Doomsday Clock Today: Are Putin's Threats Pushing It Closer to Midnight?

The war in Ukraine has escalated in recent days with Russia annexing four Ukrainian regions and Vladimir Putin vowing to defend them "with all the forces and means at our disposal," giving rise to nuclear concerns.

Against this background, it is possible that the Doomsday Clock could be set even closer to the crucial midnight point when it is reset in January 2023.

The Doomsday Clock is a visual representation of how close humanity is to destroying itself based on how close its minute hand is to midnight.

The clock was debuted by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a nonprofit science and security organization originally founded by former Manhattan Project scientists, in 1947. In January each year, the group of scientists is responsible for judging whether or not to move the minute hand or leave it where it is.

Doomsday clock
Above, the Doomsday Clock rests at 100 seconds to midnight at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on January 23, 2020. The Doomsday Clock is overseen by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists nonprofit group. Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty

The original Doomsday Clock was set to seven minutes to midnight, and since then it has been moved 24 times. Most recently, it was moved from two minutes to midnight to 100 seconds to midnight in 2020, and the minute hand has remained in the same position since then.

The Doomsday Clock was last set in January 2022, shortly before Putin launched the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists released a statement condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine when it happened and said:

"Russia's invasion of Ukraine has brought this nightmare scenario to life, with Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening to elevate nuclear alert levels and even first use of nuclear weapons if NATO steps in to help Ukraine. This is what 100 seconds to midnight looks like."

Over seven months later, the war in Ukraine continues to rage on and Putin is not shying away from nuclear threats.

"This is not a bluff," he said on September 21 when announcing a partial mobilization of Russian soldiers. "And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weather vane can turn and point towards them."

Jonathan Gumz, a reader of modern history at the University of Birmingham, told Newsweek that the world has been closer to a nuclear conflict before than it is now, such as during the Cuban missile crisis. At that time, the Doomsday Clock was no closer to apocalypse than it is now.

He listed multiple reasons why the situation now is worse, though, than it was a decade ago, including what he called an "improvised feel" about U.S.-Russia tensions and how to manage them.

"The usual methods for managing conflict between the United States and Russia in the Cold War have fallen into disrepair and it is not clear that anything has replaced it," he said. "Seen historically, I do not see the serious danger as one of a rising power in the form of China. I see the danger in the form of a power in Russia that feels that it is losing its position as a great power, which is being dramatically enhanced by its poor military performance in Ukraine.

"Moreover, it is creating a tripwire in the form of statements about territories that it has taken in Ukraine and it makes you wonder what they would do if that tripwire was crossed."

Gumz added: "It seems to me that the bar has been lowered for nuclear weapons use by Russia, not just in its talk about using such weapons, but in the idea that it could use tactical nuclear weapons within Ukraine, which it could get away with and avoid a strategic nuclear exchange with the United States.

"The abovementioned could move the clock forward if taken into account. Certainly, Russia will persist in the conflict over the winter, however shambolic their performance is, in the hopes of splitting the Western coalition due to energy shortages and the accompanying inflation that will be concentrated in Europe."