Russia’s militarisation pushes the UK to increase its cap on nuclear weapons, leaving the world teetering on the edge of devastation.

Is Britain breaking international law?

The government recently published a policy paper on security and defence, stating that the UK will increase the cap on nuclear warheads by 40 per cent. This move has been deemed by many, including Keir Starmer, as breaking international law. Britain is a signatory of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). This latest move puts it once again in a nuclear arms race, breaching Article 6 which states:

‘Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race […] and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament’.

Some interpretations have suggested that as long as Britain remains in negotiations about disarmament then they are not breaching the treaty. However, a government statement in 2015 boasted that by reducing nuclear warheads on ballistic missile submarines from 48 to 40, the UK was firmly committed to the obligations of Article 6. To now implement a policy that is the polar opposite of this and still insist there is no breach of the treaty, is a manipulation of the terms in order to justify the decision.

Is Russian militarisation to blame for the new arms race?

It’s difficult to speculate on what could have triggered this drastic change in direction. However, one likely cause seems to be Russia’s increasing militarisation which has not escaped international attention.

As of September 2020, the UK officially has 195 nuclear warheads. From March 2021, this cap has been increased to 260. In comparison, Russia boasts an estimated 6,372 warheads. Unsurprisingly, the defence review labels Russia as the most acute threat to UK security. Russian militarisation is said to be advancing, with satellite images showing recent testing in the Arctic of ‘Doomsday’, a nuclear torpedo. Russia has also been refitting old Cold War bases, sending a worrying message to the rest of the world.

Over the years, humanity’s collective memory of the Cold War has begun to fade. Although the use of nuclear weapons is still seen as abhorrent, disarmament is not favoured by the public. As many as 35 per cent believe that Britain should replace Trident with a nuclear missile system of equal power when it reaches the end of its life.

The general consensus then, suggests a public that is against sudden disarmament. But to maintain our nuclear supply and to increase it are two distinct things, and send very different messages. The latter is arguably where the UK crosses the boundaries of Article 6.

Britain’s MAD strategy

Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is a national security policy that presupposes the following: should two or more nuclear powers engaging in a full-scale use of nuclear weapons, this will result in their mutual annihilation. It is a doctrine of natural deterrence. Owning enough nuclear weapons to discourage other nations from using theirs is thought to prevent an all-out nuclear war.

Russia’s escalating militarisation and testing of nuclear weapons has understandably put the UK into defence mode, hence the rising cap. Although MAD may be viewed as the most stable security policy by many, we must not forget that all strategies involving nuclear weapons remain extremely volatile.

In a speech given at the Conference on Disarmament, it was stressed that the UK’s ultimate goal is still multilateral disarmament and that the increase was undertaken in order to reach the minimum level of security necessary given justified concerns.

The worry is that we are essentially placing our defence strategy in the hands of Russia. As a nation supposedly committed to disarmament we are aware that not all nations have the same goal. This inevitably means that those others nations at some point will likely increase their stock of nuclear warheads. But does this also mean we have no choice but to follow suit? If so, then we need to ask who is dictating the world’s nuclear situation.

If the aim is to prevent giving Russia a first-strike advantage, then we have failed. The Russians are already miles ahead of us in the warheads larder. So does increasing the cap really place us in a more secure position, or does it simply make the goal of multilateral disarmament impossible?

The nature of nuclear weapons is such that any ‘small’ increase will have large implications in other areas of defence. Breaching a treaty with the sole purpose of preventing the use of world-destroying weapons sends the wrong message. Namely; we are moving closer to a situation in which a nuclear war is inevitable.

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