Risk of nuclear war to cut off China and Russia, says security czar

The West is at risk of starting a nuclear conflict with China or Russia because of a “breakdown in communication” with the two countries, Britain’s national security adviser has warned.

Sir Stephen Lovegrove, 55, said the erosion of the backdoor canals had led to an increased likelihood of an accidental escalation in war.

In a speech in Washington at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he said he believed deteriorating communication with China and Russia had created a greater risk of “rapid escalation into strategic conflict.”

“The two monolithic blocs of the Cold War, the USSR and NATO, while not without their alarmists, were able to reach a shared understanding of doctrine that is absent today,” he said. “The doctrine is opaque in Moscow and Beijing, let alone Pyongyang or Tehran.”

Lovegrove, who was appointed to Whitehall’s top defense post in March 2021, added: “During the Cold War, we benefited from a series of negotiations and dialogues that improved our understanding of doctrine and Soviet capabilities, and vice versa.This gave us both a higher level of confidence that we would not miscalculate the path to nuclear war.

“Today, we do not have the same foundations as others who may threaten us in the future, especially with China. Here, the UK strongly supports President Biden’s proposed talks with China as an important step.”

A Russian MIG-31 fighter jet carrying a Kinzhal hypersonic missile. The missiles have been deployed in Ukraine and are said to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Photograph: Maxim Shipenkov/EPA

US President Joe Biden is expected to hold a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday, his first conversation since March, to try to diffuse tensions over Taiwan.

Taiwanese troops have practiced fighting an invasion as tensions with Beijing escalated over plans by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, to visit the self-governing island.

China insists that Taiwan, which has its own democratically elected government, is its sovereign territory and is determined to reunify the island, by force if necessary.

Last year, Beijing tested a hypersonic missile that circumnavigated the globe before hitting a target. China, Russia and the US are also developing hypersonic missiles that travel at more than five times the speed of sound and can maneuver in mid-air.

Lovegrove praised the White House’s decision to re-engage with China, but also highlighted the risks of technological advances.

“We have clear concerns about China’s nuclear modernization program that will increase both the number and types of nuclear weapons systems in its arsenal,” he said.

Sir Stephen Lovegrove, left, met his US counterpart Jake Sullivan at NATO headquarters in Brussels in October. Photo: Virginia Mayo/EPA

Russia became the first country to use hypersonic systems during a war when Moscow deployed its Kinzhal missiles in Ukraine. The Kremlin claims the missiles are capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Dmitri Medvedev, Russia’s former president, said in a speech earlier this month that Western support for Ukraine has triggered the worst crisis in relations between Russia and the West since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

Despite the increased risks, Lovegrove said much of the existing architecture remains “vital,” such as the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, and the Non-Proliferation Treaty ‘nuclear weapons. However, he added that the reality is “that the current structures alone will not provide what we need to achieve a modern arms control system”.

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On the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defense said: “We have recently passed the sad milestone of 150 days since Putin launched this illegal and unprovoked war, causing untold suffering to the people innocent from Ukraine.

“I fear that the conflict fits into a pattern of Russia acting deliberately and recklessly to undermine the global security architecture.

“This is a pattern that includes the illegal annexation of Crimea, the use of chemical and radiological weapons on UK soil and the repeated violations that led to the collapse of the INF. [intermediate-range nuclear forces] treated

“And we will continue to hold Russia accountable for its destabilizing actions as an international community.”

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