Duda: 90 seconds to midnight. An arms race between nuclear powers is an imminent threat

Melissa Duda, Op-Ed Contributor

As the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine approaches, the world still isn’t any closer to a resolution. The United States is only escalating aggressive actions toward Russia, and there are no firm boundaries regarding when the U.S. will reject Ukrainian requests for more powerful weapons. Society seemingly refuses to recognize the ultimate outcome of ever-escalating actions between two nuclear superpowers. Once a nuclear weapon is used, de-escalation is off the table, and society as we know it will end in mutually assured destruction.

President Joe Biden’s nuclear policy limits the use of nuclear weapons to “extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.” This doctrine does not significantly differ from past presidential policies of the nuclear age, but in the context of a proxy war with another nuclear superpower, Biden’s policy is leading us toward mutually assured destruction. Russia’s policy is especially frightening, which justifies using nuclear weapons “when the very existence of the state is put under threat.” In a speech last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin made it clear he believes the U.S. and its allies are threatening the very existence of Russia and its sovereignty. Since then, the U.S. and its allies have only escalated threatening actions toward Russia.

Early in the war, the U.S. practiced some discretion by supplying Ukraine only with defensive weapons such as Stinger and Javelin missiles. However, the U.S. — along with Germany and the United Kingdom — recently agreed to provide tanks to Ukraine. Tanks are widely considered offensive weapons, so this action represents an escalating shift in U.S. military aid to Ukraine — a dangerous game to play with a nuclear superpower.

President Biden recently stated the U.S. would not provide F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, though I am not convinced he will stand by his decision, as France is now considering sending these jets to Ukraine. Similarly, the U.K. has been pushing its western allies to do more to support Ukraine, often breaking from the U.S.’s more conservative policies. Early in the year, the U.S. opposed providing tanks, but after pressure from Germany, Biden agreed to supply the M1 Abrams tanks. If the U.S. also reverses its stance and provides these jets to Ukraine, the country could fly F-16 jets into Russian airspace. Will the U.S. kneel to pressure from its allies again?

To make geopolitical relations more tense, Finland and Sweden are angling to become part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO is centered around the principle of collective defense — if one NATO ally is attacked, all NATO allies are attacked — but this would enable an incredibly risky environment given Russia and Finland’s shared border. NATO nearly enacted this principle in Nov. 2022 when a missile struck Poland near its border with Ukraine. Immediately after, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy concluded the missile strike was from Russia, but NATO and Poland later agreed the missile was a stray Ukrainian defensive missile. The world was on the brink of a third world war because Zelenskyy urged NATO to invoke the collective defense principle and become fully involved in the war. Zelenskyy has yet to correct himself or apologize for his statement.

I am not advocating the U.S. cease militarily aiding Ukraine, but we need a reality check. Our geopolitical interests in the U.S. do not entirely align with Ukraine — no two countries have the same geopolitical interests. With a large landmass and strong influence over the former soviet bloc, Russia will inevitably remain the largest and most influential nation-state in eastern Europe. Additionally, Russia’s large population means that Putin, like past unscrupulous leaders of Russia, will be able to throw bodies into the war machine until they win, similar to the world wars. Ukraine is continuing to fight valiantly, but peace talks must be an option before it’s too late.

With every military escalation from the U.S., talk of nuclear war heightens. As the brutal winter subsides, we will likely see more major military offensives. Putin and Zelenskyy are both preparing their armies as we speak, and a spring uptick in battles could provoke the U.S. to provide even more powerful weapons to Ukraine. We are just one escalating action away from Putin deciding to use a nuclear weapon. The U.S. and its allies better choose wisely when providing more powerful weapons to Ukraine, or else this is the way the world ends. 

Melissa Duda is a Weinberg first-year graduate student. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.