Nuclear Weapons: Putin’s War in Ukraine Stirs Global Nuclear Hornet’s Nest | International


An image capture from a video released by the Russian Defense Ministry showing the test launch of the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile on April 20.HANDOUT (AFP)

Among the multitude of dramatic consequences of the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian military forces, the agitation of the nuclear hornet’s nest occupies a prominent place. Beyond the open threats of resorting to the use of atomic weapons by the Kremlin, the mere fact of this brutal attack by conventional forces spurs dynamics that outline the contours of an accelerated, disorderly and very dangerous arms race.

The generalized attack, with a ground invasion, by a nuclear power on a country without an atomic weapon —with which it also had a commitment to guarantee its security— offers new arguments to those who, in countries with an unstable international position, defend the option of equipping themselves with the nuclear weapon, or stay one step away from it, as collateral. The war in Ukraine has produced a more polarized global scenario, with frictions that increase the risk of conflict, and even those countries that enjoy security ties with great powers —but without the explicit force of NATO Article 5— are even considering how confident they can be of getting help in the event of a nuclear nation attack given how Western forces are measuring their gestures of support for Ukraine against Russia.

The Gulf region, with the Iranian nuclear program and the consequent risks of reactive proliferation in the area, and East Asia – with the Chinese shadow that looms over Taiwan and the North Korean dictatorship – are the two areas where these considerations take on relevant role. Negative symptoms accumulate on both fronts.

Iran has recently cut the signal of the cameras through which the International Atomic Energy Agency monitored its nuclear centers. Tehran develops very deep tunnels near these facilities and, according to the vast majority of experts, is closer than ever to the bomb. North Korea, as evidenced by satellite images and denounced by Washington and Seoul, has completed the preparatory work for a new nuclear test that, according to them, would be ready to be carried out soon.

But the Russian invasion also complicates the interaction scenario of the great nuclear powers. On the one hand, it has derailed all kinds of dialogue on arms control between the US and Russia, which was already in the process of collapsing. On the other hand, the scenario of global tension makes it even more unlikely that China will agree at some point to sit down at any arms negotiations, which it eschews, essentially, with the argument that it has the right to adapt its military force to the height of the US and Russia and what corresponds to its economic weight.

These new dynamics linked to the war in Ukraine add to an already established trend whereby the world’s 9 nuclear powers are immersed in considerable efforts to modernize or expand their arsenals. In its annual report on nuclear forces, published this week, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute concluded that this scenario suggests that, after a long period of decline, the next decade will see a rise in atomic weapons.

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It is in this context that two relevant international events are coming up. The first, starting Tuesday in Vienna, will bring together promoters and observers of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPAN), approved at the UN with 122 votes in favor in 2017 and in force since January last year. It has been ratified by more than 60 countries. The second, of greater political importance, is the five-year review session of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which will finally be held in August in New York, after two years of delays due to the pandemic.

“On the one hand, the Russian attack on Ukraine has created a state of shock in Europe and has strengthened the harshest visions in relation to security, with more military spending, more weapons, etc.”, says Jordi Armadans, director of the Fundipau, an organization based in Barcelona active in the campaign to achieve the prohibition of nuclear weapons. “On the other hand,” he continues, “it has shown that the current situation—nearly 13,000 nuclear weapons in existence more than 30 years after the end of the Cold War—is a danger we cannot afford. For this reason, the First Conference of the TPNW comes at a good time: there is more awareness of the problem for global security that nuclear weapons pose. Vienna can be a good starting point to collectively analyze what we have done and are doing and what we should do to seriously defuse the nuclear danger”.

The arms race dynamics will be very difficult to reverse, but the Vienna meeting can help shape both the positioning of public opinion and the coordination of non-nuclear states that reject the current course of events ahead of the review session of the NPT, of which almost all the States of the world are signatories. Significantly, at least two NATO countries —Germany and Norway— have decided to participate as observers in the Vienna meeting. Berlin has recently announced the purchase of 35 F-35 fighter jets, essential for the performance of its role within the Alliance’s atomic umbrella.

The meeting in New York will be marked by two main political lines. One, between Russia and the Western bloc, which actively opposes their war; the other, between the nuclear ones —which, according to the provisions of the NPT, are committed to moving towards nuclear disarmament— and many of the others, who consider that the spirit and letter of the Treaty are being breached. The US and Russia have been reducing their arsenals in recent decades, but continue to modernize them and make them more threatening, while others directly expand them.

“The invasion of Ukraine – a country that had nuclear weapons and handed them over in exchange for guarantees that have been breached – revives certain questions. Countries that depend on security agreements certainly have certain questions. I hope this doesn’t lead to the wrong proliferation answers,” says William Alberque, who was director of NATO’s arms control center and now heads the Strategy, Technology and Arms Control department at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

On the other hand, the very arms race of those who already have nuclear weapons raises other questions. “Russia and China,” continues Alberque, “have been developing and deploying new weapons designed to overcome US defenses. Some, honestly, almost seem like inventions from a bad Cold War novel, but no, it’s really developing. I don’t think they change the bottom line of strategic balances, because the destructive potential accumulated with traditional weapons is huge, but of course the new weapons raise questions about what the underlying intentions are.”

Weapon placement also has destabilizing effects. In another development linked to the war, Belarus opened up in February to the prospect of hosting Russian nuclear bombs.

Those questions, especially when they do not mediate arms control pacts, usually lead as a response to the development of new weapons and defenses. In short, a race that knows how it begins, but not how it ends.

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