Russian experts insist that continuous engagement even in the face of deep mistrust is the key to nuclear arms control

Russia’s missiles may still be trained on the United States but it is the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan that worries Russian experts more than American nukes.

Scholars gathered at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (Imemo), a top-rated Russian think-tank advising the Kremlin, rang alarm bells about the threat of nuclear war in South Asia, which today is greater than anywhere else in the world.

It was pointed out that India and Pakistan are the only two nuclear weapon states locked in a permanent conflict that occasionally escalates to armed confrontation, making the nuclear standoff particularly dangerous. Pakistan’s refusal to make a no-first-use pledge, its development of tactical nuclear weapons, India’s missile defence programme were all seen as factors driving the nuclear arms race in the region and heightening the risk of nuclear conflict.

Well-positioned

At the same time, it was felt that India and Pakistan are well positioned to embark on bilateral arms control because, much like the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union, they have comparable nuclear forces meant to contain each other.

A senior Indian expert on nuclear disarmament who took part in the discussion (the event was conducted under the Chatham House rule, not disclosing the participants) said the road of talks was strewn with obstacles such as lack of trust between India and Pakistan, different roles the two countries assign to nuclear weapons and the China factor. While Pakistan’s nuclear arms serve to contain India, India’s nuclear programme is directed at China. India is also concerned over the absence of any transparency about China’s nuclear arms.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, Russian experts believe that India and Pakistan could do more to enhance transparency ontheir nuclear arsenals and set up a verification mechanism, at least for confidence-building measures already agreed upon, such as the commitment not to attack each other’s civil nuclear installations and exchange secret lists of such sites.

The Indian participant argued that the dearth of trust between India and Pakistan was so gaping that it was impossible for India to reveal how many nuclear weapons it has, where they are sited or to accept what Pakistan tells it about its nuclear weapons.

The scholar was clearly irked by demands for India to agree to greater transparency. He said it was “puzzling” that such proposals should come from Moscow and urged Russian experts to have “a reality check”.

Strong precedent

Russian experts, however, insisted that the trust divide should not stop India from engaging Pakistan in nuclear arms control. They recalled that there was no trust between the Soviet Union and the U.S. when they began nuclear arms talks in the early 1970s and it was the talks that helped the two superpowers to partially bridge the confidence gap. It was further argued that despite the centrality of China to India’s nuclear strategy it is unrealistic to expect Beijing to negotiate with New Delhi, because China’s nuclear forces are primarily aimed at countering the threat from the U.S.

A leading Russian strategic analyst called on India and Pakistan to negotiate a treaty to slash their arsenals of short and medium-range missiles. Such a treaty could be modelled on the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the Soviet Union and the United States, which led to the elimination of all of their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 km.

In the case of India and Pakistan, an INF pact could cap the number of missiles at 100 to 150, according to the Russian expert. The proposed cuts would not affect India’s deterrent against China — air and sea-based nuclear arms, as well as long-range missiles.

The organisers regretted the fact that Pakistan’s stand was not adequately articulated at the conference (a senior Pakistani diplomat had been invited but failed to turn up), but the debate was still interesting, especially in the light of the ongoing reassessment in Russia of its relations with India and Pakistan.

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