With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, nuclear warfare has surged back into public consciousness, highlighting the eroding Cold War global security architecture.
The military stalemate has raised fears Russia could resort to its nuclear arsenal to break through.
There are five nuke weapons powers and permanent members of the UN Security Council: Russia, Britain, China, France, and the United States.
Former NATO deputy secretary-general Camille Grand said it’s the first time a nuclear power has waged a conventional war under the shadow of nuclear weapons.
One might have expected rogue states to take this attitude, but suddenly it’s one of the two major nuclear powers, a member of the UN Security Council,” he told AFP.
The nuclear “taboo” that emerged after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed by the US in 1945 still stands.
The rhetoric has spiraled out of control.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russian TV has repeatedly discussed nuclear strikes on Western cities.
“He will press the button” if Putin feels Russia’s existence is threatened, a former Russian diplomat said.
It’s been a harsh wake-up call for Europe, which enjoyed decades of relative nuclear security thanks to the so-called Cold War “peace dividend”.
A potential “Armageddon” hangs over the world, according to US President Joe Biden.
‘In ruins’ when it comes to disarmament
According to Nobel-winning economist and strategy expert Thomas Schelling, “the most spectacular event of the past half century didn’t happen.”
The framework that kept world leaders from pressing the button after 1945 had been crumbling for years.
The United States quit the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union in 2002, which kept the nuclear balance.
Washington dropped the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019, blaming Russia for not complying.
“It’s all a mess, except for New Start,” Grand said, referring to the Obama-era deal with Russia to reduce warheads, missiles, bombers and launchers.
It’s a very dangerous crisis
Along with the five recognized powers, India, North Korea, and Pakistan also have nuclear weapons, while Israel is widely assumed to have them.
Since it quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003, North Korea has sharply increased missile testing this year.
Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo all think Pyongyang is about to conduct its seventh nuclear test.
In September, the dictatorship announced a revised nuclear doctrine, making it clear that it wouldn’t give up weapons.
“We’re going to see a very dangerous crisis in Asia,” Chung Min Lee, a Carnegie Endowment researcher, told a Paris conference.
Nuclear-free countries in the region fear the US nuclear umbrella is eroding.
In today’s world, extended deterrence is like a water balloon with some critical holes and water is seeping out.
Pentagon estimates put China’s nuclear arsenal at 1,000 warheads within a decade — roughly on par with US bombs.
Iranian repression of recent protests has revived fears that the country may soon be a “threshold state” on the verge of building a bomb.
Fear of proliferation
Russia blocked a joint declaration by 191 countries at a UN conference on the NPT in August.
The French diplomat reported “extraordinary aggressive nuclear rhetoric” from Moscow and “disdain” for the treaty.
We noticed a change in Russia’s attitude, which had historically supported the NPT.
China was “very vocal”, denouncing the US-UK-Australia AUKUS Pacific alliance that will deliver nuclear-powered submarines to Canberra, the diplomat said.
According to Beijing, the alliance could lead to more nuclear proliferation, but didn’t “lift doubts about the opacity of its own nuclear doctrine or the growth of its arsenal”.
A nuclear-armed neighbor invaded a state that gave up nuclear weapons, Ukraine, raising fears of proliferation.
“Today, countries like Japan and South Korea might legitimately ask themselves if they need a bomb,” said former French nuclear chief Jean-Louis Lozier.
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