The Russia-Ukraine war: An opportunity for nuclear disarmament?

The war opens up the possibility of a more inclusive conversation on disarmament that recognises that a nuclear-free world should not be an aspiration with an indefinite timeline.

In the cartoon, Vladimir Putin says "We are currently working to reduce our nuclear weapons stockpile" while a mushroom cloud is seen over Ukraine in the background.
[Patrick Gathara/Al Jazeera]

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is hardly the first time a nuclear power has attacked a non-nuclear nation. That raises questions about the arguments for non-proliferation.

If nuclear-weapon states can use their weapons to threaten the rest of us, or even hide behind them while launching conventional attacks on non-nuclear states, then a central pillar of nuclear non-proliferation is gone. But there is another crucial element of the non-proliferation regime that the invasion should focus attention on. And that is the requirement under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for nuclear-weapon states “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”.

To date, nuclear-weapon states have shown much less eagerness in complying with this requirement to completely disarm compared with the zeal they have exhibited in enforcing the obligations of non-nuclear states. A good example is the sanctions on Iran imposed by nations like the United States, the United Kingdom and France, though they themselves are in violation of the NPT.

The unspoken (and racist) presumption behind the treaty was that existing nuclear powers (and their friends) were the only ones who could be trusted with weapons of such destructive power. Leaving them in the hands of the s******e nations of the rest of the world, with their tinpot dictators and tribal wars, would eventually end with global radiological disaster. However, the supposedly more rational northern nations would never dream of using them. Well, Vladimir Putin has put an end to that.

Not only has he threatened to attack countries that openly join in the fighting in Ukraine with nuclear weapons, but more and more, we are urged to seriously consider previously unlikely scenarios of tactical nuclear weapons being deployed by the Russians to smash Ukrainian resistance. “For US officials and world leaders, discussions of how to respond to a limited nuclear attack are no longer theoretical,” The Associated Press news agency said in a report earlier this month. But this is not the first time the world has been terrorised by the prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of a deranged ruler of the so-called “developed” world.

Almost since the day Donald Trump took power in the US in January 2017, concerns were being raised about his authority to order a nuclear attack. By the end of his term, so worried were US generals that, according to the book Peril by The Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, the banana-exporting republic’s top military official not only secretly called his counterpart in China to promise advance warning if the US was to launch an attack, but also ordered nuclear control officers to check with him regardless of the orders they received from the commander-in-chief.

None of this engenders confidence in the ability of declared nuclear powers to exercise responsible stewardship over their weapons. While many may point to the fact that there has been no nuclear war in the last half-century, since the NPT came into force, the fact is it only takes one crackpot with access to, and willingness to use nuclear weapons, to launch a global catastrophe. The very same arguments employed to prevent proliferation apply, with perhaps even more force, to nuclear-armed countries.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Mariana Budjeryn argues that the current conflict in Ukraine, which gave up the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the USSR, is a turning point. “If Ukraine beats back the Russian invasion, then countries may come to place less stock in nuclear weapons, potentially paving the way for a world in which no one has the power to unleash nuclear Armageddon.” On the contrary, if Ukraine loses, that would be another nail in the coffin for non-proliferation and disarmament.

However, I doubt that a Ukraine win would increase the willingness of the US and other declared nuclear weapons powers to disarm. Despite their nice words regarding Article VI, including most recently a joint statement in January, it has long been clear that there is little willingness to do so.

In September 2009, then-UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband noted that the vision articulated by then-US President Barack Obama five months earlier in Prague of a nuclear-free world “is a very long-term goal which may outlive his children, not just himself”. Tellingly, Miliband added that the nuclear powers “reject unilateral nuclear disarmament … precisely because the world cannot end up in a situation where responsible powers get rid of their weapons, but the danger of nuclear proliferation by other powers remains”. But one might very well ask, who are the “responsible powers”.

A decade earlier, during the 2000 NPT Review Conference, a report by John Burroughs, executive director of the New York City-based Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy, shows how the nuclear powers brazenly colluded to eliminate the possibility of ever having to comply with Article VI. Despite giving an “unequivocal undertaking … to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals”, US negotiators advised Russia to “maintain on ‘constant’ alert a ‘large, diversified, viable arsenal’, sufficient to mount an ‘annihilating counterattack’ in response to a US first strike”. Of course, the US could then use the same argument to justify keeping its own arsenal.

In fact, the nuclear powers continue to present the reduction of nuclear warheads as a step towards disarmament. But this is sleight of hand. Nuclear arms reduction has actually become a substitute for disarmament. In his 2009 address to the United Nations General Assembly, then-British PM Gordon Brown proposed a “grand global bargain between nuclear weapon and non-nuclear weapons states” in which “all nuclear weapons states … reciprocally play their part in reducing nuclear weapons as part of an agreement by non-nuclear states to renounce them”. He then falsely declared that this was “exactly what the Non-Proliferation Treaty intended”, suggesting Article VI’s disarmament requirement was fulfilled by a Britain with three nuclear subs rather than four.

Whatever the outcome, the Ukraine war is unlikely, by itself, to increase the appetite for disarmament. However, that does not mean it does not present an opportunity. For the last half-century, the NPT has been primarily concerned with stopping more countries from getting nuclear weapons. The Ukraine conflict opens up the possibility of a more inclusive conversation on disarmament that recognises that a nuclear-free world should not be an aspiration with an indefinite timeline. With the Tenth NPT Review Conference scheduled for August, it should be an opportunity to shine the spotlight on the dangers posed by the refusal of nuclear weapons states to disarm.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.