Reviews | Putin’s nuclear threat marks the start of a new era

Second, the fight for Ukraine greatly increases the likelihood of nuclear war. Many experts have claimed that Russia would not invade Ukraine, but it did, underlining the very real risk that Russian President Vladimir Putin could still use nuclear weapons, especially if Moscow continues to lose the war. . President Joe Biden recently urged Putin not to use nuclear weapons – a move that would end an invaluable 77-year-old taboo and alter the course of history, with potentially horrific costs.

Third, the idea that nuclear deterrence clearly enables naked conventional aggression is not how most people think nuclear deterrence works, or how it should work. Most observers understand that deterrence is based on the terrifying threat of nuclear annihilation, the ever-present risk of imminent death. Most wished the system weren’t in place, but they had become numb to the risk.

Ukraine changed that. At first, almost 70% of American adults feared that the invasion would lead to nuclear war – a reasonable and terrifying fear. It turns out that nuclear weapons don’t “keep the peace”. Quite the contrary, they allow conventional conflicts where the escalation towards “the ultimate weapon” is all too possible.

Deterrence works. Russian nuclear capabilities and threats deter the United States. The Pentagon has even delayed a flight test of a nuclear-armed missile, fearing it would increase tensions. This is the strongest argument for nuclear deterrence: it prevents larger conflicts like the two world wars that killed tens of millions of people.

But at what risk? The war in Ukraine shows that nuclear deterrence doesn’t work the way most imagined, and the world is now a much more dangerous place than we thought. The risk of a nuclear war resulting in hundreds of millions of deaths is at its highest level in decades.

This fact could and should stimulate a shift in thinking about the value of nuclear weapons.

With that in mind, there are four paths the world could take.

The first — and unfortunately the most likely — is the continuation of the status quo, but that would be deeply unsatisfactory. Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, Russia, China and the United States were already upgrading or expanding their nuclear arsenals. Today, some American policy makers argue that the United States needs more nuclear weapons, although their reasoning is weak and counterproductive. The United States already has the most capable nuclear arsenal in the world, but that did not stop Russia from invading Ukraine. How would After weapons help?

Another path could cause countries like Brazil, Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Turkey to acquire nuclear weapons, leading to the collapse of the international non-proliferation regime and other countries to follow suit. With more countries armed, a nuclear war would occur sooner rather than later, with disastrous consequences.

A third option is to try to rid the world of “problem states” that possess nuclear weapons. Proponents of this approach would favor regime change in China, North Korea and Russia to avoid wars like the one in Ukraine. It would also be a recipe for disaster. Despite Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, many nations have not joined the West in condemning it. China, meanwhile, is integrated into the global economy, and North Korea is paranoid and on high alert. It is not possible to eliminate one of these governments.

This leaves a fourth possibility, the most promising and safest. Recognize that nuclear weapons are the problem, and rather than creating a more nuclear-armed world or ousting rogue governments that have nuclear weapons, the world must eliminate nuclear weapons. This will not happen quickly and the world will have to develop a new, truly stabilizing security regime to replace the current system based on nuclear deterrence, but this effort should be at the center of international efforts moving forward.

A starting point should be to reform the United Nations Security Council, where currently the top five nuclear-armed countries – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – have a permanent veto over efforts to end conflict around the world. There can be no new security system until this arrangement is complete.

A second goes to arms control. This includes reaching bilateral US-Russian agreements to reduce nuclear arsenals (which will have to include limits on long-range missile defenses, among other challenges); conclude two international agreements, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (two steps that would severely hamper China’s nuclear program); and build support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the only emerging success in the nuclear field.

Seventy-seven years ago, just two nuclear bombs ended World War II. Yet today, nuclear-weapon countries possess more than 12,000 weapons, most far more destructive than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is now clear that the risk of continuing to rely on nuclear weapons for security is even more dangerous than previously imagined. It is time to go beyond nuclear deterrence. It is the best hope for the future of humanity.


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