Since the end of the Second World War in 1945, there has been no other year when the possibility of a Third World War has been discussed as much as in the year 2022, mostly in the context of the Ukraine War and USA-Russia relations, but to a much lesser extent also in the context of Taiwan and USA-China relations.
While it is important to avoid any exaggeration on such issues, it would be even more harmful not to note that this year—in 2022—risks have increased in a very big way in a world that was already troubled by many serious dangers.
The Second World War ended with the use of nuclear weapons; the Third World War may start with this. Hence the Third World War may not last very long and may not see the direct participation of many countries, but within a short time it may cause unprecedented world-level destruction, in terms of the direct and immediate impacts of nuclear weapons as well as the indirect and longer-term impacts. Countries which are not involved in any direct way in this war and are even located far away can also be affected very seriously by the second type of impacts. Hardly any human beings may be left unscathed, and non-human life-forms will also experience unprecedented devastation without the least realization of what is happening and why.
These possibilities are increasing because the avoidable but prolonged Ukraine proxy war has strained relations between the two biggest nuclear weapon powers– the USA and the Russian Federation– as never before. The Ukraine war could have been avoided even at a late stage (up to February 2022), could have been stopped at an early stage (April) but has been allowed to continue for too long with escalations and provocations. In the initial stage, around April, a peace plan which held out hope was obstructed by the USA and its closest ally Britain. After this it has been escalation most of the time, with very hostile statements being exchanged all the time. Those who are controlling Ukraine affairs today see their own future now to be closely bound up with what the USA wants, and the USA appears to be in no hurry for negotiations and peace between Ukraine and Russia.
In fact a very important issue is precisely that the USA has planned to cynically and dangerously use Ukraine to fight Russia for as long as possible, the first aim being to weaken and entangle Russia. The steady eastward expansion of NATO in violation of earlier promises to Russia, the moves made by the USA to facilitate the Ukraine coup in 2014, the sabotaging of Minsk agreements, the strengthening and arming of anti-Russian militias, then provoking of attacks on Russian speaking citizens of Ukraine, escalating first to civil war like situation and then even more attacks in early 2022 so as to make a Russian invasion most likely—all this tells a very distressing story of manipulations in Ukraine by the USA/NATO allies against Russia.
The second aim of the strategic policy makers of the USA in all this has been to pressurize its European allies to fall behind it more clearly and firmly. These policy makers had been disturbed that the USA’s more powerful allies in the European Union like Germany and France had been becoming more accommodative towards Russia, also benefiting from cheaper energy imports and moving towards longer-term, stronger relationships based on this, as in the context of the Nord Stream Pipelines. By creating the conditions which would provoke Russian invasion of Ukraine, the USA sought also to create a situation in which countries like Germany and France are asked to fall more firmly in line with the ‘protector’ and NATO leader USA while declaring their hostility to Russia. Without stating this in so many words, some USA allies were more or less given a blunt ‘they or us’ choice and of course due to many historical and strategic factors their leaders and elites have to be with the USA. To carry this further, the Nord Stream Pipelines were heavily damaged too, thereby seeking to end the special bonds of Russia with several European countries for cheap and plentiful energy supplies. These two specific policy goals are of course linked closely to the wider overarching goal of pursuing US dominance of world.
Hence the USA planning has been to create the maximum problems for Russia with least costs to itself, shifting most costs instead to Ukraine, Germany and other countries. Since Ukraine embraced the USA more closely in 2014, it has been involved first in a civil war and then in a prolonged war, tens of thousands of human lives have been lost and millions have been displaced, 15 to 20% of territory has been lost. Germany and several other European countries have faced steep hike in energy price, leading to wider inflation as well as closure of industries and consequent loss of jobs. Even in distant African countries, famine and hunger conditions due to indirect impacts have intensified.
The costs the USA incurs are mainly in terms of weapons supplied to Ukraine, but this spending directly benefits the arms industry of the USA with close ties to policy makers. The other big beneficiaries of this policy are USA energy suppliers to Europe, and they too have close ties to US policy makers. Hence a small group of US policy makers is making these dangerous, provoking, escalatory policies not to benefit the USA people but to benefit mainly the USA energy and weapon corporations (as well as some other powerful interests, like the various think-tanks) with close ties to them. The USA policy makers no doubt think that they have been eminently successful in this, not realizing that those who play with fire for too long often get burnt themselves too, as history has repeatedly shown.
Operating from what they perceive to be their least cost position of comfort, US policy makers have been making available more and more sophisticated and destructive weapons, military intelligence and almost anything else they think will help their Ukraine friends/followers to inflict more destruction on Russia. This has already led Russian leaders to assert that Russia is now fighting the collective west. The critical question is—at what point this will become more directly a confrontation between the USA/NATO and Russia. If and when this happens, this will be the beginning of the third world war (with high probability also a nuclear war, possibly also a bio-weapon war), not a war which will involve all countries but a war which will harm almost all countries very seriously.
Risks of nuclear weapons have become alarmingly high due to a number of factors. The nuclear weapon stocks of the USA and Russia, not to mention allies, have the capacity to destroy the world several times over. Giving one indication of this, the Union of Concerned Scientists, USA, has written recently that warheads on just one US nuclear armed submarine have seven times the destructive power of all the bombs dropped during World War II including the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan. The USA has tens of such submarines at sea. The most powerful weapon available now—B83 gravity bomb—is more than 80 times destructive than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Over 90 per cent of the nuclear weapons of the world are concentrated in the hands of the USA and Russia. The nuclear weapons of USA are also placed in five countries of Europe (about 150 bombs)—Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium and Turkey. In addition there are reports that attempts are on to place these also in Finland , the latest member in the making of NATO, from whose border it is reportedly possible for a nuclear weapon to reach Moscow in just seven minutes. So if Russia feels highly threatened and vulnerable it is understandable.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Report for 2022 , the total number of nuclear weapons of the USA is 5428. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) puts this number at around 5500, 1389 of which are deployed and ready to be delivered. These weapons are kept in submarines and 80 feet deep missile silos across five of the Great Plains states. Others are stored at Air Force bases where these can be loaded on long-range bombers.
According to the UCS, nearly half of the deployed weapons in the USA (or a total of about 700 weapons) are maintained on ‘hair-trigger alert’, able to be launched very quickly after a presidential order. These include almost all of the silo based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and a comparable number of warheads on submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). ICBMs can be launched within a couple minutes and SLBMs within 15 minutes.
Two close allies of USA in Europe, Britain and France, have their own stocks of nuclear weapons as well (together they are likely to have over 500). Another close USA ally outside Europe, Israel, also has nuclear weapons (around 100).
According to SIPRI Russia has about 5977 nuclear weapons. UCS puts this number at 6300, 1458 of which are deployed.
Both sources say that China has 350 nuclear weapons. According to UCS, just over 100 of these are aligned to missiles that can reach the USA. North Korea also has nuclear weapons (around 20).
Two other nuclear weapon countries are India and Pakistan but these weapons may not be very relevant in the context of what is being discussed here although, as is well known, these are very dangerous when considered in terms of India-Pakistan hostility.
In a special report on future wars, the Economist has stated, “Existing nuclear arms control agreements are fraying. The protocols and understandings that helped avert Armageddon during the cold war have not been renewed.”
The Economist report states that the USA has been working on a concept known as Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) for over a decade. “ The idea is to deliver a conventional warhead with a very high degree of accuracy, at hypersonic speeds ( at least five times faster than the speed of sound), through even the most densely defended space…Russia and China claim that CPGS could be highly destabilizing if used in conjunction with advanced missile defenses. Meanwhile they are developing similar weapons of their own.”
Further this report says that the command-and-control systems of nuclear weapons are becoming vulnerable to hacking by new cyber-weapons or ‘blinding’ of the satellites they depend on. A country under such an attack could find itself under pressure to choose between losing control of its nuclear weapons or using them.
Evidently, if the Ukraine proxy war shifts to a more direct conflict between the USA/NATO and Russia, and this either directly starts with a nuclear war or quickly moves towards this (intentionally or due to misunderstandings), in terms of destruction caused to almost the entire world, we will have a third world war situation, and it is difficult to predict where this will end and how this will end. Russia will be threatened by nuclear weapons deployed in as many as 7 to 9 countries, so one can imagine why it may be hyper-alert, a situation in which misunderstandings are possible. On the other hand, the extreme aggression of USA policy makers and their over-eagerness to inflict maximum harm on Russia is only too well-known, well-documented.
So the extremely dangerous situation that exists today, the very real possibility of unprecedented destruction being unleashed, should not be neglected. The fact that over 90 per cent of the people of world are going about their daily tasks seemingly unaffected by all this today should not lead us to overlook and forget that this situation can change very fast– in a few hours.
Where do we go from here? Firstly, the peace movements and activists– all over the world, but most of all in Europe and the USA– have to become much more active to fulfill a historically important role in these most dangerous times. This historical role is of preventing unprecedented destruction at world-level, no less.
Secondly, the immediate focus should be on immediate ceasefire in Ukraine—an agreement to stop all fighting immediately while all controversial issues are left to be resolved over a period of next two or three years or so, while simultaneously many efforts are made to improve goodwill. It is crucial to get USA support also for such a ceasefire agreement, and this is where the peace movement, weak though it is, has become so important today. Of course all world leaders, diplomats, intellectuals, media persons and citizens committed to peace should contribute to this effort, in whatever way they can and with the utmost sincerity.
Beyond the immediate goals centered on ceasefire, the ultimate goal of elimination of nuclear weapons should never be forgotten. A closer look is needed to ensure that in addition bio-weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, even if already banned on paper, are actually eliminated and space as well robot warfare are avoided altogether. If super-power rivalries cannot be eliminated, these should at least be shifted to less dangerous paths. Someone must be able to convince the USA and its existing and potential rivals that they should seek world leadership and not world dominance, and true, sustained leadership is only possible along a much more enlightened path of peace and welfare.
The peace movement needs to become much stronger and much more effective with closer horizontal and vertical linkages worldwide. We need inner peace (mental health and spirituality), peace around us (movements to curb violence at level of family, community, gender, race, faith, workplace, school and college etc.), at national level and international level. Peace efforts ad movements at all levels must be strengthened and draw energy and sustenance from each other. Peace movement must have continuity, instead of merely responding to crisis situations. There should be close linkages of the peace movement with women and youth movements, environment and justice movements. In essence they all are the same, should unite to create a better and safer world for this generation and for our children and grandchildren. There are many sincere and brave climate activists; they should realize that the kind of disasters that climate change can unleash within a few decades can be unleashed by nuclear weapons within days or even hours; hence they should be integral part of the peace movement. The greatest need is for unity of all people committed to peace, justice and environment protection. Together they can still save the world, make it bountiful and beautiful again. Together, united, hand in hand, courage in our hearts and song on our lips.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. He has written from perspective of peace, justice and environment protection for 50 years, contributing over 10,000 articles, short stories and songs/poems as well as around 400 books, booklets/pamphlets in Hindi and English. He has been involved with several social movements. His recent books include Planet in Peril, A Day in 2071, Protecting Earth for Children, Earth without Borders and Man over Machine.