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Princeton professors consider potential threat of nuclear war from Russia

<h5>Princeton community members gather to hold a vigil for Ukraine.</h5>
<h6>Candace Do / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Princeton community members gather to hold a vigil for Ukraine.
Candace Do / The Daily Princetonian

On Sept. 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened the possible use of nuclear weapons in the Russo-Ukrainian War, which enters its eighth month after Putin’s invasion on Feb. 24. The Daily Princetonian interviewed several Princeton University faculty members regarding their insights on Putin’s threat as well as the responsibilities of the University community amid the war.

Frank von Hippel, a professor in Princeton’s Program on Science & Global Security (SGS) and professor emeritus of public and international affairs, discussed the consequences of Putin’s latest escalation in rhetoric.

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“One positive fallout out of this [is that] it’s brought the danger from our nuclear weapons back to our attention. There might be more pressure for nuclear disarmament,” von Hippel said.

At the University, von Hippel leads a group of professors in advocacy for disarmament.

“[A] group of us at Princeton have actually founded the Physicists Coalition for Nuclear Threat Reduction which has about a thousand members countrywide now to try to educate Congress on this subject,” he said. 

Dr. Zia Mian, co-founder of the Physicists Coalition for Nuclear Threat Reduction and co-director of SGS in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), talked about ongoing efforts on campus to raise awareness regarding the threat of nuclear war, including a lecture which will take place on Oct. 25 with Alexander Kmentt, the former Austrian ambassador to the European Union who was a leader in the process to create the United Nations’ Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. 

Mian also discussed another project, titled Plan A, which was developed by SGS. 

“We’ve developed a model calculation for what happens if a nuclear weapon is actually used by Russia,” he said. The four-minute video titled “PLAN A” on YouTube currently has over 4 million views.

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Dr. Marzenna James, a lecturer in public and international affairs in the politics department and in SPIA, said that “analysis of the war is a very important dimension of what we as an academic community can do.”

All three members of the University faculty that spoke to the ‘Prince’ commented on the academy’s unique responsibility amid this crisis.

“Universities are places of great privilege and we have great opportunity and great responsibility to better understand things and to share our understanding as best we can with everyone,” Mian said. “It’s up to students to decide and to organize themselves … to change Princeton and to change the larger community of which we are all a part.”

von Hippel talked more broadly about the threat and argued that Putin’s threats come as part of a “mind game” strategy for the war. 

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“It is serious that [Putin] is even mentioning it,” von Hippel said. “It has been taken seriously from the beginning by the Biden administration. They basically set a rule that U.S. troops would not get involved and that the weapons the U.S. provided would be for use in Ukraine only, not against Russian territories.”

He also discussed the material casualties that could result if Putin were to follow through on his threat.

“If the target was Kyiv, you could kill 100,000 people,” von Hippel said. “People [are] talking about them being low yield; they’re only low yield compared to the strategic weapons.”

von Hippel added that Putin must also consider the international ramifications of using nuclear weapons, particularly in terms of Russia’s relationship with China, which has been a source of relief for the Russian economy from Western sanctions. 

“It’s hard to imagine that China would not condemn [using nuclear weapons] and maybe even put sanctions on Russia if it did such a thing,” he said.

“It would not be easy for Putin as a rational person to make a decision like this,” von Hippel added.

However, he also acknowledged that Putin is not a rational actor. 

“If [Putin] continues [to be] pushed back, his position as dictator in Russia is probably at risk,” von Hippel said.

With these uncertainties in mind, von Hippel said that the United States ultimately cannot “prevent Putin from using nuclear weapons. That’s the terrible thing about nuclear weapons and why we should get rid of them.”

Correction: A previous version of this piece stated that the lecture featuring Alexander Kmentt had already occurred at the time of publication. In reality, it will take place on Oct. 25. The ‘Prince’ regrets this error.

Jackie Zhou is a first-year from New Jersey writing for the news and newsletter sections of The Daily Princetonian. She can be reached on Instagram @jacq363 or jz5169@princeton.edu.

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