Editor’s Note: To keep pace with developments, as of July 2022, the Arms Control Association is superseding the “U.S.-Russia Nuclear Arms Control Watch” with the “Nuclear Disarmament Monitor.” The goal of the newsletter’s overhaul is to enable coverage of arms control issues beyond bilateral U.S.-Russian efforts, such as potential nuclear risk reduction and disarmament diplomacy involving China and the other NPT nuclear-armed states. This inaugural issue of the new publication recaps developments since the beginning of 2022.
In the opening days of Russia’s war on Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear forces to move to a heightened alert status and threatened any country thinking of interfering on Kyiv’s behalf with nuclear retaliation.
“No matter who tries to stand in our way, or all the more so create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history,” Putin said Feb. 24, the first day of the invasion of Ukraine. He again issued this threat April 27, saying that any interference will be met with “lightning-fast” retaliatory strikes.
Neither the United States nor the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have made reciprocal moves to change the alert status of their nuclear forces.
Within two days of the start of the invasion, the United States paused the bilateral strategic stability dialogue with Russia in which the two sides have in the past discussed nuclear arms control.
However, in June, both Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden communicated a desire to hold this dialogue once more, though U.S. and Russian officials have simultaneously expressed skepticism that this will occur anytime soon.
“Even as we rally the world to hold Russia accountable for its brutal and unprovoked war on Ukraine, we must continue to engage Russia on issues of strategic stability,” Biden wrote in a June 2 letter to the Arms Control Association. “Our progress must continue beyond the [2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] New START extension,” he added.
Later in June, Putin expressed that “Russia is open to dialogue on ensuring strategic stability, preserving agreements on the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and improving the situation in arms control.”
Biden and Putin extended New START, the last remaining treaty limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, in February 2021 for five years until 2026.
In a demonstration of its nuclear capabilities, Russia conducted exercises involving simulated nuclear launches and featuring dual-capable, road-mobile Iskander-M ballistic missiles in the Kaliningrad enclave in May and nuclear-capable Yars intercontinental ballistic missiles in the Ivanovo province in June.
Despite its illegal war on Ukraine and nuclear exercises, Russia continues to adhere to New START. This is evidenced by the most recent data exchange under the treaty March 1 and the test of a new nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile called the Sarmat April 20, about which Washington received advance notice due to the treaty requirements. However, the United States and Russia have not yet resumed regular inspections under New START since they were suspended in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic —SHANNON BUGOS, senior policy analyst
|Timeline of Key Nuclear-Related Developments During the Ukraine War
Prospects of Renewed U.S.-Russian Dialogue Remain Uncertain
Despite indications from Presidents Biden and Putin in favor of restarting the bilateral strategic stability dialogue, both U.S. and Russian officials have stated that there are currently no immediate plans to do so. Biden and Putin relaunched the dialogue in June 2021 after a hiatus since fall 2020.
“Unfortunately, there are no tangible plans” to hold a session of the strategic stability dialogue, said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov June 30.
Meanwhile, Bonnie Jenkins, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, remarked to press reporters July 12 that “achieving U.S. arms control objectives has grown more challenging in the face of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.”
Jenkins emphasized that the main priority currently is to determine how to “continue to provide the assistance that’s required for Ukraine to defend its sovereignty,” rather than on “avoiding a nuclear war with Russia.”
“We do have existing mechanisms that we want to get back to talk about nuclear issues and those type of issues with Russia,” Jenkins added, “but unfortunately, because of Russia’s invasion, we have not been able to do that.”
The two countries met in July and September 2021 and created two working groups— the Working Group on Principles and Objectives for Future Arms Control and the Working Group on Capabilities and Actions With Strategic Effects—to try to make headway between official meetings.
The dialogue last convened in January 2022, during which the two sides moved away from the traditional agenda of the dialogue in order to discuss the broader proposal on security guarantees put forward by Moscow in December. The Russian proposal included ideas related to arms control, risk reduction, and transparency, as well as articles prohibiting the eastward expansion of NATO, which also received a separate Russian proposal at the time.
The United States and Russia diverge on what each would like to see in an arms control agreement or arrangement following New START.
The Biden administration aims to maintain limits on systems covered by New START, address new kinds of Russian nuclear weapons in the development or deployment stages, as well as limit the Russian arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, Russia has called for the creation of “a new security equation” that addresses all nuclear and non-nuclear, offensive and defensive weapons that affect strategic stability. This framework would include U.S. missile defense systems, which Washington has long resisted putting up for negotiation, as well as missile systems formerly banned by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
Both Washington and Moscow, however, have acknowledged that what may follow New START might not be a traditional arms control treaty, but rather another type of arms control arrangement or arrangements due to the divisive topics on the table and the makeup of the U.S. Senate.
For additional coverage of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control developments, see these resources:
U.S. Assesses Russian Nuclear Weapons Use Unlikely
Despite Putin’s numerous threats of nuclear retaliation, Russian officials have discounted the prospect of nuclear use in Ukraine. U.S. intelligence and defense officials have also assessed that the Russian president is unlikely to call upon the country’s nuclear forces, though Putin may continue to issue direct or indirect threats of nuclear weapons use.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasized April 25 that Russia remains committed to the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.
The “inadmissibility of nuclear war” continues to be Russia’s “principled position,” Lavrov said. A month later, he also stressed that “Russia has never ceased its efforts to reach agreements that would guarantee the prevention of a nuclear war.”
Yet, at the same time, Lavrov has acknowledged that the possibility of nuclear war “is real” and “cannot be underestimated.”
For his part, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy responded to Putin’s threats by warning April 17 that “all of the world, all of the countries have to be worried” about nuclear war.
Yet, in addition to some effort by Lavrov, other Russian officials have attempted to downplay Putin’s threat of nuclear use in Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov commented March 29 that the war in Ukraine has “nothing to do with” any threat to Russia’s existence, indicating that the use of nuclear weapons is therefore not under consideration in Russia. The latest version of the Russian nuclear deterrence policy in 2020 details four scenarios under which Moscow might deploy its nuclear arsenal, including a threat to the nation’s existence.
“No one is thinking about [the] idea of using a nuclear weapon,” Peskov added.
The Russian Foreign Ministry deputy spokesperson, Alexey Zaitsev, also stated explicitly May 6 that nuclear weapons “are not applicable to the implementation of the tasks set in the course of the special military operation in Ukraine.”
In response, the United States and NATO have not changed the status of their nuclear forces and instead criticized Putin for his risky, reckless rhetoric.
“This is dangerous rhetoric,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said of Putin’s threats in late February. “This is a behavior which is irresponsible.”
U.S. President Joe Biden Feb. 28 dismissed the idea that the public should worry about nuclear war. “No one should be making idle comments about the use of nuclear weapons or the possibility that they’d use that,” Biden remarked two months later April 28.
Biden further clarified May 31 that “Any use of nuclear weapons in this conflict on any scale would be completely unacceptable to us as well as the rest of the world and would entail severe consequences.”
The Defense Department has continuously assessed the status of Russia’s nuclear forces to determine if the United States should adjust its nuclear forces and posture, but defense officials have repeatedly said that they see no indication that such adjustments are necessary.
Adm. Charles Richard, head of U.S. Strategic Command, testified in March that there is no immediate need to change the U.S. nuclear force posture.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby issued assurances May 5 that the United States is “comfortable and confident that our strategic deterrent posture is well-placed and robust enough to defend the homeland, as well as our allies and partners.” The Defense Department also, in an attempt to not stoke further tensions, delayed and then canceled April 1 a planned test of a nuclear-capable Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile.
U.S. intelligence officials have aligned with the stance that there is no imminent threat of nuclear use by Russia in Ukraine.
Yet, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines warned Congress May 12 that Putin may engage in some further signaling of Russian disapproval of U.S. support for Ukraine “by authorizing another large nuclear exercise involving a major dispersal of mobile intercontinental missiles, heavy bombers, [and] strategic submarines.”
Meanwhile, U.S. national security officials have conducted a series of tabletop exercises since March to determine how Biden should respond if Putin uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine or around the Black Sea, with the options on the table being focused on non-nuclear responses.
TPNW States Parties Condemn “Any and All Nuclear Threats”
The first meeting of states-parties to the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) held June 21-23 in Vienna produced an ambitious 50-point action plan and several decisions designed to implement the 2017 agreement. Citing “increasingly strident nuclear rhetoric,” the states-parties also adopted a political statement that aims, in part, to reinforce norms against nuclear weapons use and the threat of use.
“We stress that any use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is a violation of international law, including the Charter of the United Nations. We condemn unequivocally any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances,” the political declaration added.
The condemnation represents the strongest multilateral criticism of such nuclear threats since the UN General Assembly approved a resolution March 2 condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s decision to increase the readiness of his nuclear forces.
In a response issued June 24 by Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, the Russian government rejected the criticism. “There have never been any ‘nuclear threats’ from Russia and never are. The Russian approach to this issue is based solely on the logic of deterrence,” she said.
NATO Names Russia as its Biggest Threat
During its June summit in Madrid, the 30 member states of NATO named Russia as the most direct, significant threat to the alliance’s security and denounced Russia’s violations of its arms control violations.
“The Russian Federation’s violations and selective implementation of its arms control obligations and commitments have contributed to the deterioration of the broader security landscape,” reads the 2022 NATO strategic concept, released following the summit June 29-30. This marked the first update of this document, which details NATO’s goals and principles, in more than a decade.
Russia, dubbed as “the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area,” is in the process of modernizing its nuclear forces as well as expanding its new dual-capable delivery systems, the alliance wrote. Furthermore, NATO points to Moscow’s “violations and selective implementation of its arms control obligations and commitments” as contributing to “the erosion of the arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation architecture” and “the deterioration of the broader security landscape.”
Considering all of Russia’s “hostile policies and actions,” the document declares that the NATO-Russia partnership pictured in the 2010 version of the document is no longer on the table.
Nevertheless, the NATO member states also expressed their willingness to keep lines of communication open with Russia in order to prevent escalation and increase transparency.
“We will pursue all elements of strategic risk reduction, including promoting confidence building and predictability through dialogue, increasing understanding, and establishing effective crisis management and prevention tools,” the document reads.
In light of Putin’s nuclear threats, the alliance explained that, while the circumstances in which NATO may employ nuclear weapons remain extremely remote, “Any employment of nuclear weapons against NATO would fundamentally alter the nature of a conflict.”
“The Alliance has the capabilities and resolve to impose costs on an adversary that would be unacceptable and far outweigh the benefits that any adversary could hope to achieve,” says the strategic concept.
Additionally, the document describes for the first time China as a growing challenge.
“The PRC is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal and is developing increasingly sophisticated delivery systems, without increasing transparency or engaging in good faith in arms control or risk reduction,” the alliance writes in the strategic concept.
Rose Gottemoeller, former NATO deputy secretary-general, expressed June 27 her doubts for an imminent return to U.S.-Russian talks on arms control.
“In the face of Russia’s onslaught against Ukraine, there is no way that Russia and NATO countries will be returning to the negotiating table any time soon,” she writes. “That goes for multilateral talks on European security and WMD [weapons of mass destruction] constraints, as well as bilateral talks between the United States and Russia to replace the New START Treaty.”
In the wake of Russia’s war on Ukraine, Biden has repeatedly reiterated U.S. support for the NATO alliance.
“We will collectively defend and protect every inch of NATO territory,” Biden said March 24 following an emergency summit of NATO leaders in Brussels to discuss the alliance’s further response to the war in Ukraine.
For further coverage of the 2022 NATO strategic concept, see the following news report:
Russia Threatens to Equip Belarus with Nuclear Weapons
Russia said in June that it may begin to transfer nuclear-capable weaponry to its client-state Belarus.
Putin met with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko June 25, after which the two announced their new agreement.
“Within the next several months, we will transfer to Belarus the Iskander-M tactical missile systems, which are known to use both ballistic and cruise missiles, both conventional and nuclear,” Putin explained. The two presidents also agreed to start reequipping the Russian Su-25 jets with “additional equipment,” so as to make the jets able to carry tactical nuclear weapons, and to “begin training of aircrews,” which would be necessary for them to carry out nuclear missions.
Putin and Lukashenko additionally ordered their respective defense ministries and chiefs of general staffs to start collaborating on the details to carry out this agreement.
Russia has relied extensively on conventional road-mobile Iskander-M ballistic missiles in the war against Ukraine. Currently, Belarus is estimated to operate 67 Su-25 jets.
ACA Blog on 10th NPT Review Conference in August
After multiple delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 10th Review Conference of the Parties to the 1967 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) will take place from Aug. 1-26 at the United Nations headquarters in New York City.
The Arms Control Association will keep track of developments related to arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation on its blog, which can be found here.
Gabriela Rosa Hernandez, a research associate at ACA, will post on the blog twice a week for the four weeks of the conference.
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