fihn2_Wiktor SzymanowiczFuture Publishing via Getty Images_nuclearprotest Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing via Getty Images
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The Crumbling Nuclear Taboo

Escalating nuclear threats are eroding the decades-old taboo against the use of such weapons and are drastically increasing the risk of cataclysmic conflict. The international community must therefore respond to Russia’s latest rhetoric by unequivocally condemning any and all nuclear threats.

GENEVA – On September 21, in a pre-recorded address, Russian President Vladimir Putin escalated his nuclear posturing, threatening to use the weapons “in the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people.” It is just the latest evidence of the erosion of the nuclear taboo.

Putin’s most recent threat, like all the other nuclear threats he has issued since invading Ukraine in February, goes well beyond Russia’s official nuclear doctrine, which states that the weapons may be used in response to conventional attacks “imperiling the very existence of the Russian state.” It is clearly incompatible with the assertion that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” affirmed in January by the nuclear-weapons states recognized by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), and repeated by Putin in August at the NPT review conference.

Putin’s recent nuclear threat is particularly worrying in light of Russia’s staged referendums in the parts of the Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia oblasts in Ukraine that it currently occupies. With Russia having now annexed these territories, Putin could portray Ukrainian military operations aimed at liberating them as threats to Russia’s “territorial integrity,” meriting a nuclear response. This is not mere speculation: former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, said as much on September 22. And a military convoy capable of carrying nuclear weapons is now reportedly heading toward Ukraine.