A nuclear apocalypse
Despite valiant, grassroots Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Russia’s invasion, a number of the country’s cities are reduced to rubble. In such circumstances, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy refuses to negotiate with Moscow. In the West, pressure builds for forms of intervention beyond arms shipments and humanitarian assistance. The United States and other NATO members step up supplies of weaponry to a steadfast Ukrainian insurgency, providing it with clandestine training and a safe haven on the Polish side of the border. The war grinds on as the pace of Ukrainians exiting the country accelerates. Armed militias continue the fight even in parts of Ukraine “pacified” by Russian troops and call on the West for more active help.
In Russia, meanwhile, Western sanctions are crushing ordinary people in worse ways than during the country’s 1998 financial crisis. There is a large-scale exodus of members of the middle class—scientists, engineers, teachers, tech professionals, and other white-collar types, many under the age of forty—that risks forfeiting Russia’s future. Despite burgeoning inflation, the Kremlin authorizes a special “victory bonus” to all Russian citizens to boost its domestic support. Moscow bans wheat exports and freezes the cost of rent and food essentials in major cities. Russian police brutally suppress growing protests against the harsh tactics of the Russian military in Ukraine.
The Kremlin is increasingly worried about how much the Russian military is stretched in trying to hold Ukrainian territory while fighting an active insurgency. When Russia’s intelligence service, the FSB, alerts Putin to the safe haven for Ukrainian insurgents in Poland, the Russian president recalls the Soviet nightmare in Afghanistan and becomes determined to squash such assistance. At the United Nations Security Council, Russia’s permanent representative shows pictures of the Central Intelligence Agency-run training base and the stockpiles of lethal arms there.
Then comes a sharp escalation that shatters the global taboo against nuclear-weapons use that has prevailed since the end of World War II: Putin authorizes his forces to detonate a tactical nuclear missile on the Ukrainian side of the border with Poland in a lightly populated area, not directly hitting the US/NATO safe haven but nonetheless sending a forceful message about his opposition to its existence.
In response, Poland invokes NATO’s Article 5 to rally other Alliance members to its defense. NATO convenes an emergency summit. US hawks call for a proportional nuclear response, but the Biden administration decides to first deliver an ultimatum to Putin, backed up with a credible threat of nuclear retaliation. The United States sets out the terms for ending what is now a much-widened NATO-Russia conflict: Russia must immediately withdraw troops from all of Ukraine, including Crimea and the Donbas region. There will be no promise of keeping Ukraine out of NATO. For all US sanctions to be dropped, Russia must pay reparations for the damages it has caused in Ukraine. European leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz argue against what amounts to demanding an unconditional surrender from Russia. But with emotions running high against the backdrop of an unprecedented nuclear conflict in Europe, they are outvoted.
Putin agrees to a negotiation but refuses the terms presented by the United States and its allies. NATO reacts by firing several conventional cruise missiles to destroy a Russian military base in Ukraine close to the Russian border. Likening the NATO attack to another Nazi invasion, Putin wins the backing of the Russian public even as members of the Russian elite seek to unseat him without success. Russia retaliates by launching two more strikes with tactical nuclear missiles, this time over the border in Poland.
A series of nuclear-weapons exchanges ensues: the United States hits Russian military targets while Russia hits NATO bases in Germany and US facilities in Guam and Alaska. Despite the focus on military targets, thousands of civilians are killed in the strikes amid mounting worries about more deaths to follow from radiation poisoning. Both the United States and Russia use artificial intelligence and offensive cyberattacks to take out each other’s nuclear command-and-control infrastructure in space. In contrast to World War II, the fighting is concentrated in Europe, as China (which, along with France, unsuccessfully tries to mediate between the belligerents) and countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America stake out neutrality. Nevertheless, World War III has begun.