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How the Ukraine War Could Become a Nuclear War

B-2 Bomber
Image of B-2 Spirit stealth bomber. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

On August 6 and 9, 1945, the world crossed the nuclear threshold when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The blasts wiped out over 100,000 people nearly instantly, and thousands more over time. With some of today’s nuclear bombs carrying scores or hundreds of times more destructive power than the 1945 versions, it should be alarming to every American how casually both the Russian and Western leaders are talking about deploying nuclear weapons today.

(Check out 19FortyFive Contributing Editor and author of this piece, retired U.S. Army Lt. Colonel Daniel L. Davis, discussing the situation in Ukraine.) 

Ongoing Aggression Against Ukraine

Last February Russian forces invaded Ukraine and began a “special military operation” that has already claimed tens of thousands of lives. Ukrainians naturally despise the Russians and aggressively seek help from any and all Western sources to help drive the invaders out. Understanding Ukrainian anger, however, justified we may feel it is, does not mean the United States should give Kyiv everything it requests, especially if providing such support results in an elevated risk to U.S. national security. We are getting dangerously close to that point now.

In response to meaningful battlefield losses by Russia earlier this month in the Kharkiv region, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced this week a partial mobilization of 300,000 reservists. The reaction from Kyiv and the West was understandable and immediate: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky defiantly declared that his forces would continue to fight, no matter how many Russian forces Putin threw into the battle, and that Russia should be punished.

Putin’s Russia Continues Advances Rhetoric

In response to Putin’s mobilization, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the “only way to end this war is to prove that President Putin will not win on the battlefield.” French President Emmanuel Macron argued the West should put “maximum pressure” on Putin, while new British Prime Minister Liz Truss pledged the U.K. would “sustain or increase our military support to Ukraine for as long as it takes” to defeat Russia. Putin’s reaction to the cumulative Western rebukes was swift and alarming.

Putin warned the West in a televised speech that if the “territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will use all available means to protect our people,” strongly implying the use of nuclear weapons, adding: “This is not a bluff.” Retired U.S. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges fired back that if Putin took such action, the United States could, for example, destroy Russia’s Black Sea fleet or bases in “a devastating (nuclear) strike.” 

Not to be outdone, Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior aide to Zelensky, said if Russia “even thinks about” a nuclear strike, the West should launch “swift retaliatory nuclear strikes to destroy the nuclear launch sites in Russia.” And rounding out the warnings, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pledged that in addition to mobilizing Russian troops, Moscow was willing to employ “any Russian weapons, including strategic nuclear weapons” to protect the four regions in Ukraine Russia plans to annex as soon as next week.

Nuclear Threat is Terrifying

I completely understand the desire of all parties to want to sound tough, and I definitely get that Kyiv hates Russia and wants to drive Putin’s forces from Ukrainian territory. But I worry we have gotten too far from August 1945 and have lost our healthy fear of what a single modern nuclear weapon can do. The destructive power of today’s nuclear weapons, especially those in Russia and the United States, is hundreds of times more powerful than the bombs that fell on Japan in 1945. If the situation surrounding the Russia-Ukraine war erupted into a nuclear exchange – no matter how it happened or who started it – it could be more catastrophic than anyone might imagine.

Ukraine

Russian tank firing main gun. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

But someone has imagined it, and the results are terrifying. 19FortyFive Senior Editor and Rogue States President Harry Kazianis published an analysis earlier this year about a simulation he participated in back in 2019 that looked at a hypothetical war between NATO and Russia (frighteningly, which was spawned over a Russia-Ukraine war gone sideways). Kazianis said the simulation revealed the “NATO-Russia War of 2019, we estimated one billion people died.”

Too few people believe such an outcome is possible. We would recognize the danger, some delude themselves into believing, and we would avoid the abyss before destroying ourselves. That is a dangerous and unfounded belief. Human history is replete with far too many examples of leaders making foolish decisions and taking actions that a sober mind would have rejected. 

The reality is the world has to deal with the ferocious war burning in Ukraine, and there is no easy way out of it. Escalation has just been taken, and likely more is yet to come. But Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and NATO must – for the sake of the entire human race – stop making casual nuclear threats and retorts, and commit that no matter what, no party will use nuclear weapons. If our leaders remain blind to the risk and use them anyway, the result could be the end of the world as we know it.

And it won’t matter who started it. We will all lose.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis

Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

24 Comments

24 Comments

  1. Yrral

    September 23, 2022 at 2:50 pm

    We are already at Defcon 1,Google US Russia Nuclear Strike

  2. Dr. Scooter Van Neuter

    September 23, 2022 at 2:52 pm

    I don’t appreciate a foreign head threatening our enemies with US nuclear weapons. Zelenski continues to do everything in his power to directly involve us in his war.

  3. GhostTomahawk

    September 23, 2022 at 3:17 pm

    The solution is EASY.

    WALK AWAY.

    Let the chips in Ukraine fall where they will.

    Obama had no problem letting Putin have Crimea before what’s the deal now?

    Obviously there’s more to this story than being reported to us. Which reinforces my belief that a rapid discontinuation of support is in order. I

    Sink or swim son. We’re done here

  4. GhostTomahawk

    September 23, 2022 at 3:19 pm

    Also I think this war is being continued so energy prices spike. Never let a crisis go to waste. Europe is having a crisis which is being served up as a vehicle for the green energy quackery to prance around spewing lies to get people thinking more windmills are a solution to their energy problems and not just reversing the govts bad domestic energy policy.

  5. Michael Droy

    September 23, 2022 at 4:01 pm

    @GhostTomahawk
    Sadly walking away is not easy – like Afghanistan.
    A US/Nato defeat is probably the best we can hope for.
    A competent Kiev government that cared a damn for Ukrainians would have resolved this long ago (Zelensky got elected by promising a good relationship with Russia). Sadly the US is determined to prevent such a competent government arising.

    The real secret is not walking into these situations – something the US is appalling at.
    As soon as it loses to Russia (by which I mean an embarrassing climb down as Russia inserts a non-aggressive Kiev government) be sure the US will walk into exactly the same problems in China.

    More and more the rest of the world wants nothing to do with US.

  6. Friend

    September 23, 2022 at 4:18 pm

    It’s a bluff, and one that the terrorists are hoping the allies would gladly accept as an excuse to stop the conventional war. We’ve obviously been dealing with a rogue nuclear threat that’s no different from that of North Korea or Iran. Regardless the Ukraine can build its own nuclear weapon in a matter of days. It has nukes which it handed over for sovereignty guarantees. I am guessing those are now null and void. And just how is a threat of nuking not a declaration of war on NATO with different means, namely the cold ones.

  7. Friend

    September 23, 2022 at 4:47 pm

    Now it’s clearer what the cold war really was – it was a nuclear war that doesn’t happen if there is a division into zones of interest of the “multipolar” world. Now, of course, this can’t mean just Ukraine, which necessitates that the nuke terrorists must have a plan in store to attempt to sell the same atomic bluff to the West, which is essentially a declaration of a war to the rest of East Europe without having to shoot a single round in a hot war. Should they not yield, they will get nuked. Now it’s also understandable why it was called a “Special Military Operation”. I can’t see how Poland and say Finland don’t declare war on the terrorists in the near future. They’re screwed anyway. Either that or just clear everybody out. GTFO.
    Those countries in their entireties should now have very good grounds to seek asylum, which can turn into violence and war against NATO if they felt they were trapped between a rock and a hard place.

  8. Goran

    September 23, 2022 at 4:54 pm

    Daniel Davis : “Human history is replete with far too many examples of leaders making foolish decisions and taking actions that a sober mind would have rejected.”

    If Putin does decide to go that route, the share of the responsibility lies with those that egged him on by saying he is bound to come out on top. The reality is he is not bound to come out on top, attacking Ukraine was stupid, he is loosing this war, he will not get Odessa, sanctions will not be lifted for years to come and Ukrainians have every right to try and take back their territory.

    Again, if Putin is so convinced that he can not lose that he resorts to nukes, Davis and people like Davis are guilty as well as they continuously peddled this idiotic notion that Putin can’t lose.

  9. Goran

    September 23, 2022 at 5:08 pm

    Michael Droy: “As soon as it loses to Russia (by which I mean an embarrassing climb down as Russia inserts a non-aggressive Kiev government) be sure the US will walk into exactly the same problems in China.”

    Those days are gone, there is no scenario in which Ukrainians would ever again accept Russian tutelage. The chasm is too deep and Russia would need five million soldiers to impose it by force. The best Russia can hope for in Ukraine is a cessation of hostilities based on an agreement that includes some sort of autonomy for separatist regions within sovereign Ukraine. Worse than that is an ongoing but frozen conflict that does not leave room for the lifting of the sanctions and the worst one is the continuation of what is going on; throwing untrained young men in the path of HIMARs and kamikaze drones. North Korean ammunition will not suffice.

  10. Goran

    September 23, 2022 at 5:19 pm

    GhostTomahawk; “Obama had no problem letting Putin have Crimea before what’s the deal now?”

    Therein lies the problem, what some saw as a pragmatic decision not to antagonize Putin over territory, Putin himself interpreted as a weakness of the West. It has to stop somewhere. Turns out, this is that “somewhere”.

  11. De Gustibus

    September 23, 2022 at 6:18 pm

    Daniel Davis carefully repeating Putin’s talking points,
    which in this case serve to instill fear and push the west to stop supporting Ukraine.

    Your agenda is pretty clear Mr. Davis.. but what do you earn from it ?

  12. TotallyNotBiased

    September 23, 2022 at 6:27 pm

    plain and simple – no negotiations with terrorists, go ahead and arm Ukriane army to the teeth

  13. Tamerlane

    September 23, 2022 at 6:52 pm

    What “allies”do you reference Friend?

    Ukraine is not an ally of us, the United States.

    Goran, you cannot see beyond your face can you? Looking to the secondary and tertiary repercussions of one’s decisions is precisely what COL Davis (ret.) is referencing. Also, the fundamentals favor Russia here, as they have throughout, particularly with Ukrainian supply lines stretching over a 5,000 mile long supply route from you-name-the-supply-depot. If and when Russia fleshes out their BCTs, Ukraine is in a world of hurt. The failure to have full strength infantry support to their mechanized movements in February is what allowed Ukraine with American intervention to hurl them back. Take out that factor, and Kiev falls in February. Putin’s generals, like most Russian leaders, apparently learn by experience, and they’re openly saying they’re going to do whatever is necessary here. Which leads us to the only relevant question: do we go to nuclear war with Russia over a non-ally like Ukraine for a non-existential American interest. How many hundreds of millions of American civilians are you willing to trade for helping out our non-ally Ukraine?

  14. Simon Beerstecher

    September 23, 2022 at 7:20 pm

    What absolute nonsense, any playground bully uses the same tactics of escalation of violence.Even Russia top Generals have said that using nukes is not tenable.I grew up in the cold war ever heard of MAD,well look it up.It is behoven to the free world to protect the free world or else all our lives will be changed and dominated by autocracies.America and her allies have always and should continue to protect all freedom loving peoples around the world.|t is outrageous and unaceptable for any nation to be allowed to get away with picking bits off sovereighn nation states.How would you naysayers like it , if Mexico decided it wanted California back?We live in a Rules based world without “policemen” that statement becomes meaningless.How many of you guys agree to “defunding the police”,what would happen?…Caos would ensue…we in the West cannot let that happen.We need to help our friends and neighbours protect there democracies that is the responcibility of the big brother of all democratic families,America finds its greatness as a leader of the world, and we all shall follow.As for nuclear war it will never happen,Putin and his cronies know just how soft the West has become.Do not be scared and stand up for your values and the values of all your European Friends.

  15. Simon Beerstecher

    September 23, 2022 at 7:33 pm

    The United States acted as Ukraines garantor in the event of attack as a prerequisite to them giving up their nuclear arms at the end of the cold war ,when they became independant of Russia.
    So yes they are an ally , America has been helping to train and arm Ukraine for longer than this current war.

  16. Steve

    September 23, 2022 at 7:38 pm

    Time to take down Communism. Russia’s already toast, China’s next. Our cyber war will shut down their nukes if they dared arm them… (oh, believe it)…

  17. Goran

    September 23, 2022 at 8:02 pm

    Tamerlane “do we go to nuclear war with Russia over a non-ally like Ukraine”

    No. If Russia wants to nuke Ukraine, the U.S. should not respond with nukes. It is obvious Ukrainians would rather be dead than under Putin’s thumb anyway. However, the West should give Ukraine all conventional weapon systems available, HIMARs, F16s, everything. I never said the U.S. military should take part in this war, Ukrainians seem more than capable of defending their country, they just need weapons to do so.

  18. 403Forbidden

    September 23, 2022 at 9:22 pm

    US became evil in ’45 when it nuked hiro & nagasaki even though japan was already onbits knees.

    Today, unlike 1945 military fascists of japan, ukro fascists are growing in strength due to massive cash & weapons infusion from the evil globalist fascismo faction.

    Thus to stop ukro fascists and their fascismo backers, russia MUST use tactical nukes on frontline ukro neo-nazi brigades and capital kyiv.

    Russia must hand out a firm riposte to the fascismo would-be masters of the world who have embarked on a campaign of forever wars abroad and forever regime change abroad.

    Death to modern unrestrained globalism & evil fascism. !!!

  19. Walker

    September 23, 2022 at 9:24 pm

    After months of twisting reality to the point of lying, Davis finally shows his hand.

    Davis for all his Putin apologies is really just so afraid of Nuclear war that he would sell the worlds independence to avoid it.

    All his talk of how Ukraine doesn’t have a chance is all about wanting to sell Ukraine off to Russia to avoid nuclear war.

    There is a real problem with Davis’s ill begotten idea. Letting a dictator do whatever he wants is an open invitation for said dictator to demand more. Now Russia is going after neutral land. Tomorrow, he will go after Poland. Once we give in it is a slippery slope. When Putin goes for Poland, will Davis finally realize his mistake or double down on it? Will he say that Poland should never been allowed into NATO and we shouldn’t protect Poland as it will lead to Nuclear war? What about East Germany? Does Russia have historical claims there?

    No, there is no appeasing dictators. One would think Davis would know this. But yet he does not.

    There is only one way to stop a dictator. That is to stand up to him. Putin is on the edge of destroying Russia, I say, let him finish it. We play our part by ensuring as many dead Russian soldiers as possible. Only then will the people of Russia realize that Putin must be removed.

  20. Tamerlane

    September 23, 2022 at 10:08 pm

    Finally Goran, some semblance of reason. I’m also fine with selling Ukraine weapons, provided we are not drawn into the conflict as combatants. I’m not on board with “giving” our taxpayer funded munitions necessary for our own military to another power. Sure, some of the Ukrainians are willing to fight. Others are living in Russian controlled areas and serve in those forces.

    And no, Simon, that non-Senate ratified agreement is not a treaty, nor did it make Ukraine an ally, any more than our solemn promises to Yeltsin that we wouldn’t expand NATO east make us an ally of Russia. The United States isn’t the policeman of the world either, nor should we be. The past 21 years of military efforts should have demonstrated to us the limits of such misadventure, particularly when the effort will simply result in more dedication to overthrow our global monetary and economic dominance.

  21. pagar

    September 23, 2022 at 11:28 pm

    Mr Daniel Davis,

    Your articles always elicit lots of interest and lots of comments, including driller killer crazed comments.

    The gist of all articles today should be WHOLE WORLD MUST RESIST GLOBALISM. Fullstop.

    Globalism is 100% responsible for global crises, global warming, global inequality, global diseases, global wars, mass global migration and explosive global population growth (8 billion by end 2022-start of 2023).

    The world must now group or come together to fight globalism.

    First, the globalism of xi jinping, the darned stupid jerk who aims for total global merchantile control and trade supremacy.

    Second, which is much more dangerous, the aim of US & NATO to wrestle total global political and military control of the world.

    Mankind must unite and fight these twin evils, otherwise armageddon is beckoning right at us.

    We cannot be divided into 2 camps as what’s being envisioned by joe biden, the mentally challenged president of USA who has already decided to divide americans into 2 sides, one that supports dems and other one that poses a threat to soul of USA.

    HELL WITH ALL GLOBALISM !!!

  22. David Chang

    September 24, 2022 at 12:32 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Before Iraq War, DoD warned Iraq publicly that if Iraq used chemical weapon, United States would counterattack with nuclear weapon.

    Also, because of the Syrian chemical weapons controversy four years ago, we should assume that Russia President Vladimir Putin will attack Ukraine with chemical weapon.

    And two years ago, USS Theodore Roosevelt retreat to Guam after soldiers contract SARS-CoV-2.

    Besides, many people don’t think of Putin’s immoral determination. But from the war in Chechnya, we can infer that Russia military do not obey Geneva Convention/Protocol. Because they attack cities with missile and damage hospital, some babies in hospital were killed. This immoral behavior caused Moscow theater hostage crisis.

    From World War I to 1945, although it is difficult for people to take it, the socialism warfare between Ukraine and Russia may be proceed by chemical weapons, bacteria, virus, then nuclear weapons.
    Seven Days to Kyiv.

    God bless America.

  23. mawendt

    September 24, 2022 at 4:11 pm

    Meh.

    If it thins the herd, I’m for it.

    This is a scare piece, and doesn’t rise to factual analysis of ‘How the Ukraine War Could Become a Nuclear War’. Russia’s territorial integrity, real or perceived by Russia, ain’t gonna be compromised in this environment, at least by NATO, although Ukraine may conduct some SOF or long range missile strikes local to their conflict, but there won’t be an invasion or massive coordinated attack. Because no one benefits.

    Unlikely but possibly, there will be an incremental escalation that *might* lead to Russian employment of tactical nukes – but for what reason? At this point, unless Russia can bring down a sledge hammer onto Ukraine, it’s over – and Russia has already lost. In political currency, economic growth, military reputation, and more. So I’m thinking the conflict will end before it hits nuclear employment use.

    It’s already going to take multiple decades for Russia to recover from Putin’s silliness. Putin has dropped Russia to a third world status.

    Most likely, the conflict will remain conventional; Russian casualties will increase; the general population and military will withdraw it’s support from Putin’s regime; and, one early morning about 2.30 Moscow time Putin and about a hundred other of his immediate supporters will catch the Russia Flu, deadly, since postmortem has found that it causes a piece of lead to have grown in a person’s head.

    Between now and then have some popcorn and put aside the artificial hype of this article. Putin is stuck and desperately looking for a Hail Mary, but he just doesn’t have the skill, talent or military to make it happen.

    I’m guessing he’s spending more time now looking for a way out than a way to win.

  24. Goran

    September 24, 2022 at 5:30 pm

    Tamerlane: “I’m also fine with selling Ukraine weapons, provided we are not drawn into the conflict as combatants.”

    Great. The UK finished off paying its World War II debt to the United States six decades after that war ended, I am sure we can have the same flexibility in dealing with Ukrainians. Let’s provide them with advanced weaponry, or at least advanced compared to what they have, say F16 fighters and a few hundred of MGM-140 ATACMS systems that the United States has thousands of and this war will end much sooner.

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