The Old But Relevant Script of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Published in the Hindu on October 28, 2022

“Tell me how it ends”, is the common refrain of generals and leaders when in the middle of a war. The Ukraine war is no exception. Neither President Volodymir Zelensky or his Western partners, nor his Russian adversary, President Vladimir Putin, can predict how the war will end.

Earlier assumptions have been upended – Russia’s short ‘special military operation’ to ‘de-Nazify and de-militarise’ Ukraine is already a nine-month-war, and likely to extend into 2023; trans-Atlantic North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) unity under U.S. leadership despite visible internal differences hasn’t collapsed; President Zelensky’s emergence as a wartime leader is surprising; and, poor Russian military planning and performance, a shock. For the present, Russia is too strong to lose and Ukraine, despite NATO support, too weak to win; so, the war grinds on with no ceasefire in sight.

Yet, there is one outcome that must be prevented – a breakdown of nuclear deterrence. Nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945 and a global conscience has sustained the nuclear taboo for over 75 years. None of the three principals in Ukraine would want the taboo breached. However, escalation creates its own dynamic.

Lessons from Cuba

It is time to revisit the sobering lessons of the Cuban Missile crisis that brought the world to the edge of nuclear Armageddon in October 1962, as the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. On October 16, 1962, U.S. President John F Kennedy was informed that the U.S.S.R. was preparing to deploy medium and intermediate range nuclear missiles in Cuba. After deliberating with his core group of advisers, President Kennedy rejected the idea of an invasion or a nuclear strike against Moscow, and on October 22, declared a naval ‘quarantine’ of Cuba. Simultaneously, he authorised his brother Robert Kennedy to open a back-channel with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. 

The crisis defused on October 28; based on assurances conveyed through the back-channel, Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev announced that Soviet nuclear missiles and aircraft would be withdrawn in view of U.S. assurances to respect Cuba’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. What was kept a secret by both leaders was the fact that reciprocally, the U.S. also agreed to withdraw the Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey.

Yet, there were plenty of unforeseen events. On October 27, a U.S. surveillance flight strayed over Cuban airspace and was targeted by Soviet air defence forces who were deployed. Major Rudolf Anderson was shot down, the only casualty. This happened despite Kennedy having counselled desisting from provocative surveillance and Khrushchev not having authorised the engagement. Both sides kept the news under wraps till the crisis defused when Major Anderson’s sacrifice was recognised and honoured.

A day earlier, a Soviet nuclear armed submarine B-59 found itself trapped by U.S. depth charges, off Cuban waters. The U.S. was unaware that the submarine was nuclear armed and Captain Valentin Savitsky did not know that a quarantine was in operation. He decided to go down fighting but his decision to launch a nuclear bomb was vetoed by Captain Vassily Arkhipov. The Soviets followed a two-person-authorisation-rule and unknown to Kennedy and Khrushchev, a potential Armageddon was averted.

The most shocking revelation emerged decades later when the U.S. learnt that unbeknownst to them, over 150 warheads for FKR-1 Meteor missile, short range FROG missile, and gravity bombs were already present in in Cuba. These were intended for defence in case U.S. launched a repeat of the 1961 failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Despite Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s opposition, Premier Khrushchev insisted on withdrawing these too, conscious that these could provide the spark for a future escalation.

The key lesson learnt was that the two nuclear superpowers should steer clear of any direct confrontation even as their rivalry played out in other regions, thereby keeping it below the nuclear threshold. Deterrence theorists called it ‘the stability-instability-paradox’. With their assured-second-strike-capability guaranteeing mutually-assured-destruction, both U.S. and U.S.S.R were obliged to limit the instability to proxy wars. Nuclear war games over decades remained unable to address the challenge of keeping a nuclear war limited once a nuclear weapon was introduced in battle.

Russia’s nuclear signalling

The Ukraine war is testing the old lessons of nuclear deterrence.  Russia sees itself at war, not with non-nuclear Ukraine, but with a nuclear armed NATO. President Putin has therefore engaged in repeated nuclear signalling – from being personally present in mid-February at large scale exercises involving ‘strategic forces’ to placing nuclear forces on ‘special combat alert’ on February 27.

He raised the stakes again on September 21 when he ordered a ‘partial mobilisation’, announced referendums in the four regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, accused the West of engaging in nuclear blackmail and warned that Russia has ‘more modern weapons’ and ‘will certainly make use of all weapon systems available; this is not a bluff’. He cited U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 as a precedent.

In recent days, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has spoken to his counterparts in a number of countries including defence Minister Rajnath Singh that Ukraine may be preparing to use a ‘dirty bomb’. India’s response was that any use of such weapons would be against “the basic tenets of humanity”.

However, Russian nuclear use makes little operational sense. In 1945, Japan was on the verge of surrender and only the U.S. possessed nuclear weapons. Use of a tactical nuclear weapon will only strengthen Ukrainian national resolve; NATO response is unlikely to be nuclear but will be sharp. International political backlash would be significant and Mr. Putin may find himself increasingly isolated. Many countries in East and Central Asia may will reconsider nuclear weapons as a security necessity.

Role for global diplomacy

During the next few weeks, the fighting in Ukraine will intensify, before winter sets in and the weather freezes military operations till spring. This raises the risks for escalation and miscalculations. Right now, the goal of a ceasefire seems too distant, though eminently desirable. The United Nations appears paralysed given the involvement of permanent members of the Security Council. Therefore, it is for other global leaders who have access and influence, to convince President Putin that nuclear escalation would be a disastrous move.

Indonesia is the G-20 chair and President Joko Widodo will be hosting the summit meeting next month. India is the incoming chair; Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be attending the summit. Both Indonesia and India have refrained from condemning Russia, keeping communication channels open. In a bilateral meeting with President Putin in Samarkand last month, PM Modi emphasised that “now is not the era of war”. In the run-up to the G-20 summit, President Widodo and PM Modi are well placed to take a diplomatic initiative to persuade President Putin to step away from the nuclear rhetoric. This means emphasising the deterrent role of nuclear weapons and not expanding it; to reiterating Russia’s official declaratory position that restricts nuclear use for “an existential threat”.

Such a statement would help reduce growing fears of escalation and may also provide a channel for communication and open the door for a dialogue that can lead to a ceasefire. The lessons of the Cuban Missile crisis remain valid 60 years later.

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The NPT is Beginning to Look Shaky

Published in The Hindu on September 3, 2022

The Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) concluded last week in New York. Marking 52 years of a treaty that every speaker described as the ‘cornerstone of the global nuclear order’ – it was originally planned for its 50th year for 2020, but the conference was delayed due to COVID-19 – it should have been a celebratory occasion, yet, the mood was sombre. And after four weeks of debate and discussion, the delegates failed to agree on a final document.

NPT’s success and weakness

To manage the disappointment, some staunch believers claimed that the success should not be defined in terms of a consensus outcome! It is true that since 1970, when the NPT entered into force, only four of the 10 review conferences (in 1975, 1985, 2000 and 2010) have concluded with a consensus document, the review years were 1975, 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, 2015, 2022. Ironically, even the critical 1995 Review Conference that decided to extend the NPT into perpetuity, broke down weeks later over the review process.

However, there was one key difference in 2022. In the past, the divergences were over Iran, Israel, the Middle East or between the nuclear haves and nuclear have-nots. The three depositary states (the United States, the United Kingdom and the U.S.S.R./Russia) were always on the same page. The difference in 2022 was that it pitched Russia against the West; it was the inability to find language to address the nuclear safety crisis at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, under Russian occupation since March, that ultimately led to the failure.

The NPT was negotiated during the 1960s to reconcile three competing objectives – controlling the further spread of nuclear weapons beyond the P-5 countries (the U.S., the U.S.S.R., the U.K, France and China) that had already tested; committing to negotiating reductions of nuclear arsenals leading to their elimination; and sharing benefits of peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology. The first was strongly supported by the nuclear-haves; the latter two were demands made by the nuclear have-nots.

Over the years, the non-proliferation objective has been achieved in large measure. Despite apprehensions that by 1980s, there would be close to 25 nuclear powers, in the last 50 years, only four more countries have gone on to test and develop nuclear arsenals – India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan (South Africa developed nuclear weapons but the apartheid regime destroyed them and joined NPT in 1991 before relinquishing power to majority rule). After the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, non-proliferation remained a shared priority for the major powers and the International Atomic Energy Agency, set up originally to promote international co-operation became better known as the non-proliferation watchdog.

Progress on the other two aspects took a back seat; no meaningful discussions or negotiations on nuclear disarmament have ever taken place in the NPT framework. In fact, in the early 1980s, there was a growth in nuclear arsenals. Arms control talks between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R./Russia did take place and the two countries did succeed in bringing down their collective arsenals from a high of nearly 65000 in the early 1980s to less than 12000 warheads. But this process too has ground to a halt.

The first signal was the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 on the grounds that it unduly constrained its missile defence activities. Limits imposed by the ABM Treaty had been a critical element in creating mutual vulnerability as a means of underwriting deterrence stability. It was unipolar world with the U.S. as the dominant power. Russia gradually responded by embarking on its nuclear modernisation.

In 2019, the U.S. notified Russia of its decision to quit the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that had obliged both countries to get rid of all ground launched missiles with a range of 500-5500 kms. The U.S. blamed Russia for cheating on its obligations and pointed out that China’s missile developments created new security threats that needed to be addressed. U.S. was now facing two strategic rivals.

The only surviving arms control treaty between Russia and the U.S. is the New START Treaty that imposes a ceiling on operational strategic nuclear weapons of 700 launchers and 1550 warheads each. It expires in 2026 and there are no signs of any follow-on discussions.

Attempts by the Donald Trump administration to invite China to join in the arms control process were rejected. Given growing tensions in the Taiwan Strait, any prospects for such talks have only receded.

All that the five nuclear-weapon-states party to the NPT could manage at the Conference was a reiteration of the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev declaration that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’. The statement remains valid but clearly sounded hollow in the face of growing strategic rivalry between China, Russia and the U.S, rising nuclear rhetoric and modernisation plans for nuclear arsenals being pursued.

Nuclear modernisation

While the Joe Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review is awaited, the U.S.’s 30-year nuclear modernisation programme, intended to provide ‘credible deterrence against regional aggression’ is already underway. This has been used to justify developing and deploying more usable low-yield nuclear weapons.

Russia (and China too) is developing hypersonic delivery systems that evade missile defences as well as larger missiles that do not need to travel over the Arctic. Also on the cards are nuclear torpedoes and new cruise missiles. Last year, satellite imagery over China revealed at least three new missile storage sites being developed. Analysts suggest that China may be on track to expand its arsenal from current levels of approx. 350 warheads to over a thousand by 2030. Such a dramatic expansion raises questions about whether this marks a shift in Chinese nuclear doctrine that has relied on a credible minimum deterrent and a no-first-use policy for the last six decades.

 Developments in space and cyber domains are blurring the line between conventional and nuclear weapons lead to nuclear entanglement and render command and control systems vulnerable. This, in turn, compresses decision making time and creates incentives for early use, raising nuclear risk.

At the Conference, France, the U.K. and the U.S. wanted to draw a distinction between “irresponsible” nuclear threats of an offensive nature and “responsible” nuclear threats for defensive purposes but Russia (and China) stymied Western efforts. When the nuclear have-nots suggested a universal condemnation of all threats of nuclear use, all five nuclear-haves joined together to resist such moves. This reflects an emerging divide.

Other treaties, their state

Frustrated by the absence of progress on nuclear disarmament, the nuclear have-nots successfully negotiated a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW, also called Ban Treaty) in 2017 that entered into force in January 2021. All 86 signatories are nuclear have-nots and parties to the NPT. The TPNW creates a new legal instrument and at their meeting in June in Vienna, the TPNW states committed to pushing for ‘stigmatising and de-legitimising’ nuclear weapons, condemning all nuclear threats and ‘building a robust global peremptory norm against them’. Expectedly, the nuclear-haves and their allies ignored the Vienna meeting but will find it increasingly difficult to overlook this political reality as more and more NPT colleagues call their bluff.  

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was concluded in 1996 but has yet to formally enter into force because two major powers, U.S. and China, have yet to ratify it. While it is true that they do observe a moratorium on nuclear testing, but the modernisation plans could soon run up against the CTBT.

Nobody wants a breakdown of the NPT but sustaining it requires facing up to today’s political realities. The rivalries in a multipolar nuclear world create new challenges, different from what the world faced in a bipolar era of the 1960s when the NPT was concluded. Without addressing the new challenges, the NPT will weaken and with it, the taboo against nuclear weapons that has held since 1945.

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NPT RevCon Ends in Failure

Global Memo Contribution for Council of Councils (CFR) published on 30 August, 2022

To mitigate the disappointment of failing to adopt a consensus final document, some die-hard believers were quick to claim that success need not be defined in terms of a Final Document. However, the hard reality is that growing differences among the major powers (the United States, Russia and China) and between the five nuclear-weapons states and the non-nuclear states, are making the strains within the NPT increasingly visible.

The final straw was inability to find language that could address the nuclear safety crisis at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, under Russian occupation since March. However, even had this obstacle been overcome, other warning signs were numerous, and fifty-two years after entering into force, the compromises inherent in the fabric of the NPT need to be revisited. The NPT was originally packaged as a balance of non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament, and the peaceful uses of nuclear science and energy, and, over the years, only the non-proliferation element has become stronger.

Political leadership was absent at the RevCon. All the nuclear-weapons states could manage was a reiteration of the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev declaration that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’. The statement remains valid but sounded hollow in the face of rising nuclear rhetoric and the continued pursuit by major powers of modernisation plans for their nuclear arsenals.

The U.S.-Russia bilateral arms control process is just holding, but the New START Treaty expires in 2026 and prospects for follow-on negotiations are bleak. China has studiously refrained from engaging in any arms control talks with the United States, and that was before tensions between the two reached a new high given the recent Taiwan Straits crisis.

An uncomfortable political reality among the four nuclear-weapons-states outside the NPT – India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan – is also palpable. How to work with these countries to achieve the NPT’s nuclear disarmament obligations remains a thorny issue.

When the NPT was negotiated in the 1960s, nuclear science and technology was still in its infancy. Today, neither the science not the associated technology is as remote or esoteric. New developments in space and cyber technologies, missile defences, development of hypersonic delivery systems and conventional prompt global strike (CPGS) capabilities are generating new complexities and blurring the dividing line between nuclear and conventional use on a battlefield. None of these issues was adequately addressed at the RevCon.

Unless the NPT states face these realities and generate the political will needed, the frailties of the NPT will take their inevitable toll.

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Ending the Ukraine War in an Imperfect World

Published in the Hindu on July 8, 2022

The war in Ukraine has been underway for over four months. What began as a European conflict has had global repercussions. Of course, Ukraine and its people have borne the maximum brunt. More than five million Ukrainians have left the country and over eight million are internally displaced. Rising casualties and large-scale destruction have set back the country by decades. Recent estimates for rebuilding the destroyed cities and infrastructure are as high as $750 billion.

During 2020-21, most economies that could afford to, provided generous financial support to its citizens in the form of direct payments and subsidised food to tide over the economic hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Supply chains suffered disruptions, aggravated by politics. Economic recovery has generated demand creating inflationary pressures. Today, inflation rates are rising across the world and in the largest economies have reached levels not seen since the early 1980s. As these countries tighten money supply, fears of recession loom large. The war in Ukraine has aggravated the situation for the poorer countries by creating food and fertiliser shortages. The sharp surge in energy prices threatens the prospects of economic recovery. Prospects of collective global action to deal with these challenges appear remote, given growing tensions among major powers.  

And so, the war grinds on, with no end in sight.

The inevitable conflict

It is a fact that Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022 in gross violation of the United Nations Charter and international law; it is equally true that North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is not an innocent bystander. In 2022, Russia is the guilty one but NATO’s folly was to forget that the cost of its expansion goes up as it gets closer to the Russian border. Its strategic error was in concluding that Russia was in terminal decline and adopting an ‘open door’ policy.

By 2005, 11 former East European and Baltic states had joined NATO. Addressing the Munich Security Conference in 2007, President Vladimir Putin described NATO’s decision of moving eastwards and deploying forces closer to Russian borders, “a serious provocation”. The warning was ignored. At the NATO summit in early 2008, the U.S. pushed for opening membership for Ukraine and Georgia. France and Germany, sensitive to Russian concerns, successfully blocked a time-frame for implementation. As a compromise, it was the worst of both worlds. It convinced Russia of NATO’s hostility and dangled prospects for Georgia and Ukraine that NATO couldn’t fulfil.  

Later that year, Russia intervened in Georgia on the grounds of protecting the Russian minorities, taking over the neighbouring provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In 2014, following the Euromaidan protests in Kiev against the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich, Russia annexed Crimea and pro-Russia separatists, assisted by Russian mercenaries, created autonomous regions in eastern Ukraine. The fuse, lit in 2008, was now smouldering.  

Post-2014, NATO continued to strengthen its relationship with Ukraine by providing it training and equipment, formalising it in 2020 by making Ukraine a NATO Enhanced Opportunity Partner. British and U.S. warships’ presence in the Black Sea began to increase. In 2019, U.K. entered into a cooperation agreement with Ukraine to develop two new naval ports, Ochakiv on the Black Sea and Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov, a move that Russia saw as potentially threatening. The die was cast.

Liberalism trumps realism

Neither side wanted war. NATO members insist that Ukraine would not be joining NATO but remains unable to walk back from its 2008 statement. This would be seen as ‘appeasement’. In diplomacy, appeasement had long been accepted as an honourable route to ensuring peace, practiced by the British since the mid-nineteenth century in its dealings with European powers and especially the U.S. as it sought to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. Neville Chamberlain too used appeasement to negotiate “peace in our times” in 1938 but Winston Churchill employed it to pillory him and the term never regained respectability thereafter.

An equivalent term surfaced – sensitivity for each other’s core interests -practised during the Cold War to prevent the U.S. and USSR from getting into conflict. With the end of the Cold War, this became history. The liberal school, having vanquished the Marxist school of thought, was now convinced of the righteousness of its cause. If only the rest of the world could be made to see reason, democracy would flourish, free markets ensure prosperity and a Western led rule-based order prevail. The triumph of liberalism led the neo-con believers towards interventionism (Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Colour Revolutions, Syria); others, attracted by the prospects of Chinese and Russian markets, deluded themselves that economic growth would lead to political openings.

The realist school of thought cautioned against military interventions backed by a one-size-fits-all democratic prescription and the risks of excessive economic dependence on China but these voices were dismissed. Many U.S. scholars and strategic thinkers cautioned against NATO enlargement, warning that Russia may be weak but it would be reckless to ignore its security interests; they were charged with ‘appeasement’. Liberalism was upholding ‘moral values’; amoral realism was easy to reject as immoral.

French President Emmanuel Macron talked in February of the Finlandisation model as an option for Ukraine. Austrian neutrality imposed by US, USSR, UK and France in 1955, enshrined in its constitution was mentioned. But these solutions had found acceptance in a war weary Europe when politics was frozen by the Cold War. Finland had accepted limited sovereignty and just two presidents guided it – Urho Kekkonen (1956-82) and Mauno Koivisto (1982-94) and both also served as prime-ministers before assuming the presidency. In 2022, such stability is impossible with power politics in flux, rivalries sharpening and populism on the upswing.

In early March, in an interview to Russian media, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared that Ukraine was not pressing for NATO membership but wanted neutrality to be guaranteed; he even talked of autonomy for Donbas as a compromise and a period of ten years for talks on Crimea. But that interview was soon forgotten.

How wars end

Wars often develop their own momentum and the Ukraine war is no exception. Russia possibly anticipated a short, sharp conflict, a collapse of the Kiev regime (perhaps similar to what happened in Kabul last August), and lack of NATO cohesion. It has had to readjust its aims as it has settled down to a long and brutal war. The G-7, European Union (EU) and NATO have displayed unusual cohesion and Ukrainians have shown exemplary grit and motivation. Russia is in a bind. Even its limited war aims of controlling Donbas and the Black Sea coast have been a slog. Finland and Sweden joining NATO will squeeze it further in the Baltic Sea. Ukraine’s ability to fight depends on how long western funds and military hardware keep flowing.

In a moral world, there is a right and wrong and Russia should be held to account. But in the real world, other factors come into play. A blame game or establishing the root cause will not help end the crisis. Eventually, talks will need to take place, between Ukraine and Russia and with NATO and U.S. playing an outsize role behind the scenes. This means acknowledging Russia’s security interests in its neighbourhood.

The problem is that the war is now being cast in binaries – a battle between freedom and tyranny, between democracy and autocracy, a choice between rule-based order and brute force. This makes compromise difficult. And Russia cannot be defeated unless NATO wants to engage in a full-scale war.

The longer the war continues, the greater the suffering for the Ukrainians. The more territory Ukraine loses, the weaker will be its bargaining position at the table. And the longer the war continues, the greater the risk of an inadvertent escalation. History tells us that when faced with choices, major powers have a propensity to double down. The nuclear taboo has held since 1945; sane voices need to ensure that it is not breached. The sooner the war ceases, the better for Ukrainians, Russians and the world. It is an imperfect world but we don’t have another.

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The Nuclear Taboo is Key to Preventing Collapse of the Nuclear Order

(APLN, July 7, 2022)

The nuclear scenario today appears confusing. On one hand, the nuclear taboo has held, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is a near universal treaty, and nuclear weapon stockpiles are a fourth of what they were at the height of the Cold War, and yet, on the other hand, there is a perception that nuclear risks are higher than before.

At such moments, it may be useful to return to the basic principles, the realisations that helped lay the foundations of the nuclear order more than seven decades ago.

The first realisation from the successful Trinity test conducted by the US on 16 July 1945, was the immense destructive capacity of the new weapon. Witnessing the mushroom cloud, Robert Oppenheimer – one of the bomb’s inventors – pondered a line from the Bhagvad-Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of the worlds”. One month later, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings reinforced the gravity of those words.

The second realisation was the worry that other countries too could now go down this path. In 1946, this led to the Baruch Plan (authored by Bernard Baruch) that envisaged transferring control to an international body so that there would not be any national arsenals. However, there were internal differences within the United States and Soviet Union did not trust it.

Once the USSR exploded its nuclear bomb in 1949, the Baruch Plan died a natural death. Even as the United States and the Soviet Union embarked on their nuclear arms race, they found convergence in the notion that nuclear materials and knowhow must be restricted. Non-proliferation became a shared objective leading to the NPT in 1968.  

The third realisation was the imperative to manage nuclear risks. It was driven home in 1962 when both US and Soviet leaders realised how close they had come to a nuclear exchange during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It led to establishing fail safe communications, hotlines and nuclear risk reduction measures together with arms control.

Reconciling these three realisations helped lay the foundations of the nuclear order, shaped by the political dynamics of the Cold War. In a bipolar world, there was one nuclear dyad, the US-Soviet dyad, and deterrence was a two-player game. Strategic stability was reduced to nuclear stability and nuclear arms control was the answer. It kept the allies in check and reassured the third-world countries that the two nuclear superpowers were ‘responsible’.

Arms control and the nuclear taboo

Nuclear arms control revolved around the notions of ‘parity’ and ‘mutual vulnerability’ because US and Soviet arsenals were based on similar triads. The ABM Treaty (1972) limited missile defences thereby guaranteeing mutual vulnerability. Meanwhile, strategic planners and negotiators worked on numerical limits for strategic launchers and warheads leading to Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) I and II, Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) I and II and New START in 2010. Together with unilateral initiatives undertaken after the break-up of the Soviet Union, these arms control measures helped draw down the US and Russian arsenals by over eighty percent, from nearly 65,000 in early 1980s to less than 12,000 today. The other seven nuclear-armed countries between them possess another 1,300 warheads.

Non-proliferation grew as a norm as the NPT got extended indefinitely and unconditionally in 1995. It has come to enjoy near universal adherence with only four countries outside it – India, Israel and Pakistan (that never signed) and North Korea (that withdrew). It has therefore reached the limits of its success since all four are nuclear-armed states.

Most important, the nuclear taboo has not been breached, despite some close shaves.

Today, this nuclear order, consisting of the ‘taboo’, arms control and non-proliferation is under strain. The ‘taboo’ is only normative, arms control is fraying and the NPT, a victim of its success.

Fundamentally, the political order has changed. Deterrence is no longer a two-player game; there are multiple nuclear dyads (United States-Russia, United States-China, India-China, India-Pakistan, United States-North Korea) and these are linked together in loose chains. Instead of parity, it is an age of asymmetry, both in terms of doctrines and arsenals.

Without ‘parity’ and ‘mutual vulnerability’, arms control needs to be redefined. Meanwhile, there is growing mistrust that prevents meaningful dialogue among major powers to define new areas of convergence.

The NPT delegitimised proliferation but not nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons research and development has continued and most nuclear powers are modernising and expanding their arsenals. Today, nuclear science and technology is a mature eighty-year-old technology. Terms like ‘threshold states’, ‘lead times’ and ‘break out’ did not exist when the NPT was negotiated. The political challenges inherent in the NPT surface every five years at the Review Conferences, especially since 1995.

Finally, technology doesn’t stand still. Developments in missile defence, cyber and space, dual use systems like hypersonics and conventional precision global strike capabilities have blurred the firebreak between conventional and nuclear weapons. This has created nuclear entanglement and in the absence of transparency and guard rails, raises the risks of use: advertent, inadvertent, accidental or on account of misjudgement. With the emergence of global terrorism, new threats have emerged highlighting the importance of nuclear security.

The collapsing nuclear order

The conflict in Ukraine has sharpened the growing nuclear risks. Russian President Vladimir Putin has engaged in repeated nuclear rhetoric, placing the Russian arsenal on ‘special alert’, and later warning of ‘unpredictable consequences’.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky bemoaned the fact that had Ukraine not signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, voluntarily relinquishing the nuclear weapons on its territory, Russia would not have invaded. Such statements have raised the salience of nuclear weapons. For countries that feel threatened by militarily more powerful adversaries, it is the ultimate security guarantor.

At the same time, it also means that a state possessing a nuclear deterrent can commit aggression against a smaller non-nuclear country. While NATO members have provided billions of dollars’ worth of military supplies, NATO has been deterred from either putting boots on the ground or imposing a ‘no-fly-zone’ that might bring it into direct conflict with a nuclear Russia.

The nuclear order was based on arms control, non-proliferation and a taboo. Today, the old nuclear arms control model is almost dead and a fresh convergence appears remote. Non-proliferation is under strain given the new found attractiveness of nuclear weapons and non-nuclear weapon states are actively considering nuclear powered submarines that will further strain the NPT debates. The ‘taboo’, only normative to begin with, is being eroded by growing nuclear rhetoric, presently by Russia and in recent years, by US, North Korean, Indian and Pakistani leaders.

Yet, the old realisations still hold. Nuclear weapons remain an existential threat for humanity. In an ideal world, arms control should be revived, non-proliferation buttressed and the ‘taboo’ reinforced, preferably with a legal instrument. But we don’t live in an ideal world and have to make choices. Reviving arms control has to await a modus vivendi among the major powers.

And between ‘non-proliferation’ and the ‘taboo’, I firmly believe that preserving the ‘taboo’ against use of nuclear weapons is critical, more so than ‘non-proliferation’. The world has lived with first two, then five and now nine states possessing nuclear weapons. The NPT and the world can possibly live with another one or two more. But if nuclear weapons are used, for the first time after 1945, and the nuclear taboo is breached, neither the NPT nor the non-proliferation regime will survive. A breach of the ‘taboo’ will bring about a collapse of the entire nuclear order.

Today, the only way forward for reconciling the NPT and the Ban Treaty, for reducing nuclear risks is to reinforce the nuclear taboo. It has lasted since 1945.  We need to ensure that it lasts through the 21st century so that we are able to collectively negotiate a more lasting solution to the challenges of the new nuclear age.

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