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Returning to the edge of the nuclear cliff

by Ramesh Thakur

The two leaders most responsible for bringing the Cold War to a peaceful end were U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet head of state Mikhail Gorbachev. They also kick-started the dramatic reductions in nuclear arsenals with a mix of unilateral measures and bilateral agreements. The driving force behind this was acceptance of Reagan’s affirmation in his State of the Union address on Jan. 25, 1984, that “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Now their successors, U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, seem determined to resurrect the Cold War rivalry, restart a nuclear arms race, and look for technological breakthroughs and doctrinal justifications for “usable” nuclear weapons.

Delivering his own annual state of the nation speech on March 1, Putin boasted of a new array of invincible nuclear weapons that can penetrate any defenses to reach anywhere in the world. Unsurprisingly, most of the world’s media attention has focused on this claim and linked the public pronouncements to the March 18 presidential election. Of greater import were passages proclaiming that Russia is back as a power not to be trifled with, the justifications for it, and the intimations of a potential new nuclear arms race.

The most important passage in Putin’s address was the declaration that efforts to contain Russia had failed. The United States, Putin asserted, had exploited Russia’s economic, political and military weakness after the collapse of the former Soviet Union to sideline Russia as a major international actor, ignore its views (as in the NATO intervention in 1999 to break up Russia’s ally Serbia by detaching Kosovo from it), and kept moving NATO closer to Russia’s borders.

The U.S. and NATO have justified their nuclear modernization and upgrades with reference to the need to counter “rogue” states like Iran and North Korea. The identification of Russia and China as the major strategic threats in official U.S. documents in 2018 removes this fiction. The new U.S. Nuclear Posture Review levels three charges against Russia and China: “They have added new types of nuclear capabilities to their arsenals, increased the salience of nuclear forces in their strategies and plans, and engaged in increasingly aggressive behavior, including in outer space and cyber space.”.

The systems that Russia is developing seem to be designed to evade or penetrate U.S. anti-missile defenses. Russia and China have complained for many years about U.S. missile defense systems deployed in eastern Europe and the Pacific. A major weakness of missile defenses has always been held to be that the other side can develop counter-measures to penetrate them.

As far as China and Russia are concerned, in recent years Washington has moved away from a commitment to (Russia) or an acknowledgment of (China) mutual vulnerability, which is the foundation of deterrence resting on mutually assured destruction. Instead the U.S. has seemed to be pursuing nuclear primacy that would allow limited use of nuclear weapons in certain contingencies. Putin’s announcement is a bold declaration that Russia will not permit this to happen. He noted that the U.S. had not heeded Russian warnings when President George W. Bush pulled out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001: “You didn’t listen to our country then. Listen to us now.”

The language Putin used in his address was reminiscent of the Cold War, matching the video demonstration of a new weapon targeting Florida. Putin boasted of Russia’s military might and put on a display of new weapons systems including underwater drones, intercontinental ballistic missiles and a nuclear-powered air-launched cruise missile. This followed the February announcement that the Pentagon is embarking on a $1.2 trillion upgrade of U.S. land, air and sea-based strategic nuclear forces. “I would like to tell those who have been trying to escalate the arms race for the past 15 years, to gain unilateral advantages over Russia, and to impose restrictions and sanctions …The attempt at curbing Russia has failed,” Putin said.

Both Moscow and Washington have promised to abide by the obligations of the 2010 New START, which restricts the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 each. But there is no expectation of any follow-up agreement for still deeper cuts. Weapons retained under New START are being updated by both parties, and they are developing and deploying new systems not covered by the agreement.

As always, each side describes its actions and developments as defensive, designed to counter enhancements by the other side. The U.S. development of low-yield submarine launched ballistics missiles and sea-launched cruise missiles are held to be necessary to stop Russia from considering the use of tactical nuclear weapons in a “limited” war. The end result is the resurgence of the Cold War dynamic where Moscow and Washington try to outmatch each other with new nuclear weapons.

The ratcheting-up of the rhetoric of nuclear weapons developments and deployments risks the normalization of the discourse of nuclear weapons use. In conjunction with modernization and technological upgrades, this will increase the temptation to develop doctrines of nuclear war fighting with “variable” and “low” yield bombs. As well, the Moscow-Washington nuclear dyad of the Cold War has given way to interlinked nuclear chains in which developments in the bilateral nuclear relationship have cascading effects on other nuclear powers like China, India and Pakistan.

The more that Putin and Trump revalidate the role of nuclear weapons in guaranteeing their respective national security, the more they undermine efforts to delegitimize the nuclear weapon aspirations of Kim Jong Un and will embolden calls of nuclear weapon acquisition in other countries, including Japan and South Korea. North Korea shows no sign of curbing its nuclear and missile programs. China is upgrading its considerably smaller nuclear arsenal. India and Pakistan are enlarging, modernizing and upgrading stockpiles while investing in battlefield tactical nuclear weapons (Pakistan) and systems to counter them (India).

The intensification of the competitive buildup of sophisticated nuclear armaments by the world’s major military powers makes a mockery of their treaty obligation to reduce and eliminate nuclear arsenals. It also explains the accumulating frustrations in the international community at the discredited step-by-step — now relabeled “progressive” — approach to nuclear disarmament whose most visible steps seem to be going backward. And it increases the attraction of last year’s Nuclear Ban Treaty as an alternative normative framework for closing the legal gap on nuclear abolition, and increasing global pressure on the nuclear powers to cap, reduce and eliminate their nuclear stockpiles.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament and a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University..