TOP STORIES Putin's threats highlight the danger of a new, riskier...

Putin’s threats highlight the danger of a new, riskier nuclear era


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WASHINGTON. The old nuclear order, rooted in the unthinkable aftermath of the Cold War, was wearing out before Russia invaded Ukraine. Now it is giving way to an impending era of disorder such as has not been seen since the beginning of the atomic age.

Russia’s regular reminders over the past three months of its nuclear prowess, even if they have been mostly noisy, have been the latest indication that the potential threat is manifesting itself in a more obvious and dangerous form. They were enough for President Biden to issue a sharp warning to Moscow on Tuesday, tantamount to a tacit admission that the world had entered a period of heightened nuclear risks.

“At this time, we don’t see any indication that Russia intends to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, although at times Russian rhetoric to rattle the nuclear saber is itself dangerous and highly irresponsible,” Mr. Biden wrote in a guest essay in The New York Times. “Let me be clear: any use of nuclear weapons in this conflict on any scale would be completely unacceptable to us, as well as to the rest of the world, and would have dire consequences.”

Those consequences, however, would almost certainly be non-nuclear, officials said, in stark contrast to the threats of nuclear escalation pursued by Washington and Moscow during the Cold War.

Such shifts go far beyond Russia and include moves by China to expand its arsenal, the collapse of any hope that North Korea will limit—much less eliminate—its stockpile of nuclear warheads, and the emergence of so-called threshold states such as Iran, which are tantalizingly close to being able to build a bomb.

Under the Trump administration, the United States and Russia pulled out of arms treaties that limited their arsenals. Only one remained in force – the new START, which limits the number of deployed strategic weapons on both sides to 1,550 units. Then, when the war broke out in Ukraine in February, talks between Washington and Moscow about what could replace the agreement abruptly ended.

With the Biden administration ramping up the flow of conventional weapons to Ukraine and tensions with Russia high, a senior administration official acknowledged that it is “nearly impossible to imagine now” how negotiations could resume before the latest treaty expires in early 2026. .

Hundreds of new missile silos began popping up in the Chinese desert last summer. The Pentagon said that Beijing, which has long said it needed only “minimal deterrents”, is going to build an arsenal of “at least” 1,000 nuclear weapons by 2030.

Commander of US Strategic Command, the military unit that keeps the nuclear arsenal ready for launch, said last month that he is concerned that Beijing has learned lessons from Moscow’s threats on Ukraine and will apply them to Taiwan, which it also considers a breakaway state.

The Chinese are “closely watching the war in Ukraine and will likely use nuclear coercion to their advantage” in future conflicts, Commander-in-Chief Admiral Charles A. Richard told Congress. Beijing’s goal, he said, “is to achieve the military capability to reunify Taiwan by 2027, if not sooner.”

Other administration officials are more skeptical, noting that Russian saber-rattling has not deterred the West from arming Ukraine and that China can learn from the fact that nuclear threats can backfire.

Others draw their own lessons. North Korea, which President Donald Trump boasted he would disarm with one-on-one diplomacy, is building a new weapon.

South Korea, which Mr. Biden visited last month, is once again openly debating whether to develop nuclear forces to counter the North, a debate reminiscent of the 1970s when Washington forced the South to abandon its covert bomb program.

In South Korea and beyond, Ukraine’s abandonment of its nuclear arsenal three decades ago is seen by some as a mistake that left it open to invasion.

Iran has rebuilt most of its nuclear infrastructure after President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear agreements. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Tehran can now produce fuel for a nuclear weapon in a matter of weeks, although it would take a year or more to produce a warhead.

Experts say a second nuclear age is rapidly approaching, full of new dangers and uncertainties, less predictable than during the Cold War, with restrictions in place giving way to more overt threats associated with obtaining such weapons and the need for new strategies to maintain a nuclear world. .

Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., Senior Fellow, Hudson Institution, argued recently in foreign affairs that the coming era will be characterized by “both increased risk of a nuclear arms race and increased incentives for states to resort to nuclear weapons in crisis situations”.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin launched the war in Ukraine by declaring that he was putting his nuclear forces on a sort of high alert—a clear signal to Washington to back off. (There is no evidence that he moved any nuclear weapons or loosened control over their use, CIA director William J. Burns recently said.)

It was the latest expression of Putin’s strategy to remind the world that even if Russia’s economy is comparable to Italy’s and its influence is eclipsed by the rise of China, its nuclear arsenal remains the largest.

In the years leading up to the invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Putin regularly interspersed his speeches with nuclear propaganda videos, including one it featured a swarm of warheads descending on Florida. In March 2018, when he announced the development of a 78-foot ship, nuclear torpedo He intended to cross the ocean and cover with radiation an area larger than California. called it is “amazing” and “really fantastic” as an accompanying video showed him exploding in a giant fireball.

Popular Sunday news show in Russia lately shown animation that again showed a giant torpedo, claiming that the weapon could explode with capacity up to 100 megatons – more than 6,000 times more powerful than the American atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima – and turn Britain “into a radioactive wasteland.”

The whole thing was a little heavy-handed, even for a bruised Mr. Putin. But inside the Pentagon and the National Security Council, his bluster has drawn attention to another part of the Russian arsenal: tactical or “military” weapons, relatively small arms that are not subject to any treaties and are easy to transport. Russia has about 2,000 stocks, which is 20 times more than NATO’s arsenals.

They are designed by the Russians to blur the distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons, which strategists fear makes their use more sensible.

In military exercises and field exercises, Russian troops have simulated the transition from conventional to tactical nuclear weapons as an experiment to scare the enemy. In Russian military doctrine, this is called “escalation for the sake of de-escalation.”

A sign of the risks of this new era has been a series of urgent administration meetings to outline how Mr. Biden should react if Russia carries out a nuclear explosion in Ukraine or around the Black Sea. Officials will not discuss the classified results of these tabletop exercises.

But in a public appearance before Congress last month, Avril D. Haynes, director of national intelligence, said officials believe Mr. Putin will only reach for his arsenal if “he realizes that he is losing the war in Ukraine and that NATO effect is either intervening or is about to intervene.”

Intelligence officials say they think the chances are slim but higher than anyone thought before the invasion.

“There are a lot of things he would have done in the context of an escalation before he got to nuclear weapons,” Ms Haynes said.

The White House, Pentagon and intelligence agencies are studying the implications of any potential claims by Russia that it is conducting nuclear tests or using its relatively small nuclear weapons force on the battlefield to demonstrate its capabilities.

As Mr. Biden’s article hints, his advisers are almost entirely considering non-nuclear responses – most likely a combination of sanctions, diplomatic efforts and, if a military response is needed, conventional strikes – to any such demonstration of a nuclear explosion.

The idea would be to “signal an immediate de-escalation” followed by international condemnation, said one administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to provide insight into sensitive topics.

“If you retaliate in kind, you lose the moral high ground and the ability to use the global coalition,” said John B. Wolfsthal, a nuclear energy expert who served on the Obama administration’s National Security Council.

Mr. Wolfsthal noted that in 2016 the Obama administration played a war game in which participants agreed that a non-nuclear response to a Russian strike was the best option. Ms. Haynes, then deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama, ran the simulation.

Scott D. Sagana nuclear strategist at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, called the development of a non-nuclear response an “extremely important” development.

“The response doesn’t have to be an in-kind response,” he said.

But the details matter. The test of Russia over the ocean where no one dies can be one; one in a Ukrainian city that kills people can lead to a different reaction.

Henry Kissinger noted in a recent interview with The Financial Times that “there is almost no discussion at the international level about what would happen if the weapons were actually used.” He added: “We are now living in a completely new era.”

For decades, Beijing has been content with having a few hundred nuclear weapons to ensure it can’t be attacked and that it retains a “second strike” capability if a nuclear weapon is used against it.

When satellite imagery began to surface on the edge of the Gobi desert last year showing new ICBM silos, it sparked a debate in the Pentagon and US intelligence agencies about Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s intentions, especially at a time when he seemed to be leading to confrontation over Taiwan.

The simplest theory is that if China is going to become a superpower, it needs an arsenal the size of a superpower. But another reason is that Beijing recognizes that all familiar theories of the nuclear balance of power are collapsing.

“China heralds a paradigm shift towards something much less stable,” wrote Mr. Krepinevich, “a tripolar nuclear system.”

Administration officials say that every time the topic is brought up, their Chinese counterparts make it clear that they will not discuss arms control agreements. As a result, they are unclear about Mr. Xi’s intentions. For example, can China extend the protection of its nuclear arsenal to other states it is trying to lure into its orbit?

All of this is the subject of a secret study that the Pentagon recently submitted to Congress. But so far none of them has been discussed openly.

“Everyone is rushing for a nuclear umbrella, and if they can’t get one, they’re thinking of getting their own weapons,” said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington-based private group that tracks nuclear proliferation.

He called the Middle East the main territory for further atomic ambitions. While Iran is slowly getting closer to building a bomb, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been talking publicly about the possibility of a repeat of any of Tehran’s actions.

“They’re up to something,” Mr. Albright said of Saudi Arabia, “and they’re rich.”

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