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“Utopia is to believe that the nuclear bomb will never be used”

The question of nuclear disarmament is raised again with the conflict in Ukraine. In a nuclear conflict, there will never be a winner, noted the two main powers at the end of the cold war. However, today, some imagine the worst scenarios, in defiance of people and the planet. The shock wave would be irreversible. For the co-spokesperson of Ican France, the priority is the prohibition of nuclear weapons in order to avoid an unprecedented humanitarian, ecological, social and political catastrophe.

With the war in Ukraine, the use of larger tactical and nuclear weapons has come back into focus. Are you worried ?

It came back to the fore because President Vladimir Putin, during various speeches, explained that he had nuclear weapons and indicated that he could find it useful to use his weapons. It must be realized that, since 1945, no power has used it. We therefore broke a first taboo: the threat of the use of such a weapon in the theater of a conflict, and this had never been done since the missile crisis in Cuba in 1962. Another taboo was been crossed: the threat of direct use of such a nuclear weapon against various States. Here, with the war in Ukraine, Moscow has clearly warned the member countries of NATO and the European Union against any intervention. Two months earlier, the Russian president had nevertheless pledged with the four other powers possessing nuclear weapons (the United States, France, Great Britain and China) not to use it. Because no nuclear war can be won. It is therefore to go back on this promise which was made within the framework of the review conference of the non-proliferation treaty (NPT). Verbal escalation is the other frightening aspect. Because, opposite, various governments have indicated, like the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, that they also possess nuclear weapons (1).

This weapon of mass destruction within the framework of war makes it possible in the end to invade a country. Russia has understood this well with the intervention in Ukraine (2), States are afraid of going to war and of the nuclear risk. And there is also a permanent threat to the Ukrainian and European, if not global, populations. Regardless of the debate on tactical and strategic weapons, what is worrying, whatever the qualifier of the weapon, is their nuclear aspect. Their use would simply be catastrophic for the entire planet. This is the main point in the information campaign that Ican is carrying out today. Any detonation of this type of nuclear weapon would have global humanitarian consequences: influx of refugees, agriculture at a standstill, environmental impact, etc. The danger is real, and it is about this that States must wonder, about how to combat it. And, as of now, we must activate all the existing treaties. Because everything is designed to achieve a world without nuclear weapons.

Does the arms race, which began long before the war and which tends to accelerate, contribute to increasing this nuclear risk?

This race has never stopped since the end of the cold war. Despite shrinking budgets, arms exports and purchases continue to grow. Last year, the bar of 2,000 billion dollars in exports was almost crossed. Figures without common measure with those of the 1980s, at the time of the cold war. This race also maintains the threat of the use of nuclear arsenals. Because all the nuclear powers are massively modernizing and renewing their arsenals. In France, this translates into an annual increase of 400 million euros. In 2022, 5.3 billion euros will be invested in the nuclear deterrence policy. In 2023, we will be close to 6 billion. A dizzying figure which, once converted, gives 10,083 euros spent every minute on deterrence. This race also stirs up conflicting actions. We must initiate processes to put an end to it and this requires, in France, at least the freezing of the renewal of its arsenals. The amounts invested today are for weapons systems that will emerge between 2035 and 2050 and will be used between 2050 and 2090. The people who will use them have not yet been born. It also presupposes that we will need nuclear weapons throughout the 21st century. This is intolerable since it goes against a real desire for appeasement, respect for the law, pacification and greater security on an international scale.

Given this international context, do you think that new commitments on disarmament, such as the recent treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons (Tian), still have a future?

There is concern if Russia breaks this taboo by using nuclear weapons in a theater of conflict or by trying to demonstrate force. It would contravene a number of treaties and the global non-proliferation regime. The five main powers recognized by the NPT do not respect their obligations and thus weaken this treaty. All of these states are, however, bound by Article 6 to achieve nuclear disarmament. And, since 2010, they have also made a set of commitments aimed at reducing the place of nuclear deterrence in their defense strategy, to have more transparency and to reduce investments. They don’t honor them.

The Tian was intended to fill the legal vacuum within the NPT. This makes it possible, with these two treaties, to truly initiate a process of disarmament. It was still incredible that in the 21st century the most destructive weapon did not have a formal and legal ban, unlike chemical weapons, cluster munitions; anti-personnel mines. The Tian emerges stronger from the conflict. Because more and more States are realizing that this threat of nuclear weapons would of course have effects on the place targeted, that is to say in priority European, North American or South Asian territory. -Is, but that the other nations would also necessarily be impacted. Sixty states have ratified the text, including Côte d’Ivoire in March. Guatemala could be the 61st. The meeting to be held at the end of June will be a major event for the reconquest of nuclear disarmament. We will discuss in a UN framework, because the United Nations are depositories of the treaty, the humanitarian impact on populations and the environment. The absence of a certain number of nuclear powers like France seems unthinkable. But the boycott seems very real. Even if the French State does not plan to join this treaty, France must go there as an observer State, in the name of multilateralism and the desire to exchange with other countries. The nuclear powers must come to discuss and understand the will of countries to prohibit this type of weapon. Utopia is to believe that the nuclear bomb will never be used.

The main treaties on nuclear disarmament, signed during the Cold War, are rendered obsolete. How to prevent them from disappearing entirely?

The United States and Russia are still the two main nuclear powers. Their arsenals are respectively 5,550 and almost 6,000 weapons each. Between them, Moscow and Washington therefore still possess 95% of the planet’s nuclear warheads. The two countries are bound by the New Start treaty to a reduction of their strategic nuclear weapons, which runs until 2026. This text authorizes them to be able to deploy 1,550 nuclear weapons. After 2026, it is the unknown at the level of these two powers. There are four years left until it expires. But the implementation of a process that would lead to the signing of a new treaty (its extension, for a period of five years, having already taken place) between the two countries currently appears difficult. This issue is complex, because Russia, before the conflict in Ukraine, expressed the wish that it would not be bilateral but multilateral, including France, Great Britain and China. Paris, London and Beijing refuse to do so, believing that the two powers must already succeed in reducing their arsenals considerably. Once at their level, his three powers would pledge to do the same. This type of treaty remains of paramount importance, allowing for transparency. But today we must include the nine countries possessing nuclear weapons (China, North Korea, United States, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, Russia and United Kingdom). This framework exists with the Tian. Because it is expected that each State presents its disarmament plan based on a coordinated agenda and which must be accepted by all the signatory States. If we really want to make progress on disarmament, the two treaties of the NPT and the Tian offer a multilateral framework.

Given the small scale of mobilizations on the war in Ukraine, is public opinion receptive to nuclear disarmament?

In France, two types of public opinion coexist. One part believes that the nuclear weapon deters Vladimir Putin from attacking us; this shows a lack of information and knowledge on the reality of the consequences of the use of nuclear arsenals. Moreover, history shows that a state can act against you, even if you have nuclear weapons. The second reaction is that of fear and questioning if a nuclear conflict were to break out. How do we protect ourselves in the event of an attack on France? After a few minutes of exchange and dialogue, people realize that the creation of any type of bunker would not allow them to survive these detonations. To imagine the aftermath of a nuclear detonation, so difficult to conceive, I encourage readers to watch a video of the International Committee of the Red Cross produced in 2020: you want to “live or die” following a detonation nuclear ? This exposes key questions: how to access care and food? What economic model? What political system? Therefore, the only guarantee in terms of protection is to prohibit and eliminate nuclear arsenals. This requires education for peace and disarmament, and in France these issues are not addressed enough. There is thus a real taboo on the part of our elected officials and our governments and we can notice that the media also rarely question, in their way of talking about this subject, France’s nuclear deterrence strategy. However, this choice deserves to be discussed and it is necessary to discuss disarmament.


Jean-Marie Collin is an associate researcher at the Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security (Grip). He is an expert in nuclear disarmament and spokesperson for Ican France, a coalition for the abolition of nuclear weapons, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

The Nuclear Illusion: the hidden face of the atomic bomb, by Paul Quilès, Jean-Marie Collin and Michel Drain, Éditions Charles Léopold Mayer, Paris 2018, 250 pages, 20 euros