Beatrice Fihn is a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, ICAN.
The end of the Cold War led to a miraculous moment in nuclear disarmament.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, persistent diplomatic maneuvering led to the removal of Soviet strategic nuclear weapons stationed in Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, as well as tactical nuclear weapons from all Soviet republics. But 30 years later, those gains are now threatened to be reversed, heightening the nuclear threat to its greatest level since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the Donbass as independent states, in violation of the U.N. Charter and international law, on Monday, the conflict’s looming nuclear backdrop has been making its way to the forefront — providing a timely, and frightening, reminder of the importance of moving quickly to limit the risk of irreversible catastrophe.
That Putin was joined by Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko to watch the Russian military carry out a nuclear weapons exercise earlier this week was no coincidence. The two men have been moving toward an agreement that could redraw Europe’s nuclear map.
Putin has increasingly grown more belligerent on the nuclear weapons front, showing a disregard for international law and promoting dangerous escalation. Lukashenko, meanwhile, is turning words in to action, with a referendum that could change the constitution of Belarus to allow nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory on Sunday.
Lukashenko has also said Belarus would be open to hosting Russian nuclear weapons, and Russian officials have declared their intention to do just that if NATO deploys weapons further east, or if Ukraine joins the alliance.
Russia and Belarus are not alone in their aggressive and irresponsible posture either. The United States continues to exploit a questionable reading of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) that prevents states from “possessing” nuclear weapons but allows them to host those weapons. Five European states currently host approximately 100 U.S. nuclear weapons: Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey — even though public opinion strongly opposes these deployments.
Suddenly, the “unthinkable” is unfolding before our eyes. This is how a regional conflict turns into a global nightmare.
A good summation of nuclear weapons’ conventional wisdom for decades has been: trust that cooler heads will prevail. In the past, leaders of European countries shrugged their shoulders as Nobel-winning organizations, like the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations, warned about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences and increasing risks of nuclear weapons use.
We are now seeing that it is not a gamble we should be taking with the fate of the world. To put this all in context, new deployments of nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe could station U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons closer than at any time in history. This would not be a second Cuban Missile Crisis but a far more volatile situation.
There is, fortunately, a clear path to de-escalation and disarmament.
First, the international community must strongly condemn Russia’s violations of international law and stand firmly behind Ukraine’s right to sovereignty. Lukashenko must also change course and respect the will of the Belarusian people who want their nation’s non-nuclear status to remain codified in the constitution.
But these alone are not enough. All countries in Europe, from Russian allies like Belarus to U.S. allies in NATO, should sign the binding UN treaty called the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which entered into force last year, and commit to never be a part of using, possessing or hosting weapons of mass destruction.
The current crisis reminds us that states that develop nuclear weapons are not the only ones impacted by the current threat. There is no such thing as a “limited nuclear war,” and any use of nuclear weapons in Europe would draw in dozens of nations. There is no health care or emergency response capacity to deal with such consequences — not in any of the nuclear-armed states nor any international organization.
The treaty does, however, close loopholes in the NPT and empower non-nuclear-weapon countries to take concrete action to promote disarmament and ensure their nations will never host these banned weapons.
Hope and trust in a handful of bellicose leaders is not a concrete strategy to prevent this crisis from becoming a nuclear catastrophe — but this treaty could be. We urgently need diplomatic action based on international law that holds on to disarmament gains made at the close of the Cold War and expands on them. We need it now.