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What could happen if Russia used nuclear weapons?

Russia's state Duma has approved the annexation of Ukrainian regions, will Putin now use nuclear weapons to hold these areas?

By Emily Tamkin

As Russia has now held its bogus annexation referenda and is claiming parts of Ukraine as its own, the world waits and wonders: will Russia use nuclear weapons as Vladimir Putin has suggested it could? If Ukrainians continue to fight to defend their country, will Russia now claim that it is under attack and use nuclear weapons?

We do not know, although the United States reportedly thinks it is a plausible enough possibility that officials have started warning their Russian counterparts not to do so. What we do know is that this latest round of threats, and this whole war, has served as a reminder of why nuclear non-proliferation is so important. Nuclear weapons threaten to transform war from devastating into indiscriminately, unthinkably dangerous. A world in which their use can even be threatened is a less safe one.

Unfortunately, I think we can say that all of this — the war; Putin’s threats — makes nuclear proliferation far more likely. What country watching Ukraine — which turned Soviet-era nuclear weapons stationed in Ukraine over to Russia in the 1990s and is now existentially threatened by Putin — would think that its own citizens are safer without nuclear weapons? Would India? Would Pakistan? Would the US?

Russia’s threats of using nuclear weapons on a non-nuclear country make it more likely that countries that do not currently have nuclear weapons may try to develop their own nuclear programmes. Finland and Sweden were not in Nato before this war, but after witnessing Russia invade Ukraine they decided to apply for membership.

It is not outside of the realm of possibility that watching a nuclear power threaten a non-nuclear power may inspire some countries to try to develop this additional layer of protection. If this sounds improbable, consider that, after Russia invaded Ukraine, some in Japan called for the country — the only one ever to be attacked with nuclear weapons, and by the United States, as Putin reminded in his address on 30 September — to host US nuclear weapons.

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The possibility of nuclear non-proliferation is yet another casualty of Putin’s war. We are seeing now how threatening and unpredictable a nuclear regime can be. It is hard to imagine how a world less committed to nuclear non-proliferation would be safer. Sadly, I think that may be the world we’re already in.

This article was originally published on 29 September and has been updated with the latest information.

[See also: How much territory does Ukraine control?]

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