Russian nuclear roulette
Posted : 2023-03-06 17:10
Updated : 2023-03-06 17:10
By Kim Won-soo
Ahead of its widely expected spring offensive in Ukraine, Russia announced its decision to suspend its participation in New START, a landmark nuclear arms control treaty between the United States and Russia, which has recently been extended to Feb. 4, 2026. This decision is the latest in a series of Russian attempts to pressure the West through nuclear blackmail.
The latest blackmail attempt can be understood as an extension of Russia’s earlier threat to use nuclear weapons against any country trying to intervene in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These threats remind us of how easily a nuclear war could be triggered that could annihilate humanity. Given the high volatility of the current international security environment, perhaps it is not a surprise that this year’s doomsday clock is set at 90 seconds to midnight, the closest ever to a man-made apocalypse.
Seen from a realpolitik perspective, Russia’s decision to suspend New START is not a sign of strength but one of weakness as it seems to reflect its growing desperation more than anything. As it stands now, Moscow’s desire to end the war quickly is far removed from the reality on the ground. No feasible way out of the war is in sight.
Seen from an arms control perspective, the latest blackmail carries high risks like in Russian roulette: One unlucky shot could ruin too much for Russia as well as the whole world.
First, the suspension of New START would be extremely difficult to sustain in the face of the near-universal outcry by the international community. Indisputably, New START represents the only remaining nuclear arms control treaty between Washington and Moscow. New START plays a critical role in preventing vertical proliferation between the world’s two largest nuclear weapon states.
Over the last five decades, multiple measures have been put in place to curb both the deployment and stockpiling of nuclear warheads and their delivery systems. The nuclear arms control architecture has endured tough tests with many ups and downs along the way. Overall, it has contributed tremendously to reducing the number of nuclear weapons from over 70,000 at the peak of the Cold War to around 12,000 at the moment. Throughout this process, START and New START have played the most instrumental roles. Now New START is the only instrument that can make sure this arms reduction process continues into at least 2026 and hopefully beyond. Therefore, Russia will soon begin to feel the rising pressure from the international community to reverse its decision to suspend New START.
Second, if Russia disregards this pressure and continues to shirk its commitment to New START, it can potentially lead to the termination of the treaty regardless of the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Then it may be the beginning of the end of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime held together by the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) for the last five decades. A nuclear arms race would be waged in full force by both the recognized and unrecognized nuclear states, just like during the Cold War. This would erode the already shaky commitment of non-nuclear states to renounce horizontal proliferation. Russia’s blackmail would prove to be the death knell for all humanity.
Humanity stands at a crossroads right now in the struggle to stave off a nuclear winter. Collective pressure is the only way to make reason prevail within the Russian leadership. The international political climate is turning hostile as the rivalry among the major powers becomes intense. Competition and confrontation will likely rise in almost all areas, from political and military to economic and technological. It is true that the hostile political climate is not conducive to arms reduction and control. But it is not necessarily harmful, either.
The history of nuclear arms control shows that agreements were signed even when the global political climate was sour and the major powers were clashing during the Cold War. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) and the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) are prime examples. They were concluded despite the height of Cold War tensions and served to build confidence between the two superpowers. Then the confidence built helped the two countries attempt to work together to dismantle the Cold War structures peacefully.
We should not lose hope but learn lessons from past trials and successes in nuclear arms control. This time the biggest onus is on the United States and China. The two most powerful states must talk to each other to ensure that their strategic competition does not spiral out of control. Plus, they need to publicly reaffirm their commitment to the core principles of the NPT. China has a special responsibility both as a fast-rising challenger to U.S. primacy and the only country with the power to moderate Russia. Going forward, the nuclear arms control architecture will not be complete without the participation of China. The United States and China must take the lead in getting all five recognized nuclear states fully involved in a revamped N5 (Nuke Five) or P5 (Perm Five) nuclear dialogue. The leadership of the United States and China is critical to correcting the course from collective suicide to peaceful coexistence.
Kim Won-soo (email@example.com) is the former under-secretary-general of the United Nations and high representative for disarmament. As a Korean diplomat, he served as secretary to the ROK president for foreign affairs as well as for international security. He is now the chair of the international advisory board of the Taejae Academy (Future Consensus Institute) and a chair professor at Kyung Hee University.