The tenth Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference kicked off this week at the United Nations. Representatives from all of the signatory nations are attending and the conference will run until August 26. During the conference’s opening remarks, the representative from Russia said something that raised questions among many of the attendees. He claimed to be delivering a message from Vladimir Putin, flatly declaring that nuclear war should not be a consideration for any nation. A nuclear war, he said, “cannot be won and must never be fought.” The United States sent Antony Blinken to address the conference and he was rightly skeptical of Putin’s renewed embrace of non-proliferation. (Associated Press)

A Russian official on Tuesday twice repeated President Vladimir Putin’s new message that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” apparently trying to roll back on Putin’s warning after the Ukraine invasion that Russia is a “potent” nuclear power and any attempt to interfere would lead to “consequences you have never seen.”

Putin’s comment then dramatically escalated global tensions, which rose even further days later when he ordered Russian nuclear forces put on high alert.

Igor Vishnevetsky, deputy director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s nonproliferation and arms control program, started his country’s address to the pandemic-delayed conference to review the 50-year-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by reading Putin’s message to participants against a nuclear war. And he repeated the same words later.

So I’m guessing Igor Vishnevetsky didn’t make it onto the no-fly list when everyone was imposing sanctions and boycotts on Russia? Granted, he’s not exactly a senior person in the Kremlin, working as the director of Russia’s nonproliferation and arms control program. Non-proliferation hasn’t been a hot topic lately and Vishnevetsky didn’t seem to have any trouble flying into New York City so he could attend. Also, he’s not one of the people the Kremlin sends out to deliver fiery rhetoric and bombast, either, so he’s probably more palatable to the international crowd.

Still, it’s rather odd to have anyone from Russia delivering that particular message. Putin is the one who has been reminding the world about his vast stockpile of WMDs and threatening “consequences you have never seen.” But this isn’t the first time the Kremlin has sent out that non-proliferation message. It showed up on a Russian website back in January before the invasion began.

Blinken expanded on a theme others were invoking in their remarks. Everyone was sounding as if nuclear brinksmanship is back on the table, but nobody wants to take the blame for it.

Blinken, America’s top diplomat, said Monday that the U.S. chose “to act with restraint” in response to Russia’s actions and avoid anything that could unintentionally raise nuclear tensions. As examples, he said the U.S. abandoned previously scheduled tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles and did not raise the alert status of its nuclear forces “in response to Russia’s saber-rattling.”

“There is no place in our world — no place in our world — for nuclear deterrence based on coercion, intimidation or blackmail,” Blinken said. “We have to stand together in rejecting this.”

It’s a pity that we can’t take Putin’s message very seriously because it’s actually a solid principle. If we wind up entering into a full-scale nuclear exchange, there really won’t be a “winner” in that war. It would just be a question of who ran out of weapons first and who could still muster some troops amid the smoking ruins. And now that both the Russians and the Chinese are playing with hypersonic missile technology, the stakes are even higher.

I’d like to think that Russia has just been bluffing about a nuclear first strike. Unfortunately, I’m no longer entirely sure of that. China is probably far less likely to launch a nuclear first strike, but if push comes to shove they will wind up siding with Russia. But there’s no telling what Mad Vlad might do these days. If it looks like Russia is eventually in danger of losing the war in Ukraine entirely, we can’t rule out the possibility that he’ll light off a nuke. And then the world will hold its breath for a moment and wait to see how everyone else responds. You might want to practice hiding under your desk like we did back in the 60s.

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