The War in Ukraine Shows Nuclear Weapons Must Be Abolished

We are already in a nuclear war. That may sound unlikely, but the moment President Putin threatened "consequences such as you have never seen in your history", for any “outside power” interfering with Russia’s ability to achieve its goals in Ukraine, he turned the war nuclear. Everyone knew exactly what he meant. Threatening to use nuclear weapons is in effect using nuclear weapons, just as a robber does not have to fire his gun to be charged with armed robbery.

Until now, the role of nuclear weapons, under the doctrine of mutually-assured destruction, was to deter an attack. Only when an existential threat arose would a nuclear power resort to a nuclear response. Admittedly, the advent of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons has muddied the waters. Yet Russia does not face an existential threat in Ukraine.

Russia has turned its nuclear arsenal into a tool to provide cover for territorial aggression in Ukraine. Nuclear blackmail has never been as explicit as in this case. If the gambit succeeds, it sets a dangerous precedent particularly for Russia in its relations with its near abroad.

However, NATO is far from blameless. NATO, while understandably inclined to help Ukraine defend itself, may court nuclear disaster by misjudging the red lines that Russia is drawing. What those red lines are is not precisely clear. Several NATO countries, including Canada, are providing ever heavier forms of “defensive” armaments to the Ukrainian forces. Rather than worrying about crossing nuclear red lines, the official policy of the Biden administration is to keep NATO out, but otherwise walk as close to purported red lines as possible. The aim is to weaken Russia, as Secretaries Blinken and Austin recently explained in Kyiv, if not regime change, as Mr. Biden’s “slips” have suggested on several occasions.

These statements and actions on both sides are a form of reckless nuclear brinkmanship that is unprecedented since the darkest days of the Cold War. Russians and all of us need to understand the hideous impacts of a nuclear explosion, the terrible suffering inflicted on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by small nuclear bombs, and the vastly increased destructive power of those in today's arsenals. Moreover, both Russian and American policies envisage their nuclear weapons would be used in response not only to nuclear attack but also to aggression with conventional weapons endangering the existence of their state.

In the larger confrontation between NATO and Russia, of which the Ukraine crisis is a part, Russia has only one “ace in the whole”: its advanced nuclear capabilities. Geo-politically, Ukraine is of far greater concern to Russia than it is to the U.S. Yet the U.S. sees the crisis as an opportunity to strengthen its position vis-a-vis China, by weakening its ally, Russia. It risks nuclear war in the process.

This confrontation, moreover, occurs at a time when many of the nuclear-weapons treaties and institutions that had provided a modicum of strategic stability have eroded or been abrogated, mainly by the United States.

It has never been more important to rid the world of nuclear weapons; humanity has never been closer to nuclear self-destruction. This is the danger point to which the doctrine of mutually-assured destruction eventually leads: murky red lines, precipitous actions, and a nuclear-armed dictator whose options may be narrowing.

As Canadians, we insist that our government respect the opinion of the majority of its citizens (74 per cent in a Nanos poll last year) and sign the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons now. We urgently need to prohibit the threat or use of nuclear weapons.

Photo Credit: SYNEL