On February 24th, Russian forces invaded Ukraine and initiated the first major conventional war on the European continent since 1945. In the days since, horrifying images of airstrikes, gun battles, dead bodies, and demolished buildings have spread across the Internet: images reminiscent of World War II.
But this is not World War II. While an abundance of factors distinguishes this contemporary conflict from the most devastating military contest in history, one factor stands out among the rest: today, most of the powerful players in Europe, Asia, and North America are armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons.
In light of this, it is more important than ever to weigh the potential consequences of international reaction to the developing disaster in Eastern Europe.
Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have persistently flared since the decline and ultimate dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. At the height of its dominance, the Kremlin had delimited vast swaths of Eastern European and Central Asian land, assigning partitioned territory and redrawing borders in order to form distinct national entities under centralized control. But as entire nations in Europe and Asia regained their independence following the collapse of the empire, formal boundaries became somewhat unclear.
Modern Russia has disputed the conditions of and, in some cases, the very premise of Ukrainian agency and autonomy ever since, basing its objections on two primary arguments: firstly, that several territories currently possessed by Ukraine are historically the rightful property of Russia, and secondly, that the very existence of Ukraine is both the result of and dependent upon coerced Russian concessions and altruistic Russian permission. In other words, Russian officials insist that Ukraine comprises stolen land, and has no legitimate right to exist outside of Russian influence. According to them, “there is no Ukraine.”
Against this backdrop, Russia implemented its superior military might to annex the Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea and to interfere in the ongoing Ukrainian Civil War in Donbas, where pro-Russian separatists agitate and clash with the Ukrainian military in an effort to achieve both the secession of Eastern Ukrainian territories as well as their integration into Russian hegemony.
The breaking point came in 2020, when Ukraine announced its intentions to eventually join NATO: a military alliance organized in large part by the United States and created explicitly to counter Russian threats and balance power in Europe by unifying Western states and establishing coordinated collective defense. Membership under the NATO charter obligates all parties to protect one another from Russian aggression; Ukrainian membership would guarantee immediate military aid and assistance to the vulnerable country in the event of Russian incursion.
In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded that Ukraine relinquish the contested regions and vow never to join NATO. When the Ukrainian government refused to acquiesce to these ultimatums, Russian hostilities commenced.
Europe has not witnessed traditional ground warfare since World War II culminated in Allied victory over Axis powers. Now, combat roils the continent once again. And while World War II was incomprehensibly catastrophic on all counts, the stakes today are higher still.
Russia maintains more than 6,200 nuclear warheads in an arsenal that is distributed between numerous submarines and missile silos. NATO, meanwhile, holds some combined 6,000, which are deployed across much of Europe. This aggregate firepower is sufficient to destroy human civilization, the climate, and the globe a dozen times over.
Nuclear war is by no means imminent, but it would be naïve to pretend that there are no nuclear implications to the events in Ukraine. American troops stand guard across a tense Europe, even as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleads for NATO and European intervention and Russian President Vladimir Putin puts nuclear deterrence operatives on high alert. A wrong move, a fragment of bad intelligence, or a simple change of posture by abstaining NATO armies are the only difference between the present crisis and a total war that could rapidly engulf all of Europe. And as many foreign policy and international relations experts have ominously warned, the idea that a premier nuclear power would launch a nuclear attack after losing tactical advantage on the battlefront is not an unrealistic one. Some have gone so far as to argue that a nuclear strike under such circumstances would be likely or even inevitable. After all, Russian doctrine on the use of its nuclear weapons states that Russia “reserves the right to utilize nuclear weapons… in the event of aggression… involving the use of conventional weapons when the… existence of [Russia] is threatened”: a position that preemptively justifies a nuclear answer to traditional perils.
In light of this situation, there are three imperatives.
Firstly, Russian violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and murder of civilians must be unanimously and universally condemned in the strongest possible terms. Empathy and practical support must be lent to the people of Ukraine; allies must prioritize the evacuation of Ukrainian noncombatants and the expedited admission of Ukrainian refugees.
Secondly, the global community must exhaustively pursue every possible diplomatic recourse, averting escalation by availing itself of the international institutions that are in place for just such occasions. Russia must be held accountable for its war crimes and contravention of basic human rights, which entails expulsion from the United Nations Security Council and austere economic discipline in the form of concerted sanctions. NATO and the European Union must refrain from direct military action, but cannot afford neutrality, and thus, complicity. Nor can the world entirely isolate Russia, and ergo allow its rogue management of the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons on earth. In the nuclear world, it is international institutions, negotiation, and strategic economic cooperation that must take center stage.
And finally, the nations of the world must once again focus on nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament. No safety, stability, or peace can endure when billions of innocent lives serve as collateral in every geopolitical crisis. And there can be no justice or morality when all quarrels are settled under the looming specter of annihilation.