Just a few weeks into a war and nuclear weapons are on the agenda. Tabloid headlines scream of Putin’s nukes and World War Three, and on this occasion, they are not overstating the possibility. With Putin putting Russian nuclear forces on high alert and issuing scarcely veiled threats of nuclear use, global alarm bells are ringing.
Even before the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine, the hands of the Doomsday Clock were set at 100 seconds to midnight—the closest ever, even at the height of the Cold War. Now they must be far closer to the midnight hour which symbolises existential catastrophe. The events of these terrible days surely demonstrate that nuclear weapons are just too dangerous to continue to populate the arsenals of a very small number of countries that wilfully jeopardise the future of humanity.
Commentators have made parallels between the risks today and during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when it seemed that the world was on the brink of nuclear disaster. The key difference between then and now is that no war was raging, and the two leaders, Kennedy and Khrushchev, had the wisdom to negotiate to bring about a solution which dealt with the security concerns of both sides. The Soviet Union withdrew nuclear missiles it had sited in Cuba in exchange for a US pledge not to invade Cuba, and a secret deal that US nuclear weapons would subsequently be withdrawn from Turkey; they were quietly removed in 1963. It was touch and go without a doubt—but wisdom and dialogue prevailed, and nuclear war was averted. That restraint and willingness to negotiate is markedly absent today, and other factors too make nuclear war so much more likely.
First, a terrible and increasingly brutal war is taking place in Ukraine: people are dying, homes and infrastructure torn apart. A war like this is the context in which nuclear weapons could become a future stage in military escalation. And there are plenty of rash calls for action which could lead to nuclear war. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, General Curtis LeMay argued for air strikes against Cuba to take out the missile sites. Fortunately Kennedy refused, avoiding a nuclear exchange, and it is to be hoped that NATO leaders continue to resist calls for a No-Fly Zone. This would have precisely the same kind of impetus towards nuclear use; the shooting down of a Russian plane in a NATO-enforced no-fly zone would amount to a declaration of war. As one of our friends in the peace movement in Ukraine has said, writing from Kyiv at the weekend, ‘We believe this brutal invasion should be stopped, but we strongly oppose reckless demands to close the sky.’ In that scenario, the 12,000 nuclear weapons owned in total by NATO forces and Russia could rapidly come into play.
Second, as has been pointed out recently in the journal Foreign Policy, much of the treaty framework developed during the Cold War has been abandoned over the last two decades, from Bush’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, via Russian withdrawal from the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty in 2007, to Trump’s withdrawal from a number of agreements, including the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019. Whatever flaws and inadequacies may have existed within this treaty framework, it did at least provide multiple restraints and opportunities for engagement. Their absence means that there are less obstacles to the emergence of conflict and so it becomes a closer option and the risk of escalation to nuclear war that much greater.
Of course, the recent policies of nuclear weapons states are not making it easy to scale down nuclear risks. For some decades we had seen significant reductions in nuclear weapons, but now we are seeing modernisation programmes on all sides—like Britain’s Trident replacement. In some cases we are even seeing increases, like Boris Johnson’s nuclear arsenal increase last year.
But worst of all is the sanitizing of the idea of nuclear use. Trump had a lot to answer for this: he not only talked of so-called ‘usable’ nuclear weapons, but also produced them and deployed them in his last year of office. So now the idea that they will never be used—the mutually assured destruction theory of the Cold War—has gone. We hear of tactical nuclear weapons, as if you could use a small one on a battlefield and everything would be fine elsewhere. This is complete nonsense—and criminally dangerous nonsense.
At least 75,000 people died in the first hours after the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, and around 140,000 were dead by December that year. The death toll reached around 200,000 by the end of 1950 as a result of radiation poisoning, with cancers and foetal abnormalities continuing long beyond. With the Hiroshima bomb counting as a very small bomb in today’s terms, and a much greater understanding of the health and environmental impact of nuclear weapons use, it’s small wonder that much of the global community has rejected them, and that many states are fighting at the UN to get nuclear weapons prohibited.
Over half the world is already self-organised into nuclear weapons-free zones. As well as outlawing them on their own lands and across entire continents in the Global South, they quite reasonably do not wish to suffer the consequences of a nuclear war in the Global North. For this reason, the UN’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons came into force last year. Although our government refuses to engage with it, this week, the Welsh Parliament passed a motion acknowledging that this conflict increases the risk of a nuclear war and calling on all states to ratify the Treaty to prevent such a threat in future. No doubt some will call them utopian or unrealistic, but the alternative is eventually that we face nuclear war.
Those few states that insist on retaining nuclear weapons are playing with the future of humanity. It’s time for nuclear disarmament.