As the world grapples with a new nuclear arms race, there are several potential flashpoints that could trigger a global catastrophe

Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued chilling threats to use nuclear weapons as tensions escalate in Ukraine. A new partnership between Russia and North Korea has been formed, with Kim Jong-un potentially providing weapons in exchange for nuclear expertise.

There have been comparisons drawn between Putin's recent war drills off the coast of Cuba and the tense 1962 standoff between the US and the then Soviet Union - the closest humanity has ever come to nuclear warfare. However, rising tensions with modern-day Russia aren't the only areas where a nuclear threat seems possible.

China is expanding its nuclear arsenal faster than any other country, and significant risks are emerging in Asia and the Middle East, reports the Daily Star.

The "number and types of nuclear weapons in development have increased as states deepen their reliance on nuclear deterrence", according to a report this week from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, as reported by the Mirror.

"What we are seeing right now is that pretty much every single nuclear-armed state is improving their nuclear arsenal either quantitatively or qualitatively," Matt Korda, associate researcher at SIPRI told The Mirror. "So some countries are increasing their number of nuclear weapons in their stockpiles, others are maintaining them relatively stable and just swapping out older systems with newer, more accurate systems. But there is no nuclear-armed country that is standing still, everyone is progressing, everyone is modernising and what is ultimately happening is that we are seeing, as countries engage and tensions raise we are seeing the throes of a new arms race."

Potential Flashpoints

1. North Korea: North Korea's nuclear program has been a major source of concern for the international community. The country has conducted multiple nuclear tests and has made significant progress in developing long-range ballistic missiles. The tense relationship between North Korea and other countries, particularly the United States, has raised fears of a potential conflict that could escalate into a nuclear war.

2. Middle East: The Middle East is another region with significant nuclear tensions. Iran's nuclear program has been a subject of international scrutiny, with concerns about its potential military applications. The ongoing conflicts in the region, particularly the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, have further heightened the risk of a nuclear confrontation.

3. South-Asia: The potential for conflict involving Pakistan, India and China is another worry for experts, particularly given the instability in Pakistan. This concern is heightened by China's rapid expansion of its nuclear force - faster than any other nation - and the existing tensions between China, Pakistan and India.

"We are seeing countries, in particular Pakistan whose posture pushes for early nuclear use and you have India who increasingly looks like they are looking to mate their warheads with their missiles which they did not use to do - what it means is that they are capable of launching a lot faster," Mr Korda explained.

"You are starting to see these policy drivers and technical drivers towards using nuclear weapons early in the conflict and on top of that you have the significant tensions in that region both in the context of India and Pakistan but also India and China. These are countries that have engaged in open conflict right along the areas of control over the past few years, a couple of years ago where India accidentally launched a missile into Pakistan with crisis communications around that quite poor. Luckily at the time there was no real conflict but there are a preponderance of factors that you can imagine coming together in a perfect storm to spark a nuclear crisis, that worries me quite a bit."

On the burgeoning Chinese nuclear arsenal, Mr Korda added: "We are seeing a substantial shift in China's nuclear armament - they are building up a lot, they are the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world, it is possible that this is a doctrine change or just redefining what they see as minimum - this could be down to seeing opponents and what they need, as in the past it was never required. ".

A potential trigger for a conflict is widely seen as China's claim on Taiwan and Dr Dukhan said: "China might try to take back Taiwan."

"I don't think the risk of a nuclear weapon is as high here as the impact of a nuclear bomb has been seen in the region before and the mutual destruction is understood but it would only take a small mistake and we have been lucky so far. ".

4. Pakistan: Pakistan's political turmoil and the presence of Islamic factions have set off global concern, with specialists sounding the alarm over potential dangers.

"It is a danger to the whole world as the country is unstable due to the extremists and there could be a change of leadership at any point," Dr Dukhan remarked. "If there was to be a power vacuum due to a coup for example the question is who would have access to the weapons and could they use them against the enemies like India or Israel."

"It may be more stable now but there are continual changes so the threat is there."

Mr Korda pointed out the intelligence benefits from Pakistan's military events: "Every year Pakistan typically throws a big military parade which is a good source of intelligence for us as they are parading all their missiles and we can see what they have and what they are emphasising."

"In 2023 they didn't host a parade partly due to it being at the start of a big unstable period with the ousting of the PM and so on. Unclear to what extent the instability is affecting the nuclear force."

Prof Strawson observed that the region has seen some stabilisation after political changes: "The situation has calmed since Imran Khan has gone with less radical policies at the moment," he commented. "(Indian Prime Minister Narendra) Modi's election results were worse than expected and so there is a coalition which is quite moderate, not as worrying as it could be at the moment. ".

5. Russia: The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine has resulted in a protracted war and escalating tensions with the West over aid provision. Vladimir Putin has previously indicated that Russia is ready to defend its territory using nuclear weapons, with regular military displays showcasing its nuclear capabilities.

"Putin reckons that he can probably win a conventional war, even if it takes years, [...] if he doesn't think he's winning this way, he will try winning another way, by resorting to the use of 'tactical' small-scale nuclear weapons on the battlefield," Prof Glees stated.

"This is Putin's win-win scenario. Another word for it is 'blackmail'. But from now until the US elections in November, there's not a snowball's chance in hell that Nato will let itself be blackmailed."

"This is why Nato is so right to convince Putin he will not defeat Ukraine and that we will take him and his regime out for once and for all at the first warning that he's about launch nuclear weapons in Ukraine. He has talked himself and his people into a situation of extreme danger for them."

This week, concerns have arisen over a new agreement between Russia and North Korea that could result in armaments to assist Putin in his Ukrainian war being traded for nuclear technology. "This is very bad news. Not unexpected with Putin's inability to win in Ukraine makes this alliance highly toxic. It's flashing amber," Prof Glees commented on the new alliance.

"We need to take this new axis of evil very seriously. Together with the Ukraine war it will be the most critical security issue to face all western democracies over the next few years."

"Putin claims the post-1990 world order was simply the tool of western imperialism and that the 21st century will belong to the dictatorial systems of Russia, China and North Korea. We have a systemic fight on our hands".

It is important to note that these flashpoints are not the only areas of concern. Other regions, such as the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea, and the Arctic, also have the potential to become flashpoints for a nuclear conflict. The complex geopolitical dynamics and the presence of multiple nuclear-armed states make the situation highly volatile.

In summary, The world is currently locked in a new nuclear arms race, and there are several potential flashpoints that could trigger a catastrophic nuclear war. The tensions in North Korea, the Middle East, South Asia, and between Russia and NATO are particularly concerning. It is crucial for global leaders to engage in diplomatic efforts to reduce tensions, promote arms control, and work towards the elimination of nuclear weapons to prevent the devastating consequences of a nuclear war.

(With Reporting By International Agencies)