Use of Nuclear Weapons On the Table Again

An "Iskander" short-range ballistic missile launcher, capable of launching tactical nuclear weapons.

In the first week of May, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that Russia would hold military exercises near the Russia-Ukraine border to practice for use of tactical nuclear weapons. The announcement came in response to two statements, one by French President Macron and the other by British Secretary of State David Cameron, that their nations would not discount sending French troops to support Ukraine, and would not stop Ukraine from using British-made weapons to strike inside of Russia. A Russian government spokesperson said that “this is a completely new round of escalation of tensions – it is unprecedented.”

Even though tactical means smaller and for more targeted battlefield use, as opposed to strategic, which typically means longer distance weapons that target entire cities, this announcement is still terrifying. Does the use of a tactical warhead mean only tens of thousands would die as opposed to hundreds of thousands? Or maybe only hundreds of thousands instead of millions? Or that the radiation would only affect people within a 50-mile radius, instead of a one-thousand-mile radius? The destruction would still be catastrophic.

What we know for sure is that this escalation of rhetoric is in no way unprecedented. For years, NATO expanded eastward, even though the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, and even after Russia expressed consistent concern about its expansion. In response to NATO expansion, Russia increased military spending and rebuilt its army and weapons systems, and Russian politics took on a more nationalist tone, with criticism of “the West,” including the western European powers and their protector, the United States. And then Russia invaded and occupied portions of Ukraine, pummeling the civilian population and human infrastructure while costing hundreds of thousands of military and civilian dead and wounded on both sides of the conflict. Since the U.S. and western European nations continue to militarily prop up Ukraine with the intention of weakening Russia, there is no end in sight. And now this nuclear threat has emerged.

This latest terrifying rhetoric is a continuation of a long line of provocations and escalations in the long-standing competition among global capitalist powers. It’s really nothing new. It has happened before, and it can happen again. The same root causes still exist.

But hearing the words out loud should push us to stop the people and forces that cause these conflicts before they carry through on their threats and kill many more.