The Nuclear Threat Is Back
Beyond the bloodshed and needless destruction, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has also increased the risk of radiation leaks and even nuclear war. Having failed to heed the lessons of the Cold War during a brief window of peace in the early 1990s, the world is now living with the consequences.
VIENNA – The recent battle between Russian troops and Ukrainian civil defense forces within the confines of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant revealed just how close the world now is to a horrific nightmare: a massive radiation leak. Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear facility, is home to six nuclear reactors, any one of which could have been jeopardized by the fires that were started during the Russian shelling of the facility and fighting at the plant. That the flames were extinguished quickly is a testament to the professionalism and bravery of the plant’s workers. But with Russian officers now interfering in the running of the plant, the Zaporizhzhia reactors remain at risk.
The world got lucky, as it did with Russian troops’ equally dangerous incursion into the shuttered Chernobyl plant during the first days of the invasion. Yet there are still another half-dozen nuclear reactors scattered across Ukraine, which means that the worst-case scenario remains a live possibility. The release of radioactive material could render entire population centers uninhabitable, threatening hundreds of thousands of people – and not just in the immediate vicinity.
On the eve of Russia’s invasion, Bennett Ramberg, the author of Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy, reminded us that, following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, “Soviet authorities had to relocate hundreds of thousands of people and remove large swaths of agricultural land and forests from production for decades.” Among the many ways that the conflict in Ukraine could spill over into Europe, and perhaps beyond, nuclear fallout would be one of the most toxic and pervasive.
Yet even worse would be a nuclear strike. Beyond the horrific loss of life and the displacement of millions of people, the most disturbing feature of the Ukraine war has been the reintroduction of nuclear weapons as a central component of geopolitics. After warning that any intervening powers would be met with “consequences as you have never before experienced in your history,” Russian President Vladimir Putin has since responded to the first wave of Western sanctions by putting Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert.
Cold War Wisdom
Putin’s move is something that we haven’t seen since the 1960s, when the world teetered on the precipice of a nuclear holocaust during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and again during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. By that point, the leading nuclear-weapons states (NWSs) seemed to appreciate that the spread of nuclear weapons was increasing the risk of nuclear apocalypse. Between 1965 and 1968, they negotiated the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which went into force in 1970.
The NPT represented a remarkable consensus, considering that the Cold War was at its height following the Soviet suppression of the “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia. The NPT currently has 191 signatories, including the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The text of the treaty acknowledges “the devastation that would be visited upon all mankind by a nuclear war,” and it commits signatories to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear-arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”
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The NPT was followed by a series of arms-control measures, most importantly bilateral agreements that substantially reduced the Soviet and US nuclear arsenals. In the early 1990s, South Africa became the first (and still the only) country to dismantle its nuclear-weapons program and arsenal voluntarily. With the close of the apartheid era, F.W. de Klerk’s administration, seeking to end the country’s international isolation, signed the NPT in 1991.
Around the same time, the newly independent states of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine had inherited nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union following its collapse in 1991. But they soon handed over their arsenals to Russia and joined the NPT as non-NWSs. Like South Africa, each subjected itself to International Atomic Energy Agency verification to ensure the peaceful nature of its nuclear activities.
But, of course, there were notable exceptions to this positive trend. In May 1998, India conducted multiple underground nuclear-weapons tests, leading Pakistan to do the same. And since first demonstrating its nuclear capabilities in 2006, North Korea has been developing its nuclear program and conducting intercontinental ballistic missile tests regularly. These three countries, along with Israel, are known to possess nuclear weapons, yet remain outside the NPT.
Finally, although the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1996, it has never gone into force, because key NWSs have not ratified it. Similarly, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entered into effect in 2021, but it has yet to garner the support of any NWSs.
The Great Unraveling
At the end of the Cold War, between 1989 and 1991, there were high hopes of building a new world order based on nuclear-arms reduction, multilateral cooperation for security and development, and solidarity in the face of common threats like climate change and deadly pandemics. But these hopes were soon dashed, especially insofar as nuclear weapons were concerned. Old habits – and older survival instincts – die hard.
That brief window of peace was squandered, creating the conditions for the heightened nuclear insecurity that we are now confronting. Many of the nuclear agreements that had buttressed peace in Europe for decades were allowed to lapse or were abandoned by key signatories.
For example, in 2002, the United States, under President George W. Bush, withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which had limited the deployment of defensive nuclear-missile systems since 1972. Then, in 2019, Donald Trump’s administration announced America’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Agreement – which had, since 1987, prohibited Russia and the US from deploying land-based missiles within a range of 500-5,500 kilometers (310-3,420 miles) – citing Russia’s “continuing violation of the treaty.” Russia withdrew from the INF in March of the same year. And in 2020, the US withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty, followed by Russia the following year. Since 2002, that agreement had allowed signatories to conduct reconnaissance flights over each other’s territory to verify nuclear compliance.
The dismantling of this intricate security architecture has certainly made the current moment even more perilous. But even if these agreements were still in place, the work of reengineering the world order after 1989 would have remained incomplete. What emerged from the end of the Cold War has proved to be deeply flawed. There have been far too many occasions when international norms prohibiting the use of force except in self-defense have been ignored; when conventions protecting states’ sovereignty and borders have been breached; and when basic human rights have been brazenly violated. After 30 years of such transgressions, the norms that we had hoped to establish after the Cold War have lost much of their potency.
Moreover, while multilateralism is imperative in our interconnected world, it, too, has often been sidelined and ignored. Although the Security Council has the power to “take enforcement measures to maintain or restore international peace and security,” it remains impotent. Its ability to function is constantly undercut by divisions among the five veto-wielding permanent members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the US – each of which defends its own interests, not world peace and security.
A global order that is shaky, selective, and full of holes and double standards has brought us to this point. The generally positive trend between the 1960s and the 1990s has been sharply reversed. According to the Federation of American Scientists:
“In contrast to the overall inventory of nuclear weapons, the number of warheads in global military stockpiles – which comprises warheads assigned to operational forces – is increasing once again. The United States is still reducing its nuclear stockpile slowly. France and Israel have relatively stable inventories. But China, India, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom, as well as possibly Russia, are all thought to be increasing their stockpiles.”
As we have seen in the Ukraine war, nuclear weapons have once again become instruments of security strategy. All nine NWSs – China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the UK, and the US – are, indeed, now in a frantic race to modernize their arsenals.
Even more ominously, the NWSs are availing themselves of new cyber and artificial-intelligence technologies, as well as advanced sci-fi-like hypersonic missiles that are designed to evade existing defense systems. And many – including Britain and France – now keep their nuclear weapons on heightened alert, a status that raises the probability of a nuclear-weapon launch (be it intentional, accidental, or as a result of cyber manipulation).
Despite all our past legal commitments, we are still living in a world where security strategy ultimately depends on nuclear weapons. The great irony is that NWSs do not hesitate to admonish non-NWS on nuclear matters. It is a classic case of “do as I say, not as I do.” One hopes that the nuclear agreement with Iran, from which Trump withdrew the US in 2018, will soon be revived. But the double standards being applied have not been lost on anyone.
I have long argued that the current system of nuclear haves and have-nots is unjust, dangerous, and unsustainable in the long run. Nuclear weapons are an existential threat anywhere and everywhere, regardless of who possesses them. The world today is split into a large majority of countries that want to eliminate nuclear weapons, and a small minority of NWSs and their allies that remain wedded to the status quo. But if we cannot reduce the supply and limit the use of nuclear weapons – as we have already done with chemical and biological weapons – then we should prepare for the nuclear Pandora’s box to be opened.
A Denuclearization Agenda
Notwithstanding the risks we face, today’s crises could lead to a positive outcome. As war follows pandemic, we need to do more than “build back better.” What we really need is to build something completely new, on a foundation of equality. If the NWSs can get serious about reversing the dangerous trend toward renuclearization and great-power conflict, they need to take several urgent steps.
First, they must de-escalate from their current nuclear postures, ending their arsenals’ high-alert status and implementing measures to guard against possible accidents or cyberattacks. Second, they must eliminate any system or protocol wherein a single person can authorize a nuclear attack. And third, they must recommit to working toward a world that is free of nuclear weapons – the ultimate aim of the NPT.
This requires a departure from the longstanding dispensation based on deterrence (mutual assured destruction). As US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev recognized in 1985, “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Achieving a world without nuclear weapons will require serious measures to move disarmament forward. An obvious place to start is bringing the CTBT into force.
The NWSs also should each adopt “no first use” and “sole purpose” postures, meaning that their existing arsenals will only ever be used for deterrence (rather than as a political cudgel, as Putin has done). We also need to start negotiations on a fissile-material cut-off treaty to ban further production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons. And we need the US and Russia – which together account for approximately 90% of the world’s 13,000-plus nuclear weapons – to resume their bilateral arms-reduction negotiations. Our aim should be to build a collective security system where nuclear weapons have no place.
Finally, we must mobilize global public opinion, in order to place greater pressure on those countries possessing nuclear weapons to commit to eliminating all of them. A total prohibition on the possession of nuclear weapons must become a peremptory norm of international law, with the hoarding of such arsenals becoming a taboo akin to genocide. But as the unfolding horror and continuing nuclear danger in Ukraine show, time is not on our side.