The nuclear perils of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens the survival of the Ukrainian people and the existence of Ukraine as an independent country. And if the unrestrained military assaults weren’t horrific enough, they also pose grave internal and external nuclear perils to Ukraine and the world.

First, whether intentionally or indiscriminately, Russia fired rockets at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, causing a fire that didn’t damage the core, fortunately. If it had, it would have devastated Ukraine and Europe.

Second, as part of the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin has put Russia’s nuclear forces on special alert and threatened those states that might help Ukraine. If used in its entirety, Russia has enough nuclear weaponry to cause a planetary nuclear winter.

It’s already disturbing that Russia’s justifications of the invasion reveal a regime out of touch with reality. The Russian government calls a Ukrainian government led by a Jewish president and minister of defence a neo-Nazi regime. Without evidence, it condemns Ukraine for inflicting a genocide on Donbas. The motivations of the corrupt Russian leaders, insofar as they’re rational at all, are greed and power, covered by a thin veneer of an ideology of greater Russia.

Whatever one can say about their motivation, one must notice their relative military incompetence. A stalwart Ukrainian defence stalled the invasion of Russian’s vastly superior forces, but the invaders were clumsy, their rocket attacks imprecise. While this incompetence is a comfort to defenders, it’s alarming to outsiders who watch these hapless forces attack Ukrainian nuclear facilities while holding their fingers above nuclear-weapons buttons.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been considered just that: an unprovoked invasion by one country of its neighbour. States opposed to the invasion and supportive of Ukraine’s existence have responded accordingly. Yet it’s a late under-reaction. The Russian invasion must be seen for what it’s become: a global nuclear threat, due to the possible destruction or occupation of nuclear plants, and the attempted nuclear blackmail of states willing to help Ukraine resist Russian aggression.

We can all hope that, when they’re managing the nuclear threat or attacking nuclear plants, the Russian government’s forces aren’t as mad and inept as they seem. Yet a rational reaction to those threats can’t make such assumptions.

How do we react to the global nuclear threat of Russia’s invasion? We have two choices: Stand up or stand down.

We should look at past experiences before we decide. We’ve seen nuclear attacks — by the U.S. on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — and nuclear-threat withdrawals, such as during the Cuban missile crisis. We’ve also seen nuclear-plant catastrophes at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima. We can draw some lessons from these experiences.

One is that, when it comes to nuclear plants, no amount of care is too much. To surround nuclear plants with armed conflict is courting disaster. The other is that, as counterintuitive as it seems, the threat of mutually assured destruction has been better at deterring nuclear attack than the absence of a threat of nuclear response.

What that means in practice in that the international community should ask both Russia and Ukraine to hand over control of the latter’s nuclear plants as long as there’s an armed conflict in the region.

Second, nuclear powers besides Russia must match the Russian government step by step. Only by convincing it that outsiders are as serious about a nuclear response as it is in making the threat can they realistically hope the threat will dissipate.

We can’t afford to convey the message that aggressors with nuclear weapons get a free ride, or that nuclear blackmail works. To do so even without the threat of a nuclear plant’s destruction or a nuclear attack would, at minimum, invite nuclear proliferation. At worst, all our freedoms and very lives will be at risk.

Aurel Braun is a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto, and David Matas is an international human-rights lawyer based in Winnipeg.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.

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