Russia's attack on Ukraine has exacerbated tensions not only in its neighborhood, but around the planet, making the world's hotspots even hotter.
BUENOS AIRES - Tensions seemed to be easing at the start of 2022. Even though we didn't know how much damage the pandemic had done, we at least knew that we had gotten through the most disruptive phase of COVID.
Then, in January, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — China, France, Great Britain, Russia and the United States — that together possess 12,270 of a global arsenal of 12,705 nuclear warheads reiterated their opposition to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and agreed there must never be a nuclear war. (It must be said, nonetheless, that the Geneva-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons found those countries spent $77 billion on updating their arsenals in 2021.)
Russia's attack on Ukraine changed the world and turned the relative calm of the start of the year into a period of sustained emergency. Suddenly, the likes of U.S. President Joe Biden or the Pope were talking of a possible World War III.
A different kind of terror
Several points need to be made to offer some context.
First, the "new" war launched by Moscow allowed the world to forget about an older one: the war on terrorism. Days before the Russian attack, on Feb. 8, 2022, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University in the United States published a report entitled Costs of War.
It observed that two decades of waging war on terror, which began after the 9/11 attacks, led to the violent deaths of 979,000 people (including all soldiers and civilians), and of an even larger number of people due to destroyed infrastructure, environmental degradation and malnutrition. The research body attributed the displacement of 38 million people inside their countries or abroad in this period to the war on terror.
Secondly, before the Russian attack, an arms race was evidently underway. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has found a steady increase in spending on arms since 2015. Its total for the two pandemic years of 2020 and 2021 stood at a record U.S. $4 trillion (four million million dollars).
The United States, India, Great Britain and Russia alone were responsible for 62% of that spending, and the war in Ukraine has exacerbated the trend. President Biden's proposed defense budget, for example, was the highest in U.S. history: $813 billion, to which the Senate recently added another $45 billion.
Russian missiles fired from the Black Sea
New nuclear threshold
Thirdly, the nuclear threshold is changing. Russia's decision to put its nuclear forces on alert following the invasion of Ukraine was unprecedented and disturbing. Just four days after its invasion on Feb. 28, the journal Security Studies published a study that found a majority of the public in several Western studies favor the use of nuclear weapons if these were more effective than conventional options!
Tensions inside countries appear to reflect an increasing distrust among states abroad.
Certain countries without nuclear arms have also seen the invasion as a valid reason for acquiring them. Iraq did not have them in 2003 and was invaded. Libya ditched its unconventional weapons programs entirely in 2004 and suffered a contentious intervention in 2011.
In 1994, Ukraine itself signed the Budapest Memorandum (with Russia, Great Britain and the United States) to return to the Russian Federation its share of the Soviet nuclear and ballistic arsenal.
Is China next?
Lastly, the world's hotspots, like Taiwan, Iran or the NATO frontier, are getting hotter. In May, Sino-American tensions spiked when Biden ditched the United States' strategic ambiguity over Taiwan and confirmed it would respond militarily should China invade. Talks to revive the 2015 nuclear pact with Iran are in danger of collapsing, and we have yet to see Russia's final reaction to NATO's recent enlargement.
World tensions are growing amid a reordering of global power that is itself fueling conflicts. There is a resurgence of reactionary nationalism, growing social unease in response to glaring inequalities, and an economic crisis derived from the pandemic and this war. Presently, there is no recognized leader or coalition of citizens, or indeed multilateral assembly with real authority, that is able to appease these tensions.
Western societies have become more polarized, with tensions in some akin to a state of pre-civil war. Tensions inside countries appear to reflect an increasing distrust among states abroad, as if both nations and their leaders had grown tired of peace.
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