Russia has 6000 nuclear warheads. Should we be more careful?

In a country that spans 11 time zones, civil aviation has been disrupted by the revoking of foreign leases on more than half of the country’s airliners. Bans on flights and parts mean that Russian airlines cannot perform routine maintenance.

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International automakers have shuttered their factories. Lada, Russia’s sole domestic automaker, had to close because it could no longer source parts. Truck assembly lines have stopped production for the same reason. Russia’s access to key parts for railway maintenance has also been restricted. Russia’s entire transportation sector is on the precipice.

Tech companies have also pulled the plug. Chipmakers Intel, AMD, TSMC, Nvidia are out. Amazon and Netflix have closed their digital doors. Apple won’t sell phones in Russia. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube have blocked Russian state content, and are being blocked by Russia in retaliation.

Among big-name brands, McDonald’s, Starbucks, KFC, Pizza Hut, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Ikea, Adidas and Nike have all pulled out of the Russian market. The list grows longer every day.

Viewed individually, each of these actions is right, proper and commendable. Put it all together, and it represents the weight of the world coming down on Russia. That’s the weight of the world coming down on a regime that controls almost 6000 nuclear weapons, a quarter of them actively deployed and ready to launch.

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Even Vladimir Putin is sane enough not to launch a nuclear war because his grandkids can’t get a Happy Meal. But no one knows what would lead him to launch a nuclear war. Theories about nuclear escalation are inherently uncertain – because they’ve never been tested.

Societal disruption caused by economic collapse is one plausible scenario. Unfortunately, there are many others. For example, the US and its NATO allies are (belatedly) rushing weapons to Ukraine. Russia has warned that these arms convoys are “legitimate targets” for Russian air and missile strikes.

Russian attacks could be forestalled by a NATO “no-fly zone” over Ukrainian territory. Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, has repeatedly asked for this. But the only way to clear Ukrainian airspace from Russian invaders is to shoot down Russian planes – a solution that poses its own obvious risks.

The simple fact is that there’s no risk-free way to oppose a nuclear-armed regime. No one wants “appeasement”, but everyone should be a little more careful about escalation. Desperate people take desperate gambles, and extreme sanctions have the potential to make Putin desperate.

Of course, Russia must be made to face consequences for its invasion of Ukraine. But Western leaders (and Western people) should be more proportionate in the sanctions they – we – impose. Ukrainian independence is worth fighting for. It is not worth risking nuclear Armageddon.

Salvatore Babones is a political sociologist and an associate professor at the University of Sydney. He is the author of The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts.

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