March 30, 2022

Local Experts Discuss Ukraine, Refugee Crisis, Nuclear Danger

By Donald Gilpin

As the war in Ukraine continued into its second month, three Princeton experts weighed in on two of the most distressing and complex issues emerging from the ongoing conflict: the danger of nuclear war and the humanitarian crisis for nearly four million refugees.

Zia Mian, physicist and co-director of Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security, and Stewart Prager, Princeton University professor of astrophysical sciences and faculty member with the Program on Science and Global Security, discussed nuclear arms and the nuclear threat in a March 27 Zoom webinar sponsored by the Princeton-based Coalition for Peace Action (CFPA). In a March 25 phone conversation, Princeton University Sociology and Public Affairs Professor Filiz Garip offered insights on the growing refugee crisis.

Prager, who described himself as “a physicist focusing on the problem of nuclear weapons,” pointed out that Russian President Vladimir Putin had “broken a nuclear taboo” in threatening to use nuclear force, though President Trump in 2017 had used similar language in warning North Korea.

“Wildly reckless statements, horrible precedents,” said Prager. “Putin’s statements are alarming and serious. He can launch a civilization-ending number of nuclear weapons in a matter of minutes.” Even if the likelihood of such an action is only 1 percent, Prager added, “it’s totally unacceptable. It could kill millions of people.”

The current tense situation, said Prager, “brings home our helplessness and our ignorance in regard to nuclear weapons issues.”  He noted that the world is in a state of “maximal helplessness — all being held hostage to the thoughts of Vladimir Putin.” We are all hostages, he said, to any leader — of Russia, of the U.S., of India, of Pakistan — who has the authority to do such unlimited damage.

Prager went on to elaborate on the world’s ignorance about the effects of nuclear weapons. “Nobody understands the consequences,” he said. “Nobody knows what the effect would be on the climate or the breakdown of societal structures that would happen.”

The problem, Prager argued, goes beyond Putin. “It’s a problem with nuclear weapons,” he said. “The problem is intrinsic to nuclear weapons. It’s a danger that’s unacceptable. It doesn’t matter who owns them. As long as we have nuclear weapons we know that crises like the one we’re living through now will occur.”

Wrapping up his presentation with the suggestion that this moment of danger is possibly also an opportunity, Prager asked, “How can we exploit this learning moment? How can we wake up the public to advocate for arms control, arms reduction?”

Mian, who received the 2014 Linus Pauling Legacy Award for “his accomplishments as a scientist and as a peace activist in contributing to the global effort for nuclear disarmament and for a more peaceful world,” picked up the argument against nuclear weapons with a history lesson dating back to 1945, during World War II, when President Harry Truman uttered “the first words of the nuclear age” in announcing that the United States had dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

“You can draw a straight line from there to Trump and Putin,” said Mian. “We’re fortunate that only nine of the world’s 193 nations have nuclear weapons, but all nine have made threats.”

Mian went on to describe the resistance to nuclear weapons that arose even before the first bomb was made and has continued to the present, with the CFPA helping to take the lead. Albert Einstein in Princeton in 1946, Mian noted, sought to educate people about nuclear weapons and launched The Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, one of the first anti-nuclear organizations in the world.

The threat of nuclear weapons has been almost constant, throughout the Cold War and beyond, said Mian, “always the shadow of nuclear weapons hanging over the conflict.”

“The shadow of nuclear weapons and the power of great powers to intervene around the world is the real challenge that we have to confront,” he added. “As long as they exist, nuclear weapons will play a role and we will always get situations like this.”

Mian urged the webinar audience of more than 60 to work towards a better system in this country and internationally, a system where leaders are held accountable, a system not based on the idea that this is mortal competition, a battle to the death, but rather, “It is about finding a common path together through cooperation. Ordinary people have to assert their common humanity.”

Ukrainian Refugees

Since the February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine, almost four million refugees have fled the country, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, including about 2.3 million to Poland and hundreds of thousands to other neighboring countries of Romania, Moldova, Hungary, and Slovakia. Almost one-quarter of the population of Ukraine, more than 6.5 million people, has been displaced inside the country. 

Garip, who experienced being a refugee firsthand when her family fled from communist Bulgaria to Turkey in 1978 when she was a little girl, noted that the current refugee crisis is “something that’s very close to my heart.” Garip’s research at Princeton and her publications have focused on migration, economic sociology, and inequality.

She expressed optimism at the world’s response so far to the huge number of refugees from Ukraine. “Some of the positive response that we saw right after the invasion is still going strong,” she said. “I’m very hopeful that our sympathy is not dying down quickly and that our attention is not going away.”

Garip emphasized the importance of the Biden administration’s commitment to admit 100,000 refugees from Ukraine and the United States’ pledge of $1 billion to help house refugees in Europe. “We could do more,” she said, “but this is huge. These are excellent efforts.”

She also praised efforts in Poland and Hungary, noting the need for perseverance and for other countries to help. “There will be resettlements and relocations all across Europe,” she said. “We can’t let the first entry point be where they all stay. I hope they won’t be staying in the long run and that they will have the option to return to their homes, but we never know.”

Garip mentioned her concern that efforts supporting the Ukrainian refugees will fade as the war continues and people’s attention turns elsewhere.  “That’s what happened in the past with the Syrian conflict,” she said. “Things grab our attention and donations surge and all of these good things happen, but after a while we just accept it and there’s only so much compassion we can sustain over time.”

She went on, “I worry about that. I worry about this just becoming a new normal situation, but I hope that’s not going to be the case. I hope that at some point there’s going to be an agreement and a retreat by the Russian forces.”

Garip pointed out the encouraging unity in Europe’s welcoming of refugees. “From the perspective of European countries, the Russian aggression is seen as a threat to them. It’s close to home. Also the cultural affinity they feel for the Ukrainian people is playing a role in how welcoming they are.”

She added, “I’m really heartened by the way everyone has mobilized. It’s encouraging to see the community come together.”

Garip urged concerned individuals to donate on behalf of Ukrainian refugees to Save the Children, UNICEF, or United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Princeton municipality newsletter also recommends donations to CARITAS and the International Rescue Committee.