[Sansad TV] Perspective: Nuclear Angle of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

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  • The battle between Russia and Ukraine continues for the 22nd day after Russia launched its offensive against its neighbor.
  • Russia has put its nuclear forces on alert, calling it a special regime of combat duty; these include the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that have a range of 5,000 plus and are designed to use nuclear weapons.
  • While the Russian announcement might just be a deterrent as such weapons always maintain a high-level of readiness, the mention of the word ‘nuclear’ cannot be ignored.

This article analyses all aspects of this conflict including the nuclear angle.

Russia-Ukraine Conflict: A quick recap

  • The Russian premier said the Russian military action aims to ensure a “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine.
  • At the core of the current Ukraine crisis is Russia’s disapproval of the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – NATO in its neighbourhood.
  • Russia feels threatened by the rapid expansion of NATO since the late 1990s in the region.
  • NATO and the former USSR were engaged in what was called the Cold War for about 45 years in the game of geostrategic one-upmanship.

Will there be a nuclear war?

  • Neither country would deliberately launch a “bolt-out-of-the-blue” nuclear attack. 
  • The crisis has now become a war of endurance.
  • At all times, Russia and the US are assumed to keep their land-based and submarine-based nuclear missiles in high readiness.
  • While they carefully select which instruments of coercion to use, they have both established “integrated deterrence” doctrines during the last decade.

Nuclear capability of Russia

  • Russia has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, with over 6,000 warheads.
  • Most of those warheads were in reserve when Russia invaded Ukraine, with just roughly 1,600 deployed as land, sea, and air-based weapons, such as missiles in silos or bombs dropped by planes.
  • Nuclear weapons were left on Ukrainian land when the USSR came apart at the conclusion of the Cold War, but Ukraine returned them to Russia.

US and the Nuclear Umbrella

  • Without recognizing America’s role as a nuclear umbrella, the European countries cannot avert a nuclear attack with military means.
  • The “umbrella” is based on the assumption that the adversaries of NATO will refrain from using nuclear weapons because of the fear of a counterattack.
  • There lies a distinct psychology of deterrence with NATO’s nuclear powers.
  • However, the US President is the first to decide on the use of the US nuclear weapons stored in Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

What is the Deterrence Theory?

  • A nuclear deterrent acts as a reminder of the consequences a country can face if they choose to attack another country or state.
  • The ideology dates back to the Cold War and was used to prevent any nuclear aggression.
  • As the US and then-Soviet Union each raced toward the creation and building of nuclear weapons, the US adopted a strategy of nuclear deterrence
  • The concept of nuclear deterrence follows the rationale of the ‘first user’ principle.
  • States reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in self-defense against an armed attack threatening their vital security interests.

Is Nuclear War eminent?

  • In the light of legality, the use of any nuclear weapon, considering the massive impact it has on civilians, infringes international humanitarian law.
  • Already there is a mass migration of people from Ukraine to Poland and some are seeking shelter in Hungary, Romania, Moldova and Slovakia.
  • A prominent nuclear threat would add to the humanitarian crisis.
  • However, threats of nuclear use impose intimidatory tactics on the sovereignty of a country.

Issues with Nuclear War

  • Catastrophic destruction: Nuclear weapons wreak devastation and have long-term radiation effects that affect future generations.
  • Environmental degradation: The radioactive fallout from nuclear processes is detrimental to environment and affects nations across borders.
  • Humanitarian Crisis: The very nature of destruction emanating from the use of nuclear weapons is against the very spirit of humanity. 
  • Ethical Crisis: Nuclear weapons do not discriminate between armed personals and civilians. Unleashing nuclear weapons will lead to large scale loss of innocent lives and non-combatants.
  • Huge Proliferation risk: Proliferation is the risk that states that have nuclear weapons increase their weapon stockpiles or that new states become nuclear-armed to match their enemies.
  • Nuclear Terrorism: Large stockpiles of nuclear weapons can be misused by terrorists or some rouge elements to compel the governments to give in to their demands.
  • Domino effect resulting in Proxy Wars: There is a possibility that during times of escalating bilateral disputes, some country may use military operations covertly. Ex. Pakistan.
India’s No First Use Doctrine

Minimum Credible Deterrence: Building and maintaining credible minimum deterrence.

No First use: Nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere.

Non-use against non-nuclear states: Non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states. However, in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons.

Massive Retaliation: Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.

Nuclear Command Authority: Nuclear retaliatory attacks can only be authorized by the civilian political leadership through the Nuclear Command Authority.

Challenges posed to India

  • Declining empathy for Russia: Keeping the prominence of the ongoing crisis intact, there is an emerging trend of Russia losing grounds of empathy and friendship from the international communities.
  • Neutrality put to question: As a result, it creates a massive dilemma for Russia’s old friends like India to retain its neutrality when the majority of the world is unidirectional (against Russia) at this moment.
  • Peer pressure on rise: India has age-old friendship with Russia. It is in true sense India’s all weather and time-tested friend.

India’s general position on nukes

  • Complete Disarmament:  India has always been an ardent supporter of multilateral nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation efforts.
  • Phased elimination: In 1996, India, one amongst the “Group of 21”, submitted a Programme of Action calling for “phased elimination of nuclear weapons” to the Conference of Disarmament.
  • Non-discriminatory elimination: India reiterated its commitment to a Nuclear Weapons Convention calling for a verifiable and non-discriminatory elimination of all nuclear weapons.

Way Forward

  • The entire world is at the confluence of confusion and complexities and an anticipation of the severity of the nuclear threat from Russia.
  • Nuclear weapons – for as long as they continue to exist – should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.
  • Since Russian concerns are genuine, it needs to create a security environment more conducive to progress on dialogue and diplomacy.
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