Many people are against western intervention in Ukraine due to MAD (mutually assured destruction). But what does MAD actually mean? Is it just a war that would kill a lot of people? Or is it genuinely, actually, total destruction of entire nations, and possibly the world?

I feel like I have no clear understanding of this, and it seems to me quite crucial to understand. Take for example a country like the USA. If MAD means "a lot of people will die, but USA as a nation will probably survive, especially the rich who can bunker down", then that makes a nuclear war between Russia and USA waaaay more likely (to me, at least) than if MAD means "everyone is going to die, society is going to collapse, the rich and powerful are going to lose all that money and all that power".

So which one is it?

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    @SurpriseDog A lot of questions on this site have answers somewhere on wikipedia. I am not looking for an essay written to academics or military strategists, I am looking for a concisce explanation to a normal person. Is that not what this site is for?
    – Jaood
    Mar 1, 2022 at 17:25
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    I feel like this needs a more details on precisely what you're asking. If you're just asking what MAD actually means, then that's easy: if Russia nukes the US, the US nukes Russia back - see the wikipedia link for more details. But it seems like something more, perhaps speculation on what might happen. Maybe something like "would there actually be massive retaliation?" or "Are there degrees of nuclear response (maybe just a few nukes, not WWIII)?", or "How bad would global thermonuclear war really be?" Can you clarify the question a bit more precisely - ie, why the wiki article isn't enough
    – divibisan
    Mar 1, 2022 at 17:33
  • MAD, even before you get down to nuclear winter theory and possibly wiping out mankind basically means that your whole country, should you go nuclear, will be destroyed, as a nation. So will the other guy's. So there is really no rational reason to pursue those strategies for gain. Though you might consider it out of spite/dissuasion if you are being threatened. As to the rich... what does it matter? Living your life in a bunker, without services, without movies, arts, restaurants. What's the gain here? So what's your question really about? Mar 1, 2022 at 18:54
  • It looks as if this question simply wants to ask how many people would currently survive in the US in an all out nuclear war with Russia, or not? If course that can only be guessed. Mar 1, 2022 at 22:37

1 Answer 1


During the Cold War, MAD stood for Mutually Assured Ddestruction. That is, both superpowers (mutual) could be certain (assured) that their arsenals would inflict widespread destruction on the enemy, even after a surprise first strike to disarm them by the enemy. They would have enough left for a second strike.

The arsenals today are much smaller than during the Cold War, but both sides should be confident that they can inflict unacceptable damage on the enemy (which is less than total destruction). For comparison, during the Cold War the United Kingdom had what was called the Moscow Criterion -- the ability to destroy a few major cities in the Soviet Union, in response to the Soviet Union destroying all of the UK. They thought that was unacceptable enough, and within their means. The US and Soviet Union had more overkill.

Russia seems afraid that Western developments in countermissiles and conventional (precision) counterforce weapons might endanger the Russian second strike capability. Or they just pretend to fear that, to justify their imperial aggression. My non-professional judgement is that MAD still exists this year, and for some years to come.

So imagine Russia taking out 150 big cities in the US, and the US taking out 150 big cities in Russia. There are more weapons than that, but they would fear missile defenses and put several weapons onto one target. Thee result would be bad, very bad, but not the end of mankind. (It is a good question of there would be targeting on cities, countervalue, or targeting on military bases which may or may not be close to cities, counterforce.)

It won't be the rich in bunkers who survive, by the way. It will be rural bumpkins far away (and upwind) from likely targets.

  • Why won't the rich in bunkers not survive? Mar 1, 2022 at 22:35
  • Sure there would be survivors, but it would still very much be 'the end of the world as we know it'. it would make the bronze age collapse look like a rainy day at the park. billions dead from immediate and near term direct and indirect effects (famine etc). We worry about global warming producing a temp change from average of 1-2 degrees C -- even a limited exchange as described ("only" 100's of weapons used) would produce a drop of 4-8C and a gigantic reduction in crop yields worldwide. Even a relatively tiny (by comparison) hiccup like covid exposed cracks in the worldwide supply chain.
    – eps
    Mar 1, 2022 at 23:28
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    @Trilarion, because bunkers last for weeks or months, then there is still fallout outside. The way to survive is to live in a place that didn't get one of those nukes (which are not as many as they used to be).
    – o.m.
    Mar 2, 2022 at 5:11

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