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Are we heading for nuclear obliteration?

If a rifle makes an appearance onstage in Act 1, observed Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, it will be fired before the end of Act 3. Which is, if you ask me, a pretty alarming thought in a world with nuclear weapons.

It is true that there has been no nuclear strike since the cataclysms in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps the very enormity of those attacks was enough to alter the calculus. Perhaps, as Steven Pinker has argued, a taboo has grown up, strengthened with each successive year of nonuse — a taboo apparent in the biblical language with which a potential attack is usually described (“armageddon,” “apocalypse,” “holocaust,” etc.)

The fact that we have gone 77 years with no second use would have astonished many of those who lived through the first. In 1945, there was a widespread belief that further nuclear wars were likely. Albert Einstein, C.P. Snow, and Carl Sagan were among the intellectuals who believed that nuclear obliteration was a question of when rather than if.

Even in the 1980s, I remember watching TV advertisements about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack on Britain. Back then, the mushroom cloud was a familiar icon. We’d see it on book covers, cassettes, and comics. We’d find it in every kind of popular fiction, from Star Trek to Planet of the Apes.

Yet, for whatever reason, it did not happen. Even when nuclear-armed states went to war, there was no real question of their leaders pushing the button. Richard Nixon did not nuke Hanoi in 1972. Margaret Thatcher did not nuke Buenos Aires in 1982. Vladimir Putin, come to that, did not nuke Lviv in 2014. Perhaps the sheer vastness of the atrocity is deterrent enough. Perhaps, we might almost say, the system works.

But I keep coming back to Chekhov. Every day that the weapons are in existence, there is a chance, however small, that they might be used. The use might be accidental. In 1995, for example, Boris Yeltsin came close to ordering retaliatory strikes over what was presumed to be an incoming American missile — which turned out, in fact, to be a Norwegian rocket monitoring the aurora borealis. We shall never know how many similar near misses there have been.

Say that, on any given day, there is a one-in-a-million chance of a nuclear weapon being used. That may sound encouraging, but, given enough time, those odds make a nuclear attack mathematically certain.

Which brings us, of course, to the present war. Putin must by now be desperate. The bribes that were supposed to have been paid to Ukrainian soldiers and officials in advance of an invasion seem instead to have gone on yachts in Cyprus. Likewise for the funds that were meant to modernize the army. On the Kremlin’s own numbers, some 10,000 Russian soldiers have died — this in a country with a very low birthrate, where many of those boys will have been their parents’ only children. Unable to broaden the war geographically, might he escalate it, first with chemical and then with nuclear weapons?

We are not yet at that stage. Perhaps the prospect of a meltdown might trigger some kind of Kremlin putsch — although it is hard, at present, to see who could mount one. Perhaps nuclear weapons would prove every bit as unreliable as Russia’s conventional arsenal. Perhaps the rockets would be struck down by Western defense systems. All of these scenarios would be ruinous for Putin.

But the alternative of losing a conventional war might be even worse. Looking purely at Putin’s personal incentives, nuclear escalation might be the more rational option. Even if it doesn’t happen, there will surely be a next time. The weapons, after all, have been onstage since Act 1.

Even ending Putin’s regime, which should now be an unambiguous Western aim, will not tackle that problem long-term. There are only two sure ways to remove the threat of nuclear annihilation. One is to eliminate all nuclear weapons globally — an almost impossible goal given the prospect that some rogue regime might keep, steal, or produce them. The other is to develop reliable, space-based interceptors, the program for which was launched by Ronald Reagan in 1983, dropped by Bill Clinton in 1993, and restarted by Donald Trump in 2019.

Until such a system is up and running, we are objectively more at risk from a nuclear strike than at any time since at least the 1960s. We were quick to move on after 1990, fretting instead about global warming and the like. But the nuclear threat has not receded. Perhaps it never will.