War’s Far-Reaching Effects

On April 21, Siegfried Hecker, a world-leading authority on nuclear security and proliferation, told John Mecklin, editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine constituted “a major hinge, a turning point in the nuclear world”: as “big a hinge as when the Soviet Union dissolved.” At that time, Hecker was director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the scientific core of the American Nuclear War State. He also, however—breathing “a big sigh of relief”—envisaged an end to the recurring nightmare of nuclear arms racing, threats, near misses and scares. It seemed, indeed, wonderfully “clear”: “we’re going to walk away from the precipice.”

A man walks past destroyed apartment buildings in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

A man walks past destroyed apartment buildings in Kharkiv, Ukraine. (© UNICEF/Ashley Gilbertson)

Not that he thought the walk would be easy. The collapse of the Soviet Union triggered a socio-economic implosion still radiating in the background of the current Russia-Ukraine-NATO crisis: the overnight disappearance—largely at Western behest—of extensive social welfare, coupled with the give-away of state enterprises and property, enabling the ‘casino capitalism’ rise of the oligarchs. A tsunami of crime, unemployment, homelessness, suicide, alcoholism and mental illness—producing a jaw-dropping drop in life expectancy—swept over the former USSR, including its gargantuan nuclear weapons infrastructure: 30,000+ weapons, thousands of sites (across 11 time zones), hundreds of thousands employed in dozens of ‘secret’ nuclear cities.

Confronted with what Hecker calls “the four loose nukes problems: loose nuclear weapons, loose nuclear materials, loose nuclear experts, and loose nuclear exports,” the US and Russia (working with the nuclearized former Soviet republics of Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan) embarked on an era of Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR), originally a bipartisan initiative crafted by Republican Senator Richard Lugar and Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, designed to secure facilities and materials and provide alternative employment, turning weapons-building hands to a peaceful Herculean task: cleaning the atomic ‘Aegean stables’ of the Soviet era. (America, of course, had its own mountains of radioactive filth to muck out, a challenge so far proving—spectacularly—beyond it.


On its own terms, the CTR program was a great success. Hecker, in the thick of it, later edited a fulsome behind-the-scenes account, Doomed to Cooperate: How American and Russian Scientists Joined Forces to Avert Some of the Great Post-Cold War Nuclear Dangers. What CTR could not do, however, was perform CPR on post-Soviet economies suffering virtual cardiac arrest, leading to what Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Economics, called “the ruin of Russia” that “no rewriting of history will change.”

And to that injury was added a grievous insult: the eastward expansion of NATO, not in response to new Russian strength but rather its military and strategic weakness. And no ‘rewriting of history’ can change the fact that expansion was regarded as ruinous folly by many US diplomats and scholars. As George Kennan, chief theorist of America’s Cold War ‘containment’ strategy, wrote a quarter of a century ago: “something of the highest importance is at stake here…The view, bluntly stated, is that expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.”
Old women in Moscow store, 1990s

“Such a decision,” Kennan warned, “may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.” Even absent the debacle of ‘casino capitalism,’ what has been called the “juggernaut” of NATO expansion would have backfired. In conjunction with it, it propelled the rise of an autocratic, resentful ‘Putinism’ dedicated to preventing the further erosion of Russian influence and status. And after NATO, in 2008, stated bluntly that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members,” Putin moved to end the Cooperative Threat Reduction era, in his paranoia even portraying it as cover for US espionage.

Long before Putin’s ascent, Russia adopted NATO’s own Cold War nuclear policy – at a time it was outnumbered by Warsaw Pact tanks and troops – of countenancing ‘first use’ not just to deter or pre-empt a nuclear strike but forestall conventional defeat. Such a posture remains, bizarrely, NATO’s to this day, even though it now vastly outspends and outguns Russia, meaning both sides now denounce, in the other, the very policies they share.

Are those sides, though, now doomed not to cooperate, destined to destroy themselves—and us all? In late June, three meetings in Europe may help answer, or at least shape our approach, to that terrifying question. The last of them, the NATO Heads of State and Government Summit in Madrid (June 29-30), will be heralded—in the war-fevered, mainstream Western media—with fanfares of praise, celebrating the birth of ‘Global NATO,’  baptized by a conceptually-statuesque ‘New Strategic Concept,’ new only in expanding the Alliance’s ‘backyard’ from the Euro-Atlantic (combating the Russian Bear) to the Indo-Pacific (taming the Chinese Dragon). And for the pièce de résistance, deafening applause for the imminent, breakneck accession of long-neutral Finland and Sweden, massively expanding the NATO-Russia front line and, thus, drastically shortening the nuclear fuse.

The other two meetings, I’m grimly certain, will generate little or no interest in the self-designated ‘free world’: and it is to those gatherings that I devote the rest of this essay.


On June 20, Austria will host ‘The 2022 Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons’: the fourth major meeting in nine years on this fledgling diplomatic topic, known by its obligatory acronym of HINW. The first three HINW conferences—Oslo (March 2013), Nayarit, Mexico (February 2014) and Vienna (December 2014)—generated not only a wealth of new research on the intolerable human and environmental costs of nuclear use, but intense momentum behind the push for a treaty to finally ‘ban the Bomb.’

Logo from the second HINW conference, Nayarit, Mexico, 2014.

Though such a ban—the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)—was concluded in 2017, becoming international law in January 2021, the HINW initiative remains valuable as a parallel process open to all states anxious to base policy on what Austria calls a “common factual and scientific foundation.” Humanity faces two existential threats, each involving climate breakdown: global warming caused by industrial pollution, global cooling caused by nuclear war. But whereas action on the former has been spurred by the findings of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, no equivalent UN body exists to study nuclear dangers. In an age of diminishing threats, this might be understandable. But as the Austrian Foreign Ministry points out, not only are there “still an estimated 13,100 nuclear weapons owned by nine states in the world”—with “arsenal increases and modernization programs” underway, and “nuclear technology more readily available to other states as well as non-state actors”—but the “risks associated with nuclear weapons are also increasing”:

Miscalculations and mistakes, human or technical, can lead to devastating and global short, mid and long-term consequences. Next to their terrible human cost, their impact on the environment, health, and socio-economic development knows no borders…

The one-day meeting in Vienna, while vastly better than nothing, cannot hope to compensate for the absence of a properly staffed and resourced UN panel. How busy such a panel would be can be gleaned from another one-day meeting, held in Geneva in March 2020, bringing together experts from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

As delegates noted, some dire conclusions can already be drawn. Even “a ‘small-scale’ use of around 100 nuclear weapons against urban targets” would, “in addition to spreading radiation around the world…lead to a cooling of the atmosphere, shorter growing seasons, food shortages and a global famine.” And “owing to the long-lasting effects of exposure to ionizing radiation, the use or testing of nuclear weapons” entails “serious health and environmental consequences that disproportionately affect women and children.” But “although much is already known…there is need for more research” with regard, for example, to “the sex- and age-differentiated impacts of ionizing radiation on human health;” “the long-term impacts of nuclear weapons testing on the environment, including on mortality and infant mortality rates;” and “the consequences of a nuclear war” on “ocean acidification” (on which topic, a 2020 paper noted, “there have been no studies.”)


The central ethical question posed by the HINW process is this: if we’re prepared to play with nuclear fire—roll the loaded dice of ‘deterrence,’ fingers crossed, crisis after crisis—shouldn’t we know, as exactly as possible, the undoable damage that fire might do? Of course, most states and peoples have never been prepared to take that mad gamble, and tellingly, the bitterest sceptics of such science are the gamblers themselves. In Banning the Bomb, Smashing the Patriarchy—her electrifying, participant-observer account of the HINW/TPNW revolution—Canadian peace activist Ray Acheson quotes the Russian delegation to the UN complaining in 2013 that states should “not waste time on such useless topics” fit only for a “radical dreamer” who has “shot off to some other planet”: for not only do “children in school already understand” how horrific the Bomb is, those very horrors justify nuclear possession (by a select few) as the only guarantor of peace.

Ray Acheson, Director of Reaching Critical Will, spoke at the April 27 conference at Capitol Visitor Center, Toward a Fundamental Change in Nuclear Weapons Policy, cosponsored by PSR Photo by: Chuck Gomez

Ray Acheson. Photo by: Chuck Gomez

As Acheson sighs: “Yes, that was really the content of a speech given by a government official in a diplomatic meeting.” But the diatribe is worth dissecting. First, would ’twere so that most children acquired the historical and scientific literacy necessary for informed citizenship in the atomic age, rather than—certainly in the Bomb-possessing states and their allies—being left entirely in the dark or spoon-fed sanitized propaganda (‘Hiroshima ended the war and saved millions of lives,’ ‘deterrence has worked for 75 years,’ etc.): narcotic narratives, denying atrocious realities. Second, it has never been true that the US, Russia, and other nuclear-armed states would only ever use the awesome power at their disposal to prevent or respond to a nuclear attack. ‘Deterrence’ has always been as much a front as a faith, a feint allowing active planning for that supreme oxymoron, a ‘winnable’ nuclear war. The current US ‘Nuclear Employment Strategy,’ for example, insists that:

Should deterrence fail, the United States will strive to end any conflict at the lowest level of damage possible and on the best achievable terms for the United States, allies, and partners. US nuclear weapons employment guidance directs minimizing civilian damage to the extent possible consistent with achieving US objectives and restoring deterrence.

How many scientists were involved in drawing up the Employment Strategy? If any, how did they define and calculate ‘minimal’ civilian damage? As for environmental damage, the Strategy mentions ‘environment’ 30 times: “threat environment,” “risk environment,” “information environment,” “security environment,” “contested military environments,” but never the actual environment!


In July 2021, 21 Democratic members of Congress wrote to the president urging that his administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) be required, for the first time, to “model the climatic, environmental, and humanitarian effects of the US target list” for a range of nuclear war-fighting scenarios. On March 28, a classified version of the NPR was presented to Congress (a declassified version is expected soon), accompanied by a Pentagon summary of the Commander-in-Chief’s “vision”:

As long as nuclear weapons exist, the fundamental role of US nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners. The United States would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.

But ‘fundamental’ does not mean ‘only,’ and ‘extreme circumstances’ are not limited to pre-empting or responding to nuclear attack: which means, fundamentally, the President can decide when, where, and how to ‘go nuclear.’

United Nations Conference to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination 27-31 March 2017

United Nations Conference to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination 27-31 March 2017

Whether the NPR’s military drafters deigned to consider the request to consider the planet is not clear, but seems highly unlikely. By the end of June, however, that unconscionable gap in analysis may finally be filled with the release—watch this space—of a Congressionally-mandated report from the National Academies of Sciences on the “Potential Environmental Effects of Nuclear War.”

The superb science of the HINW process, and/or the political shock of the Ban Treaty, may have influenced Congress in ordering this historic study, and it is unfortunate it will probably not be published before the HINW meeting or, also in Vienna, the First Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW on June 21-23.

Since 122 states adopted the Treaty in July 2017, 61 have ratified and 86 have signed. The First Meeting of States Parties (delayed five months by COVID-19) is open to ‘observers’ from Ban Treaty supporters and opponents alike, and—as of late May—two NATO members, Norway and Germany, had pledged to attend. (Canada, despite concerted lobbying, had not.)

What is most striking about the current membership, however, is how dominated it is by the Global South. The fluid and contested terms ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ refer to the abysmal hemispheric divide in wealth and well-being, calibrated to accommodate exceptions to the rule (e.g. Australia and New Zealand’s ‘northern’ status). Of the 61 TPNW state parties, only five are from the North (Austria, Holy See, Ireland, Malta, New Zealand); of the 86 signatories, only six (these five, plus Lichtenstein); of the 122 adopting states, only 11 (these six, plus Bosnia-Herzegovina, Moldova, San Marino, Sweden and Switzerland). It is thus both incongruous and subversively appropriate that the meeting be held in the heart of Ban-hostile Europe, though in a city deeply-integrated into the UN system due to Austria’s neutral Cold War status.


The NATO-Ukraine-Russia war is being waged far from the Global South. But in its direst global humanitarian consequences it is a European earthquake poised to trigger cascades of hunger and deprivation, certain to kill many more people in the South than the North. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned the Security Council on April 5:

Far beyond Ukraine’s borders, the war has led to massive increases in the prices of food, energy and fertilizers, because Russia and Ukraine are lynchpins of these markets. It has disrupted supply chains and increased the cost of transportation, putting even more pressure on the developing world.  Many developing countries were already on the verge of debt collapse, due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of adequate liquidity and debt relief, stemming ultimately from the unfair nature of our global economic and financial system. For all these reasons, it is more urgent by the day to silence the guns.

Six weeks later, Guterres warned the war “threatens to tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity, followed by malnutrition, mass hunger and famine, in a crisis that could last for years.” Yet while many in the North acknowledge the peril they are content to pin sole blame on Evil Russia’s Mad Tsar, whom they insist must be weakened and even toppled, however long and loud the guns may roar, and however many (others) pay the price. In the frankly maniacal words of Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland:

…we all now understand that the world’s democracies—including our own—can be safe only once the Russian tyrant and his armies are entirely vanquished.

Freeland is entirely wrong, for while almost all Global South states, including many democracies, have unequivocally condemned the Russian invasion, most sanely stress— as do some less delusional European capitals—the need for a diplomatic solution (a messy peace, which is on offer), rather than a decisive military one (a glorious victory, which is not).

Fatimata Mandé, mother of twins, feeds her baby enriched millet flour porridge at a health center in Burkina Faso, where ripple effects from the war in Ukraine are driving up food and fuel prices. (Source: World Food Program)

On March 2, the General Assembly voted by 141 votes to just 5 (Russia plus Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea and Syria) to demand a full and unconditional Russian withdrawal. Thirty-five states abstained, almost all from the Global South, including TPNW state party Bangladesh, whose representative argued the text laid insufficient stress on negotiations. An interesting perspective on the abstention was provided by scholar Atif Choudhury, writing in The Diplomat:

Through its bloody birth, Bangladesh is hyper-aware of the bloody costs of proxy conflicts via great power competition…Beyond the need to avoid conflict and maintain stability, the country desperately wants to sustain its economic growth. Both the government and public believe Bangladesh requires all the humanitarian assistance, infrastructure capital, development assistance, and foreign direct investment that it can get. Dhaka feels that it absolutely cannot afford to get entangled into diplomatic spats or ‘great power competitions’…

On March 6, new NATO state Lithuania—a historical victim of ‘great power competition’ between East and West—sadistically ‘punished’ Bangladesh by cancelling a shipment of 440,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine. (On March 7, responding to a Newsweek story, one bigoted idiot wrote: “No problem, there’s more than enough Bangladeshis already.”) A more egregious example of the moral malnourishment now ravaging swathes of the self-righteous ‘West’—at a time, as Choudhury argues, when “many Global South countries are already decrying the disparities and double standards in the global reaction to Ukraine”—is hard to conceive.

There are many ways to look at the upcoming TPNW meeting, which “will take place,” as Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), wrote in March, “in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and threats to use nuclear weapons, at a time when the world is waking up from a 30 year fantasy where the 9 nuclear armed states and their allies convinced people that nuclear weapons could exist without ever being used.” Finland and Sweden, though, have fallen prey to the nuclear siren song, and while the war “has made it clear” to many “that nuclear weapons do not prevent war,” and that “nuclear war is closer than ever,” it seems also to have widened global gulfs in perceptions of true peace and security.

In this grim context, I believe the Ban Treaty meeting can best be seen as a Global South intervention (with a handful of Northern allies): a call for a reimagined, worldwide Cooperative Threat Reduction program aimed at the radical denuclearization and demilitarization of international relations.

But will the call be heard?

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.