Photo: The UN Security Council meets on the situation in Ukraine, 27 February 2022. UN Photo/Loey Felipe

Viewpoint by Sergio Duarte

The writer is a former High Representative of the United Nations for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), and President of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

NEW YORK (IDN) — The conflict between Russia and Ukraine, described by Moscow as a “special military operation”, entered its eighth month without an end in sight, and there is no sign of willingness among the parties involved to start serious negotiations that might lead to a cease-fire followed by arrangements for a durable peace.  [2022-11-02]

At this point, well over ten million Ukrainians have sought refuge in other countries and several thousand people, both among civilians and combatants have perished, not to speak of the widespread destruction of industrial and agricultural infrastructure in Ukraine.

Ukrainian sources point to success in battles to recover parts of previously lost territory while the Russian forces intensify attacks on the electric power plants and grid in Ukraine and threaten to block the export of grains from Ukraine through the Black Sea. As the conflict remains undecided, observers have speculated about the possible use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.

All members of the United Nations committed, according to its Charter, to settle their international disputes by peaceful means and to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political Independence of any state. Russia’s action in Ukraine is not consistent with those commitments. The General Assembly, whose decisions are not for all member states, deplored the invasion of Russia by 141 votes in favour, five against (Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, Syria and Russia) and 35 abstentions.

The United Nations Security Council is primarily responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security. However, it has been unable to act in the present circumstances due to the right of veto enjoyed exclusively by its five permanent members, one of which is Russia. In practice, the veto power ensures that action by the Council against the will of any of those five members in situations of threats to peace, breaches of the peace and acts of aggression cannot prosper.

Moscow has accused Ukraine of planning to detonate a “dirty” conventional bomb in its own territory and blame the adversary for this action. Kiev denies any such intention and in turn claims that Moscow has a similar design. Both sides have also exchanged accusations of possible use of chemical or bacteriological means of warfare, which are prohibited by international treaties. Some statements from Russian high officials have been read in the West as signs of willingness to use nuclear weapons in the conflict.

The Ukrainian president said in an interview that he did not think that the Kremlin was ready to use nuclear weapons but had begun to prepare the Russian population for such an eventuality. The Secretary-general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, declared that the circumstances under which the western alliance would use such weapons are “extremely remote”, but added that there would be “severe consequences” if Russia did so. The president of the United States said that this would be “a serious mistake”.

The recently published United States Nuclear Posture Review did not change fundamentally the American doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons. Russia’s has not been altered either. Both countries, as well as NATO, ascribe a primarily deterrent function to their nuclear forces and contemplate their use only in extreme circumstances such as an “existential” danger. Additional, more objective conditions stipulated in their respective nuclear doctrines do not seem to be present.

In a speech given just a few days ago the Russian president said that the use of such weapons in Ukraine “would not make sense” either militarily or politically. For their part, American intelligence agencies say they have not detected evidence of preparations for any use of weapons of mass destruction by either side.

 In spite of such reassurances, there is great concern not only in Europe but in the whole world about the danger of such use and of an ensuing escalation that would be extremely destructive and could lead to all-out nuclear war with catastrophic consequences for the whole planet. Inherent to the theories of deterrence is the need to keep potential adversaries uncertain about the precise conditions under which a nuclear strike might occur.

The existence of such conditions is of course subject to interpretation. Past experience shows that human or technical errors in the assessment of combat situations or of data transmitted by alert systems, as well as the occurrence of accidents cannot be excluded.

The total deployed strategic nuclear arsenal of the United States is roughly equivalent to Russia’s and both countries are bound by the limits set by the New START Treaty of 2009. In addition to sophisticated conventional armament, Moscow is believed to have an inventory of  about 2,000 so-called tactical weapons while some 100 belonging to the United States are stationed in the territories of five NATO members.

Nuclear weapons with a relative low explosive power[1], are considered “tactical” and meant for use in limited scale operations against enemy forces or military installations and support structures, but obviously can cause widespread damage and contamination by radiation lingering for a long time. There is no real technical difference between such weapons and those known as “strategic”, except in yield and range. The former would be used against targets not farther than a couple hundred kilometres, while the latter are meant to hit targets across continents and their explosive power is measured in hundreds of kilotons and in megatons.[2]

 In assessing the actual possibility of use of nuclear weapons by any of the belligerents, the existence of a powerful moral non-written norm, known as the “nuclear taboo”, must also be taken into consideration. Its violation by any state would meet with vehement repudiation by the international community. In the case of Russia, it could deepen its isolation and would probably reinforce the determination of Ukraine to resist and NATO’s decision to support it.

The actions of individuals, as well as those of leaders and political authorities, are not always guided by good reasoning and common sense. It is important that the world remains conscious of the immense current nuclear risks and redoubles its efforts in search of a cease-fire followed by negotiations to end the conflict. Many high officials worldwide, as well as experts and analysts of international affairs, have remarked that the risk of nuclear war is greater than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

It should be recalled that several important international agreements in the field of arms control and disarmament came to being in that decade, among which the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), the first nuclear weapon-free zone in an inhabited region (Treaty of Tlatelolco) and the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

The current dangers could inspire the whole international community to demand the prompt fulfilment of commitments regarding security and disarmament contained in existing multilateral instruments as well as to work toward their improvement.

Public opinion has a fundamental responsibility in this effort. Humankind cannot remain forever hostage of the uncertain and unpredictable balance in the relations between nuclear-armed powers. The only guarantee against the use of nuclear weapons is their complete elimination. [IDN-InDepthNews – 02 November 2022]

Photo: The UN Security Council meets on the situation in Ukraine, 27 February 2022. UN Photo/Loey Felipe

[1] The explosive power of “tactical” nuclear weapons is said to rangefrom 0,3 to 50 kilotons. For comparison sake, the bomb that razed Hiroshima had 16 kt. “Strategic” weapons are hundreds or thousands of times more powerful.