Nukes a deterrent against attack

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By Lakshman I. Keerthisinghe

“Japan learned from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the tragedy wrought by nuclear weapons must never be repeated and that humanity and nuclear weapons cannot co-exist” –  Daisaku Ikeda (Japanese Writer)

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said in an interview on 22 March 2022 that Russia has a ‘concept of domestic security’ that outlines when nuclear weapons can be used and thus Russia would only use nuclear weapons if its very existence were threatened. Peskov said “We have a concept of domestic security, and it’s public. You can read all the reasons for nuclear arms to be used…So if it is an existential threat for our country, then it can be used in accordance with our concept.”

Putin last month ordered Russia’s nuclear forces to be put on high alert. In line with the order, Russia’s Defence Ministry said on 28 February that its nuclear missile forces and northern and Pacific fleets had been placed on enhanced combat duty, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on 14 March  that “the prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility” Peskov also told CNN that Russia’s war in Ukraine was “going on strictly in accordance with the plans and the purposes that were established beforehand”. 

The comments come after United States President Joe Biden warned that Putin was considering using chemical and biological weapons in Ukraine, as he described Moscow’s tactics as increasingly “brutal”. Recently. Russia said it had launched its Kinzhal (Dagger) hypersonic missile that can hit targets anywhere on Earth within an hour. Putin said in December that Russia was the global leader in hypersonic missiles, whose speed, maneuverability and altitude make them difficult to track and intercept. The Kinzhal missiles are part of a collection of weapons unveiled in 2018. Russia first used the hypersonic missile during its military campaign in Syria in 2016.The war has shaken the post-Cold War global security consensus, imperiled the world supply of key crops, and raised worries it could set off a nuclear accident.

Separately, wildfires broke out near Ukraine’s decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant, but the country’s natural resources minister said the flames had world’s worst nuclear been extinguished and radiation was within normal levels.Putin claims Ukraine is part of Russia, so using nuclear weapons on its territory seems bizarre. Russia itself is close by and “the fallout could cross boundaries”, warns Patricia Lewis. The only time nuclear weapons have been used in conflict was by the US at the end of World War Two against Japan. Would Putin want to become the first leader to break the taboo and use them?

Some worry he has shown a willingness to do things others thought he would not do, whether invading Ukraine or using nerve agent in Salisbury. Experts say there is a further reason why Russia might not use nuclear weapons – China.” Russia is heavily dependent on Chinese support, but China has a ‘no first use’ nuclear doctrine. So, if Putin did use them, it would be incredibly difficult for China to stand by him. If he used them, he would probably lose China.”

When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, he also made a more nebulous threat: “No matter who tries to stand in our way or … create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.”

Another part of his speech seemed to make his meaning clear. “Today’s Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear States,” Putin said. As justification for the invasion, Putin also made unfounded claims that Ukraine was on a path to build its own nuclear arsenal. “There’s no evidence of that at all,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

On 27 February, Putin went a step further, ordering his country’s nuclear forces to a “special regime of combat duty” and blaming “illegal sanctions” and “aggressive statements” from countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

In conclusion, the Russian invasion has relied entirely on conventional weapons — tanks rattling down highways, bombers flying overhead, ships landing in the port city of Odesa — and experts held that in the absence of a shocking escalation, that isn’t likely to change. Still, Putin’s remarks were a stark reminder that nuclear weapons aren’t just the boogeymen of a bygone age, but remain a key part of the security order that emerged after the end of World War II. By Kristensen’s count, Russia has about 6,000 nuclear weapons and the United States has about 5,500. Either nuclear arsenal is large enough to kill billions of people, but also to serve as a deterrent against attack.

The writer is an Attorney-at-Law with LLB, LLM, M.Phil. (Colombo) 

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