“Ukraine and Continuing Dangers of Nuclear War” was prepared for delivery by Joseph Gerson at Blue Banner’s 30th Anniversary Meeting in Ulan Bator on June 9, 2022. Blue Banner is a Mongolian NGO that has played a major role in winning and building on Mongolia’s nuclear weapons-free status.
Blue Banner Meeting, Ulan Bator
Dr. Joseph Gerson, June 9, 2022
I want to thank Enksaikhan for the opportunity to join today’s meeting, to lend a modicum of support for Mongolia’s invaluable nuclear weapons-free zone, and to learn from all of you. Mongolia’s weapons-free zone, born out of lessons from the Cold War and the Sino-Soviet nuclear confrontations, provides a foundation for denuclearization here in Asia and is an inspiration in an increasingly dangerous time. As the United Nations confirms “ Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones are an important regional approach to strengthening global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament norms and consolidating international efforts towards peace and security. The Secretary-General’s Disarmament Agenda went further by explaining that “Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones are “landmark instruments” that represent an excellent example of the synergy between regional and global efforts towards a world free of nuclear weapons, each of these regional agreements adds significant value to the collective efforts to achieve a more peaceful and stable world”. Here in Asia, we can hope that Mongolia’s nuclear weapons-free zone can serve as a bastion against calls for the reintroduction of U.S. nuclear weapons to South Korea and Japan and against militarist forces in each of those nations who have long advocated that they become nuclear powers.
In the first weeks of the Ukraine War, U.S. and Russian analysts described what was already a great power confrontation as a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion. They urged both sides not to pull too hard on the Gordian Knot of war. You will remember that the Cuban missile crisis was triggered by a Khrushchev’s desperate effort to overcome the Soviet Union’s perceived strategic vulnerability. The U.S. had 3,500 nuclear weapons ready to be launched, many on ICBMs based on Russia’s border in Turkey. Moscow had somewhere between 300-500 nuclear weapons and only four unreliable ICBMs. By deploying intermediate range missiles to Cuba, Khrushchev sought to equalize the balance of terror. Without going into detail about miscalculations, faulty intelligence, insubordinations, and a launch order that was mistakenly sent to Okinawa, during the crisis, U.S. leaders believed that the odds that it would culminate in a nuclear exchange were between 30 and 50%. Sobered by the crisis and facing popular pressures, within a year Kennedy and Khrushchev negotiated the limited test ban treaty, and Kennedy gave a speech signaling his desire to end the Cold War.
Sixty years later, largely to offset Russian strategic vulnerability resulting from NATO’s expansion to its borders, Moscow launched an imperial invasion of Ukraine. Even as Moscow has revised its war aims and expanded its control in Donbass and Luhansk and along Ukraine’s southern coast, we faced what now thankfully appears to be the diminishing possibility of the war turning nuclear.
Russian nuclear doctrine states that if the Russian state is threatened, nuclear weapons can be used. With Zelensky, the U.S., and several of its NATO allies committed to “winning the war” – which is to say the strategic defeat of Russian military forces and retaking Donetsk and Luhansk — Vladimir Putin’s rule, and thus the Russian state would be threatened. The same would apply, if the war becomes an Afghanistan-like quagmire that bleeds Russian resources in pursuit of the West’s new goal of seriously weakening Russia for the long term. U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines recently testified about this potential danger saying that “The current trend increases the likelihood that President Putin will turn to more drastic means.” This could include launching tactical nuclear weapons to terrorize Ukraine and dictate its terms of surrender. Given the war hysteria in the U.S. and Europe, combined with the U.S. nuclear doctrine authorizing use of nuclear weapons when the country’s partners’ vital interests are threatened, and with people like Henry Kissinger saying that the U.S. would have to act were the nuclear taboo to be broken, have to do what we can to ensure that neither side pulls too hard on the Gordian Knot of War.
Even as Putin is rightly condemned for violating the P-5 statement that nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, and for calling into question trust in negative security assurances, his rattling of Russia’s nuclear sabers did not break new ground. On at least thirty occasions during international crises and wars since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombings, the U.S. has prepared and/or threatened to initiate nuclear war Each of the other nuclear powers has also done so at least once. Former U.S. Strategic Command Chief, Admiral Charles Richards recently explained that the U.S. has used its strategic nuclear forces to “create the ‘maneuver space’ for us to project conventional military power strategically.” In the cases of Washington’s Iraq wars, when it feared that Saddam Hussein might attack the “alliance of the willing’s” vulnerable assembling forces helped to ensure that they were not attacked with chemical weapons. On other occasions, like the four U.S. nuclear threats during the French and U.S. Indochina Wars, Washington’s bluffs were called. In Asia, since Nagasaki, the U.S. has prepared and threatened to initiate nuclear war at least a dozen times, and India and Pakistan are no strangers to making nuclear threats. And now Russia’s nuclear threat apparently prevented the U.S. and NATO from establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine or sending their armies to rescue Kyiv.
All of this takes place midst increasingly unrestrained nuclear (and high tech) arms races in flagrant violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which the nuclear weapons states have flouted for more than 50 years. That is why the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was negotiated. Despite the P-5’s statement that nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, they are all upgrading their omnicidal nuclear arsenals and their delivery systems. The Cold War and Post-Cold War literally MAD arms control architecture provided a degree of strategic stability. But it is now in shambles. The ABM, CFE, INF, and Open Skies Treaties have all gone the way of dinosaurs. And with the Ukraine War few believe there will be sufficient time to negotiate a New START follow on treaty.
We must be clear eyed, imaginative, and courageous as we look to the future. We cannot blink away the reality that humanity faces two existential threats: nuclear weapons and the climate emergency, with pandemics and social and economic inequalities trailing not far behind. The great power confrontations pose major obstacles to developing the cooperation needed to address these threats to humankind. It is also true, as the anthropologist Margaret Meade wrote long ago “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
In the face of the accelerating nuclear arms races, spurred on by the Ukraine War, the diplomats gathering in Vienna later this month for the First Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW will need to do more than hold the line on their great achievement. In the tradition of surrounding and isolating to achieve victory, that confab of non-nuclear nations has the profound responsibility of reaffirming and deepening the international norm against the possession, threat, and use of nuclear weapons, as well as using the occasion to attract more countries to sign and ratify the Treaty. They must also be wise in using the meeting to encourage nuclear powers’ allies to break discipline and to further the unravelling of the nuclear disorder’s fabric.
Given the history of the nuclear powers resistance to fulfilling their NPT Article VI commitments, and now with the Ukraine War, expectations for August’s Review Conference are at their nadir. Former U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Countryman, who will play a leading role in the RevCon has indicated that the U.S. will focus on the ways that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has undermined all three pillars of the NPT. He also argues that with the non-NATO nations that have failed to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there is little chance that the Review Conference will be able to reinforce the nuclear taboo. Despite this, the Peace and Planet International Network is urging the RevCon to commit to implementation of all previous NPT RevCon commitments without further delay; to commit to a 2030 timeframe for adoption of a framework or package of agreements for a comprehensive nuclear weapons convention, with implementation of the global elimination of nuclear weapons no later than 2045. At the very least, it can provide a foundation for disarmament negotiations on the other side of this disastrous war.
Finally, I want to return to the strategy of surrounding and isolating the nuclear powers, morally as well as geographically. Mongolia’s Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone is critically important in this regard. It serves as a model for world leaders and active citizens who are committed to preventing nuclear war and to ensuring human survival. And it can serve as an inspiration model for the negotiation of a Northeast Asian, and – after the Ukraine War – European nuclear free zones.