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Since World War II, no nuclear powers have engaged each other directly, relying on proxy wars to sort their differences. Though these wars tend to shoulder the burden of conflict on third-party nations, they prevent the very real possibility of nuclear exchanges between superpowers capable of eradicating civilization as we know it. It is estimated that a mere ~300 warhead exchange between India and Pakistan would be enough to severely affect the world’s temperature, turning agricultural centers from the Midwest to Ukraine into wastelands.
Yet the ever-more likely confrontation between Ukraine and Russia, due to the latter’s aggressive expansion into Ukraine, has already become inevitably nuclear.
A nuclear exchange between NATO and Russia resulting from a war in Ukraine could be precipitated in many ways. Russia’s military quality is at best mediocre, but they make up for this with potent missilry and cyber warfare assets.
A simple, low-yield nuclear detonation on troops in Ukraine would be an unheard-of escalation. Very quickly, both sides would deploy nuclear weapons, first in a regional context. These would devastate Ukraine, though they would only target low-density military areas.
Everything changes when one side inevitably nukes an urban center, of which Kyiv would be the most likely target. From here, should NATO be involved, the likelihood of spiraling into a full-scale nuclear exchange is all but certain, less Biden and Putin could reach a ceasefire via Washington and Moscow’s emergency hotline.
Additionally, the simple placement of nuclear weapons is enough to create a hazardous war. If a conflict in Ukraine spiraled out of control and NATO became involved, the alliance would have to contend with threats like Kaliningrad, which cannot be ignored as a significant military target, yet contains nuclear weapons which Russia would almost certainly use before allowing to fall into enemy hands.
But even if all measures are taken to avoid a nuclear exchange, a war in Ukraine will be inevitably nuclear. Ukraine itself is a nuclear nation-highly dependent on 15 reactors spread out across the nation. Nuclear power is by far the most renewable and efficient form of energy, yet for a nation under threat of invasion like Ukraine, reactors become a dangerous liability.
Currently, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone covers 2,600 km2, a rather significant portion of Ukraine’s territory. If Russia invaded Ukraine, meltdowns are almost certain to happen, as Ukraine is unlikely to shutter its reactors until the last possible moment. Of primary concern is Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia power plant, ~225 km from Russia’s occupying forces in Crimea. It is unlikely that Russia will have trained engineers ready to stabilize a captured reactor, nor that a reactor can be reached in time before a meltdown. Additionally, the threat of artillery materiel hitting the reactors around Ukraine, whether by accident or on purpose, is of extreme concern.
Yet destroying Ukraine’s reactors might just be Putin’s ideal strategy, turning Ukraine into a country pockmarked with exclusion zones and gaining his ‘buffer state’ from NATO. Such an event would create a massive humanitarian crisis, leaving Ukraine’s people destitute and homeless. Yet Putin shows no sign of considering neither the livelihoods of Ukrainian citizens nor his own. If reactors meltdown due to the invasion, the West, and many of Putin’s shaky alliances worldwide, would severely punish Russia, levying sanctions and isolating Russia’s economy, a move that would almost certainly collapse Russia as we know it.
Though diplomatic channels remain available for Putin to engage Ukraine and the West and cease his actions for the good of his people and the world, he shows no signs of interest in doing so. He recently deployed new Iskander missiles to Belarus, as well as moved motorized equipment to the Ukrainian border. His demands to the U.S. have been described as ‘non-starters’, and Biden’s recent address all but confirmed that the U.S. feels a Russian invasion is inevitable. All signs point to an attempt at a rapid invasion, hoping to snuff out Ukraine before the West can provide a significant reaction.
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