Last month’s most alarming headline was another threat from Vladimir Putin to point new missiles at “centers of decision-making,” such as Washington. Why does he make these threats? Russia’s nuclear program, the biggest in the…
Last month’s most alarming headline was another threat from Vladimir Putin to point new missiles at “centers of decision-making,” such as Washington. Why does he make these threats? Russia’s nuclear program, the biggest in the world in terms of warheads, exists to grab attention.
That’s why Putin has spent significant amounts of his national address time over the past two years speaking of Russia’s new crop of nuclear weapons. All nuclear weapons are a humanitarian threat, terrifying weapons of mass destruction now banned under international law, but Russia has employed a publicity strategy of emphasizing their destructive power.
The recent trend has been for countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., to showcase their deceptively named “low-yield” nuclear weapons. We will always have nuclear weapons, the thinking went, so let’s just make them a bit less destructive.
Russia’s recent actions have fully exposed this con. Nuclear weapons are designed to lay waste to cities and indiscriminately mass murder civilians. Beyond cities, the new Russian weapons like the “Doomsday” underwater drone carry the explicit threat of destroying a whole coastline with a radioactive tsunami that would kill millions.
While it’s true that civil society has a freer hand to influence policy in more open democracies such as the U.S., the U.K., France and India, as opposed to China or Russia, it is also true that international norms influence all states. That is our best chance at influencing Russia’s behavior.
First, we need to call Russia’s actions what they are — a flagrant violation of international law, leading to Cold War II and a new arms race we are unlikely to survive. Saying this does not absolve the responsibility of the other nuclear-armed states. There must be a global embrace of the U.N.’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which sets those norms against nuclear weapons.
The treaty fills a critical gap in the nuclear disarmament treaty regime by explicitly categorizing nuclear weapons as banned and inhumane, the same as chemical and biological weapons. This means building new weapons, stockpiling warheads and threatening use — all things Russia is doing — are illegal. European leaders and the U.S. in particular lose credibility with their opposition to the nuclear ban treaty: They should instead counter Russia’s growing nuclear belligerence by embracing the new norm of no state being allowed nuclear weapons.
Five European governments lose further credibility by stationing U.S. nuclear weapons on their soil as part of NATO’s nuclear-sharing agreement. It doesn’t stop Russian aggression; it legitimizes it. These weapons paint a huge target on these countries’ backs and makes them complicit in violating international humanitarian law. It is as immoral as if Germany stationed U.S.-manufactured sarin gas on its soil to deter Russian aggression.
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty crisis makes European states rejecting U.S. nuclear weapons even more urgent. In the short term, while we dismantle the legitimization of nuclear weapons in general, no NATO states should allow weapons on their soil that violate the INF. Arguing over the types of nuclear weapons allowed has not solved this crisis, but we must urgently put the brakes on the arms race and saber-rattling.
In the U.S. and European Union leadership vacuum, others are moving the world in the right direction. Twenty-one nations have already ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and a further 70 have signed it. It will enter into legal force once 50 have ratified, which will likely align with when Russia is deploying many of its new weapons in 2020.
A movement has been growing over the past decade in Europe to reject nuclear weapons under humanitarian law. Polling in four of the nations that host U.S. nuclear weapons show strong majorities in favor of removing the weapons and supporting the nuclear ban treaty. Unfortunately, many leaders are out of step with their population. As new Russian missiles point at their constituents, those politicians who ignore the will of the people won’t stay in leadership long.
The only successful way to counter Russia’s growing nuclear threats is by embracing disarmament and international law, not blowing it up.