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Explaining nuclear treaties amid Russia’s concerning drills

Russia’s recent tactical nuclear weapons drills, in response to perceived Western threats, have raised concerns about treaty violations and global nuclear security destabilization.

Nuclear deterrent policies have played a crucial role in preventing a nuclear war since the catastrophic events of World War 2. Following this, nations globally recognized the urgent need to prevent the use of nuclear weapons through nuclear deterrence strategies and non-proliferation efforts.

However, Vladimir Putin’s recent directive to conduct drills involving tactical nuclear weapons introduces a concerning dynamic that could potentially unravel these safety nets.

The drills are a response to the Kremlin’s claims of ‘threats’ from the West and its backing of Ukraine. Recently, French President Macron expressed readiness to send troops if necessary, highlighting the significance of preventing a Russian triumph for European security.

In addition, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron pledged $3.74 billion in military aid to Ukraine, affirming Ukraine’s right to use British-supplied weapons against Russia.

Nuclear deterrent policies

Currently, many nuclear policies govern the ability of a nation to control the power of nuclear energy. However, in the context of Russia’s possibly going rogue with its arsenal, the major ones that come into force are the NPT, MAD, and NFU policies.

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is a landmark international agreement that plays a crucial role in maintaining global nuclear stability. The treaty was signed in 1968 and entered into force in 1970.

While the treaty primarily aims to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons, it also highlights global cooperation. The NPT promotes peaceful nuclear energy use and establishes an IAEA safeguards system to ensure nuclear materials and technology aren’t diverted for military purposes.

Additionally, the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), is a deterrence strategy that played a crucial role in maintaining nuclear stability between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The doctrine of MAD holds that if one superpower launches a nuclear attack, the other superpower would be able to retaliate with enough force to destroy the attacker, resulting in the complete annihilation of both sides. This threat of mutually assured destruction was intended to deter either side from initiating a nuclear war.

MAD is still significant today, with the US and Russia maintaining nuclear forces based on this principle. Nonetheless, with the escalating tensions the line drawn by MAD continues to falter.

Equally as important as the aforementioned strategies, is the No First Use (NFU) policy. NFU is a commitment by a nuclear-armed state to never use nuclear weapons first under any circumstances. By extension, nuclear weapons would only be used in response to a nuclear attack against the state or its allies.

Countries like China and India have adopted NFU policies, while other nuclear-armed states like the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, and France maintain policies that allow for the first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict.

What are TNWs?

It is vital to note that Putin’s current nuclear drills involve tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). These TNWs are designed for battlefield use, targeting specific enemy assets without causing widespread destruction. They are smaller, less powerful, and intended to win battles by targeting troops, airfields, submarines, or aircraft carriers.

In contrast, strategic nuclear weapons aim to win wars by crippling the enemy’s capacity to fight with immense destructive force, capable of hitting cities and military installations.

Currently, the biggest global nuclear powers are Russia and the US possessing 10,600 of the 12,100 nuclear warheads globally, followed by China, France, and Britain. As of 2024, Russia controls an estimated 1,558 TNWs. Due to the lack of transparency, it’s unwise to assume the nation’s arsenal is limited to what’s publicly disclosed.

In a tense nuclear-fueled environment, the pressure may lead military forces to opt for strategic nuclear weapons over less destructive tactical ones, potentially triggering a spiral of uncontrollable escalation.

A look at the consequences

With the use of a ‘small’ tactical nuclear weapon potentially escalating into a full-scale nuclear conflict, the  ‘nuclear taboo’ would eventually be broken. This breach would effectively nullify Russia’s adherence to the No First Use policy, initiating a nuclear conflict.

However, the primary concern is the potential for a full-scale nuclear exchange between Russia and NATO countries. With NATO members possessing significant nuclear arsenals, including the US, France, and the UK, any use of tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine could lead to retaliatory strikes from NATO allies, escalating the situation further.

Hence, such retaliatory nuclear attacks would breach the NPT by using nuclear weapons in a military context, setting a dangerous precedent. This could incentivize other states to contemplate nuclear options in conflicts, heightening the risk of nuclear proliferation and undermining efforts to curb the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

If the US, a significant part of NATO, resorts to using its nuclear weapons, it would disrupt the MAD doctrine. According to Princeton researchers, a nuclear war between both nations, sparked by a single low-yield nuclear weapon, could result in 34.1 million deaths within hours.

In the scenario where the world’s largest nuclear powers engage in a conflict, the threat of mutual destruction would lose its deterrent effect.

The aftermath also includes immediate and long-term health risks from radiation exposure such as cancer and gene mutations. Additionally, the detonation site and surrounding environment face devastation, leading to food insecurity and disruption of weather patterns, agriculture, and ecosystems.

Eventually, a dystopian future would likely arise, marked by heightened social unrest, political instability, and economic devastation. These changes will reshape global power dynamics and economies, impacting peace, security, and cooperation among nations in lasting ways.

Ultimately, collaboration between the West is essential to de-escalate tensions and pursue a diplomatic resolution, averting the need for Russia’s nuclear weapons from coming into play.