Since the 2014 ouster of Ukraine's pro-Russian president, Russia's destabilization of Ukraine has undermined European security and the rules-based international order.
Even before the crisis in Ukraine, bilateral cooperation in the nuclear weapons arena had deteriorated, including US claims of Russian testing of a ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and highly visible patrols by Russian strategic forces.
Moscow's actions have prompted calls from some to halt implementation of nuclear arms control agreements, including the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which verifiably limits Russian nuclear potential to no more than 1,550 strategic deployed warheads.
Some members of Congress have suggested the US accelerate nuclear weapons modernization, develop new nuclear systems and pursue deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in NATO states on Russia's border.
But rather than helping to protect Ukraine or NATO, these proposals would undermine strategic stability and increase nuclear dangers. Moscow's actions in Ukraine require a tough and unified US and European response involving diplomacy, economic sanctions and NATO conventional deterrence, but the challenge can't be effectively resolved with nuclear weapons or a US nuclear buildup.
As President Barack Obama declared in 2012, "[t]he massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War is poorly suited for today's threats." The Pentagon and Joint Chiefs' 2013 review of US nuclear deterrence requirements determined the US could reduce its deployed strategic arsenal by up to one-third.
In a joint statement delivered at the Third Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons in Vienna in December, the Arms Control Association along with four other US groups cited that Pentagon assessment and said Moscow and Washington could do more to reduce their nuclear excess and should pursue a further one-third cut in their strategic stockpiles. With New START verification tools in place, additional nuclear reductions can be readily achieved without a new treaty.
We noted that use of just a few hundred nuclear weapons, let alone more than 3,000, would have catastrophic global consequences. We cited a 2001 Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) study that shows that a "precision" attack against Russia's nuclear forces would kill at least 8 million to 12 million people and injure millions more. In a "countervalue" attack on population centers, the United States could kill or injure up to 50 million Russians with a mere fraction of its arsenal.
In a Feb. 9 Defense News oped, Matthew Costlow claimed that our Vienna statement calling for reducing Russian and US nuclear excess is "immoral" because it would require targeting cities. The implication he makes, that "counterforce" targeting somehow avoids damage to civilians and civilian objects, is preposterous. The effects of such attacks would cause widespread death and damage across either country — and beyond.
These findings were made public in the NRDC analysis but military planners and political leaders have been aware of the collateral effects of nuclear war since the early years of the Cold War. As President Ronald Reagan concluded in 1984, "a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought."
Furthermore, a purely hypothetical situation in which the US targets Russian nuclear forces and risks only counterforce retaliation is nonsense. After a nuclear war starts all bets are off. Holding Russian nuclear force targets at risk means US (and Russian) cities are at risk in a retaliatory strike. If deterrence fails and there is a counterforce exchange, both sides are then left in the situation of city targeting by the remaining nuclear forces.
In our Vienna statement, we questioned whether it is possible, given the indiscriminate effects of nuclear weapons, that US claims it "will not intentionally target civilian populations or civilian objects" with nuclear weapons would have any practical effect in avoiding the "collateral" damage prohibited by the Law of Armed Conflict.
Costlow is also dead wrong when he says we are proposing "unilateral" US disarmament. In fact, we specifically criticized Russia for saying "nyet" to Obama's 2013 proposal for a one-third cut in both countries strategic arsenals.
What's more, in our Vienna statement, we also criticized other nuclear-armed states for pursuing unnecessary and destabilizing nuclear buildups.
We proposed "making nuclear disarmament" a global enterprise. We called on all states to press China, India and Pakistan, in particular, not to increase their fissile material or weapons stocks. A unified push for further US-Russian arms cuts combined with a nuclear weapons freeze by other nuclear-armed states could create the conditions for meaningful nuclear risk reduction.
The situation can and must be made safer, beginning with a clear understanding of the risks and the elimination of excess nuclear forces. Doing nothing is not a responsible, or morally acceptable, option.
Daryl Kimball is executive director of the Arms Control Association, and Matthew McKinzie is senior scientist and director of the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.