By Mohammad Mazhari

Risks of nuclear war are growing, but still remain low: political scientist

March 16, 2022 - 15:57
 ‘One key distinction in the analogy between Ukraine and the Cuban Missile Crisis is the ability to deescalate’

TEHRAN – A senior researcher in nuclear arms control at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich says that the risk of nuclear conflict is increasing despite its low possibility as the Ukraine war has quickly become a conflict involving NATO.

“The risks of nuclear war are growing, but they still remain quite low,” Stephen Herzog tells the Tehran Times.

For example, Herzog says, “Cold War examples show that some NATO or Russian troop deaths, or aircraft losses, will not result in a ‘Moscow-for-Washington’ strategic nuclear exchange.”

While the Ukraine war is going on, some political observers warn about the expansion of war to other countries and a perilous confrontation between Russia and NATO.

“This has quickly become a conflict involving NATO. Western countries are providing weapons and intelligence to help Ukraine resist the Russian military,” Herzog, also an associate of Harvard University's Project on Managing the Atom, notes.

Following is the text of the interview: 

Q: Given ongoing tensions between Russia and NATO over Ukraine, how can we read recent developments in terms of nuclear deterrence theory? It seems the United States is reluctant to engage in a direct clash with Russia because the result would be catastrophic.

A: Nuclear deterrence, like Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat directed at any state considering intervention in Ukraine, raises the stakes of military conflict. Thus, I don’t believe we would witness war in a NATO member state like Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania.

 But Ukraine shows that deterrence cannot prevent peripheral conflicts in states outside military alliances or unprotected by great power nuclear assurances. Putin’s gamble appears to be that Moscow would win the so-called “balance of resolve.” He bet controlling Ukraine’s trajectory was more important to Russia than NATO.

“The legacy of Saddam’s atrocities against the Iranians should remind that no country should ever use chemical arms. Their use is a grave human rights violation.”

Yet, this has quickly become a conflict involving NATO. Western countries are providing weapons and intelligence to help Ukraine resist the Russian military. They are using economic sanctions to punish not just Putin but everyday Russian people. Refugees are fleeing to NATO states and neutral countries. Nuclear weapon use or accidents due to conflict near Ukrainian nuclear power plants will have severe consequences for Europe and beyond.

As videos of the humanitarian crisis disseminate through traditional and social media, calls will grow for intervention. This will likely pose great risks because it is unclear what actions will result in escalation. Cold War examples show that some NATO or Russian troop deaths, or aircraft losses, will not result in a “Moscow-for-Washington” strategic nuclear exchange. The risks of nuclear war are growing, but they still remain quite low.

Q: Could you update us about assessments when it comes to the comparison between U.S. and Russia in terms of nuclear power? 

A: According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the United States has 5,428 nuclear weapons and Russia has 5,977. These two countries account for over 90% of global nuclear stockpiles. This has created a situation where potential conflict between them could escalate with worldwide ramifications.

Some analysts have suggested, instead of using strategic nuclear arms against cities, Putin may consider “low-yield” tactical nuclear weapons. This could occur on the battlefield to target Ukrainian military infrastructure and tip the balance in Russia’s favor.

 I don’t see this as likely. Such an action would risk severe escalation and devastate the norm of nuclear non-use dating to 1945. The Russians are also capable of destroying Ukrainian targets with conventional weaponry alone. However, we should be increasingly concerned about weapons of mass destruction if Russia fails to achieve its objectives with conventional weapons and Putin appears disinterested in serious diplomacy.

Q: What does Cold War history tell us about crisis escalation and possibilities for diplomacy? For example, what can we learn from the Cuban Missile Crisis?

A: I would return to the balance of resolve. The United States emerged victorious in the Cuban Missile Crisis because President John F. Kennedy made nuclear threats deemed credible by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. It was clear that Washington wanted to eliminate Soviet nuclear missile deployments close to its shores, capable of targeting major U.S. cities. Likewise, Putin threatened Western powers that might consider intervening in Ukraine. This threat will likely do a great deal to deter a NATO-Russia conflict. One key distinction in the analogy between Ukraine and the Cuban Missile Crisis is the ability to deescalate. U.S. President Joe Biden doesn’t have nearly as much control over whether Ukraine might stand down as Khrushchev did over the U.S.S.R. Escalatory risks will likely force the hand of the Americans toward nonintervention and promoting diplomacy. But this does not mean a quick end to the war, which is in the hands of the Ukrainians and the Russians.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, lower-level provocations like the 1960 U-2 spy plane incident reveal nuclear powers showing restraint. Not all military actions to support the Ukrainians will necessarily lead to nuclear escalation. NATO will tread carefully in probing Russian “red lines.”

Q: How do you see the global distribution of nuclear power? Israel possesses a nuclear arsenal, but the media stigmatizes peaceful nuclear energy programs like Iran’s. It seems having a nuclear weapon is a political matter based on alignment with the superpowers.

A: This distribution is the product of a long politicized history. Western powers knew Israel, Pakistan, Apartheid South Africa (later denuclearized), and others were building the bomb. In some cases, technology suppliers turned a blind eye even as evidence mounted that civilian nuclear exports might be used for weapons. Likewise, China and Russia have engaged in “gray area” nuclear transfers with allies. There’s also subjectivity even within blocs and a history of—particularly in the U.S. case—superpower nonproliferation promotion within alliances.

But generally, your point is well taken. Countries like Iran have committed to remaining non-nuclear in the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. One reason they joined is that Article 6 says the superpowers have to eventually eliminate their arsenals. There has been some progress, as there were up to 70,000 global nuclear weapons in the 1980s, now down to roughly 13,000 today. Yet, a huge number remain, and NATO-Russia tensions are an obstacle to disarmament.

Indeed, the media often ignores some nuclear weapons while stigmatizing civilian efforts. Iran is entitled to peaceful nuclear energy under Article 4 of the Nonproliferation Treaty. Still, the Islamic Republic’s recent actions with centrifuge and uranium enrichment levels could be seen as worrisome. I believe Iran doesn’t seek nuclear weapons and is trying to persuade the United States and others to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But intentional or not, Iran’s actions reduce its breakout time to develop a bomb should Tehran ever decide to do so. The best solution to avoid misperception is a return to the deal—which the Donald Trump administration was foolish to leave—and a permanent end to the failed policy of “maximum pressure.” As energy tensions between Russia and the West grow, so does the market for Iranian oil and natural gas provided by sanctions relief.

Q: Can possession of nuclear arsenal survive a political system? The USSR collapsed despite having nuclear weapons. What can the United States learn from this?

A: I am afraid the conflict in Ukraine might be read in some capitals as a call for nuclear proliferation. Kyiv doesn’t have nuclear weapons and isn’t protected by a nuclear umbrella. But having an arsenal is a perilous state of affairs. If you’re pointing nuclear weapons at a nuclear-armed adversary, they’re probably pointing theirs back at you. Right now, every major NATO city in Europe is about 20 minutes from being destroyed by Russian nuclear missiles, and cities in the United States are a half-hour from destruction.

 The reverse is also true. This is essentially hostage-taking that may seem acceptable so long as deterrence works. If it fails spectacularly, the consequences are unimaginable. 

And yes, I agree, nuclear weapons didn’t stop Soviet disintegration. They also haven’t prevented North Korea from becoming a pariah with an economy in shambles. They will not guarantee the future of Russia or the United States. Of course, political regimes need to ensure their populations’ security. But they also should focus on democratic governance and transparency. Money spent on a nuclear arsenal could be better spent on people’s well-being. For this and other reasons, a return to the path of nuclear arms control would be well advised to reduce NATO-Russia tensions.

Q: After Russia alleged the United States and NATO were coordinating with Ukraine to develop and release biological weapons, U.S. officials labeled these claims as “propaganda.” It now seems Russia’s claim may be true. What are the implications?

A: To date, there is no verifiable evidence from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons corroborating these assertions. The lessons of Iraq in 2003 are critical here. The George W. Bush administration was wrong to make accusations about weapons of mass destruction and invade without legitimate support for its claims. This is why impartial inspections are vital for verifying the global arms control regime. 

Ukraine is a member of the Biological Weapons Convention. Biological weapons are indiscriminate, and I see no reason to believe the Ukrainian government would risk harming its civilian population. More concerning is Russia employing these allegations to justify using chemical weapons against Ukrainian cities. Moscow has a large chemical arsenal despite being party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and there are allegations its intelligence agencies used chemical weapons in the 2018 Skripal incident on British soil. 

The legacy of Saddam Hussein’s atrocities against the Iranian people should remind everyone that no country should ever use chemical weapons. Chemical agents inflict massive suffering. Their use is a grave human rights violation.

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