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The Conflict over Ukraine

November 18, 2015

New front-line of nuclear escalation in Europe

The relationship between the US and Russia is at all-time low since end of Cold War, and tensions continue to escalate. The US and Russia are no longer negotiating any arms control agreements. The last one was New START in 2010. Communication between NATO and Russia has broken down. Many previous agreements have been neglected, suspended or are endangered. The conflict in Ukraine has led to this relationship deteriorating even further. Nevertheless, we believe that the conflict is a symptom of this relationship, rather than a cause. The front-line from the Cold War has shifted from a divided Germany to a divided Ukraine today.

Since the confrontation began over Ukraine, between NATO – led by the US – and Russia, there has been a series of nuclear threats and military exercises involving nuclear weapons. While these seem like tit-for-tat, it is as difficult to ascertain the beginning as the proverbial chicken and egg conundrum.

1. Putin stated in an interview on Russian TV that he had sent a message to the West that he was ready to activate nuclear weapons during the annexation of Crimea. According to our sources, this was not just the usual high alert status that continues to exist and threaten us daily, but an actual threat that really rattled officials in NATO countries. Their attitude since this threat has changed measurably.

2. NATO let it be known that nuclear weapons systems would be involved in BALTOPS and Sabre Strike manoeuvres (that took place in June 2015) in Baltic States and flew in B2 and B52 aeroplanes, both of which are known nuclear bombers. (Video of B52 over Poland)

3. The Ukraine Parliament has begun clearing the way to join NATO, including passing amendments to the Law of Ukraine in June, which allows deployment of foreign troops, potentially with nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction (despite the fact that they are banned). Russia called this a breach of the NPT. So IPPNW really needs to talk about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons to people in Ukraine. We need an ICAN initiative in Ukraine!

4. Russian exercises took place in September 2014 involving forces responsible for Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal in and in another snap exercise in March 2015, the deployment of nuclear capabilities was simulated.

5. Poland, Romania and Baltic States want the US to deploy missile defence in their countries. The question arises here as to why the US continue to plan any deployment of missile defence in Europe since the deal with Iran was sealed. It was always claimed, and Russia was repeatedly reassured, that US missile defence systems in Europe would only be built to protect from a potential Iranian missile attack. At a conference in Berlin on 10 September, however, Anita Friedt (Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nuclear and Strategic Policy) insisted during Q&A that US missile defence plans for Europe would not be changed. In March 2015, Russia reacted strongly to Danish consideration of joining the US missile shield by threatening to target the country with nuclear weapons.

6. In response to alleged INF-Treaty violations, a Pentagon official proposed to a US Congress in December 2014 on “Russian arms control cheating” that new mid-range nuclear weapons could be deployed in Europe. Russia has threatened on a number of occasions since 2007 to withdraw from the INF treaty. At the above-mentioned Congress hearing, Republican Congressmen also suggested that the US could withdraw. The latest Russian threat to withdraw from the treaty came as a response to the modernisation of US nuclear weapons in Europe.

7. US Undersecretary of Defense Robert Scher (assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans and capabilities) proposed in June 2015 that the US could attack cruise missile bases in Russia.

8. In January 2015 two US Congressmen sent a letter to US State Secretary Kerry and Defence Secretary Hagel proposing that the US deploy B61 nuclear bombs in Eastern Europe using aggressive language: “You don’t deal with a thug like Vladimir Putin by asking nicely. He breaks treaties, he invades countries and then stations his nuclear forces on their soil, and he cozies up to terrorist regimes like Assad’s, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and the mullahs in Tehran. What’s next? Who’s next?”

9. Russia uses deployment threats on a regular basis. In June 2015 Putin announced the deployment of 40 new IBCMs (actually ten less than his original deployment plan). Russia has so often threatened deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad that one wonders when they might actually carry that threat out. Noone seems certain whether they are there or not. Russia has also claimed it has a right to deploy nuclear weapons in the Crimea.

Modernisation programmes

Despite all this brinkmanship and warmongering, current deployments of new nuclear weapons are in fact a result of modernisation programmes that have long been underway in all nuclear weapons states. This is what is planned:

Russia is not just overhauling its outdated nuclear stockpile – it is also planning on replacing 70% of the old Soviet navy by 2020. The army is also being completely revamped. Russia’s nuclear weapons budget is to be increased by more than half by 2016 and all Soviet-era missiles are due to be replaced by new ones. General Gerasimov stated that nuclear weapons would have the highest priority in 2016.

Similarly, the USA is also modernising its complete nuclear arsenal and infrastructure of its vast nuclear complex. Here are just two examples:

The Minuteman III ICBM will be updated so it can continue to function till at least 2030 under the innocuous euphemism “Life Extension Programme”. In fact, the whole missile, other than the casing, will be completely new. The modernisation of the B61 bomb will turn a simple gravity bomb into a smart guided precision bomb that can attack new targets. The new F35A Joint Strike Fighter is being developed to deliver this new bomb. The US claims this is also only “Life Extension” and the NATO host countries do not question this. Deployment is due to begin in 2020 and preparations at the bases in Europe are already underway. As in Russia, the cost of these modernisation programmes in the US is immense and expanding. Over next 30 years, it is estimated that 1 trillion US$ will be spent on the nuclear weapons complex.

The US and Russia are not alone with their modernisation:

France is in the middle of upgrading its submarine launched ballistic missiles, with a new version of the missile (the M51.3) scheduled to be deployed in 2020.

UK warhead modernisation programs include new arming, fusing and firing systems as well as performance enhancements and refurbishments to extend the missile life until the 2040s.

China has an extensive modernisation programme and is the only nuclear weapon state that also plans to increase the numbers of nuclear systems.

Since the annexation of the Crimea, many have loudly claimed that Ukraine should not have given up the Soviet nuclear weapons on their territory when the Cold War ended, quoting the Budapest Memorandum. In our view it should be claimed, just as loudly, that if Ukraine were now in possession of nuclear weapons, we would likely have already seen their use and the ensuing catastrophic humanitarian consequences. Adding nuclear weapons directly into a confrontation of this intensity is very dangerous indeed, as can be seen in the conflict over Kashmir. We believe this is also a clumsy attempt at revising history. At the time of the signing of the Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine did not see Russia as a potential aggressor, but was worried about the US. Interestingly, “economic coercion” on Ukraine is also expressly forbidden by the Memorandum. Nevertheless, the Memorandum applies also to Russia and it has indeed been violated.

Ending the Cold War – the Front Line

Since the Cold War ended, the front-line has shifted from a divided Germany to dividing Ukraine. There has never been a real discussion about how to end the Cold War, and no real reconciliation efforts have taken place between the former Soviet republics and Russia. In another revision of history, countries that were liberated by their own civil societies have often been told that they had in fact been freed by NATO. This was stated by a NATO official in the Hungarian Parliament in 1997 prior to the first round of NATO expansion and many times since.

One by one East European countries have been subsumed into NATO instead of dealing with their past under the yoke of the Soviet Union. In Europe, faith in the UN died in Srebrenica, the OSCE was effectively marginalised in Kosovo and NATO reemerged like the phoenix from the Cold War ashes. The role that the wars in the Balkans played in beefing up NATO for this confrontation with Russia should not be underestimated. Before Kosovo, many were questioning the need for a defence alliance, since the Warsaw Pact had been disbanded.

During negotiations between US and the Soviet Union on the 2+4 Treaty (now 25 years old), the US promised not to expand NATO beyond Germany’s borders. Unfortunately, this promise was not written into the treaty, but people who were there insist it was given. NATO has since admitted 16 new members in last 25 years, expanding from 12 to 28 members. Russia has constantly stated that it cannot tolerate NATO on its doorstep, no more than the US could tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. NATO has now expanded so far that Russian missiles are on NATO’s border, causing hysteria in the Baltic States and Poland.

Global nuclear threat

SIPRI says that although total number of nuclear weapons is sinking, the number of operational nuclear weapons is increasing again (4300 in 2015, 3970 in 2014). There are estimated to be 1800 nuclear systems still on high alert, posing a major risk that a mistake could still lead to Armageddon.

During a time of conflict, a lack of communication and heightened distrust, such as we have now due to the conflict over Ukraine, increase the chances of use by accident or design.

We are often told we cannot discuss nuclear disarmament now because of tensions over Ukraine. BUT that is exactly why we need to talk about nuclear disarmament now – to prevent nuclear war.

That was the main lesson of the Cold War – all the main treaties were negotiated to decrease tension and increase trust. With tensions mounting, de-escalation between NATO and Russia is now needed.

One solution for to further nuclear de-escalation would be to commence negotiations on a nuclear ban treaty, focussing on the illegality of nuclear weapons regardless who possesses them. IPPNW’s message as a physician’s organisation is clear: Nuclear weapons cause death, suffering and displacement on a catastrophic scale, with irreversible damage to health and the environment, to socio-economic development, and to the social order.

The threat of nuclear war is taking place in the Ukraine – in the midst of Europe. The damage that nuclear weapons would cause knows no borders. Hundreds of thousands of deaths would stretch from Kiev over Amsterdam to London, Dublin and further, from Helsinki to Istanbul. This threat is real! So we need to raise our voices now, very loudly. So let us start with the first step. Let us start to build ICAN in Ukraine!

Angelika Claussen, Xanthe Hall

Angelika Claussen, IPPNW Vice-President for Europe, gave this speech at the Medact Conference in London on November 14, 2015, the first version of which was presented by Xanthe Hall at the European IPPNW conference in Belgrade on October 12th, 2015.

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