Nuclear weapons remain an existential threat, but the Ukraine conflict has driven home the reasons the world turned to them in the first place.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will usher in a new epoch and the stakes are high. More than 80 years after the Soviet Union joined Nazi Germany to carve up and annex many parts of Eastern Europe, Russia is once again openly seeking to destroy a neighbouring country’s independence and national identity.
But unlike 1939, today’s conflict plays out under the shadow of the world’s nuclear arsenals, and Russia maintains the largest.
The current conflict may yet escalate to direct war between Russia and Western nuclear powers and continue to test their skills at managing this risk.
But even if nuclear war is averted, Russia’s war on Ukraine — which began in 2014 and escalated with the invasion this year — has already changed the way the world looks at nuclear weapons and the caution they seem to induce in both NATO and Russia in this conflict.
A first consequence is that we have to say goodbye to the notion that nuclear weapons are no longer required to manage the risk of war between the great powers. Its high tide was President Barack Obama’s speech in Prague in 2009, calling for a world without nuclear weapons — a vision supported by President Joe Biden’s pledge to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in [United States] national security strategy”.
But calls for an increased presence of United States (US) nuclear weapons from allies including Poland, Japan and South Korea are growing louder as they face threats from nuclear-armed Russia, North Korea and China. The new Scholz government in Berlin comprises three parties that have all in the past called for the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Germany, yet within days of Russia’s invasion it decided to acquire US Joint Strike Fighters to enable continued ‘sharing’ of US nuclear bombs with the German air force.
Even former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, whose government sponsored the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament in 2008, joined calls in 2021 to bring Australia, Japan and South Korea into the US nuclear planning processes.
Another casualty of Russia’s Ukraine invasion is the idea that countries — in particular North Korea, but perhaps also Iran — might be persuaded to give up their nuclear arsenals in return for international guarantees. For Ukraine was once a nuclear power, having inherited Soviet warheads, which it gave up in 1994 in return for Russian, US and British pledges to “refrain from the threat or use of force against [its] territorial integrity or political independence”.
In hindsight, this was probably a tragic mistake. Ukraine was never given NATO membership, and US and British supplies of weapons now are inevitably too little, too late, after Washington and London failed to respond with more than symbolic sanctions to Russia’s attack and occupation of parts of Ukraine since 2014. Regimes in Pyongyang and Tehran now know what any guarantees in return for giving up nuclear weapons will be worth. They also know full well they could never hope for the Western sympathy now extended to Ukraine.
Finally, while President Biden has reaffirmed the “sacred obligation” to defend NATO territory and deployed US troops to NATO allies in Eastern Europe, prominent members of the US national security establishment are warning against direct US involvement in support of Ukraine, due to the risk of nuclear conflict with Russia.
While no one wants a war with Russia, this American risk aversion must still concern the US’s allies — especially in the Indo-Pacific. Allies in our region can only hope that what today may seem like prudent statesmanship in the face of nuclear dangers, will not turn out to be a crucial element in Beijing’s calculus that the US would also stand by if it did invade Taiwan — a ‘partner’ not an ally, as is Ukraine.
Thus, the main lesson that adversaries and allies alike will draw from the invasion of Ukraine is that the world remains one where the strong do as they will, and the weak do as they must. It is a world where the case for nuclear weapons has become a lot more persuasive, to the detriment of all.
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