Ukraine: The embryonic nuclear flashpoint is terrifying for South Asia

Ukraine: The embryonic nuclear flashpoint is terrifying for South Asia

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Since the Russian special military operation in Ukraine, the possibility of tactical nuclear weapons use has been haunting the international community. On September 30, President Vladimir Putin raised the spectre of nuclear use by claiming that the US nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had created a precedent. Subsequently, President Joe Biden’s cautioning statements that his Russian counterpart is not bluffing when he talks about the potential use of nuclear weapons, is telling about the diminishing of the nuclear taboo and the termination of the consensus that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

NATO's restrained strategy to assist the Ukrainians underscores the Russian nuclear threat's efficacy. Besides, in the NATO 2022 Strategic Concept, the members appreciated the alliance's strategic nuclear forces in its overall security. Notably, NATO's nuclear deterrence posture relies on the United States' nuclear weapons forward deployed in Europe. On September 25, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan assured European allies that the US and allies would respond decisively to Russian nuclear weapons. Currently, the US has 100 nuclear weapons deployed in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Turkey. Hence, the Russian and American nuclear threat needs to be taken seriously.

The Russians' limited nuclear weapons use, even a tactical nuclear weapon on the battlefield, could swiftly escalate a local or regional conflict into a global one, provided the Americans dare to retaliate with nuclear weapons in defense of Ukraine. According to the United States nuclear doctrine, only the NATO members have the luxury of a nuclear umbrella. Nevertheless, NATO avoids a broader NATO-Russia clash involving nuclear weapons.

The possibility of a nuclear conflict between Moscow and Washington has become more acute recently due to the Americans warning Russians against using nuclear weapons in Ukraine. On October 11, President Biden, in an interview with CNN host Jake Tapper opined that Russians' contemplation to use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine could lead to a horrible outcome. He said, "And not because anybody intends to turn it into a world war. Once you use a nuclear weapon, the mistakes that can be made, the miscalculations, who knows what could happen?" The Americans’ endeavor to keep a balance between threat and reassurance illustrates what a single miscalculation or accident could unleash.

President Joe Biden’s cautioning statements are telling about the diminishing of the nuclear taboo and the termination of the consensus that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

Zafar Nawaz Jaspal

Being a NATO member, Poland enjoys a positive (nuclear) security assurance. However, Polish president, Andrzej Duda’s request to the United States to deploy nuclear weapons on its territory was a destabilizing move. Bringing American nuclear weapons deployed in Europe closer to the Russian border would lower the nuclear threshold between the Kremlin and NATO.

Many analysts opine that the nuclear weapons deployment in Poland could violate the NPT's articles-I and II. However, it is a debatable perception. If US nuclear weapons are deployed on Polish territory, Polish and Americans defend their nuclear sharing through the grandfathered clause of international law. Moreover, the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997 states NATO has "no intention, no plan and no reason" to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members, including nuclear weapons storage sites." Indeed, it prohibits NATO from deploying nuclear weapons on the part of Poland. However, the situation has transformed since the Russians violated the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in 2014 through the annexation of Crimea.

The nuclear decision-making in Europe directly influences East and South Asia's nuclear strategy. For example, the crisis between the nuclear-armed strategic competitors in Taiwan Strait has been brewing since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's trip to Taiwan in August. In addition, North Korea's recent cruise missile tests terrified Japan and South Korea and necessitated the United States' countermeasures.

The non-implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions over Kashmir and India's aggressive approach towards Pakistan evolved the chronic Kashmir conflict into a nuclear flash point in South Asia. Moreover, India and Pakistan are modernizing their nuclear arsenals, and failed to end the deadlock.

To conclude, the inching of the Ukrainian war toward nuclear weapons employment is a frightening development on the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. So far, the international community has failed in a diplomatic off-ramp to end the war. Thus, the prospect that Russia and the United States could go to nuclear war necessitates the international community prudently addressing the Ukrainian embryonic nuclear flash point.  

- Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal is an Islamabad-based analyst and professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @zafar_jaspal

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