Ahmed S Cheema
No on is addressing the long-term consequences of the Ukrainian conflict: expect a world where security guarantees are worthless, nuclear disarmament is inconceivable and countries expand their nuclear stockpiles.
On October 19, Vladimir Putin formally declared martial law in Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia and Kherson, four Ukrainian regions Russia annexed last month. This measure tightens Russia’s grip on these regions. A Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson is underway, and ground battles over the next few months will determine the fate of these areas. On October 24, the war in Ukraine will enter its 8th month – 8th year if we factor in Crimea’s annexation. Much has been said about the aftereffects of the war in terms of great power politics, rising energy prices and food inflation. Yet there is one question no one is addressing, the Ukrainian decision to terminate its nuclear stockpile in 1994 and how this conflict will affect the dynamics of nuclear proliferation. It is short-sighted to assume that events transpiring in one particular geographic theatre occur in isolation and have no impact on developments elsewhere. For those of us cognizant of history, let us recall the Korean War (1950 – 1953) and how that led to China testing a nuclear device in 1964. This in return had a domino effect in South Asia: India tested a nuclear device in 1973 and Pakistan in 1999.
After the dissolution of the USSR, Ukraine possessed the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal, in addition to 176 ballistic missiles and 33 bombers, left over from the Soviet strategic stockpile. It is debatable whether Ukraine had the capability to deploy these weapons but still, retaining a stockpile is superior to no stockpile at all. Disinclined to see more countries with nukes, the US, UK and Russia encouraged the Ukrainians to axe their nuclear program. On December 5, 1994, the Ukrainian government signed the Budapest Memorandum, acquiescing to the demobilization and termination of these weapons and the ratification of the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty. In return, the US, UK and Russia promised to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and economic independence. This included a pledge that military force, including the threat of nuclear weapons, would not be used against Ukraine unless in line with the UN Charter. Over the next few years, the Ukrainian nuclear arsenal would cease to exist – a decision that might seem noble but also imprudent today. Twenty years after signing the Budapest Memorandum, the Ukrainians ended up losing their Crimean territory to the Russians.
Russia’s actions have rendered the promises made in the Budapest Memorandum seem disingenuous, placing a question mark on the seriousness of international guarantees. Countries regularly eavesdrop on one another and violate intellectual patent rights, but breaking a guarantee of national sovereignty to a nation after it de – nuclearizes has enduring consequences. The American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent fall of Kabul raised doubts about the practicality of relying on other nations for security. The Ukrainian crisis will enforce this perception; that ultimately countries are on their own and have to defend their land themselves. Many Ukrainians might be wondering – would Moscow have sent her armies marching if Ukraine still had a nuclear stockpile and managed to deploy nuclear weapons?
The Ukrainian conflict will make the case for nuclear disarmament and decreasing military expenditure more difficult. Countries such as India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea will find themselves averse to any future reduction of their nuclear stockpiles. As tensions between India and Pakistan, North Korea and the US or Israel and Iran flare up, enlarging existing nuclear stockpiles will seem like a tempting option. After all, nukes are the ultimate guarantee of national defence.
Nations that are developing nuclear weapons, primarily Iran, might decide to accelerate their domestic programs. Watching Russia tear up the security guarantee to Kyiv would leave policymakers in Tehran pondering the sanctity of agreements and the veracity of assurances. This would reinforce their misgivings after President Trump revoked the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA – Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) which Iran signed by the Obama Administration. Since nuclear weapons act as a deterrent against foreign intervention or regime change, the Iranian regime may decide its survival demands nukes. Iranian decisions will have a domino effect on Saudi Arabia and Israel. If Iran, discouraged by the Ukrainian experience, decides to proceed with its nuclear program then Saudi Arabia will embark on its ballistic program.
There is an old Latin adage attributed to the Roman writer Publius Flavius Renatus – “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” or in English, “If you want peace, prepare for war”. Countries will look at Ukraine – and Iraq, Syria and Libya to name a few more, and conclude – if you desire national sovereignty, get a nuke and make sure it is conspicuous to everyone. Nations that face security challenges will find themselves amidst solemn strategic dilemmas. In a world where the strong do as they can, developing a nuke, or buying one, doesn’t seem like a bad choice. It’s not too hard to visualize a future where hardliners in Japan or Saudi Arabia might view nuclear weapons as the last assurance of national security in the face of North Korean, Chinese or Iranian belligerence respectively. Years ago, Jeremy Corbyn raised the possibility of the UK dismantling its Trident Nuclear Missile program. With Putin’s nuclear sabre rattling, anyone proposing such schemes would have their sanity, or their patriotism, questioned. For those of us preferring a world with fewer nukes, convincing policymakers and strategists will become a daunting task.
We are witnessing a new era in the modern world – a return of great power politics. Putin’s actions, in conjunction with rising tensions between the US and China over Taiwan, herald the onset of Cold War 2.0. Just like the last Cold War, this struggle will inevitably result in an arms buildup and larger military budgets. The rush to develop hypersonic weapons is just the start. China recently paraded its DF – 17 Hypersonic Missiles capable of hitting targets while manoeuvring to evade existing countermeasures and missile defence systems – expect the US and Russia to follow soon. We can see the ripple effects in action; Germany’s $100 Billion military modernization, Poland’s increasing military purchases and Finland and Sweden vying to join NATO. Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons might leave some in NATO pondering about throwing more resources into missile defence or the efficacy of deploying more tactical nuclear weapons to deter Russia. On the other side of the world, China’s military modernisation has resulted in Japanese remilitarization, Taiwanese military purchases, and more pertinently, an Indian military build-up. We see the world dividing itself in blocs and drawing out daggers – with the West on one side and China & Russia on the other. If the defining features of the 1990s and 2000s were globalization, interconnectivity and economic growth, the defining features of the 2020s and 2030s will be strategic competition, larger military budgets and a world more inclined to view nuclear weapons as ultimate arbitrators of national sovereignty.