RAMESH THAKUR. Returning To The Edge Of The Nuclear Cliff.

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 defences 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 behaviour, including in outer space and cyberspace.”.

The systems that Russia is developing seem to be designed to evade or penetrate U.S. anti-missile defences. Russia and China have complained for many years about U.S. missile defence systems deployed in eastern Europe and the Pacific. A major weakness of missile defences 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 acknowledgement 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 ballistic 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 backwards. 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.

Article published in The Japan Times. 

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. 


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2 Responses to RAMESH THAKUR. Returning To The Edge Of The Nuclear Cliff.

  1. James O'Neill says:

    I agree with Tony’s comments and would only add a recommendation for future reading. The best analyses in my opinion are first on the military implications by Andrei Martynov http://www.unz.com 5 March 2018; and on the political implications by the Saker, http://www.thesaker.is 9 March 2018 .

    Putin is not given to “boasting”. His speech was matter of fact and if anything, it conveyed sorrow that the US had consistently broken its promises; was clearly engaged in trying to build a capacity to first strike Russia; and that it was not interested in constructive dialogue.

  2. Tony Kevin says:

    Ramesh Thakur’s article is well set out and appears studiously balanced , and thus I hesitate to offer any criticism of it. But criticise I must, because it leaves the impression that both the US and Putin’s Russia are equally to blame for the situation that forced Putin to announce so firmly on 1 March that Russia now has an invulnerable array of second strike nuclear deterrent weapons , and can therefore now turn its priority attention to economic development. All of Ramesh’s quotations were from Putin and this could leave uninformed readers with the mistaken impression that Russia is more the aggressor here. Certainly MSM in Western countries have lined up uniformly behind that view.

    Such is not the case: Putin is simply announcing the culmination of 16 years of Russian efforts to neutralise sneaky US efforts , since the US unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002, incrementally to render ineffective the Russian nuclear deterrent against American surprise attack or threat of attack, that has underpinned the Cold Peace since around 1950.

    Putin on 1 March stated calmly and non-threateningly that he had tried many times since 2002 to warn the US of the dangers and pointlessness in what they were doing. Now, he says, we have countered you . He urges the Americans t9 give up trying to establish nuclear primacy over Russia – a meaningless concept in a restored world of Mutual Assured Destruction. Of course the Americans will ignore this advice and will go on wasting their money that should be spent on creating a better safer society back home. But Putin has said that Russia no longer needs to follow suit.

    Committed nuclear disarmers like Ramesh like to preach equally to both sides. I can see how this is morally satisfying but I don’t think it is realistic. We have to work with the world as it is. Recognising the legitimacy of the Russian position and not positing a false moral equivalence here is, I suggest, part of the necessary realism. Otherwise we will find ourselves, as in the past, led by the nose to be gullible cheerleaders for Washington’s views. And we and the US will go on wasting needed resources on futile dreams of primacy.

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