March 05, 2023

Ukraine War’s Continuing Threat: Last Nuclear Agreement now Suspended

Prabir Purkayastha

THE Ukraine War has now completed one year. Unfortunately, one of the consequences of the war is that the New START, the last remaining arms control agreement on nuclear weapons and missiles, has also gone into limbo. On February 21, President Putin announced that Russia has “suspended” its participation in New START, though it will still observe the limits set on the nuclear missiles and warheads till the agreement expires in 2026. Russia putting New START in suspended animation is a response to the US and its allies converting the Ukraine War to a NATO war against Russia.

Earlier, the US had walked out of the other two arms control treaties, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019. Capping the number of launchers and warheads was coupled with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, that both countries will refrain from building missile shields while reducing warheads. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), of which START and New START are successors, had, therefore, the ABM Treaty as its counterparts, both being negotiated together. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the first arms control treaty to fall was the ABM Treaty.

Why was ABM Treaty the counterpart to the SALT negotiations? This goes back to the nuclear missile race and the logic of mutually assured destruction (MAD) that was at its heart. The understanding was that in a nuclear war, any side that struck first would be able to take out most of the other side’s nuclear weapons. The question was could the country striking first survive the weak response of the country, which would have seen most of its missile infrastructure taken out, including its political and military leadership? This is what led both the US and the Soviets to build a huge number of warheads and missile launchers so that even if 95 per cent of their nuclear missiles were taken out, the remaining few would still be enough to destroy their opponent. At its height, the US and the Soviet Union had together 64,000 warheads, which has dropped currently to the maximum permitted under New START to 1,550 each, or 3,100 in total. This inventory does not take into account the other nuclear powers like China, the UK, France, Israel, India and Pakistan, all of whom have nuclear weapons but with much smaller inventories.

The argument was that such an architecture in which nuclear missiles and warheads could be reduced demanded that no anti-ballistic missiles should be deployed. Otherwise, a missile shield could take out most of the missiles launched after a country had been attacked first and lost most of its missiles. Without the ABM Treaty, the logic of mutually assured destruction would mean a spiralling nuclear weapons race, as happened earlier. Though the ABM treaty was abandoned by Bush in 2002, no ABM shields were constructed except the two permitted under the defunct ABM Treaty. Therefore there was no need to increase warheads to defeat anti-ballistic missiles.

While the ABM Treaty was abandoned by the US in 2002, the first potential anti-ballistic missile deployment took place in Romania and Poland only in 2010. The US AEGIS Ashore systems deployed in these two countries have the ability to fire either cruise missiles or anti-ballistic missiles, therefore destabilising the fragile arms control regime based on no anti-ballistic missile shields being created.

The second arms control treaty to fall after the ABM Treaty was the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement which banned land-based missiles with a range between 1,000 to 5,500 kilometres. This agreement was signed by Reagan and Gorbachev in 1987, and its objective was to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons in Europe. While Trump, when he withdrew from the INF Treaty, talked about China, Russia perceived that with NATO’s frontline moving to the borders of Russia, such INF missiles would now be on Russia’s borders. Intermediate-range Missiles in Poland and Romania and the possibility of such missiles in Ukraine in the future were perceived as a direct nuclear threat to Russia. With the US leaving the ABM Treaty and installing AEGIS batteries capable of firing anti-ballistic missiles close to Russia’s borders means the entire disarmament architecture created painstakingly during the Cold War with the Soviet Union no longer exists.

I am not dealing with the origins of the Ukraine War here, but only with its implications for the nuclear arms control architecture and treaties. Clearly, the Ukraine War is also a war between Russia and NATO. The military support of NATO to Ukraine over the last 12 months is now more than $66 billion, Russia’s entire military budget for the year. And as we now know, NATO’s entire stock of shells, artillery and other weapons is slowly being destroyed in the Ukraine War.

While we take for granted the NATO support for Ukraine, interestingly, Washington Post reported that NATO’s also provided direct battlefield support. It wrote (February 9, 2023), “Ukrainian officials said they require coordinates provided or confirmed by the United States and its allies for the vast majority of strikes using its advanced US-provided rocket systems, a previously undisclosed practice that reveals a deeper and more operationally active role for the Pentagon in the war.” As the article details, the Ukrainian role is only to press the button, all else being controlled by the US. NATO is fully a partner of Ukraine’s forces in this war, helping it to choose where to strike and what to hit and even supplying the coordinates to the missile systems.

It is in this context that we must see Ukraine’s attempted drone strike against the Engels Airbase in Russia, which is 600 kilometres from the Ukraine border. Engels airbase stores nuclear weapons, and if NATO indeed provides coordinates for all strikes against Russia, did it also provide logistical support to the Ukrainian drone attempting to hit a nuclear weapons store in Russia? In other words, did NATO actually control the drone, or at least provide the coordinates of the Engels airbase?

This is important in Russia’s announcement on New START. Russia has said that it will observe all the limits on weapons and launchers set in New START but is suspending the agreement till then. It means that it is suspending all inspections of its nuclear facilities, which is also a part of the New START agreement.

The inspection of each other’s nuclear facilities is a key part of the agreement preventing the two from hiding their actual warheads and where they are. If NATO is involved with targeting Russian facilities, including nuclear ones within Russia, then inspections of its facilities increase the risk of a successful attack on it. Putin said as much in his Annual Address (February 21, 2023), “We know that the West is directly linked to the attempts of Kyiv regime to attack our strategic aviation basis. The NATO specialist helped in directing unmanned aircraft to attack these facilities. And they want to inspect our facilities? Today this is just nonsense.”

Ukraine had earlier attacked the Zaprozhiya Nuclear Plant, which is held by Russia in the Zaprozhiya Oblast. Though this is extremely dangerous as it can easily lead to a Fukushima-like disaster and the spreading of radioactive material in a very large area, these attacks continued over time without any response from either IAEA or Ukraine’s NATO allies. The problem with war – any war – is that it rarely stays within the boundaries set by either side. And attacking nuclear plants and nuclear stockpiles adds significantly to the risk of the war in Ukraine today.

Return to arms control is a must, not simply for peace in Europe, but for the survival of humanity. It is stupid or completely a blinkered vision that war can continue between NATO and Russia without the possibility of spinning out of control. To this, we have to add the almost last-gasp status of the disarmament architecture, with even the last agreement standing – the New START – now at risk. The step back from the nuclear precipice is not going to be an easy one. But even if we can start to repair the nuclear disarmament architecture, we need peace between Russia and NATO and the Ukraine War to stop.

Abandoning two nuclear disarmament agreements and the only remaining one in suspended animation is a civilisational threat. The tragedy today is that we do not have global statesmen like Nehru, Nkrumah, Nasser, Tito or Sukarno, who had the stature to broker peace based on their leadership of independence struggles. In the emerging multi-polar world, leaders of non-combatant countries are unwilling to stand up for peace, worried that their narrow national interests may be hurt if they stick their necks out. There is no collective like the non-aligned movement that could act as an independent collective to play such roles. Instead, we have to wait for good sense to dawn on the combatant countries that a war between nuclear powers, even if thinly cloaked as only weapons and logistic support, can spin out of control at any moment. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, this is perhaps the most dangerous moment in our history. The fact that it is not being perceived as such is the real tragedy.