Amid Putin’s Nuclear Threats, Democrats Renew Call for No First Use Policy

Democrats in Congress called on President Joe Biden Wednesday to support a “No First Use” policy regarding nuclear weapons, warning that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent provocations could cause “untold additional suffering” following his invasion of Ukraine unless world leaders agree that existing nuclear weapons must only be used as deterrents.

The co-chairs of the Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control Working Group—Sens. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Reps. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and John Garamendi (D-Calif.)—released a statement three days after Putin ordered his military to put Russia’s nuclear forces on “special alert,” signaling that he could quickly order a deployment of the weapons.

The lawmakers condemned Putin’s actions and applauded Biden for affirming that the U.S. is not changing its own alert status but said a worldwide No First Use policy is “imperative” to avoid nuclear warfare.

“The crisis in Ukraine is evidence that there are no plausible military options for direct confrontation between the United States and a nuclear armed adversary—and the folly of investing $1 trillion in unusable new U.S. nuclear capabilities,” said the lawmakers.

China is the only nuclear-armed nation in the world that has affirmed an unconditional No First Use policy, while the U.S., France, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, and the United Kingdom have policies that allow them to potentially launch a nuclear attack without an adversary launching one first.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine last week, anti-war groups have called on the Biden administration to ensure tensions do not escalate into a nuclear war, renewing a demand made by hundreds of scientists in December and by peace advocates last summer.

“Our leaders could take one key action to lessen the chance of a nuclear war: Declare that the United States will never use nuclear weapons first in a conflict,” said the Friends Committee on National Legislation last week.

The lawmakers’ statement comes ahead of the expected release of the Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). In January, Democrats in Congress—led by the Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control Working Group chairs—said Biden must reject former President Donald Trump’s NPR, which called for the development of smaller nuclear warheads that the military believes are viewed as more “usable.”

In their statement Wednesday, the lawmakers urged Putin to recall a rare joint statement released in January by five of the world’s nuclear powers, including Russia and the U.S., affirming that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

“Our leaders could take one key action to lessen the chance of a nuclear war: Declare that the United States will never use nuclear weapons first in a conflict.”

“As nuclear use would have far-reaching consequences, we also affirm that nuclear weapons—for as long as they continue to exist—should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war,” the leaders of the five countries said, stopping short of committing to a No First Use policy.

Without that commitment, the Democrats said Wednesday, the U.S. must “coordinate closely” with European nuclear powers and with Russia regarding nuclear policies amid the war in Ukraine.

The Pentagon, they said, should “continue its efforts to open military communication channels with Russia, as they have done in other theatres where the Russians are present, so that ‘red-lines’ are not inadvertently crossed.”

“President Putin has already made his country a global pariah by launching an unjustified and unprovoked war against Ukraine,” said the lawmakers. “His threat to escalate his meritless invasion of Ukraine into nuclear war would cross a line from which our world cannot return.”

“The United States and its allies must do everything in their power to disincentivize this dangerous and costly mistake,” they added.