Russia, Ukraine, and Nuclear Dangers

Russia’s recent threats to use nuclear weapons in the context of its war in Ukraine have brought back to the fore the risks of nuclear war and the catastrophic consequences this would have for the future of our world and every living thing on it.

However, these risks, threats, and consequences are not just about Russia’s nuclear weapons, but about all nuclear weapons. We urgently need to abolish these weapons of mass destruction to protect us all from unspeakable suffering.

On this page, we examine the current situation and offer recommendations for actions people across the globe can take to call for an end to nuclear weapons.

Included on this page are:

Key points: Russia, Ukraine, and Nuclear Dangers

In this downloadable PDF you’ll find concise points that can be useful when writing letters to editors or opinion pieces, or talking to friends and family or the media about the current nuclear dangers. Details with information on these points can be found in the FAQ below.

What can you do right now?

Hold local demonstrations and hand out information about the risks and dangers of nuclear weapons. Write blogs, articles, and op-eds calling for the prevention of nuclear war and for the total elimination of nuclear weapons. Join the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).

Write letters to editors to correct misinformation about tactical weapons and to explain the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences of nuclear weapons.

Call on your federal government to sign and ratify the TPNW. Urge Members of Parliament to join the ICAN Parliamentary Pledge. Work with your city council to join the ICAN Cities Appeal.

Get involved in ICAN’s Don’t Bank on the Bomb initiative to remove your money from nuclear weapons and compel your bank, pension fund, or financial institution to stop funding nuclear weapon producers. Find out if your university is helping to build nuclear weapons and campaign to end those contracts.

Instead of supporting nuclear energy as a solution to the climate crisis, help people learn about the dangers of nuclear power and the harm caused by its production—and by potential accidents or conflicts at nuclear facilities. Promote reduction of energy production and consumption and support the development of decentralised and renewable sources of energy.

Frequently Asked Questions

At the outset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that other countries “will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history” if they intervened. A few days later, he ordered Russian nuclear forces to be put on a heightened alert status. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev later outlined possible scenarios for the use of nuclear weapons and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that maintaining “readiness of strategic nuclear forces” remains a priority. A Russian government spokesperson then said that Russia would only consider the use of nuclear weapons if there was an “existential threat” to Russia.

More recently, when announcing a partial mobilisation of Russian military forces on 21 September 2022, President Putin made new and more explicit threats to use nuclear weapons “in the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people.” Given Russia’s illegal annexation of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions, this could mean that any attempt by Ukraine to take back these regions could constitute an attack on Russia’s “territorial integrity”.

So far, the other nuclear-armed states have not explicitly said they would use nuclear weapons. However, the United States has said it would “respond decisively” to any Russian use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine and that it has privately conveyed to the Russian government the “catastrophic consequences” it would face. In addition, the Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has said that any use of nuclear weapons by Russia would have “severe consequences”.

The words and actions of Putin and other Russian officials have elevated the risks and dangers of nuclear war back into mainstream consciousness. But the threat of nuclear weapons is not limited to the Russian government. Eight other governments—those of China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom and the United States—also possess nuclear weapons, and US nuclear bombs are stored on the territory of five other NATO members—Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Türkiye. Each and every one of these bombs is a threat to peace and security.

It is impossible to predict the likelihood of whether a nuclear-armed state will use a nuclear weapon, even if the government has threatened to do so. However, the consequences of such use are so catastrophic that any threat must be taken seriously, and immediate efforts must be made to de-escalate the situation and stigmatise the potential use.

Even without explicit threats of use, the risk of use—whether by intention or my miscalculation or accident—is there as long as nuclear weapons exist. Nuclear deterrence theory is built on the willingness and preparedness to use nuclear weapons. Every day, through their nuclear doctrines and postures, the nine nuclear-armed states are implicitly threatening to use nuclear weapons.

This is an untenable situation. Nuclear weapons do not provide stability or security; they can only threaten catastrophe, and even mass extinction.

Nuclear weapons are commonly divided into two categories: “strategic” and “non-strategic” or “tactical”. The size of nuclear weapons is measured by their “yield,” which reflects the amount of energy released when a nuclear weapon explodes. One kiloton (kt) has an explosive force equivalent to that of 1,000 metric tons of TNT.

Strategic nuclear weapons typically have a range of 100 kt up to several megatons (Mt). The biggest nuclear weapons ever created were the Tsar Bomba (Soviet Union), with a yield of 50 Mt, and the B41 (United States), with a yield of 25 Mt.

Tactical nuclear weapons are typically smaller, ranging in size from 0.3 kt to 170 kt. The United States has about 100 deployed tactical nuclear weapons, which are stationed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Türkiye. Russia has an estimated 1912 tactical nuclear weapons in storage (not deployed), which range from 10 to 100 kt.

Today, tactical nuclear weapons are being described by some mainstream media outlets as “small” nuclear weapons. For example, in one article in March 2022, The New York Times described tactical nuclear weapons as “smaller bombs,” “lesser nuclear arms,” “less destructive by nature,” “much less destructive,” and having “variable explosive yields that could be dialed up or down depending on the military situation.” Even while acknowledging that one of these weapons, if detonated in Midtown Manhattan, would kill or injure half a million people, the Times suggested that the use of these weapons is “perhaps less frightening and more thinkable.” The article says the billions of dollars that the Obama administration spent on nuclear weapons went towards “improving” US tactical nuclear weapons and turning them into “smart bombs” that “gave war planners the freedom to lower the weapons’ variable explosive force,” would have a “high degree of precision,” and would lower “the risk of collateral damage and civilian casualties.”

Measured in terms of destructive force and capacity to kill, there is nothing small about any nuclear weapon. The bomb detonated by the United States over Hiroshima in 1945 was estimated to be about 15 kilotons; the one over Nagasaki was 22 kilotons. Approximately 140,000 people died from the bomb in Hiroshima and 70,000 in Nagasaki by the end of 1945. Many more died after radiation and burns, and the intergenerational harms continue to this day. Even the smallest 0.3 kt nuclear weapon would produce damage far beyond that of a conventional explosive.

As explained by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, a nuclear explosion releases vast amounts of energy in the form of blast, heat and radiation. It takes around 10 seconds for the fireball from a nuclear explosion to reach its maximum size. An enormous shockwave reaches speeds of many hundreds of kilometres an hour. The blast kills people close to ground zero, and causes lung injuries, ear damage and internal bleeding further away. People sustain injuries from collapsing buildings and flying objects. Thermal radiation is so intense that almost everything close to ground zero is vaporized. The extreme heat causes severe burns and ignites fires over a large area, which coalesce into a giant firestorm. Even people in underground shelters face likely death due to a lack of oxygen and carbon monoxide poisoning.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists also describes the effects of a nuclear detonation in this recent article.

Setsuko Thurlow, who was 13 years old at the time of the Hiroshima bombing, witnessed her city “blinded by the flash, flattened by the hurricane-like blast, burned in the heat of 4,000 degrees Celsius and contaminated by the radiation of one atomic bomb.” She has described the experience in vivid detail through countless testimony:

A bright summer morning turned to dark twilight, with smoke and dust rising in the mushroom cloud, dead and injured covering the ground, begging desperately for water and receiving no medical care at all. The spreading firestorm and the foul stench of burned flesh filled the air.

Miraculously, I was rescued from the rubble of a collapsed building, about 1.8 kilometres from ground zero. Most of my classmates in the same room were burned alive. I can still hear their voices calling their mothers and God for help.
As I escaped with two other surviving girls, we saw a procession of ghostly figures slowly shuffling from the centre of the city. Grotesquely wounded people, whose clothes were tattered, or who were made naked by the blast.

They were bleeding, burned, blackened, and swollen. Parts of their bodies were missing, flesh and skin hanging from their bones, some with their eyeballs hanging in their hands, and some with their stomachs burst open, with their intestines hanging out.

Within that single flash of light, my beloved Hiroshima became a place of desolation, with heaps of rubble, skeletons and blackened corpses everywhere. Of a population of 360,000—largely non-combatant women, children, and elderly—most became victims of the indiscriminate massacre of the atomic bombing.

Not necessarily. However, the core nuclear policy of all nuclear-armed states—so-called “nuclear deterrence”—is that it relies on the idea of mutually assured destruction (MAD). The strategic plans for the use of nuclear weapons envision nuclear exchange. The theory is that because such an exchange could end up destroying the entire planet, no one would dare to use them.

To maintain the “credibility” of nuclear deterrence, the nuclear-armed states regularly engage in nuclear war planning and preparations. They have all spent billions “modernising” their nuclear arsenals over many years. The policies, doctrines, and plans for nuclear weapons all point toward the escalation of a nuclear conflict, should one begin.

A simulation devised by Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security uses existing nuclear targeting and doctrines to determine what might happen if Russia used one nuclear weapon, even as a “warning shot”. The plans suggest NATO would respond with a “tactical” nuclear weapon. The ensuing war yields more than 90 million casualties in its first few hours. Millions more would die in the months to come.

The use of less than one percent of the nuclear weapons in the world could disrupt the global climate and threaten as many as two billion people with starvation in a nuclear famine in the long-term. The climate crisis will be exponentially exacerbated. The thousands of nuclear weapons possessed by the United States and Russia could bring about a nuclear winter, destroying the essential ecosystems on which all life depends.

Physicians and first responders would be unable to work in devastated, radioactively contaminated areas. Even a single nuclear detonation in a modern city would strain existing disaster relief resources to the breaking point; a nuclear war would overwhelm any relief system that could be built in advance.

Nuclear weapons produce ionizing radiation, which kills or sickens those exposed, contaminates the environment, and has long-term health consequences, including cancer and genetic damage. Their widespread use in atmospheric testing has caused grave long-term consequences. Physicians project that some 2.4 million people worldwide will eventually die from cancers due to atmospheric nuclear tests conducted between 1945 and 1980. Women are particularly affected by the radiation, and pregnant women exposed to nuclear weapon testing and use have experienced higher rates of miscarriage and impaired growth.

The very existence of nuclear weapons makes their use possible. As long as these weapons exist, there is a risk that they will be detonated. As long as they exist, they will be used to threaten and intimidate. As long as they exist, they will continue to harm people where they are made and where they have been tested and produced—primarily on and near Indigenous nations and communities of colour. As long as they exist, they will extract billions of dollars towards their maintenance, modernisation, and deployment, when that money is so desperately needed to provide for the well-being of people and the planet, now endangered also by climate change. 

The only way to effectively reduce and end nuclear threats, risks, and danger is to eliminate nuclear weapons.

On 7 July 2017, 122 governments voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). After receiving the necessary fifty national ratifications, it entered into force on 22 January 2021. The TPNW prohibits all nuclear weapon activities, including possession, deployment, testing, use, threatening to use, and more. It also provides a framework for the elimination of nuclear weapon programmes once the nuclear-armed states join. In June 2022, the First Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW convened in Vienna, where states parties and signatories adopted a Declaration and Action Plan to guide the Treaty’s implementation and universalisation.

The best way to eliminate nuclear dangers is for all states to join the TPNW and, if they have nuclear weapons, to disarm. Everyone can engage in this work:

  • Call on your government to sign and ratify the TPNW.
  • Stigmatise nuclear war by urging all countries to reject nuclear weapons and “deterrence” theory and condemn any and all threats to use nuclear weapons.
  • Urge your Members of Parliament or Congress to join the ICAN Parliamentary Pledge.
  • Work with your city council to join the ICAN Cities Appeal.
  • Get involved in ICAN’s Don’t Bank on the Bomb initiative to remove your money from nuclear weapons and compel your bank, pension fund, or financial institution to stop funding nuclear weapon producers.
  • Find out if your university is helping to build nuclear weapons and campaign to end those contracts.

During its war in Ukraine, Russian forces seized the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear power facilities and there has been armed conflict at the Zaporizhzhia plant, risking a radioactive catastrophe. Many governments from around the world have condemned the Russian occupation of these facilities and called for a cessation of fighting at the Zaporizhzhia plant. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), after warning of a potential catastrophe, managed to negotiate the admission of inspectors to assess the situation in September 2022. A team of inspectors has remained.

Shelling has destroyed power infrastructure at the city of Enerhodar, where staff operating the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant live. The plant’s offsite power lines, which are necessary to prevent nuclear meltdown, have been cut and the shelling at Enerhodar has caused blackouts there. At time of writing, power has been restored, but as long as the war continues and the site remains occupied by Russian forces, the risks of catastrophe remain.

If power continues to be affected, the plant may have to shut down the only remaining operating reactor. The IAEA notes, “The entire power plant would then be fully reliant on emergency diesel generators for ensuring vital nuclear safety and security functions. And as a consequence, the operator would not be able to re-start the reactors unless offsite power was reliably re-established.”

There are a number of risks posed by fighting a nuclear power station; in addition to power outages, the cooling tanks or reactors themselves could be damaged, leading to leaks of radiation or even explosions.

The IAEA has called for a “nuclear safety and security protection zone” around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, in order to “prevent a nuclear accident arising from physical damage caused by military means.” The IAEA Board of Governors adopted a resolution calling on Russian forces to withdraw from the plant.

Armed conflict, however, is only one risk of nuclear plants. From uranium mining to radioactive waste storage to the risk of accident like at Chernobyl and Fukushima, nuclear power is dangerous and dirty. It also extremely expensive—it does not offer an “affordable” alternative to fossil fuels. Further, nuclear power has proliferation risks, as the material used to produce nuclear fuel in a civilian reactor only needs further enrichment to be used in nuclear weapons. The answer to the risks posed by nuclear power is abolition, and investment instead in sustainable, cleaner energies as well as degrowth policies that reduce the amount of energy produced and consumed.

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Melissa Torres

VICE-PRESIDENT

Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani

VICE-PRESIDENT

Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo

PRESIDENT

Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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Demilitarisation

WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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