The Challenge of a Multi-Polar Nuclear Age


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

The article has been published in the IPCS Web Journal in the authors column The Strategist and is available at

Of Parity, Assured Destruction & Mistrust

For the last 77 years, since the USA first detonated nuclear weapons and annihilated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an eerie ambivalence has prevailed concerning their use. On the one hand some scholars and practitioners are convinced of the myth of usable nuclear weapons; while on the other, governments are devising policies for use . In the meanwhile, Russia toys with the idea of escalating to nuclear warfare in order to de-escalate on-going conflict; while China designs a strategy to provide greater flexibility in the use of nuclear forces.

Significantly, the first nuclear attacks also defined the basis of nuclear stability. Relationship between bellicose nuclear armed states was marked by three characteristics: quest for parity in arsenals, certitude of mutual destruction and a bizarre level of mistrust that drove states to adopt grotesque stratagems. Just how abominable nuclear war plans could be was pointed out by Noam Chomsky (the renowned pacifist). US nuclear posture, he said, called “for the delivery of 3200 nuclear weapons to 1060 targets in Russia, China, and allied countries,” all together impervious to the fact that nuclear weapons destroyed political purpose. General Butler, a former Commander-in-Chief of US Strategic Command put it succinctly when he renounced the current nuclear programs and systems as a death warrant for humanity.

 Flawed New START

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) was signed 08 April, 2010, by the US and Russia. The instrument was a continuum of a bipartisan process to reduce nuclear arsenals. The two parties agreed in 2021, to extend the Treaty by five years. The key provision of the agreement limits nuclear warheads, delivery vectors and launchers and institutes a system of verification.

The Accord is, however, amiss both conceptually and in its substance. Conceptually it is neither inclusive of all nuclear armed states nor does it identify “mistrust” as a key factor that stokes scepticism. While in substance it fails to recognise that all nuclear weapons, including tactical, are weapons in the same category; for when used they have the potential to escalate to mass destruction. In addition it pays no heed to the fact that warheads held in reserve can very quickly be deployed. But where the treaty is fatally flawed is its inability to institute measures that diminish intent “to-use” by demanding all nuclear armed nations to abjure “First Use” of nuclear weapons as an essential doctrinal-point that allays perils of nuclear devastation.

Nuclear Weapons an Umbrella for Conventional War

Just how consequential this last consideration can be has been demonstrated In the course of the Ukraine conflict. Russia has obliquely threatened use of nuclear weapons to provide an umbrella for its war. This has turned the Cold-War idea of deterrence on its head as Moscow uses the deterrence value of its nuclear arsenal not to protect Russia but rather to provide space for conventional action. The Kremlin introduced an explicit nuclear dimension through its various declarations. On 18 February 2022, Russia conducted manoeuvres of its nuclear forces prior incursion into Ukraine. The event left little doubt that choice of timing was linked to the impending crisis. On 24 February, Moscow warned NATO in a declaration that there would be unprecedented consequences should a third state attempt to “obstruct” Russia’s designs. The Russian president went further on 27 February, announcing that Russia’s nuclear forces had been placed on “special alert”. Such public announcement regarding nuclear forces was last proclaimed by the United States during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later noted, cryptically, that a third world war would be “nuclear”.

The Bluff of Extended Deterrence

In this milieu, the very idea of “extended nuclear deterrence” takes an outlandish turn. The logic of guarantee against a nuclear attack on a third nation implies that the guarantor launch a retaliatory nuclear strike and accept the consequences irrespective of circumstance, extent of convergence of interests or degree of mutuality. This, as recent events in Ukraine has exposed, is not rational.

Extended nuclear deterrence demands both guarantor and beneficiary accept the same conditions of nuclear use, magnitude of response, norms for escalation and share the same strategic interests. Since none of these propositions are indubitable, the substance of extended nuclear deterrence is ultimately dependent on the guarantor accepting catastrophic consequences on behalf of a third party. Nations under this canopy might want to re-consider the credibility of extended nuclear deterrence in the contemporary strategic circumstance. Reliance on the nuclear deterrent capabilities of a major power is much more an “act of clutching at a straw” than a reflection of reality. This is the dilemma of extended nuclear deterrence.

Prospects of Nuclear Stability – A Revisit

Many factors that deterred military conflict during the Cold War and after have weakened. The growing parity of arsenal, absence of moderating pressures and power imbalances between states have exposed the underlying stresses within the global system and increased the probability of conflict.

Russia’s case is symptomatic of the current anarchic state of affairs. Having lost its economic, technological, and political heft of the Soviet era; it retains great power aspirations, demands exceptionalism and clings to nuclear superpower status. Its nuclear arsenal is a key component of leverage, for it endows immunity from military pressure and the leeway to pursue an independent foreign policy.

Nuclear deterrence today can only work in conjunction with agreements, limitations and transparency. Without which, it brings antagonistic powers to the brink of nuclear war in a crisis. In the present fragile condition of deterrent relationships the prospects of nuclear stability amongst the nine nuclear armed nations will remain forlorn.

The Challenge

Cold-War nuclear paradigms can no further be tweaked to provide an illusion of stability to the nine nuclear armed states. Priority should be given to identifying methods to dispel ‘mistrust’, while advancing the idea that globally, nuclear surety is neither served by ‘parity’ in arsenals nor ‘assurance’ of total devastation. The former has brought into play a multi-polar encore of an arms race, while the latter is a return to barbaric times when extinction was propagated as a solution.

Global affairs of-the-day is a paradox. Economics and interdependence are the engines of power and yet there is reluctance to step back from military situations such as what we see in Ukraine. Nuclear weapons cannot be reduced to a gamblers game of “dare”. But to remove it from arsenals is neither practicable nor are nations ready to wean themselves from an instrument of power that nurtured them. The answer lies in transparency shadowed by withdrawal from this calamitous obsession through a general adoption of a policy of ‘No-First-Use’ of nuclear weapons. This is a first step towards disarmament.

Nuclear Crises in the Time of Orwellian Wars

This article was first published in my column on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies A longer version of the article can be found here.

[…] The consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival.               

 – George Orwell, 1984                           

 The Stalin-Churchill Exchange

In 1946, a fustian exchange of rhetoric between Stalin and Churchill was to set the stage for incessant crises in international relations since. It would take countries to the brink and often over it. In assessing the state of the world and character of relations between nations, Stalin, on 9th February, declared to a Moscow audience, “[…] development of world capitalism does not proceed smoothly and evenly, but through crises and catastrophic wars.” His point was that inequities lead to instability; as perceptions of insecurities in access to raw materials and markets provoke the impulse to redistribute favourable “spheres of influence,” often by employing armed force. The awkward irony is that this state of affairs of an uncertain world fragmented into hostile economic and military camps on the brink in perpetuity is the reality, with the effects of climate change being the only sobering moderator. The inelegant skepticism of the US in the climate change context makes for a deranged future. While Churchill (the former Prime Minister), on 5th March 1946, responded by condemning Soviet policies in Europe and declared in a speech at Westminster University Missouri, “A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory. From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”

There was a self-fulfilling prophecy in these words as the world knuckled down to the ideological declaration of war by the two belligerent blocs. Stalin’s words were taken to mean the inevitability of conflict between the two; while Churchill’s speech is considered one of the opening volleys of the ‘Cold War.’ With each passing year, heightened tensions between states retreating into the idea of closed dominions, the rise of nations that promote revisionist ideologies, and to add to it all the disrupting role of non-state actors and nuclear proliferation thrust new elements into the cauldron, deepening and making more catastrophic the probability of a global crisis spinning out of control.

Nuclear Crisis Group

Recognising that peril lay in the inability of formal establishments to monitor potential situations of nuclear conflict and that contemporary nuclear security had introduced dynamics vastly dissimilar to the two-bloc confrontation, a crisis group was formed as a sub-sect of the Global Zero Commission. Its mission is to analyse these predicaments, develop proposals for de-escalation and consult with appropriate agencies to diminish the danger of a nuclear exchange. The Group, an international assemblage of experts from nuclear armed countries and supporters, met for the first time on 5th-6th May 2017 in Vienna. (Details of proceedings may be found here.

Wink-and-Nod Perils: Proliferation, Non-State Actors and Orwellian Wars

Dangers of nuclear proliferation and the deranging role of non-state actors accessing nuclear technologies has been well acknowledged but more often acted upon with a “wink-a facetious rebuke-and-a nod.” This selective look-away has consequences. The imbroglio in US dealings with Pakistan in the Afghan war exemplifies the penalties. Pakistan, an acknowledged dishonest American partner was, the US establishment asserts, “living a lie.” Pakistan’s military played “both ends against the middle.” It provided logistic conduits for money, while giving financial, material, intelligence and weapons to the jihadists. Indeed, there have been tactical gains but these pale to insignificance faced by the most conspicuous strategic failure: Pakistan providing sanctuary and sustenance to jihadis.  Combat, over the last 16 years (or 38?) in the absence of genuine strategic impetus, has morphed to an “Orwellian” war. And as war rages, Pakistan remains a haven to the highest concentration of terrorist groups while its nuclear fervour advances undiminished.

China has been central to nuclear proliferation in the region and the Pakistan weapon program; from blueprint of a nuclear device, through testing, to the AQ Khan enterprise and now, to tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). The reasons for China’s profligate orientation may have originally reflected balance-of-power logic. However, the costs are perilous. Are we living another wink?

In strategic persuasion, Pakistan’s military is convinced that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will leave a devastated, warring Afghanistan and an enfeebled insurgency-wracked Pakistan. They envisage a lonely and losing confrontation against the growing economic and military influence of the avowed enemy, India. This had to be countered by persisting with jihadis as the sine qua non of military strategy. While some have suggested that terror organizations may not be under their control, this is denial of the internals of that state where the nexus between the Army, intelligence service and jihadists is as old as the state. Unmistakably, the Islamic State (IS) has been seduced into the sub-continent; can the world, China and indeed this Group now be blind to the looming jihadist access to a nuclear arsenal?

Technology Intrusions and the Cyber Dimension

Nuclear weapons have put us on a razor’s edge, in part because of our powerlessness to control how political events and technology are driving policy. While technology invites covertness; lethality, precision, stealth and time compression that accompanies it demands transparency. This is the dilemma faced by planners: to balance the impact of technology with the need for openness. In the cyber domain, transparency will reduce hazards of unintended actions as nations prepare to use this arena to manipulate command networks.

The Road to Abolishment

The only way to eliminate the risk of nuclear weapons is through abolition. If this is the leitmotif, NFU posture is its first handmaiden backed by reduced reliance on nuclear weapons and the removal of battlefield and tactical nuclear weapons. This proposition, in toto, was unanimously welcomed by the Nuclear Crisis Group (NCG).

Flash Points.  Nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists is the biggest global concern. Discriminating between terror groups and making them instruments of state policy had to be rejected collectively. In addition to this overarching perspective, the Group identified four priority geopolitical dynamics that risked escalation to nuclear conflagration: the Korean Peninsula predicament, US/NATO-Russia meltdown in relations, South Asia conundrum and U.S.-China confrontation.

Korean Peninsula. The NCG aimed for complete denuclearization through negotiations with North Korea balanced against a calibrated end to US military exercises and provocative deployments in the Republic of Korea and easing of sanctions. China’s role in the North Korean problem had to be leveraged (not only has China fought a war on its behalf but provides existential sustenance).

US, Russia, NATO. Crisis instability between the US, Russia and NATO has taken a dangerous turn, triggered by Russian nuclear war fighting doctrine and statements that the US has neither obligation to limit nuclear-arms nor testing. In this circumstance, the impending US nuclear posture review (NPR) will likely cause disquiet given the current turbulence in West Asia, confused war on the IS in Syria, the ‘perpetual’ wars in Iraq and the AF-Pak region, Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory, recalcitrant Chinese activities in the South and East China Sea and increased nuclear activity by North Korea. But the real discounted problem in the entanglement is how to device measures that will prevent a slide back to the early Cold War era.

South Asia Situation.  India has a declared nuclear doctrine; at its heart is NFU and generation of a credible minimum deterrent. India does not differentiate between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons on the grounds that use of nuclear weapons introduces an uncontrollable development. To suggest that ambiguity and First Use provide options, is to suggest that nuclear war fighting, in conventional terms, is an option. This is a denial of the nature of nuclear weapons. With Pakistan there are foundational complications; it has no declared doctrine, while the hold of the “deep state” (the military-intelligence-jihadi combine) on the nation is so smothering that dialogue is confounded by the question “who to dialogue with?” Duplicity and denial on issues related to state support, sanctuary and complicity with terror organisations makes confabulations with civilian government a sterile exercise. Continued collusion with China on nuclear weapons production and proliferation is an area that must be seized. If multilateral constraints are not in place then the probability of these technologies falling into jihadi hands is high.

US-China Relations. US-China relations remain fragile as the latter’s growth and aspirations come in conflict with America’s global influence, as is apparent in the sporadic friction that flares in the South and East China seas. China’s revisionist drive in this expanse and its military modernisation plans and policy has not helped to pacify matters. Rather it has increased the probability of escalation. Its surreptitious nuclear proliferatory enterprises have further exacerbated the situation. While China has, over the years, quite steadfastly adhered to its NFU nuclear policy, it is its support of states such as North Korea and Pakistan that is worrisome.

A Half Way Conclusion 

Fragmentation in geopolitics, rise of bigoted revisionist ideologies, nuclear perfidy of authoritarian dispensations and the end of an overwrought global order makes for fragility in nuclear affairs. As nations see themselves besieged by forces beyond control, it is timely that the Group has raised its collective voice to temper the idealistic nuclear agenda of abolition with a dose of realism that first charts a course across two pragmatic way points: No First Use and removal of tactical nuclear weapons.