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"I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them."

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
The Nuclear Risk Dimension of the War On Ukraine


Remarks by Daryl G. Kimball
Executive Director, Arms Control Association
June 20, 2022

“No matter who tries to stand in our way ... they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history ....” Russian President Vladimir Putin, February 24

"If someone wants to interfere in the situation in Ukraine from the outside and creates an unacceptable threat of a strategic nature for Russia, the response will be lightning-fast, decisions on this matter have been made,” Mr. Putin said at a meeting with members of the Council of Legislators April 27.

"Russia's response will be immediate and will lead you to consequences that you have never faced in your history. We are ready for any development of events," the Russian president added. He said that Russia has all the tools for this, "such as no one can boast of now. We will use them, if necessary," Vladimir Putin warned.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, along with his implied threats of nuclear weapons use against any who would interfere, have raised the specter of a nuclear conflict in ways we have not experienced in the post-Cold War era.

  • Russia’s war on Ukraine and the ongoing possibility of military conflict between Russian and NATO forces have significantly increased the risk of nuclear weapons use.
     
  • Unlike the extremely dangerous 13-day-long Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, the war in Ukraine, will likely last many more months. And unlike the 1962 crisis, which did not involve a sustained exchange of fire, the war in Ukraine does. As a result, the world will remain in a condition of heightened nuclear danger for some time to come.
     
  • President Putin’s statements threatening possible nuclear use, and his announcement early in the conflict that he was raising the readiness level of Russian strategic nuclear forces, are designed to ward off outside military interference by U.S. and NATO forces in his attack on Ukraine.
     
  • From a legal perspective, the International Court of Justice unanimously determined in its 1996 advisory opinion that a threat to engage in nuclear weapons use, particularly under the circumstances suggested by Mr. Putin, is contrary to international humanitarian law, and, of course, the threat to use nuclear weapons, violates the UN Charter, and under any circumstance, is prohibited by the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
     
  • Putin’s threats also violate Article II of the 1973 bilateral Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War, which pledged the United States and Russia to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the other Party, against the allies of the other Party and against other countries, in circumstances which may endanger international peace and security.”
     
  • So far, President Joe Biden has not engaged in inflammatory nuclear rhetoric or raised the alert status of U.S. nuclear forces. U.S. and NATO leaders have made it clear their military forces will not directly enter the conflict. Nevertheless, the risk of escalation is real. A close encounter between NATO and Russian warplanes or an attack by Russia on NATO territory or vice versa could become a flashpoint for a wider conflict.
     
  • Because Russian and U.S. strategies reserve the option—under extreme circumstances—to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear threats, fighting could quickly go nuclear. Russian nuclear doctrine states that nuclear weapons can be used in response to an attack with weapons of mass destruction or if a conventional war threatens the “very existence of the state.” Right now, these conditions do not exist. But if the Kremlin believes a serious attack on Russia is underway, it might order the use of short-range, tactical nuclear weapons to tip the military balance in its favor. Such a scenario would seem unlikely, but it cannot be ruled out.

    U.S. President Joe Biden’s new Nuclear Posture Review states that the “fundamental role” of the U.S. arsenal will be to deter nuclear attacks while still leaving open the option for nuclear first use in “extreme circumstances” to counter conventional, biological, chemical, and possibly cyberattacks.
     
  • In addition to the possibility of an escalation of the fighting beyond the borders of Ukraine to involve NATO and Russian forces and territory, there is the potential, albeit small this time, that Russia might consider the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine itself. In April, CIA Director William Burns said that although there is no sign that Russia is preparing to do so, “none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons."
     
  • Since then, Russian officials have denied there is any intention to do so because the Russian state is clearly not under imminent threat from either Ukraine or NATO. But if the Kremlin thought an attack from the United States or NATO was underway or if the Kremlin finds that Russian forces are on the verge of a catastrophic defeat in Ukraine, Putin might consider the nuclear option, perhaps beginning with the use of short-range, “tactical” nuclear weapons, to try to tip the balance in Russia’s military favor or to try to end the conflict.
     
  • Once nuclear weapons are used in a conflict, particularly between nuclear-armed adversaries, we are in completely uncharted territory. Theories that a nuclear war can be “limited” are just theories. In practice and in the fog of nuclear war, once nuclear weapons are used in a conflict involving the United States and Russia, there is no guarantee it would not quickly become an all-out nuclear conflagration. A recent Princeton Program on Science and Global Security simulation estimates the use of nuclear weapons in war between NATO and Russian forces could lead to the death and injury of nearly 100 million people in just the first few hours. As the head of U.S. Strategic Command General John Hyten said in 2018 after the annual Global Thunder nuclear wargame: “It ends bad. And the bad meaning it ends with global nuclear war.”
     
  • Nuclear threats and alerts of various kinds were not uncommon during the Cold War, before the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and after. But Russia’s implied nuclear threats to shield an attack by a nuclear-armed state against a non-nuclear-weapon state is unprecedented—and unacceptable—in the post-Cold War era. And since the Soviet Union dissolved, no U.S. or Russian leader has raised the alert level of nuclear forces to try to coerce a potential nuclear adversary’s behavior.
     
  • Such actions are dangerous for all sides. Nuclear threat rhetoric and orders to raise the operational readiness of Russian or U.S. nuclear forces could be also misinterpreted in ways that lead the other side to make nuclear countermoves that trigger nuclear escalatory moves, fears of an imminent attack, and potentially nuclear weapons use.
     
  • We must also understand that another feature of the war is that Russia is “using” its nuclear weapons to provide cover for a major conventional military intervention against an independent, sovereign non-nuclear-weapon state. We must also recognize that this is not a uniquely Russian idea. Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, said in February 2021 that “[w]e must acknowledge the foundational nature of our nation’s strategic nuclear forces, as they create the ‘maneuver space’ for us to project conventional military power strategically.”
     
  • Putin’s invasion also underscores the fact that nuclear weapons don’t prevent major wars. Rather, they can facilitate aggression by nuclear-armed states and make wars waged by nuclear-armed states far more dangerous—especially when nuclear-armed states become pitted against one another and there is an increased risk of miscalculation and miscommunication.
     
  • Of course, Russia’s 2014 occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and its more recent invasion violates the security assurances extended to Ukraine in 1994 by the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States through the Budapest Memorandum—and makes a mockery of the negative security assurances extended to nonnuclear weapons states in the context of the NPT.
     
  • NATO countries may argue that because Russia has not attacked a NATO member, this shows the utility of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. In reality, U.S. and NATO nuclear weapons have proven to be useless in preventing Russian aggression against Ukraine.

    Instead, Ukraine’s allies and friends have responded with political, economic, and diplomatic means to help defend Ukraine and thwart the aggressor, along with military and humanitarian assistance to help Ukraine defend its territory. Even for a state or alliance possessing a robust nuclear arsenal, conventional military capabilities are key to deterring conventional attacks and to battlefield success, or failure.
     
  • Russia’s explicit nuclear threats, which President Biden and other leaders have criticized as “irresponsible,” also create a dilemma for NATO, which is a self-declared nuclear alliance that depends on maintaining the credible threat of nuclear use.

    The more NATO emphasizes the value of nuclear deterrence and the value of possessing nuclear weapons, the more legitimacy it lends to Putin’s nuclear threats and the mistaken and dangerous belief that nuclear weapons are necessary for self-defense. As Pope Francis declared in 2017: “[Nuclear weapons] exist in the service of a mentality of fear that affects not only the parties in conflict but the entire human race [and] create nothing but a false sense of security.”

Finally, the conflict has derailed the “Strategic Stability Dialogue” between Washington and Moscow that was intended to lead to negotiations on new nuclear arms reduction agreements designed to supersede the New START agreement, which will expire in early 2026.

In a statement issued to the Arms Control Association on June 2, President Biden said: “Our progress must continue beyond the New START …” But it remains unclear whether and when the U.S.-Russian dialogue will resume, let alone whether they can reach agreement on capping or further reducing their bloated arsenals beyond 2026.

As a result, neither side can say they are meeting their legally binding nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations under Article VI of the treaty, and it is more likely than not that after 2026, there will be no legally-binding limits on the world’s two largest nuclear stockpiles—something the world has not seen in more than five decades.

Response Options: As the war drags on, it is vital that Russian, NATO, and U.S. leaders maintain lines of communication to prevent direct conflict. They must refrain from threatening nuclear rhetoric and actions that increase the risk of nuclear escalation, such as moving to deploy tactical nuclear weapons, putting strategic weapons on higher alert levels, or developing new types of nuclear weapons designed for fighting and “winning” a regional nuclear war.

In particular, the international community needs to take stronger action to strengthen the legal and political norms against nuclear weapons use and the threat of use of nuclear weapons.

We must also press the nuclear-armed states to finally take the actions necessary to fulfill their commitments to verifiably reduce and eliminate their nuclear weapons and adopt non-nuclear approaches to defense that can more effectively preserve international peace and human security.

The March 2 vote in the General Assembly condemning Russia’s invasion and Putin’s decision to increase the readiness of his nuclear forces, was important but is not sufficient. We should recall that the UNGA issued a declaration in November 1961 that said that “any state using nuclear…weapons is to be considered as violating the Charter of the UN, as acting contrary to the laws of humanity and as committing a crime against mankind and civilization.”

The first meeting of states parties to the TPNW is a crucial and timely opportunity to reinforce the norms against nuclear weapons. States attending the 10th NPT Review Conference must also seek to reinforce the norm against nuclear use and nuclear threats and steer the nuclear possessor states away from nuclear confrontation and arms racing and toward a resumption of disarmament negotiations.

Bottom Lines: The nuclear dimensions of the war on Ukraine are reminders that outdated nuclear deterrence policies create unacceptable risks. If we are to eliminate the danger, we must actively reinforce the legal prohibitions and norms against nuclear weapons development, testing, possession, proliferation, and use—and press for disarmament diplomacy that leads to concrete actions that put us on the path toward the complete, irreversible, and verifiable elimination of all nuclear weapons in our lifetimes.