Interviewed by Anton V. Khlopkov
In addition to his role in the original NPT negotiations, Timerbaev, who turns 90 this month, participated in six NPT review conferences. He was a member of the Soviet/Russian diplomatic service for 43 years, with his final posting as permanent representative of the Soviet Union/Russia to international organizations in Vienna from 1988 to 1992. He also participated in negotiations on the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the 1973 Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War, the 1974 Treaty on the Limitation of Underground Nuclear Weapon Tests, and the 1976 Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty.
Ambassador Timerbaev, what did you believe were the main goals of the NPT? Fifty years on, do you think those goals have been achieved?
Timerbaev: The main goal of the treaty is stated in its name: it is to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. On the whole, that goal has been achieved. When the NPT was opened for signature [on July 1, 1968], Soviet and U.S. specialists thought that 20 to 25 new states could acquire nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future. Such a scenario has been averted largely thanks to the NPT. As you know, only eight countries currently possess such weapons [the five official nuclear-weapon states plus India, Israel, and Pakistan]. North Korea has also declared itself a nuclear power.
Have you identified any other vulnerabilities of the NPT? What is the nature of those vulnerabilities? Are they inherent to the nature of the treaty itself, which was drawn up in the geopolitical circumstances that existed at the time, or do they manifest only in the absence of political will to force certain states to abide strictly by their NPT commitments?
I would say there are two other vulnerabilities, both lying within the text of the treaty itself. Early efforts to draft the NPT began in New York in 1966 in a bilateral format between the Soviet Union and the United States. At the time, the Committee of Disarmament, or the Eighteen-Nation Committee [on Disarmament] as it was known at the time, was not involved in [the] negotiations process in any form. In New York, we managed to agree on the wording of Articles I and II. But we never planned to incorporate Articles IV and VI in their current shape into the treaty, and I believe these two articles to be the weakest of all.
Was the signing of the NPT inevitable? What prompted the beginning of the NPT talks in earnest?
What do you think was the point of no return during the talks, the event after which the signing of the treaty became just a matter of time?
I think that point came when the United States and the Soviet Union reached an agreement in New York in 1966 on Articles I and II. These articles were the constants around which the entire architecture of the treaty revolved. They became part of the NPT in their original form agreed in New York.
You have already mentioned that the NPT talks began in a bilateral Soviet-U.S. format. Who do you think played the key role in Moscow and Washington in making the treaty happen?
I believe they were, first and foremost, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko. I once found in Johnson’s archives his correspondence with his aides who were in charge of the NPT talks at the White House. I was amazed at how closely and personally involved the U.S. president was in the details of the talks and by the degree of consensus on this issue among the key White House staff. At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk opposed the NPT, but Johnson had his way in the end.
Looking back at the 50-year history of the treaty, how resilient has it been in various nuclear nonproliferation
The NPT is the cornerstone of the global nuclear order. The examples of South Africa and Iran demonstrate that the treaty can successfully overcome various crises. At the beginning of our conversation, I mentioned that the settlement of those particular crises was achieved on the basis of the principles and provisions of the NPT. I hope this will continue to be the case in the future.
Considering the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference and the agreements that enabled an indefinite extension of the treaty, do you believe those agreements have been fulfilled? What issues do you think could be the source of new NPT crises in the foreseeable future?
To answer this question, one cannot avoid the Middle East issue. I think it was a great error for the United States to allow Israel to become an unofficial nuclear-weapon state. U.S. President Richard Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir had a one-on-one conversation in September 1969. There was virtually no one else in the room, so the meeting notes were taken by Nixon himself. These notes will probably never be made available to the general public. But as I understand it, the gist of the conversation was that the Americans agreed to Israel developing its own nuclear weapons on [the] condition that Tel Aviv would always officially deny its possession of such weapons in the international arena. In the end, that is exactly how it happened. Apparently, the Americans would not have been able to secure a ratification of the NPT if they had not agreed to this. The situation with the Israeli nuclear arsenal hinders nonproliferation progress in the Middle East. It also remains the most problematic issue in terms of the decisions taken by the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference; no progress has been made at all on that front.
What do you think the NPT states-parties must do to make sure that the NPT remains a viable and effective part of the international security architecture for another 50 years?
I believe the time has come to think in earnest about a new format [for] the dialogue on key nuclear issues. The previous bilateral Russian-U.S. format no longer reflects the international reality. China must become actively engaged in this process, and I am not just talking about disarmament. China needs to play a more active role in order to reinforce positive NPT-related trends. As a first step, I believe, it would make sense to hold a high-level trilateral meeting on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament between Russia, the United States, and China.
What role do you see the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons playing in the global system of nuclear governance?
If all states were to join this treaty, including all those who possess nuclear weapons, then it would supersede the entire existing system of nuclear relations. So, eventually, the new treaty would also supersede the NPT. In essence, it would signal the arrival of a new global nuclear order. However, we will be able to reach that point only when all states without exception have fulfilled their commitments under the NPT because disarmament issues cannot be discussed in isolation from all the other clauses of the NPT. The time of the ban treaty has not yet arrived, but we should think about how to make progress in that direction.
1. On October 31, 1958, at the meeting of the First Committee of the UN General Assembly, Ireland introduced a draft resolution on creating a special committee to study the dangers posed by further proliferation of nuclear weapons. The resolution was not passed at that meeting, but in 1959 a resolution was passed on establishing the Ten-Nation Committee on Disarmament.
3. The Kennedy administration explored with NATO allies the idea of a multilateral nuclear force, under which U.S. nuclear missiles would be placed on submarines or surface ships manned by NATO crews. The concept was to provide a more credible deterrent against Soviet attack in Europe and, by giving NATO allies some control over nuclear weapons, reduce the likelihood that other countries, particularly West Germany, would seek a nuclear weapons capability of their own. See Steven Pifer et al., “U.S. Nuclear and Extended Deterrence: Considerations and Challenges,” Brookings Arms Control Series, No. 3 (May 2010), https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/06_nuclear_deterrence.pdf.
4. The multilateral nuclear force proposal died for several reasons, including its inability to add to extended deterrence measures and the possibility that it would violate the requirement for a centrally controllable, unified strategic nuclear arsenal. Further, U.S. officials anticipated that European allies would not support such a plan once they realized the United States would retain its veto over launch and that NATO nations would be expected to share the costs of maintaining the force. See David N. Schwartz, NATO’s Nuclear Dilemmas (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1983), pp. 94–95.