Avoidance of Nuclear Weapons in a Possible NATO-Russia War Should Be “Foremost” Responsibility

Viewpoint by Ramesh Jaura

BERLIN (IDN) — “We affirm that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” pledged the leaders of the five nuclear-weapon states—China, France, Russia, UK, and the United States—in a joint statement on January 3, adding that they “consider the avoidance of war” between them and “the reduction of strategic risks” as their “foremost responsibilities”. The five nuclear-weapon states are also the five permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council, which has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.

Less than three months after the P5 committed themselves to “work with all states to create a security environment more conducive to progress on disarmament with the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all,” Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to raise alert level for the country’s nuclear forces.

The significance of the decision is underlined by the fact that, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Yearbook 2021, Russia possesses the largest number of nuclear forces—6,375 as compared to 5,550 of the U.S.

Not surprisingly, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has branded Russia’s decision as a “bone-chilling development”. In remarks to the Press on the war in Ukraine, he noted: “The prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility”.

Ten days later, on March 25, U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal that President Joseph R. Biden has approved an old Obama-era policy that allows for a potential nuclear response to deter conventional and other non-nuclear dangers in addition to nuclear ones. In doing so, he has stepped back from a campaign vow, maintains Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

U.S. officials indicated that Biden’s policy will declare that the “fundamental role” of the U.S. nuclear arsenal will be to deter nuclear attacks. Such a policy, the officials said, will leave open the possibility that nuclear weapons could also be used in “extreme circumstances” to deter conventional, biological, chemical, and possibly cyberattacks by adversaries.

“If the report is correct, President Biden will have failed to follow through on his explicit 2020 campaign promise to adopt a much clearer and narrower policy regarding nuclear weapons use, and he will have missed a crucial opportunity to move the world back from the nuclear brink,” noted Kimball.

Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs: “As I said in 2017, I believe that the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring—and, if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack. As president, I will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with the U.S. military and U.S. allies.”

Kimball finds that Putin’s deadly war against Ukraine, his nuclear sabre-rattling, and Russia’s policy that reserves the option to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict with NATO “underscore even more clearly how extremely dangerous it is for nuclear-armed states to threaten the use of nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear threats”. Undoubtedly, it reinforces why it is necessary to “move rapidly away from dangerous Cold War-era thinking about nuclear weapons”.

“Biden has apparently failed to seize his opportunity to meaningfully narrow the role of nuclear weapons and failed, through his NPR (Nuclear Posture Review), to distinguish U.S. nuclear policy from Russia’s dangerous nuclear doctrine that threatens nuclear first use against non-nuclear threats,” Kimball adds.

He continues: “There is no plausible military scenario, no morally defensible reason, nor legally justifiable basis for threatening or using nuclear weapons first—if at all.”

Kimball accentuates that Presidents Reagan, Biden, Gorbachev, and even Putin have all said, a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. “Once nuclear weapons are used in a conflict between nuclear-armed states, there is no guarantee it will not result in nuclear retaliation and escalation to an all-out nuclear exchange.”

Arms Control Association “strongly urge(s) the administration to explain how Biden’s nuclear weapons declaratory policy will differ from Russia’s dangerous nuclear doctrine and under what circumstances the United States might believe it would make sense to initiate the use of nuclear weapons for the first time since 1945”, when the U.S. dropped the world’s first deployed atomic bomb over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Shannon Bugos, a senior policy analyst at the Arms Control Association, has expressed the view that “the final Biden NPR should also reiterate the longstanding U.S. commitment to actively pursue further verifiable reductions in the still bloated nuclear stockpiles of the United States and Russia, and to seek to engage China and other nuclear-armed states in the disarmament enterprise”.

“The sobering reality,” she says, “is that it would take just a few hundred U.S. or Russian strategic nuclear weapons to destroy each other’s military capacity, kill hundreds of millions of innocent people, and produce a planetary climate catastrophe”.

Maintaining ambiguity about using nuclear weapons first is indeed “dangerous, illogical, and unnecessary”, she warns.

Rebecca Johnson, director of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, asks in an opinion piece in Open Democracy: “how did we get back to believing that nuclear war is possible? Why didn’t ‘nuclear deterrence’ stop this from happening? And what comes next?”

The first thing to understand, she says, is that deterrence is a routine part of most defence strategies. “Deterrence is a relationship, not some magical property attached to nuclear bombs. Communications are key to the success or failure of any deterrence strategy; no matter what threats or weapons are being brandished, deterrence fails when one or more protagonists miscalculate or misunderstand either the situation, the signals or the intentions of other parties. Relying on nuclear weapons, however, is a gamble that risks destroying the whole world.”

Nevertheless, there are no signs of the nuclear-power states’ departure from deterrence. Subsequently, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea do not see any reason to forego their nuclear arsenal of 156, 165, 90 and 40-50 respectively.

The five nuclear-power states early January reaffirmed commitment to their Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations, including their Article VI obligation “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”. But this pledge has yet to be fulfilled.

As Dr M.V. Ramana, Professor and Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security & Director, Liu Institute for Global Issues at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, told IDN, the obligation to disarm applies not just to the nuclear-weapon states under the NPT but also the other four countries.

In 1996, the International Court of Justice unanimously stated that “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control”. That obligation applies to all states, he noted.

An obvious way to resolve the current quagmire is signing the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and eliminating the thousands of weapons in their nuclear arsenals. Threats of deploying nuclear weapons—by Russia or the U.S.—are far from helpful.

Arms control expert Miles A. Pomper, Senior Fellow, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Middlebury, sees the war in Ukraine as “an added strain but not a fatal blow to the system that has helped to keep the world from nuclear devastation”. That system has evolved over decades and allows U.S. and Russian officials to gauge how close the other side is to launching an attack, he adds. [IDN-InDepthNews – 26 March 2022]

Photo: Russia test-launches intercontinental ballistic missile RS-24. Credit: TASS

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This article was produced as a part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in Consultative Status with ECOSOC on 26 March 2022.

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