Siegfried Hecker: Putin has destroyed the world nuclear order. How should the democracies respond?

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(Siegfried Hecker (second from right) visits the secret Russian nuclear city of Sarov in February 1992.)

 

One of the world’s foremost nuclear security and policy experts, Sig Hecker has spent much of an illustrious career working to enhance cooperation among US and Russian scientists and their governments in hopes of reducing nuclear risk. In fact, Hecker has literally edited the book on the subject, Doomed to Cooperate: How American and Russian scientists joined forces to avert some of the greatest post-Cold War nuclear dangers.

Clearly, Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has changed international relations in profound and potentially lasting ways and brought the real possibility of nuclear weapons use to the forefront of public consciousness. An emeritus fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, and a longtime contributor to the Bulletin, Hecker took time last week to speak with Bulletin editor in chief John Mecklin about the enormous damage that Russian President Vladimir Putin has done to the world nuclear order via his decision to invade Ukraine. That decision marks, Hecker contends, a turning point in world nuclear affairs as momentous as the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

 

John Mecklin: In a talk earlier this week to the American Physical Society, you said that Putin has essentially turned the whole nuclear order upside down by invading Ukraine. Why don’t you, in summarized form, explain what you meant by that.

Siegfried Hecker: What I said is that the major question right now that seemed to be on people’s mind is whether Russia, meaning Putin, is going to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. I said, I don’t really know, although the chances are certainly non-zero, and I can get back to that.

But what I do know is that he’s blown up the global nuclear order that has been developed over the last 70 years, for the most part by the United States and Russia. That order has helped to allow the world to take advantage of the benefits of nuclear energy—such as nuclear electricity and nuclear medicine—while avoiding the worst potential consequences, everything from nuclear weapons use, to lots of countries seeking nuclear weapons (we have fewer than 10 today), to nuclear terrorism, and nuclear accidents. The global order has allowed us to have the benefits outweigh the risks of nuclear energy.

And I see that order being destroyed by what Putin has done in Ukraine, every facet—from nuclear deterrence, to nonproliferation, to the prevention of nuclear terrorism, and the future of nuclear power.

Mecklin: Do you think he meant to? Do you think Putin was trying to upend the whole applecart or just screwed up?

Hecker: Oh, absolutely not. Destroying the nuclear order was not by design. There are bits and pieces of the of the nuclear order that he’s objected to for quite some time, and I’ve been watching that over the past 20 years or so. But for example, on the issue of nuclear power, what he’s really done is he’s shot himself in the foot. That was one of the biggest high-tech exports that Russia had. It was the leader in foreign nuclear power plant construction and nuclear fuel services. I can’t imagine that Putin would have thought that the invasion of Ukraine is going to have any effect on that.

From the best that we can put the pieces together, he thought Ukraine was going to be real quick and simple, something like the annexation of Crimea. He was going to go in, take things over. I don’t think all of these things that I’m really concerned about were at the forefront of his thinking.

Mecklin: You touched on the nuclear power industry; the war is kind of a disaster for the Russian nuclear industry. What does it mean, internationally? Because there are lots of other countries that are involved in commercial nuclear power.

Hecker: Indeed, the question is going to be—since Russia has played such a large and prominent part, especially in fuel cycle services, like enrichment of uranium for nuclear power plants; Russia supplies about 35 percent of the world’s enrichment capacity today—where is nuclear fuel going to come from? Where’s the enrichment going to come from? And, of course, what about nuclear power plants?

Now that Russia has shelled the Zaporizhzhia operating nuclear plant in Ukraine and had its soldiers overrun the Chernobyl radioactive exclusion area, what country is going to have Russia build it a new nuclear power plant? Will anyone else be able to step in? I think the one best prepared to step in is China. However, along the way, there are going to be all these different bits and pieces [of the global nuclear industry]that are missing, that will have to be rebuilt.

The nuclear nonproliferation regime was built around the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as its central element. However, it is embedded in a fabric of other agreements, practices, and norms that require international cooperation—and leadership from the big nuclear powers. Russia has played a central role in the nonproliferation regime and with the International Atomic Energy Agency. It’s going to be difficult to see how we’re going to live with an international system, where we have a formerly responsible nuclear state that’s now become a pariah state—a country we can no longer count on to be responsible in nuclear matters—but is still so actively involved in the nuclear arena, even though it might have shot itself in the foot.

I should add that in addition to upending the global nonproliferation regime, Russia may have also delivered the death knell to arms control, which has already been on the ropes over the past 20 year—being diminished by both Russian and American governments.

Mecklin: You also mentioned nuclear terrorism. How has the invasion changed your concerns?

Hecker: After 9/11, our concerns were focused on preventing nuclear terrorism by non-state actors. The shelling of the nuclear power plant is an act of state-sponsored terrorism. States such as Russia, of course, have access to much more dangerous nuclear and radiological materials and their means of delivery. The United States has worked with Russia in various initiatives to combat global nuclear terrorism, but now we must be concerned about Russia committing nuclear or radiological terrorism.

Mecklin: I’m going to hop subjects a little bit. Everybody’s asking you (and they’re all asking me): Is Vladimir Putin really going to use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine? And, of course, nobody but Vladimir Putin can really answer that question. I’m interested in what you think the United States should do in response, if Russia uses a tactical nuclear weapon or some other weapon of mass destruction in Ukraine?

Hecker: Well, I think first of all that we need to separate nuclear weapons from other weapons of mass destruction. The only other weapons that we’re really concerned about, that would change the course of the war, are chemical weapons. And in my opinion, chemical weapons, as such, are really not weapons of mass destruction. So, let’s put chemical weapons aside, although we need to be concerned about that potential, and let’s think about nuclear weapons.

Let me first try to answer the question: Why am I concerned that Putin would use nuclear weapons in Ukraine?

I think one of the most important aspects of the whole nuclear era is the no-use-of-nuclear-weapons norm. Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, no matter how you might complain about what’s happened in the nuclear world, one thing has not happened: A nuclear weapon has not been detonated in wartime. I believe it’s essential that we keep that norm. Deterrence has worked, although we have also been lucky. During the Cold War, of course, there were many scary times, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis. But nevertheless, the norm held up, and then to some extent many of us—certainly me—breathed a big sigh of relief when the Soviet Union dissolved, and it was clear that we’re going to walk away from the precipice of using nuclear weapons. The US and Russia dramatically reduced the number of nuclear weapons.

But then what actually happened is through the ’90s, through those enormously difficult economic times in Russia, where essentially everything collapsed, including their conventional military, their nuclear doctrine evolved. The most important aspect was they then considered that there was a potential use for nuclear weapons in response to a conventional attack if the existence of Russia was in question. Over the years, Russian military doctrine then evolved to provide a smooth transition from conventional weapons to tactical (non-strategic), to strategic nuclear weapons. It washed out the difference between conventional weapons and tactical nuclear weapons.

We in the United States—and certainly me as a person in the nuclear business over the last 50 years—I always thought there must be a great discontinuity between conventional and nuclear weapons. The Russians don’t consider that so anymore. And what we don’t know today, for example: Is there some point where Putin would say—because the way the war was evolving, let’s say in the eastern part of Ukraine—that he believes there is an existential conventional threat to Russia that he needs to use tactical nuclear weapons to counter.

So, whereas before I would have thought the likelihood of Russia using nuclear weapons was basically zero, I no longer consider it zero, though it’s still low. Also, some of my Russian colleagues, my counterparts—their nuclear weapons laboratory directors—contributed a paper to my book, Doomed to Cooperate, where they laid out the strategy for tactical nuclear weapons. In essence, what they said was now nuclear weapons are no longer just for strategic use; they are weapons to make sure that there is no major threat to Russia. And they no longer are just used to counter weapons of mass destruction, but they may now be used to counter threats to their country.

And so that’s the principal concern that I have. You asked what does the US do in return [if Russia uses a nuclear weapon in Ukraine]? So that was a long way to get to your question, and I would say, we really have to assess what the situation is and what the damage is.

First, it’s going to change the face of warfare, because we haven’t had a nuclear weapon used in 77 years. But rather than immediately responding with a nuclear weapon, I think we need to assess the damage, and then decide how we’re going to respond to Russia. My immediate view at this point without knowing exactly what will happen is that that response should be a conventional military response. And the US has the capabilities to do sufficient damage in retribution with conventional military and not allow this to escalate to a potential strategic exchange. More than anything, what has to drive our thinking is we must avoid a strategic nuclear exchange between Russia and the United States that could eventually imperil the world as we know it.

But that does not mean that there does not have to be a military response.

Mecklin: Do you know of any kind of game, or study, or military exercises where somebody has found that that kind of tit for tat does not escalate to general nuclear war?  I haven’t run into a scenario somebody was able to come up with that, once escalation started, you could stop it. Are you aware of any?

Hecker: No. Most of these are the type of war games that have been played by governments as well as some nongovernmental organizations. And you’re correct that most of those—at least, the ones I’m familiar with—eventually wind up escalating to a strategic exchange. But they are just that, games; they’re war games. They don’t necessarily represent what actually happens on the ground. So the bottom line, I would say, is: We don’t know. But we should do everything that we can to avoid this escalation.

Mecklin: Your talk earlier this week went toward your idea Russian and American scientists need to continue to talk to one another. So this is a two-part question. First, are you still in contact with some of your Russian friends while the war is going on? And second, why do you think that sort of contact is important now?

Hecker: To answer the first question, I have not had direct cooperation with my colleagues at the Russian nuclear weapons laboratories—the equivalent of their Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia national laboratories—since about 2014. And that was a direct consequence of the Crimea invasion, annexation, and the aftermath. I’ve stayed in contact with several of my colleagues in the Russian nuclear complex, but no cooperation along the lines of what we did between 1992 and 2014.

At that point, I decided—because I believe so strongly that cooperation between the nuclear scientists and engineers of the two sides is crucial in this global nuclear order—to establish a program engaging the next generation. I called it the Young Professionals Nuclear Forum, where I brought together—Stanford leading the US side, with myself heading that effort, and the Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute heading the Russian side—eight to 10 young professionals from each side who had an interest in the nuclear world. And we got them together twice a year, once in Moscow, once at Stanford, to tackle nuclear issues that we face commonly from a global perspective. Some of their work has been featured in co-authored articles in your Bulletin.

That’s what I’ve been doing, essentially since 2016. I’ve stayed in contact with them. With COVID, we had to go virtual. The last in-person meeting was in late 2019. In 2020 and ‘21, we were virtual, and we continued the collaboration. At the end of February this year, with the invasion of Ukraine, we put it on hold. So currently, I contact some of the Russian nuclear folks, but we have no more cooperation.

Mecklin: Okay, going forward, given what’s happened, what could cooperation do? I mean, does Vladimir Putin listen to scientists?

Hecker: You asked why is this cooperation so important? I didn’t answer that part of the question. If you don’t mind, let me answer that question, and come back to Putin. The reason that it’s important, as I mentioned already, is that the global nuclear order requires cooperation from the leading nuclear states. Otherwise, you don’t have a global nuclear order. It’s essential that governments play a role, and the scientists need to play a role. We did some of that during the Cold War. During Soviet Union times there was collaboration between the two sides. Of course, on the political side there was also the arms control, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, etc.

But then, where the scientists-to-scientists interactions really came into play, which showed how crucially important it was, was with the collapse of the Soviet Union. I’ve described that in the book, Doomed to Cooperate. At that point, we had the four loose nuke problems: loose nuclear weapons, loose nuclear materials, loose nuclear experts, and loose nuclear exports. Just to put numbers on that: At one time, the Soviet Union had 40,000 nuclear weapons. We had 31,000 around 1965 and then started decreasing them, although we made them more accurate.

In terms of fissile materials, the Soviet Union had on the order of 1.4 million kilograms of fissile materials. Just to give you a comparison, today I believe that North Korea has less than 50 kilograms of plutonium and less than 1,000 kilograms of highly enriched uranium. There was an immense number of nuclear experts, a couple of hundred thousand or so, together with the civilian [experts], over a million. And then exports: The concern was that, as the economy collapsed, they might sell nuclear material and technologies.

It was with the US government help of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program that we American scientists were able to work hand-in-hand with the Russia nuclear scientists. And today, people ask me, “So was it worth it? Look, Putin has just invaded Ukraine.” I’ve said, “Yes, it was worth it, because we had no loose nukes in Russia, very little leakage of nuclear materials, very, very little leakage of nuclear weapons knowledge. And the exports, they eventually got under control in the 1990s.” So that’s why it was important then and I believe it’s going to stay important for the future, especially now that Putin has sort of blown things up.

But what we’re going to have to do is to re-envision what nuclear cooperation is going to look like in the future. To do that we need their scientists, we need their engineers, we need to continue to talk, to work together to make sure that the world avoids a nuclear catastrophe and gets the best out of nuclear energy. I strongly believe that sort of cooperation continues to be imperative. Now I’ll let you go on with the question…

Mecklin: Well, Vladimir Putin won’t be here forever. But while he’s here, I see less for the scientists who cooperate to do, when you have somebody who has been described by Fiona Hill as a one-man band, somebody who just decides everything thing on Vladimir Putin’s terms. But you know more about this than I do. Is it conceivable that over time, even with Putin in power, that a nuclear order could start to be put back together? Do you see that as plausible?

Hecker: Right now, during Putin’s rule, what are the nuclear scientists allowed to do? Very little in terms of cooperation. In fact, the story that I just told you about Cooperative Threat Reduction before and how we worked together—over the past 10 years or so, Putin has changed the narrative from these programs having benefitted both sides to claiming they were an American spy operation.

As it turns out, that’s just totally, totally false. In fact, my book, Doomed to Cooperate, shows it to be false—from the Russian side. The Russian scientists themselves tell their stories of how that cooperation helped both sides. So Putin was already on the warpath in terms of cooperative activities. Would he allow it now? I think the answer is absolutely not. There’s nothing that we can do right now, in terms of direct nuclear cooperation with the Russians. Perhaps something could be done through third parties, like the IAEA, and perhaps have some cooperation on anti-nuclear terrorism activities. That may be able to keep some cooperation alive.

But in that case, the Western world is going to look at the Russians and say, “you’ve got this leader who’s thrown all protocol out, who now has demonstrated that he’s completely irresponsible, in terms of how to deal with other countries and with innocent civilians.” I don’t see that we can establish any cooperation in the near term. However, what I learned during the time that we worked with the Russians—my contacts started in 1988. In 1992, I went to Russia for the first time, my first of 57 visits to Russia. So with 57 visits, you can see that I believed that cooperation was really imperative for us. What I found when I started working with the Russians is that the Russian nuclear complex, and the nuclear cities that were closed cities and are still closed cities today, are a critical part of the civil society of Russia. The scientists in those cities had no intentions to leave [Russia], they had no intentions to export [nuclear material]. They were patriotic, and they were part of Russia’s civil society.

And that’s the civil society we’re going to need, if we’re going to restart cooperation, once the political matters line up. Until then, there isn’t much that we can do except to stay in contact.

Mecklin: I have a final, strategic question that’s less specific to Russia: Some people say we’ve just entered a new Cold War, with China and Russia lined up on one side. Maybe now it’s not so much communism versus the free world as autocrats versus democracies. To me, it would be horrible if that happened. Do you think there’s a way to avoid the world returning to simmering camps, at each other’s throats for decades at a time?

Hecker: In my life, I’ve watched the dark days of the Cold War. I started at Los Alamos as a young summer intern in 1965, and we were in the middle of that Cold War. And yet I had hopes that someday, we could get out of that situation, and lo and behold, we did.

As you say, now we’re locked into something else. And I guess I wouldn’t call it a return to the Cold War or Cold War 2.0. But it’s quite clear now as one looks at all the actions that Chinese President Xi Jinping has taken, long before this issue of the Ukraine invasion, and that Vladimir Putin has taken, also long before the Ukraine invasion, because he certainly showed his stripes with the annexation of Crimea and going into eastern Ukraine—as we look at all of that, it certainly does seem to be that we’ve constructed a new standoff of autocracies versus democracies.

The big autocracies are being led by Xi Jinping and Russia. China is of greatest concern, because it’s not only building up as a nuclear power and technological power, but it has enormous economic impact. Russia has much less of that, and after Ukraine, the Russians are going to be in deep, deep economic difficulty. We have that on one side.

What Ukraine showed is that such autocracies are willing to conduct a brutal, totally unprovoked invasion. How in the world do we get out of this? The two most important things, in my opinion are, first, that democracies must work together. That’s one of the bright spots of the invasion of Ukraine. It has brought the Western democracies back together. Before that, relations were greatly frayed, particularly during the Trump administration. And the invasion of Ukraine has brought them back together. We’re standing together, and that will be imperative to show that democracies are not weaklings of the past; they can manage and bring their people together for what we see as justice.

That’s one of the crucial elements. The second element, which may actually be more important, is how we fix our own democracy in this country. If we’re going to be the democracy that the rest of the world looks up to, we need to fix the deep political divisions that greatly weaken America—the overall moral stature of the country, the political stature, economic stature, and then the military stature. In other words, how do we fix our own country?

Let me conclude by stressing that what Putin has done is to blow up the entire global nuclear order. That’s really a major hinge, a turning point in the nuclear world. That’s as big a hinge as when the Soviet Union dissolved, in my opinion. We were creative in 1989 through ‘92, and we’re going to have to be creative now, as the war hopefully draws down and ends. But it’s going to take creativity, because we face a different world situation with the loss of the global nuclear order that’s been developed over so many years.

*John Mecklin is the editor-in-chief of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
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