“The great powers can no longer pursue a zero-sum game to see who will come out on top. It is possible that one of them will emerge on top of the heap—but the heap may well be a global ash pile.”
As the crisis in Ukraine deepens, it is appropriate to consider what the actual consequences of war there might be. An armed conventional conflict in Ukraine would be a terrible humanitarian disaster.
Last week, US government officials estimated that the fighting could kill 25,000 to 50,000 civilians, 5,000 to 25,000 Ukrainian military personnel, and 3,000 to 10,000 Russian soldiers. It could also generate 1-to-5 million refugees.
These figures are based on the assumption that only conventional weapons are used. However, if the conflict spread beyond Ukraine’s borders and NATO became involved in the fighting, this would become a major war between nuclear-armed forces with the very real danger that nuclear weapons would be used—and the public debate about this crisis is utterly lacking in discussion of this terrible threat.
Both sides in such a conflict would, of course, begin fighting with non-nuclear conventional weapons. But as a result of advances in technology and firepower over recent decades, these weapons possess much greater range and destructiveness than earlier models, enabling them to strike high-value targets—airbases, radar stations, command centers, logistical hubs, and so on—far behind the front lines. As the losses mounted up on both sides—and if one or the other faced imminent defeat—its leaders could feel driven to employ their tactical nuclear weapons to avert such an outcome. Both US and Russian military doctrines allow for the use of tactical nuclear weapons under such circumstances.
Despite reductions in nuclear forces over the last several decades, Russia still has 1,900 tactical nuclear weapons and 1,600 deployed strategic nuclear weapons. On the NATO side, France has 280 deployed nuclear weapons and the UK, 120. In addition, the United States has 100 B-61 tactical bombs deployed at NATO bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey, and an additional 1,650 deployed strategic warheads.
If even a single 100-kiloton nuclear weapon exploded over the Kremlin, it could kill a quarter of a million people and injure a million more, completely overwhelming the disaster-response capability of the Russian capital. A single 100-kiloton bomb detonated over the US Capitol would kill over 170,000 people and injure nearly 400,000.
But it is unlikely that an escalating nuclear conflict between the United States and Russia would involve single warheads over their respective capitals. Rather, it is more likely that there would be many weapons directed against many cities and that many of these weapons would be substantially larger than 100 kiloton. For example, Russia’s 460 SS-18 M6 Satan warheads have a yield of 500 to 800 kilotons. The W88 warhead deployed on US Trident submarines has a yield of 455 kilotons.
A 2002 report showed that if just 300 of Russia’s 1,600 deployed strategic warheads were detonated over US urban centers, 78 million people would die in the first half hour. In addition, the nation’s entire economic infrastructure would be destroyed—the electric grid, Internet, food distribution system, transportation network, and the public health system. All of the things necessary to sustain life would be gone, and in the months following this attack the vast majority of the US population would succumb to starvation, radiation sickness, exposure, and epidemic disease. A US attack on Russia would produce comparable devastation there. And if NATO were involved, most of Canada and Europe would suffer a similar fate.
Still, these are just the direct effects of the widespread use of nuclear weapons between NATO and Russia. The global climate effects would be even more catastrophic. Recent studies have confirmed the predictions, first advanced in the 1980s, that large-scale use of nuclear weapons would cause abrupt, catastrophic global cooling. A war involving the full deployed arsenals of the US and Russia could loft up to 150 teragrams (150 million metric tons) of soot into the upper atmosphere, dropping average temperatures around the world as much as 18 degrees Fahrenheit. In the interior regions of North America and Eurasia temperatures would drop 45 to 50 degrees, to levels not seen since the last ice age, producing a disastrous decline in food production and a global famine that might kill the majority of humanity. Even a more limited war involving just 250 warheads in the 100 kiloton range could drop average global temperatures by 10 degrees, enough to trigger a famine unprecedented in human history, which would almost certainly bring the end of modern civilization.
The enormity of the risk inherent in the current game of nuclear chicken between the US and Russia demands a fundamental change in their relation to each other, and in the equally fraught relation between the US and China. The great powers can no longer pursue a zero-sum game to see who will come out on top. It is possible that one of them will emerge on top of the heap—but the heap may well be a global ash pile.
Nuclear weapons are a discrete manmade threat to the survival of our species. Their elimination could be achieved within a decade if the leaders of the nuclear-armed states were committed to doing so. And the process of negotiating a verifiable, enforceable timetable for dismantling these weapons would establish a new cooperative paradigm in international relations that would enable them to address the other, more complex existential threat posed by the climate crisis. The elimination of nuclear weapons is not some pie-in-the-sky fantasy. It is an absolute necessity for our continued survival. We have not survived this far into the nuclear era because of wise leadership, or sound military doctrine, or infallible technology. As Robert McNamara famously observed, “We lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war.” A hope for continued good luck is an insane security policy. A determination to eliminate these weapons is a policy grounded in reality, and it offers us the only acceptable path forward.
It is imperative that the current crisis be resolved by diplomatic means. It is equally imperative that the nuclear armed nations learn from this dangerous situation and act to eliminate the danger of nuclear war in a definitive fashion by promptly beginning negotiations for the complete elimination of these weapons, as advocated by the Back from the Brink campaign, so that they all come into compliance with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
Ira Helfand, MD, is copresident of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize, and cofounder and past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, IPPNW’s US affiliate. He has published studies on the medical consequences of nuclear war in the New England Journal of Medicine, the British Medical Journal, and the World Medical Journal.