Explainer

Mutually assured destruction? Maybe not. Here’s how to win a nuclear war.

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Finland and Sweden have submitted their respective applications to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). If brought into the alliance, NATO’s reach will extend closer to Russian borders. Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed that NATO expansion is the reason he invaded Ukraine earlier this year. However, when it comes Finland and Sweden, Putin said he would only respond if the U.S. were to build military infrastructure in those countries.

The series of events has quelled some concern regarding potential nuclear war. Concern had spiked when a Russian official warned Moscow would deploy nuclear weapons in the Baltics if Finland and Sweden joined NATO.

Are the Baltic States Putin’s next power grab?

Russia and the U.S. are world leaders in nuclear weapon supply.

LONGWORTH: NUCLEAR WAR.

WE SAW THE DAMAGE IT CAN DO.

THE WORLD’S BEEN AFRAID OF IT FOR MORE THAN HALF A CENTURY.

REAGAN: TO PRESERVE OUR CIVILIZATION IN THIS MODERN AGE, A NUCLEAR WAR CANNOT BE WON AND MUST NEVER BE FOUGHT.

THE FEAR IS OF MUTUAL DESTRUCTION. BUT WAS REAGAN RIGHT? IS NUCLEAR WAR TRULY UNWINNABLE?

I ASKED EDWARD GEIST, A POLICY RESEARCHER WITH EXPERTISE IN NUCLEAR WEAPONS.

GEIST: SOME NUCLEAR WARS ARE WINNABLE, BUT THE OTHER SIDE HAS TO LET YOU WIN. LIKE, THAT’S WHAT IT COMES DOWN TO. IT’S LIKE, EITHER THEY HAVE TO BE SO WEAK OR INCOMPETENT THAT YOU CAN WIN, OR THEY HAVE TO MAKE A DECISION TO LET YOU WIN.

LONGWORTH: WE HAVE AN EXAMPLE OF WEAKNESS, AND THAT’S NORTH KOREA.

GEIST: 2006, THE NORTH KOREANS HAVE A NUCLEAR WEAPONS TEST. IT’S LIKE IT LOOKED LIKE THEIR WEAPON LIKE BASICALLY DIDN’T WORK PROPERLY. AND THEY TRIED TO DO A NUCLEAR TEST. AND IT WAS WHAT’S CALLED A FIZZLE. IT’S LIKE, IT SEEMED TO HAVE LIKE VERY LITTLE NUCLEAR YIELD.

LONGWORTH: CLEARLY, BACK THEN, THEY WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN ABLE TO LAUNCH AN EFFECTIVE OFFENSE WITH THEIR ARSENAL.

SO, THEY SPENT YEARS STRENGTHENING THEIR NUCLEAR PROGRAM.

GEIST: IT’S NOT LIKE YOU GET A NUCLEAR WEAPON, AND LIKE, MAGICALLY, IT’S UNWINNABLE IT’S LIKE, THIS IS SOMETHING THAT REQUIRES A LOT OF EFFORT.

LONGWORTH: THAT EFFORT INVOLVES KEEPING UP WITH THE ARMS RACE, IN TERMS OF TECHNOLOGY AND QUANTITY.

GRANTED, SOME COUNTRIES HAVE CLEARLY POURED MORE RESOURCES INTO ADVANCING THEIR PROGRAMS–THE US AND RUSSIA OUTPACE EVERY OTHER COUNTRY BY THOUSANDS OF WEAPONS, ACCORDING TO THE FEDERATION OF AMERICAN SCIENTISTS.

SO, NUCLEAR ARSENALS VARY IN SIZE, BUT IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT THAT.

AS GEIST POINTS OUT, A PLAYER COULD LET ANOTHER WIN FOR A NUMBER OF REASONS…

LIKE LOW RISK-TOLERANCE OR LACK OF RESOLVE.

ALL OF THIS IS TO SAY, THEORETICALLY, EXPERTS BELIEVE NUCLEAR WAR IS WINNABLE.

BUT IN THE MODERN WORLD, RUSSIA REMAINS THE STRONGEST NUCLEAR POWER ON THE PLANET–FOLLOWED BY THE UNITED STATES. NEITHER OF US IS WEAK. AND IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE ONE WOULD “LET THE OTHER WIN.”

NOW, APPLYING THEORY TO PRACTICE, IF WAR GOES NUCLEAR–A CLEAR WINNER SEEMS UNLIKELY. AND, THE WORST CASE SCENARIO IS WE ALL LOSE.

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Finland and Sweden have submitted their respective applications to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). If brought into the alliance, NATO’s reach will extend closer to Russian borders. Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed that NATO expansion is the reason he invaded Ukraine earlier this year. However, when it comes Finland and Sweden, Putin said he would only respond if the U.S. were to build military infrastructure in those countries.

The series of events has quelled some concern regarding potential nuclear war. Concern had spiked when a Russian official warned Moscow would deploy nuclear weapons in the Baltics if Finland and Sweden joined NATO.

Are the Baltic States Putin’s next power grab?

Russia and the U.S. are world leaders in nuclear weapon supply.

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