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June 2, 2022
U.S., Russia Discuss Threats of Nuclear Use

Arms Control NOW

The U.S. intelligence community assessed in October that some senior Russian officials, not including Russian President Vladimir Putin, have discussed the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, though Russia denies the assessment.

The U.S. National Intelligence Council circulated the assessment within the Biden administration in mid-October, according to multiple senior U.S. officials who spoke with The New York Times. CNN also described the division among U.S. officials over the implications of the analysis, with some believing the Russian discussions might signal genuine consideration of nuclear use and others believing the discussions do not imply intent at this stage.

On Nov. 2, the same day as news of the intelligence assessment broke, the Russian Defense Ministry and the Russian Foreign Ministry released statements re-emphasizing that Moscow would only consider using nuclear weapons if Russia’s existence was imperiled.

“Russia is strictly and consistently guided by the tenet that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” said the Russian Foreign Ministry. Russia will “hypothetically resort to nuclear weapons exclusively in response to an aggression involving the use of weapons of mass destruction or an aggression with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.”

National Security Council official John Kirby told CNN that he had no comment “on the particulars of this reporting.”

Meanwhile, over recent months, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has spoken confidentially with Yuri Ushakov, a foreign policy adviser to Putin, and Nikolai Patrushev, the Kremlin’s Security Council secretary, in an effort to maintain communications and decrease the risk of escalation, including to the nuclear level. The U.S. and allied officials divulged the conversations to The Wall Street Journal Nov. 7, but did not detail the dates or the numbers of calls that have taken place.

The United States has communicated with Russia “when it’s been necessary to clarify potential misunderstandings and try to reduce risk and reduce the possibility of catastrophe like the potential use of nuclear weapons,” Sullivan commented Nov. 7.

CIA Director William Burns also met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Naryshkin, Nov. 14 in Ankara, Turkey, in order to dissuade Russia from considering the employment of nuclear weapons.

The Pentagon, as well as allied intelligence agencies, continues to monitor Russian nuclear forces, repeatedly assessing that there are neither signs of imminent nuclear use nor reasons for the United States to change its nuclear forces posture. U.S. officials have noted more recently, however, that the risk that Russia will use nuclear weapons is “elevated,” possibly to the highest point since the invasion began in February.

U.S. officials have said that Russia may use tactical nuclear weapons as part of a last-ditch effort to stop Ukraine’s recent counteroffensive. —SHANNON BUGOS, senior policy analyst

Meeting Could Resolve New START Inspections

The commission designed to address implementation concerns of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) plans to meet from late November to early December in Cairo, Egypt.

The United States and Russia paused meetings of the Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC) in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The two countries met in Geneva in October 2021 for the first meeting since the pandemic. The Cairo meeting would be the first since Russia began the war in Ukraine.

“We have agreed that the BCC will meet in the near future under the terms of the New START treaty,” confirmed State Department spokesperson Ned Price Nov. 8. “The work of the BCC is confidential, but we do hope for a constructive session.”

The primary topic for the BCC meeting will likely be the resumption of on-site inspections conducted under New START. The inspections had also been paused due to the pandemic, and Russia extended the pause in August 2022. Moscow attributed its decision to difficulties receiving visas and various travel permissions for inspectors.

The Biden administration has conditioned the negotiation of a new nuclear arms control arrangement to follow New START, which expires in 2026, on the resumption of on-site inspections. Negotiations on a follow-on framework would be separate from the BCC meetings.

U.S. President Joe Biden reiterated his support for future U.S.-Russian arms control beyond New START on Sept. 21. “No matter what else is happening in the world, the United States is ready to pursue critical arms control measures,” Biden said.

Russian officials have stated that Moscow stands ready to engage in an arms control dialogue with Washington, but the dialogue must occur “exclusively on the basis of equality and respect for the interests of Russia,” according to Konstantin Vorontsov, deputy director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s arms control and nonproliferation department, Oct. 17.

Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that Moscow offered to continue the bilateral strategic stability dialogue with Washington in December 2021 but received no response.

“If they want to, we are ready, let’s do it,” said Putin in an Oct. 27 speech. “We are developing our own modern technology, delivery vehicles, including supersonic arms.” But, he continued, “in principle, we do not need anything, [as] we feel self-sufficient.”

U.S. and Russian officials met in January 2022 for a special session of the dialogue regarding Moscow’s proposals on security guarantees. Aside from that meeting, the two countries last met on arms control matters in September 2021.

Meanwhile, Washington and Moscow exchanged data as required under the treaty on Sept. 1, with the public release of the data a month later.

New START imposes limits of 1,550 for deployed strategic warheads and 700 for deployed delivery vehicles. As of the exchange, the United States has 1,420 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 659 delivery vehicles, and Russia has 1,549 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 540 delivery vehicles.

In related news, a senior U.S. official informed CNN Nov. 10 that the United States observed Russia preparing for a potential test of the Poseidon, a new nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered torpedo that Washington aims to limit in a follow-on arrangement to New START. However, the test in the Arctic Sea did not take place, likely due to technical difficulties.

G-20 Condemns Nuclear Threats

The majority of the Group of 20 (G-20) condemned Russia’s war in Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats of nuclear use in a statement after its 2022 summit in Bali, Indonesia.

“Most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine and stressed it is causing immense human suffering and exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy,” said the statement, which was officially published Nov. 16. “The use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible.”

The G-20, as suggested by the name, has 20 members, including countries such as China, France, Germany, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, as well as the European Union.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticized the statement, describing it as “politicized.”

The G-20 statement came after U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in-person Nov. 14 for the first time since Biden took office. During the meeting, the two “reiterated their agreement that a nuclear war should never be fought and can never be won and underscored their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine,” according to a White House readout.

Xi’s statement with Biden garnered particular attention given the longtime close partnership between China and Russia that has further strengthened over the course of the war as Beijing stands by and offers support to Moscow.

The Chinese president had issued his first veiled condemnation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine in a Nov. 4 statement, in which he urged the international community to “jointly oppose the use of, or threats to use, nuclear weapons” and to “advocate that nuclear weapons cannot be used, a nuclear war cannot be waged, in order to prevent a nuclear crisis” in Europe or Asia.

With the war entering its ninth month, Putin continues to issue nuclear threats. When announcing the partial mobilization order and the illegal referenda in four Ukrainian regions on Sept. 21, the Russian president said that, “in the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us.” This statement expanded the four scenarios in which Moscow may consider nuclear use.

The Russian president signed treaties to begin the illegal annexation of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions of Ukraine on Sept. 30, with the process finalizing Oct. 5.

In a speech at the signing ceremony, Putin argued that the United States set the precedent for nuclear use with the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and declared that an attack on the four annexed regions will constitute an attack on Russia. “We will defend our land with all the forces and resources we have, and we will do everything we can to ensure the safety of our people,” Putin said.

At the same time, however, Putin and other Russian officials have denied issuing any nuclear threats and stated that employing tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine makes no political or military sense for Russia.

“We have never said anything proactively about Russia potentially using nuclear weapons,” Putin insisted Oct. 27.

U.S. President Joe Biden has repeatedly urged the Russian president against the consideration of nuclear weapons use. “Don’t. You will change the face of war unlike anything since World War II,” Biden said in September.

“We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since [U.S. President John F.] Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis” in October 1962, commented Biden Oct. 6. The president later shared that he views Putin as “a rational actor” and does not think Putin will ultimately choose to use tactical nuclear weapons.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan disclosed on Sept. 25 that the Biden administration has “communicated directly [and] privately to the Russians at very high levels that there will be catastrophic consequences for Russia if they use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.” The White House has repeatedly declined to detail what the U.S. response might be, whether economic, diplomatic, or military. NATO has also said that the alliance has communicated to Russia the “unprecedented” consequences of nuclear use.

France, the United Kingdom, and NATO have also denounced Putin’s threats of nuclear use and promised severe consequences. In addition, French President Emmanuel Macron said Oct. 13 that France will not use nuclear weapons if Russia employs nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg commented the same day that “the circumstances in which NATO might have to use nuclear weapons are extremely remote.”

Tensions spiked on Nov. 15 in light of reports that Russian forces launched an estimated 85 conventional missiles intended to take out Ukraine’s power facilities, with some crossing into Poland. Polish President Andrzej Duda, however, issued the findings from an initial assessment the next day, which found that “Ukraine’s defense was launching their missiles in various directions, and it is highly probable that one of these missiles unfortunately fell on Polish territory."

The National Security Council, the Pentagon, and NATO have all backed Poland's assessment, while Ukraine has dismissed it. Russia has denied that its forces were responsible.

IAEA Disputes Russian Claims of “Dirty Bomb” in Ukraine

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigated and dismissed the Russian allegation that Ukraine was readying a “dirty bomb,” a conventional explosive designed to spread radioactive material.

“Our technical and scientific evaluation of the results we have so far did not show any sign of undeclared nuclear activities and materials at these three locations,” stated IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi on Nov. 3. Ukraine had requested that the IAEA conduct inspections, which the agency carried out at three locations from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu first raised the accusation in calls with his British, French, Turkish, and U.S. counterparts on Oct. 23, on direct orders from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Our countries made clear that we all reject Russia’s transparently false allegations that Ukraine is preparing to use a dirty bomb on its own territory,” said France, the United Kingdom, and the United States in a joint statement after the calls. “The world would see through any attempt to use this allegation as a pretext for escalation.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also rejected the Russian claim.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken later stressed the particular concern that the Russian allegation against Ukraine has sparked, given Moscow’s “track record of projecting, which is to say accusing others of doing something that they themselves have done or are thinking about doing.”

Nevertheless, National Security Council official John Kirby emphasized on Oct. 26 that “we haven’t seen any indications that the Russians are making preparations for the use of a dirty bomb or, quite frankly, the use of tactical nuclear weapons.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin initiated a call, the first since May, with Shoigu on Oct. 21, during which Austin “emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication amid the ongoing war against Ukraine,” according to a Pentagon statement. Shoigu initiated the second call two days later.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley also spoke with Chief of Russian General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov on Oct. 24, in which the two agreed to keep the lines of communication open.

U.S. Nuclear Posture Emphasizes Arms Control

The United States will need to deter both China and Russia by the 2030s, according to the long-awaited unclassified versions of the Biden administration’s national security and nuclear posture strategies released in October.

This mission will require the modernization of the U.S. nuclear triad and infrastructure and the reinforcement of U.S. extended deterrence commitments, according to the National Security Strategy published by the White House on Oct. 12.

At the same time, the Biden administration remains “equally committed to reducing the risks of nuclear war,” including by “taking further steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our strategy and pursuing realistic goals for mutual, verifiable arms control, which contribute to our deterrence strategy and strengthen the global non-proliferation regime.”

The United States will “ultimately engage Beijing on more formal arms control efforts” and develop “a more expansive, transparent, and verifiable arms control infrastructure to succeed New START,” the White House document states.

The National Security Strategy set the guidelines for the related Defense Department documents released on Oct. 27, including the National Defense Strategy (NDS), the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), and the Missile Defense Review. The Pentagon sent the classified versions of its three reports to Congress in March.

The NDS reiterated the Biden administration’s focus on China as “the most comprehensive and serious challenge” and Russia “as an acute threat.”

Beijing and Moscow will create “new stresses on strategic stability” with their “modern and diverse nuclear capabilities,” the strategy determines.

The NPR continued to outline the Biden administration’s priorities with the future of nuclear disarmament and arms control and the posture, modernization, and maintenance of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

“Russia will remain a focus of U.S. efforts given the size, diversity, and continuing modernization of its nuclear arsenal,” states the review. “However, we will need to account for [China’s] nuclear expansion in future U.S.-Russia arms control discussions.”

The Biden administration’s priority vis-à-vis Russia is for the expeditious negotiation of a successor arms control framework to New START upon its expiration in 2026. Yet, the negotiation, the NPR continues, “requires a willing partner operating in good faith.”

As for China, Washington aims to engage Beijing in bilateral and multilateral fora on “a full range of strategic issues, with a focus on military de-confliction, crisis communications, information sharing, mutual restraint, risk reduction, emerging technologies, and approaches to nuclear arms control.”

The NPR also emphasizes the P5 process as a venue in which to undertake future efforts designed “to deepen engagement on nuclear doctrines, concepts for strategic risk reduction, and nuclear arms control verification.” The P5 process includes China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

For declaratory policy, the review established that “the fundamental role of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our Allies, and partners.”

On nuclear capabilities, the NPR canceled the sea-launched cruise missile program, introduced in the Trump administration’s 2018 NPR, and dictated the retirement of the megaton class B83-1 gravity bomb, as reported by press earlier this year.

For additional analysis of the Biden administration’s strategy documents, see:

NATO, Russian Nuclear Exercises Overlap

The date of annual nuclear exercises by each NATO and Russia overlapped briefly in October, prompting concerns of increased risks to strategic stability.

NATO begun its Steadfast Noon exercise, which lasted two weeks, on Oct. 17, while Russia launched its Grom exercise on Oct. 26.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg discounted the possibility of canceling Steadfast Noon due to the heightened tensions amid Russia’s war on Ukraine and threats of nuclear use. Both U.S. and Russian officials criticized the other’s decision to move ahead with their respective nuclear exercise.

“We believe that Russian nuclear rhetoric and its decision to proceed with this exercise while at war with Ukraine is irresponsible,” said a senior U.S. defense official on Oct. 13. “Brandishing nuclear weapons to coerce the United States and its allies is irresponsible.”

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova described on Oct. 20 NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement and nuclear exercise as “destabilizing.”

Fourteen of NATO’s 30 members and up to 60 tactical nuclear fighter jets and surveillance aircraft participated in Steadfast Noon, which used Belgium’s Kleine Brogel Air Base as the exercise’s headquarters. U.S. officials noted in a very rare disclosure that some B-52H strategic bombers from U.S. Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota also participated.

This year’s exercise featured flights over Belgium, the United Kingdom, and the North Sea and played out a scenario unrelated to Ukraine. The aircraft, though practicing the delivery of U.S. B61 nuclear gravity bombs, flew unarmed.

Russia officially notified the United States of the Grom exercise on Oct. 25, with the exercise kicking off the next day. Grom featured test fires of the Yars land-based intercontinental ballistic missile from the northern Plesetsk Cosmodrone launch site and the Sineva submarine-launched ballistic missile in the Barents Sea towards the Kura Missile Test Range. Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bombers also carried out test fires of air-launched cruise missiles.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu described the scenario for the exercise as “delivering a massive nuclear strike by strategic offensive forces in response to an enemy nuclear strike.”

The last round of the Grom exercise took place in February, less than a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close supervision.

On the first day that the two exercises directly overlapped on Oct. 26, Politico reported that the U.S. Defense Department has sped up the arrival of the upgraded B61-12 gravity bomb to NATO bases in Europe.

However, Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder rejected the report, saying that the B61’s modernization effort “is in no way linked to current events in Ukraine and was not sped up in any way.” Richard Johnson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear policy, later reiterated that the B61-12 “is on the same schedule it has always been on.”

In the wake of the news, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko denounced the U.S. gravity bomb. The United States is “increasing [the B61-12’s] accuracy and reducing the power of the nuclear charge—that is, they turn these weapons into ‘battlefield weapons,’ thereby reducing the nuclear threshold,” he said on Oct. 29.

Meanwhile, Poland has claimed that it may participate in NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement in the future. “We have spoken with American leaders about whether the United States is considering such a possibility,” said Polish President Andrzej Duda on Oct. 5. The issue is open.”

Majority of World Backs TPNW

More than 120 countries voted in favor of a United Nations resolution urging all states to sign, ratify, and accede as well as to promote greater adherence to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

The vote took place on Oct. 28 during the first committee meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, with 43 objections and 14 abstentions. Finland and Sweden voted against the resolution for the first time, perhaps a nod to their pursuit of NATO membership.

More than 140 countries also supported another resolution expressing the need to eliminate nuclear weapons, prevent their proliferation, and achieve disarmament.

“Like climate change and pandemic disease, the terrible risks posed by nuclear weapons constitute a global problem and require a global response,” commented Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. “It is therefore in the interest of all states – and the responsibility of all states – to confront and condemn threats to use nuclear weapons and to take action to reinforce the norm against their use.”

The TPNW currently has 68 states-parties and 91 ratifications.

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