Editorial: Russian nuclear policy’s reversion to arms expansion should not be tolerated

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed and released a new framework document for Russia’s national nuclear deterrence policy, which sets certain conditions for the use of nuclear weapons. This policy revision was the first in 10 years and the first time ever that the full text has been made public.

Revision made against backdrop of rash U.S. actions

This move was likely made to constrain the United States. The new policy, however, reveals the country’s readiness to use nuclear weapons preemptively. The new policy could trigger a nuclear arms race that would include China. Such a situation should never be tolerated.

Two years ago, Putin rejected the idea of preemptive use of nuclear weapons, while expressing his willingness to retaliate with such weapons.

But he seems to have altered that policy. In the new guidelines, four conditions were given for making the decision to use nuclear weapons. One of the conditions was if the country were to obtain reliable information of a ballistic missile attack against Russia or its allies.

Why has he raised the idea of preemptive use, despite the fact that such use would be under limited conditions? This change in policy was made in the context of rash actions by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), announced in February 2018, left open the possibility of a preemptive attack using nuclear weapons. The United States also continues to develop low-yield nuclear arms as “usable nuclear weapons.” Reported recently was the news that last month the U.S. administration had discussed resumption of nuclear testing with detonations. That is an outrage.

No way to apply brakes on arms expansion

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty expired in August last year. That was an epoch-making agreement that paved the way for nuclear disarmament and led to the end of the Cold War. In February 2019, the Trump Administration notified Russia that the United States would withdraw from the treaty.

Now, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (new START) is the only nuclear arms reduction agreement that remains between the United States and Russia. But this treaty is set to expire in February next year. The treaty limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads that are deployed, and if it were to expire, there would be no way for brakes to be applied on nuclear arms expansion. Despite Russia’s calls to extend the treaty, the United States has not even agreed to enter into negotiations.

The United States says a new treaty that includes China is necessary. China’s military expansion is indeed intolerable. Still, the two nuclear superpowers—the United States and Russia, which possess 90 percent of the roughly 14,000 nuclear weapons on earth—must take the first step in the direction of arms reductions before they can persuade China to reduce its own nuclear weapons.

Russia also must be called to account. In 2014, the country forcibly annexed the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine and continues its development of hypersonic strategic nuclear arms. International community alarm at Russia’s maneuvers is only natural.

One reason President Putin made the guidelines public is that he wants the Russian people to be aware of his diplomatic stance. A vote there on a package of amendments to the country’ constitution is scheduled to take place on July 1. If approved by more than half of voters, Putin will become de facto president for life. By appealing to his citizens that he can negotiate with the United States as equals, he seems to be hoping to make a claim for their increased support, which has declined because of the sluggish economy.

Nuclear weapons are so dangerous they put humanity’s very survival at risk. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which stipulates that not only the use but also the production and possession of such weapons violate international law, has gained more worldwide support. Despite this situation, some leaders are trying to use nuclear arms for their own interests. This cannot be overlooked.

Japan’s role crucial

The escalating confrontation between the United States and Russia is also a major issue for Japan. Russia keeps a close watch on the U.S. missile defense network. If an extensive network is established, Russia believes that its nuclear weapons would be neutralized. In the new guidelines, the U.S. missile defense network is cited as one of the conditions of military danger that would allow nuclear deterrence.

Russia has been paying vigilant attention to the U.S. Aegis Ashore, a land-based missile defense system whose deployment to Yamaguchi Prefecture and the Tohoku region of northeastern Japan is under consideration.

Russia claims that Aegis Ashore is part of the overall U.S. missile defense network. Just like the system deployed in East Europe, the United States could use Aegis Ashore to launch cruise missiles to attack Russia.

Since Russia regards Aegis Ashore as problematic, if the system were to be deployed in Japan, that country could become a target for attack. Doubtful is whether such a system is truly necessary.

Japan is called on to make efforts to stop military expansion by the United States and Russia. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings. A world without nuclear weapons is a first step to realization of a world in which people can live with a sense of security. Japan must work persistently to make that case. Japan has a crucial role to play.

(Originally published on June 6, 2020)