Transcript: Session 8

Released on March 31st, 2022


Video and Text Transcript

Transcript of the video:

Helena Cobban (00:00:00):

Hello there I'm Helena Cobban, the president of Just World Educational in March, 2022, my distinguished colleague, Richard Falk and I have been co-hosting a webinar series on the Ukraine crisis. What follows is the audio from one of the sessions. You can find more details of the whole project, including the audio, the video and transcripts of all of the sessions as they are held at our website, Welcome to the eighth and sadly the last session of our webinar series, "The Ukraine crisis, building a just and peaceful world". It's Monday, March 28th. And we are lucky to have with us today, two guests who have a broad understanding of the intricacies of nuclear confrontation, such as we all now need to understand more deeply the, and that any time since the end of the old Cold War. Our guests today are Dr. David Barash, a prolific author in the fields of peace studies and sociobiology, and an expert analysis analyst of the psychology of nuclear deterrence. 

David's books have great titles. They include The Caveman and the Bomb: human nature, evolution, and nuclear war and The Survival Game: how game theory explains cooperation and competition. We also have Cynthia Lazaroff, an award-winning documentary filmmaker who's the founder and director of Women Transforming Our Nuclear Legacy and NuclearWakeUpCall-dot-Earth. Cynthia is the author of "Dawn of a New Armageddon" published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on Hiroshima Day, 2018.  She serves on the boards of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and the American Committee for U.S.-Russia Accord.  

So both of you thank you very much for being with us.

David Barash (00:02:14):

Oh, you're most welcome. Thank you, Helen.

Cynthia Lazaroff (00:02:18):

Thank you, Helen. That's an honor to be here.

Helena Cobban (00:02:22):

Well, we should have had this session much earlier in the series, but we are glad that we've got it now. My co-host here as usual is Richard Falk, a distinguished international jurist and good friend who I hope needs no introduction. We are both looking forward to exploring with our guests the complex and unsettling matter of nuclear deterrence, which is based on the risk that the entirety of the human species and much of the rest of the natural world could all be wiped out through nuclear war. Most people who are under, say, 45 years old, have no vivid memory of having lived in a situation of possible war between two heavily armed nuclear superpowers. But this is a scenario that looks very close today as NATO's militaries, which includes three nuclear weapons states, are in like a risky staring match against Russia's nuclear-armed military because of the current grave crisis over Ukraine. So let me hand over to you, Richard.

Richard Falk (00:03:32):

I just wanna echo your sentiments both toward our two guests who are close friends of mine, and I'm very much looking forward to what they have to say that will illuminate this very dangerous dimension of the Ukraine crisis. And I would add that it's about more than deterrence. It's about the failure of the nuclear taboo to inhibit action that brings us closer to that nuclear threshold that is such a risky yet vital aspect of world order at this stage of human development. So without any further comment from me, I look forward to what David and Cynthia have to say.

Helena Cobban (00:04:45):

So today's webinar is the last of the eight webinars in our present series. Our earlier sessions, which involved a great roster of guests, were all excellent. You can access the videos, audio, and transcripts of those sessions and other information about this project at our website, The video of today's session will be uploaded there soon too, and after that, the links to the audio and the transcript. Today's conversation is projected to last roughly 45 minutes after that, there'll be a chance for questions from the attendees, which we ask you to put into the Q and A box. Also in these emotionally taxing times, we ask for civility from all attendees, both in the chat box, and also if you are on invited on-air there too.

So David Barash, I will turn to you first and ask you to provide your view of the nuclear deterrence backdrop to the current conflict in Ukraine with perhaps some pointers on how global justice activists worldwide should move forward in this situation.

David Barash (00:06:02):

Okay, then thank you very much, Helena and I especially also want to thank not only my co-participants, but those of you in the audience who I assume are already involved are certainly concerned and express the hope now that you will become, if anything, even more involved as time goes on, insofar as we have time. And I suppose we all have to hope that we do. Well you don't have to have an advanced degree in international relations to know that we are in very dangerous waters. There is a crucial take-home message from the Ukraine war, namely that nuclear weapons simply must be eliminated so that they never again will put the world at risk in a repeat of the current unacceptably dangerous situation that we are all in now.

But however, when this war ends and somehow it, it will end, those of us who are especially concerned about nuclear weapons will have an immense job to do. Already, the usual suspects have been saying almost gleefully "We told you so!" If Ukraine had not given up its nuclear weapons, they claim we wouldn't be in this situation now. Putin would not have invaded Ukraine. And so they are already beginning to use this experience as providing what they claim to be, and will claim even more so to be, a crucial take-home message, which is that we must adhere all the more closely to nuclear weapons and if anything obtain even more of them. And so whatever the ending of the Ukraine war, I think there is this very great danger that there will be all the more adherence to deterrence subsequently. And I guess I'm an optimist enough to think that when the Ukraine war will end, some things will still go on perhaps much of the current international system.

And I think we have a real obligation to make sure that it doesn't get worse. Because I do fear that there's a great danger that that will happen.

Now for the sake of intellectual honesty, I think we have to say, I have to say that it is at least possible that if Ukraine had not given up its nuclear weapons in the mid-nineties-- to Russia, moreover, which is even more horrifying to some people-- this wouldn't happen. There is at least that possibility. However, I think far more likely is that national leaders in particular will almost certainly respond to the Ukraine war by clinging all the more stubbornly to their nuclear weapons and that this war will serve as a massive impetus for nuclear proliferation in the future, both horizontal, other countries trying to derive a message from this, and also vertical proliferation, with individual countries, the US almost certainly among them, maintaining that we need more and "better" nuclear weapons.

So those of us in the anti-nuclear world have our work cut out for ourselves, perhaps more than ever. I think we need to push back in advance against the claim and, and to keep pushing back against the claim that this take home message from the Ukrainian war will be more nuclear weapons, more reliance on so-called deterrence. And again, this claim is already being made. I think as a way of helping us to push back, I'd like to point out a few things and Helena, I invite you to interrupt me if I get too carried away, because that's likely that I will. There are many cases in which having nuclear weapons did not work as a deterrent. And even more, of course, we haven't had a nuclear war; but of course, if we had had a nuclear war, we wouldn't be around to congratulate ourselves on the efficacy of deterrence.

And there are many other arguments along those lines. Moreover, there have been many cases in which non-nuclear countries have attacked nuclear ones, and we need to be aware of this. In 1950, China invaded, if you will-- or they were concerned that MacArthur's forces during the Korean war were not gonna stop at the Yalu river. And so they sent 300,000 of their military south, which resulted in a stalemate on that sad peninsula, at least the Northern part, especially sad, that continues even now. Now China was not gonna have nuclear weapons until 1964. In 1950, the United States had more or less a hundred of them. That did not deter China. When Argentina invaded the Falklands, which they called the Malvinas in 1982, they were not nuclear armed. The United Kingdom was. That did not deter Argentina. Later, during the first Gulf war conventionally-armed Iraq fired 39 SCUD missiles against Israel who we all know had at least a hundred nuclear weapons at the time, perhaps more. Clearly he [Saddam Hussein] was not deterred by Israel's presence of nuclear weapons and Israel didn't do anything about it knowing full well that incinerating Baghdad would not have done anyone any good.

Now looking a little more specifically at the Ukraine situation, nuclear deterrence has long been bedeviled, by all sorts of problems, not least the problem of credibility-- and for good reason. The use of nuclear weapons would be such a horrible devastating event that leads to such unpredictable and likely catastrophic consequences that it is not literally, it is not credible to use nuclear weapons, or at least has not been considered credible. That's in large part why these conventionally armed countries that I already mentioned were not inhibited, were not deterred from attacking essentially the United States when it was nuclear armed. So let's imagine just as a hypothetical what the Germans would call a Gedankenexperiment [a thought experiment] that Ukraine had nuclear weapons as these-- many people are claiming they ought to have had.

Well, what if Putin then refused to be cowed by Ukraine's nos, which is not unlikely given the problem of credibility? And what if Putin had invaded anyhow? Well, just last week, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, I believe is his name, said he wouldn't rule out the use of nuclear weapons if Russia felt a quote "existential risk," which it's not going to feel at as a result of the Ukraine war. But what about Ukraine in the event that Russia had invaded it and Ukraine had nuclear weapons? What if a nuclear Kyi,v were at existential risk? Would Ukraine use nuclear weapons as a last resort? And what would a nuclear armed, but conventionally outgunned Ukraine do? They could increase the alert status of their weapons. They could preload the warheads that they would presumably then have. Would that work? What would Putin do as a result, a counterforce strike to get rid of these threats? There are any number of potential issues here. And I think one of them that could be illuminating is to compare the situation of Ukraine relative to Russia, with, of Pakistan relative to India. Now, Pakistan is--

Helena Cobban (00:15:15):

David. Could you sort of wrap this up so that we can have that in the conversation?

David Barash (00:15:21):

I'm running out of time? I understand. As I predicted, unfortunately. Well, let me just say that. I think at this point, we all have a responsibility to declare a just war against nuclear deterrence, which in my mind is really at the heart of the whole nuclear problem that we all face.

Helena Cobban (00:15:47):

Thank you. Cynthia, I'll turn to you and ask you to provide your assessment of the overall nuclear risk in the Ukraine, war and pathways to escalation, maybe taking off from where, where the background that David gave us, with recommendations on where we go from here, both short term and longer term.

Cynthia Lazaroff (00:16:10):

Thank you again, Helena. It's really an honor to be here with you and Richard and David and everyone present on the call today. And I'm so grateful that you're doing this. This is so important, Helena, this series that you've been doing and David, your comments were really illuminating and really important for me to, to take in and understand more deeply all of the history here of places where nuclear weapons could have been used and weren't used. It's really interesting to hear all of that, and where it didn't deter. So just before I start, I want to honor Richard Falk for a moment, because I wouldn't be here without Richard and I literally wouldn't be here because he is the first who awakened me to nuclear dangers when I was a student at Princeton, which is now almost 50 years ago, and he really inspired me to become an activist for abolition way back then.

And so I just wanna take a moment and say that Richard, you have inspired me and so many; to say, deep bows of gratitude to you for all the ways that you've done this for so many of us and your really tireless devotion to peace and justice and nuclear abolition, which is carrying us forward. And this really is a coming-full-circle moment for me, Helena, because Richard and I have never done anything like this together in the 50 years that we've known each other. So thank you for providing the opportunity.

So I just wanna say, when we look at nuclear risks in Ukraine, I think it's essential we put them into the context of the overall current nuclear danger. A few years ago when I was producing the film, "US- Russia relations: Quest for stability", I interviewed dozens of top experts in the US and Russia, and pretty much everyone I spoke to sounded the alarm on today's escalating nuclear danger.

Former US Secretary of Defense.William Perry said to me that today, the danger of some sort of nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War, and most people are blisfully unaware of this danger. He said, "We're allowing ourselves sleepwalk into another catastrophe, and we must wake up." The US and Russia still possess over 90% of the estimated 13,000 nuclear weapons. We still have dangers that existed during the Cold War, such as the risk of inadvertent nuclear war due to accident, blunder, miscalculation, or mistake. We still have ICBMs on launch-on-warning postures with the presidents just having minutes to decide upon receiving warning of a nuclear attack. And these missiles have triggered many false alarms in the past. Plus, we have a whole host of new dangers that didn't exist during the Cold War. These include destabilizing new weapons and missile defense systems, cyber warfare and the cyber-nuclear nexus, emerging technologies, and more.

So let's come now to Ukraine. We're in a moment of extremely high tensions, in some ways more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis. And as we move into the second month of the war, I'm most concerned about two things. First, we have to find our way to a ceasefire to stop the killing bloodshed and immense human suffering. And I'm deeply concerned about the risk of escalation which could lead to a nuclear exchange. We have both state and non-state actors who could take action that could escalate the conflict, inadvertently or intentionally. We have large numbers of NATO and Russian troops now in close proximity in the region. And this multiplies the risk of possible incidents of escalation. And we have uncertainty about where the "red lines" are for NATO and Russia. There are so many pathways to escalation, any one of which could trigger a spiral up the escalatory ladder to potentially catastrophic nuclear confrontation.

I'm just gonna give a few example, and these represent only a tiny fraction of what could go wrong. So I wanna start with three ways that NATO might be drawn into the war besides a no-fly zone that we've heard so much about. We understand of course, that if NATO gets involved, it would be the start of World War III. And that when you have nuclear-armed countries involved in a conflict with high tensions and limited communications, the risk of miscalculation dramatically increases in the fog of war. And we can imagine how things might spiral out of control and escalate to a nuclear exchange. So the first example, Russia attacks weapons shipments coming into Ukraine from NATO countries and this results in direct combat between NATO country and Russian troops. Russia has already said that they consider these weapons shipments, legitimate targets, and with all the weapons pouring into Ukraine, I think this is an increasingly likely possibility the longer the war goes on.

Number two, a Russian attack on a Ukrainian nuclear power plant triggers a large release of radiation across Europe. Number three, Russia uses chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. I'm gonna come back to nuclear weapons in a moment, but first another possible escalatory scenario whereby a state or a non actor launches a crippling cyber attack [on] infrastructure on the US or on our NATO allies around Russia. There is the potential here for the cyber-nuclear nexus in the conflict. And the Nuclear Threat Initiative has published a must-read hypothetical scenario of how this nexus could escalate the war in Ukraine to a catastrophic nuclear war. (I'm gonna put this and a number of links in the chat when I'm finished. Thank you.) Another concern is the ambiguity in weapons systems that can lead to miscalculation and escalation such as dual-capable missiles that can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads that Russia is now using in Ukraine.

And there's no way to know what kind of warhead is mounted on the missile until it strikes its target. Similarly, there's no way to know when a nuclear missile is launched, whether it's a low-yield tactical or a higher yield strategic nuclear weapon until it hits its target.

I want to shift now to a question on everyone's mind: Would Putin actually push the button? Would he intentionally use nuclear weapons? So the probability may be low, but the risk is not zero. And I believe the risk is greater than it was when the war started and that the longer this war goes on, the more Putin feels frustrated, pressured, backed into a corner-- the more he feels like he's losing, the more his perception is that he and Russia are threatened-- I think the more likely we could see some kind of intentional escalation to nuclear use. It might start as what's called a demonstration, a single launch into an uninhabited area like the Black Sea, or it could be on military targets in Ukraine, or even on staging areas for weapons in NATO countries for weapons deliveries in NATO countries.

So how would the US and NATO respond? We don't know, but there's a video simulation done at Princeton that starts with just one launch by Russia during a conventional conflict. And it escalates to a nuclear war with 90 million dead and injured within the first few hours. This is just the first few hours. We have to end this war to make sure that we don't have an escalation that could lead to something like this or worse. So some quick recommendations for going forward right now. We need to reduce the risk of escalation. And we need to prioritize diplomacy, dialogue, and negotiations to secure a ceasefire and withdrawal of Russian troops and work out all the points of a peace agreement. To achieve this we need better and more open channels of communication at all levels, diplomatic and military.

Nuclear risk never goes away. It's omnicidal behavior to stop talking to your nuclear adversary and words matter. We need to stop the inflammatory and escalatory rhetoric on all sides. I believe this is a planetary nuclear wake-up call, that the only way to prevent one person or nine nuclear-armed countries from holding the whole world hostage and unleashing nuclear Armageddon, is to abolish, eliminate, and ban nuclear weapons forever. If we survive this, we'll have a chance to get this right, another one, and move as quickly as possible toward the total elimination of nuclear weapons. It's a moral and existential imperative that we support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and as the calls for more defense spending and more weapons rise across the US and Europe, as David so eloquently pointed out and outlined, I have no illusions about the formidable obstacles in the ways of achieving this.

Our work in the peace and nuclear abolition movements is gonna be harder now, but if we stand together, it'll be easier. And I just want to end with a quote from Dimitri Muratov, who's the editor in chief of Russia's independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last fall, who has called for us to stand together. He said only a global anti-war movement can save life on this planet. I woke up this morning to the really sad news that he has just suspended publication of Novaya Gazeta under enormous pressure. But we have to stand with Dimitri and build this global anti-war movement together. Our work really is now more important than ever. Thank you.

Thank you, Cynthia. Wow, Richard, there is a hard act to follow, two hard acts to follow--

Richard Falk (00:25:57):

It's really a privilege to follow hard acts because that means they've illuminated the subject we're addressing. And I wanna thank Cynthia for her gracious remark and say that nothing gives a teacher more pride than to be exceeded in their achievements by their students. And Cynthia has certainly created such a happy precedent. David, too, has I think long charted a rational path toward denuclearization and has devoted a substantial part of his long career to this increasingly salient cause or mission of the peace movement. I want to just say a couple of things to underscore what has been said. I would encourage us to think more broadly than a critique of nuclear deterrence along the lines that David delimited, because it seems to me that one of the things that is also critical to understand is a critique of the non-proliferation regime as sufficient to provide global security.

This is a very peculiar, distorted geopolitical arrangement that allows the most dangerous countries in the world to possess nuclear weapons and to have discretion over their use, unrestricted discretion over their use. And to deny the less dangerous countries, the option of pursuing a deterrent strategy, whether it's viable or not viable. They are at the risk of military attack as the war in Iraq, the 21st century war in Iraq, illustrated. In other words the NPT, the treaty doesn't authorize its enforcement. That was a geopolitical move by the United States without the backing of the UN and without even respecting the failure of the UN to back such an attack. So I think both the critique of nuclear deterrence and the complementary critique of the non-proliferation regime lead us in the direction that Cynthia was eloquently suggesting as the only morally and rationally coherent position, which is abolition.

I think that that could emerge as the positive outcome of the Ukrainian crisis if one allowed, if one can follow the first part of what Cynthia said, which was the urgency or the moral imperative of giving priority to a ceasefire and stopping the killing. And once that's done, there is an incentive to once more look around and see what can be done to reduce the nuclear danger. And I think the language of reduction might be seen by many more as insufficient, that we need the language of elimination and abolition.

And just one point that I would underscore in Cynthia's depiction of the various risks flowing from the present confrontation. I've increasingly thought of the war as a two-level war. It's a war, obviously, war on the ground between Russia and the Ukraine, but it's also a proxy geopolitical war between the US and Russia. And although they interact, they're quite separate in their objectives and goals, and Biden's inflammatory rhetoric has underscored and explicated that. He even hinted at regime change as a goal. Not only does that increase nuclear risks and nuclear dangers, but it also is a guaranteed way of prolonging the war, and fighting metaphorically till the last Ukrainian in order to satisfy, these geopolitical objectives. So I'm glad that Cynthia put human agency into the enumeration of the nuclear dangers. In other words, having a leader like Putin in Moscow and a leader like Biden in Washington and their interaction to me is one of the salient dangers.

We know about Putin and the irresponsible language he's been using with respect to nuclear weapons and the way they've been deployed, and training exercises recently. But we're I think not so sensitive to what Biden has been saying, which is to call Putin a war criminal and to say that we can't tolerate a leader like this, which is a way of escalating the geopolitical tensions if not the nuclear dangers. And if you view Putin the way he is depicted as being mentally unstable, backed into a corner, et cetera, you're just making him more dangerous. This rhetoric, which is, I think, playing to a kind of war fever and anti-Russian feelings in America, is internationally irresponsible in an acute way and a way that the world cannot afford. So I think we should pay attention to that human agency, as well as to the technical and strategic issues that are at stake here. Let me stop there and welcome questions.

Helena Cobban (00:34:54):

I just want to come back to what I think both David and Cynthia referred to, which is the dangers of this confrontation in Ukraine being prolonged, because even if the, the risk in any, let's say given week of miscommunication, or, you know, a flock of geese flies over the radar and you think its missiles, or, you know-- All that stuff has happened in the past, but there were always hotlines between between Washington and Moscow that resolved it. On this occasion, there is apparently what's called a deconfliction center in, I believe, either in Germany or in Brussels. But I think the hotline capabilities seem much less robust than they were during the old Cold War. So how reassured can we be the two superpower and perhaps France and Britain don't misread signals from the other side and launch escalatory retaliation against the other side due to misread signals or whatever? And, you know, is it the case that if that probability is let's say a very small X in any given week, if the conflict in Ukraine goes on for 52 weeks, then it's gonna be 52 or perhaps more times greater. David, what do you think, how do you think we should look at these risks of miscommunication and accident?

David Barash (00:36:37):

Well, my immediate reaction Helena is to say, we should look at these risks with enormous fear and trembling, to go back to Kierkegaard. The comment about limited communication that you made and that Cynthia made earlier, I can only italicize that by comparing what was available during the first Cold War when things were certainly not very good. And I can tell you a somewhat-- not a personal story, but a story via my wife, who is a physician and a prominent member of the IPPNW, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. And she was part of the delegation and went there. Well, during that time there was substantial communication between, among other people , Yevgeniy Chazov, who was the the personal cardiologist of Brezhnev and also Bernard Lown, who was also a cardiologist, a very prominent cardiologist in the United States.

And they had regular communications. In fact, they formed the IPPNW between them. There were also regular meetings between Soviet generals and US generals. And I was present at two of those. Altogether too much vodka, but also some good communication. These days that is not a going on. IPPNW people say there is no communication of the sort that was going on during the 1980s. My understanding is there is no comparable communication going on between high-ranking US military officers and those of Russia. Now, it's always possible that communication can make things worse. Without a doubt, people can get more angry when they talk than they were before. But on balance, we need this. It doesn't avoid, but it certainly reduces the likelihood that there will be misunderstandings on one side as to what the other side is doing. So certainly with regard to communication, I would have to say things are worse. They're worse than they were in the 1980s. I wish I could convey a more optimistic message, but realistically that's the way things are right now.

Helena Cobban (00:39:23):

Cynthia, do you have anything to add on that?

Cynthia Lazaroff (00:39:28):

I would just echo everything that David said. I am deeply concerned. I agree that we don't have the communications in play that we had back during the Cold War. And in fact, one of the first agreements that Reagan and Gorbachev made was for jointly staffed, nuclear risk-reduction, crisis communication centers. Those are gone. We don't have those anymore. Nuclear cooperation, formal nuclear cooperation ended largely in 2015. It was canceled by Putin. But, it was long, it was eroding before that happened.

Helena Cobban (00:40:05):

And we don't have the Anti Ballistic Missile treaty, and we don't have the, you know, a lot of the agreements that were-- the arms control agreements that gave time and space, the security architecture has--

Cynthia Lazaroff (00:40:20):

Yes, the arms control, security architecture: the pillars like the ABM treaty, like the INF treaty, also the Open Skies treaty. I mean, we've lost all of those, some in more recent years under the Trump administration. But I also wanna, I wanna bring up the Cuban missile crisis because diplomatic channels and backdoor channels played a really important role in resolving that crisis. The channel that was open between Bobby Kennedy and Ambassador Dobrynin made a huge difference and helped persuade Kennedy not to listen to the generals on the Excom committee who were pushing for an invasion into Cuba. I am very concerned that we don't have, it looks like from everything that we can tell, the communication between Lavrov and Blinken. I think that we need to have every open avenue of communication available to us, even though we don't have the pathways as many as we did during the Cold War.

We know that really good, robust military-to-military communication in Syria, between Russian and us military has made a huge difference in deconflicting many situations there. We have some very limited contact, I've heard that we established military to military [in Ukraine], but I'm also seeing reports that that Secretary Austin and [JCS Chairman] Milley have tried to contact their Russian counterparts, Shoigu and Gerasimov, and they haven't had a response. This is why escalatory rhetoric like what we had over the weekend that implies regime change just increases and fuels the tensions in a situation and makes communication more difficult, which is absolutely vital. Because even with good communication in a crisis like this, it's really difficult to understand conditions on the ground. It's difficult to verify information. You can have mistaken intelligence, misinterpretations, miscommunications that can lead to escalation.

So we have to find a way, somehow, in this really dangerous situation to reestablish every possible pathway to communication and figure out if there are any good backdoor channels. We know we have other governments trying to-- to come back to your point, Helena, which is really important, that the longer this war goes on, the risk of escalation goes on, and I think in creases. We have these other countries getting involved, Israel, Turkey, et cetera, trying to help us, France, trying to help the conflict in Ukraine come to some resolution. But I would like to hear Biden be calling every day for a ceasefire. I would like to, I would like to be hearing him using the words. "We need a peace agreement. We need to end this war." I'm not hearing that kind of language. And I feel like if we really wanna stop the killing and bloodshed, and as Richard said, you know, metaphorically, if we don't want this fight to go to the very last Ukrainian, we have to change our-- we have to change our approach here.

It has to be diplomatic. We have to be pushing for a diplomatic solution in a much stronger way than we are.

Richard Falk (00:43:47):

Let me add two very short comment. One is, I think it's important to remember that the communication links that existed toward the end of the Cold War did not exist at the beginning of the cold war and that it was the Cuban missile crisis that awakened both sides to the urgency of--

Helena Cobban (00:44:17):

  1. For those who are younger, we need to tell them what year that happened--

David Barash (00:44:21):

Ancient history!

Richard Falk (00:44:23):

But it was after. And maybe, and that's I think the encouraging way of looking at what's happening now-- is that this Ukraine crisis will rekindle the awareness of the essential role of communication, establish some kind of secure links going forward. And I just want to echo and maybe intensify what Cynthia said at the end about avoiding this kind of Biden rhetoric that was particularly inflammatory over the weekend. And I think it's more than just avoiding the inflammatory rhetoric. It's introducing even a trace of interest in the diplomatic path to a resolution of the conflict. In both his State of the Union speech and in the NATO tour and his European talks, there wasn't a hint of an interest in a peace agreement or a cease fire, not even a mention of it, whereas there were all this empathy for the Ukrainian tragedy, but somehow one had the feeling that this proxy war level of the conflict was given priority. In other words, the ceasefire was not as much of an interest as inflicting a clear geopolitical defeat on Russia. And as long as that's the attitude, it will prolong the war and increase the risk.

Helena Cobban (00:46:32):

I think there is a problem also at the level of the broader culture here. I mean, the degree to which Putin has been demonized, you know, he's not referred to as President Putin, he's just sort of Putin the butcher or whatever. And then, when you see press conference is by administration officials, we, I would like to see those media representatives pushing the points that we have all been making. "How about diplomatic engagement? What diplomatic channels are open? What would the shape of a sustainable peace look like?" Instead of which all the questions are about: "We want a no-fly zone. What is your view on transferring the MIGS?" It's very escalatory as a sort of a representative of the broader culture that I find very very worrisome.

David Barash (00:47:33):

Yeah, anyhow, I, I would absolutely agree with that and agree with Richard's-- it's almost embarrassing the extent to which all four of us agree-- but maybe we perceive this as encouraging? But there is an uncomfortable sense of the "let's you and him fight," you know? And I've read numerous things now in the Washington Post, for instance, by people who, who say, "Well, there's no way we can allow this to-- WE can allow this to end until Putin has been defeated, until he withdraws all his forces." Now, who are we to tell, for instance, the Ukrainians in particular, what they should do? And I guess I am maybe part, I think we're all personally involved. My grandparents on both sides came from Ukraine as a matter of fact, really from the Ukraine-Moldova border.

And yet I I'd like to raise something maybe as a psychologist and... this is gonna seem a little odd and maybe it's completely a sidebar, but I suspect many people, at least in the audience would resonate to this-- one thing that I have found troublesome within myself as a result of this horrible war in the last month, despite my anti-war credentials--and I believe they're reasonably good; my first arrest for nonviolent civil disobedience was during the Vietnam war, and you know, my stance is very clear. And yet there's a part of me somewhere emanating from-- pardon the somewhat Freudian notion-- from my unconscious, that thrills at the indication of failure, some failures on the part of the Russians. There's a part of me that likes it when I see these indications of Russian tanks being blown up. And these are 19- and 20-year old kids inside these tanks, you know, who am I to thrill at this?

And yet there's a part of me that does, and I wish it didn't, okay? I wish I didn't find myself supporting at least a little bit the success, whatever success there may be, on the part of the Ukrainian forces. And I would love it if the rest of you wise people could help me tone down that part of me that's a little bit hawkish. I don't like it. I hate it. And yet I have to acknowledge that a little bit of it is there. And I wouldn't be surprised if it's there amongst not just the vast amount of the American people who aren't at risk of being blown up themselves, but even among our listeners. What can I do about this, about my own-- Maybe I should speak to a psychiatrist, but what should I do about my own hidden, and sometimes not-so-hidden hawkishness here?

Helena Cobban (00:50:50):

You know, we do see these pictures of people preparing Molotov cocktails. And I know that a lot of younger people kind of thrill to those pictures.

David Barash (00:51:01):

Well, I do too, and I'm not a young person anymore,

Helena Cobban (00:51:05):

But, you know, I always look at those pictures, like if my Palestinian friends in Gaza were doing the same thing, you know, would they get lauded on corporate media? It is exactly the same, you know, people resisting an occupation, which they have the right to do. But, you know, as to whether that is the way to end the war is a bigger question. And, you know, I'm not gonna speak about Gaza and resistance there, but in Ukraine, I think president Zelensky has been quite right to pursue negotiations and to offer several significant compromises already, publicly in an attempt to get this war to come to an end, you know, and those are the kind of things we should be thrilling to.

David Barash (00:52:02):


Helena Cobban (00:52:03):

So I do wanna move to a couple of questions from our audience. One is from Sally Campbell who asks, "What can small member countries of NATO do to move the rhetoric towards ceasefire?" I think that's a fascinating-- I mean, I guess Macron would not consider France to be a small country of NATO, but he does seem to be doing something and maybe there are other NATO members that could be helpful in de-escalation. Any thoughts?

David Barash (00:52:36):

I'm looking to Richard?

Richard Falk (00:52:42):

I'm not very optimistic about that possibility because NATO has been revitalized with clear US leadership and German sort of secondary leadership, both of which are pursuing a hawkishly geopolitical line. And I don't think the smaller NATO countries-- they've never played a very active role in contesting the structures of leadership. France on occasion has. It's the one country you remember De Gaulle was in a healthy way not willing to be just a rubber stamp for what Washington wanted. And there was great resentment in Washington for this Gaullist perspective. And I think the Europeans sense that if they wanna keep the NATO Alliance robust, they have to accept this kind of hierarchy. So my view is don't look to the other NATO countries to get us out of this terrible mess.

David Barash (00:54:10):

I would add that I think it's useful and important for us to recognize as certainly Mr. Putin does-- I'm not gonna just call him "Putin"-- that NATO does bear a degree of responsibility for all this that has happened by deciding or-- by moving its borders right up to the Russian border, even as they were warned by Russia not to do that. And there's some controversy over it, but it appears that the United States gave at least the very strong impression to Gorbachev at the time that this would not happen. And so this played right into a Russian, I wouldn't even call it paranoia, I would call it to some extent a legitimate worry on the part of Russia. And so we in NATO hardly have our hands clean in this regard.

I would also add that part of the reason this happened, and I very much think it ought not to have happened--and even people like George Kennan and Henry Kissinger urged against it-- but part of the reason it did happen, we probably should recognize is that with the fall of the Soviet Union (for a time I referred to it instead of the USSR as the U F F R the "union of fewer and fewer republics".) But as it was diminishing these republics, like the Baltic states, which became independent, were terribly anxious that they would in fact be subsequently invaded by then-Russia. And they very much wanted some sort of protection. And so NATO did go along with it, a tremendous mistake on their part, on the part of NATO. So I think it's unlikely that many of these small NATO countries who for better or worse felt that their security depended on or was enhanced by joining NATO. I think it's very unlikely that they are going to push NATO to back off. I'd love it if they would, but I would not be optimistic about that.

Helena Cobban (00:56:24):

We have a question from Martha Schmidt, who's saying the question is how to quickly build person-to-person, organization-to-organization communications for peace. And perhaps, you know, this is especially challenging when we have this demonization of everything Russian. But she just signals the role of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, a venerable organization, but are there organizations and maybe Cynthia, you're the person who knows about such organizations, maybe Richard and David do as well. You know, what can we do to, to revitalize those things? I have noticed some municipal authorities in this country that had twin-town arrangements with towns in Russia were, you know, very ostentatiously canceling them. I mean, is there a way to resist that kind of--? And, and of course there's all the Shostakovitch and the, you know, Dostoevsky ,all those cancellations, what can we do to counter that?

Cynthia Lazaroff (00:57:28):

Well, Helena, this is a really important question. And, you know, I, I've been involved in engaged in citizen diplomacy with Russia since the late 1970s, and had started with some Russian women, a peace building and and dialogue initiative over a year ago, about a year ago. And we issued a joint call for peace on the eve of the invasion before the invasion happened. And this is a really hard moment because of the severe repressions inside of Russia. It's a time-- I was supposed to be going to Russia in a few weeks. This is the first time in my life that I don't know when I'll be able to go to Russia. And that's a really hard thing to reckon with. So the importance of maintaining [such activities] to whatever degree we can, while securing the safety of our friends in Russia, at this time is really important.

And just in my own personal approach right now, is that I know that all the people that I'm engaged with in, in citizen-to-citizen diplomacy, or Track Two diplomacy initiatives, are we'll continue as soon as it's possible to do so. And so we are still all committed, but we're not actively doing anything publicly right now in this moment, because it's really not possible. But it underscores the importance of calling for it. I know that there are people who have trips planned that would involve large groups of Americans going over as soon as that's possible. So I think that, you know, I wanna go to a moment for a moment to a statement made by general Maslin, just to bring some hope into the situation. He was very involved in dismantling, in cooperation with the Americans, the the nuclear--

Helena Cobban (00:59:41):

Can you just tell us who he is?

Cynthia Lazaroff (00:59:42):

Oh, General [Evgeniy] Maslin was a Soviet general, and then a Russian general, who was very engaged in cooperation with the United States' joint efforts to dismantle nuclear weapons that were being you know, shelved after the cold war and very involved in cooperation. He passed away a couple of weeks ago. His obituary was recently in the New York Times. And the cooperation formally ended, as I mentioned ,in 2015. And this was before the invasion happened that he passed away. He was very concerned about the way things were, were going. And he said-- because there's a project that actually I'm involved in, which involves bringing together young people and Indigenous peoples in the Bering Strait, which will happen. It was supposed to happen in 2020, but then there was COVID and then this summer, but now in 2023 he said, you know, "If there are young people still thinking about improving relations in the Berring Strait and coming together from our two countries, all hope is not lost." And he said, it may take a generation for this to come back. I hope it doesn't. I don't think we have time for that, but we have to look for every possible way to bring the war to an end and to get things back on track so that we can start track-- [technical interruption...].

And he said it could take a generation. And I said, I hope it doesn't because we don't have time for it to take a generation, but we have to-- I just got a message this morning from one of my Russian counterparts who actually is outside of Russia right now. And we're working on the Bering Strait. She's my partner on the Bering Strait project. And we're all still in touch. We're all still planning to do this. We're all still committed to it. There are people who are really advocating and that's an area where there's, there can be either cooperation in the Arctic, you know, with the melting ice, or there can be great conflict; and it can go either way. And so I feel like we have to look for every, with every, opportunity, but we have to build. I know that David, you were talking about your wife being one of the physicians in IPPNW.

We have to really make those contacts robust again. We have to get different kinds of people collaborating... Climate scientists! We have such a potential for cooperation, and it seems so idealistic to talk about it right now, but I think the work has never been more important. And it's gonna take much greater effort now to rebuild. And so many Russians have left the country. That's the other thing. I see all kinds of people leaving, you know, and so this is a moment of great uncertainty, but it's where we have to be all the more committed as activists and as people committed to peace, to finding every opening, to keep those contacts going. So I'm doing everything I can to stay in contact, again, just maintaining and supporting the people there to do it when it feels like it's the right time for them and when it's safe for them.

Helena Cobban (01:03:25):

So we have one last question I'll take from our attendee Gerard Bonelloo, sorry, if I've mangled your name, who says the scenarios discussed so far have dealt with the possibility of Russia initiating a nuclear attack, but given that the US has a first strike nuclear policy or not a "no first strike" nuclear policy is it also possible that the US, NATO might initiate an a nuclear attack? And anyway, I I'll leave it to David and anybody who wants to take that?

David Barash (01:04:03):

Well, I think the, the the failure of the United States to have a "no first use" policy is an enormous error. It generates a degree of instability in itself, regardless of what's going on in the rest of the world. At the same time, my understanding of our failure to have a no first use policy is not one that is likely to impact what's going on in Ukraine. I think it's highly unlikely to do so. First of all, the effort on the part of the United States to keep its options open, as they like to say would really, at this point, apply to the United States itself to an attack on-- a presumed attack on-- the United States itself; possibly on other NATO countries, if there is some likelihood that that those countries would be overrun; and possibly as well, although never clearly stated, with regard to our Asian friends, notably Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, perhaps. I don't think that in itself is an issue, but I'd like to add one other thing, given my profound antipathy to deterrence, particularly nuclear deterrence.

By the way, I believe in deterrence in many ways. We have a horse farm and we have a big electric fence all around it. And we have a large, 140-pound, highly territorial dog. He's very conventional, you know. Occasionally we've had failures of his conventional deterrence. One time sadly another dog found its way under the fence and our dog disemboweled him almost instantly, but that did not demolish the neighborhood. It didn't incinerate our house or anything nearby. So some aspects of deterrence may well work, and I'm not necessarily opposed to all them. But any case with, I just wanted to mention that in terms of the US involvement in nuclear deterrence, if you wanna call it that elsewhere in the world, I've been very upset to read recently some suggestions by people who-- equivalent to what had been called useful idiots on the part of, of Lenin, who I would call useless idiots now in the United States that the Ukraine situation shows us that we need to implant and place nuclear weapons on Taiwan, because China stands in relation to Taiwan in many ways, not unlike how Russia stands in relation to Ukraine. Well, can you imagine a Taiwan missile crisis instantly if that were to happen? Anyway, I've gone a little bit afield from the issue about no first use, so I'll stop.

Richard Falk (01:07:07):

Just a sentence that Medvedev, the former president of Russia, and now the deputy head of their National Security Council made a statement that was rather alarming in which he said Russia doesn't have to wait to respond to a use of nuclear weapons if it's-- He laid out four sets of conditions,which would justify a Russian first use, including a kind of strategic setback. And that statement is the most detailed one I've seen of what the nuclear thinking is on the part of the Russian elite. And it wasn't Mr. Putin, who was the source of it. So it suggests a kind of maybe a consensus that is rather alarming.

Helena Cobban (01:08:21):

Thank you. I think I'm going to just ask one last question of my own here, and it builds on that question of how to deal with our, our concerns and worries about nuclear weapons, because I mean, young people today, anybody who's under 45, hasn't had to deal with those worries in a way that those of us who lived, you know, through the old Cold War did, and we found, you know, various ways to deal with it. One was by trying to understand the issues and get involved in hopefully anti-nuclear activism across the board. And the other was through a sort of use of gallows humor, like the movie Dr. Strangelove or the songs of Tom Lehrer. I mean, still think Dr. Strangelove was a great movie, but what can we recommend for younger people today? And when I say younger, I mean, anybody under 45, to manage the stress of nuclear realities when they also have to deal with, you know, climate change and various economic and epidemic-related setbacks and horrible challenges,

David Barash (01:09:39):

We got a new puppy!

Cynthia Lazaroff (01:09:49):

Well, I would just like to say, you know, I did an interview recently with a millennial for New York magazine. I put it in the chat: what to do with your nuclear anxiety. And I think that, you know, there, there are many levels here, but I think that one of the most important things that Richard referred to in a different context, but I wanna apply it to this context is that people don't realize that we all have agency. So, the factor of human agency here, and that there's an intersectionality between the issue of nuclear weapons and pretty much every other issue that touches our lives, that we're concerned about, whether it's climate change, whether it's the pandemic, whether, you know, it's racial and economic justice and injustices, and the quest for justice: that, that nuclear weapons really intersect with all of those.

So there is a way to really educate ourselves and, and, and share information about how these are intersectional. And you know, there's this feeling that there's nothing that we can do that they're so big or the, the hands of the leaders. And in fact, coming back to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which, you know, was a response to the injustices of the nonproliferation regime and the the way the NPT in practice has not fulfilled what it originally said it was gonna do in Article Six, which is to pursue negotiations towards disarmament and achieve eventual, total and complete disarmament. And it's a demonstration of what the world can do when we come together in alignment.

People said this treaty would never happen. Then they said it would never be ratified. And now it's in force and just last week, another country [joined]. So we're now at 60 countries that have ratified it, but it has entered into force in those countries. And I just wanna say that one area where there's an intersection that I think is really important to bring into this group with all of us present is that there is a huge movement now, a, a growing movement in the nuclear space for divestment, from the banks that fund the nuclear weapons producers. When you do the research, you discover that the biggest offender banks, funding nuclear weapons are, many of them, are the same ones funding fossil fuels. So, and we know that there's a divestment movement in the climat- justice movement. So I am calling for bringing our movements together and, and for, for massive divestment, it's been successful in campaigns against apartheid, landmines, custom munitions.

This is an area where there's a direct intersectionality. We're seeing who's profiting from this war in Ukraine. It's the arms dealers and it's the fossil fuel providers' companies. So there is a huge obvious intersection here. And then you say, you tell people we have more nuclea warheads in the United States than hospitals, you know, and then you look at the pandemic and you look at the, our underserved needs. So I would say I could go on and on and on. But I think that, that people realize that we can make a difference. We can do things like the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. And we can talk to our elected representatives, ask them what they know about nuclear risk and what they're doing to, to mitigate it. And we need to elect people who are not gonna be supporting, you know, Pentagon budgets, larger Pentagon budgets at a time when we need those resources for other things. So I'll stop there, but those are some thoughts.

Helena Cobban (01:13:41):

No, those are wonderful thoughts. I'm gonna cut our concluding section by a little bit and just come right into Richard and ask you Richard to provide your summary of what you think the most important takeaways are from the conversation we've been having. And by the way, people, there's, there's some great things going on in the chat: links and, and so on being shared, and we will share the chat later.

Richard Falk (01:14:12):

Well, I think the discussion has been so wide-ranging and penetrating. It's very hard to summarize it beyond the obvious almost starting point that the Ukraine crisis has generated the most serious danger of escalation close to or over the nuclear threshold since the Cuban missile crisis, at least, in 1962. And it's a moment when the peace movement forces and young people and all citizens of conscience should awaken to the dangers, not only that Russia is causing, but that our own government is contributing to. And that it's a time, I would think it might be the moment where a high profile petition to call for an immediate ceasefire and a diplomatic accommodation.

I think, I think there's receptivity and one might even be able to penetrate the mainstream media if it was well orchestrated, I think, to get attention to something other than condemning Russia and Putin and bemoaning the ordeal of the Ukrainian people. The leadership here in the US has done nothing, nothing to suggest that there is a way out of this and that that way out is the most likely contribution to the solving of the humanitarian crisis or to the mitigation of it. And I think we need to emphasize those points. But lots of extremely important insights have resulted from what Cynthia and David have been calling to our attention. And I express, and I'm sure many of us share, the feeling of gratitude to them for their contributions.

David Barash (01:16:52):

I'd like to make one quick announcement, if I may. For those of you in the audience who are gluttons for punishment, there is another meeting scheduled for tomorrow, another Zoom meeting from the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. And I confused this one with that one, Richard is in both, and I guess I'm in both and I--anyhow, that's another story-- but this is going to be an excellent event as well. And I'd like to at least bring it to your attention. That's NAPF, but if you, if you just Google that, you're likely to get the, believe it or not, the national association of pipefiters which may be a perfectly fine group, but you should Google Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. And that event, I believe is tomorrow around 11, around this same time. So if you want yet more, and I'm sure it will be excellent and broach all sorts of other topics as well. I'd like, just to recommend that, thank you all.

Cynthia Lazaroff (01:17:58):

And I would just like to thank you, David, for bringing that to, to everyone's attention. You're really sweet to do that. But I wanted to mention that just, on Richard's note of a high pro file call for a cease fire the Dalai Lama and Nobel Laureates and IPPNW have just launched one, and I've put it into the chat on Avaaz. It's calling for a ceasefire and withdrawal troops to end the, the threat of the ultimate a nuclear war. So I've just put that link in the chat for everyone. If you're interested, because there is one that's just gotten started, I just got news of it. So timing is perfect, Richard for that. So thank you.

Helena Cobban (01:18:38):

Oh, that's fantastic. Thank you both so much. I don't know if people are aware, but Cynthia is with us from Hawaii. So it's early in the morning for you, and we've heard the roosters behind you, so a wake-up call, I would say for all of us! I want to remind all the attendees that you can find the records of this session and the seven earlier sessions in our webinar series at our website, I have two other things to announce because this is the last of these eight webinars. On April the fourth, we'll be launching a full-fledged online learning hub where all the multimedia records of these eight sessions will be available to the learning public along with participant bios, links to other related resources, such as all the links that have been in the chat today.

And that online learning hub is gonna be launched on April 4th and then on or before April 24th, we're gonna be releasing a print publication that compiles edited versions of the transcripts of all or some of the very informative discussions we've had in this series, along with some related material in the form of a booklet that we hope will be of great value to anti-war and pro-restraint organizations all around the country. This booklet will be complementary to the online learning hub and will come out April 24th-- on or before April 24th, actually. So obviously, plans like these take resources. So when you go to our website, please click on the donate button and give as generously as you can to support our our plans.

I just really want to thank David Barash and, and Cynthia Lazaroff for giving us such wonderful wisdom, insight and obviously Richard for your great work as co-host not just today, but in the seven previous sessions, it has been such a pleasure to work with all three of you on this project. And I want to thank the attendees of the webinar. Some of whom have attended every single one in the series. When you leave today's webinar, if you could fill out the exit poll, that'll be great. And so just finally, thank you, David Barash. Thank you, Cynthia Lazaroff. Thank you, Richard Falk, and it'll be a pleasure and an honor to work with you all going forward.

Cynthia Lazaroff (01:21:33):

Thank you, Helena, for all you do.

Speakers for the Session


Helena Cobban


Prof. Richard Falk


Dr David Barash


Cynthia Lazaroff

Support Just World Educational

If you find this project worthwhile, engaging, and useful, please consider supporting our mission. We strive to expand the dialogue on vital international issues by providing educational materials and a platform for critical thinkers.

JWE has a golden opportunity to make a difference in this country...
Richard Falk

Stay in touch! Sign up for our newsletter: