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Nuclear nightmare: reckless leaders are pushing the world back to the brink

<span>Photograph: 朝鮮通信社/AP</span>
Photograph: 朝鮮通信社/AP

Leaders of unstable nuclear-armed states do dangerous and foolish things when under stress. They miscalculate, provoke, overreach. Given the febrile state of bilateral relations, last week’s aerial military clash between Russia and the US over the Black Sea inevitably intensified fears of nuclear escalation. The incident dramatised how dangerous Vladimir Putin, cornered by his existential Ukraine blunder, truly is – and the risks he is increasingly prepared to run. But he’s not the only one.

As often the case over the past year, Putin relied on American restraint. US forces could easily have gone after the offending Su-27 fighter at its Crimea base. Each time Russia’s president darkly hints at going nuclear, that once unthinkable prospect becomes a little less outlandish – and western leaders must steel their nerves. Russia’s repeated bombing of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant fits this pattern of minacious brinkmanship.

Russia possesses about 1,600 deployed strategic nuclear warheads, out of a military stockpile of about 4,500. Like the US and other nuclear weapons states, it is modernising and adding new systems. At the same time, a vital safety net of arms control treaties dating from the Soviet era is shredding. Last month, Putin ditched New Start, which caps deployed strategic nuclear arsenals. It was Russia’s last such treaty with the US.

In other words, at the very moment when the Kremlin is under unprecedented pressure and US-Russia relations are at their most tense since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the political channels, agreed mechanisms and binding limits that could help avoid a nuclear collision are less robust and dependable than ever before. While the risk of unintended nuclear confrontation is ever-present, Putin’s recklessness makes it infinitely worse.

Israel is another nuclear-armed state under extreme stress, mostly due to its volatile rightwing prime minister. Benjamin Netanyahu’s perceived attempt to avoid jail by destroying judicial independence, and with it Israel’s democracy, has caused uproar. Significantly, his “coup” is under fire from serving members of the military and former defence ministers as well as much of civil society.

If this destabilising nationwide upheaval were taking place in Pakistan, for example, loud international expressions of concern about the security of its secretive nuclear arsenal would be heard. So the comparative silence over the safety and control of Israel’s 90 or so undeclared warheads is disturbing. Amid an extraordinary standoff between Netanyahu and US president Joe Biden, Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, fears civil war. “The abyss is within touching distance,” he said last week.

There is good reason to worry about what Netanyahu may do, Putin-like, to escape his self-made troubles. He has threatened to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities in the past. Israeli media suggest he may now be planning an attack. Netanyahu warned this month of a “horrible nuclear war” unless Tehran’s uranium enrichment programme was halted. Would he start a Middle East conflict to save his skin? Past experience suggests he might.

If the US and its allies were not so distracted by Ukraine, they might pay more attention to Netanyahu’s antics. Much the same may be said of the developing crisis in nuclear-armed North Korea, where inherent weakness is compounded by looming famine. New doubts surround dictator Kim Jong-un’s health and a problematic succession. Stirring the pot, China and Russia back him against the west despite the danger he poses.

Kim spent last week firing off nuclear-capable ballistic missiles like there’s no tomorrow – and there may not be if he carries on like this. Analysts anticipate another underground atomic test. Kim regularly threatens the US – and South Korea and Japan, which met last week to ponder what to do. Earlier this month he ordered his military to prepare for “real war”. Is Kim waving or drowning, seeking attention or waxing desperate? Ignoring North Korea, which is unspoken western policy, stores up trouble.

It’s difficult to tell from his lugubrious appearance but Xi Jinping, China’s newly anointed president for life, is a leader under severe pressure, too. His zero-Covid policy damaged a struggling economy and sparked something close to popular revolt. His aggressive foreign policy, debt diplomacy and rights abuses have produced a global anti-China backlash. By vowing to conquer US-backed Taiwan come what may, Xi has created another rod for his back.

A Chinese invasion of Taiwan, which CIA director William Burns predicts may happen by 2027, is a probable nuclear flashpoint – especially if it goes badly for Xi. It’s estimated China has about 400 operational nuclear warheads, rising to approximately 1,000 by 2030. American nuclear-armed ships, submarines and bombers constantly patrol the western Pacific.

For his part, Xi can point to continuing US and UK nuclear weapons modernisation, and to last week’s deal to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. China complained at the UN that the deal breached the nuclear non-proliferation treaty by transferring fissile material and nuclear technology to a non-nuclear weapons state.

In an arrogant riposte, the US claimed it would actually strengthen non-proliferation efforts – without explaining how. Iran and others will register this double standard.

The longstanding refusal of the main powers to disarm is the root cause of rising nuclear tensions – but irresponsible present-day political leaders greatly exacerbate the danger. “The United States and its allies … are faced with a choice,” wrote Lt Col Brent Stricker of the US Naval War College in a bleak assessment of the changing nuclear world order. They could either “restart arms limitation discussions to include both Russia and China, or restart the arms race”.

The former course is wildly improbable at this juncture. So the old cold war-era nuclear helter-skelter ride towards mutually assured destruction looks set to resume and accelerate – under new, stressed-out management. Assuming no one presses the button first.

Kim is firing off nuclear-capable ballistic missiles like there’s no tomorrow – and there may not be if he carries on like this