With the war in Ukraine remaining within the conventional confines so far, concerns over nuclear escalation are limited.
However, one of the important lessons emerging from the Russian offensive in Ukraine is that of states reneging on nuclear capability.
Ukraine believes that as the country gave up nuclear capability based on the Minsk Agreement of December 30, 1991, three decades later Russia was able to breach its sovereignty with impunity, first in 2014 in Crimea and in 2022 the nation as a whole.
Armscontrol.Org records that “Commonwealth of Independent States signed the Minsk Agreement on December 30, 1991, agreeing that the Russian government would be given charge of all nuclear armaments”.
Ukraine held the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world, including an estimated 1,900 strategic warheads, 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and 44 strategic bombers as per Arms Control. Iran’s compliance with the nuclear-related provisions of the JCPOA is verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) according to certain requirements set forth in the agreement.
The question of whether Ukraine in 1991 would have been able to retain the weapons remains a moot one for now. The important factor is what lessons other nuclear proliferation outliers as North Korea and Iran are taking from the same. The leaders in these countries seem to believe that holding the nuclear weapons card is essential for regime survival.
North Korean Case
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea’s new law on nuclear forces has declared the country a State with Nuclear Weapons, outlined the mission and conditions of use of nuclear weapons and declared that DPRK will never give up the same virtually negating de-nulcearisation.
This is a dangerous portend with concerns over nuclear security of the Korean Peninsula as well as East Asia in general and nuclear proliferation
Here is an overview of what happened, why and the way ahead -
On September 09, North Korea’s state media agency, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) outlined the country’s nuclear doctrine proclaiming itself as a state with nuclear weapons.
The Law gave primacy to nuclear weapons for defending “the sovereignty, territorial integrity and fundamental interests of the state, preventing a war on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia and ensuring the strategic stability of the world”.
Iran and the United States are indirectly negotiating the return of the U.S. Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of 2015 or commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. While negotiations have been ongoing since April 2021, Iran has been hedging a final agreement and is unwilling to accede to the International Atomic Energy Agency request for provision of details on an old file of alleged proliferation in 2003.
Is Iran hedging with an attempt to sustain proliferation by reaching an enrichment level just short of a bomb is a moot question.
The geopolitical response to North Korea and Iran attaining or near attaining nuclear weapons capability respectively has been extended deterrence and diplomacy.
The U.S. and South Korea have declared a policy of “tailored deterrence,” to meet announcement of state with nuclear weapons by North Korea.
On the other hand, to restrain Iran – fresh rounds of nuclear talks are being held in Vienna which have reached a stalemate for now.