- Ira Helfandformer president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, member of the international steering group of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, as well as the co-founder and past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Russian President Vladmir Putin’s announcement that Moscow would suspend its participation in the New START treaty threatens to end the last remaining nuclear arms control agreement between the United States and Russia. Putin made the pledge during his annual State of the Nation address on Tuesday, when he accused Western nations of provoking the conflict in Ukraine. The treaty limits the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapon stockpiles and gives each country opportunities to inspect the other’s nuclear sites. Russia says it will continue to respect the caps established by the treaty, but that it will no longer allow inspections. For more on the treaty and the wider challenge of nuclear proliferation, we speak with Dr. Ira Helfand, a longtime advocate for nuclear disarmament, who says the need to end nuclear weapons “transcends” all other issues between the U.S. and Russia. “If we don’t get rid of nuclear weapons, they’re going to be used. And if they’re used, nothing else that we’re doing is going to make any difference,” says Helfand. He is the former president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which received the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize, a member of the steering group of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, as well as the co-founder and past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that Moscow would suspend its participation in the New START treaty, the last nuclear arms control agreement between the United States and Russia. ”START” is shorthand for “Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.” Putin made the pledge during his annual State of the Nation address on Tuesday in Moscow, when he accused Western nations of provoking the conflict in Ukraine. He said Russia is fighting for its very existence.
PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] They can’t be stupid people. They want to deliver us a strategic defeat while sneaking into our strategic nuclear objectives. Regarding this, I have to say that Russia suspends its participation in the New START treaty. Let me repeat: Russia does not abandon the treaty but suspends its participation in it. Before resuming the discussion about this treaty, we must first understand: What do such countries of the North Atlantic alliance as France and Great Britain aspire to? And how will we take their strategic nuclear arsenals into account?
AMY GOODMAN: The treaty places a cap on the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapon stockpiles and gives each nation opportunities to inspect the other’s nuclear sites. Shortly after Putin spoke, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow would continue to respect the caps established by the treaty.
We’re joined now by Dr. Ira Helfand, the immediate past president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. He’s also a member of the international steering group of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, as well as the co-founder and past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Dr. Helfand, thanks so much for joining us. Talk about the significance of Putin saying that he’s — well, they’re suspending involvement in START. What does this mean?
DR. IRA HELFAND: Good morning, Amy.
Well, you know, it [inaudible] dialogue between the United States and Russia on the critically important topic of controlling nuclear weapons. And there’s no way around that. Having said that, I think there are a couple of things that are important to recognize. One is that the New START treaty, while somewhat useful, is a very limited document and very inadequate treaty. It still allows the United States and Russia to maintain — and they do — 3,100 strategic nuclear weapons, ranging in size from 100 kilotons to 800 kilotons. That is six to 50 times more powerful than the bombs which destroyed Hiroshima.
Now, a study that was published last August showed that if those weapons still allowed under the New START treaty were used in a war, they would cause 150 million tons of soot to be blasted into the upper atmosphere, blocking out the sun and dropping temperatures across the planet an average of 18 degrees Fahrenheit. In the interior regions of North America and Eurasia, the temperatures would drop 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. In the ensuing famine, something like three-quarters of the human race, between 5 billion and 6 billion people, would die. If that’s not bad enough, the same study showed that even a very small fraction of those arsenals would cause worldwide catastrophe. Only 250 of the smallest weapons in the strategic arsenal, 100 kilotons, would still generate enough soot to trigger a famine that would kill 2.1 billion people and end civilization as we know it.
That means that this treaty allows both the United States and Russia to maintain arsenals which are capable of destroying modern civilization six times over. So, it’s bad that Russia is suspending its participation, but we need to understand that this treaty itself is deeply flawed, and we need to go far beyond it and establish a treaty like the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which actually bans and eliminates these weapons.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Dr. Helfand, I wanted to ask you in terms of where we’re heading now in terms of arms control, given the fact that first the Bush administration withdrew from one treaty, then the Trump administration withdrew from the Intermediate Forces Treaty, and now Putin’s suspension of Russia’s participation in this treaty. What’s the message that these governments are sending to the people of the world?
DR. IRA HELFAND: Well, they’re sending a message that they’re not serious about their obligations to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. They’re moving in exactly the wrong direction.
And it’s important for us to recognize that in response to the Russian decision to suspend participation, there are options open to the U.S. government. And there’s one in particular which we should be sure not to take, and that is to respond by withdrawing ourselves or, more importantly, by building more nuclear weapons. Now, the Russians have indicated that they do not intend to exceed the cap that was established. But even if they do, there is no reason for the United States to build more nuclear weapons. As I mentioned, we already have the ability to destroy modern civilization six times over. Adding to that the ability to destroy civilization eight times or 10 times or 12 times over does nothing to enhance our security.
We need to establish as U.S. policy that nuclear weapons are the greatest threat to our security. They don’t make us safe. And we need to actively pursue an agreement with the other eight nuclear-armed countries to eliminate all nuclear weapons, as is called for by the Back from the Brink campaign here in the United States.
And many people, I think, feel that this is a difficult time to be talking about progress towards the elimination of nuclear weapons, given what’s going on. And indeed this is an extraordinarily dangerous moment. But we have to remember that at times in the past when we have been close to nuclear conflict, as we are now, in the aftermath of those crises, rapid progress was made to improve the situation. You know, in 1983, the United States was threatening to fight and win a nuclear war in Europe. We placed missiles in West Germany to be able to do that. We almost went to war with the Soviet Union twice in 1983. And yet, less than a year and half later, Reagan and Gorbachev were able to proclaim that nuclear war must never be fought, it can never be won. And it was a complete reversal of the nuclear policy of both the United States and the Soviet Union. The leaders had emerged from the crisis in 1983 sobered, frightened by what they had almost done, and open to a new way of thinking about nuclear weapons. And it is possible — not certain, but possible — that we will see the same kind of reaction to this current extremely dangerous moment. And we citizens need to push our government to seize the potential opportunity and to move forward.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to ask you — in terms of some of the words of Putin yesterday, the Western media doesn’t really pay much attention to the actual content of his speech — of his speeches. But one part I’d like to quote to you and get your reaction. He said, quote, “In early February, the North Atlantic alliance made a statement with actual demand to Russia, as they put it, to return to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, including admission of inspections to our nuclear defense facilities. I don’t even know what to call this. It is a kind of theater of the absurd,” he said. “We know the West is directly involved in the Kyiv regime’s attempt to strike at our strategic aviation bases. The drones used for this purpose were equipped and updated with the assistance of NATO specialists. And now they want to inspect our defense facilities? In the current conditions of confrontation, it simply sounds insane.” That was Putin talking about the fact that these treaties assume a certain level of cooperation between the different countries, and, obviously, the war in Ukraine does not make that possible.
DR. IRA HELFAND: Well, I think right at the moment it is very difficult to have that degree of cooperation. But still, there’s no reason for Putin to suspend cooperation and the inspections. These inspections are very important in maintaining a level of confidence on both sides — the U.S. and the Russian — that the other side is adhering to this treaty. And anything that undermines this dialogue, which Putin’s decision has done, is a step in the wrong direction.
Look, there are problems with the position of both countries in many issues, but the need to abolish nuclear weapons transcends all of these problems. If we don’t get rid of nuclear weapons, they’re going to be used. And if they’re used, nothing else that we’re doing is going to make any difference.
You know, here in the United States, we have the opportunity to affect what our government does. And we need to hold our government accountable for its nuclear policy. We have the ability to change that policy. Congressman Jim McGovern and Congressman Earl Blumenauer have introduced a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives, H.Res.77, which calls on the United States to embrace the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, to make the elimination of nuclear weapons the centerpiece of our national security policy and to begin negotiations now with the other eight nuclear-armed states for a verifiable, enforceable, time-bound agreement to get rid of their nuclear weapons.
That’s what the U.S. should be doing right now. It has to acknowledge what is happening in Ukraine, the war that President Putin has started there, but that should not derail our efforts to save the planet. We should sit down with all of these countries, including the Russians, if they’re willing to do it, and begin these negotiations.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the nuclear power plants in Ukraine — you know, they’ve got Zaporizhzhia, for example, which is the largest nuclear plant in all of Europe — and the risks of being in the middle of a war zone with a nuclear catastrophe.
DR. IRA HELFAND: No, this is a very dangerous situation, Amy. Nuclear power plants are dangerous, inherently, in the best of times. They are certainly not designed to be placed in the middle of a war zone. And should there be an accident at Zaporizhzhia, should the plant come under direct attack again, there is a potential for a catastrophic release of radiation. Much larger inventories of nuclear material are present at Zaporizhzhia than were present at Chernobyl. And this is an extraordinarily dangerous situation.
In the short term, a demilitarized zone needs to be created around this power plant. All troops have to be withdrawn. International observers need to be placed there to make sure that the plant is safe. In the long term, I think we need to rethink the entire wisdom of having any nuclear power plants, given this, what are the weaknesses, the vulnerabilities that have been illustrated by this conflict in Ukraine.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Ira Helfand, we want to thank you so much for being with us, immediate past president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the Nobel Peace Prize.
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