protests have erupted around the world against Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons. But any country in possession of nuclear weapons also puts us all in perpetual danger. (Photo: Kwh1050/Creative Commons)

At the outset of his invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin  declared  that other countries “will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history” if they intervened.

A few days later, he  ordered  Russian nuclear forces to be put on a heightened alert status. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev later outlined possible scenarios for the use of nuclear weapons and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that maintaining “readiness of strategic nuclear forces” remains a priority. A Russian government spokesperson has since said that Russia would only consider the use of nuclear weapons if there was an “existential threat” to Russia.

The words and actions of Putin and other Russian officials have elevated the risks and dangers of nuclear war back into mainstream consciousness. But the threat of nuclear weapons is not limited to the Russian government. Eight other governments—those of China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom and the United States—also possess nuclear weapons, and US nuclear bombs are stored on the territory of five other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) members—Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Turkey.

Each and every one of these bombs is a threat to peace and security. Nuclear weapons are not abstract “tools” that maintain global peace and security. They are weapons of mass destruction. They create instability, enable horrific violence, and risk life on the planet. As the Human Rights Committee declared in 2018, nuclear weapons “are of a nature to cause destruction of human life on a catastrophic scale that is incompatible with respect for the right to life.”

Yet it seems as if mainstream media and so-called experts from nuclear-armed countries are trying to normalise this threat, suggesting that yes, Putin might use nuclear weapons, and maybe the consequences wouldn’t be as bad as some suggest.

The technostrategic-speak of “tactical nuclear weapons” 

There have been many demands for NATO to impose a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine to end Russia’s airstrikes against Ukrainian cities, with little regard for the fact that this could very well lead to the use of nuclear weapons by Russia or all-out nuclear war. Instead, some politicians and commentators are suggesting that a no-fly zone is worth the risk of Russia using what are misleadingly called “tactical” nuclear weapons. Others are escalating the rhetoric of potential nuclear war, arguing that Putin is “irrational” and likely to use them, or that the Russian government sees a nuclear exchange as a “viable strategy”.

In this apparent attempt to either push for or at least normalise the prospect of nuclear war, much of the focus is on the type of nuclear weapon that Putin is “expected” to use. The New York Timesdescribes tactical nuclear weapons as “smaller bombs,” “lesser nuclear arms,” “less destructive by nature,” “much less destructive,” and having “variable explosive yields that could be dialed up or down depending on the military situation.”

Even while acknowledging that one of these weapons, if detonated in Midtown Manhattan, would kill or injure half a million people, the Times suggests that the use of these weapons is “perhaps less frightening and more thinkable.” The article says the billions of dollars that the Obama administration spent on nuclear weapons went towards “improving” US tactical nuclear weapons and turning them into “smart bombs” that “gave war planners the freedom to lower the weapons’ variable explosive force,” would have a “high degree of precision,” and would lower “the risk of collateral damage and civilian casualties.”

Thus, even in an article warning that tactical nuclear weapons could lead to lowering the threshold for their use, it takes up significant space and employs a range of descriptors to suggest that these weapons would cause less destruction if used.

Focusing on the details of the size or type of bomb, Russian nuclear forces expert Pavel Podvig notes, misses an important point: “That bringing nuclear weapons into this conflict, in whatever shape or form, ought to be unacceptable, deplorable, and criminal.” Nuclear war-gaming distracts from this message, he argues, shifting the discussion in the direction of what weapon could be used and how “effective” it could be. “What it does is it normalizes nuclear weapons, making it look like this is all about cost and benefit, political calculation, or military utility.”

These discussions condition people into believing that all this is somehow normal. “Let’s keep the message simple,” Podvig urges. “Even the thought of involving nuclear weapons in this conflict should be considered unacceptable.”

The reality of nuclear violence 

Measured in terms of destructive force and capacity to kill, there is nothing small about any nuclear weapon.

Russian tactical nuclear weapons have an estimated yield of 10 to 100 kilotons. The yield reflects the amount of energy released when a nuclear weapon explodes. One kiloton has an explosive force equivalent to that of 1,000 metric tons of TNT.

The bomb detonated by the United States over Hiroshima in 1945 was estimated to be about 15 kilotons; the one over Nagasaki was 22 kilotons.

Approximately 140,000 people died from the bomb in Hiroshima and 70,000 in Nagasaki by the end of 1945. Many more died after radiation and burns.

The experience of a nuclear weapon detonation says even more than the numbers.

Setsuko Thurlow, who was 13 years old at the time of the Hiroshima bombing, witnessed her city “blinded by the flash, flattened by the hurricane-like blast, burned in the heat of 4,000 degrees Celsius and contaminated by the radiation of one atomic bomb.” She has described the experience in vivid detail through countless testimony:

A bright summer morning turned to dark twilight, with smoke and dust rising in the mushroom cloud, dead and injured covering the ground, begging desperately for water and receiving no medical care at all. The spreading firestorm and the foul stench of burned flesh filled the air.

Miraculously, I was rescued from the rubble of a collapsed building, about 1.8 kilometres from ground zero. Most of my classmates in the same room were burned alive. I can still hear their voices calling their mothers and God for help.

As I escaped with two other surviving girls, we saw a procession of ghostly figures slowly shuffling from the centre of the city. Grotesquely wounded people, whose clothes were tattered, or who were made naked by the blast.

They were bleeding, burned, blackened, and swollen. Parts of their bodies were missing, flesh and skin hanging from their bones, some with their eyeballs hanging in their hands, and some with their stomachs burst open, with their intestines hanging out.

Within that single flash of light, my beloved Hiroshima became a place of desolation, with heaps of rubble, skeletons and blackened corpses everywhere. Of a population of 360,000—largely non-combatant women, children, and elderly—most became victims of the indiscriminate massacre of the atomic bombing.

This is the immediate reality of nuclear weapons. There are also long-term, intergenerational effects. Cancer rates among survivors skyrocketed in the years after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Women were particularly affected by the radiation, and pregnant women experienced higher rates of miscarriage and impaired growth.

Whether the alleged experts call them strategic or tactical, big or small, the experience of the detonation of even a single nuclear bomb will be catastrophic. Just as it was for those in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; just as it was for everyone whose lands and waters were tested upon in Australia, Kazakhstan, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Moruroa, United States, and many more locations. And there is perhaps forever the trauma and moral injury—individual, social, political, and cultural.

The madness of MAD 

The horrific violence described above is from one nuclear bomb. But the core nuclear policy of all nuclear-armed states—so-called “nuclear deterrence”—is that it relies on the idea of mutually assured destruction (MAD). The strategic plans for the use of nuclear weapons envision nuclear exchange. The theory is that because such an exchange could end up destroying the entire planet, no one would dare to use them. This is alleged to have maintained “global peace and security” and “geostrategic stability” since the end of World War II.

Except, as we are seeing right now, nuclear weapons have not prevented war. They are actively facilitating Russia’s war on Ukraine. And Ukraine is not the first proxy war fought between the nuclear-armed states. For the last seventy years, the United States and Soviet Union/Russia have been battling for supremacy primarily using the bodies of people from other countries. In many of these wars, as in Ukraine, rather than fight each other directly, one nuclear-armed state would arm those resisting the other nuclear-armed state.

While deterrence theorists try to argue that the situation in Ukraine shows the validity of their myths—that nuclear weapons are deterring NATO from imposing a no-fly zone or declaring war with Russia—the reality is that nuclear weapons have only made a horrific war even more dangerous.

The solution to this war is not escalation. It is creating space for and enabling an environment for, dialogue and negotiation. But nuclear weapons stand in the way of peace talks because they are positioned in military doctrines as even more violent options to try to “win” a war. And in this attempt to “win,” there lies the possibility of nuclear war.

That same Times piece that talks about “small nuclear bombs” goes on to acknowledge that the use of such weapons could well lead to nuclear war. “A simulation devised by experts at Princeton University starts with Moscow firing a nuclear warning shot; NATO responds with a small strike, and the ensuing war yields more than 90 million casualtiesin its first few hours.” Millions more would die in the months to come. The climate crisis will be exponentially exacerbated; there could be a disastrous decline in food production and a  global famine that might kill most of humanity.

As the 1980s film War Games prophetically declared, “The only winning move is not to play.” Former US and Soviet leaders Reagan and Gorbachev acknowledged that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. This was recently reaffirmed by five nuclear-armed states.

Reagan and Gorbachev also agreed “that any conflict between the USSR and the US could have catastrophic consequences;” thus, “they emphasized the importance of preventing any war between them, whether nuclear or conventional” and said that they would “not seek to achieve military superiority.”

But the nuclear-armed states still seek “military superiority” and sustain a system in which the use of nuclear weapons is possible.

The very existence of nuclear weapons makes their use possible. As long as these weapons exist, there is a risk that they will be detonated. As long as they exist, they will be used to threaten and intimidate. As long as they exist, they will continue to harm people where they are made and where they have been tested and produced—primarily on and near Indigenous nations and communities of colour. As long as they exist, they will extract billions of dollars towards their maintenance,  modernisation,  and deployment, when that money is so desperately needed to provide for the well-being of people and the planet, now endangered also by climate change.

This article was first published by WILPF and Beyond Nuclear.

Ray Acheson is Director of Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). They provide analysis and advocacy at the United Nations and other international forums on matters of disarmament and demilitarization. Ray also serves on the steering group of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its work to ban nuclear weapons, as well as the steering committees of Stop Killer Robots and the International Network on Explosive Weapons. They are author of Banning the Bomb, Smashing the Patriarchy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) and Abolishing State Violence: A World Beyond Bombs, Borders, and Cages (Haymarket Books, 2022).