How Likely Is Nuclear War? Expert Explains Current Threats

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Russia has threatened to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. How serious are those threats? Is the United States prepared to respond in the face of a nuclear attack? And what role do China and North Korea play in the discussion of nuclear war? 

“We’ve been hearing threat after threat, nuclear threat after nuclear threat against Ukraine,” Patty-Jane Geller, a Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst in nuclear deterrence and missile defense, says. 

“Is the threat likely? Probably not. I don’t see how using a nuclear weaponagainst Ukraine would really help [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and help his war aims. The Ukrainians aren’t going to surrender. But that doesn’t mean that the chances that he’ll use a nuclear weapon are zero, either,” she says.

Geller joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to explain the true threat of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, and why North Korea is testing its missile capabilities. 

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

Virginia Allen: Patty-Jane Geller is a senior policy analyst in nuclear deterrence and missile defense in the Center for National Defense at The Heritage Foundation, and she joins us now to talk about the threat of nuclear war that might be facing, might not be facing our world. So Patty-Jane, thank you so much for being here.

Patty-Jane Geller: 
Thanks so much for having me on the show.

Allen: This is a big conversation and one that’s getting a lot of press and a lot of attention right now in large part because of some of the comments that we’re seeing made by world leaders, including our own President [Joe] Biden. I know [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is threatening to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. 

Last week President Biden, he gave remarks at a fundraising dinner saying that he believed that Putin wasn’t joking around, that he was serious and would maybe use nuclear weapons. He even used the term of Armageddon, that we’re at that level of threat at this moment. 

And then on Tuesday he was on [“CNN Tonight” with] Jake Tapper. And Biden kind of walked that back and he said, “No, I don’t think that Putin would use nuclear weapons.” 

What can we draw from this? Is there a real threat? And do you think that the White House is being really intentional in their messaging? Is there confusion coming from the White House? What can we make of Biden’s comments here?

Geller:
 That’s a great question. I think the biggest takeaway is that Biden’s comments on nuclear Armageddon is probably the latest example of his irresponsible rhetoric to the American public. 

And we’ve seen Biden do this several times, where he makes a comment and his staff need to walk it back. He said multiple times that we would come to defend Taiwan in a conflict and his staff had to go walk that back.

Biden has been right in other cases when he assures the American people that the nuclear threat is low, we do have to take it seriously. But talking about Armageddon, the president’s job should be to assure the American people that the United States is strong and will be able to deter or counter nuclear threats. So I don’t think that comment was very helpful.

When we look at the nuclear threat from Russia, the nuclear threat, surely it’s real. Russia has the largest nuclear stockpile in the world. We’ve been hearing threat after threat, nuclear threat after nuclear threat against Ukraine. Is the threat likely? Probably not. 

I don’t see how using a nuclear weapon against Ukraine would really help Putin and help his war aims. The Ukrainians aren’t going to surrender. But that doesn’t mean that the chances that he’ll use a nuclear weapon are zero, either. I’m sure I’ll get to talking a little bit about Russia’s nuclear arsenal and their doctrine and their strategy.

And one thing that’s really different about how Russia views nuclear weapons and how the U.S. views nuclear weapons is that Russia has a much lower threshold for actually using them. They kind of see them as another weapon to use on the battlefield to try to compel its enemies to back down. Whereas I’m sure we all here in the U.S. think of nuclear weapons as something that we should not use, they’re very dangerous.

Allen: So what would it take for Putin to get to that point where he says, “This is worth it?” What’s the kind of cost-benefit analysis that he would be doing to say, “Yeah, I’m going to push this button and we’re going to use nuclear weapons”?

Geller:
 Yes. So, we’ve been seeing, or talking about throughout the war, the concern that if Putin is losing the conventional fight, he’s not making any progress on the war in Ukraine, then that’s when he’ll resort to nuclear weapons out of desperation to get the Ukrainians to back down. But we haven’t seen that happen yet. 

Putin has been losing in Ukraine, Ukrainians have been making progress, and we haven’t seen any sign of resorting to use nuclear weapons. The government has reported that they haven’t seen any sort of movement of Russia’s nuclear weapons.

So he would have to decide that the response from the West to using a nuclear weapon would be weak and he would have to decide that it would be helpful for his war effort.

Allen: OK. Now, how many nuclear weapons does Russia have? Do we have that information?

Geller:
 We have a sense of it. There are a couple ways to look at it. The first thing I’ll tell you is that Russia has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, bigger than ours.

And so there are two kinds of categories of nuclear weapons that we think about. First, there are strategic nuclear weapons. Those are kind of what we think about when we think of nuclear Armageddon, weapons that can reach each other’s homelands, long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers that can strike U.S. soil or that we can use to strike Russia and soil. 

The U.S. and Russia have about parity when it comes to strategic nuclear weapons because we both abide by the New START arms control agreement. Both Russia and the U.S. are limited to about 1,550 deployed nuclear weapons when we’re talking about strategic nuclear weapons.

But where there’s the disparity is in nonstrategic nuclear weapons, those that aren’t covered by that arms control treaty. And when we talk about nonstrategic nuclear weapons, we’re thinking weapons that can be used on a battlefield in Europe. So maybe artillery armed with nuclear weapons, much shorter-range missiles that can reach Ukraine from Russia, for example, or reach native states. 

And Russia actually outnumbers the U.S. by about 20-to-1 on those kinds of weapons. They’re at least 2,000 nonstrategic weapons. They’re modernizing that arsenal. And the U.S. deploys about 100 of these nonstrategic nuclear weapons in NATO states in Europe.

So, that’s another reason why we’re worried Russia has this many more and this many types of nuclear weapons than we do. Will they perceive that the U.S. doesn’t have a proportional response to that kind of nuclear attack? That’s what I’ve been worried about.

Allen: And why doesn’t the U.S. have more? Are we trying to actively match Russia’s nuclear arsenal?

Geller:
 Not necessarily. So the reason we don’t have more dates just kind of back to the end of the Cold War when the United States was pursuing nuclear reduction, so was Russia. We found greater peace after the Cold War. But then over the last 20 years, the U.S. has been kind of on holiday. We’ve been dealing with the Middle East and meanwhile, Russia was building back up. 

And actually, the Obama administration in 2010 said that Russia and the U.S. were no longer adversaries. While we were in kind of this la-la land, focused on the Middle East, not worrying about great power competition, Russia was building back up its nuclear arsenal, and not to mention China as well. 

So there certainly have been efforts that started in the Trump administration to build back up our nuclear forces to kind of rectify that numeric imbalance with Russia. But we haven’t seen a lot of progress on that yet.

Allen: You mentioned China. What does China’s approach to nuclear weapons look like right now and how does it compare to the way that Russia’s approaching nukes or the U.S.?

Geller:
 Yes. China is actually undergoing a rapid expansion of its nuclear forces. Our senior military commanders have labeled it breathtaking. They call it a strategic breakout, actually, it’s one of the most rapid nuclear buildups we’ve ever seen. 

And this is far different from China’s historic view on nuclear weapons, is that it only needed the minimum number to try and deter major nuclear attack, maybe 50 or 100 or so nuclear weapons. But that’s changed. And China seems to be racing to achieve parity, if not superiority, to both the U.S. and Russia in terms of its nuclear weapons.

So we’re starting to see a lot more attention on China because now we still have a lot more nuclear forces than they do, but they’re quickly catching up. And the U.S. and Russia have a long history of dialogue and arms control and talking about nuclear weapons. But China won’t talk to us at all. So this is a big reason why China is the pacing challenge to the U.S. and we have a big challenge ahead of us when it comes to China nukes.

Allen: And where does North Korea fall in that? Are they also having conversations with China and Russia? Do we know? Are they developing their nukes totally on their own? Are they getting help?

Geller:
 Good question. They’re are certainly improving their nuclear capability. North Korea has a complicated relationship with the Chinese. I’m not sure exactly how they’ve managed to succeed so much. 

But what we’re seeing from North Korea, despite decades of efforts … to denuclearize, is what we say, to get North Korea to give up its nuclear program, they’ve been testing missiles, both short-range in the region and also ones that can strike U.S. soil. And they’ve conducted several nuclear tests to be able to explode a nuclear weapon. And we see them preparing for another nuclear test, which might help them bolster their capabilities. 

So, that’s a third nuclear threat that we have to worry about.

Allen: In recent weeks, North Korea, they’ve launched multiple sets of missiles, like you mentioned, including one that flew over Japan. North Korea, their state media says that Kim Jong Un has overseen the test launches of several nuclear-capable short-range ballistic missiles. And this includes one that can be fired from an underwater silo. 

Is North Korea, I mean, are they kind of just blowing smoke on this issue? Are they trying to appear tough and show the world, “Look, we can compete with the big dogs, we have nuclear capabilities, too”? Or are they a legitimate loose cannon that we need to be concerned about the fact that they are really becoming another nuclear power?

Geller:
 We absolutely need to be concerned about the North Korean nuclear threat, and I think the way you assess that is just by looking at their capabilities. It’s not all set in stone yet, but the more nuclear tests they do, they’re not just showing that they’re another power to be reckoned with, it’s not just signaling with those tests, they’re working on improving their missiles, improving their ability to carry nuclear warheads and to strike their targets. 

So this is a concern, and one reason I want to talk about is U.S. extended deterrent commitments. So we have agreed with many of our allies, including South Korea and Japan, that they will not get their own nuclear weapons. And in exchange, the U.S. will, we say, extend our nuclear umbrella over those allies. We’ll protect them if the time comes. 

And you mentioned the missile that North Korea flew over Japan. So it’s our allies who are most under threat, I would say, and they’re going to be more and more anxious about the U.S. ability to protect them with our own nuclear forces. So I think that’s kind of the biggest impact to the US.

Allen: So, for you, your wheelhouse is really studying nuclear weapons and the nations that are developing them. What are the signs that you look for or pay attention to from countries like China or Russia or North Korea that might indicate that they are legitimately preparing to use a nuclear weapon?

Geller:
 Great question. Fortunately, there’s a lot that our intelligence community should be able to pick up. For instance, in Russia, we know that not all of their nuclear missiles currently have nuclear weapons on them. They would have to go take out the nuclear weapons from their depots and put them on. 

So I know our intelligence community has been searching for just the movement of the forces in charge of their nuclear weapons and the weapons in storage themselves. And fortunately, the U.S. government has reported they haven’t seen any of that.

Allen: Hopefully we won’t.

Geller:
 Right. Similarly in China, China has a lot of mobile nuclear missiles. So we might see some sort of movement of their missiles around, again, movement of warheads. And we’re not really expecting just kind of a bolt out-of-the-blue nuclear attack, either. There’ll be a context in which this occurs. 

In China, for instance, we might be fighting a conventional fight and seeing the conflict escalate, that’s a sign we need to start worrying. But the takeaway is, as that happens or even before that happens, the U.S. needs to be messaging its strong deterrents capabilities, reminding our adversaries that we are nuclear power, too. 

I haven’t heard enough of this from the Biden administration and that any attack on the U.S. or its allies will be met with a nuclear response. And that’s the essence of deterrence, really why we have nuclear weapons.

Allen: It was interesting in July, New York City issued a PSA to its citizens to say, “Hey, if we were to be hit by a nuclear weapon, this is what you should do,” and it gave steps. A lot of people were interested by that. 

Of course, it kind of makes everyone raise that question of, why are we talking about this now? Is there a real nuclear threat? It’s sort of flying in an airplane and halfway through the flight, the pilot announces, “Don’t worry, the plane’s not on fire,” and everyone’s looking around, like, “OK.” It’s a little eerie, the fact that if there are governments that are saying, “Hey, just FYI, this is what you should do,” but, granted, we should be prepared, we should know if there is anything we can do. 

Being totally realistic and honest, if America was hit with a nuclear weapon, is there anything people can do or we pretty much at that point, you say your prayers and that’s the end of it?

Geller:
 Yeah. I mean, I make the joke that I’ll be running to the church if there’s any nuclear weapon underway. But yeah, I mean, there’s two parts that we have to worry about on nuclear attack. There’s the initial blast, which could be huge. Russia I know has nuclear bombs on the order of mega tons, that’s at least a million tons of nuclear explosive material that, I hate to say this, but so many people will just die from the blast. And then there’s the radiation, the fallout after that, that can cause long-term impacts, cancer, things like that. 

So, my advice to all the people is, if there’s a weapon coming toward you, go to the church. If you’re far enough away, start driving as much as you can. But we hope not to think about those things because we’re focused on deterring nuclear attacks. So that should never happen.

Allen: We hope and pray not. Well, Patty-Jane Geller, thank you so much for your time. And for all of our listeners, if you want to learn more on this issue, and if you want to read Patty-Jane’s work, you can just go to The Heritage Foundation and look at Patty-Jane Geller and find all of her research there. We so appreciate your time. Thank you.

Geller:
 Yeah. Awesome. Thank you so much.