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Ivo Daalder, former US ambassador to NATO, is chairman of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and host of the weekly “World Review with Ivo Daalder” podcast.
“A nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought.”
This was first said by the leaders of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States just five months ago. Today, however, the prospect of the use of nuclear weapons is perhaps greater than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Just weeks after co-signing the joint statement on the prevention of nuclear war, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a war of aggression against a neighbor who had given up its nuclear weapons in exchange for Russia’s explicit assurance ” to respect the independence and sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine [and] refrain from resorting to the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity and political independence of Ukraine”.
At the start of the war, Putin made an explicit statement threatens to “those who stand in our way”, saying that “the consequences will be such as you have never seen in all your history”. And just three days later he said he would raise the alert level of his nuclear forces – although there is no indication he has done so.
Russia has sought for years to reinforce the threat of using nuclear weapons.
Realizing that its conventional capabilities were no longer on par with the United States and NATO, Moscow some time ago adopted a military doctrine in which its use of so-called tactical weapons could persuade an adversary to back down. And with progress in his war against Ukraine stalled by determined Ukrainian forces backed by sophisticated Western weaponry, the possibility that Putin might decide to “escalate to defuse” has become particularly alarming.
But it is not just Russian behavior and threats that are lowering the nuclear threshold. There are a growing number of other disturbing developments on the nuclear front, starting with the actions taken by other established nuclear powers.
For one, the United States is in the midst of a massive nuclear modernization program, costing more than $1 trillion and including new land-based missiles, a new strategic bomber, and new missile-carrying nuclear submarines. It has also deployed low-yield nuclear warheads to give Washington the ability to respond to any limited nuclear use by Russia — though few believe a nuclear exchange is or can remain limited.
China is also modernizing and expanding its nuclear forces at a rapid pace. It dug new missile silos in the Gobi Desert, and the Pentagon estimates it will deploy 1,000 nuclear warheads by the end of the decade, ending its longstanding policy of relying on minimal deterrence.
Britain, too, announced it was increasing its nuclear capabilities, increasing the number of possible warheads launched at sea by 40%. And France embarked on a major new missile modernization program and under -nuclear sailors.
But it’s not just established nuclear powers that are expanding their capabilities – new and aspiring powers are too.
Pakistan and India have growing nuclear arsenals which in a few years could equal those of France or Britain. North Korea not only resumed production of nuclear materials, but also broadened the mission of its growing nuclear forces from deterring attacks to promoting its national interests. And Iran now has enough material for a nuclear bomb, because the prospects of reverting to the nuclear deal restricting it have all but disappeared.
This growing nuclearization in the world puts new pressure on the non-proliferation regime.
The more countries turn to the nuclear option for security, the greater the incentive for other countries to follow. For example, the emergence of Iran as a nuclear threshold state is increasing pressure on countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey to reconsider their non-nuclear status.
At the same time, Russia’s war on Ukraine reminds us that giving up or renouncing nuclear weapons may no longer provide the security once thought likely. There is a growing debate about whether to reverse a decision made long ago to give up or abandon the nuclear option, even among some of America’s allies who have long enjoyed the security of living under the American nuclear umbrella. The more global politics becomes nuclear, the more likely it is that countries capable of producing nuclear weapons will decide to do so.
This is not a new danger. At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US intelligence community expected a dozen or more countries to have nuclear weapons within a decade. But that didn’t happen, partly because the United States increased its security commitment to its allies and partly because Washington and Moscow — on the brink of nuclear catastrophe — decided to regulate their competition to reduce the prospect of a nuclear confrontation.
The result has been decades of arms control negotiations and agreements that have limited nuclear arsenals – from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons to treaties on the limitation and reduction of strategic arms and treaties on anti-ballistic missiles and intermediate-range nuclear forces – each with strict verification and inspection provisions.
Unfortunately, the nuclear regulatory framework that guided US relations with the Soviet Union and Russia has been steadily eroded over the years, and currently only one nuclear agreement remains, which is due to expire in four year. Nuclear stability talks between Moscow and Washington have been suspended; and Beijing, Paris and London have given no indication of their willingness to start new talks aimed at stabilizing the global nuclear order.
And yet, despite all the difficulties facing a resumption of nuclear negotiations, the need to do so is real.
The last major nuclear confrontation 60 years ago taught American and Soviet leaders the singular lesson that their security lies in a commitment to sit across from each other – and find means of ensuring that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be won”. to be fought.