While it's possible to ignore overseas horrors so long as they stay distant, that's increasingly difficult with the war in Ukraine. Not only is the conflict worsening conditions in a world already damaged by pandemic responses, but Russia's President Vladimir Putin threatens nuclear escalation and U.S. President Joe Biden warns of resulting "Armageddon." It's a grim reminder that government power enables ambitious individuals to put millions of lives at risk. And it's a heads-up to us as individuals do what we can to preserve ourselves, our families, and our communities if the situation gets even worse.
"To protect Russia and our people, we, Of course, we use all the means at our disposal. This is not a bluff," Putin huffed in a September address to his country that was far from the first time he and his government invoked the use of nuclear weapons, always by insisting it's in response to the West. "The territorial integrity of our Motherland, our independence and freedom will be ensured, I emphasize this again, by all that we have means. And those who are trying to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the wind rose can turn around and in their direction."
In case anybody wondered where the White House stands, Biden answered that question last week when he evoked "the prospect of Armageddon" and said of Putin: "He is not joking when he talks about the potential use of tactical and nuclear weapons, or biological or chemical weapons."
The likelihood of Russia using tactical nuclear weapons—relatively small-yield battlefield weapons rather than large warheads on intercontinental missiles—seems to grow as the invading country's armed forces suffer setbacks in Ukraine. The government of Ukraine certainly takes the possibility seriously: it's preparing evacuation centers and stocking them with potassium iodide pills which help to prevent the absorption of radiation by the thyroid gland.
How NATO, especially the U.S., would respond is an open question since it's subject to constant debate. America's arsenal also includes tactical nukes, and the Pentagon considers their use in its plans. The conflict could remain confined to the very unfortunate region. Or maybe not. It's a hell of a gamble.
If missiles fly, do we want to live through the aftermath envisioned in Threads or The Day After? That's a personal choice. But those media productions were intended to make a case against war, not to show how to pull through if it happens. Other sources say a nuclear exchange would be brutal, but survivable.
"An all-out nuclear war between Russia and the United States would be the worst catastrophe in history, a tragedy so huge it is difficult to comprehend," Cresson Kearny, a researcher at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, wrote in Nuclear War Survival Skills, a comprehensive treatment of prevailing through such a disaster. "Even so, it would be far from the end of human life on earth. The dangers from nuclear weapons have been distorted and exaggerated, for varied reasons."
One point Kearny emphasized was, even at the height of Cold War tensions, a nuclear exchange was unlikely to go full Armageddon. Rather than waste warheads on cities, strategists would likely emphasize military targets. That's still grim news for those in surrounding communities. Just how grim is detailed in FEMA's Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation, updated in May of this year. Still, FEMA adds, "with careful planning, many lives can be saved and injuries mitigated" even in a city under attack. To survive if you're at or near a target, says FEMA, "get inside, stay inside… Move to the lowest level/most interior portion of the building if possible." Fallout is a concern specific to nuclear attack, but its dangers rapidly decline even in the worst affected areas.
"Within two weeks after an attack the occupants of most shelters could safely stop using them, or could work outside the shelters for an increasing number of hours each day," Kearny noted in his book.
For most people, living at a distance from targets, fallout would be a lesser or nonexistent concern even in a full-scale exchange. Larger environmental effects have also been exaggerated.
"Unsurvivable 'nuclear winter' is a discredited theory that, since its conception in 1982, has been used to frighten additional millions into believing that trying to survive a nuclear war is a waste of effort and resources," observed Kearny.
That's not to deny the dangers inherent in even a limited nuclear exchange. We've seen that supply chains were seriously snarled by lockdowns, social-distancing mandates, and private fears in response to COVID-19; it's difficult to imagine that the detonation of one or more nuclear warheads and anticipation of the response would be less disruptive.
"For example, if the great majority of truckers were so fearful of receiving even non-incapacitating radiation doses that they would refuse to transport food, additional millions would die from starvation alone," warned Kearny.
In the lead-up to Hurricane Ian, Floridians stripped supermarkets bare of food and water, even though destructive storms are a familiar threat for people who live in the region. Waiting to the last minute is a common human trait but preparing for imminent peril at the same time as everybody else is a recipe for disaster. Homeland Security's Ready.gov offers advice on surviving nuclear explosions, and emphasizes maintaining an emergency preparedness kit at all times for unexpected crises. That kit should include "at least a several-day supply of non-perishable food" as well as water and medicine, but much more is better. If your budget is tight, buy a little extra at a time to put away.
You also don't want to get caught on the roads in a panicked rush to flee potential targets. Yes, not being at ground zero is a great idea. But not being stuck on the highway in a crisis may be even better, and roads regularly jam as people flee storms and wildfires. A nuke going off in Ukraine may send many people running for the hills. You're probably better off finding refuge close to home, especially if the exchange remains limited to Eastern Europe.
"Identify the best shelter location near where you spend a lot of time, such as home, work, and school. The best locations are underground and in the middle of larger buildings," suggests Ready.gov.
With international tensions rising, the specifics of what you should prepare for are hard to predict. But the last few years taught us that the world, and people wielding political power, have plenty of curve balls to throw. Getting ready to survive the results of escalating war in Ukraine makes sense. And maybe, someday, we'll rein-in governments to minimize the risk of catastrophic man-made disruptions in the future.