photo credit: Jernej Forman

Ukraine: how nuclear weapons continue to increase the risks, two years on


Two years after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the risk of nuclear weapons use continues to escalate, while the looming threat of their use protracts this conflict with a high civilian cost. Nuclear-armed states and their allies waver between condemning nuclear threats and engaging in irresponsible practices such as nuclear sharing and championing their own nuclear deterrent. But the rest of the world is pushing back, condemning these behaviors and demanding the total elimination of these weapons of mass destruction through the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

Melissa Parke, Executive Director of ICAN, said: “This terrible war with its use of nuclear blackmail and overt threats to use nuclear weapons is a wake up call that the world needs to heed - as long as the nuclear-armed states hang on to their arsenals and cling to the misguided doctrine of deterrence, we face the likelihood these weapons will be used sooner or later. Nuclear weapons should be abolished before it is too late.”

The escalating nuclear risk

Following Vladimir Putin's initial explicit threats to use nuclear weapons, we have seen nuclear-armed states and their allies continue to erode the decades-long nuclear taboo over the past two years. The escalation in nuclear rhetoric has not just been seen in Russia (Medvedev made explicit threats just this last weekend) but also in Israel and North Korea, and in recent calls by Polish and German politicians and NATO leaders for a European nuclear weapon. Nuclear threats heighten tensions in an already dangerous environment, reduce the threshold for use of nuclear weapons, and greatly increase the risk of nuclear conflict and global catastrophe. 

The risk is also increased by the irresponsible practice of nuclear sharing, or stationing nuclear weapons, which seems to be on the rise. In June 2023, Vladimir Putin said Russia delivered its first tactical weapons to Belarus, though it is unclear how many nuclear weapons were transferred. This is a reckless and dangerous escalation that was widely condemned. But for NATO states, and particularly the five states that host US nuclear weapons, simply condemning Russia’s nuclear sharing without taking any action is insufficient and hypocritical. Particularly as the US and the UK also seemingly explore the return of US nuclear weapons to Lakenheath. Any nuclear sharing complicates decision making and increases the risk of miscalculation, miscommunication and potentially catastrophic accidents. It is time to end this practice that threatens peace and security and puts us all at risk.

Deterrence theory and nuclear weapons profiteers at the heart of the problem

The use of nuclear blackmail by Russia in the context of the Ukraine war has demonstrated the flawed nature of nuclear deterrence which, instead of ensuring stability, gave Russia the cover to commense its brutal and devastating invasion. Yet Russia's nuclear threats have failed to deter the US and European countries from supplying Ukraine with weapons and money to fight Russia.

With current conflicts directly involving two nuclear-armed states, it is clear that nuclear deterrence doesn’t keep the peace. NATO states are playing into Putin's hands by insisting nuclear weapons are a necessary deterrent. It only strengthens Putin's position to promote his own "deterrent” now, whereas rejecting deterrence and reinforcing the nuclear taboo would limit his options. 

Meanwhile, the conflict has also accelerated the global nuclear arms race, with the nine nuclear-armed states increasing spending to $82.9 billion in 2022. As a result, the nuclear weapons industry has profited shamelessly off the world’s concerns over nuclear war. Since the conflict in Ukraine and the increased nuclear tensions that followed, profits for the companies that produce nuclear weapons drove up, with an $15.7 billion increase in share and bond holding and $57.1 billion increase in loans and underwriting. 

The global response to nuclear risk: the TPNW

The way to respond to the heightened risk of nuclear war is not to increase nuclear arsenals or threaten nuclear retaliation. The answer is for all countries to condemn nuclear threats, end their reliance on nuclear deterrence and join the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). The TPNW specifically outlaws the threat to use nuclear weapons, as well as the irresponsible practice of nuclear sharing.

All nuclear-armed states need to take urgent steps to de-escalate tensions and to break free from the dangerous doctrine of nuclear deterrence, and nuclear disarmament must be an essential element of a negotiated peace between Russia and Ukraine. Multilateral nuclear disarmament is the only guarantee to prevent other nuclear-armed countries from following Russia’s lead and using their nuclear weapons as a shield to commit war crimes and terrorize civilian populations. Joining the TPNW is a crucial step to delegitimize nuclear deterrence and eliminate nuclear weapons. 

Over the past two years, the states parties of the TPNW have been central in pushing back against any and all nuclear threats and challenging the false narrative of nuclear deterrence.  At the First Meeting of States Parties in 2021, they condemned unequivocally “any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances.” At the second meeting in New York,they agreed “to challenge the security paradigm based on nuclear deterrence by highlighting and promoting new scientific evidence about the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons and juxtaposing this with the risks and assumptions that are inherent in nuclear deterrence.”  It is time for all responsible states to join the TPNW.