Banished from public consciousness for decades, the nightmare of nuclear warfare has surged back to prominence with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, highlighting the erosion of the Cold War global security architecture.
With Moscow on the back foot in its offensive, the military stalemate has raised fears Russia could resort to its nuclear arsenal to achieve a breakthrough.
Russia, along with Britain, China, France and the United States, are the five recognized nuclear weapons powers and permanent U.N. Security Council members.
“It’s the first time a nuclear power has used its status to wage a conventional war under the shadow cast by nuclear weapons,” said Camille Grand, a former NATO deputy secretary-general.
“One might have imagined that rogue states would adopt such an attitude, but suddenly it’s one of the two major nuclear powers, a member of the U.N. Security Council,” he told AFP, insisting the actual use of the weapons remains “improbable.”
For now, the moral and strategic nuclear “taboo” that emerged after the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II in 1945 still holds.
But rhetoric has escalated massively.
Russian TV broadcasts since the invasion of Ukraine have repeatedly discussed nuclear strikes on Western cities like Paris or New York.
One former Russian diplomat, asking not to be named, warned that if President Vladimir Putin felt Russia’s existence threatened, “he will press the button.”
The year’s events have been a harsh wake-up call for Europe, which spent decades in a state of relative ease in terms of nuclear security, enjoying the so-called Cold War “peace dividend.”
Across the Atlantic, U.S. President Joe Biden warned in October of a potential “Armageddon” hanging over the world.
“The most spectacular event of the past half century is one that did not occur,” Nobel-winning economist and strategy expert Thomas Schelling wrote in 2007.
But the framework that kept world leaders’ fingers off the button after 1945 had been crumbling for years before Putin’s order to invade.
In 2002, the United States quit the critical Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty it had signed with the Soviet Union in 1972, which maintained the nuclear balance of power.
Other important agreements fell away in the years that followed, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that Washington dropped in 2019, blaming Russia for not complying.
“Regarding disarmament, it’s all in ruins, apart from New Start,” Grand said, referring to the Barack Obama-era agreement with Russia to reduce numbers of warheads, missiles, bombers and launchers.
India, North Korea and Pakistan, along with the five recognized powers, also have nuclear weapons, while Israel is widely assumed to do so while having never officially acknowledged it.
North Korea sharply stepped up missile testing this year, continuing its pursuit of an independent nuclear deterrent that began when it quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003.
Washington, Seoul and Tokyo all believe a seventh nuclear weapons test by Pyongyang is imminent.
The isolated dictatorship announced in September a new nuclear doctrine, making clear that it would never give up the weapons and that they could be used pre-emptively.
“We’re going to see a very dangerous crisis in Asia,” Chung Min Lee, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recently told a Paris conference.
Non-nuclear countries in the region fear that the protection provided by the U.S. nuclear umbrella is fraying.
“If you imagine extended deterrence as a water balloon, today the water balloon has some critical holes and water is seeping out,” he added.
The invasion of a state that willingly gave up nuclear weapons, Ukraine, by its nuclear-armed neighbour has increased fears of proliferation.
“Today, countries like Japan or South Korea might legitimately ask whether” they need a bomb of their own, said Jean-Louis Lozier, a former head of France’s nuclear forces.
“The same is true in the Middle East of Saudi Arabia, Türkiye and Egypt,” he added.