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Stage set for a renewed arms race?

Russia’s withdrawal from its ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, and Moscow’s announcement that it had tested an inter-continental ballistic missile are warning signs that the international community can ignore only at its own peril. The withdrawal from the CTBT came after months of accusations by the US and Russia against each other — Washington warning that Russia was about to pull the nuclear trigger, and President Vladimir Putin alleging from Moscow that the Biden administration was trying to build a cover for a possible nuclear test. Though a signatory, the US has not ratified the agreement, which the Kremlin has now used to justify its withdrawal.

The CTBT, which came into existence in 1996, was never going to save the world in any case since it never entered force. Three known nuclear-armed countries — India, Pakistan and North Korea — and two suspected others are not signatories. What has changed now is the reckless attitude of nations that had the good sense to acknowledge since the 1960s that the nuclear arms race had to end. Today, with nuclear threats in the air from Russia to Israel, “deterrence” – a notion that’s real but which the nuclear armed countries’ have mostly used as an excuse for amassing weapons of mass destruction — is in danger of breaking down. A week after the withdrawal, Russia also reported having tested the Bulava ICBM from a strategic missile cruiser.

The war in Ukraine, which has dragged on for nearly two years, has perhaps reached a dead end, even as the US enters its presidential election cycle and the appetite to pour money into Ukraine’s self-belief wanes. But the damage the war has caused beyond the shores of Ukraine and Russia is visible in the wreckage of Cold War-era treaties that were meant to wind down the arms race. The CFE Treaty, from which Putin walked out on November 6, is the latest part of that wreckage. This 1990 treaty set equal limits on weaponry that could be deployed by the NATO and Warsaw Pact nations within a certain geography, but now all bets are off.Thus, as the world returns to an era of superpower rivalry,on the one side is an expanding NATO, Russia’s insecurity combined with Putin’s revanchist designs, and America’s powerful military-industrial complex, and on the other – and closer home to India — is an aggressive China whose silent build-up of nuclear arms is causing alarm not only in Washington but also in the many countries bordering China and which live in fear of its relentless territorial claims. And there are almost no agreed restraints on any of them restarting an arms race.

(Published 10 November 2023, 18:41 IST)

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