Jo Biden told a meeting of Democrats yesterday that the risk of use of nuclear weapons is the highest since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The President warned that for the “First time since the Cuban missile crisis, we have a direct threat of the use nuclear weapon if in fact things continue down the path they are going”.
60 years ago, all-out nuclear war was averted not by the wisdom of generals or foreign office officials on either side, but by the restraint of the two Presidents Kennedy and Khrushchev. They found a way out of the crisis in spite of their officials and advisers rather than because of them.
Today, there are concerns that an increasingly desperate President Putin might use nuclear weapons if it looks as if the invasion of Ukraine is lost. I have sought to reassure people on this point, but following Putin’s formal annexation of four provinces last week we are all a little more concerned. The annexation of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson provides Putin with some legal cover within the Russian chain of command, bringing a first-strike on Ukraine within Russian nuclear doctrine, and making it more certain that a Presidential strike order to launch tactical nuclear weapons would be followed through. There are likely to be further bellicose nationalist leaders in Russia calling for a nuclear strike as Russian troops are killed in larger numbers.
‘Tactical’ nuclear weapons could not have any proportionate effect against Ukrainian troop formations and therefore the phrase ‘tactical’ is a bit of a misnomer. Their purpose would be strategic; to intimidate Ukraine, the US and NATO into calling off an attack on Russian forces by using a level of force that the US might not be prepared to match – a strategy called escalate-to-deescalate. If the US or NATO were retaliate with their own nuclear weapons, all bets are off as to where we might end up. It is disconcerting that one of the lessons from Cuba is that the way out of a nuclear stand-off may depend on random factors such as the temperament and perception of individuals who occupy the highest office of their country.
Why is it that 60 years on we still find ourselves worrying about the possible use of nuclear weapons? Even if the odds are still against President Putin resorting to nuclear weapons, it seems to me to be unacceptable that this is even an option for him. The stakes are incredibly high and every nation of the world is held hostage to this Russia/US brinkmanship.
Yet still, our own Government insists that the political utility of the first-use of the UK’s nuclear weapons must be preserved. Government ministers argue (somewhat implausibly in my view) that if we were to deny the UK the option of using nuclear weapons first it would undermine the credibility of our determination to bring all means to bear to ensure the security of the UK and its allies. Note that this is a phrase that is very similar to Putin’s own recent declaration on Ukraine even though Russian and UK policies are markedly different. The ‘credibility’ argument is responsible for a great deal of foot-dragging on the part of the UK. At the NPT Review Conference in August, the UK delegation opposed references to the ‘humanitarian impacts’ of nuclear weapons use, fearing that such references in a final draft document might imply that nuclear use could be considered illegal. In 2010, along with other nuclear armed states, the UK agreed to reduce the prominence of nuclear weapons in our security posture, yet in the 2021 integrated defence and security review did precisely the opposite. The UK chose (and it really was a ‘choice’ on our government’s part) to increase our nuclear warhead stockpile. This was either on the basis of a theoretical calculation of the impact of UK nuclear weapons in a nuclear exchange or simply an attempt to send a rather vague signal to our adversaries – or both. Meanwhile, at the NPT Review Conference, the UK and France took a lead in ensuring that every instance of the word ‘measureable’ in relation to our disarmament commitments was crossed out.
Over the past 12 years the UK has worked alongside Russia and other recognised nuclear weapons states to oppose almost all efforts to devalue nuclear weapons. The UK’s rationale for doing so is to ensure international stability. The increased chance, however small, of catastrophic nuclear weapons use in 2022 must surely demonstrate that this strategy has failed.
President Biden is currently using back-channels to communicate to President Putin’s people in the Kremlin and the Russian military about the negative implications for Russia of any nuclear weapons use in Ukraine. We don’t have knowledge of the content of these communications but we do know that Biden needs to deter Putin’s administration. Biden will have realised already the limitations of Western nuclear weapons in this respect. While Biden has made inferences to possible US nuclear retaliation he does not want ever to be in the position, as US President, of having to respond to a limited use of a nuclear weapons by Russia. Consequently, Biden is impressing on President Putin the consequences (other than a retaliatory strike by the US) of Russia of going nuclear.
One possible deterrent is to assure Putin, and others in the chain of command, that any nuclear weapon use would see the perpetrators locked up in prison in The Hague for the rest of their lives. A big difficulty here is that the US, UK and Russia have been strident over the past few years in insisting that first use of nuclear weapons is not illegal per se, but rather that its illegality must be assessed on a finely balanced determination of whether the use was proportionate to the threat to the State.
This leaves further economic sanctions as possibly the only alternative means of deterrence and there is a lot more that could be done here. The idea would be to isolate Russia as a pariah state: enabling more widespread sanctions would lead to its economic collapse possibly prompting a national uprising. To achieve this, the United States would need persuade a lot more states to go down the sanctions route. A high degree of international consensus would be needed. It is therefore inconvenient, to say the least, that some of the states that the US would need to persuade are the same states that have been frustrated over the past 15 to 20 years with US and UK intransigence on devaluing nuclear weapons. Many of these states are supporters of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons which has huge support among churches, faith groups and civil society across the world. The treaty has gained 7 new State signatories or ratifications in the past two weeks. It entered into force as international law in 2021 although the US, UK and Russia have jointly spoken out against it.
The Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated that we are just one person’s decision away from nuclear catastrophe. The invasion of Ukraine and current stand-off suggests that sadly this has not changed.
A reckoning will be needed once the Ukraine nuclear crisis has passed. The nuclear weapons states argue for the continued ‘responsible’ possession and political use, if not actual use, of nuclear weapons. In the light of Ukraine it is an argument that should be very firmly rejected with pressure brought on nuclear-armed states to relinquish their arsenals.
See the one-minute video of the UK Interfaith statement on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
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 Cuabn Missile Crisis 16–29 October 1962
 … but certainly not internationally or at the UN
 “The UK does not have a policy of no first use because—this goes to the heart of much of what we are discussing—the credibility of the deterrent rests on the conviction that we would bring all means to bear to ensure the security of the UK and our allies.” Graham Stuart MP, Foreign Office Minister. Parliament debate on the NPT Treaty, 13 July 2022.
 It can of course, as is made clear by the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
 The agreement of the US and Russia to reaffirm the Reagan Gorbachev dictum “A nuclear war cannot be won and therefore must never be fought” is a notable exception.
 In addition, the White House would impose secondary sanctions on countries still engaging with Russia.