Senator Sam Nunn: Ensuring We Continue to Avoid Nuclear War

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Sam Nunn, Des Browne, Wolfgang Ischinger, and Igor Ivanov make their pitch for ensuring security in the Post–Cold War world.

The chasm between Russia and the West appears to be wider now than at any point since the Cold War. But, despite stark differences, there are areas of existential common interest. As we did during the darkest days of the Cold War, Americans, Europeans, and Russians must work together to avoid catastrophe, including by preventing terrorist attacks and reducing the risks of a military – or even nuclear – conflict in Europe.

Ever since the historic events of 1989-1991 changed Europe forever, each of us has been involved in Euro-Atlantic security, both inside and outside of government. Through it all, efforts to build mutual security in the Euro-Atlantic region have lacked urgency and creativity. As a result, the Euro-Atlantic space has remained vulnerable to political, security, and economic crises.

In the absence of new initiatives by all parties, things are likely to get worse. Terrorist attacks have struck Moscow, Beslan, Ankara, Istanbul, Paris, Nice, Munich, Brussels, London, Boston, New York, Washington, and other cities – and those responsible for carrying them out are determined to strike again. Thousands of people have been killed in Ukraine since 2013, and more are dying in renewed fighting today. Innocent refugees are fleeing the devastating wars in the Middle East and North Africa. And Western-Russian relations are dangerously tense, increasing the risk that an accident, mistake, or miscalculation will precipitate a military escalation – or even a new war.

The first step in acting to advance our common interests is to identify and pursue concrete, practical, near-term initiatives designed to reduce risks, rebuild trust, and improve the Euro-Atlantic security landscape. There are five key areas that such initiatives should cover.

  • We must reduce the danger of a nuclear weapon being used. Today, the risk of an accidental or mistaken nuclear ballistic-missile launch is unnecessarily high. A starting point for minimizing the threat could be a new declaration by the Russian and US presidents reaffirming that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. This would mirror the joint statement made by former US President Ronald Reagan and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, which was well received in both countries, and marked a new effort to improve relations.
  • We must reduce the risks associated with keeping nuclear forces on “prompt-launch” status, whereby they are ready for immediate launch and can hit their targets within minutes. The United States and Russia should commit to begin discussions on removing a significant percentage of strategic nuclear forces from prompt-launch status at a later date. This, together with the declaration proposed above, would set a strategic direction for reducing the nuclear threat.
  • We must reduce the threat of nuclear and radiological materials falling into the wrong hands. As the Islamic State looks for new ways to export terror to Europe, North America, and beyond, it may try to acquire and detonate a radiological-dispersal device, commonly known as a “dirty bomb.” It is especially urgent that the US, Russia, and Europe lead a global effort to secure the most vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials around the world. In particular, there is an urgent need to cooperate on securing radiological sources. Many facilities using these materials today are vulnerable, but the estimated date for securing them globally is 2044.
  • We must reduce the risks of a military confrontation by improving military-to-military communication through a new NATO-Russia Military Crisis Management Group. This initiative should accompany efforts to restart bilateral military-to-military dialogue between the US and Russia. The focus should be on increasing transparency and trust on all sides.
  • We must reduce the risk of a mid-air incident leading to a political or military conflict. Increased military activity in areas where NATO and Russia both operate now poses an unacceptably high risk to civilian air traffic. Countries that are active in the Baltic Sea region, for starters, should exchange “due regard” regulations – the national operating procedures that state aircraft must follow when in the proximity of civilians. Technical support for greater air transparency would also significantly reduce the risk of a mid-air collision.

Europe, the US, and Russia are confronting a range of significant issues today. But none should distract attention from the important goal of identifying a new policy framework, based on existential common interests, that can stop the downward spiral in relations and stabilize Euro-Atlantic security. The practical near-term steps that we have identified here are the right place to begin. We need to start now.

This op-ed was originally published in Project Syndicate.

Sam Nunn, a former Democratic US senator, is Co-Chairman and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Des Browne, a former British defense secretary, is Vice Chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and Chair of the European Leadership Network.

Wolfgang Ischinger, former German Ambassador to the United States, is Chairman of the Munich Security Conference and Professor for Security Policy and Diplomatic Practice at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.

Igor S. Ivanov, former Russian Foreign Minister and Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation from 2004 to 2007, is President of the Russian International Affairs Council.

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