Commentary: The time has come to get rid of nuclear weapons

Commentary: The time has come to get rid of nuclear weapons
Vice President Joe Biden greets Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at the Russian White House, in Moscow, Russia, March 10, 2011. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine has not gone well for him. Ukrainian civilians and military personnel – aided and armed by the United States, the European Union, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organiztion – have heroically staved off Putin's soldiers. The international community has united around imposing severe sanctions on Russia, which have decimated its economy. Thousands of Russian citizens have taken to the streets, risking arrest, to protest Putin's war. The world is against him.

Yet the means of stopping the 69-year-old former KGB spy's neo-Soviet ambitions are extremely limited because Putin has at his disposal the planet's largest – and most sophisticated – arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Because deterrence and the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction are inapplicable when a nuclear power attacks a non-nuclear state, such as Ukraine, Putin's menacing bluster about his nation's nuclear capability must be taken seriously. Further, Putin's paranoia, distrust of, and sequestration from his closest advisers add substantial precariousness to today's crisis.

Ever since the first nuclear bomb was detonated in July of 1945, humanity has puttered under a haze of potential atomic armageddon. In fact, merely one of our most advanced modern missiles has thousands of times more destructive power than the bombs that the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan less than a month later.

Eerily, like the United States, Russian military doctrine does not preclude its government's chief executive from unilaterally deploying nuclear weapons, even in a first-strike scenario:

The Russian Federation retains the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear weapons and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies... and also in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is put under threat.

That final clause is ominous, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists noted on Thursday, for two primary reasons:

First, in echoing the Basic Principles of the Russian Federation’s State Policy in the Domain of Deterrence, Putin provides a frame of reference for his thinking about nuclear weapon use. This, in turn, provides context for assessing the risk that he will escalate to the use of nuclear weapons.

Second, in a period of high tension, a miscalculation could have catastrophic consequences, as Russia’s recent decisions arguably show. World leaders should do as much as possible to dissuade Putin from using nuclear weapons, not so much by the threat of retaliation in kind since that could lead to dangerous escalation. Rather they should prepare the ground for a massive political response to a potential decision Putin might make to cross the nuclear threshold.

A majority of Putin's atomic arsenal consists of so-called "tactical" or battlefield nukes, which have relatively low explosive yields when compared to their "strategic" multi-megaton thermonuclear cousins. That, however, is by no means a positive thing.

Nina Tannenwald, an author, nuclear weapons expert, and professor of international relations at the Brown University Political Science Department opined on Thursday in Scientific Americanthat a "limited" nuclear war would have cataclysmic repercussions:

No one should imagine, however, that it makes sense to use a tactical nuclear weapon. A thermonuclear explosion of any size possesses overwhelming destructive power. Even a 'small-yield' nuclear weapon (0.3 kilotons) would produce damage far beyond that of a conventional explosive. (For a graphic depiction, the interactive site NUKEMAP, created by nuclear historian Alexander Wellerstein, allows you to simulate the effects of a nuclear explosion of any size anywhere on the planet). It would also cause all the horrors of Hiroshima, albeit on a smaller scale. A tactical nuclear weapon would produce a fireball, shock waves, and deadly radiation that would cause long-term health damage in survivors. Radioactive fallout would contaminate air, soil, water, and the food supply (Ukrainians are already familiar with this kind of outcome because of the disastrous meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 1986).

No one knows if using a tactical nuclear weapon would trigger full-scale nuclear war. Nevertheless, the risk of escalation is very real. Those on the receiving end of a nuclear strike are not likely to ask whether it was tactical or strategic.

Given the simmering tensions in Europe, which were undoubtedly inflamed when Putin put his nuclear forces on a vague "high alert" on February 27th, Tannenwald added:

Nuclear deterrence comes with tremendous risks and enormous costs. The arguments in favor of deterrence, although sometimes convincing, are not always true. We must acknowledge that nuclear deterrence could fail. That’s why, despite the trillions of dollars spent on nuclear arsenals, no one sleeps soundly under a nuclear umbrella—especially during a crisis such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The chances of a nuclear exchange – whether intentionally or by accident – are higher today than at any time in the last eight decades.

"Although there is a huge margin of error around any estimate, subjectively, we would assign an uncomfortably high 10% chance of a civilization-ending global nuclear war over the next 12 months," BCA Research, based in Montreal, Canada, calculated earlier this week.

BCA Research

Setting aside the grim math, our luck will eventually run out. If our species hopes to survive and thrive, the only solution is the immediate and complete elimination of nuclear bombs.

"This war will likely upend the European security order. It also demonstrates how little real protection nuclear weapons provide," Tannenwald concluded. "The world would be better off without these weapons."

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