We must take an increasingly ‘unhinged’ Putin’s nuclear threats seriously

Associated Press/Mikhail Klimentyev- Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo

What should the world make of Vladimir Putin’s provocative statement last Friday that his country’s nuclear forces are being placed on high alert just in case NATO were to consider military intervention to counter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?  

The last thing we should do is assume that Putin’s nuclear reference was some kind of idle bluster. The chilling reality is that Russia has both a vast nuclear arsenal and a leader increasingly described as “unhinged” — a truly toxic and dangerous mix.   

Some analysts suggest that Putin, a former KGB officer who is now Russia’s presumptive president for life, is pining for a magical restoration of the glory days of the Soviet Union which was dissolved in 1991.  

But whatever Putin’s aspirations for the future of Russia, it’s worth remembering what’s at stake if a nuclear option is actually on the table. For one thing, once started, a nuclear confrontation would be exceedingly difficult to stop. A slippery slide to full-scale nuclear attacks and counterattacks is not out of the question — with consequences for the world that are unimaginable.  

Here’s what we need to know  

Experts estimate that Russia has more than 6,300 atomic warheads that could be delivered anywhere in the world via intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear submarines or long-range bomber aircraft. And Russia is hardly the only member of the global nuclear arms club. The U.S. has at least 5,800 warheads and a handful of other nations including China, the United KingdomFranceIndiaPakistanSouth AfricaIsrael and North Korea collectively possess an additional 1,000-plus strategic nuclear weapons.   

The reality is if Russia used a nuclear weapon against a NATO country or any U.S. ally, a nuclear counterattack potentially capable of hitting multiple cities in Russia would be launched immediately. Nuclear escalation would be essentially impossible to control.  

In the early 1960s, with the cold war in full swing, a group of physicians formulated an organization called Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR). I once served as the chairman of the national executive committee of PSR and joined my colleagues in delivering a stark message to the public: If a nuclear conflict erupted between superpowers, the results would be catastrophic. Millions would be instantly killed, cities incinerated and hospitals destroyed. Little could be done to save survivors severely injured by physical trauma, burns and radiation consequent to multiple nuclear explosions both here and in the former Soviet Union.   

In essence, doctors and public health experts were saying that since there won’t be much we can do after the fact, prevention is the only option. This is just as true now as it was when PSR was first organized in 1961.  

It’s also worth noting that beyond the immediate devastating consequences of nuclear war, long-lasting toxic levels of radiation would be ubiquitous. And under almost any nuclear war scenario, climate disruption would be devastating. The late astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, wrote about what he called “nuclear winter” where a persistent layer of dust and debris would blot out the sun and destroy agricultural viability throughout much of the planet.  

In addition to a series of nuclear weapons treaties negotiated between the Soviet Union/Russia and the West since World War II, the underlying theory as to how we would actually avert nuclear war on a global scale was an aptly termed notion called “MAD” or “mutually assured destruction.” A primitive, but effective concept over the past six-plus decades, the basic principle is, “if you attack us, we’ll counterattack and both sides will be obliterated.”   

That is a presumption that could continue to hold a nuclear apocalypse at bay, but only with two key caveats. First, the technology designed to detect an incoming attack from an adversarial power must be flawless. In other words, an erroneous read of radar signals could falsely suggest an attack in progress and provoke a counterattack that could not be stopped in time to avert an unmitigated catastrophe. Such catastrophic “near-miss scenarios” have occurred at least a dozen times since the end of the Cold War. If that fact makes you gasp, it should!  

Second, we have to assume that while the leader of a nuclear superpower might be very aggressive and hostile, there would presumably be a protective layer of practical sanity from trusted advisors and an appreciation of basic self-preservation. No mentally intact leader with control of a nuclear arsenal would dare launch a nuclear strike, thereby risking a counterattack that would destroy both nations.   

Nuclear peace has always been and still is fragile. That’s why Putin’s barely veiled threat must be taken seriously. And any hope that his mental state or judgment is intact or predictable has surely been dashed in the past week.  

So, what must be done now?  

Demonstrable diplomatic power and unity of purpose among NATO nations — hopefully, joined by China — are critical if Putin is to be dissuaded from ever considering the deployment of his nuclear arsenal.  

But I doubt diplomacy alone will be enough to stop Russia’s military transgressions in Ukraine or convince Putin to take any nuclear option off the table. This is a challenge that must actively engage the Russian people.   

Anti-Putin protests are already being seen across Russia. We should use every means available, including a virtual onslaught of social media messages, to bolster the resistance resolve of Russian citizens and reinforce the notion that Vladimir Putin is a threat to Russia’s future as an economically successful, thriving and peaceful member of the world community.    

It may well be that a massive public outcry in Russia is the only way that Putin’s recklessness can be stopped. We can only hope.  

Irwin E. Redlener, MD, (@IrwinRedlenerMD) is the founding director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a senior research scholar. He is a cofounder of the Children’s Health Fund and a public health analyst for NBC/MSNBC. He is also the author of “Americans at Risk: Why We’re Not Prepared for Megadisasters and What We Can Do Now,” and “The Future of Us: What the Dreams of Children Mean for 21st Century America.”

Tags Doomsday scenarios Mutual assured destruction Nuclear holocaust Nuclear warfare Nuclear weapons Nuclear winter Strategic nuclear weapon Vladimir Putin

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