Deterrence Or Disarmament? By Ayesha Naseem
The ongoing war in Ukraine has revealed a lot of myths that we commonly come across in the field of international relations. One of these, which holds importance for the entire world, is the use of nuclear weapons in international conflicts. The fact that nuclear weapons haven’t been used in conflict since 1945 had contributed to the idea that there is a ‘taboo’ attached to their use. However, with a great power like Russia openly threatening to use tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine, we can no longer be sure. According to the Federation of American Scientists, Russia has an estimated total of 5,977 nuclear warhead inventories, the largest in the world, followed by the US (5,428), China (350), France (290), United Kingdom (225), Pakistan (165), India (160), Israel (90) and North Korea (20). Out of these 5,977, about 2000 are thought to be tactical, meaning that they can be used over relatively shorter distances, weighing roughly between one kiloton to hundred kilotons. According to BBC, the atomic bomb that killed 146,000 people in Hiroshima during World War II weighed 15 kilotons, while Russia’s largest strategic weapons are 800 kilotons.
Nuclear deterrence theorists have long argued that nuclear weapons promote stability and peace in the world because of the fear of mutually assured destruction (MAD). But in an unequal world where only a handful of states possess nuclear weapons, the weaker states are always in danger. In the Russia-Ukraine case, nuclear deterrence is fully working; Ukraine did not have nuclear weapons and was invaded by Russia, while the latter has managed to avoid a collective military response to its aggression. The fact that the US has announced from the onset that US ground forces will not be placed in Ukraine can be attributed largely to deterrence. Similarly, Russia’s decision not to launch its military attacks against NATO states providing weapons to Ukraine, or attacking these supplies directly, can also be attributed partly to deterrence because NATO states possess the nuclear umbrella provided by the US. However, it doesn’t extend to Ukraine and hence Ukraine lives constantly under the fear of a nuclear attack. The case of Ukraine is particularly stark in this context because under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, Ukraine surrendered its nuclear weapons in exchange for US, UK and Russia’s guarantees to respect and defend its territorial integrity. Put together, these three factors, i.e., the failure of superpowers to deliver on their security assurances, Russia’s aggressive stance on nuclear weapons and the reluctance of the US and NATO to use military means against Russia are going to have an alarming effect on nuclear proliferation. Ukraine’s decision to give up its nukes is being called a mistake by many, and this may make countries second guess their own decisions.
On the other hand, nuclear weapons threaten humanity as a whole, unconfined by borders and territories. Radiation poisoning can lead to chronic health problems and genetic disorders. A ‘nuclear winter’ will diminish the amount of sunlight on Earth, directly impacting food supplies and resources and leading to starvation. There will be severe setbacks in terms of human progress being made towards development. And all of this is likely because nuclear wars may not remain an anomaly. The more nuclear weapons we have in the world, the more the chances of usage, even if unintended. After all, let us not forget that in 1958, a plane dropped a nuclear bomb by mistake in the backyard of a house, vaporising all the free-range chickens. In 1983, Soviet Union’s early warning system misperceived light coming from the sun bouncing off clouds as missiles being launched from the US towards Moscow. In 2010, the US air force lost all communications with 50 of its nuclear missiles meaning that in case an automatic launch had occurred during the time, there would have been no way of detecting and stopping it. Today’s nuclear weapons are more dangerous and powerful, and while deterrence rests on rationality, nuclear attacks are much more likely to begin by such mistakes, misperceptions and errors in judgments. That is why the need to stress disarmament is now more than ever. NPT is not the final solution; it prevents new states from acquiring nuclear weapons but does not take them away from the ones that already have them. Article VI of NPT talks about disarmament but in an indefinite way, representing it more as an aspiration than a set goal.
Deterrence Or Disarmament? By Ayesha Naseem