Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine, the world has been afraid of one thing. Russia’s nukes. But what exactly would happen if Russian president Vladimir Putin decided to push the red button? What could lead Putin to detonating a nuclear weapon? What chain of command would this order need to follow? And what would happen if NATO’s member countries fought back?

When the United States attacked the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, it marked the only two times in history that nuclear weapons have been used during a time of war. The destruction and casualties from these bombs were devastating. Combined, an estimated 120,000 people were killed instantly and tens of thousands more in the following months.

People within 1 km (0.6 mi) of the detonations were carbonized by heat rays. And those within 1.5 km (1 mi) from ground zero suffered flash burning and severe damage to their skin. Fast-forward to today, and Russia has more nukes than any other country. And Putin has already ordered Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert, threatening any country that sides with Ukraine.

So could the world be on a razor’s edge of a nuclear winter? Based on Russia’s policies on nuclear deterrence, there are a few basic principles by which Putin could make the decision to use nuclear weapons. One of the reasons for this world-changing launch could be ballistic missiles aimed at Russia or its allies. Another might be any attack on critical government or military sites that would undermine Rusia’s nuclear force’s ability to respond.

Finally, and maybe the most concerning of reasons, is the use of conventional weapons against Russia that it perceives as a direct threat to its existence. This means that Russia could launch nukes if any member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, started to directly intervene in the war in Ukraine.

And it’s this kind of nuclear posturing that has led to many Western leaders indicating there is a limit to how far they would go to help defend against from Russia. Now, if this were to go down, it would all begin with Putin and a small briefcase that he keeps close to him at all times. This is known as the Cheget, and it would connect the Russian dictator to the command network of Russia’s nuclear forces.

Putin wouldn’t just be pushing a big red button to launch. Instead, he would transmit launch orders to the General Staff, which is his central military command. The Russian General Staff would then launch nuclear missiles by sending authorization codes to individual weapons commanders. Or, in case command posts were destroyed, they could bypass those by using a backup system called Perimeter.

This would allow the General Staff to directly initiate the launch of land-based missiles remotely. If they were to do that, these land-based missiles would take about 30 minutes to reach a country like the U.S. If the launch came from a submarine positioned closer to U.S. territory, it would only take 10 to 15 minutes for the strike to land.

Once launched, the U.S. military’s space-based infrared system would detect any missiles with infrared radiation. Within minutes, President Joe Biden would be alerted. And a few moments later, the response would likely be an immediate massive counterattack. That would mean the deployment of potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of aircraft, nuclear submarines and land-based heavy artillery vehicles armed with missiles.

But even this huge military action would still only be a reaction to the first launch. Imagine if a warhead detonated in Washington D.C., just a few blocks away from the White House. Even if this device was only two-thirds as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, everything within approximately 1 km (0.5 mi) would be destroyed.

Over 45,000 people would be killed and another 300,000 more injured. Anyone within 8 km (5 mi) could be temporarily blinded by the overwhelming flash of light from the blast. People as far as 30 km (20 mi) away from the explosion could be enveloped in a mixture of dust, debris and deadly by-products of radiation.

This would be a terrible preview of the devastating effects that any further escalation could have on the whole world, not just North America. If Russia and the U.S. detonated their full arsenal of nuclear weapons, the entire planet would be covered with a blanket of soot in only two weeks. This soot would block sunlight and could lower the temperatures to below freezing even in the summer months. And it could take ten years for it to dissipate.

The threat of nuclear war is terrifying but all may not be totally lost. Russia’s army was considered to be one of the most powerful in the world. But their invasion of Ukraine has revealed that Russia’s army may be more inadequately equipped and poorly trained than expected. The looming threat of nuclear war could be another way for Russia to keep the world in a submissive state of fear.

Putin might or might not have gone insane. He sure is unstable. But he is not the only person involved in launching nukes. Besides, nuclear war isn’t a game. If you were the first person to launch a nuclear strike, you’d have very likely ensured your own death. But what if we could use all of Russia’s nuclear arsenal for something different. Like terraforming Mars.

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