Minsk peace accords, reducing nuclear risks, in memoriam Alexa McDonough


The Guardian headline following the USA–Russia talks in Geneva on 21 January between Secretary of State Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov reads: Ukraine: US offers Putin summit with Biden in effort to stop slide to war (Julian Borger, 21 January 2022).

Article author Julian Borger tells us that Foreign Minister Lavrov called the talks “constructive and useful” while Secretary Blinken described the exchange as “frank and substantive”.

Most encouragingly, both sides agreed to continue talks after the promised delivery by the Americans of a written response to Russia’s security guarantee proposals, together with more detail on American “concerns and ideas”.

On the possibility of a summit, the U.S. Secretary of State added:

If it proves useful and productive for the two presidents to meet, to talk, to engage, to try to carry things forward, I think we’re fully prepared to do that…

[I]f we conclude, and the Russians conclude, that the best way to resolve things is through further conversation between them… We’re certainly prepared to do that.

The Guardian report also reminded readers of the repeated “promises by Washington and its allies” that it would respond to a Russian invasion of Ukraine with actions including “biting economic sanctions — though not military action”.

Borger further noted a new step by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who has:

invited Russia to attend a second meeting of the NATO-Russia council in which the alliance would put forward detailed plans on confidence-building measures, arms control, including intermediate missiles and cyber warfare.

In other words, dialogue prevails, at least for the moment.

All parties are committed to a diplomatic solution, so let’s get on with it

In last week’s blog (as in several earlier posts), we focused on the Minsk peace accords, negotiated and agreed by Russia and Ukraine, which if fully implemented would resolve all outstanding issues, including, ultimately, the status of Ukraine.

We also lamented, yet again, Canada’s failure to even mention these negotiations, let alone engage constructively in them.

We could also have referenced the last G7 Summit, hosted by the UK in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, in June 2021, which featured a declaration by the respective heads of government, including our prime minister, with the following commitment:

We affirm our support for the Normandy Process to secure the implementation of the Minsk agreements….

The Normandy Process or format brings in France and Germany to help facilitate implementation of the agreement by Ukraine and Russia.

Note also that, in February 2015, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for “full Implementation” of the “package of measures” developed and agreed in the so-called Minsk 1 and II processes. See also the UN Press statement here.

We turn now to the latest official statement of support by Canada for Ukraine — announcing increased funding for “resilience and development” and calling on Russia to engage in dialogue — which continues the Government of Canada’s silence on the Minsk peace accords.

It does, however, include a link to the G7 Foreign Minister’s Statement on Russia and Ukraine on the Global Affairs Canada website, which includes the following:

We reconfirm our support for the efforts of France and Germany in the Normandy Format to achieve full implementation of the Minsk Agreements in order to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

In the view of Ceasefire.ca:

These very modest steps in support of diplomacy, together with a continued delay in committing Canada to the provision of new armaments to Ukraine, are encouraging but more is clearly needed.

Whither Canada?

We call on the Government of Canada to find constructive ways to support France and Germany in their ongoing efforts to facilitate full implementation of the Minsk peace accords.

CBC The Current provides a close-up view of events at Russia/Ukraine border

Host Matt Galloway introduces this timely, informative segment, which aired the morning of 21 January 2022, as follows:

The world is on edge watching Russia’s actions at the border with Ukraine. We get an update from CBC’s Briar Stewart, who’s back from the Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

We also hear from Alexandra Chyczij, National President of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, about what Canada’s extensive Ukrainian diaspora wants from the federal government.

For those who want a clearer sense of the views of residents in Eastern Ukraine, as well as the position of a politically influential Ukrainian-Canadian organization, we highly recommend this discussion.

The conversation can be accessed by clicking on the arrow below.

An American historian says it’s time to stop NATO expansion

If there ever was a reason for non-subscribers to Foreign Affairs to sign up, if not for a full subscription immediately, at least for the complementary free articles, it is to gain access to a commentary in the current issue by historian Michael Kimmage, entitled Time for NATO to Close Its Door – The Alliance is Too Big – and Too Provocative – for Its Own Good (foreignaffairs.com, 17 January 2022).

Perhaps this excerpt will demonstrate why this article is, in our view, a must-read:

NATO suffers from a severe design flaw: extending deep into the cauldron of eastern European geopolitics, it is too large, too poorly defined, and too provocative for its own good….

To simplify its strategic purpose and to improve its defensive capacities, NATO should publicly and explicitly forswear adding any more members.

At long last, some fresh thinking about NATO!

In the view of Ceasefire.ca:

Professor Kimmage makes this proposal, not as a means to address Russian security concerns, but squarely from the perspective of what is good for NATO itself. Nonetheless, it lends weight to the wisdom of a core provision of the Minsk Accords, discussed at some length in our last blog — de facto Ukrainian neutrality.

What is happening with the Biden Administration’s Nuclear Posture (strategy) Review?

The Nuclear Posture Review is a legislatively-mandated review that establishes U.S. nuclear policy, strategy, capabilities and force posture for the next five to ten years. – US DoD

Sharon K. Weiner, writing for the authoritative American think tank the Arms Control Association, observes of American nuclear weaponry:

The imbalance between the arsenal necessary to meet military requirements and the existing stockpile has been an enduring characteristic of U.S. nuclear decision-making.

And she does not mean a dearth of nuclear weapons, but the opposite.

For many of our readers, a discussion of American nuclear strategy is surreal, taking place as it does in the context of the obscene destructive power — and cost — of even a tiny portion of the American nuclear arsenal.

In the view of Ceasefire.ca:

Like the debate over No First Use, so long as we still have a world bristling with nuclear weapons, it is imperative that the doctrines governing their military role contribute to stable nuclear deterrence at the lowest possible level of nuclear weapons — currently an illusory, but vital, goal.

This is the context in which we present this valuable commentary by Sharon Weiner, entitled The Biden Nuclear Posture Review: Resetting the Requirements for Nuclear Deterrence (armscontrol.org, January/February 2022).

She writes that the Biden Administration is in the process of “finalizing” its review of nuclear strategy, a policy exercise known as a Nuclear Posture Review. This is the fifth such review by an American administration.

Weiner describes the overall objective as:

making choices about nuclear deterrence and translat[ing] them into nuclear strategy and force structure.

She identifies two sets of dangers with this process:

  • Misrepresenting strategic choices as deterrence “requirements” or “military necessities”; and
  • Dictating policy outcomes based on unexamined, longstanding assumptions that continue to go unchallenged.

The meaning of “requirement” in Pentagon-speak

Weiner examines a range of so-called requirements for nuclear deterrence, including a modernized triad (air, land and sea) of nuclear weapons, four concurrent warhead life extension programmes, a high rate of nuclear weapons plutonium pit production, and a national military-uranium enrichment plant, among others.

She finds that, far from being necessary to avoid a failure of deterrence, so-called deterrence requirements are themselves choices, following a bureaucratic decision-making process that can and should change with differing “inputs” and “constraints” over time.

But this is not what has happened to date. Weiner writes:

The unwillingness to confront the challenge of entrenched interests and ideas has led critics to judge that all prior NPRs…have generally—and disappointingly—rubber-stamped the nuclear status quo.

She further observes:

If the Biden NPR continues this trend, it should do so only after actively challenging the requirements and assumptions.

What exactly is needed for deterrence?

Sharon Weiner references the “expansive claims about the power of nuclear deterrence” espoused by Admiral Richard Charles, head of US Strategic (nuclear) Command, including the view that:

nuclear weapons provide the “maneuver space” necessary for the United States “to project conventional power strategically.”

In an April 2021 press briefing, Richard also asserted that the nuclear forces he commanded are necessary to “deter all countries, all the time”.

Weiner comments (with considerable understatement):

[this] is a significant expansion of the original mission of these weapons, namely deterring existential threats against the United States. [emphasis added]

Nuclear war-gaming and escalation

Perhaps the single most hair-raising statement in the Weiner article is the following response by General John Hyten of Strategic Command to the question of war gaming on how to avoid escalation in the face of aggressive conventional (use of force) actions by a nuclear-armed state:

It [the wargaming] ends the same way every time.… It ends bad. And the bad meaning it ends with global nuclear war.

In the view of Ceasefire.ca:

The inability to control escalation in the event of conventional war between nuclear powers (of particular salience as NATO and Russia are locked in confrontation over Ukraine) is a potent reason for restricting nuclear deterrence, once again, to its original role of deterring the use of nuclear weapons by nuclear-armed adversaries.

Yet, as Weiner observes, the opposite is under active consideration, with low-yield nuclear “war-fighting” options being considered as part of an “escalate-to-deescalate” doctrine, despite this strategy having been consistently denounced by the USA when first associated with Russia.

She cogently observes:

If Russia and the United States adopt this logic, then escalation is unlikely to be controlled, and the use of even low-yield nuclear options runs a significant risk that it will lead to mutually assured destruction.

What about “rational decision-making” in a nuclear crisis?

Weiner writes:

At the deepest level, the most important requirement that the NPR should examine is that of rational decision-making, a concept fundamental to nuclear deterrence, yet most often under-analyzed.

It turns out that a “vast literature on foreign policy decision-making, behavioural economics, and behavioral psychology” shows decision-making in times of crisis is anything but rational:

Of particular concern is the tendency in crises for people to be biased toward risk taking rather than playing it safe.

Weiner concludes:

The wisdom of developing new options for nuclear strategy and policy becomes even clearer if all questions of nuclear deterrence are seen not simply as questions of a calculus of nuclear forces and nuclear postures but as sets of unproven assumptions about the likely behavior of the United States and its potential adversaries under conditions of extraordinary uncertainty and stress with no basis for expecting a good outcome.

100 seconds to midnight

As if the previous article were not sobering enough, we turn now to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, managers of the Doomsday Clock. In their 2022 Doomsday Clock Statement, they place the countdown to earth’s midnight annihilation as follows:

It is 100 seconds to midnight.

There are solutions to these problems

The statement succinctly outlines four existential threats to humanity:

But the statement also includes practical steps to move the world away from catastrophe and toward a safer world, including arms control, deeper collaboration on climate action, working through the World Health Organization and other international institutions to reduce biological risks, and much greater international cooperation to identify and implement practical and ethical ways to combat internet-enabled misinformation and disinformation

The statement concludes:

Without swift and focused action, truly catastrophic events—events that could end civilization as we know it—are more likely. When the Clock stands at 100 seconds to midnight, we are all threatened. The moment is both perilous and unsustainable, and the time to act is now.

For the full statement, as well as a brief history of the Doomsday Clock and more information about the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, see At doom’s doorstep: It is 100 seconds to midnight (John Mecklin, thebulletin.org, January 2022).


Outpouring of tributes from across Canada

The sad news of the death of Alexa Ann McDonough on 15 January 2022 was met with a huge outpouring of tributes, reminiscences and expressions of love, gratitude and affection, including an official statement from the Prime Minister and a more personal tweet, included below.

While the media testimonials mainly focused on her pioneering role as the first woman to lead a major political party in Canada, her many friends in the Canadian peace movement highlighted her commitment to social justice and a world free of nuclear weapons.

Rideau Institute President Peggy Mason comments:

The last event we both attended was a Canadian Pugwash Group Conference in Pugwash, N.S. in 2017. She was accompanied by the equally indefatigable peace activist and close friend Macha Mackay.

There is much to think about as we remember her outsized contribution to Canadian public life and women’s place in it. And she was a great friend to the Rideau Institute from its inception in 2006.

But in the end, it is her warmth, her kindness, her energy and her unfailing wit and humour that I remember the most.

The group at Pugwash Thinkers’ Lodge in the summer of 2017, with Alexa (in peach) and Macha both in the second row.


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Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons; CPG Group Photo