Nuclear Threats in Ukraine: Hyped or Real?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The United States, Russia, France and the UK, possess most of the world’s nuclear weapons. Since “nuclear war cannot be won” — as the heads of these states have repeatedly admitted — the same countries should be racing to ratify the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Instead, most are spending enormous sums on expanding their arsenals, and publicly announcing their plans for the “first use” of their H-bombs. All of them could be called “suiciders” in this context, the way Western writers deride the religious fundamentalists who tie explosives to their bodies turning themselves into bombs.

Yet it is possible that the military and scientific authorities in control of nuclear weapons know that they must not explode them. It could be that nuclear attack planners know that the effects of such detonations recoil and return like boomerangs to poison and kill the forces that unleash them, contaminating the sought-after territory.

All the punditry about how highly elevated is the risk of nuclear weapons being detonated in Ukraine, is possibly a lot of smoke. Russia’s President Putin has explicitly and publicly said, “There is no political or military sense in conducting a nuclear strike in Ukraine,” which could be the most cogent and factual assessment of the nuclear threat made by anyone.

This assessment is so unlikely to change, that military strategists and political leaders have downplayed the risk of nuclear war many times.

• “Russia is not considering using nuclear weapons – Kremlin says.” – Reuters, Nov. 17

• “U.S. sees no indications Russia readying nuclear weapons, White House says.” – Reuters, Nov. 2

•“‘There is no political or military sense in conducting a nuclear strike in Ukraine,’ President Putin said October 28 in a live stream speech at the plenary session of the Valdai Discussion Club in Moscow.” – Newsline World, Oct. 28

• “U.S. says no indication Russia has decided to use nuclear weapons,” (London) Financial Times, Oct. 24. 2022

• “No indication Russia has decided to use nuclear weapon in Ukraine, says senior US official.” – The Guardian, Oct. 24

• “White House Sees No Indication Russia Is Preparing Nuclear Attack After Biden’s ‘Armageddon’ Warning.” –

Forbes, Oct. 9, 2022.

• “…the White House emphasized on Friday [Oct. 7] that the United States has seen no signs that Russia is gearing up to use nuclear weapons.” – New York Times, Oct. 9

• “Pentagon: No sign Putin is planning to use nukes after Biden’s ‘Armageddon’ comment.” – Politico, Oct.7

• “U.S. has not seen acts indicating Russia contemplating nuclear attack.” – Reuters, Sept. 30

• “US believes it’s unlikely Putin will use a nuclear weapon but threat has ‘elevated.’” – CNN, Sept. 28

• “The U.S. says Russia isn’t preparing to use nuclear weapons, yet.” – New York Times, Sept. 24

• “I don’t see Putin using nuclear weapons” – British military strategist Sir Lawrence Freedman. – Euromaidan Press, Sept. 16

• “Pentagon spokesperson tamps down concerns over nuclear ‘Armageddon.’” – The Guardian, Oct. 9

The truly consequential nuclear threat in Ukraine stems from the country’s 15 operational nuclear power reactors, those sitting-duck time bombs in this first-ever reactors-in-the-warzone conflict. These radioactive grenades with their pins ready to be pulled should spark some global anti-nuclear militancy — as did the Chernobyl reactor catastrophe in the same place 36 years ago.

John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.