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A Conflict Over Ukraine Embroils Four of the World’s Major Nuclear Powers

By Thalif Deen

Photo: Nuclear warheads shot outside the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, New Mexico. CC BY Flickr: Megan Eaves

UNITED NATIONS (IDN) — The spiraling crisis in Ukraine has an ominous underlying fact: it is a conflict that involves four of the world’s major nuclear powers: the US, Russia, UK and France, with the remaining five, namely China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel on the sidelines as spectators—at least so far. [2022-02-27]

Mercifully, the nuclear option is not on the negotiating table—but it is still very much in the air.

At a White House press briefing on February 24, US President Joe Biden was pointedly asked: Is Putin “threatening a nuclear strike?” But Biden gave an evasive, non-committal response: “I have no idea what he's threatening”.

“I know what he has done, number one”, said Biden referring to the invasion, “And number two, no one expected the sanctions to prevent anything from happening. That is going to take time. And we have to show resolve, so he knows what's coming and so the people of Russia know what he's brought on them. That's what this is all about”.

“He's going to test the resolve of the West to see if we stay together. And we will. We will and it will impose significant costs on him,” declared Biden.

The US president also said Putin has much larger ambitions in Ukraine. In fact, he wants to “reestablish the former Soviet Union. That's what this is about”.

Meanwhile, in a seemingly aggressive speech on February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin, hinting on the nuclear option, asserted that Russia “remains one of the most powerful nuclear states”, with “a certain advantage in several cutting-edge weapons”.

In its report on February 25, the New York Times said Putin’s speech which was “intended to justify the invasion, seemed to come closer to threatening nuclear war than any statement from a major world leader”.

Prof M.V. Ramana, Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security and Director, Liu Institute for Global Issues, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, told IDN the situation in Ukraine is distressing and dangerous, even without Putin resorting to a thinly veiled threat to use nuclear weapons.

“As international law experts like John Burroughs have pointed out, that threat should be considered illegal under the UN Charter and because the International Court of Justice, in its 1996 Advisory Opinion, stated that if use of a weapon would not meet the requirements of international humanitarian law governing the conduct of warfare, the threat of such use would be contrary to that law,” he pointed out.

Unfortunately, veiled threats to use nuclear weapons are all too common; for example, Donald Trump’s statement about North Korea to be met with fire and fury.

“It is time that the international community make it clear that it is not just the use of nuclear weapons that should be subject to taboo but also the threat of use,” said Dr Ramana, author of The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India.

The natural reaction of any population that is faced with this threat is terror. And, thus, any reasonable definition of terrorism, such statements about the potential use of nuclear weapons should be considered terrorist threats, he declared.

Norman Solomon, National Director of RootsAction.org, told IDN the world desperately needs a single standard of accountability to prevent the crime of war—a crime that the Russian government is now committing in Ukraine and the US government continues to commit elsewhere as part of the ongoing “war on terror”.

RootsAction, he said, condemns crossing borders and killing, no matter what the nationality of the military forces. Hypocritical condemnations in both directions ring hollow, as when President Biden late February 23 night insisted that “the world will hold Russia accountable”.

Most of the world has long been trying to hold reckless war-makers accountable, said Solomon, speaking on behalf of a progressive activist organization with more than 1 million online supporters in the US.

“The latest actions by the Russian government will cause death and suffering, and those actions will further destabilize global security while rendering institutions like the United Nations even more powerless. As always, in this instance the aggressor has couched its aggression by claiming to act in defense, as the US government often has.”

At this extremely dangerous moment in world history, diplomacy—not warfare—remains the only hope. In the process, the perilous history of NATO’s eastward expansion and the threat of further expansion must be faced. Fueling a conflict between the two nuclear superpowers is insanity, Solomon declared. https://rootsaction.org/news-a-views/2722-statement-on-ukraine

Jacqueline Cabasso, Executive Director of Western States Legal Foundation, told IDN unfortunately, nuclear threats have become routine. When leaders of nuclear armed states declare “all options are on the table”, she said, a nuclear threat is often implied.

“Every time a nuclear armed state test launches a nuclear-capable missile, every time a nuclear armed state flies a nuclear-capable bomber near or over the territory of another nuclear armed state, and every time a nuclear armed alliance engages in massive military exercises including nuclear drills —these are all implicit nuclear threats and are understood as such by potential adversaries,” she argued.

Unfortunately, said Cabasso, the public has largely become inured to these threats, which are unlawful under the UN Charter and international law because they threaten illegal acts, namely the use of nuclear weapons. In recent years, she pointed out, these veiled threats have become more explicit.

“I was in Japan in August 2017 when Donald Trump issued his 'fire and fury' warning: 'North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States…. They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.' It was the lead news story in Japan and people there were terrified. At the time former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned of the possibility of nuclear war.”

It seems that Vladimir Putin has taken a page out of Trump’s playbook with his recent warning against Western intervention in Ukraine: “No matter who tries to stand in our way or all the more so create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history,” she noted.

There is no doubt that he is signaling Russia’s readiness to carry out a devastating nuclear strike. That doesn’t mean he has decided to do so, she noted.

“But in the fog of war and propaganda surrounding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, any number of foreseeable and unforeseeable developments could spiral out of control and lead to a nuclear weapons use. That’s why his declaration is so alarming.”

“Let us also remember that nuclear weapons are already being 'used' by Russia, the US and NATO to provide top cover for their conventional military operations,” said Cabasso.

Just one year ago, Admiral Charles Richard, head of US Strategic Command wrote: “We must acknowledge the foundational nature of our nation’s strategic nuclear forces, as they create the ‘maneuver space’ for us to project conventional military power strategically.”

The same is certainly true for Russia. Richard also warned: “There is a real possibility that a regional crisis with Russia or China could escalate quickly to a conflict involving nuclear weapons, if they perceived a conventional loss would threaten the regime or state.”

“This may be a final wakeup call that we ignore at our own and everyone else on the planet’s peril. The need to eliminate nuclear weapons must again become a top global priority, alongside the urgent need to address the climate crisis,” declared Cabasso.

In a statement released February 25, the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy (LCNP) strongly condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The Russian invasion is in clear violation of international law and is causing the people of Ukraine to experience terror, suffering, and death.

“Given the increased risk of nuclear weapons use, whether intentionally or by miscalculation, it also exposes the peoples of the region and the world as a whole to harm on a vast scale.”

Putin’s thinly veiled references to resort to nuclear weapons should other states intervene militarily are unlawful threats of force under the UN Charter, Article 2(4), because they are an element of the unlawful invasion. They are also contrary to general international law because they threaten the commission of an illegal act—here the use of nuclear weapons, the statement added.

In its 1996 Advisory Opinion (para. 78), the International Court of Justice stated that if use of a weapon would not meet the requirements of international humanitarian law governing the conduct of warfare, the threat of such use would be contrary to that law.

“It is now widely recognized that use of nuclear weapons is illegal under humanitarian law, most centrally because they cannot meet the requirement of discrimination between military targets and civilian persons/infrastructure," said LCNP.

More than 25 years ago, the Court found such use, or threatened use, to be illegal. The main circumstance in which the Court could not reach a conclusion, when the survival of a state is at stake, is not at issue for Russia in the present crisis.

In a January 5 joint statement, Russia and the other four nuclear weapon states acknowledged by the Non-Proliferation Treaty affirmed the Reagan-Gorbachev principle “that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”. Putin’s recent references to possible Russian use of nuclear arms cannot be reconciled with that affirmation, the statement said.

But some of Putin’s supporters argue the invasion of Ukraine is no different from the bombing of Yugoslavia by the military forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1999 or the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a retaliation against President Saddam Hussein for his weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) which never existed.

Francis Boyle, Professor of international law at the University of Illinois, said: "Obviously a case can be made that Russia's actions violate international law. But we need to look at the actual circumstances of the case.

"First, it's obvious that—given the US government numerous illegal invasions, most clearly the invasion of Iraq, based on lies—the US government is in no place to condemn Russia. But can principled observers? Perhaps, but they need to keep in mind numerous provocations, which have been escalating.”

The glorification of Nazis in Ukraine is a very real phenomena, the expansion of NATO is a serious threat to Russia. Recently the Ukrainian leadership stepped up their calls to be let into NATO, said Boyle.

They even expressed their desire for nuclear weapons, effectively trying to reverse the 1994 Budapest Agreement. And the situation in the Donbass is very serious with the Ukrainian leadership effectively refusing to implement the Minsk Agreement, he noted.

"Now, Putin is obviously not Gandhi. But it's doubtful that any Russian leader would have accepted these conditions. Imagine what the US would do if Mexico was moving toward entering into a military alliance with China and talking of acquiring nuclear weapons.

"Indeed, we don't need such hypotheticals. JFK was fully prepared to invade Cuba if he could not get those missiles out peacefully by negotiations: 13 Days. Putin tried negotiations starting in December to get NATO out of Ukraine and got nowhere with the Bidenites: two months." [IDN-InDepthNews — 27 February 2022]

Photo: Nuclear warheads shot outside the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, New Mexico. CC BY Flickr: Megan Eaves