Starting in 2022, the year Russia attacked Ukraine, the idea that Vladimir Putin might eventually use nuclear weapons has been increasingly discussed in the public sphere. This situation is even more concerning given the threats made by the Kremlin leader himself.
Here is how NATO will react if Russia uses nuclear weapons and what the risk of nuclear weapons involvement in wars entails.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addressed the potential use of nuclear weapons by the Russians, emphasizing that such a measure would have extremely serious consequences for Russia and completely alter the nature of a conflict. These statements followed former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s threat of a nuclear apocalypse against the West.
It is utterly unacceptable to resort to nuclear weapons in any situation. The use of these incredibly destructive weapons will completely change the course of a conflict and have very serious consequences for Russia. It is crucial for Russia to understand that a nuclear war cannot be won and, moreover, should never be fought.
Nuclear weapons are an integral part of how NATO protects itself and deters potential threats. They are used in conjunction with conventional forces and missile defense systems to ensure our safety. NATO also engages in issues related to arms control, military arsenal reduction, and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. However, as long as such weapons exist, NATO will remain an alliance that includes them in its defense strategy.
The primary goal of NATO’s nuclear capability is to maintain peace, prevent coercion, and deter aggression. Their objective is to make the world safer, attempting to create a secure environment even without nuclear weapons.
NATO’s current nuclear policy is based on two publicly approved documents by all allies: the 2022 Strategic Concept and the 2012 Deterrence and Defense Posture Review. NATO continues to emphasize the importance of nuclear deterrence, considering the evolving challenges, according to NATO.int.
Allies have reiterated this principle in high-level meetings since 2014, and at the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid, leaders agreed on the 2022 Strategic Concept—a guide and adaptation plan for the Alliance. This document prioritizes deterrence and defense, stating that they rely on an appropriate combination of nuclear, conventional, missile defense, space, and cyber capabilities.
At the 2023 Vilnius Summit, allies reaffirmed that NATO would take all necessary measures to ensure the credibility, effectiveness, safety, and security of the nuclear deterrence mission. This includes the continued modernization of NATO’s nuclear capability and updating planning to enhance the flexibility and adaptability of the Alliance’s nuclear forces while maintaining strong political control at all times.
NATO emphasizes the need for extensive allied participation in nuclear burden-sharing agreements to demonstrate the Alliance’s unity and determination. The Deterrence and Defense Posture Review (DDPR), approved in 2012, underscores that the purpose of the Alliance’s nuclear forces is deterrence—an essential political function. Political control over nuclear weapons will be maintained under all circumstances, and nuclear planning and consultation will align with the Alliance’s political guidance.
Therefore, even though NATO leaders have not explicitly explained how they will act if Vladimir Putin uses nuclear weapons, they have emphasized that NATO is a nuclear alliance, and the response will be extremely severe.
In January 2024, Admiral Rob Bauer, the Chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, urged the civilian population and governments of NATO countries to prepare for a total war with Russia in the next 20 years.
These statements came shortly before the start of Operation Steadfast Defender 2024, in which 90,000 NATO soldiers will begin the bloc’s largest military exercise since the Cold War. The exercises take place across Europe and last until May.
The war between Russia and Ukraine did not unfold as Vladimir Putin expected. Although NATO could not physically intervene in the war, it provided considerable assistance to Ukraine, helping the country led by Volodymyr Zelensky withstand the hellish attacks from the Russians. NATO countries assisted Ukraine with weapons, food, and everything needed to support the country.
However, Russia’s desperation to break the military impasse may lead to taking risks that will force a NATO military response. Here are the five ways the conflict could escalate, according to Forbes:
- Implementation of a No-Fly Zone: This involves air patrols over Ukraine and the downing of Russian aircraft violating this zone. However, this would not alleviate the suffering of the Ukrainian people, as most explosions come from artillery and missiles.
- Russia’s Attack on US/NATO Bases: Attacking bases supplying weapons to Ukraine would be considered an act of war, triggering Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.
- US/NATO Response to Chemical, Biological, or Nuclear Attacks: Although less likely, the US closely monitors information in this direction.
- US/NATO Support for Insurgency: If the situation deteriorates, support for an insurgency in Ukraine may be considered, exposing NATO countries to Russian strikes and potentially triggering a general conflict.
- Russia’s Entry into NATO Space: The least likely scenario, where Russia could advance towards Poland, Romania, or the Baltic states, triggering Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.
To avoid a catastrophe, it is important to keep communication lines open to prevent misunderstandings and the risk of incidents between NATO forces and Russia.
Nuclear weapons are the most dangerous and malicious instruments ever created. They can cause immense harm, both through their immediate destruction and the long-term effects on people and the environment. Here’s what happens when a nuclear bomb explodes and how it affects us in the short and long term, according to icanw.org.
A nuclear bomb can completely destroy a city and kill most of its inhabitants. Imagine that such a bomb detonated above a large city can kill millions of people in an instant. If multiple bombs are used in a war, the death toll could reach tens or even hundreds of millions.
In the first 10 seconds after detonation, a massive explosion occurs, releasing an immense amount of energy in the form of blast, heat, and radiation. A powerful shockwave spreads rapidly, killing people and causing serious injuries. The heat is so intense that it vaporizes almost everything near ground zero, sparking massive fires that turn into firestorms. Even those sheltered underground have little chance of survival due to lack of oxygen and carbon monoxide poisoning.
Nuclear weapons generate ionizing radiation that can kill or make exposed people sick, affect the environment, and have long-term health consequences such as cancer and genetic damage. Atmospheric nuclear tests in the past resulted in approximately 2.4 million deaths due to cancers. Using even a small portion of the world’s nuclear arsenal could disrupt the global climate and threaten famine for up to two billion people.
If thousands of nuclear weapons were detonated, we could face a nuclear winter, destroying our fragile ecosystem. Doctors and first responders would be unable to operate in affected and radioactive areas. A nuclear detonation in a modern city would overwhelm existing aid systems, and a nuclear war would overshadow any pre-disaster preparedness efforts. Displaced populations following a nuclear war would create a refugee crisis of gigantic proportions.
Nuclear weapons have a massive impact on the environment. A nuclear war would destroy the climate, bringing about a nuclear winter, global famine, and serious consequences of global warming.
The impact on society and the economy would also be devastating. Poor countries and marginalized groups would suffer the most. Spending on developing, maintaining, and dismantling nuclear weapons represents money that could be better used for eco-friendly technologies and health services. Instead of wasting resources destructively, we can invest them in solutions that improve life and protect the planet.