Week 9: The One Where [Putin] Crosses the Line

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Monday, August 1, 2022


Aidan Keaveney

Hi y’all! For my second-to-last blog, I thought I would talk about my final presentation topic: nuclear non-proliferation. Most of the other interns either work in traditional physics research or have more well-defined projects than I do. Since my internship site is a Congressional office, I don’t have a specific project to present. That means I get to talk about whatever I am interested in for my final presentation at the symposium next week. I considered several topics for my talk, including the 2021-22 Supreme Court term, interesting Congressional statistics, the America COMPETES Act, and a simple accounting of all of the issues I worked on this summer. I settled on nuclear disarmament because I wanted to talk about something with an obvious need for scientists in policy-making. It also helps that Congressman Foster is a leader on nuclear non-proliferation issues and I am a world-class foreign policy nerd. 


So, to the issue. Nuclear non-proliferation is the term used to describe world-wide efforts aimed at preventing catastrophe related to nuclear weapons. The goal of nuclear non-proliferation could most generally be characterized as “strategic stability.” Basically, whatever situation involves not blowing up everything and everyone. This usually means decreasing the number of nuclear weapons around the world and preventing new states from acquiring nuclear weapons, but there are schools of thought that advocate for theoretically stable scenarios where some or many countries have some or many nuclear weapons. I am personally not particularly enchanted by the latter ideas, so I won’t talk about them much, but they deserve mention. 


I am more interested in efforts that reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world and make it very difficult (and illegal) for other countries to obtain nuclear weapons. The reason for that is simple: right now, humanity is capable of destroying itself and all life on Earth several times over. Well, maybe not all life, tardigrades are persistent little beasts, but you get the idea. In my view, no matter how “stable” the world may be with that many nuclear weapons, we should not be capable of that. To me, there is something fundamentally wrong about that possibility, no matter how unlikely it is to occur.


I also believe that almost any use of nuclear weapons is inherently unethical because there is no way to prevent civilian casualties, almost certainly hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings are an entirely different conversation to which I have a personal connection. My grandfather was in the Pacific fleet that would have invaded Japan had President Truman decided not to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If President Truman had gone the conventional route, it’s possible I would never have been born. Does that mean President Truman made the right decision? Despite my strongly pro-Me bias, not necessarily; it’s a very complicated issue. Regardless, that is why I hedge with almost any use of nuclear weapons. 


We have now covered approximately 0 slides of my presentation, so I’ll speed things up now. The title of my presentation is “The Status of Nuclear Non-Proliferation in the Era of Renewed Russian Aggression.” Around the beginning of this year (2022), Russia started to take action that was perceived as nuclear threats surrounding their invasion of Ukraine. The Russian government altered the alert status of their nuclear weapons, they conducted a routine but technically unexpected maneuver with their nuclear forces, and President Putin threatened “unprecedented consequences” for any third-party (i.e. the United States or NATO) that intervened militarily in Ukraine. All of these actions were interpreted by the global community as nuclear threats. Regardless of whether or not Russia acts on these threats (it’s vanishingly unlikely, by the way), the threats themselves are unprecedented and incredibly damaging to nuclear non-proliferation efforts. 


To illustrate why Russian threats are so problematic (beyond the obvious), consider a country like North Korea. Russia has wanted Ukraine to be a part of Russia again for decades, really ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. North Korea has had an ongoing conflict with South Korea for decades. Russia has now invaded Ukraine and used threats of nuclear action to shield themselves from direct military intervention by NATO and the United States. If Russia is successful in achieving their goals in Ukraine, whatever those goals are (which is not entirely clear, but almost irrelevant), what does North Korea learn from that? They learn that if they have enough nuclear weapons to shield themselves from global intervention, they get an upper hand should they ever decide to advance on South Korea. Worse, Kim Jong-un might just be crazy enough to use nuclear weapons in a way that Vladimir Putin is not. 


The Korean Peninsula conflict is far from the only such regional dispute, and arguably far from the most dangerous. There are currently nine countries that have nuclear weapons: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. Iran is also very close to obtaining a nuclear weapon. Of those nine nuclear states, six of them are involved in ongoing border disputes. Russia has Ukraine, North Korea has South Korea, China has Taiwan, India and Pakistan have each other (the Kashmir region in northern India), and Israel has the Palestinian territories (although for nuclear non-proliferation purposes, Iran is actually a bigger concern than Palestine). If Russia is successful in Ukraine, what does that say to North Korea and China? Perhaps more importantly, what does that say to South Korea, Taiwan, and Iran, who want to defend their sovereignty from their nuclear neighbors and may feel nuclear weapons are the only way to do that? According to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, it sends “the worst possible message”. I haven’t even mentioned India and Pakistan, a conflict that has been hot for decades. 


The point is, it is critical to nuclear non-proliferation efforts that Russia is not successful in Ukraine. Russia has already shown that they can prevent direct military intervention on the part of the United States and NATO, which is bad enough, but also not an entirely new concept. The damage would be limited if the global community came together and demonstrated that if you make these nuclear threats, you will be sanctioned into oblivion, you will unite and solidify your enemies against you, and you will not be able to achieve your goals. That is the short term goal for nuclear non-proliferation advocates. 


The medium term goal is to re-enter negotiations with Russia for a new nuclear non-proliferation treaty. I know this may seem counterintuitive, but even throughout the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were talking to each other and negotiating. When Russia invaded Ukraine, we stopped talking, understandably, but now it’s time to start talking again. Since 2005-ish, most nuclear non-proliferation treaties have been weakened or entirely abandoned. There is now only one nuclear non-proliferation treaty on the books, New START. New START was renewed for five years in February 2021. It cannot be renewed again. So, if no other treaty is negotiated, in 2026, there will be no treaties restricting access to or action with nuclear weapons for the first time in decades. Nuclear states will largely be free to resume building up nuclear stockpiles again after we’ve managed to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world by 70% from peak. The first START treaty took nine years to negotiate. We have less than four years to negotiate a new treaty. We need to start talking again. 


In the long-term, it is in the United States interest to continue reducing our own nuclear stockpiles. We ought to lead by example, sure, but for what it’s worth, we would expect Russia to get on board with this too. The war in Ukraine has also shown that Russia’s conventional military is far weaker than expected, so it is in the United States’ defense interest to reduce the role of nuclear militarism in global affairs in favor of conventional militarism. We have reason to expect that after the war in Ukraine, the Russian military will be severely weakened and depleted regardless of the outcome. Their economy will also be crippled from global sanctions. We hope they will be desperate to use the money they currently spend on maintaining nuclear weapons on other economic and military interests. This would create optimal circumstances for nuclear disarmament. 


So, what can you, dear scientist reader, do about this? Why do you care? Well, nuclear non-proliferation is very scientifically complicated. What does it mean for a country to be “close” to obtaining a nuclear weapon, for instance? Well, it has to do with the amount of enriched uranium a country has created, and to what percentage enrichment. Most policymakers will be the first to tell you that they don’t know off the top of their head the difference between 5% enriched uranium and 95% enriched uranium, or why one is more dangerous. That is if they even know what uranium is. This is nothing against policymakers, it just means that scientists need to be in the room to answer those questions. Scientists need to be translators of science in order for good policy to exist. That is the role Congressman Foster plays as the only Ph.D. Physicist in Congress. Indeed, during the Obama administration when the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was being negotiated (better known as the Iran nuclear deal), he would answer questions from other Members of Congress about the details of the policy. In short, having scientists in the room for policymaking leads to better policy, which leads to a safer world. So, to any readers who feel pressured to choose between pure science and other interests like the humanities, don’t choose. You are not only normal, you are necessary. You may save the world someday. 

Aidan Keaveney