Lately, pundits, experts and even government officials are increasingly discussing the possible use of nuclear weapons and/or other weapons of mass destruction amid the war Russia launched against Ukraine a month ago. A closer look, however, suggests that while the threat of nuclear war has risen, the popular scenarios entirely miss the point.
Popular commentators seem to assume that a low-yield nuclear explosion and/or an explosion in a remote area of the globe may somehow be less escalatory than full-scale combat use. This is hardly the case. It all boils down to crossing the nuclear threshold, and it does not matter how it is crossed: if it happens, Russia will not survive the consequences, and Russian leaders know it.
Thus, they will use nuclear weapons only when Russia has nothing left to lose, a situation that President Vladimir Putin talked about in 2018, saying, “Why do we need the world if it does not include Russia?” If it comes to that, nuclear use will not be low yield or a demonstration — it will occur on a large scale.
We are not there yet, and there are still chances to avoid it. The escalation of war in Ukraine to include all of NATO is unlikely: both sides — and most notably the United States and NATO — have tried hard to avoid a wider European or global war.
A more dangerous contingency may not even be associated with fighting, however: the Western economic and political stranglehold following the aggression may reach the point where Russia feels that its sovereignty and, indeed, its very existence has become impossible.
In other words, nuclear Armageddon does not have to result from escalation of war. There are other paths to reach that end.
One may also be well advised to be skeptical about the prospect of chemical and biological warfare: there is no data that Russia possesses a sizable arsenal of either. Chemical or biological agents have to be weaponized and produced in quantity for such a scenario to take place.
Yet there is another, more realistic danger: war could seriously damage chemicals plants and trigger a large release of toxic substances. On March 21, a release of ammonia occurred from a plant near Sumy, a besieged town in northeastern Ukraine; luckily, it did not appear to have resulted in human casualties. We may not be as fortunate next time as fighting spreads into heavily industrialized areas.
Right now, social networks, media and even governments are tending to concentrate on low-probability scenarios and neglecting more realistic paths toward global catastrophe. This may be one of the most dangerous features of the evolving situation in Ukraine.