As Russia Again Raises Spectre of Nuclear War, World Leaders Must Renew Their Deterrence Vow
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As Russia Again Raises Spectre of Nuclear War, World Leaders Must Renew Their Deterrence Vow


Nearly 80 years after the Hiroshima atomic bombing, the global nuclear taboo seems to be fraying amid Russian and North Korean threats, and US alliance complications. APLN member C. Uday Bhaskar argues that the coming G20 summit would be an appropriate forum for world leaders to reiterate their commitment to nuclear restraint and a return to deterrence. Read the original article here.

Russia’s threat on July 30 of a “global nuclear fire” in response to Ukraine’s counteroffensive came exactly a week before Hiroshima Day, held as a reminder of the horrors of the nuclear bomb.

The US dropped atomic bombs on Japan in the final stages of World War II, hitting Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, then Nagasaki three days later. Since that terrifying nuclear inferno ravaged the two Japanese cities and their hapless citizens, a global nuclear taboo has been maintained – but this now appears to be fraying.

On July 30, Russian Security Council deputy chairman Dmitry Medvedev, formerly Russia’s president, said Russia would be forced to use nuclear weapons if Ukraine’s counter-attack succeeded.

“Imagine if the … offensive, which is backed by Nato, was a success and they tore off a part of our land then we would be forced to use a nuclear weapon according to the rules of a decree from the president of Russia,” he said. “There would simply be no other option. So our enemies should pray for our warriors’ [success]. They are making sure that a global nuclear fire is not ignited.”

Over the past quarter of a century, global nuclear deterrence has become more complex and its resilience has been severely tested. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, President Vladimir Putin has been rattling the nuclear sabre, even as Moscow officially maintains an opaque stance.

The stationing of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus has upped the ante and is reminiscent of the latter phases of the Cold War, when the US-led alliance reserved the right to use battlefield nuclear weapons to blunt a conventional Soviet offensive in central Europe.

While Putin’s objective seems to be to keep the world guessing, Russia’s attitude is both distinctive and disturbing: this is the first time a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and a primary nuclear power has sought to invoke its nuclear weapons capability to redress a setback in a conventional war.

This is a transgression of the tenet of “pristine deterrence” – that nuclear weapons have only one mission, which is to deter the use of similar capabilities by an adversary. For the major powers which have collectively resolved to maintain the sanctity of this covenant, this is the core mission of nuclear weapons.

Russia’s latest stance has diluted this resolve; other developments specific to the US-led Western alliance have muddied the waters as well.

The Aukus alliance, formed by the unilateral US decision in September 2021 to enter a nuclear submarine pact with Australia and Britain, has introduced a new element. Now, a non-nuclear-weapon state, such as Australia, will acquire enhanced underwater capabilities by way of nuclear-powered submarines, adding to the strategic anxieties of China and Russia.

The steady consolidation of the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) in the Indo-Pacific, which brings together Australia, India and Japan, has added to the anxiety and/or insecurity of both Russia and China. In northeast Asia, North Korea has, with a single-minded focus, acquired nuclear weapon and missile capabilities, complicating the deterrence matrix of the US and its allies.

It is worth remembering that the Korean peninsula is still in a state of suspended war – July 1953 marked only the signing of an armistice agreement and not an end to the war. Since then, the two sides of the peninsula have witnessed the ranging of two superpower blocs against each other, with the US and its allies supporting Seoul while communist Pyongyang has received support from Moscow and Beijing.
The July 28 North Korean military parade that marked the 70th anniversary of what Pyongyang calls “Victory Day” saw both Russian and Chinese officials showing their solidarity with North Korea, even as the ballistic missiles on display point to the brittleness of restraints on weapons of mass destruction in the regional strategic environment.

The US used its nuclear weapons monopoly in 1953 to force China to come to the negotiating table over the Korean war. Today, the nuclear shadow looms ominously again.

It is instructive that while the US and Soviet Union were locked in an intractable geopolitical contest with nuclear weapons in the background, the leaders of the two nations (John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev) met in Vienna at their first summit, in June 1961. While there was no dramatic breakthrough, it may be said that this personal contact enabled them to better manage the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962.

In response to Russia’s latest nuclear growl, the global community has conveyed its disapproval in different ways. The more effective voices that Putin has acknowledged are from China and India – and both have urged restraint.

In February, Beijing released a peace proposal to end the war in Ukraine and advised: “Nuclear weapons must not be used and nuclear wars must not be fought. The threat or use of nuclear weapons should be opposed.”

The G20 summit India is hosting next month will bring together most of the major powers – presuming Joe Biden, Xi Jinping and Putin will attend – and this would be an appropriate forum for the global leadership to reiterate their commitment to nuclear restraint and a return to deterrence.

The “Doomsday Clock”, which serves as a barometer to gauge the global nuclear threat, was moved from 100 seconds to midnight (the apocalyptic moment) to 90 seconds at the start of the year.

Global political leaders must be encouraged to renew the pledge to strengthen the nuclear taboo symbolised by the enormity of Hiroshima – succinctly captured in the Oppenheimer film.

Illustration: Stephen Case

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