letter to editor

The international community is watching Russian President Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine fail.  

Some are worried about Putin becoming desperate and using nuclear or chemical/biological weapons to win the war. Analysts are suggesting giving him a face-saving exit from the war, as stated by Mary Glantz of the United States Institute of Peace in her story “Global Peace a Clear US Reply to Putin’s Nuclear Threat.” However, our country, and the rest of the world, must keep the idea of international law in mind and not signal to other countries that armed aggression is the way to power, especially with weapons of mass destruction.  

Glantz correctly stated that Russia would have little to gain from using nuclear weapons. The Kremlin is arguing that it’s protecting the lives of Russian speakers in Ukraine. Using nuclear weapons would threaten the lives of the people Putin says he wants to protect. Therefore, it’s unlikely that he will use nuclear weapons.  

Russia could seek to intimidate Ukraine by using a small nuclear weapon, but there are indications that the use of nuclear weapons is starting to frighten Russian citizens. It could also divide the Russian governing elite. Glatz points out the facts about Russian nuclear doctrine - responding to the use of a weapon of mass destruction against Russia or its allies, or when conventional warfare threatens Russian nuclear command and control or the existence of the state itself. The war in Ukraine presents no such case. 

The Russian use of chemical weapons would be harder to confirm. Russia is a signatory to the global ban on making and using chemical weapons. However, it used them in Syria, and it used them against dissenters in its own country and on its own citizens abroad. Therefore, Russia using them in Ukraine is not to be ruled out. Like with nuclear weapons, US officials say they see no indication that Russia will use chemical weapons in its current war.  

President Joe Biden stated that he would retaliate if Russia were to use a nuclear weapon, but he has failed to say the way he will do this. Glantz pointed out that a rush to a negotiated solution might send the message to autocrats that the mere use of weapons of mass destruction threats would help them achieve foreign policy aims. She addressed the history of Ukraine and WMD: “in 1994, Ukraine became one of four countries that voluntarily relinquished their nuclear arsenals and joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In exchange, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Russian Federation issued the Budapest Memorandum, committing ‘to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine, as a non-nuclear-weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used.’” 

As of the writing of this story, it looks like the Russians are failing in their attempt to seize Ukraine which represents a victory for the idea of international law.  To preserve any reliable hope of sustaining the world’s nuclear non-proliferation regime, the United States must draw a bright red line against any Russian WMD use and must keep Russia locked inside its box. If this does not happen, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons would be weakened, and we could see nuclear weapons proliferate to a greater extent than today. Let’s hope the ideals of internationalism and international law carry the day! 

Jason Sibert is the Lead Writer for the Peace Economy Project.