Russian invasion of Ukraine: Putin revives the nuclear threat | Kiko Llaneras newsletter


This Friday the Russians stormed the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, causing a fire in an annex building. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had to issue a statement to report that the plant was still stable: “The safety systems of the plant’s six reactors have not been affected and no radioactive material has been released.” But waging war around a reactor isn’t the worst threat this week.

Vladimir Putin has raised the nuclear ghost.

You have forcibly invaded a European country. That would have been enough for the whole world to think about atomic weapons. But she did not stop at that. He soon made his threat explicit. After Europe and the US announced sanctions against Russia, its president ordered its nuclear arsenal to be activated “in special combat mode”. In comparison, Zaporizhia seems smaller.

The nuclear threat is Putin’s card. Russia has a huge army, but its economy is weak on a geopolitical scale and it does not have great allies for this war. Their power is nuclear warheads, their very existence, because they handcuff NATO.

The nuclear arsenal is assumed to have a deterrent power, as Tim Harford explained in his last column. The logic is simple: nuclear-armed countries cannot take risks that could escalate their conflicts, because an escalation can end in mutual destruction. That way, a terrible weapon would act as a brake on violence. They limit hostilities between the great powers, because the smallest offense is worth considering if it raises the probability of immeasurable damage.

But there is a fissure in that balance: that your opponent is reasonable. Is Putin reasonable? As Harford says, we may be 99% sure that his threats are bluffing, and that he won’t use nukes, not even so-called “tactics,” but 1% doubt is still a terrifying risk. What concessions will the West make to avoid that risk? If Putin invaded Ukraine it is because he thought there would be many, but perhaps he miscalculated.

The Russian attack is not going the way the Kremlin would like. In fact, one concern in Washington is what they call the “cornered Putin problem,” he says. New York Times. They fear that the Russian president will redouble his offensive by running out of good alternatives. Putin has gotten into a war that leaves him no clear exits. There are those who believe that he cannot win it. To withdraw is to accept defeat, and although he can occupy Ukraine, it has become clear that he will not achieve it with a surgical operation and that controlling the country will not be idyllic. That leaves another disturbing question on the table: what would a cornered Putin be capable of?

We have a partial answer. We know that he is willing to intensify the attacks on Ukrainian civilians, because this week the bombings have intensified in Kharkov, Kiev, Mariupol and Zhitomir.

But there is no complete answer. First, because it depends on what goes through your head. Second, because it depends on more things. And third, because Putin may be impulsive and even unstable, but even if he wasn’t, he has a reason to appear so: weapons of mutual destruction are scarier in the hands of a madman.

other stories

1. The nuclear fear of the 20th century

It is inevitable that nuclear fear will return. The fear of atomic weapons was one of the ideas that defined the second half of the 20th century. It was a horrendous threat: a weapon that threatened you from miles away, that could take the invisible form of radiation, and that made possible something hitherto unthinkable, for us humans to annihilate ourselves.

The nuclear age left its mark on the books, to take just one example. According to data from Google Ngram, which counts the words of thousands of books, the terms “nuclear war”, “atomic bomb” and “nuclear weapons” emerged in 1940 and 1950. Its use was at its maximum in the eighties, but fell after the fall of the Soviet Union.

2. War Maps

On this page we are counting the invasion day by day. Russian troops continue their offensive on Ukraine on four fronts, which we are showing on maps.

  • We updated one national and one Kiev map.
  • We also include geolocated videos and images, but only after verifying and trusting them.

It is the work of a team of eight people from the Visual Narratives section of EL PAÍS. This capture showed the size of the piece on March 1:

The complete article with all the material published as of March 1

3. One million refugees

More than a million Ukrainians have been displaced by the war, most of them women and children. On Tuesday alone, 190,000 people came out. Here we have reviewed the data of this exodus.

The train and the car have been the escape route since the airspace was closed at the beginning of the invasion. Long queues are seen at the Kiev and Lviv stations. The roads to other countries have been congested for days and at the border posts there are trails of cars one after another. It is seen on satellite images.

Plus: One million refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine: the facts of the exodus.

Satellite image of traffic jams at border posts from Ukraine to Hungary
Satellite image of traffic jams at border posts from Ukraine to Hungary

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