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How war in Ukraine reignites global fear of nuclear conflict

The Russian invasion of Ukraine fear of nuclear war has been resurrected, a possibility long believed to be distant despite the years-long deterioration of the delicate international security architecture that emerged after the Second World War.

Vague threats from the Russian presidentVladimir Putinwhich imply that could use nuclear bomb if their ambitions are frustrated in Ukraineended a tacit agreement based on moderation and shook the concept of deterrence.

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“It is the first time since the dawn of the atomic age that a nuclear power has used its status and waged conventional war under the long shadow” of its nuclear capacitysummarizes the former deputy secretary general of the NATO Camille Grand.

The former French official explained that the novelty is that “one of the two main nuclear powers and a member of the UN Security Council (…) behaves like a ‘strategic pirate'”, but He considered it “improbable” that Russia would use the nuclear bomb.

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The “nuclear taboo”, a moral and strategic concept on the non-use of these weapons, was forged after the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and, although it still stands, the rhetorical dykes around it have cracked.

In 2022, Russian televisions thus evoked the scene of nuclear attacks against Paris and New Yorkand a former Russian diplomat even claimed that if putin thinks that Russia is in danger of disappearing, “he will push the button”.

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Together with the return of the war in Europe and a tightening of international relations, the situation represents a brutal awakening for democracieswho have long lived on the “peace dividend”.

US President Joe Biden even warned in October of a possible nuclear “Armageddon”illustrating the widespread feeling that the world is on the brink of an abyss.

end of treaties

In October 1962, after fifteen years of the Cold War, the world was already on the brink of nuclear conflict. with the discovery of the Soviet missile deployment in Cuba, which led to a terrifying 13-day standoff between Washington and Moscow.

The Cuban missile crisis is an example of the fragile balance that has prevailed in the world since 1945 and that the Nobel Prize in Economics, Thomas Schelling, summed up in 2007: “The most spectacular event of the last half century is an event that has not occurred ”.

long before Ukraine, the international strategic framework had been cracking for years in Europe, but above all in Asia and the Middle East. Historian and non-proliferation expert Benjamin Hautecouverture places its start in the 2000s.

In 2002, the United States left the ABM treaty. banning ballistic missiles. His departure from this cornerstone of nuclear balance with the USSR began the collapse of the control or disarmament treaties signed between the historical rivals.

Among them is the emblematic INF treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces, signing in 1987 and which became a dead letter in 2019 due to the withdrawal of the United States and, later, Russia.

“The field of disarmament is a field in ruins, except for the New START”, the only agreement that continues to unite Washington and Moscow, notes Camille Grand.

Iran and North Korea

North Korea’s unilateral withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003 is another example of the growing threat.

Pyongyang also fired a record number of projectiles in November and Washington, Seoul and Tokyo expect it to carry out a new nuclear test imminently.

The new North Korean doctrine, announced in September, stipulates that he will never renounce the nuclear bomb and envisages its use for preventive purposes.

“We will see a very dangerous crisis in Asia,” warned Chung Min Lee, a Carnegie researcher at a recent event in Paris, where he highlighted the fears of non-nuclear countries in the region about the reliability of the US umbrella.

To this is added the rapid increase in Chinese nuclear capabilities, which worries specialists.

According to Pentagon estimates, China could have 1,000 nuclear warheads within 10 yearsapproaching the number fielded by the Americans.

In the Middle East, concern is centered on Iran. For 20 years, Tehran has been suspected of wanting to make the atomic bomb and is close to becoming a “threshold state”, if it is not already.

The negotiation between Iran and the great powers to revive the 2015 agreement, which provided for a lifting of sanctions in exchange for Tehran drastically limiting its nuclear program, has stalled and the internal situation makes its resumption unlikely.

Proliferation risks

What is the future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, key to international security?

Russia blocked in August a joint declaration by the 191 signatory countries of the treaty, which explained the changes underway.

“We are witnessing a break in the attitude of Russia, which has historically supported the NPT,” a French diplomatic source assured, denouncing Russia’s “extraordinarily aggressive nuclear rhetoric.”

This source also underlined the harsh criticism of China a AUKUSthe Indo-Pacific military alliance between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, which envisions the supply of nuclear-powered submarines to Canberra.

More than ever, the question of the risk of rapid proliferation is on the table, since a country without nuclear weapons, Ukrainehas been invaded by its neighbor.

“Japan or South Korea can now legitimately consider” having the atomic bomb, as well as “Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt in the Middle East”according to Jean-Louis Lozier, formerly in charge of nuclear forces in the General Staff of the French army.

Nine states currently possess the nuclear bomb: the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom — as well as Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea.

None of these nuclear powers supported the UN Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty, adopted in 2017 with the backing of most Latin American countries.

Source: Elcomercio

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