If You Stayed Up All Night Worrying About Nuclear War, You’re Not Alone

For the first time in many long years, I was up most of the night worrying about nuclear war. It was odd to slip back into that fear like an old coat, a little tight in the shoulders because I’m a bit broader in the beam than I was 30-plus years ago, but it still fits, because of course it does.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the invasion of Ukraine was underway yesterday, he leveled a threat against the wider world that left nothing to the imagination: “To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside: If you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history. All relevant decisions have been taken. I hope you hear me.”

Meanwhile, Joe Biden shot back that he would “hold Russia accountable.” The details of the plans behind that statement remain murky. During an afternoon news conference, Biden warned of “crushing” sanctions against Russia. “Putin is the aggressor,” said Biden. “Putin chose this war. And now he and his country will bear the consequences.”

At present, Russia controls more than 6,000 nuclear weapons, the largest arsenal on Earth. The U.S. controls approximately 5,600 nuclear weapons. As was the case years ago, that many nuclear weapons possess the power to scourge all life from Earth many, many times over.

Ukraine, by comparison, has zero. They were left with 3,000 nukes after the fall of the Soviet Union, but voluntarily gave up that arsenal in 1994, in exchange for various protection decrees from the U.S., Great Britain and the Russian Federation. Watching the images of Kyiv on the news, taking in the panicked traffic, the civilian casualties and the occasional hollow “BOOM” in the background, one must wonder how Ukraine feels about that 1994 agreement and the now-hollow “protections” it was offered. Russian forces are attacking Ukraine from three directions simultaneously, and it is becoming ever-clearer that the U.S. and NATO’s militarism-driven responses — military threats and economic warfare — are not preventing Russia’s advances.

“As Russian forces advanced on Ukraine by land, sea and air, more than 40 Ukrainian soldiers were killed and dozens were wounded in fighting on Thursday morning,” reports The New York Times. “At least 18 military officials were killed in an attack outside the Black Sea port city of Odessa, where amphibious commandos from the Russian Navy came ashore, according to Sergey Nazarov, an aide to Odessa’s mayor.”

It’s been a strange, almost surreal experience to watch all this unfold. For the last 31 years, it has usually been my country putting hundreds of thousands of troops in harm’s way with dubious intentions in mind. So odd, now, to see another country do it right there in broad daylight, and on the basis of completely manufactured evidence, too. (Of course, Russia has also taken some of these actions in the past three decades, but the U.S.’s actions have dominated my own radar.) Putin’s latest maneuvers strike pretty close to home. Perhaps the Russian president will go Full Bush and release a “comedy” video of him looking for Ukraine’s reason to exist under his desk. It’s been done, Vlad.

The outcome here is as clear as a bowl of blood, but it is the nukes that keep grabbing my attention. The cruel geometry of nuclear brinksmanship says that Putin’s decision to rattle his nuclear sword makes nuclear war more likely, just as the Soviet placement of ballistic missiles in Cuba 60 years ago this October (history rhymes again!) made nuclear war more likely then. It is, in the parlance of the Cold War, a massively destabilizing move. And escalating rhetoric and actions from the U.S. and NATO are not solving the problem.

Beyond the bombs are more than a dozen active nuclear power plants in Ukraine that could come under fire if and when this attack expands. The Russian invasion has also broached the highly radioactive Chernobyl exclusion zone, scene of the infamous reactor catastrophe, “touching off a battle that risked damaging the cement-encased nuclear reactor that melted down in 1986,” reports the Times. “‘National Guard troops responsible for protecting the storage unit for dangerous radioactive waste are putting up fierce resistance,’ said Anton Herashchenko, an adviser to the interior minister. Should an artillery shell hit the storage unit, Mr. Herashchenko said, ‘radioactive dust could cover the territory of Ukraine, Belarus and the countries of the European Union.’”

It is hard to know what to think. This conflict has put mass deployment of disinformation center stage, testing the savvy of even the keenest news observers. There are wheels within wheels within wheels here, and the U.S. has been anything but a passive observer of Ukrainian politics over the last couple of decades.

Propaganda-happy advocates for both sides have staked their claim on the moral high ground in the sternest of terms. Here, for one example, is Anne Applebaum for The Atlantic describing Ukraine as every inch the American war we should be fighting immediately: “In the centuries-long struggle between autocracy and democracy, between dictatorship and freedom, Ukraine is now the front line — and our front line too.”

One can almost hear the author humming The Battle Hymn of the Republic as she penned those lines, but for the fact that “pluralist oligarchy” — what Ukraine actually is instead of a democracy — doesn’t rhyme very well with anything.

Meanwhile, many denizens of the U.S. right appear unsure of what tack to take. For example, Republicans were virulently anti-Soviet/anti-Russia 25 years before I was born, yet with the party and its media megaphones under the fetid sway of a strongman-loving ideologue like Donald Trump, all of a sudden, for some of them, Putin is the hero.

The war is not yet a day old, and these raggedy-ass tea leaves are barely good for brewing, much less prognosticating. All I know for sure is this: I was 8 years old when I first learned what nuclear war was, and could be. The knowledge scarred me for life, and introduced me to the miasma of fear that marked every day of my experience of the Cold War until the Berlin Wall came down on my 18th birthday. I, like many others, allowed the fact of the nuclear threat to fade from immediate consciousness after those heady days. This was beyond foolish: The weapons remained, the threat never went away, and now it’s back in the spotlight — just in time for my daughter to turn 8 years old.

We’ve been doing the plague year 1919 since 2020, a dark homage to the Spanish Flu pandemic. The specter of 1914 and a European conflagration has been on the doorstep since Putin decided to roll the tanks and the U.S. decided to respond with slow-boiling escalation. Now, today, it’s 1962, with a U.S. president in his second year and a nuclear threat dropping out of the clear blue sky. I fear this will take longer than 13 days to resolve. I fear a great many things. Again.