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Is World War III a Nuclear Reality or an Empty Threat?

 By Thalif Deen

Image: Nuclear warfare is a common theme of World War III scenarios. Such a conflict has been hypothesized to result in human extinction. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

UNITED NATIONS (IDN) — A Russian news agency quoted on March 2 Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s dire warning: If a third world war (WWIII) breaks out, it would involve nuclear weapons—and be destructive. [2022-03-08-29] GERMAN | HINDI | JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF

At a virtual Geneva meeting on disarmament, he also hinted that Ukraine has been seeking nuclear weapons to counter the Russian invasion—a rumour that remains unconfirmed.

Meanwhile, a former Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk repeated similar fears speculating that the Russian invasion could be the start of a third world war.

Are nuclear warnings and fears of a potential World War III political realities or just empty threats?

Dr Rebecca Eleanor Johnson, former president of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), and author of the 2022 report 'Nuclear weapons are banned: What does that mean for Britain?', told IDN "Putin invaded Ukraine and then put Russia's nuclear weapons on high alert.

His egregious aggression, she said, demonstrates the existential dangers attached to nuclear deterrence theories: “We've been warning for years that deterrence is a communication with an adversary, and if that goes wrong, then nuclear-armed leaders are likely to threaten and use nuclear weapons, with disastrous humanitarian consequences."

She pointed out that nuclear weapons and threats were embedded in the defence policies of Russia and NATO (countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) in the early 1950s and since then, they have driven proliferation and insecurity around the world.

“The war on Ukraine is a terrible reminder of what can go wrong if any leader’s possession of atomic weapons and illusions of nuclear deterrence go wrong. Putin, like Trump, Kim Jong-un, and other nuclear-armed leaders, has trumpeted nuclear threats before,” Dr Johnson said.

The difference now is that Putin is increasingly cornered by his invasion and the war crimes already committed through the use of thermobaric weaponry and so-called 'conventional' explosives against Ukraine's cities and civilians, she added.

Meanwhile, the world’s nuclear forces are also a grim reminder—and ominously frightening—of the potential disaster facing the world, with nine of the world’s nuclear powers, namely the US, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, on virtual nuclear-readiness.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the nine nuclear-armed states together possessed an estimated 13,080 nuclear weapons at the start of 2021. This marked a decrease from the 13,400 that SIPRI estimated these states possessed at the beginning of 2020.

Despite this overall decrease, the estimated number of nuclear weapons currently deployed with operational forces increased to 3825, from 3720 last year. Around 2000 of these—nearly all of which belonged to Russia or the US—were kept in a state of high operational alert.

A breakdown of the latest available figures follows:

Ray Acheson, Director of Disarmament, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, told IDN Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons and his decision to heighten the alert level of Russian nuclear forces underscores the inherent risk posed by the existence of nuclear weapons.

“Whether or not nuclear weapons are used in this war, in the sense of being detonated, they are already being used to help facilitate Putin’s invasion of and war against Ukraine.”

But this is not just an issue of Russia having nuclear weapons, she argued.

Three NATO members—France, the United Kingdom, and the United States—also possess nuclear weapons, and US nuclear bombs are stored on the territory of five other NATO members—Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Turkey.

Each and every one of these nuclear weapons is a threat to peace and security. A nuclear war would be catastrophic, threatening all life on Earth, said Acheson.

“As long as these weapons exist, there is a risk that they will be detonated. As long as these weapons exist, they will be used to threaten and intimidate. As long as these weapons exist, they will extract billions of dollars towards their maintenance, modernisation, and deployment, when that money is so desperately needed to confront climate change and provide for social good,” she warned.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) outlaws the threat to use nuclear weapons, as well as the use, development, and possession of these weapons.

“All states must join the TPNW and support the global ban on nuclear bombs. The nuclear-armed states, and the other countries that host nuclear weapons, must renounce mass destruction as an alleged security policy and eliminate their arsenals, before it’s too late,” she added.

“This is a moment for people around the world to wake up to the nuclear threat. This is not an historical issue. We all live with the grave prospect of nuclear war every day, and we must take action to remove this threat once and for all,” Acheson declared.

Asked if Putin would order nuclear weapons to be fired, Dr Johnson said: “Yes, sadly I think he might, through miscalculation, ego or fear of failing to defeat Ukrainian resistance. Don't be fooled by talk of 'tactical nuclear weapons'—that's just military jargon. If Putin is not stopped by Russian officials, and his orders result in the atomic incineration of cities, this would be a terrible war crime and crime against humanity, with massive existential risks."

"Most of the world backed the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons because they understood our evidence and arguments about the need to ban the possession as well as use and deployments of nuclear weapons to prevent nuclear war. Putin's invasion, combined with NATO's expansion and failed wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past three decades, have led to Ukraine's suffering and this escalating crisis," she added.

Dr Johnson said Ukraine is trapped between Russia and NATO, which hold some 12,000 nuclear weapons.

ICAN-connected studies have shown what is at risk when nuclear weapons are possessed and brandished by anyone. 

Predatory, narcissistic people like Putin are psychologically prone to take risks, miscalculate, and follow their threats and failures by upping the ante with more aggressive and reckless actions.

“If they are given military power and nuclear weapons, that's when failures of deterrence lead to 'use them or lose them' panics and the nuclear war that complacent militaries have refused to prevent when they could have eliminated these terrible weapons of mass destruction (WMD)," she declared.

After Putin put Russian nuclear forces on 'special alert', Boris Johnson said the UK was doing the same. Studies by Scientists for Global Responsibility and John Ainslie concluded that if 8 of the UK's Trident nuclear missiles were fired at Moscow and five other Russian cities, they would murder millions of civilians and throw mushroom clouds of radioactive dust high into the atmosphere, causing global catastrophe through nuclear winter and mass starvation.

“This isn't a theoretical game Putin and NATO are playing, it's real life," declared Dr Johnson.

According to SIPRI, while the US and Russia continued to reduce their overall nuclear weapon inventories by dismantling retired warheads in 2020, both are estimated to have had around 50 more nuclear warheads in operational deployment at the start of 2021 than a year earlier.

Russia also increased its overall military nuclear stockpile by around 180 warheads, mainly due to the deployment of more multi-warhead land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

Both countries’ deployed strategic nuclear forces remained within the limits set by the 2010 Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START), although the treaty does not limit total nuclear warhead inventories.

The overall number of warheads in global military stockpiles now appears to be increasing, a worrisome sign that the declining trend that has characterized global nuclear arsenals since the end of the cold war has stalled, said Hans M. Kristensen, Associate Senior Fellow with SIPRI’s Nuclear Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-proliferation Programme and Director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).

The last-minute extension of New START by Russia and the USA in February this year was a relief, but the prospects for additional bilateral nuclear arms control between the nuclear superpowers remain poor, he added. [IDN-InDepthNews – 08 March 2022]

Image: Nuclear warfare is a common theme of World War III scenarios. Such a conflict has been hypothesized to result in human extinction. Source: Wikimedia Commons.