Are We Facing Nuclear War?

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He thought this would be easy.

President Vladimir Putin anticipated Russian tanks would roll in and overwhelm Ukraine. He claimed his troops might even be welcomed in some corners of the country.

What he didn’t anticipate was the surging nationalism of the Ukrainian people; the world-galvanizing leadership shown by President Volodymyr Zelensky; the perception of the invasion as an attack on democratic liberalism more broadly; the reunification of polarized, fractured Western alliances; or the reinvigoration of NATO. Overnight, seemingly the entire world turned against him, resulting in comprehensive public and private sanctions that have crippled his country and thrown his power into question.

In short, he’s backed into a corner. And as everyone is saying, a corner is a dangerous place to put Putin. With dwindling options for military success in Ukraine, how will he save face? Will he lash out? And in this lashing, will he turn to Russia’s nuclear arsenal?

Below, we answer three of your questions on the topic:

When asked this question, President Biden had a short answer: “No.”

After the invasion of Ukraine, Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear forces into a higher state of alert, the first time the Kremlin had done so since the Russian Federation was established in 1991. This came after issuing thinly veiled threats of a nuclear attack should any foreign power try to stop him from war.

America appears to be calling Russia’s bluff (or at least the Biden administration wants to appear stoic in the face of a real threat). Still, Russia and the US control 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, so any talk of a nuclear attack raises questions no one has seriously been asking since the end of the Cold War.

Since that time, the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” — that no state will start a nuclear war because sure retaliation would put its own fate in question — has kept nuclear weapons from being launched. While the threat being issued by Putin should be taken seriously, experts say, this doctrine should still hold. After all, Putin’s goal is to reclaim former Soviet glory, which would be hard to do if Moscow was jeopardized by retaliatory nuclear missiles.

But this doesn’t mean there aren’t other nuclear concerns to be thinking about. One particular concern is the safety of the nuclear waste caught in the crossfire in Ukraine.

Specifically, atomic experts have been carefully watching the state of the Chernobyl nuclear facility which recently came under Russian control. Chernobyl was the scene of the worst nuclear disaster in history when one of its four reactors exploded and burned 36 years ago, and the long-defunct plant in Ukraine is completely dependent on outside sources of electricity. Experts were alarmed this week when the plant lost outside power, posing grave concerns over the storage of nuclear waste in the long term.

However, Ukraine’s nuclear power agency said on Friday that more diesel fuel had been delivered to power backup generators that monitor and safeguard the large amount of radioactive waste there. The question is: As the war rolls on with no definite end in sight, can Russia ensure the safety of the waste at Chernobyl — and protect Europe from another nuclear disaster?

Bryan Walsh of Vox claimed that the war in Ukraine could portend the end of the “long peace” — the holiday from humanity’s tremendously violent history that the world has enjoyed for the last few decades.

While it’s too soon to say whether his predictions will come true, some experts have warned that the specter of nuclear war from a great power could force smaller states to think about whether they need to acquire nuclear weapons for self-protection. For example, our colleagues at The Debatable pointed out a majority of South Koreans have come to favor the development of a domestic nuclear weapons program to protect against attacks from China or North Korea. Zelensky of Ukraine said that his country had made a mistake in abandoning the nuclear weapons it had inherited from the Soviet Union.

The war in Ukraine has also halted efforts to revive a nuclear agreement with Iran, and it risks scuttling the agreement entirely. The breakdown will allow Iran to move closer to the ability to build a nuclear bomb.

“I sense a period ending,” Mary Elise Sarotte, a historian at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in The Times. “I am now deeply afraid that Mr. Putin’s recklessness may cause the years between the Cold War and the Covid-19 pandemic to seem a halcyon period to future historians, compared with what came after. I fear we may find ourselves missing the old Cold War.”

On Monday’s episode, we listened to the Daily host Sabrina Tavernise as she journeyed from Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, to Lviv — a trip that took two days and two nights. One of our composers, Marion Lozano, created the music for the episode, and we wanted to share the story behind two of the motifs that you may recall hearing.

This song is occasionally used as a replacement to the main Daily theme song. But “it’s more ominous,” Marion said. “The main instrumentation is a piano and it’s layered with ambient pads.”

Take a listen.

We asked Lynsea Garrison, one of our producers, what compelled her to choose “Slow Burn” when she was scoring the episode. “I just loved that it wasn’t overly sorrowful; it had a hint of something more wistful in it, almost a bittersweet nostalgia,” Lynsea said. “I wanted to use it especially under the scene when Sabrina is asking people about the lives they’ve left behind in the cars driving past. They were leaving behind their lives almost as fast as they were telling Sabrina about it, and I wanted something spare that evoked a deeper longing.”

This song is played throughout the entire episode. Here’s how Marion described it to us:

It was originally written to tie up the loose ends of a tragic story. The song contains an arpeggiating synth that plays throughout the whole song, and at times it’s layered with a piano. There are also woodwind swells and piano chords that guide the song along and really tug at the listener’s curiosity of ‘is there light at the end of this tunnel?’

Take a listen.

Monday: We went on the road with Ukrainian refugees fleeing the country.

Tuesday: Why Zelensky poses a unique threat to Putin.

Wednesday: Who the Russian oil bans will hurt most.

Thursday: Inside Ukraine’s embattled cities.

Friday: What is Putin’s endgame? Our colleague in Opinion, Ezra Klein, asked Fiona Hill, a national security expert.

Have thoughts about the show? Tell us what you think at [email protected].

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