The chance of the Russian invasion of Ukraine being escalated to a nuclear conflict, from a conventional one, is “extremely unlikely,” according to two UBC nuclear weapons experts.
That’s for several reasons. First, Ukraine doesn’t have any nuclear weapons so Russia has no reason to up the ante, and it can likely achieve its military goals without the use of such weapons, said Allen G. Sens, a UBC political science professor specializing in armed conflict and nuclear weapons.
The invasion will also likely be a short campaign and there’s a lower chance of nuclear weapons being used in “limited war,” said M.V. Ramana, a professor and Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at UBC.
It might be alarming to see a nuclear-armed state invading its neighbour, but the U.S. — a country with comparable amounts of firepower — carried out similar invasions or short military campaigns in the first Gulf War and Iraq War, and never ended up needing to use the strongest weapons in its arsenal, they said.
“This does not seem to be a kind of whole-scale war where Russia wants to destroy Ukraine. I don’t see any reason why they would want to even think about using nuclear weapons,” Ramana said. “That’s why I’m not panicking at this point.”
When asked if there was any risk to B.C. or Canada’s security at this moment, Ramana said, “the chances are extremely low and we should be concerned about the people living in areas in Ukraine and not just thinking about us.”
Sens agreed, noting the risk of Russia, or any other nuclear-armed state using nuclear weapons is “extremely unlikely.”
However, the risk “is not zero,” because the weapons do exist, he added.
According to the Arms Control Association, a 50-year-old nonpartisan organization that works to help countries get rid of their nuclear weapons, Russia leads the world with a stockpile of 6,257 nuclear warheads, followed by the U.S. with 5,550. These two countries hold 90 per cent of the world’s total 13,080 warheads. (Note that around 9,600 warheads are in military service and 3,480 are lying around, waiting to be safely dismantled.)
This is a huge drop since the early 1990s, when Sens said there were around 70,000 nuclear warheads in the world.
Nuclear weapons aside, the invasion is still “a very bad development for global politics in general, and for European security in particular,” Sens said.
The world is struggling to emerge from the pandemic, the climate crisis is ramping up, and an invasion is the last thing anyone — including Russia — needs right now, he said. “But here we are.”
Which is why it might be a good time to pay attention to — no matter how small the chance — the risk that this conflict could go nuclear.
According to Ramana and Sens, there are four ways that could happen.
This would be an intentional, premeditated attack using a nuclear weapon, which wouldn’t make any sense for any country to do, both experts said.
However, Sens noted that in the week leading up to the invasion, and on the day of the invasion, Putin reminded the international community that he is armed with nuclear weapons. Once with a military display, and by warning foreign interference would result in consequences “never encountered in your history.”
“It’s an ugly invocation of the existence of Russia’s nuclear arsenal,” Sens said. “These are things that need not be said.”
War by miscalculation
This would be an accidental nuclear attack, or one that was ordered based off of faulty or misinterpreted data.
Russia and the U.S. have satellites and radar that look out for things that could be incoming missiles. These systems are not perfect and have historically set off false alarms, like in 1995 when the Russians saw a missile launched from the waters off Norway, where a U.S. nuclear submarine could have been hiding, Ramana said. Because the countries were not at war the Russians took a moment to pause, study the situation and realize there was no threat, he said.
But during a time of high levels of international hostility, mutual distrust and a breakdown of existing arms control measures — all of which are playing out in today’s current events — the risk that a country is extra jumpy and retaliates without carefully reviewing the data is increased, Sens said.
Both the U.S. and Russia have policies to launch nuclear weapons if they think they’re under attack, because they don’t want to get stuck in a position where they can’t retaliate, Ramana said.
A war by miscalculation poses “the most significant risk,” Ramana said.
War by escalation
This would be a tactical nuclear attack after the Russian invasion developed into a drawn-out war that dragged in other countries.
Specifically, if NATO countries like the U.S., the U.K. or France got involved, Sens said. Then you would have nuclear-armed countries on both sides of the battlefield of a larger European war.
This could be sparked by the tactical use of low-yield nuclear weapons, which are a recent “worrying development,” Sens said. Historically, using nuclear weapons to hit your enemies on a battlefield wouldn’t make sense because the blast would destroy the entire battlefield, he said. Low-yield nuclear weapons are designed to take out smaller targets, like a bunker that can’t be hurt by conventional weapons.
But it doesn’t matter how small the blast is — once you’ve crossed the nuclear threshold, there’s nothing stopping your enemy from retaliating with a similar nuclear strike, which could escalate endlessly, Sens said.
He added that while it’s encouraging to see the total number of nuclear weapons decrease, an arms race is still happening.
An arms race is when you try to have the biggest weapon to feel the safest. The problem is that, because you have a weapon, others will similarly try to arm themselves so they feel safer, pushing you to want to get an even nastier weapon. It’s a simplified explanation of the Cold War.
Today, countries aren’t trying to build large stockpiles of new bombs, but they are working to develop faster, more accurate delivery systems, Sens said, which escalates tensions.
A nuclear power plant disaster
This wouldn’t involve any nuclear weapons, but would still be disastrous.
Around half of Ukraine’s power comes from its four nuclear reactors, which could be damaged or abandoned during the invasion, Ramana said.
Nuclear power plants have to be continuously monitored even if they are shut down, because the fuel is constantly decaying and producing heat, he said.
If a conventional weapon damages a power plant, or if its staff decide to take their families and run for Poland, the plant could have a meltdown, he said. This has happened in the past, like during the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown after the 15-metre tsunami disabled the cooling systems of three reactors.
This would create fewer casualties than a nuclear strike but would cause higher rates of cancer and radiation-related diseases in the surrounding population, Ramana said.
Nuclear war doesn’t necessarily mean an all-out war where every country launches every missile and what’s left of the world is thrown into a nuclear winter, as debris and ash blocks out the sun, Sens said. That’s one extreme, known as total war. The other extreme is a limited war, where enemies lob one, or a couple nuclear strikes at one another before agreeing to a ceasefire and diplomatic negotiations.
“In the event of any general nuclear war, Canada is a target,” Sens said. Canada is a close ally and partner of the U.S. and member of NATO, so our major cities — including Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax — would be attacked, he said.
These hypothetical attacks can’t be compared to the attacks on Hiroshima or Nagasaki, because weapons have advanced and gotten much, much more powerful since 1945, Sens said.
Bomb blasts are measured by the comparable amount of TNT that would be needed to make a similar blast. A one kiloton blast is equal to 1,000 tonnes, or one kiloton, of TNT. The bombs detonated over Japan were between 10 to 20 kilotons. Today’s weapons are between 100 to 300 kilotons, and Russia has some nuclear warheads that are believed to be one megaton, or 1 million tons of TNT, Sens said.
If that information gives you the heebie jeebies, you’re not alone. And you’re not powerless.
There was a Canadian peace movement in the 1980s that pressured domestic and international governments to reach arms control agreements, reduce tensions and create confidence-building measures between nuclear-armed countries.
“The need for that hasn’t gone away,” Sens said, adding that many organizations are still working towards those goals.
Arms control agreements also work, and helped create co-operation between the U.S. and Russia as they worked together to dismantle nuclear weapons.
Currently there is only one arms control agreement signed between the U.S. and Russia, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which was re-signed last month. At the signing, the U.S., China, Russia, France and the U.K. issued a joint-statement noting “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
Sens added that it’s never bad to reach out and voice your concerns to your elected representatives.
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