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Russia, Ukraine and nuclear weapons

A few days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as North American and European leaders met at the annual Munich Security Conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin sat in a control room with President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, personally overseeing a test launch of nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles.

The message was clear. To Russia, Ukraine is part of a larger, Cold War-style, super-power confrontation, where Russia claims “interests” far beyond its borders and can decide to take military action and even make nuclear threats to assert them. Russia demonstrated this by its demands to NATO in December, and now, by its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in direct violation of international law.

Ukraine will not be the only hotspot in this new Cold War, which raises nuclear tensions and increases the risk of escalation and/or miscalculation touching off nuclear war. Neither side wants that. What steps can we take to lower nuclear risks now?

Putin wants to restore the Soviet empire in Europe and Eurasia and drive the United States out of Europe. And he has a partner in China, which supports Russia on Ukraine and whose trade with Russia can offset economic damage from Western sanctions. Russia supports China on Taiwan. The recent Sino-Russian pact has aptly been described as the beginning of Cold War Two. After Ukraine, Russia may set its sights on other parts of the former Soviet bloc.

We can’t allow aggression with impunity — but if Russia and China return to Cold War-type geopolitics, we also can’t risk a return to Cold War nuclear politics.

The first Cold War came perilously close to nuclear exchange on at least 13 occasions. Several times, only sheer good luck prevented a holocaust. Reagan wrote in his diary after a harrowing near miss in 1983, “Six minutes to decide how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to unleash Armageddon! How could anyone apply reason at a time like that?”

Russian aggression against Ukraine must be reversed through legal and political mechanisms provided in the UN Charter. Russia and China have veto power in the UN Security Council, but they have no power to stop the UN General Assembly from acting. Whatever we do, the threat of nuclear war must be kept off the table. We must reduce the risk of the Ukraine conflict — or any other conflict involving nuclear armed states — going nuclear.

President Biden and Putin invoked Reagan and Gorbachev when they stated in June 2021 that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” They reiterated that pledge on Jan. 3, 2022 in a joint statement with China, France, and the UK.

Yet they maintain policies and practices that signal willingness to use nuclear weapons. In recent days, Russia conducted massive drills of its strategic nuclear forces. The Biden administration will soon release its Nuclear Posture Review, which is expected to double down on funding for modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, including a major program to build a new intercontinental ballistic missile.

Both sides envision the possibility of a pre-emptive or first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict. Some of their nuclear weapons are kept in readiness to be launched within minutes. The U.S. and Russia terminated the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty in 2019, removing important assurances concerning non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe. In addition to sanctions, Washington has mentioned “enhanced deterrence” measures. Could they include forward deployment of nuclear weapons? Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany floated the idea that if it isn’t allowed to join NATO, it might need to consider re-nuclearizing. 

For its part, in the run-up to the invasion, Russia indicated it might reserve the option of deploying nuclear weapons closer to the U.S. Putin’s Feb. 24 speech pointed out Russia is still “one of the most powerful nuclear powers,” and threatened any outsiders who would interfere with “consequences greater than any you have faced in history.” On Feb. 28, Russia put its nuclear forces on heightened alert.

Such signals compound nuclear dangers, which were already elevated before the Ukraine crisis. In January the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced that its Doomsday Clock would stay set at 100 seconds to midnight for the third year in a row — closer to midnight than ever in its history.  

It would send a much more constructive signal if nuclear weapons states refrained from making nuclear threats, and if the U.S. and Russian governments announced they each have their own no-first-use policies (i.e., that they would not be the first to use nuclear weapons). This wouldn’t eliminate nuclear risks overnight, but it would help restore some confidence in the NPT and the arms control regime. 

A recent open letterendorsed by over 1,100 signatories from 69 countries including Nobel laureates and former government ministers, urged nuclear weapons states to fulfill their NPT commitments and phase out nuclear weapons’ role in security, starting with no-first-use policies. “First-use options are literally playing with fire in very combustible situations,” they warned. No-first-use policies could defuse these risks and help keep alive the NPT goal of eliminating nuclear arsenals.

If that sounds naive at this tense moment in history, consider the alternative. And consider what four of the most experienced and tough-minded U.S. officials — former national security advisor McGeorge Bundy, former ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan, former secretary of defense Robert McNamara, and Gerard Smith, negotiator of the first Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty — said in a similarly tense moment: “Any use of nuclear weapons in Europe, by the alliance or against it, carries with it a high and inescapable risk of escalation into general nuclear war which would bring ruin to all and victory to none,” they wrote in 1982. “So, it seems timely to consider the possibilities, the requirements, the difficulties, and the advantages of a policy of no-first-use.” 

Ambassador (ret.) Thomas Graham is a former senior U.S. diplomat who was involved in the negotiation of every single international arms control and nonproliferation agreement from 1970 to 1997.

General (ret.) Bernard Norlain is the former Air Defense Commander and Air Combat Commander of the French Air Force and the president of Initiatives for Nuclear Disarmament (IDN).

Tags China Cold War II conflict escalation First strike International relations Joe Biden new Cold War Nuclear proliferation Nuclear warfare Nuclear weapons Russia Russian invasion of Ukraine Second Cold War Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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