Explainer: How close are we to nuclear war?

Source: 1News

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has affected the world in lots of different ways - from soaring gas prices to our grocery bills.  But it might be Vladimir Putin's recent comments about nuclear weapons that feel the most ominous. 

So, how many nukes does Russia have and how close are we to nuclear war? 

By Caitlin McGee and Isaac Gunson

Nuked-up

The threat of nuclear war has been bandied about again by the Russian president and it's a grim prospect, but does Putin really mean it?

After announcing a call-up of military reservists last week, he also made it clear that nuclear weapons are an option, saying: "This isn't a bluff."

This is a double-down because he's threatened this before.

After meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in February, Putin said allowing Ukraine to join NATO would increase the possibility of a conflict between NATO-allied countries and Russia, and it could very well turn nuclear.

"I want to stress this one more time. I've been saying it, but I very much want you to finally hear me and deliver it to your audience in print, TV and online. Do you realise that if Ukraine joins NATO and decides to take Crimea back through military means, the European countries will automatically get drawn into a military conflict with Russia?

"Of course NATO's united potential and that of Russia are incomparable. We understand that. But we also understand that Russia is one of the world's leading nuclear powers and is superior to many of those countries in terms of the number of modern nuclear force components. There will be no winners, and you will find yourself drawn into this conflict against your will."

And those threats are difficult to dismiss because - as Putin said - Russia has an extensive nuclear arsenal. According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), it has the largest nuclear stockpile in the world, closely followed by the United States.

"Approximately 90% of all nuclear warheads are owned by Russia and the United States, who each have around 4000 warheads in their military stockpiles," the FAS website reads. "No other nuclear-armed state sees a need for more than a few hundred nuclear weapons for national security."

Arms race slows down

Even though Russia and the US are still pushing nuclear development along, there has been huge progress in reducing the number of warheads since the Cold War's end in 1991.

"Globally, the overall inventory of nuclear weapons is declining but the pace of reductions is slowing compared to the past 30 years," the FAS says. "Moreover, these reductions are happening only because the United States and Russia are still dismantling retired warheads."

The Cold War period was the last time we had the threat of nuclear apocalypse having over us, and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 was an especially tricky point. 

In that case, it was the presence of Russian missiles in Cuba - close to the US - that triggered the fury of the United States and raised the stakes, but it was Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev who backed away from pushing the nuclear button.

Doomsday clock

Back then, the time on the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock was seven minutes to midnight.  That's used to let us know how close we are to 'midnight', which in this case is, well, doom. 

It's a cheat sheet that's updated in January each year, and in 2020 was moved to where it currently sits. Earlier this year they described it as "at doom's doorstep". 

 And remember that was before the latest round of North Korean missile tests, before Russia invaded Ukraine and before Putin accused the West of "nuclear blackmail". 

Yikes. So, how close are we? According to the clock, the closest we've ever been.