Unlike the more than thirty other armed conflicts currently taking place around the world, the one in Ukraine has revived a latent threat, it has awakened the sleeping monster of nuclear weapons
February 24 marks one year since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a conflict, like all wars, of devastating consequences, due to the number of victims, refugees, suffering and destruction caused.
But, unlike the more than thirty other armed conflicts currently taking place around the world, the one in Ukraine has revived a latent threat—it has awakened the sleeping monster of nuclear weapons. Before February of last year, it seemed as if these weapons of mass destruction had practically disappeared from the face of the earth. Talking about the danger they still represent today, warning of the catastrophic humanitarian and climatic consequences that an intentional or accidental detonation would entail, and working for their abolition was the stuff of alarmists who predicted a virtually impossible scenario.
A scenario that the war in Ukraine has made more likely. Besides revitalizing NATO, that was in the doldrums —now it has gained new partners and has managed to get its members to commit to increase their military spending—, it has put the spotlight on nuclear weapons again. Suddenly, more attention is paid to the data published annually by SIPRI (the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), which warns of the modernization of the arsenals by the nine nuclear countries. The announcement by the United States that it will renew its nuclear warheads located in several countries (Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Turkey) is met with more concern, and alarm bells go off over fears of Russian submarines armed with nuclear warheads plying the waters of the Baltic. To top it all off, Putin announced a few days ago that he was suspending his participation in New START, the only bilateral treaty in force for the reduction of strategic nuclear weapons.
Recently, nuclear weapons have also been 'present' in the context of the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave them as an example of mass destruction when comparing the consequences of the impact of an atomic bomb with those of the earthquake that took place in his country on February 13. Perhaps he did it to try to excuse his government's mismanagement in responding quickly and with the necessary means to help the victims of the earthquake. But in any case, his comparison gives food for thought.
If we talk about the triggers of these disasters, the difference is huge: an earthquake is a natural phenomenon, the result of tectonic movements inherent to the constitution of the planet, and uncontrollable by humans (even if it were ever proved that they are somehow related to the stress to which we subject the planet, there is no direct intentionality). The launch of a nuclear weapon is an absolutely intentional action, the result of a decision taken by people with the clear intention to destroy. Even if we were talking about an accidental detonation, these weapons were invented and designed for the annihilation of human beings and, in turn, of life on the planet. And with the current number and power of nuclear weapons, we can say that we have within reach the possibility of self-destruction as a species.
Comparisons are always odious, but when we compare the number of lost human lives, they are also painful because numbers are dehumanizing. But sometimes they make us more aware of the risks we are exposed to: a single nuclear bomb, the 15-kiloton bomb dropped in 1945 on Hiroshima, a city of about 255,000 people, had killed 145,000 people by the end of that year, and today's nuclear weapons are up to 100 times more powerful. The terrible and deadly earthquake in Turkey and Syria has killed more than 40,000 people.
The biggest contradiction, however, is found in the fact that, on the one hand, faced with a disaster like the earthquake, despite shortcomings, global solidarity is activated, allocating resources, mobilizing teams and organizations and offering all kinds of help to save lives. On the other hand, we find ourselves investing $156,000 every minute (according to data from 2021) in the maintenance of a nuclear arsenal that endangers the survival of life on the planet. Resources that could be used to address the real and urgent needs of thousands of people.
Fortunately, since January 2021 we already have at our disposal an instrument that could put an end to this threat: the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Signed by 92 countries and ratified by 86, it’s missing the nine nuclear powers: the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea; and also, the members of NATO. Stuck defending the effectiveness of a previous treaty, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), these countries refuse to admit that the deterrence argument that underpins it has lost all meaning. Russia's warning a few months ago that it would not rule out the use of nuclear weapons if it deemed them necessary has invalidated it and shows how having nuclear weapons has gone from being a pre-emptive strategy —to avoid attacks by others countries— to being a sure way to be able to attack with impunity.
It is said that Albert Einstein, when asked about a weapon capable of countering the power of the atomic bomb, suggested the best of all: peace. A world without weapons that lives in peace. I can't think of a better alternative.