Such a scenario has become “dramatically” more plausible in the last two years because the two countries have dropped support for arms-control measures, according to a team from Princeton University.
The simulation, the result of a study at Princeton‘s Science and Global Security programme (SGS), suggests 34 million people would be killed and 57 million injured in the first hours of an all-out nuclear conflagration – not counting those left ill by fallout and other long-term problems.
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In the animation, electronic trails of ballistic missiles arc across the screen, before blossoming into a carpet of white discs.
Worldwide destruction would include the nuclear incineration of Europe, which the Princeton scientists claimed could be brought about by the escalation of a conventional war between Russia and Nato.
They say: “In hopes of halting a US-Nato advance, Russia launches a nuclear warning shot from a base near the city of Kaliningrad. Nato retaliates with a single tactical nuclear air strike.
“As the nuclear threshold is crossed, fighting escalates to a tactical nuclear war in Europe. Russia sends 300 nuclear warheads via aircraft and short-range missiles to hit Nato bases and advancing troops. Nato responds with approximately 180 nuclear warheads via aircraft.”
After that, hundreds of further strikes are made on both sides against military nuclear forces. In the video, Russia’s red streaks lift away from the ground moments before America’s rain of blue obliterates swathes of the country; then, Moscow’s bombs crash into the US from coast to coast.
Later, Washington and Moscow would both target population centres, with up to 10 missiles per city from their remaining submarine arsenals.
SGS claims the video is “based on real force postures, targets and fatality estimates”. The first simulated nuclear blast appears to occur just inside Poland, near Wroclaw and the borders with Germany and the Czech Republic.
The Independent asked Princeton if there were any other scenarios modelled, such as one in which Nato launches the first nuclear weapon, and what if anything the researchers suggest may trigger the conventional war in the first place.
Zia Mian, a physicist from the SGS programme, said: “This scenario was developed on the basis of a conventional US/Nato-Russia conflict, with Russia launching a ‘de-escalatory’ nuclear weapon strike in accordance with its current policy.
“It was mapped out before the Trump administration announced as part of the Nuclear Posture Review US plans for development of a low-yield nuclear weapon and expanded the conditions under which the US might use nuclear weapons.”
Both the US Department of Defence and Russia’s UK embassy have been contacted for comment.
Sam Dudin, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told The Independent that the mutually-assured destruction scenario envisaged by SGS would be unlikely to take place because US policy since 1950 has been to avoid direct conventional war with Russia. Moscow also does not want a war with Nato, he said.
Mr Dudin added: “From an operational perspective, it also seems that integrated air defence systems have disappeared from Europe. These systems would have a major impact on nuclear strikes launched from aircraft. The casualty estimates also seem to be low.
“Furthermore, several likely targets seem to have been missed out. Considering that France is a nuclear power, and British nuclear-armed submarines operate out of Faslane in Scotland, this seems like an oversight which demonstrates the American tendency to ignore allies.
“The terminology is quite typical of how the US thinks about Nato. Whereas the UK would talk about a Nato operation, as opposed to a UK-Nato operation, the US typically views Nato as something separate from them.”
SGS’ simulation comes as Princeton physicists launch a project to persuade fellow scientists of the need to reduce the threat posed by nuclear armaments.
Earlier this year Vladimir Putin signed a bill suspending Russia’s role in a key nuclear pact with the US, after Donald Trump pulled Washington out of the treaty.
The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty banned the production, testing and deployment of land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 310 to 3,410 miles.