Last month, in January 2022, Veteran’s for Peace launched their own Nuclear Posture Review, pre-empting the US government’s own review which is due later this year. Last weekend, an on-line event was held to present the findings of the alternative NPR. Joseph Gerson Executive Director of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament & Common Security was invited to address those in attendance. Below is a slightly edited version of Joseph’s words.
Today we face what has been described as a Cuban missile crisis in slow motion. The Biden Administration is again warning that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is imminent and has dispatched nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to Britain. We have to hope that Vladimir Putin is honest in saying that he doesn’t intend to invade Ukraine. Such an attack would be disastrous for the people of all nations involved. Even if war is avoided, increased Russian, NATO and Ukrainian military deployments will likely remain essentially and dangerously unchanged for months or longer, serving as leverage for negotiations over Ukraine’s future, its relations with Russia, and for a revised and stable Euro-Atlantic security architecture.
Four of the five leading nuclear powers are eyeball to eyeball in confrontation. It is unlikely that the crisis will escalate to nuclear war. Bur unlikely is not impossible. As former U.S. Ambassador Huntsman, former U.S. Secretary of Energy Moniz, and former Senator Nunn wrote this week “The risk of an accident, miscalculation, or disastrous decision is especially ominous when the two countries with the largest nuclear weapons arsenals are on opposite sides.”
It is thus important to remember, as Daniel Ellsberg who designed U.S. nuclear warfighting doctrines for Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, has taught us, during numerous international crises and wars one U.S. president after another prepared and threatened to initiate nuclear war. And every other nuclear power has also done so at least once. The year after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Truman successfully threatened to annihilate Moscow to win its almost immediate withdrawal from Iran, and he went on to repeatedly threaten nuclear war during the Korean War. Eisenhower offered France nuclear weapons to break the siege at Dienbienphu, ordered a nuclear alert during the CIA coup that overthrew Guatemala’s government, and with his 1953 nuclear threat against Korea he provided the model for Nixon’s “madman” nuclear threat against Vietnam. Johnson made his threats and preparations for nuclear war during the siege of Khe Sanh and the 1967 Middle East War. Nixon did so more than once during his Vietnam War and several times to reinforce U.S. Middle East hegemony. Carter and Reagan threatened to use all means necessary for the same reason in the wake of the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Bush, Quayle, Cheney and Prime Minister Major did it again on the eve of the First Gulf War. Clinton almost stumbled into a nuclear war over Korea, with Jimmy Carter pulling his irons out of the fire. Clinton also threatened Libya and Iraq with nuclear attacks. Bush the Lesser did it again on 9/11 and in the run up to his invasion of Iraq. And Obama put “all options on the table” as he pressed Iran in the JCPOA negotiations.
The sad truth is that every other nuclear power has made at least one such similar preparation or threat. Between accidents and miscalculations, it is increasingly understood that we survive more as a function of luck than wise nuclear policies. With continuing U.S. and Russian first strike and launch on warning doctrines, as Huntsman, Moniz and Nunn warn, we should not underestimate how high the stakes are today.
Former officials and advisors on all sides warn that with U.S., NATO, Ukrainian, and Russia forces highly mobilized and in close proximity, there is danger that a small and localized incident could trigger uncontrolled escalation, like the 1914 shots in Sarajevo that triggered World War I. They are urging that military to military dialog structures and transparent military exercise guidelines be put in place immediately to avoid catastrophe.
Had Veterans for Peace’s Nuclear Posture Review recommendations been made operational, and had George and Fiona Hill’s warnings about the dangers of expanding NATO to Russia’s borders been heeded, and had the Biden Administration not ignored Moscow’s warnings in response to the buildup of U.S. nuclear forces along Russia’s perimeter, we would not be on the brink of a war driven by Russia’s fears.
Russia’s fears? True, with its 2014 seizure of Crimea – which had almost continuously been Russian since 1783 – Russia did aggressively violate the 1994 Bucharest memorandum and the U.N. Charter. The Bucharest agreement required Moscow and other nations to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for Kyiv surrendering the nuclear arsenal that the former Soviet Union left behind. And, yes, in response to NATO’s overwhelming conventional superiority, Moscow has greatly upgraded its nuclear arsenal – just as the U.S. and other nuclear powers are doing. As much as these are to be opposed, it should also be born in mind that all great powers, including the United States with its Monroe Doctrine, disregard international law as they carve out spheres of interest at the expense of others.
But, most importantly, there is the legacy of three devastating invasions of Russia from the West – Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler at a cost of tens of millions of Russian lives – that profoundly mark Russian identity, culture, and its foreign and military policies. Several years ago, I hosted and toured two courageous Russian dissidents. On the morning of May 9, when they came down for breakfast, the first thing they did was to exchange high fives – celebrating Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany, in what for them was the Great Patriotic War. This is not ancient history or simply Putin propaganda. It is vital to Russian memory and political culture.
It is worth noting that in early January Alexey Gromyko of the Russian Academy of Sciences advised an international nuclear disarmament conference that the nuclear danger could “get worse before it may get better.” Focusing on Washington’s missile deployments in the aftermath of U.S. withdrawal from the INF treaty, he said that, “In the eyes of Moscow there is a high probability of a new Euromissile crisis exploding in 2-3 years if Russia’s proposals for a moratorium are not responded to in a rational way. Nuclear posturing on all sides, including NATO nuclear sharing, may change for worse more quickly than that if Russia’s recent proposals on security guarantees, handed over to the US and NATO, are not taken seriously.”
The Euromissile crisis came much sooner than 2-3 years. It lies at the heart of what is termed the “Ukraine” crisis. But there are other factors: the debate and struggle within Ukraine over the nation’s identity, culture and political structures: the complex historical ties and tensions between Russia and Ukraine; the struggle between the great powers for influence in Europe, and European debates over European independence and the possibility of the E.U. becoming yet another superpower.
Most critically, we have Biden’s and Blinken’s arrogant insistence on keeping NATO’s door open for future membership, when French and German opposition make that impossible. From the Russian perspective, it fears not only the possibly of the U.S. or NATO deploying offensive weapons to that borderland nation, whether or not Ukraine eventually joins NATO. It is more profoundly about the refusal of the US and NATO to honor their Post-Cold War and NATO-Russia founding act commitments. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s 1990 Paris Charter, the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, and the OSCE’s 1999 European Security Charter committed the U.S., Russia, and European nations “not to strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other States.” With NATO’s expansion and massive conventional and high-tech weaponry advancements while Russia was weak, in the words of Nina Khrushcheva this proud if corrupt nation has been relegated to sit by the toilet. Moscow is using Ukraine’s vulnerability as leverage to renegotiate the European order to ensure that states don’t threaten the security of others in pursuit of their own security – the principle on which the last Cold War was ended – and not incidentally enhance Vladimir Putin’s standing.
There is one other dangerous nuclear outcome of this crisis: its encouragement of nuclear weapons proliferation. There is widespread belief that if Ukraine hadn’t surrendered the nuclear weapons it inherited in 1991, Moscow would not have its troops at its doorstep. Iran, South Korea, Japan and other countries are likely considering what this means for their security policies.
Diplomatic resolution of the current crisis is possible. The roadmap for peaceful resolution and creation of an enduring and just security order include: building on the Minsk agreements to create a neutral and federated Ukrainian state, despite the opposition of armed and extreme right-wing forces in Ukraine; negotiation of an updated intermediate nuclear forces agreement banning intermediate range missiles and all “strike” weapons from the Atlantic to the Urals; negotiation of a new Conventional Forces in Europe treaty; and much deeper cuts in U.S. and Russian strategic arsenals in the course of negotiating a successor treaty to New START.
Turning to the Biden Administration’s and VFP’s nuclear posture reviews, recall that while we didn’t underestimate the influence of the military-industrial complex, President Biden’s earlier comments supporting a sole use nuclear doctrine offered us some hope and a vehicle for mobilizing popular pressure for a “No First Use” policy. Unfortunately, and now compounded by the Ukraine-Europe crisis, there will be only minimal changes from Trump’s nuclear doctrine. There will be no “No First Use” or sole use doctrine. The NPR may move from Trump’s language that “deterring nuclear attack is not the sole purpose of nuclear weapons”, to saying that their role is “fundamentally” to deter the use of other nuclear weapons. But fundamentally is not absolutely, leaving the first strike doctrine in place.
The U.S. will stay on course to spend roughly 2 trillion to upgrade the nuclear triad, while some “low hanging fruit” from the Trump era might be harvested: These will likely include eliminating destabilizing low-yield nuclear armed sea-launched cruise missiles and nuclear warheads that are being replaced by others. These incidental modifications will be sensationalized by our best and brightest, camouflaging the continuing race to nuclear Armageddon.
In these circumstances, Veterans for Peace has given us a roadmap for the essential changes we urgently need to support to reduce and eliminate the nuclear danger: unilateral steps that Biden can order including mandating a no first use policy; nuclear disarmament negotiations including updating the INF Treaty; winning deep cuts in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals; and implementing U.S. treaty obligations, not the least of which is the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’s Article VI requirement to engage in good faith negotiations for the complete elimination of the world’s nuclear arsenals.
Let us hope that international pressure prevents a war triggered by the Ukraine crisis, and that together we can transform Veterans for Peace’s nuclear posture review into U.S. policy.