“Today is the most alarming period in nuclear safety and the use of nuclear weapons from the end of 1950s to the beginning of 1960s”, Serhii Plohiy noted.

The Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF Treaty) was signed by General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev and US President Ronald Reagan on 8 December 1987. A background for signing the Treaty was the continuous buildup of weapons of mass destruction of the USSR and the USA with Europe, including missiles that can be equipped nuclear warheads.

The reaction to the protests of thousands over the “missile crisis” in Europe was the treaty on the complete elimination of all land-based missiles with a range of 500 – 5500 kilometers within three years. The document forbade the parties to manufacture, test and deploy land-based ballistic and cruise missiles of medium range (from 1000 to 5500 km) and shorter range (from 500 to 1000 km), as well as launchers for them. The treaty was termless, but it left to each party the right to terminate it, if there are important reasons for this.

On 20 October 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump announced the U.S. intention to withdraw from the INF Treaty because the Russian party is violating its provisions. Russia, in turn, rejected the accusations of the American party, putting forward counterclaims to the United States. On 2 February 2019, the U.S. Administration announced that it would cease participation in the INF Treaty, and in six months it would finally withdraw from the treaty, if Russia will not follow the provisions. Since none of the parties proposed to sit at the negotiating table during this time, moreover, on 3 July, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the law on the suspension of the Treaty by Russia, the INF Treaty was cancelled on 2 August 2019.

Will this be the beginning of a new “arms race”, how can this change the world and what role does Ukraine play in the new world politics? We decided to ask Serhii Plohiy, Ukrainian and American historian, professor at Harvard University, director of Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, one of the leading specialists in the history of Eastern Europe, the author of a number of books on the history of Ukraine and Eastern Europe, the winner of the Taras Shevchenko National Prize of Ukraine and the member of the Ukrainian PEN Club.

Serhii Plohiy is one of the few people who study the political and cultural history of the cold War. Recently, he was awarded the prestigious British Baillie Gifford Prize for his book “Chornobyl. A History of Tragedy” (Chornobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe. New York: Basic Books, 2018).

Serhii Plohiy
Director of Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute
photo by bookforum.ua

Serhii, how ethical is the fact of the existence of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weapons in general in the world?

– The concept of ethics and weapons is generally difficult to fit into one sentence, especially when it comes to nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction that do not differentiate, let us say, combatants and civilians. When after the creation of nuclear weapons, two bombs were dropped on Japan on the selected points of destruction: settlements – cities, it became clear that their accuracy was relative. That is, from the very beginning it was not about the bombing of infrastructure, but about the real bombing of cities. Therefore, I emphasize that weapons are unethical in principle, and nuclear weapons are perhaps the most unethical things. It can only be compared with biological and similar ones, but these weapons were primarily used against peaceful population.

How do you think, will the number of nuclear weapons in the world increase and will the risks of their use rise?

– In fact, today we are witnessing rearmament: new opportunities for more accurate delivery of missiles appear, and therefore the idea of a limited nuclear war with such well-aimed weapons and small nuclear warheads has returned. This is a very dangerous phenomenon.

The second risk factor for the use of nuclear weapons is related to the fact that previously there was actually a monopoly of one country for it, then two … Now nuclear weapons are becoming extremely affordable: even North Korea, which is not even in the first hundred countries of the world in terms of gross national product, even with sufficient limitations, still can afford nuclear weapons. That is, now we can state that nuclear weapons are spreading, the number of players in this field is increasing, and this, in turn, rises the risks of its use.

There is currently the most alarming period in nuclear safety and the use of nuclear weapons from late 1950s to early 1960s. The treaties that were signed during the Cold War are actually getting invalid now. The Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles also becomes invalid, and missile weapons are equipped, first of all, with nuclear warheads. Therefore, I would say that we are back to the situation of the 1950s, and this is very dangerous.

How to reduce these risks?

– Risks can be reduced by strengthening the international control. I must say that in general, the development of nuclear energy has been started with the development of nuclear weapons, that is, the same people who were involved in the development of nuclear weapons began to design reactors. Chornobyl RBMK was manufactured under the direction of the former Chairman of the USSR Academy of Sciences, our countryman from Kyiv region, Anatoly Aleksandrov, who designed nuclear reactors for nuclear submarines. Our other countryman Yefim Slavsky was the Minister of Medium Machine Building of the USSR, and this reactor was tested in his Ministry.

The same situation was in the USA: first was a bomb, and then a nuclear power plant. This process is going the opposite way now: from nuclear power plants to nuclear weapons, for example, as it was in India. There is now a hazard of nuclear weapons appearance in Iran, where nuclear weapons may eventually appear after NPP construction, training of relevant personnel and acquisition of certain experience.

The risk of an increasing number of nuclear bombs rises in general with the spreading of nuclear energy, as such. The only thing to do is to strengthen the international control. Yes, it is problematic, but I just do not see any another way.

Do you think the deterrence mechanisms are relevant enough or should some new ones be developed?

– We will see how effective they are, but as I understand, there are proposals that have been slowed down for years. They are discussed for many years in the IAEA in Vienna. I think it is worth starting with the implementation of existing initiatives, and then working on their improvement and spreading. It is surely a big question, how to influence countries such as North Korea, but anyway one should cope with it. In this context, Chornobyl is an important example of what happens to nuclear facilities when they get out of control: the decision to construct the reactor was made by the Soviet leadership of the USSR, which does not exist today, but there is Ukraine and Belarus that lack funds to deal with the consequences of the Chornobyl accident. As a result, these expenses are covered by the EU now.

This is not a unique example, because if a nuclear disaster occurs, it is very difficult for the state to cope with it on its own. When the international community finally pays for the bills, I think it would be fair, if it had much more authority in making key decisions in the construction of nuclear facilities. After all, although decisions are made by a sovereign state, it is not able to cope with the potential incident at this facility. International cooperation and international control is surely not a panacea, but there are simply no other options.

It is no secret that the United States increased funding for tactical nuclear weapons. Will it somehow affect the further course of events in Ukraine and in the world?

– Rearmament actually occurs now, and its main drives are the United States and Russia. The challenge is that this rearmament has no treaties that would somehow regulate it. Control over medium-range missiles almost disappears right in front of your eyes. What does this mean for Ukraine? Actually, if this treaty is not valid and Ukraine is no longer bound by it, it may consider the possibility to construct medium-range missiles, as already stated by the Foreign Ministry. As for the availability of necessary capacities in Ukraine, this is not a challenge, because a significant part of the Soviet missile arsenal of the USSR was constructed in our city of Dnipro. I mean ballistic missiles, and although we do not yet have the capacity to manufacture medium-range missiles, this is probably not an engineering problem, for example, for SE “Production Association Yuzhny Machine-Building Plant named after A.M. Makarov” (YUZHMASH).

Therefore, the release of certain types of weapons from control has direct consequences for Ukraine. We got a chance for uncontrolled rearmament, but other countries got the same chances. The number of players in this field has increased significantly compared to the period of the Cold War. Thus, one should realize that when one country develops and increases its tactical nuclear weapon potential, the second will respond in the same way, and further the third, the fourth, etc., would join them… That is, we are at the beginning of a new nuclear arms race.

Well, in this context, I would like to recall the Budapest Memorandum. Can it somehow influence the sequence of events in the current conditions of the war with Russia?

– I have a somewhat dissident view of the Budapest Memorandum, because I consider it a great victory of Ukrainian diplomacy since as far as I understand, the United States did not want to sign anything, and it was possible to sign it only thanks to Ukrainian diplomacy. At least, now we have something to deal with the international community. Therefore, in general, I think that Ukraine just have done what really could be done in that situation. One should note that, two main players played against Ukraine in 1994: the United States as a world superpower and Russia, which remained a large regional power. In addition, this all occurred under the conditions of the terrible economic crisis in 1994. That is because I have a great prejudice that one cannot blame someone for the events in 1994. Criticism is needed, and criticism is often fair. Although looking at these events, I as a historian believe that Ukraine obtained the uttermost at that time, thus, today we have something on hand.

You probably saw the so-called “nuclear cartoons of Putin”. How real for you is the embodiment of all that has been shown?

– It is hard for me to talk about how real it is. Soviet specialists worked on certain laser technologies for decades, but this did not lead to any results. As far as I understand, a path from cartoon to a real functioning technology is quite long. Nevertheless, one should consider the fact that many things have changed since the Cold War. Today, Russia is not even one of the ten largest countries with economic potential (the USSR was the second after the United States), but it remains a nuclear superpower as during the Cold War. Its arsenal is slightly greater than – or equal to the arsenal of the United States. Moreover, Russia is the member of the UN Security Council as during the Cold War.

In addition, the fact that even North Korea with a rather primitive system of missiles and nuclear warheads can terrorize the half of the world suggests that Russia has a large potential for blackmail. I do not really believe in cartoons, but the fact that Russia remains the nuclear superpower is a reality. One has only to look at the number of its missiles and nuclear warheads.

What would you wish the citizens of Ukraine today?

– I think that now the patriotic duty of a Ukrainian, no matter what camp he belongs to, is the support of institutions, the support of the direction announced by the new President of Ukraine. He has very few statements, but they are not some kind of controversial. The worst things could be the thoughts such as “Another President, another government – that’s all, it’s not my state, and it has nothing to do with me”. In the end, what every Ukrainian thinks and how it acts is important, because we live in a democratic country anyway and all this affects the government and state policy. The worst thing that can happen is the delegitimization of government and institutions because someone does not like this or that choice.

Serhii, we are sincerely grateful to you for an interesting and informative conversation. We wish you success!

— Thank you too!

Uatom.org Editorial Board