Experts weigh in on the specter of an atomic war and placed a question mark over future nuclear arms control.
World leaders have warned that the Russian invasion of Ukraine could spark a nuclear war, raising the question of how close the world now is to such a catastrophe. “Our imagination appears increasingly concentrated on the representation of a final catastrophe that will extinguish us,” Pope Francis said this week in Rome. “Nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters in New York. Russian President Vladimir Putin introduced the prospect by placing his country’s nuclear forces on high alert at the start of the war last month, warning the West of “catastrophic consequences” if it intervened in his “special military operation” in Ukraine. Although US President Joe Biden has said a nuclear war is unlikely, fears that Putin might actually order a nuclear strike against a Western country has moderated western responses to the conflict. This includes denying Ukraine a no-fly-zone demanded by President Volodymyr Zelensky in his address to Congress on Wednesday. Ukraine relinquished its Soviet era nuclear weapon stockpile in 1994. Only the Kremlin or other nuclear powers such as France, the United Kingdom and the United States have the ability to escalate the war to a nuclear level. William Alberque, director of Strategy, Technology, and Arms Control at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) dismissed the possibility that the West would move first on nuclear weapons. “I see no introduction of nuclear weapons by the West is even possible at this phase at all… For nuclear weapons to be used first in this crisis the only possible pathway is for Russia to introduce them,” Alberque said. Such a scenario is most likely if an accidental battlefield escalation brings in NATO. In that situation one of the parties, most likely Russia, could cross the nuclear red line. This could include an incident along the Ukrainian-Polish border or if there was a no-fly-zone enforced by NATO, he said.