April 17, 2022Sakalgeopoliticsnuclear strategy

We need global leadership on rejecting the first use of nuclear weapons

Russia’s nuclear threats calls upon us to review how we reduce the risk of destroying ourselves

Mint This is from my Marathi column in Sakal that appears every month.

Experienced soldiers often say that wars often refuse to follow our expectations. So it has been in Ukraine. Russia’s leaders — like many analysts around the world — believed that they would achieve victory in a matter of days. Instead, it is nearly two months since Russian troops invaded Ukraine and there is no end in sight. The belief that the Ukrainians would either welcome the Russians or collapse under military pressure has been consigned to the dustbin of history. 

What concerns us today is the failure of another theory, one that has great implications for us in India and everyone on the planet. It pertains to the strategy of the use of nuclear weapons. 

From the 1970s until February 2022, it was believed that the role of nuclear weapons is to deter large-scale war between countries that possess them. The experience of the Cold War taught us that wars between nuclear powers can escalate to nuclear levels, cause mutually assured destruction (MAD) of both warring parties, and in the process destroy much of life on the planet. Therefore, nuclear powers took abundant caution to not get into direct fights and instead resort to proxy wars, where their non-nuclear partners did the fighting. That is why a lot of people around the world were worried during Pakistan’s aggression at Kargil in 1999 and the resulting war, and again during the India-Pakistan standoff after the attack on India’s parliament in 2001. 

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the West’s response shows that nuclear weapons don’t quite deter large-scale military conflict. Of course, one can rightly argue that the war is between a nuclear Russia and a non-nuclear Ukraine, and nuclear NATOs care in not directly involving itself in the conflict actually proves deterrence theory. That is only technically true. We can no longer be confident that massively destructive conventional wars are unlikely. We are closer to a nuclear war today than we have ever been since the Cuban Missile Crisis or the China-Soviet conflicts of the 1960s.

It was also believed that nuclear weapons would enter the picture only after one side suffers catastrophic losses and its very existence is at stake. In other words, nuclear weapons were considered the last resort, especially so for a side that enjoys massive military superiority. Yet Putin invoked nuclear weapons right from the outset, following verbal threats with a publicly televised meeting where he ordered nuclear forces to be put on operational alert. Remember at that stage Russia’s vastly superior military force was supposed to overrun Ukraine quite easily and NATO had explicitly declared that they would not directly enter the conflict. Far from its very existence being under risk, at the time Putin issued the nuclear threat Russian troops were widely expected to win. Nuclear threats were not the last resort, but instead used upfront in support of conventional war-fighting. Even now there is talk of small, low-yield, tactical’ nuclear weapons. Let us be clear: there is no such thing as a tactical nuclear bomb. Its use is always strategic. 

What are the consequences of our beliefs about nuclear weapons being proved wrong? It makes the world a lot more dangerous. Countries that have them will be emboldened to act more aggressively. This in turn will cause their adversaries to build more bombs, improve their delivery mechanisms with more advanced missiles and keep them on higher state of alert. Meanwhile those who do not have nuclear weapons will realise that they need them and those who can build them will be encouraged to do so. After all, would Russia have invaded had Ukraine not surrendered its Soviet-inherited nuclear arsenal in the early 1990s?

The NPT was born with a fatal flaw and the non-proliferation regime failed long ago. No-first use is the first step towards a safer planet.

The old nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime was already dead due to the self-serving and cheating behaviour of its nuclear members. It is no longer a framework that can be relied upon to protect the world from nuclear annihilation. We need to think of new ways. I believe that India should propose a Global No First Use (GNFU) treaty as the first step. This will require all states to declare that they will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, and change their postures accordingly. There are many challenges in operationalising this concept, but just as we have done for climate change, taking the first step in the right direction is better than pretending that the status quo is working. 

Takshashila has long advocated a global no first use treaty mechanism. See the latest research.

The UN General Assembly should have strongly rejected nuclear threats made no first use by both sides a pre-condition for any diplomatic engagement. How can any non-involved country determine rights and wrongs when there is a nuclear gun to our collective head? Our collective message should be first drop the nuclear threat, and then we can talk” and if you refuse to drop the nuclear threat, you are wrong regardless of the actual merits of your cause”. Unfortunately world lacks global leaders who can mobilise the international community to secure human survival. Yet the longer the Ukraine war lasts, the greater the need for such leadership.

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