Elon Musk supports Russia keeping Crimea—because he’s worried about nuclear escalation and World War III

October 17, 2022, 8:36 PM UTC
Shot of Elon Musk speaking at a SpaceX event in Texas in August 2022
Elon Musk says a nuclear war over Ukraine is still a very real possibility.
Michael Gonzalez—Getty Images

The world’s richest man wants the West to more seriously consider the risk of nuclear conflict and World War III breaking out over Ukraine, as Russia’s hold over Crimea—illegally annexed by Russia in 2014—is thrown into question.

“If Russia is faced with the choice of losing Crimea or using battlefield nukes, they will choose the latter,” Elon Musk wrote in a tweet on Monday.

He continued: “We’ve already sanctioned/cutoff Russia in every possible way, so what more do they have left to lose? If we nuke Russia back, they will nuke us and then we have WW3.”

Russia’s war in Ukraine is now inching toward its eighth month, far longer than Russian President Vladimir Putin expected. His army is up against largely unified support for Ukraine among Western nations, as well as a dogged Ukrainian counteroffensive that has made steady but significant gains in reclaiming annexed territory in recent weeks. 

The threat of a drawn-out war in Ukraine has pushed Putin to escalate his rhetoric, authorizing the mobilization of 300,000 additional troops and making multiple nuclear threats

Some experts fear that Russia’s nuclear arsenal could be the powder keg behind a third global war. And with the war showing signs of intensifying after a strategic bridge linking Russia to the Crimean Peninsula was bombed this month, Musk says that moment could be even closer than first thought. 

Musk and Ukraine

Earlier this month, Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, made waves when he suggested that the two sides reach a compromise before the use of nuclear weapons escalates the conflict into World War III. 

He did so by sharing his view on what a peaceful resolution in Ukraine would look like, including Ukraine remaining neutral and permanently ceding control of Crimea to Russia. 

In his proposal, Musk wrote that this outcome was “highly likely,” and the only question was “how many die before then.” He noted at the time that a nuclear escalation was a “possible, albeit unlikely” outcome.

Many in the Ukrainian government took Musk’s argument as pro-Russian, while the Kremlin expressed support for some of his points. Some commentators have even alleged that Musk has been in direct contact with Putin to discuss the Russian president’s goals in Ukraine, while this week former U.S. diplomat and Russian affairs expert Fiona Hill said Musk might be “transmitting” messages from Putin.

In his tweet on Monday predicting World War III, Musk emphasized the strategic and symbolic importance of Crimea to Russia, equating its potential loss to the “USA losing Hawaii and Pearl Harbor.”

Global war threats

If Putin was holding back on nuclear threats in the first few months of the war, he certainly isn’t now. At the end of September, Putin announced he would employ “all means available to us” to defend the four eastern Ukrainian regions Russia had recently annexed, a threat many took to be nuclear in nature. 

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas responded in a statement on the same day as Putin’s proclamation, saying that “Russia is stealing Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions from Ukraine and threatening the world with nuclear weapons.” And earlier that week, Ukraine’s intelligence chief told the Guardian that the risk of Russia using tactical nuclear weapons had become “very high.”

Putin’s veiled nuclear threats mostly revolve around the use of tactical nuclear weapons. These relatively small warheads, never used in combat, are designed to be launched over short ranges to devastate enemy lines without causing widespread radioactive fallout. 

There were approximately 22,000 tactical nuclear weapons in Russia by the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, although many have since been dismantled. U.S. intelligence reports estimate Russia currently has around 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons in its arsenal.

Musk is not the only person warning about the possibility of World War III breaking out in the near future, and neither Putin nor nuclear weapons are said to be the only possible cause. 

Nouriel Roubini, an NYU economics professor who has made enough prescient and bleak economic predictions over the years to earn the moniker Dr. Doom, warned in an interview Monday with Yahoo Finance that the world is already in the throes of World War III because of the Ukraine War, which has “broad implications that go well beyond Russia and Ukraine.”

Roubini added that the chances of a new global war were also rising because of growing tensions between the U.S. and China over the future of Taiwan, which could spark a new global “hot war.”

“I believe the next five to 10 years is going to be the time when there is going to be a confrontation between the U.S. and China on the issue of Taiwan,” Roubini said. “We don’t know when that’s going to happen or how it’s going to be resolved, but that’s where we get to World War III.”

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