Nuclear Deterrence In the
Era of New World Order
By Dr. Shay Har-Zvi | July, 2022
The war raging in Ukraine for the past four months is the severest and most dangerous global crisis since the Cuba missile crisis six decades ago. At present neither party seems capable of decisive victory, and both are preparing for a long and bloody war of attrition (according to NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, one that could last years) that would lead to an exacerbation in the inter-power conflict as well as the deepening of the economic crisis.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has accelerated processes that began in the global system in recent years, at the center of which was Russia and China’s call to challenge U.S. hegemony and its growing involvement in areas adjacent to their territories. President Putin further expressed it recently when he compared himself to Peter the Great, declaring the end of the era in which the world is dominated by one pole.
And, indeed, it seems that the global system is in the midst of the process of reshaping a new world order that brings with it far-reaching projections in a vast range of areas, including greater inter-bloc rivalry, a change in European state and security architecture, larger investments in military force buildup and accelerated armament processes, as well as the willingness to make use of military and forceful means to achieve political goals, the inability to collaborate as states face the global economic crisis, and the destabilization of strong nuclear regimes. It seems that the outcomes of the war in Ukraine would have implications for the nature and characteristics of the new order shaped for many years to come, similarly to the events that followed World War II and the Soviet Union’s dissolution.
The inter-bloc rivalry – The United States vs. China
The campaign in Ukraine has underscored the deepening rivalry and formation of the two blocs, each with its opposing world views and values – the western-liberal bloc headed by the United States, and the forceful regime bloc led by China and Russia. Thus, while the United States has formed a broad international coalition of democratic countries against Russia, managed to breathe new life into the relevance of NATO (formerly described by President Macron as being “brain dead”), and actively pursue the bolstering of military alliances in Europe, Asia, and the Middle Eas. On the other side, the Russian-Chinese axis enjoys the support of other countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. An indication of it was provided by the virtual BRICS leaders’ (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) summit on June 23–24, and the address made by President Xi during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (17 June) on deepening economic ties with Russia (the scope of collaboration between the two countries in the first five months of 2022 was estimated at USD65.8 billion, a 28.9% increase compared to the corresponding period last year).
Yet it is clear that, if up until the invasion into Ukraine Putin had hoped to establish a strategic axis with China between two countries in the same status (a partnership “without borders”), it now seems that the political and economic isolation forced on Moscow would turn Russia, in time, into the junior partner in this axis with Beijing due to its growing dependence on the Chinese political and economic umbrella. The latter, for its part, will continue to provide support of Russia due to the understanding that Russian defeat could directly project onto Chinese standing in the global arena, and allow the U.S. to refocus its efforts on the Asian theater.
Are nuclear regimes destabilizing?
The cracks that became apparent in nuclear regimes in recent years have increased in recent months, to a large extent due to the developments in the war in Ukraine. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the U.S. Senate (10 May) that Putin may use his nuclear arsenal if he perceived an existential threat to the Russian state or regime. This assessment reflects the significant change made by the war in Ukraine with regard to the use of nuclear rhetoric. The fact that western parties, headed by President Macron, are warning the world not to humiliate Putin due to the implications of such a step, and the implicit fear that Moscow might use nuclear weapons if it were cornered, creates a nuclear game changer in a realm last shaped after World War II.
And indeed, since the invasion, Russia has been regularly making rhetoric use of its nuclear capabilities to deter the West from directly intervening in the campaign in Ukraine. To this aim, Putin has put his nuclear array on high alert, warning against a disproportionate response in the event of western intervention in the fighting. Russia has also openly stated that its nuclear array was performing exercises, going as far as to make its first ever operational use of hypersonic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Moreover, it is likely that the lesson learned from Ukraine, who 28 years ago had declined (Budapest Memorandum) the nuclear “insurance policy” it was offered following the Soviet Union’s dissolution in exchange for security guarantees provided by the five global powers ensuring it would remain safe and sovereign, would lead other countries that face the constant threat of nuclear neighbors, or those striving to develop nuclear weapons, to the conclusion that they must develop the appropriate capabilities.
But it is not just about the Ukrainian crisis. A study recently published by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reveals that, although the overall number of nuclear weapons has decreased during 2021, the arsenals are expected to grow over the next decade. Moreover, according to publications, China is actively seeking to increase its nuclear arsenal, and has even established nuclear intercontinental missile storage facilities in the Gobi Desert. North Korea is making advanced preparations for yet another nuclear experiment (the last of which was carried out about five years ago), and Iran is taking advantage of the U.S pullout from the JCPOA to continue progressing toward becoming a nuclear threshold state. In fact, these days, alongside the NPT convention, only one other agreement signed by Russia and the United States has remained intact (New Start), and it too is expected to expire in about four years, since all the talks between Russia and the United States about new agreements have stopped due to the war in Ukraine.
Implications for Israel
The global developments harbor potential for impacting the great powers’ conduct in the Middle East too, which could turn into another conflict arena in the era of the Cold War 2.0. President Biden’s upcoming visit to the Middle East in mid-July reflects the growing understanding in the U.S. administration that, despite the desire and need to focus most of the efforts and resources on addressing Russia and China, President Biden must also adopt a realpolitik approach and reroute his relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states as a significant part of the great power rivalry. Such a step would lead, first and foremost, to the commitment to increase oil production in an effort to mitigate the rise in energy prices and soaring inflation, while also providing a response to the ties being forged between the Gulf states and China and Russia.
The new world order being shaped presents opportunities and challenges for Israel. For while greater U.S. involvement in the region could enhance Israel’s valuableness for Washington, and infuse the special relations between the two countries with additional content on the bilateral level, helping to promote partnerships with the Sunni states. The exacerbated inter-bloc rivalry could also lead to a deeper connection between Moscow and Beijing and Tehran as a key actor in the anti-American axis, thereby potentially impacting the ongoing security coordination between Israel and Russia.
Moreover, the changing global nuclear discourse, and the lessons learned from the war in Ukraine, could also project on the Middle Eastern states’ desire to advance the development of a local military nuclear program, and, under a more severe scenario, even accelerate a regional arms race (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and others), particularly if Iran will continue to advance toward becoming a nuclear threshold state.
Authored by Dr. Shay Har-Zvi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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