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Opinion | The Age of Predatory Nuclear-Weapon States Has Arrived


Putin’s nuclear threat marks the start of a new era.Putin’s nuclear threat marks the start of a new era.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine makes at least one thing clear: It’s time for us to update how we think about nuclear weapons. For the first time in the nuclear era, one country used loudly issued nuclear threats — repeated just last week — to deter other countries from intervening in a large-scale conventional war of aggression. We have entered the age of “predatory nuclear-weapon states.”
For political analysts and military officials, this is not an unexpected phenomenon. On the contrary, the concept falls under the so-called stability-instability paradox. Because the threat of nuclear war is so terrifying and the risk of annihilation so real, lower-level conflict actually becomes more feasible. One nuclear-armed country can undertake major conventional military action, expecting that its nuclear capability will prevent outside intervention. That is what’s happening in Ukraine.
This is deeply problematic for international security. First, it is profoundly unjust. The world should not tolerate a status quo in which any nuclear-armed country can conduct conventional wars with impunity, slaughter tens of thousands and seize and annex territory, simply because its nuclear arsenal inhibits a strong military response. The international security system should not work that way.
Second, the fight for Ukraine significantly increases the likelihood of nuclear war. Many experts asserted that Russia would not invade Ukraine, yet it did, highlighting the very real risk that Russian President Vladimir Putin still could use nuclear weapons, particularly if Moscow continues to lose the war. President Joe Biden recently urged Putin not to use nuclear weapons — a move that would end an invaluable 77-year-long taboo and alter the course of history, with potentially horrific costs.
Third, the idea that nuclear deterrence plainly allows naked conventional aggression is not how most people think nuclear deterrence operates, nor how it should work. Most observers understand that deterrence is founded on the terrifying threat of nuclear annihilation, the ever-present risk of imminent death.

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