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The threat of nuclear war hangs over the Russia-Ukraine crisis


When we talk about Russia's war in Ukraine, it is hard to ignore the worst possible outcome - some kind of nuclear confrontation between Russia and the United States - which is one of the big reasons the Biden administration has said no to Ukraine's repeated requests for a no-fly zone meant to deter Russian airstrikes; too much risk of direct military confrontation between nuclear powers. We called up Fred Kaplan. He's a national security correspondent at Slate and the author of the book "The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, And The Secret History Of Nuclear War." I asked him about Putin's willingness to use a nuclear weapon to get what he wants right now. Kaplan began with a few guarded words of reassurance.

FRED KAPLAN: Well, first I would say the chances of that happening are very low.

MARTIN: But we hadn't called Fred Kaplan for blanket reassurances and really he wasn't offering any.

KAPLAN: On the other hand, there are probably - there's a higher chance of something like that happening maybe than any time since the Cuban missile crisis. The thing is this - he's losing the war on the ground, or if he's not losing, he's not winning. And he thought he would win. I think it's quite possible that if NATO or U.S. forces got involved directly in the battle, he might very well use or launch a small number of tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons to try to bring it to a halt.

MARTIN: Just explain what that means because that's still real bad.

KAPLAN: Yeah. It's - tactical nuclear weapon is the phrase. Basically, it means a weapon used on the battlefield, whereas a strategic nuclear weapon is a long-range weapon that Russia would hit a target in the United States or the United States would hit a target in Russia. But, you know, there is a tendency when people say low-yield nuclear weapon, it sounds like, oh, well, it's just a low-yield weapon. But our low-yield weapon, it explodes with the power of 8,000 tons of dynamite plus radiation, radioactive fallout and all the rest. It is still, by the standards of any explosion that anyone alive today has ever seen, it's extraordinarily large.

MARTIN: In your book, you do describe this nuclear war game, for lack of a better phrase, that the White House and the Pentagon talked through during the Obama administration. It was a made-up scenario, but it's not too far from what we're witnessing in Ukraine. Walk us through how U.S. policymakers, the deciders in the room, thought that scenario through.

KAPLAN: Yeah. As you say, there was this war game. They were kind of trying to play out how this escalate and de-escalate scenario would work. And so they devised this scenario where there is a war, maybe Russia invades the Baltic states. We fight back. We're winning on the ground. Russia sets off a couple of tactical nuclear weapons, maybe against troop concentrations, U.S. or NATO or maybe a NATO airfield. Then what do we do? Well, let's see. What kind of targets would we want to hit with a nuclear weapon in response? And then a couple of officials said, wait a minute, I think you're missing the main point. Russia, once they use a nuclear weapon, the world will come down upon them. Nobody's used a nuclear weapon in anger since 1945. They're going to get slammed with every kind of sanction and every kind of isolation you can imagine. Let's just keep fighting the war with conventional weapons, which is extraordinary. I mean...

MARTIN: Why would it be extraordinary that they would want to avert mutually assured destruction?

KAPLAN: It's been kind of assumed that if somebody uses a nuclear weapon first, we would fire a nuclear weapon back. And what happened - there was a second game, and this is with the Principals Committee of the NSC. And somebody brought up the same idea. Let's just keep fighting conventionally and shame Russia. And everybody else around the table said this would be a disaster. The credibility of the United States with all of our alliances is that we would respond to a nuclear weapon with nuclear weapons. This would completely destroy NATO if we didn't fire back in kind. And then the question became, well, where do we fire these weapons? And they came up with AN idea, well, let's just fire off a couple of tac nukes at military targets in Belarus.

MARTIN: A strong Russian ally, but still...

KAPLAN: Yeah. Even though Belarus had nothing to do with the war game in question. And then the game was called to an end. Nobody wanted to play what happens next? And, you know, Rachel, this is the dangerous thing that we would be getting into. It's interesting. People have been writing about nuclear strategy since a few weeks after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. People have written out scenarios. Despite this, for decades, nobody has the slightest idea what would happen after one nuclear weapon is used. Even if there is the finest tuned intentions of keeping the war limited and not hitting population centers and so forth, the effects of nuclear weapons - what they can do to communication systems, to satellite perceptions, the probability of miscalculation, misperception, of things going generally awry - are much greater than any, you know, think tank board playing war game has ever been able to anticipate.

MARTIN: What I also hear you saying is that there's almost an emotional or psychological quality. You can't replicate it in a war game. That what it would take to actually push a button like that is something you can't really know until you're confronted with the real-world scenario.

KAPLAN: Right. I mean, on the one hand, maybe the sight of a mushroom cloud going up would just bring everybody to the table like, oh, my God, this line we've crossed is just horrendous. We've got to bring this thing to an end. Or maybe it would raise emotions like, we can't let them get away with this. We have to respond in kind. And again, that's why, when you're talking about NATO or U.S. troops directly getting involved in this war, by which I mean, you know, sending troops, that is why Biden and every other leader of NATO is extremely cautious, much as they would like and much as they are in helping Ukraine in every other respect.

MARTIN: Fred Kaplan, national security correspondent at Slate and the author of "The Bomb: Presidents, Generals And The Secret History Of Nuclear War," thank you so much for talking with us.

KAPLAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.