Nuclear weapons are still a threat 

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Evacuees from Kherson gather upon their arrival at the railway station in Anapa, southern Russia, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022. Russian authorities have encouraged residents of Kherson to evacuate, warning that the city may come under massive Ukrainian shelling. Photo by AP Photo.

As the war in Ukraine approaches the eight month mark, the devastation continues to mount. But a far more serious level of conflict was foreshadowed in late September when Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a speech in late Sept. “In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.” This seemed to be a clear nod to Russia’s nuclear arsenal and the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons in the event of war being fought on Russian soil. On Oct. 6, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on NATO and other nations to initiate “preventive strikes” before the translator corrected it to “preventive action.” This sparked further fears that now the Ukrainian side was inviting the possible use of nuclear weapons in the conflict. While gaffs and slips of the tongue do happen in the international arena, nuclear warfare is not at all something to be taken lightly. While one can claim that this is just an instance of chest thumping by all parties involved, it pays to be aware of the recent history of attempts at nuclear disarmament and where this leaves us. 

The first major treaty limiting the scope of nuclear weapons was the 1963 Test Ban Treaty. It stipulated an end to nuclear tests in the atmosphere, in space or underwater. While not outright banning tests underground, tests that would produce fallout in states not conducting the test were banned. This treaty was an acknowledgement of the environmental damage caused by nuclear weapons and an attempt to slow down the ever-increasing yields of U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons which had been steadily growing until the early 1960s. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (SALT I&II) ratified in 1972 and 1979 were designed to limit the amount of ICBMs and SLBMs of the United States and the Soviet Union as well as the number of other ballistic missiles. Perhaps the most sweeping treaty was the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty made in 1987. This treaty saw the U.S. and USSR permanently remove all conventional and nuclear ground launched cruise and ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,000 kilometers. This resulted in the dismantling of 2,692 weapons. All of these treaties furthered the widely held belief that nuclear weapons should be limited as much as possible and eventually removed altogether. 

All of this comes into play when one examines crucial developments of the past few years. A major one was the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty on Aug. 2, 2019. The stated reason was Russia’s violation of the treaty by possessing a banned missile system as well as concern over China’s arsenal. This dismantling of a long standing nuclear arms agreement sets a dangerous precedent for the potential ceasing of other nuclear treaties. The tension also rose in Eastern Europe given the ongoing war in Ukraine. Just last week NATO conducted nuclear exercises simulating tactical B61 nuclear weapons on continental Europe. This was bad enough, but it also occurred parallel to Russian nuclear exercises. In August, the U.S. carried out a test of the Minutemen III ICBM which had been delayed due to the tensions in the Taiwan Strait earlier in this year. Make no mistake, we are entering a new era of geopolitics. As the neoliberal order is challenged and pushed back in numerous areas, tensions will continue to mount. While humanity faces the existential threat of climate change, it bears remembering that nuclear annihilation is always possible as long as nuclear weapons exist in the world. This is not an outcome reserved solely for dystopias and the world of fiction. It can happen in our lifetimes. Some of the closest calls regarding the deployment and use of nuclear weapons were resolved by nothing but luck. Luck is never an effective strategy to solve an existential threat like the one posed by nuclear war. 

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