The Russian Invasion of Ukraine brought back the horrific scenarios of nuclear war. It’s not yet time for fatalism but we must start recognizing nuclear weapons as deeply inhumane weapons of mass destruction and act accordingly.
by Florian Eblenkamp
The Russian war in Ukraine has shocked the world. Not only is Putin invading Ukraine, but he is also using dangerous rhetoric on nuclear weapons. On Sunday, February 27th, he ordered his nuclear arsenal to high alert. The technical details of this order regarding the practical implication and readiness of the weapons system remain ambiguous, but its political dimension is pretty clear: This mobilization of the defensive and offensive nuclear forces represents the highest threat level since the Soviet Union was dissolved. On top of Putin’s despicable rhetoric around nuclear weapons, Belarussian autocrat Lukashenka held a referendum on stationing Russian nuclear weapons in the country. The referendum was adopted with more than 60% according to official sources and protested as unfree by the democratic opposition. Lukashenka has nevertheless created the conditions for nuclear proliferation by declaring Belarus willing to host Putin’s nuclear weapons and launch facilities. This escalatory step has revealed several flaws of security concepts based around nuclear weapons.
Firstly, Putin’s escalation may demonstrate that nuclear weapons are not merely political weapons. They are made to be used and have been used before. Nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction which are banned under international law. They do not differentiate between combatants and civilians and no country can defend itself against a nuclear attack. Individual nuclear missiles might be shut down, but we have to understand that the impact of even just one relatively small nuclear weapon is devastating enough to cause the mass murder of civilians. Focusing on the inhumane nature of these weapons is the first step when thinking about mid-term consequences of the war in Ukraine. Nuclear weapons do not allow a humanitarian response to their use and states must refrain from basing their security concept on such instruments of mass murder.
Secondly, the concept of nuclear deterrence has been proven wrong and unrealistic in the past days. Normatively and logically flawed, nuclear deterrence has become a moral justification for nuclear weapons states and their allies to avoid serious engagement in disarmament talks. Cynically, politicians from nuclear weapons (host-) states and certain academics alike refer to nuclear weapons as strategic stabilizers that actually prevent conflict and keep peace. The opposite is true, as the dark reality of Russia’s invasion and the escalatory nuclear threats show. There is no evidence that nuclear weapons have ever prevented armed conflicts, including conflicts involving nuclear weapons states. Speculations about defensive Ukrainian nuclear weapons are therefore entirely baseless counterfactuals. What is evident, though, is that Ukrainian independence was conditional on giving up the Soviet warheads stationed in its territory after 1991 as none of the other parties to the Budapest Memorandum would have financially or politically supported the newly founded state otherwise. As it looks now, Russia is perverting the deterrence argument by stopping NATO from interfering and ending the humanitarian suffering in Ukraine. Understandably, NATO states are not willing to take the risk of an all-out nuclear war and are now side-lined. Such nuclear blackmailing by Putin is another aspect of how nuclear weapons don’t provide security nor peace for anyone. Nuclear weapons cause strategic instability.
As long as nuclear weapons exist, the risk of their use also exists. If we continue to justify nuclear weapons as a necessary evil, humanity’s fate will continue to hinge on the rationality and responsibility of a few politicians, whose countries possess about 13.000 nuclear weapons. Putin is one of them and his nuclear force is so terrifyingly destructive that it could end life on earth multiple times. Even a small-scale nuclear war with so-called tactical nuclear weapons could kill thousands and injure millions with radiation spreading uncontrollably for generations and no health care system in the world could ever respond to such a catastrophe.
But there is hope: 122 countries adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in 2017 which entered into force in 2021. As a multilateral treaty, the TPNW prohibits the use, test, development and even the threat of using nuclear weapons and thereby puts them on the same level as chemical or biological weapons: On the level of weapons of mass destruction. It’s time to act, now more than ever. States must strengthen international law against those weapons, join the TPNW and save humanity from the risk of nuclear war. It’s time to act because the next nuclear crisis might be the end of the world as we know it.
Image credits: UN Photo/Joao Araujo Pinto