War, peace and (in)justice in the nuclear age

For decades, US and NATO officials have insisted that nuclear weapons help keep the peace.

06 July 2022 Wednesday 23:55
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War, peace and (in)justice in the nuclear age

For decades, US and NATO officials have insisted that nuclear weapons help keep the peace. Less than two years ago, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, stressed that “in an uncertain world, [nuclear] weapons continue to play a vital role in keeping the peace”. However, Russia's intrusion into Ukraine, nuclear threats from Putin, and growing concern about a major war between Russia and NATO have called this apparent certainty into question. And even more pressing questions have arisen about the injustice of nuclear peace.

At first glance, the peacekeeping function of nuclear weapons seems real. Since 1945, the great powers have refrained from waging large-scale conventional wars against each other. The third world war has not materialized. It is true that nuclear weapon states threaten, condemn and impose economic sanctions, but they have backed down in the face of a major military conflict for fear of crossing the nuclear threshold. Although it is impossible to establish with scientific certainty a causal relationship between the peace of the great powers and the nuclear age, there does seem to be at least a correlation between nuclear deterrence and (partial) peace. These well-known mechanisms seem to still be in place and working well.

Putin has threatened NATO, but has so far stopped short of engaging in open military conflict with the Alliance, just as NATO has not engaged in open military conflict with Russia. The West's nuclear weapons continue to deter Putin. Russia's nuclear weapons continue to deter NATO. Ukraine, on the other hand, devoid of all nuclear defenses, has been unable to deter Russian aggression and is waging a bloody war against the invaders on several fronts.

The cold war was also characterized by this paradox. While NATO and the Warsaw Pact enjoyed a precarious position of stability built on tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, individual countries on the geographical periphery of the global conflict experienced time and time again war and instability. At the time, Washington and Moscow interfered in these conflicts as much as they could, providing military and logistical support to the Vietcong and the mujahideen. Instead, the ban on interference in conflicts within one's spheres of influence (such as the crushing of the Prague Spring by the Warsaw Pact in 1968) remained in place. Escalation caused by outside interference seemed like too great a risk.

In the coming weeks it will be seen whether the stability-instability paradox continues to determine the approach in which nuclear deterrence has historically evolved. Still, there are some indications that the emerging nuclear crisis is taking place under very different auspices.

First of all, there is the question of geographical and, therefore, cultural proximity. The war in Ukraine is not taking place in remote unstable areas of Asia, but in the middle of Europe. Refugees are part of Western culture. The very fact of geographical proximity also increases the risk of an inadvertent military confrontation in the immediate vicinity of the Ukrainian border, where NATO and Russian troops are operating. Furthermore, the Kremlin has directly claimed Ukrainian territory, denying Ukrainian sovereignty within recognized borders. The fact that the West does not recognize this claim and rightly refers to the 1990 Paris Charter, which Moscow signed, is part of the constellation of the conflict.

The struggle for power, geopolitical order and security in direct geographical proximity further complicate the situation. Parallels have been drawn with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, even though the Kennedy administration was ultimately interested in a secret reconciliation of interests. In exchange for the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, Washington later withdrew its Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey and committed to a permanent renunciation of the use of military force against Cuba; a resignation that has been adhered to by successive US administrations, including those of Reagan, George W. Bush and Trump. Fast-forward now to the present: Putin has shown no sign of being interested in a way out. He is also not concerned about the nuclear balance. The West, for its part, lacks negotiating capacity, since the Kremlin's maximalist demands are simply unacceptable and completely contrary to the peace order in Europe agreed in 1990.

Finally, the war in Ukraine differs from many previous conflicts in terms of access to information. While during the cold war radio and television news (as well as politically oriented newspapers) focused daily on the Vietnam War for a limited period of time, in the case of Ukraine countless clips, photos, forums discussion forums and freely accessible satellite data and flight information make it possible for the entire world to experience and comment on the war on social media, seemingly in real time and 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Thanks to this, large segments of the population of Western countries have become emotionally committed to the fate of Ukraine and its population.

Furthermore, these advances in information gathering have coincided with a new generation of leaders who became politically socialized in the decades following the cold war and who now wield significant media and political power. Members of that generation seem much more committed to normative ideals such as freedom, inclusion, and equality, and much less willing to prioritize vague security concepts, such as nuclear deterrence, over fighting obvious injustices. That may partly explain the repeated calls for a NATO-imposed no-fly zone over Ukraine, which wittingly or unwittingly ignore or disregard Russian nuclear deterrence.

With this change, the motive of justice has increasingly come to the fore. Is it fair to deny Ukrainians the same level of security that we enjoy in a nuclear-armed West? Is there any doubt that NATO would have taken direct military action much sooner had Russia not been a nuclear power? What right does Putin have to enjoy the fruits of deterrence (freedom from foreign military intervention) while invading his neighbor? A realistic answer to these questions will conclude that nuclear peace is, at best, a very unjust peace insofar as it is unequally distributed. It favors old, white, rich societies, as well as autocrats, nationalists, despots, and dictators, from Moscow to New Delhi, Beijing, and Pyongyang.

The indirect effects of the historical injustices of nuclear peace, especially with the countries of the global south, continue to be felt today. At the special session of the United Nations General Assembly on February 28, 2022, 141 states voted in favor of a resolution condemning the Russian invasion and calling for a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine. At the same time, 35 states abstained; among them, many African countries and major and middle powers such as China, India, Nigeria, Pakistan and South Africa. The British economic historian Adam Tooze has observed that the combined population of all abstaining states equals 51% of the world's population. Aside from the US and its allies in Europe, East Asia and the Pacific, no other country in the world has enacted sanctions against Russia in response to the aggression against Ukraine.

The historical injustices of nuclear peace against the countries of the global South may very soon be dwarfed by new injustices of much greater magnitude. With Putin's invasion of Ukraine, a Cold War 2.0 is becoming more and more likely. A new Iron Curtain could soon stretch across Europe, from Finland in the north to the Turkish Bosporus in the south. Given the growing politico-military cooperation between Moscow and Beijing, the possibility of a new bloc confrontation cannot be ruled out, with the US and its allies in Europe, East Asia and the Pacific region on the one hand, and China, Russia and other potential partners (some authoritarian, like Iran, and others highly nationalistic, like India) on the other. This clash of blocs and the ensuing conventional and nuclear arms races could absorb the energies so urgently needed to jointly tackle climate change and prevent future pandemics. Any realistic observer will conclude that the world community has neither the time nor the resources to wage a new cold war.

Still, at worst, nuclear peace is not only unjust, it may be a pipe dream. So far, Putin's nuclear threats have failed to impress the West. Rhetorical threats in his declaration of war speech on February 24 were followed by unprecedented economic and financial sanctions and increased arms deliveries to Ukraine. His February 27 order to increase the alert status of Russian nuclear forces followed, among other things, NATO member Turkey's closure of the Bosphorus Strait to certain Russian warships. In so doing, the West deliberately shifts the level of action to political arenas where it can exercise its power, while relying on its ability to dissuade Putin from resorting to nuclear weapons. For Putin, by contrast, nuclear coercion may soon be one of the few areas left for Russia to maintain escalation dominance. Some Russia experts have warned that Putin will be more likely to resort to such options the more the Ukraine war fails to achieve its goals and the stronger the pressure from the West. President Biden's unhelpful comments in Warsaw about regime change may add to that pressure.

However, pressure on Putin is not the only way in which the current crisis could escalate to the nuclear level. The possible use of chemical weapons by Russia against the Ukrainian population, perhaps under a false flag attack, would create enormous internal political pressure in Washington, Brussels, Warsaw and Berlin to intervene directly in Ukraine. Putin has made it very clear that he regards Ukraine as part of the historical Russian empire, however unacceptable and illegal that view may be. It is likely that, from his point of view, he regards a military intervention involving NATO forces as an attack on Russia itself. Moreover, to establish air sovereignty over Ukraine, such an intervention force would have to be willing to do exactly that: eliminate air defenses on Russian territory with targeted strikes. It would be naive to assume that Putin would not contemplate the use of nuclear weapons in such an extreme scenario. By that time, if not sooner, the world would be on the brink of a nuclear Armageddon.

Considering Ukraine's fate, other states may soon seek nuclear protection clandestinely; some through their own efforts, others through strengthened or new alliance agreements. The negative repercussions of the war relative to ongoing diplomatic efforts to prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons place Iran high on that list. How Taiwan (claimed by China and supported militarily by the US) positions itself in the coming months will be decisive for peace in East Asia.

That the uncontrolled horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons is not a viable path was already agreed upon by the international community in the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and has been repeatedly reaffirmed ever since. The reason is that the greater the number of states with nuclear weapons, the greater the risk that they will be used again. To deal with nuclear injustice, the five nuclear powers officially legitimized by the United Nations committed themselves under the NPT to complete disarmament. Yet despite those commitments, China, France, Russia, the UK and the US currently possess a combined total of more than 12,000 nuclear warheads. Nuclear modernization and rearmament programs have been underway in those five states for several years. At the same time, arms control treaties have been falling apart one after another since the beginning of the new millennium; the most recent, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and the Open Skies Treaty. Aside from a new treaty banning nuclear weapons, the goal of complete global disarmament has become a very distant prospect, not least because of Putin's brutal war of aggression.

Now, if nuclear proliferation is something that most states consider politically undesirable and nuclear disarmament is not feasible in terms of realpolitik, how should we deal with the effects of a clearly precarious and unjust nuclear peace? The bitter answer is that we must first put up with the limits of a system that we ourselves, in the West, have helped to create and maintain over several decades. Doing so without pushing those limits to a breaking point in response to the war in Ukraine will be the second task facing us in the weeks, months, and perhaps years to come. If possible and acceptable, the West will continue to funnel weapons to help the Ukrainians defend themselves. In doing so, NATO must keep in mind two fundamental objectives: close policy coordination in the Alliance and walking the fine line between military support and avoiding unacceptable risks of escalation. In particular, in relation to internal coordination, it seems that the Alliance has to clarify itself and come to an agreement in view of the differences that have been made public on the possible delivery of Polish fighters to Ukraine.

Furthermore, Western countries would do well to continue to take note of Putin's nuclear threats and condemn them, without intending to imitate them. Russian vileness must not tempt us to follow his example. Finally, NATO will soon have to face the task of reinforcing the security of its Eastern allies. It will be necessary to determine the capabilities that in that sense best deter Russia through a detailed internal analysis that will be carried out under enormous time pressure due to the new geopolitical situation. The limited effectiveness of Russian nuclear threats against NATO and the continuing ability of each of the parties to deter the other in a direct conflict supports the argument focused on strengthening the conventional capabilities of the Alliance's eastern flank. It remains to be shown that a larger number of NATO nuclear weapons can change such a state of affairs. However, given its diminished conventional capabilities (as a result of the war), Russia may become even more dependent on short- and medium-range dual-capable systems in the future. That, in turn, will increase the pressure on Europe's NATO allies in the nuclear dimension. Germany is already experiencing a lively debate about the benefits of increased missile defense for the country and its eastern neighbors.

However, even such a precarious and unjust nuclear peace will require elements of cooperation. If Russia is interested in a modicum of stability and risk reduction in the future, arms control will have to return to its original military task as a stabilizing element of mutual deterrence. In this sense, arms control must be understood again as a “complement to deterrence and defense”, as the new German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, recently said.

For Ukraine (still at the mercy of the injustices of the nuclear peace), these considerations are of little value at this point. Until Vladimir Putin makes it clear that he is willing to accept an outcome that does not satisfy his maximalist demand for a complete demilitarization of the country, a negotiated solution seems a distant prospect. The bloodshed will not stop. However, in the long term we must consider how to organize peace, security and justice in a more participatory and equal way in a world that still has more than 12,000 nuclear warheads. 77 years have passed since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today the practical return to the goal of nuclear disarmament seems again to be a generational task. We cannot let another 77 years pass before the world sees global peace, security and justice.

Ulrich Kühn is director of the Arms Control and Emerging Technologies Research Area. Research Institute for Peace and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH).



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