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Nuclear alternative

Ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there have been fears that Kyiv’s admission to NATO might trigger a wider war. Despite this, it was actually the war-torn country’s non-threatening nature that encouraged Putin in the first place.

July 26, 2023 - Alex Gordon - Articles and Commentary

Decommissioned Soviet missile base near Pervomaysk in Ukraine. Photo: Clay Gilliland / wikimedia.org

In 1942, Albert Einstein wrote: “Since I do not see that atomic energy can be a great boon in the foreseeable future, I must say that at present it is an enormous menace. Perhaps it is even for the best. It [nuclear weapons] has the power to intimidate humanity and force it to bring order to international affairs, which without fear we would never achieve.” Einstein believed that nuclear weapons provided an opportunity to temper the fervour of madmen who were capable of starting global wars. Since the end of the Second World War, nuclear weapons have essentially served to deter wars. It is risky to attack a country with nuclear weapons. The presence of nuclear weapons was more likely to prevent wars, while their absence could encourage an attack on a non-nuclear country

On February 24th 2022, the nuclear state Russia attacked Ukraine, which had given up its nuclear weapons in return for “guarantees of its security” enshrined in the Budapest Memorandum signed on December 5th 1994. In that document, there is this particular paragraph: “The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to seek immediate action by the United Nations Security Council to assist Ukraine as a non-nuclear-weapon State party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in the event that Ukraine becomes the victim of an act of aggression or the object of a threat of aggression using nuclear weapons.” Ukraine has become a victim of aggression at the hands of its neighbour and former suzerain, which has appropriated the “historical rights” of tsarist Russia and the USSR to control the territory of its former vassal. A nuclear-free Ukraine became a victim of nuclear Russia. Three days after Russia attacked Ukraine, on February 27th 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the preparation of Russian nuclear weapons for use. He described the action as putting nuclear weapons “in a special alert mode”. The move effectively amounted to saying “Beware! The Russian Federation is a superpower, for it has nuclear weapons.” By doing so, Putin announced that he was prepared to defend his imperial interests with nuclear weapons. For Russia, the threat that it may use nuclear weapons is an expression of its great power status. Georgetown University professor and national and international security expert Dr Philip Karber said: “The military intervention in Crimea was a violation of international law, the first state-level territorial aggression since the end of World War II. This action is a violation of the UN Charter, Article 2, it violates documents that the Russian side has signed, including the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the Treaty on Short and Medium Range Forces, and agreements on the reduction of conventional armed forces. And this is a blatant violation of the Budapest Memorandum on security assurances for Ukraine, which will have implications for the whole international (arms control) system in the future.” Dr Karber referred here to the 2014 seizure of Crimea. Of course, an even greater violation of the UN Charter, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Budapest Memorandum is represented by the Russian Federation’s attack against Ukraine on February 24th 2022.

Misplaced trust

Former US President Barack Obama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, was actually one of the main culprits behind the Russian Federation’s military invasion of Ukraine. His actions do not justify the title of peacemaker awarded to him by the Nobel Committee. On the contrary, he is responsible for the war that erupted six years after he left office as president of the United States. How did this happen? Another Democratic US president, Bill Clinton, was recently interviewed by the Irish news service RTÉ. He revealed that shortly after the creation of an independent Ukraine, he pressured Kyiv to give Russia its nuclear weapons. The Ukrainians feared being unarmed in the face of aggression from their neighbour and resisted American pressure. Clinton said that “They were afraid to give up their weapons because they thought it was the only thing that would protect them from Russian expansion.” The Ukrainians’ fears were entirely justified. The Clinton administration was pushing the Ukrainians to the false conclusion that written international security assurances would protect Ukraine better than nuclear weapons. In the Budapest Memorandum, Russia, the United States and Britain promised not to threaten or attack Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan in return for giving up their nuclear weapons. The three former Soviet republics joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and ceased to be nuclear powers. By doing this, they put their trust in international guarantees of their security. 

Combatting the proliferation of nuclear weapons has been the centrepiece of US foreign policy since the first nuclear bombs fell on Japan in 1945. Despite this, American diplomacy has tried unsuccessfully to stop Soviet, British, French, Chinese, Israeli, Indian, Pakistani and North Korean programmes. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty entered into force in 1970 and was extended five months after the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.

In 2014, Russia occupied Crimea and started a war to seize Donbas from Ukraine. Then, President Obama failed to honour his country’s commitment to guarantee Ukraine’s security and sovereignty. “I feel guilty about that,” Clinton told RTÉ, adding that “Americans must now help Ukraine in a crisis caused in large part by their faith in our word.” A famous Latin proverb declares: “Si vis pacem, para bellum” (“if you want peace, prepare for war”). Ukraine believed both Clinton and Obama, two Democrats, and acted contrary to this Latin proverb: it stopped preparing for war and believed in peace with Russia and its security guarantees. However, Obama did not stand up for Ukraine precisely because of the Russian Federation’s aggression against Kyiv.

The relative calm achieved following the end of the Cold War was shattered by the inaction and refusal of US President Obama to honour an international treaty signed by President Clinton, a representative of his Democratic Party. The Nobel Peace Prize winner Obama deceived Ukraine into believing American peace guarantees. Had Ukraine possessed nuclear weapons in 2014 and 2022, there would have been no annexation of Crimea, no gradual takeover of Donbas, and no war by the Russian Federation against a supposedly “Nazi” Ukraine. Contrary to the Russian Federation’s assertions about the militarisation of Ukraine, it turned out that it was just not militarised enough, not armed enough and lacked a nuclear shield. Therefore, Ukraine’s neighbour, which guaranteed its security and sovereignty, violated the country’s territorial integrity and launched a war against it. Obama did not promote peace but instead contributed significantly to the war. The pacifism represented by Clinton and Obama failed to take into account that there are two sides to the conflict. For Russia, it seems that pacifism is only a treaty obligation for its wartime opponent. As a result, the renunciation of nuclear weapons has provoked hostilities much more than their continued presence. The thirst for peace and faith in international guarantees ironically bring war much closer than preparation for it. In a way, pacifists may actually act against peace. For the straightforward pacifist, any peace is better than war. Therefore, they may paradoxically reach the point of having to surrender to the aggressor. Despite calls for peace by various European and American peacemakers, a bleeding Ukraine did not capitulate.

Nuclear peace?

In the book My Life, one of the founders of modern physics, the Nobel Prize winner Max Born, writes: “I did not take any part in the development of nuclear physics, but I know enough about it to realise that it does not mean a multiple increase in destructive power, but a radical and rapid change of the situation. The stockpile of atomic and hydrogen bombs in the United States and Russia is probably sufficient to wipe out all the major cities in both countries and, in addition, probably all the other centres of civilisation. But much worse surprises are being prepared, or must already be ready for use: a cobalt bomb, for example, which generates radioactive dust capable of spreading over large areas and killing all living things in the vicinity. The effects of radiation on unborn generations are particularly ominous: mutations are possible that could lead the human race to degeneration.” 

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, the French nuclear scientist Frédéric Joliot-Curie, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, gloomily predicted that in the 21st century all nations would be able to make nuclear explosives. Many countries are indeed showing aspirations to make nuclear weapons, for the technological task of making them today is far easier than it was in the mid-20th century. Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are at different stages of nuclear bomb production. If Ukraine is not admitted to NATO, it may have no other way to stop the aggressor than to make its own nuclear bomb. Ukraine’s admission to NATO could prevent a race to build nuclear weapons in the country and stop Russia’s military expansion westward. Russia was very wary of Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership, as the Russian-Finnish border is wooded and sparsely populated, stretching from Murmansk to St. Petersburg. Strategically, the coast near Murmansk, where Russia maintains a nuclear strike force, is still of primary importance to Moscow. The defence of “nuclear” Murmansk, which has been militarily devastated by the transfer of some troops to Ukraine, will become much more difficult with NATO’s expansion into the Russian-Finnish border area. Russia fears even more the admission of Ukraine to NATO, although Kyiv had no territorial claims against Russia before the seizure of Crimea and Donbas. Russia’s fear of a clash with NATO is much stronger than America’s fear of creating a military conflict with Russia over Ukraine’s inclusion in NATO. Ukraine’s continued position outside NATO against the backdrop of Russia’s ongoing invasion is only pushing the war-torn country to make its own nuclear weapons. A nuclear power is not attacked, while it can attack other countries. Ukraine’s continued non-alignment does not promote peace but only provokes even more intense hostilities. A desperate Ukraine will be forced to defend itself. The country has all the required scientific and technological knowledge to produce a nuclear bomb. As a physicist, and as a professor of physics who is well acquainted with the history of nuclear physics and with Ukrainian science, I am confident in the nation’s ability to defend itself. All the while, the “collective West” continues to debate the legal aspects and consequences of Ukraine’s admission to the North Atlantic Alliance.

Alex Gordon is a native of Kyiv and graduate of Kyiv State University and Haifa Technion (Doctor of Philosophy and Doctor of Science). He emigrated to Israel in 1979 and served in IDF reserve infantry units for 13 years. He is a full Professor (Emeritus) of Physics in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of Haifa and at Oranim, the Academic College of Education. He is also the chair of the committee for the appointment of professors on behalf of the Council for Higher Education of the State of Israel. He has written ten books and about 700 articles in print and online, and has been published in 84 journals in 16 countries in Ukrainian, Russian, Hebrew, English, French and German.

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