Why a Russian nuclear expert thinks the Doomsday Clock should move away from midnight

By Pavel Podvig | November 8, 2023

There is a good reason why the Doomsday Clock stands at 90 seconds to midnight. Over the recent years, the hands of the Clock dutifully registered the steady deterioration of the international security environment, the erosion of arms control processes, and rising tensions in various regions of the world. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 brought the nuclear risk to an entirely new level. From the very first day of the war, Russia made no secret of counting on its nuclear weapons to ensure that nobody would come to Ukraine’s rescue. Western countries have offered massive help to Ukraine anyway, making the prospect of a direct confrontation with Russia more real than it has been for decades. The Clock had to reflect this development. And, surely, it did by moving 10 seconds forward in January 2023. But now, a year later, there is a good case for moving the hands of the Clock back.

To some, the level of risk may appear to have continued to go up. Having so openly put its nuclear weapons on the table in the early days of the war, the Kremlin has kept looking for ways to remind the world of its nuclear status. And this year alone, Russia suspended participation in New START (the only treaty that limits the number of nuclear weapons), made plans to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus, and withdrew its ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. But, however concerning and visible, these developments are only part of the story. At least as significant—albeit much less commented on—has been the strong and united response from the international community against nuclear threats, let alone the possible use of nuclear weapons.

The strength of the opposition to nuclear threats was not fully evident in the first days—even weeks—of the war in Ukraine, as world leaders and experts were still dealing with the shock of Russia’s aggression. While many countries expressed their concerns about Russia’s actions and the nuclear rhetoric that surrounded them, no one truly knew where the boundaries were between threats and real danger, even less how to respond. It was unclear, probably even to the Kremlin, to what extent Russia was willing to escalate the conflict to prevent foreign assistance to Ukraine and how Western countries would respond to that escalation.

For the first time in decades, nuclear weapons became a subject of much public discussion. And, confronted with the prospect of the use of nuclear weapons, the public actively didn’t like it. Nuclear-armed countries tried to temper the rhetoric reaffirming their statement that nuclear war cannot be won therefore must not be fought. But none of them would go as far as ruling out the possibility of nuclear use outright. Russia, in particular, kept bringing up the subject of nuclear weapons. Although Russia insisted that these weapons can be used only in retaliation, there were plenty of reasons not to trust the statements coming out of Moscow. Western countries called Russia’s nuclear threats irresponsible—which undoubtedly they were—but this suggested that there is a responsible way to threaten the use of nuclear weapons. None of this was particularly helpful.

Putin threatens again: An updated timeline on potential nuclear escalation of the Russia-Ukraine war

What turned out to be more helpful was the strong statement that came out of the first meetings of states parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), also known as the ban treaty, that was held in Vienna in late June 2022. The meeting’s declaration “condemn[ed] unequivocally any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances.” Of course, the Vienna Declaration was criticized for not explicitly mentioning Russia, but this omission was probably its strongest point. By moving away from the “responsible-vs.-irresponsible threats” language, the 49 ban treaty members framed the issue of nuclear threats in a universal way. They showed, among other things, that the opposition to the use—or even the threat of use—of nuclear weapons does not have to follow any ideological or geopolitical allegiances.

Naturally, none of the ban treaty members possess nuclear weapons. So it was not clear if their voice would carry any significant weight. But the events that followed have shown that it did. Already in September 2022, Russia had to respond to “concerns” expressed by the leaders of China and India.

The military setbacks suffered by Russia in the fall of 2022 brought the issue of nuclear use to the forefront of public attention once again. The concern, at the time, was that Russia might use nuclear weapons to stave off a military defeat. It did not help that Russia declared its determination to annex four partially occupied regions of Ukraine and that Putin pledged to protect them by “all weapon systems available.” This did appear to be exactly the kind of scenario that most people worried could lead to a nuclear escalation.

Although the pushback against bringing nuclear weapons into the conflict took some time to arrive, in the weeks after the annexation it became clear that the opposition to their use is universal. In one remarkable episode, India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh told his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu, in a very brief phone call, that “the prospect of the usage of nuclear or radiological weapons goes against the basic tenets of humanity.” Joint statements condemning nuclear threats were issued by China’s President Xi Jingping with German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz and then with US President Joe Biden. By that time even the Russian Foreign Ministry felt compelled to publish an official statement confirming that Russian nuclear doctrine “pursue[s] solely defensive goals and do[es] not admit of expansive interpretation.”

United States nuclear weapons, 2024

During this tense period, the joint declaration by the G20 leaders who gathered in Bali in November 2022 drew a line by stating bluntly that “the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible.” This language would not have been out of place in the Vienna Declaration adopted by the ban treaty members a few months earlier, but it was a first in a much more representative forum. (This language would be reaffirmed by the G20 meeting in New Delhi in September 2023.)

Of course, one can express doubts that this unified position of many countries played a decisive role in stopping nuclear rhetoric. An alternative explanation suggests that it was the threat of some unspecified “catastrophic consequences” that the United States conveyed to Moscow, both publicly and privately. There are, however, many reasons to doubt that this threat was truly credible: If Western countries had been deterred from direct military intervention in Ukraine so far, why would they stop being deterred once Russia demonstrated its resolve to escalate the conflict by using a nuclear weapon? But even assuming these warnings played a role, they always emphasized the non-nuclear nature of a potential response. Although the United States would not make the non-nuclear commitment publicly, the option of using nuclear weapons, even in response, was understood to be inadmissible—just as the G20 stated.

The most important factor in mobilizing the opposition to nuclear weapons and in lowering the nuclear rhetoric was probably the understanding that nuclear weapons do not really have any other role than to kill a lot of people or, if used in demonstration or on a small scale, to demonstrate the resolve to do so. This means that the threshold for a decision to use (any) nuclear weapons is therefore quite high, and rightly so. It may not be high under all circumstances and some leaders may be more willing to cross the nuclear threshold than others. But it exists and we have seen that it can and should be made higher.

To ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again, world leaders and the public should first recognize the role of the consolidated, universal opposition to nuclear threats, acknowledge this opposition, and make sure it endures. The Doomsday Clock is well positioned to do so. By moving its hands backward the next time it is set, even if a little, this message can be sent clearly and forcefully.

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