On 1 March, the Russian President Vladimir Putin, made headlines by boasting that the Russian Federation’s new ‘invincible’ nuclear weapons can breach NATO’s missile defences in a speech. In particular, Putin bigged up Russia’s new nuclear cruise missiles, which are currently being tested.
Putin’s statement was made on the back of US president Donald Trump’s claim last month that, if Russia did not stop modernising its nuclear force, ‘we’re going to be so far ahead of everybody else in nuclear like you’ve never seen before.’ Both Russia and the United States are in the midst of massive nuclear modernisation efforts that experts believe bear the marks of a budding arms race. Putin justified his country’s development of new nuclear capabilities by pointing to US missile defence systems developed since the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. Back in 2002, Russian protests to the US withdrawal were meek.
A number of commentators have rightly highlighted the embarrassing pettiness of the nuclear-armed leaders’ name-calling and button-size comparisons. But the more crucial point is that Putin’s, Trump’s, and Kim Jong-un’s incendiary nuclear rhetoric plays well with their respective domestic audiences. From Moscow to DC to Pyeongyang, nuclear weapons are represented as symbols of status and military prowess.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted by 122 states in 2017 to counter the culture of nuclear grandstanding and acquiescence. For a large majority of the world’s states, nuclear weapons are fundamentally illegitimate weapons. They are marks of shame, not prestige.
‘While Russia and the US compare the size of their arsenals, the rest of the world is joining a treaty that bans them’, ICAN’s executive director, Beatrice Fihn, points out. The TPNW prohibits the possession, hosting, and use of nuclear weapons, as well as assistance, encouragement, and inducement of prohibited acts.
‘The United States and Russia have both repeatedly pledged to reduce their nuclear arsenals and to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their security policies’, says Fihn. ‘The two countries’ ongoing modernisation programmes and escalatory language increases the risk of nuclear use and undermines the commitment to nuclear disarmament they have made under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.’
In recent years, Russian officials have on multiple occasions threatened nuclear strikes against countries in its region. Research shows that it would only take a tiny fraction of the world’s current inventory of nuclear weapons to cause catastrophic climatic disturbances. The resulting ‘nuclear winter’ would of course not discriminate between the user and the target of the nuclear strikes, let alone third parties or neighbouring countries.
In a 2016 meeting at the UN, the Russian delegation claimed Russia possesses nuclear weapons with ‘absolute legitimacy’. The widespread support by the majority of states of the world for the TPNW makes it clear that they do not agree and are instead committed to disarmament.
“A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. Leaders like Putin, Trump and Kim Jong-Un are putting the entire world at risk with their current behaviour. All states should urgently rally around the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons to signal their rejection of nuclear weapons”, says Fihn.