As someone who works on nuclear weapons policy for a living, I’ve been getting questions from family and friends about the war in Ukraine and the risk of nuclear use. My colleagues are getting similar questions. Most of these questions boil down to, “Should we be worried?” or “How worried should I be?”
I think concern is a healthy response to this conflict. Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued veiled threats of nuclear use and neighboring Belarus has paved the way to host nuclear weapons on its territory. Things are tense. And if NATO countries were somehow pulled into the conflict—even by accident—there is some chance this war could turn nuclear. So far, the US and other NATO countries have been very careful that there not be any misunderstandings, including cancelling a planned test launch of a Minute Man III missile. They are seeking to avoid any escalation. I am reassured by the restrained stance of the US and NATO, but still…I do worry.
I am saddened by the needless loss of life. That millions of people should be impacted because Putin yearns for the return of the Soviet empire is utterly tragic. I’m also frustrated. I and my colleagues have advocated for years for policies that, had they been in place right now, would help lower the level of risk in this situation. For example, if we had a No First Use Policy, it could help avoid miscalculation or misunderstanding. During a time of tension like we are experiencing now, a No First Use Policy would assure other countries that we are not going to be the ones to start a nuclear war. If we ended the President’s sole authority to launch nuclear weapons and involved other officials in the decision to launch, that would also reduce the risk of miscalculation. These are policy choices we can make that will make the world a safer place.
But these prescriptions are not current policy. And so, I have the obvious worries about the risk of escalation and nuclear use during this war. But, beyond that, this situation is raising other concerns for me.
The risk of nuclear proliferation
I worry that this war will cause some countries to rethink their own non-nuclear status. Putin has hidden behind his nukes and used them to bully the world into standing back while he invades a sovereign nation. Some countries may take this war as an object lesson, do the cost-benefit analysis, and decide they’d be better off with nuclear weapons than without. Putin’s aggression weakens the nonproliferation regime.
More wasteful spending, less security
I am also concerned that US policy-makers will reorient their focus towards more unnecessary military and nuclear spending at the expense of other pressing needs that would directly and immediately improve human security, like investments in clean energy technology and infrastructure, accelerating the transition away from fossil fuels and climate resilience. We already see the op-eds calling for increased defense spending and for new spending on tactical nuclear weapons – smaller-scale nuclear weapons that actually increase the risk of nuclear use. While not surprising, these reactions are reckless, dangerous, and opportunistic. The US already spends more on its military than the next 10 nations combined—many of whom are our allies. And US military spending is more than 10 times what Russia spends. We spend 4 million dollars every hour of every day on nuclear weapons, and we already have enough to end the world several times over. We do not need to spend more on warfare.
If these past two years of pandemic have taught us one thing, it is that there are many ways to be insecure. Military and nuclear security are often elevated above other issue areas, but they shouldn’t be. We need to keep our eye on the ball and get our act together over the coming decade to address climate change and perhaps prevent humanity from passing a tipping point. We need to prioritize investing in other areas like pandemic response and prevention, access to affordable healthy food, and protecting our democracy that will also add to our safety and security.
An arms control turning point
Finally, I worry that we won’t seize on the discomfort, dare I say anxiety, that we feel in this moment and use it to catalyze movement on nuclear arms control and nuclear risk reduction. We have one remaining arms control treaty with Russia, and it expires in 2026. This war in Ukraine has already complicated the US-Russia Strategic Stability Dialogue. For now, those planned meetings are on hold. Additionally, Iran Deal negotiations are potentially impacted by Russian demands that sanctions not affect Russian cooperation with Iran.
It’s a difficult situation, but in time we may still find opportunities. Even in the midst of the Cold War, at the height of our distrust of the Soviet Union, the US and Russia still found ways to work together and negotiate arms control agreements. In the same way, we eventually need to find a way to make progress. In the end, it is situations like the war in Ukraine that demonstrate exactly why we need to find ways to reduce and ultimately eliminate nuclear weapons.