On the second day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin warned the West of “consequences greater than you have faced in history” for any interference. Many observers saw a troubling, if veiled, reference to Russia’s nuclear arsenal. By day four, any lingering ambiguity about Putin’s willingness to invoke nuclear weapons dissipated: he ordered Russian nuclear forces to be placed on high alert and broadcast the decision for the world to see.
French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that Putin’s dire warning was tantamount to threatening to use nuclear weapons. Then he issued his own: “Vladimir Putin must also understand that the Atlantic alliance is a nuclear alliance. That is all I will say about this.” He was of course right about NATO having nuclear weapons at its disposal. But much more needs to be said about the nuclear dimension of this conflict.
Not since John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev stared each other down during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis has the possibility of nuclear weapons use involving the world’s two major nuclear powers been more present.
The prospect of nuclear weapons use is the absolute worst-case scenario that could result from the Ukraine crisis. And it is becoming increasingly conceivable.
France’s reference to NATO’s nuclear weapons was certainly regrettable, but the placement of Russian nuclear forces on high alert goes far beyond dangerous rhetoric. This is a reckless, escalatory move that objectively increases the risk that nuclear weapons might be used by accident, miscalculation, or design.
The standoff is without precedent since the end of the Cold War. Not since John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev stared each other down during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis has the possibility of nuclear weapons use involving the world’s two major nuclear powers been more present.
With the United States and other NATO states on one side and Russia on the other, the sides possess more than 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons. Russia alone is estimated to possess nearly 6,000 warheads, comparable to the combined arsenals of the US (approximately 5,400), France (approximately 290) and the UK (approximately 225).
In addition, dozens of nuclear warheads are stationed in the territories of five other NATO members. Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Turkey—all officially non-nuclear weapons states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—host U.S. nuclear bombs as part of the alliance’s nuclear sharing arrangements.
Today the primary risk of nuclear warfare use lies in the escalation of a conflict initially fought with conventional weapons. While it is hoped that nuclear weapons will not be introduced in the Ukraine context, such is the nature of escalation: unintended outcomes can be reached.
Hardly two months ago, on January 3rd, the leaders of the five official Nuclear Weapons States—the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom—issued a joint statement on reducing nuclear dangers. In it, they affirmed the fundamental principle that “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.”
It was a welcome statement. But not nearly sufficient to offset the perilous rhetoric and actions from all states with nuclear weapons, which long precedes the Ukraine conflict.
There are now approximately 13,000 warheads in existence, many of them ready to be launched within minutes. Every state with nuclear weapons is spending billions of dollars in nuclear modernization programs, thereby extending shelf life of their arsenals, and indefinitely delaying the start of a credible path to abolition.
Bilateral and multilateral nuclear disarmament efforts will no doubt be impacted by the Ukrainian conflict. Strategic talks between the United States and Russia have already been halted, potentially jeopardizing the future of the critical New START nuclear arms control treaty. And it is all but guaranteed that the current nuclear sabre-rattling will feature prominently at key meetings of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons scheduled for the second half of 2022.
The Ukraine crisis is also having an impact other countries’ stand on nuclear weapons. Belarus has initiated a process to amend its constitution in order to allow the stationing of Russian nuclear weapons in its territory. In a similar vein, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has suggested that Japan should consider hosting American nuclear weapons by entering into a nuclear-sharing arrangement similar to that of various European NATO members with the United States.
Worrying as it may be, it is not entirely surprising that nuclear weapons are being brandished in the context of the Ukraine conflict. This is precisely the type of scenario nuclear disarmament advocates have been warning about for decades. As some observers have bluntly put it, the fact that nuclear weapons have not been used since Hiroshima and Nagasaki can perhaps best be attributed to sheer dumb luck.
The Ukraine crisis presents a sobering reminder that for as long as nuclear weapons exist, there is a real possibility that they might be used. The prospect of their catastrophic humanitarian consequences far outweighs any perceived military utility. And the only assured way of preventing their use is through their complete elimination.
Photo: These images show the atomic bombings of (left) Hiroshima and Nagasaki.