Putin Already Changed the Nukes Game

'This war might prove the greatest stimulus to nuclear proliferation in history'
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 22, 2022 7:45 AM CDT
Putin Already Changed the Nukes Game
The Russian army's Iskander missile launchers take positions during drills in Russia.   (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)

Russia's invasion of Ukraine seems to have rewritten the world's nuclear playbook. While Vladimir Putin has not deployed such a weapon, he has explicitly raised the threat, and that alone may change things going forward. A look at some of the assessments and coverage:

  • The impact: In the Washington Post, David Ignatius writes that "the Ukraine war’s creepiest byproduct is its demonstration of the utility of nuclear weapons." Put simply, Russia's arsenal is why NATO won't impose a no-fly zone. "And let’s be honest: Would Putin have invaded if Ukraine had kept its nuclear arsenal back in 1994, when the United States pressed it to disarm? I doubt it. The lesson won’t be lost on Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea—go down the list. This war might prove the greatest stimulus to nuclear proliferation in history."

  • No help: The unfortunate lesson from Ukraine is that nuclear-armed nations can impose their will on weaker neighbors, write Andreas Umland and Hugo von Essen in Foreign Policy. "Following Putin’s playbook, resolute threats to use nuclear warheads will make sure that no outside powers will come to the help of a non-nuclear neighbor that’s under attack," they write. "Russia has shown that an attacker with nuclear arms is fundamentally safe." Those outside powers must resort to economic penalties, which usually fade over time.
  • Smaller weapons: The New York Times provides a look at the estimated 2,000 smaller nuclear weapons, or tactical weapons, in Russia's arsenal. Atomic bombs developed during the Cold War made the Hiroshima bomb look puny, but these new smaller weapons (no nuclear treaties regulate them) go in a different direction—they are much smaller and can be used more precisely. The US has them, too, and the very fact that they are less destructive than, say, Hiroshima, makes "their use perhaps less frightening and more thinkable," writes William J. Broad.
  • Bottom line: Observers quoted in the Times story fear the first deployment of a tactical nuclear weapon in combat—or, perhaps more likely, deployed in an uninhabited area as a threat—because it would break a 76-year-old taboo, writes Broad. "Their less destructive nature, critics say, can feed the illusion of atomic control when in fact their use can suddenly flare into a full-blown nuclear war." He cites a Princeton University simulation that begins with a nuclear warning shot fired by Moscow, followed by a small strike from NATO. "The ensuing war yields more than 90 million casualties in its first few hours."
(Read more Russia-Ukraine war stories.)

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