Edging toward Armageddon?

Would the use of a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine lead to all-out nuclear war?

By Linda Pentz Gunter

As we mark 60 years since the Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s truly horrifying to realize that our present times are considered to be the closest to nuclear war we have been since those 13 terrifying days in 1962.

What saved us then was cooler heads prevailing, as our stories last week described. But can we be assured that those with the power to press the proverbial button — whether at the pinnacle of leadership or lower down the chain of command — will act with similar sense and restraint?

With Kennedy and Khrushchev in command, there was a willingness on both sides to pull back from the brink, not only rhetorically, but through meaningful actions. Khrushchev removed his nuclear missiles from Cuba while the US publicly declared it would not invade the island. Privately, the US also agreed to dismantle its ballistic missiles stationed in Turkey.

And, as we have seen over the years — and in last week’s article by Angelo Baracca — sometimes it takes a person of more humble position to restore rationality and act with restraint. These near-misses ought to have put the halt on nuclear weapons development many decades ago.

Instead, that most obvious of lessons was never learned: that nuclear weapons serve only one purpose; the mutual destruction of all of us. Instead, the nuclear arms race escalated to obscene heights and there are still at least 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world, leaving us perpetually on the edge of Armageddon.

And it was that word, “Armageddon,” that current US President Joe Biden used recently when he said at a Democratic gathering, “We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” 

A tactical nuclear weapon on display in a museum — the only place they should be. (Photo of Tactical nuclear air-to-air rocket Douglas AIR-2A Genie in the South Dakota Air and Space Museum, by Boevaya mashina/Wikimedia Commons)

Kennedy had met Khrushchev prior to the 1962 standoff and Biden described Russian president, Vladimir Putin, as “a guy I know fairly well”. But so far, that familiarity hasn’t relieved the current atomic tensions around Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Instead, the news is full of alarm bells, warning that yes, Putin might just be mad enough to push the nuclear button and take us all down with him.

Pundits have cautioned that we are “not there yet,” which should not be taken as comfort. It should be taken as an opportunity to ensure that we never, ever get there. And it’s certainly not encouraging that Russia’s new top commander of the war in Ukraine. General Sergei Surovikin, is nicknamed “General Armageddon” for his command of Russia’s Syria bombardments. But, in the meantime, when we talk about Russia “using” nuclear weapons, what could happen?

Russia could use a single tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine, although “tactical” is a term that covers a whole panoply of so-called “short range” weapons armed with a nuclear warhead. Such weapons can be launched from the ground, air, or sea, and even from a truck bed.  A single weapon has a typical explosive yield of between 10 and 100 kilotons. The Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons. So that’s not exactly small.

The idea of using a single tactical nuclear weapon is starting to be dangerously downplayed as maybe not all that bad, thus normalizing something that should instead be outlawed. Just hide in your basement for a few days while the radiation dissipates and it’ll be OK.

But it’s that kind of thinking that prompted Biden to use the word “Armageddon” in the first place. “I don’t think there is any such thing as the ability to easily use a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon,” Biden said.

Surviving a nuclear attack is not as simple as retreating to the basement. (Image: WikiHow)

Because of course it wouldn’t be OK at all. Even after the radiation levels drop, the soil and water, and therefore food sources, would be contaminated. Essential infrastructure would be destroyed. There would be countless fatalities and many sick and dying. To use any nuclear weapon would be an abomination.

The White House has also said it would deliver what it described as a “decisive response”, should Russia use nuclear weapons. Again, it’s unclear what this means. Would the US reply with a nuclear attack of its own?

But what all of this does prove is that the possession of nuclear weapons isn’t deterring anything. What we are most frightened of right now is the possibility that Russia will use nuclear weapons and the US and/or NATO might retaliate.

Those fears would vanish if nuclear weapons did too.

That is why continuing to push for signatures and ratifications of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is so important, because it’s the one treaty that spells out the immorality of nuclear weapons and the devastating humanitarian impacts that would result even from their so-called limited use.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and writes for and curates Beyond Nuclear International.

Headline photo by Pixabay

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