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"I learned so much about arms control and disarmament at ACA! I learned more about arms control here in four months than I had in all three years at my college."

– Alicia Sanders-Zakre
Intern, Fall 2016
December 16, 2016
April 2022
Edition Date: 
Friday, April 1, 2022
Cover Image: 

New Approaches Needed to Prevent Nuclear Catastrophe


April 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a massive assault on independent, democratic, non-nuclear Ukraine has unleashed a war that has killed thousands, displaced millions, and raised the risk of nuclear conflict.

At an emergency session of the UNGA March 2,141 member states voted in favor of a resolution deploring "in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine” and “condemning the decision of the Russian Federation to increase the readiness of its nuclear forces."Instead of reverting to destabilizing Cold War-era behaviors, leaders and concerned citizens in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere need to embrace new thinking and strategies about nuclear weapons and disarmament that move the world from the shadow of nuclear catastrophe.

Putin and other Russian officials have made implied nuclear threats and put their strategic nuclear forces on a heightened state of readiness to ward off a direct U.S. or NATO military intervention in Ukraine. It is not a new or uniquely Russian idea. U.S. officials also claim that U.S. strategic nuclear forces create “maneuver space” to “project conventional military power.”

Nuclear threats and alerts were not uncommon and were no less dangerous during the Cold War. Such rhetoric and orders to raise the operational readiness of nuclear forces can be misinterpreted in ways that lead to nuclear countermoves, escalation, and a nuclear attack.

Biden wisely has not matched Putin’s nuclear taunts, but the risk of escalation is real. A close encounter between NATO and Russian warplanes, which could result if NATO imposed a no-fly zone in Ukraine, could lead to a wider conflict. Because Russian and U.S. military strategies reserve the option to use nuclear weapons first against non-nuclear threats, fighting could quickly go nuclear.

Russian nuclear doctrine states that nuclear weapons can be used in response to an attack with weapons of mass destruction or if a conventional war threatens the “very existence of the state.” Right now, these conditions do not exist. But if the Kremlin believes a serious attack is underway, it might use short-range, tactical nuclear weapons to tip the military balance in its favor.

Unfortunately, U.S. President Joe Biden’s new Nuclear Posture Review states that the “fundamental role” of the U.S. arsenal will be to deter nuclear attacks while still leaving open the option for nuclear first use in “extreme circumstances” to counter conventional, biological, chemical, and possibly cyberattacks.

There is no plausible military scenario, and no legally justifiable basis for threatening or using nuclear weapons first, if at all. Once nuclear weapons are used between nuclear-armed states, there is no guarantee it will not lead to an all-out nuclear exchange.

New thinking is needed. The adoption of policies prohibiting the first use of nuclear weapons would increase stability. But even that would not eliminate the dangers of nuclear deterrence strategies and arsenals, which depend on maintaining the credible threat of prompt retaliation in response to a nuclear attack.

U.S. and European citizens need to mobilize and press their leaders to pursue even bolder initiatives to steer the nuclear possessor states away from nuclear confrontation and arms racing.

For example, UN General Assembly members, particularly those who negotiated the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, should consider a “uniting for peace” resolution in response to the immediate threat of nuclear use. Such resolutions have been used in rare cases when the UN Security Council, lacking unanimity among its five permanent, nuclear-armed members, fails to act to maintain international peace and security.

Such a resolution could build on the March 2 vote in the General Assembly condemning Russia’s invasion and Putin’s decision to increase the readiness of his nuclear forces and would recall the assembly’s declaration of November 1961 that said that “any state using nuclear…weapons is to be considered as violating the Charter of the UN, as acting contrary to the laws of humanity and as committing a crime against mankind and civilization.”

An updated resolution could declare that the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is contrary to international law and mandate negotiations on legally binding security guarantees against unprovoked attacks from states possessing nuclear weapons.

The resolution could mandate that any state that initiates a nuclear attack shall be stripped of its voting privileges at the United Nations and recommend collective measures to restore the peace under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Such an initiative would reinforce the nuclear weapons taboo at a critical juncture.

Responsible states must also come together on a meaningful disarmament plan at the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference in August. Although Putin’s war has derailed U.S.-Russian talks for now on further cuts in their bloated strategic arsenals and new agreements to limit short- and intermediate-range nuclear weapons systems, they are still bound by their disarmament obligations under Article VI of the NPT.

The last remaining U.S.-Russian arms reduction agreement, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, expires in 2026. Without commonsense arms control guardrails, the dangers of unconstrained global nuclear arms racing will only grow.

Putin’s war on Ukraine is a sobering reminder that outdated nuclear deterrence policies create unacceptable risks. The only way to eliminate the danger is to reinforce the norm against nuclear use and pursue more sustainable path toward their elimination.

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a massive assault on independent, democratic, non-nuclear Ukraine has unleashed a war that has killed thousands, displaced millions, and raised the risk of nuclear conflict.

Back to Basics: The Nuclear Order, Arms Control, and Europe


April 2022
By Oliver Meier

Russia has given its illegal, reckless war against Ukraine a distinct nuclear dimension. In a largely futile attempt to deter NATO states from supporting Ukraine politically and militarily, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued several nuclear threats, including raising the alert level of Moscow’s strategic forces.

At their June 2021 summit in Geneva, U.S. President Joe Biden (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin affirmed that a “nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.” Now that Russia is at war with Ukraine, however, Putin has raised the specter of using nuclear weapons in the fight and his summit commitment rings hollow. (Photo by Denis Balibouse - Pool/Keystone via Getty Images)Such nuclear chest-beating, in conjunction with a hot war in the alliance’s immediate vicinity, is unprecedented. Russia’s attack on Ukraine marks the first time that nuclear blackmail has been used to shield a full-scale conventional invasion. Moscow thus has raised the nuclear stakes to new and dangerous levels. Fortunately, U.S. and NATO responses have been calm and measured, so far avoiding a dangerous escalatory spiral.

Any assessment of the implications of Putin’s policies for the nuclear order, arms control, and European security must be preliminary. The conflict is still unfolding. Putin could continue to leverage Russian nuclear weapons, raise the stakes further, or even go down in history as the first leader to use nuclear weapons to “win” a war of his own choosing. Major players are still repositioning themselves, including China. Although Russia finds itself with fewer allies, the degree of its isolation is yet to be seen. The full impact of Russian aggression will thus materialize over time. One thing is certain: The war will have serious, long-lasting effects on how the world views nuclear weapons, how it seeks to control them, and how Europe develops a new security structure.

The conflict will likely increase the salience of nuclear weapons. This development would be at odds with the 2010 commitment by all parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) “to further diminish the role and significance of nuclear weapons in all military and security concepts, doctrines and policies.”1 States at the 10th NPT Review Conference, scheduled for August 1–26, will have to note the growing importance that nuclear-weapon states attach to nuclear deterrence. Attributing responsibility for the greater role of nuclear weapons will be contentious, creating a major obstacle for a successful review conference.

The growing importance nuclear-weapon states attach to their nuclear weapons will also complicate arms control. For example, U.S. proposals to include nonstrategic weapons in negotiations are less likely to resonate now with Russia, which compensates for the weakness of its conventional forces with a vast stockpile of 2,000 or so tactical nuclear weapons. This function will become more important because of the Russian military’s poor performance in Ukraine and Moscow’s inability to fix the problem because of Western economic sanctions. Even more disconcerting is the possibility that Russia might revert to chemical or biological weapons for asymmetrical deterrence.

NATO’s new strategic concept, to be agreed by alliance leaders at a summit this summer, will likely account for Russia’s increased reliance on its nuclear weapons. Even if Russia’s conventional capabilities do not pose the military threat once believed, Putin’s willingness to wage unprovoked war in Europe will strengthen the hands of those who favor increasing NATO’s reliance on nuclear deterrence.

It is not clear if Russia and the United States will resume their strategic stability dialogue to discuss a follow-on agreement to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Regardless, avoiding new nuclear arms races in Europe, including the possible deployment of highly destabilizing intermediate-range nuclear forces, will require a rethink of arms control priorities.

Another implication of Russia’s nuclear posturing is that nuclear-weapon states will have to urgently address the risks of nuclear escalation, inadvertent and intentional. This means nuclear arms control will return to its origins. The 1958 Surprise Attack Conference, a failed attempt to find ways to reduce the risk of a nuclear first strike, marked the beginning of modern arms control. Finding ways to prevent nuclear war will have to be the backbone of any future nuclear arms control agenda again.

Fortunately, neither side needs to start from scratch. Nuclear risk reduction had moved up on the arms control agenda even before the war in Ukraine. On the table exists a broad menu of measures to reduce nuclear dangers, ranging from better communication channels to taking weapons off high-alert status and separating warheads from delivery vehicles. In hindsight, it seems cynical that Putin at the 2021 Geneva summit with U.S. President Joe Biden reaffirmed the Reagan-Gorbachev formula that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Such statements sound hollow today. Therefore, any future risk reduction steps will have to be tangible, verifiable, and probably reciprocal.

Both sides also should try to preserve “islands of cooperation” in order to avoid unnecessary, costly, and dangerous arms races and prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). During the Cold War, such islands did exist, particularly on nonproliferation. The 1968 NPT and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention are among the most important examples.

Unfortunately, today’s Kremlin leadership appears less pragmatic than its predecessors and has dragged global nonproliferation accords into the conflict with the West. Even before its attack on Ukraine, Russia misused the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to shield the perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks. Since the Feb. 24 onslaught, Moscow has attempted to leverage its role in talks on resuscitating the Iran nuclear deal, formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, to reduce the impact of U.S. sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s war on Ukraine. Most recently, Russia has launched baseless allegations against Ukraine and the United States related to biological weapons, weakening the taboo against the military misuse of biological agents. These lies will undermine the norms against weapons of mass destruction for years to come and place Russia outside the nonproliferation mainstream.

The international community should still try to keep islands of cooperation afloat, even if Russia does not want to live on them. As Rose Gottemoeller, chief U.S. negotiator for New START and former NATO deputy secretary-general, has said, “With Russia at best a less reliable partner, China’s role in the international arms control regime will become increasingly vital.”2 If Beijing is willing to work with others, it might be possible to isolate Moscow in multilateral forums. From this perspective, it is not helpful to frame the war in Ukraine as a struggle between autocracies and democracies. China and some of the other 35 states that abstained when the UN General Assembly on March 2 condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine were not democracies. It is also important to remember that multilateral instruments have always been and, to some degree, must be blind to the political character of member states. The pursuit of cooperation on “global commons” priorities such as WMD nonproliferation must take that into account.

Another implication of the deadlock on the traditional step-by-step arms control process will be an increased focus on humanitarian arms control. Russia and other major powers have stayed away from some agreements that limit or prohibit weapons based on the humanitarian consequences of their use. For example, the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions are implemented without Russian or U.S. support. Particularly for the countries of the global South, humanitarian arms control will continue to provide almost the only opportunity to make progress on disarmament.

The war in Ukraine will likely have contradictory effects on the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which is also deeply rooted in the humanitarian tradition of arms control. On the one hand, Putin’s nuclear posturing, after four years of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “nationalist populism,”3 underscores that it cannot be assumed that nuclear weapons are safe in the hands of some states but not in others. This supports the argument of ban treaty supporters that, while seeking to reduce the risks of nuclear weapons use, the world must not lose sight of the fact that total disarmament is the only sustainable solution to the dangers posed by these weapons.

On the other hand, increased salience of nuclear weapons will slow global momentum toward the TPNW. This is particularly true in Europe, the stronghold of TPNW critics. Roughly three-quarters of all states opposed to the ban treaty are European nations. Scandinavian countries such as Finland, Norway, and Sweden have been flirting with the ban treaty, as has the new German government. Faced with the Russian war against Ukraine, these countries are less likely to stray from the NATO line, which remains adamantly opposed to the TPNW. Should Germany, Finland, Norway, or Sweden reverse their decision to attend to the first meeting of TPNW states-parties as observers, this would reduce their role as bridge builders in the global nuclear order. Reduced willingness to engage constructively with the TPNW would widen the global divide on nuclear weapons.

Putin’s Russia is a revisionist power. At least as long as Putin is in power, it will be impossible to develop a European security architecture with Russia as a partner. This statement must not be confused with advocacy for a policy aimed at regime change, but it has negative implications for conventional arms control in Europe and a range of other issues.

For Europeans, an important factor is where the political line between Russia, its allies, and the West will be drawn. This, of course, concerns the future of Ukraine as a free nation, but the outlook for Balkan countries and states and regions such as Moldova and Transnistria are not immediately clear either. Subregional arms control accords, such as the 1995 Dayton agreement, could become more important. The European Union, in particular, will have to put in place smart policies that push the political demarcation line as far as possible to the east, at least while the current Kremlin leadership remains in power and places Russia outside of the European security acquis.

Finally, a word on the importance of the civil society dialogue on arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation: Official channels to Moscow remain blocked, but maintaining contacts among academia, the expert communities, and citizen groups in Russia and the West will become even more important. The agenda for such interactions may be less ambitious, and personal meetings will be more difficult, but direct contacts must be fostered wherever possible. Maintaining such bridges to Russia will be crucial to work toward better times and to be prepared when they arrive, hopefully in the not too distant future.

 

 

ENDNOTES

1. 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Action, “Final Document,” NPT/CONF.2010/50 (Vol. I), 2010, action 5(c).

2. Rose Gottemoeller, “How to Stop a New Nuclear Arms Race,” Foreign Affairs, March 9, 2022, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2022-03-09/how-stop-new-nuclear-arms-race.

3. Oliver Meier and Maren Vieluf, “Upsetting the Nuclear Order: How the Rise of Nationalist Populism Increases Nuclear Dangers,” The Nonproliferation Review, December 16, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1080/10736700.2020.1864932.


Oliver Meier is a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg.

The war in Ukraine will have long-lasting effects on how the world sees nuclear weapons and how Europe develops a new security structure.

Arms Control Must Remain the Goal


April 2022
By Andrei Zagorski

Less than four years ago, experts would acknowledge the possibility that Ukraine could eventually become an arena for Russian-NATO confrontation and predict that “any significant reescalation of military hostilities in Ukraine, pushing NATO, Russia or both to intervene directly or indirectly, may quickly grow into a direct military engagement in the most sensitive areas along their shared border,” as suggested by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) network of think tanks and academic institutions. Such a development would also bear the danger of potential nuclear escalation of the conflict.1

Russian President Vladimir Putin during his address to the nation at the Kremlin on February 21, three days before launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. After failing to secure a quick victory over Kyiv, Putin has raised fears that he may use chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons in the war. (Photo by Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)Although this scenario appeared remote at the time, Russia is weeks into its war in Ukraine; and the possibility of a nuclear escalation involving Russia, NATO, and the United States has reached levels not seen since the end of the Cold War. Since the beginning of the war in late February, Russia and the United States have played the nuclear deterrence card to communicate what they would see as redlines, the crossing of which could trigger World War III. As the hostilities evolved, however, these redlines seemed to blur, opening grey areas and thus increasing the ambiguity as to what developments could lead to inadvertent nuclear escalation. This highlights the need for a more robust mechanism, including relevant arms control measures, to appropriately address this inherent danger.

Mutual Signaling

From the beginning of the conflict, the United States and NATO repeatedly conveyed the message that they would not send troops to defend Ukraine, although they were prepared to arm the government in Kyiv and raise the costs of the intervention for Russia. Still, while launching the military operation, Russian President Vladimir Putin explicitly warned the West not to think of intervening militarily, implicitly threatening that this could lead to a nuclear war. “I would now like to say something very important for those who may be tempted to interfere in these developments from the outside,” Putin said on February 24. “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. No matter how the events unfold, we are ready. All the necessary decisions in this regard have been taken. I hope that my words will be heard.”2

At the same time, U.S. President Joe Biden also signaled that the United States would not shy away from entering a world war that, by default, would become nuclear should the Russian military operation be extended beyond the borders of Ukraine and spill over onto the territory of any NATO member states. “If they move once—granted, if we respond, it is World War III, but we have a sacred obligation on NATO territory,”3 Biden said on March 11. Yet, the devil is in the details. In the course of the hostilities, many questions have arisen and more may arise in the future as to whether a particular action could be seen by one or another side as an escalation that could lead to direct engagement.

Although the politically controversial option of establishing a no-fly zone in Ukraine was rejected by the United States and NATO because it might lead to direct engagement between Russian and NATO combat aircraft, the consequences of other options were less obvious. Could the continuous supply of weapons to Ukraine from NATO member states amid the hostilities be interpreted as direct interference by the Western alliance in the war? Although Moscow would not take it that far, the Kremlin has made it clear that “any cargo moving into Ukrainian territory, which we would believe is carrying weapons, would be fair game.”4 It seems that this proposition is tacitly accepted in the West. Yet, if the Ukrainian air force launches from airfields on the territory of neighboring NATO member states, such as Romania and Poland—an option considered for a while during the early weeks of the war—would that provoke Russian strikes against such facilities, thus extending the military operation beyond the borders of Ukraine, and would NATO consider it a casus belli?

Such questions suggest how developments on the ground and decisions made by top leaders could further blur the redlines established by nuclear deterrence postures on both sides and set in motion an inadvertent escalation of the war. So far, Russia and the United States have exercised restraint in order to avoid such unintended escalation. One example was the U.S. decision to postpone a scheduled Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile flight test.5 Nevertheless, uncertainties persist and grow as the war continues.

A Wake-Up Call?

What lessons will be learned about the long-standing Russian and U.S. nuclear deterrence postures when the war in Ukraine is over? Will the war serve as a wake-up call similar to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and lead to cooperative measures to reduce the risk of a nuclear war, not least by means of arms control agreements that could keep the escalatory dynamic from spinning out of control? Will this conflict lead to a new conventional and nuclear arms race extended to new domains, such as cyberwarfare? The answers to these questions are not obvious, but the world is more dangerous now than it was 20 or even 10 years ago.

At the moment, there is no way to know how the war in Ukraine might end. It seems that, for the time being, Kyiv is ready to negotiate with Moscow and may be prepared to abandon the goal of NATO membership for Ukraine, pending approval by a constitutional majority of the Ukrainian parliament or by a referendum. The issue of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the status of Crimea and the Donbas will poison relations between Moscow and Kyiv and Moscow and the West over the long term. So far, all options remain open, including Ukraine being pulled back into the Russian orbit; retaining room for maneuvering between Russia and the West as a nonaligned country like Finland, Yugoslavia, or Austria did during the Cold War; or even continuing to pursue its European option without aspiring for NATO membership.

Whatever the outcome, with Russia drawing its redlines on the ground unilaterally, the current dividing line in Europe will deepen. There will be no easy way to return to the discussion of a wider European security agenda, as anticipated in talks preceding the war, including on the concept of indivisible security, a concept that was at the heart of Russian proposals for years.6 An OSCE summit to address these issues, as proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron, is off the agenda for the time being. Nevertheless, the war has highlighted the enduring need to continue addressing relevant issues of strategic stability in order to minimize the risk of an unintentional stumble into the danger of nuclear escalation in a crisis.

As argued in 1958 by Alfred Wohlstetter, the existence of nuclear weapons does not automatically prevent a nuclear war but increases the danger of accidental wars particularly during a crisis, although this risk can be mitigated by arms control measures.7 This finding, which at the time seemed mostly intellectual, was reinforced by practical experience as Moscow and Washington engaged in crisis management when decisions had to be made under severe emotional stress, time pressure, and insufficient and contradictory information. The need for nuclear arms control was one of the most important lessons learned from this experience so that, in the end, it was not nuclear arms but nuclear arms control that has prevented a nuclear World War III.8

It is the evidence of the grey zone, in which the redlines of mutual nuclear deterrence tend to blur in the ongoing war in Ukraine, that suggests that nuclear arms control must be strengthened and not further dismembered despite the current collapse of Russian-Western relations.

Toward this end, several steps need to be addressed urgently. In the first instance, these must include the resumption of the Russian-U.S. strategic stability dialogue so that the two sides do not lose transparency into each other’s nuclear force structure and the predictability of their strategic postures with the expiration of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and its verification regime four years from now.

It is also in the security interests of both sides to agree on measures of restraint and cooperation with respect to dangerous military incidents and their deescalation so that eventual incidents do not ratchet up tensions even more. In this regard, reopening the lines of communication between the Russian and NATO defense establishments is essential.

Finally, at a later stage, NATO and Russia should open discussions once again on where and how their conventional forces should be configured in areas where the two sides come into close geographic contact. A formal agreement with appropriate transparency and verification should be the goal even if it takes a long time to get there.

 

ENDNOTES

1. OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions, “Reducing the Risks of Conventional Deterrence in Europe: Arms Control in the NATO-Russia Contact Zones,” December 2018, pp. 8, 12, 14, https://osce-network.net/file-OSCE-Network/Publications/RISK_SP.pdf.

2. “Address by the President of the Russian Federation,” February 24, 2022, President of Russia, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67843.

3. Josh Wingrove, “Biden Says He’d Fight World War III for NATO but Not for Ukraine,” Bloomberg, March 11, 2022.

4. Embassy of the Russian Federation in New Zealand, “Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's Interview With RT TV, 18 March 2022,” March 19, 2022, https://newzealand.mid.ru/en/press_center/news/foreign_minister_sergey_lavrov_s_interview_with_rt_tv_18_march_2022/.

5. Daryl G. Kimball, “How to Avoid Nuclear Catastrophe—and a Costly New Arms Race,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 11, 2022, https://thebulletin.org/2022/03/how-to-avoid-nuclear-catastrophe-and-a-costly-new-arms-race/.

6. See Rachel Ellehuus and Andrei Zagorski, “Restoring the European Security Order,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 2019, pp. 2–3, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/190313_EllehuusandZagorski_RestoringEuropeanOrder.pdf; Jeremy Shapiro et al., “Regional Security Architecture,” in A Consensus Proposal for a Revised Regional Order in Post-Soviet Europe and Eurasia, ed. Samuel Charap et al. (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp., 2019), pp. 9–31, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/conf_proceedings/CF400/CF410/RAND_CF410.pdf.

7. Alfred Wohlstetter, “The Delicate Balance of Terror,” P-1472, RAND Corp., 1958, https://www.rand.org/pubs/papers/P1472.html.

8. Alexey Arbatov, “Escalating the Nuclear Rhetoric,” in Preventing the Crisis of Nuclear Arms Control and Catastrophic Terrorism (Moscow: National Institute of Corporate Reform, 2016), p. 15, http://www.luxembourgforum.org/media/documents/Washington_eng-PREVIEW_FINAL_PRINT_VERSION.pdf.


Andrei Zagorski leads the Department for Disarmament and Conflict Resolution Studies at the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences and is a member on the trilateral Deep Cuts Commission.

 

New hostilities between Russia and the West highlight the need for a more robust mechanism, including arms control measures, to address the danger.

An Optimist Admits That It Is Difficult to See a Path Forward


April 2022
By George Perkovich

Optimism is a virtue when working in the nuclear policy field. Given the stakes of the subject matter, it helps to be hopeful, to believe something can and should be done, even when the prospects of success are slim. In this sense, I have always tried to be positive, looking for ways to improve a bad political situation—after the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests in 1998, the march to war in Iraq in 2003, the collapse of EU nuclear diplomacy with Iran in 2005, the first North Korean nuclear test in 2006, and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump in 2016.

Today, however, the world is watching what may be the defining security crisis of a generation unfold, one that risks catastrophic nuclear escalation. Yet, it is extremely difficult to see a path forward for arms control and cooperative security measures between the United States and Russia, the United States and China, India and China, India and Pakistan, or anyone else.

In 2001, President George W. Bush (R) announced the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty as Secretary of State Colin Powell (C) and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, looked on at the White House. Bush and his administration wanted to pursue a missile defense system. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)There is no shortage of ideas to improve this dismal environment. Nuclear policy experts can all recite concrete proposals for confidence-building and risk-reduction measures, crisis management hotlines, and verification experiments, all of which could reduce insecurity among conflicting states. One underexplored area of potential cooperation is the establishment of standards for activities in and toward objects in outer space, especially low earth orbits, to prevent the creation of more debris and ensure that orbital and spectrum capacity are distributed and preserved for the benefit of all humanity.

None of these objectives will be realized as long as the United States, Russia, China and, regarding some issues, India and Pakistan, are internally dysfunctional (omitting North Korea because I do not know its internal dynamics). This dysfunction, whatever the causes, has reduced the capacity of diplomats and other knowledgeable officials to effectively manage or reduce competition and conflict. Everything is hostage to political leaders who often lack the expertise, interest, and temperament required to break impasses and make wise compromises. Indeed, in the five countries referenced here, compromise has become either unthinkable or, in the case of the United States, politically suicidal, especially for Democratic presidents. That is a fact, not a partisan comment.

U.S. Dysfunction

It has long been difficult to muster the two-thirds majority needed in the Senate to ratify treaties. The U.S. Constitution’s allocation of two Senate seats per state regardless of population has allowed relatively unpopulated, internationally isolated states to block the ratification of treaties that a large majority of the population would support. It took 40 years to ratify the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The 1994 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea remains unratified, as does the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, although the United States abides by both. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was ratified in 2010 only because President Barack Obama promised in return a massive infusion of funds to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

In the current U.S. context, it is easier and more profitable politically to pursue short-term, even xenophobic, obstructionism than invest in long-term policy goals. Today, almost all Republican senators would reject any treaty to which Russia, China, North Korea, or Iran would agree, even if many of those senators could not pass a basic quiz on the treaty’s contents.1 Beyond treaties, Republican opposition led by Senators Ted Cruz (Texas), Josh Hawley (Mo.), and others is blocking the confirmation of unprecedented numbers of presidential nominees for important national security positions, undermining the government’s ability to do its job.2

Rather than ratify new arms control treaties, Republican administrations have become more inclined to withdraw from old ones. Unsurprisingly, these short-sighted decisions have significant consequences that leave the United States less secure than if they had remained committed to the original agreement. Abrogating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (President George W. Bush in 2001) stimulated Russia to design alarming new delivery systems that could be immune to U.S. defenses, which are little more effective than would have been the case under the treaty.3 The withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Trump in 2018) has enabled Iran to increase its nuclear know-how and production of fissile material, while delivering no benefits for the United States and its regional partners. This predilection to withdraw from treaties reinforces the view in Moscow, Beijing, and elsewhere that there is no point negotiating with the United States, and it erodes Washington’s diplomatic capital to engage on other crucial U.S. interests abroad.

The old saying about politics stopping at the water’s edge means that, in engaging other countries, especially competitors and adversaries, U.S. politicians would display unity. That notion and practice have become increasingly laughable since the 1994 “Gingrich Revolution.”

The Cold War was infamous and internally destructive for the red-baiting and politically forced narrowness of policy debates. There are lots of negative examples, particularly Vietnam policy in the Johnson administration, but perhaps most telling was the Cuban missile crisis, when President John F. Kennedy kept secret his accommodating decision to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev needed a quid pro quo to agree to withdraw the nuclear-armed missiles from Cuba, and Kennedy gave it to him, even though the Soviets initiated the crisis. Would such a move be kept secret today? If not, would a similar existential crisis be resolvable? Political discourse toward China is starting to chill thinking and debate in recognizable ways, making it difficult politically to advocate win-win approaches to problems with China, in which both sides would need to compromise.

Problems With Russia and China

Russia and China are dysfunctional in their own ways. Autocracy per se is not the problem; autocrats may find it easier to compromise and control news of it than leaders who compete for election. Autocrats such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, however, tend to become gods in their own minds, and gods generally do not bend.

Beyond Putin’s murderousness, the incompetence displayed in his aggression against Ukraine is staggering. Moreover, the violent nature of Russian domestic politics and Putin’s repressive hold on his country mean there are no effective checks on his power and no reliable airing of alternative perspectives on important policy issues. Even if Russia defeats Ukraine, however that is defined, disaster for the peoples of both countries is already assured.

Xi has created a similar bubble. His centralization of policymaking and power means that many smart, knowledgeable, industrious, and otherwise productive Chinese officials, businesspeople, and foreign policy experts are becoming more guarded and risk averse. Why risk the trouble that could result from crossing lines that are not clearly drawn or could change tomorrow? This dysfunction appears to extend to nuclear policy and strategic diplomacy. The authority to engage on these issues lies solely with Xi, and because he does not know much about them, there is no indication he has directed his underlings to pursue dialogue with the United States and others.

Even when the United States was marginally more functional, for instance, in the Obama administration, efforts to engage China in strategic dialogue and confidence-building measures were self-centered and inept. Intentions may have been good, and the people conducting the outreach may have been expert; but, as Brad Roberts, a former senior U.S. defense official, said on a recent panel, U.S. officials spent a lot of time articulating why it was in the country’s interest to engage China in strategic stability dialogue or Russia in arms control. They spent much less effort devising proposals that would persuade China that such a dialogue is in its interest. Self-interest is natural, but the current U.S. strain stems from fears of political attack. Administrations too often worry they will lose power, and officials worry they will jeopardize their careers if policy initiatives are not perceived as clear wins for the United States and, implicitly if not explicitly, a loss for the other side.

Roberts told a story about his efforts to persuade Russian officials to adopt security and confidence-building measures that could alleviate Russian concerns about U.S. missile defenses in Europe and U.S. concerns about theater-based Russian nuclear weapons. Russia eventually rejected the U.S. proposals and then, more surprisingly, withdrew its own proposals. A few years later, at a Track 1.5 dialogue meeting, Roberts met one of those officials, now retired, and asked him to explain Russia’s rejection of even its own confidence- and security-building measures. The Russian responded, “It’s simple. You Americans already have too much of both.”4 No government wants to cede relative advantage to others, but when it is domestically impossible to make mutual accommodations, the result will be arms racing, instability, and conflict of varying types.

It is often said arms control with Russia is worthless because the Russians cheat. That judgment will be repeated even more vigorously in the future. The point has merit on the surface, but there is a need to dig a little deeper. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, from which Trump withdrew in 2019, is the most recent example of this challenge. The treaty substantially favored the United States; Richard Perle, a Defense Department hawk, proposed it assuming Moscow would reject it. At that time, however, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his advisers were thinking of a transformed relationship with the West, as were Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev. So, they agreed to the treaty and implemented it. Early in Putin’s presidency, however, Russian officials started complaining that the treaty put Russia at a disadvantage in balancing U.S. offensive and defensive systems and in balancing China. They wanted adjustments. This did not happen. Eventually, Russia cheated.

I had a conversation along these lines two years ago during a small group meeting with a long-standing senior Republican nuclear policymaker. The lesson of the story, I suggested, was that "treaties must be fair if you want them to last." He smiled and said, "George is absolutely right. [The INF Treaty] was unfair. That's why it was such a good treaty. Arms control should be cost-imposing on our adversaries."

So long as that is the dominant perspective in the United States or any other nuclear-armed state, there is little future for durable arms control agreements, let alone treaties. If powerful countries are not willing to negotiate arrangements that satisfy each other’s interests in some balanced way, either agreements will not be made, or they will be made and then cheated on. In other words, a willingness to compromise is crucial, but that willingness is politically unsupported by today’s Republican Party and arguably by the governments in Russia and China.

 

ENDNOTES

1.  Patricia Zengerle, “U.S. Republican Senators Say They Will Not Back New Iran Nuclear Deal,” Reuters, March 14, 2022.

2.  Michael Crowley, “Empty Desks at the State Department, Courtesy of Ted Cruz,” The New York Times, October 14, 2021.

3.  Michael Krepon, “The Belated Consequences of Killing the ABM Treaty,” Arms Control Wonk, March 7, 2018, https://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/1204843/the-belated-consequences-of-killing-the-abm-treaty/.

4.  Brad Roberts, Informal remarks at “Nuclear Deterrence and Strategic Stability: What Have We Learned?” University of Virginia, March 16–18, 2022.


George Perkovich is the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Chair and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

There is no hope of dealing constructively with the defining security crisis of a generation if Russia and the West are not willing to compromise.

When Ukraine Traded Nuclear Weapons for Security Assurances: An Interview with Mariana Budjeryn


April 2022

Since Russia launched its war on Ukraine many have wondered why Ukraine relinquished control of the nuclear weapons it inherited after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and whether, in retrospect, that decision was a mistake. After all, in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States promised “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders” of Ukraine and “refrain from the threat or use of force.” Carol Giacomo, the chief editor of Arms Control Today, put those questions to Mariana Budjeryn, a research associate at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, whose book Inheriting the Bomb: Soviet Collapse and Nuclear Disarmament of Ukraine will be published this year. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Arms Control Today: Help us understand why Ukraine gave up its nuclear stockpile and the implications.

Mariana Budjeryn: When the Soviet Union broke up, there were four former republics that inherited chunks of the Soviet strategic arms arsenal and production complex: the Russian Federation, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Only Russia had a full nuclear fuel cycle, including warhead design and production facilities, and the ability to produce all the launch vehicles, such as bombers and missiles.

None of the three non-Russian successor states possessed a full fuel cycle, so they would have had to invest in these facilities to complete the missing links. Kazakhstan was the most endowed in terms of fuel; it was a supplier of uranium to the Soviet nuclear program and had fuel fabrication facilities. Ukraine did not have that, but it did have launch vehicle production. In addition, there were actual nuclear weapons on the ground, the so-called tactical nuclear weapons and the strategic missile force and strategic bombers, all armed with nuclear warheads.

When Ukraine began deliberating these choices after its independence, it had to contend with several things. One was that it was a part of the nuclear force that was designed by a different country—the Soviet Union—for the strategic purposes of that country. It would have had to do quite a bit of work to reshape the nuclear force into something that would have suited Ukraine. Even if Ukraine decided to establish control over these armaments, which, technically, it could with some effort, Ukraine would still not be able to use whatever it had to deter Russia because of the ranges. The intercontinental ballistic missiles that Ukraine inherited had ranges of 10,000 and more kilometers, so what kind of targets could you really hold at risk in Russia? Vladivostok? That wasn't very credible. Trying to maintain and then replace nuclear warheads would have required investment and would have, most importantly, put Ukraine at odds with the international community and its nonproliferation consensus.

An old Soviet SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missile on display at the Ukraine Strategic Missile Forces Museum outside of Kyiv. (Photo: Stefan Krasowski via Wikimedia)With all that said, we often forget that Ukraine started its path toward independent statehood with a preference to become a state free of nuclear weapons. That was codified in Ukraine's declaration of sovereignty that was passed by its parliament in July 1990, a full year and a half before the Soviet Union collapsed. That founding document set out a vision for how Ukraine might go about achieving independence from Moscow. In it, the parliament said Ukraine has the desire to become in the future a neutral, non-nuclear state.

It was a completely voluntary move, and the reason was twofold. One was Chernobyl. This general anti-nuclear sentiment in Ukrainian political discourse also translated into an anti-Moscow, anti-institutional sentiment because the perception was that these people from the Soviet Union are building these faulty reactors that blow up, contaminate our land, and cause a humanitarian disaster. Then they lie to us, there's negligence, cover-up, and the mishandling of the aftermath. So, Chernobyl and this anti-nuclear sentiment became a very important part of this pro-independence movement, and it helped unite Ukrainians based on civic and humanitarian grounds rather than on ethnonationalistic grounds in their attempt to gain political independence from Moscow.

It turns out from talking to people who were part of drafting the declaration that the other part of the thinking behind this unilateral renunciation was that Ukraine was deeply integrated with the Soviet military machine. The command-and-control lines ran directly from the military units deployed in Ukraine to central command in Moscow, bypassing the republican authorities. At that time, the leaders of the republics didn't even know fully what was deployed in their territory. The understanding was that unless we sever these military ties, there will be no way we can attain our independence.

When the Soviet Union collapsed faster than anyone had anticipated, the question became, “To whom do the armaments in the non-Russian republics belong?” It was a much easier question to answer when it came to conventional armaments because it was decided that whatever was on the territory at the time rightfully belonged to these republics, but when it came to the nuclear inheritance, some really difficult questions arose. It has been my argument that part of that predicament was the fact that nuclear possession was not a matter of just national policy. There was the international nuclear nonproliferation regime centered on the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and the NPT recognized only five nuclear-weapon states. So, it was basically a framework for guarding and managing a legitimized nuclear possession. In that kind of international nuclear order, Ukraine's nuclear situation was a square peg that had to be fitted to the round hole.

Ukrainian leaders formulated a claim that, as a successor state of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was just as entitled to Soviet nuclear inheritance as the Russian Federation and wanted to be compensated for giving it up. These claims were often misunderstood in the West and aided by Russian voices to mean that Ukraine was intending to go nuclear, wanted operational control over these armaments, and wanted to do all these nefarious things. But a major driver for these claims was Ukraine’s attempt to reconstitute a relationship with this new Russia on more equal terms.

What I found in my research was that, within Ukrainian political discourse, those who advocated for actual retention of these armaments as a deterrent were very few and very marginal. To begin with, Ukraine had set out this grand vision of disarmament. Another factor was the economic resources and time it would take to build up the missing links of a fully fledged nuclear weapons program, which Ukraine did not have at the time. Ukraine was an aspiring democracy, emerging out of this totalitarian empire. It wanted to join the international community on good terms. So, much of it was about the kind of country Ukraine wanted to become rather than just the things it wanted to get out of it. Ukraine was accused of bargaining and haggling. No, Ukraine wanted a fair deal. It negotiated with Russia and the United States, and at the end of that process, it got a deal. I would consider it a fair deal.

ACT: The United States also pushed Ukraine to give up its nuclear capability and be a real democracy. What was the effect of such pressure? How did it lead to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum?

Budjeryn: Beginning in the fall of 1991 with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, the United States took a pretty straightforward stance: there shall be no more than one nuclear successor to the Soviet Union. I think later with the Clinton administration, that singular focus on nuclear issues in engagement with Ukraine was relaxed. That's not to say this demand became qualified, but there was a greater willingness to engage beyond just the nuclear issue and offer positive inducements instead of just saying disarm or else. That kind of mix of carrots and sticks proved more effective than just sticks under the George H.W. Bush administration. It’s just that [as] the administration went into the presidential election campaign, the focus shifted, and it wanted to have this issue sorted quickly. Ukraine was seen as recalcitrant in making these demands.

Part of the story was that Washington has been focused historically on Moscow alone. There were lines of communication, negotiations and relationships that had developed over years. Moscow was the seat of power. I think maybe this overwhelming focus on Moscow led to a blindness about what was going on in the provinces. The Soviet collapse came as a surprise to which the West kept reacting, and it reacted in very creative ways. The Nunn-Lugar [Cooperative Threat Reduction] program and the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives were among the entrepreneurial foreign policy responses to an unprecedented situation. It took time for Washington to hone the specialists and the mindset to say that people in the former republics have agency, they are new countries with certain national interests. We have to take them seriously and engage with them. By the time the Clinton administration comes in, there's a greater understanding that things might not be going so smoothly, you can't just bend people to your will, you have to give them a fair deal.

Ukrainians initially were unprepared to engage with two nuclear superpowers on nuclear issues. President Leonid Kravchuk and Foreign Minister Anatoliy Zlenko in their first meeting with Baker could only take notes, then go back to their scientists and their military and ask how to respond to some of these questions about nuclear weapons. There was, among the political leadership, a low level of knowledge about the nuclear arms on Ukraine's territory. But they learned quickly and held their own, even with very little leverage. The negotiation of the security guarantees started in June 1992 with the Bush administration and concluded with the signing of the Budapest Memorandum on December 5, 1994.

In Moscow in January 1994, U.S. President Bill Clinton (L), Russian President Boris Yeltsin (C), and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk (R), set the stage for Ukraine’s disarmament. They signed a statement providing for the transfer of all nuclear weapons in Ukraine to Russia for dismantlement and for Ukraine’s compensation by Russia for the highly-enriched uranium in those weapons. In December that same year, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States signed the Budapest Memorandum which gave Ukraine security assurances for giving up its nuclear arsenal. (Photo by Wojtek Laski/Getty Images)That was one part of the deal. The other was the compensation for the fissile material contained in the warheads that would come to Ukraine from Russia in the form of nuclear fuel assemblies for Ukrainian power plants. The idea was that the highly enriched uranium in the warheads would be down-blended to low-enriched uranium and then come back as fuel assemblies. The United States underwrote that deal, as part of the Megatons to Megawatts program, where the United States would buy the down-blended uranium from Russia for its own nuclear power plants. These ideas showed quick thinking. It was inventive and entrepreneurial foreign policy.

The deal granted to Ukraine not only the nuclear fuel and compensation, but the recognition thereby that these were Ukraine’s warheads to give up. That was just as important to Ukraine as the actual goods it got in return. Russia had just unceremoniously taken over all of the international statuses and all of the political space that was previously occupied by the entire Soviet Union, of which Ukraine was part. I think the fear was, not unjustified in retrospect, that if you grant Russia these statuses, maybe the geopolitical ambition would follow.

I think still, amazingly, in Western imagery, we conflate the Soviet Union and Russia all the time. It seems like a minor thing, but we are seeing these chickens come to roost right now. We think somehow the Earth just opened up and out came the Ukrainians and the Kazakhs and the Belarusians and Russia is just kind of this slightly truncated Soviet Union. No, the process of succession had to be negotiated, and it involved policy and the implementation of policy. It's not a given that the outcome should have been what it is now, even in the nuclear realm. Ukraine tried to challenge this nuclear monopoly, without challenging the entire nonproliferation regime.

The Ukrainian argument was, “You cannot claim that these are Russian weapons on our territory. We were part of a nuclear superpower. We contributed our resources, human, natural, and so forth, to the creation of this. We are entitled to something, at least a recognition that this is our stuff to give up.”

ACT: Was the Budapest Memorandum a good deal for Ukraine?

Budjeryn: Ukrainian negotiators knew very well at the time of the memorandum that what they got in the end was not exactly what they sought. They sought a more robust set of security guarantees, whether that came in a form of a legally binding treaty or in some pledges of consequences for their breach. Whether that was at all possible to achieve is difficult to say. On the one hand, Ukraine was pushing hard, but it was up against two nuclear powers that had a lot of leverage. Ukraine had very little. It's commendable that U.S. policymakers and negotiators did go for a signature of a separate document that was attached to the act of Ukraine's succession to the NPT.

But in terms of substance, those were just clauses, basically copy-pasted from the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act, and the kind of general nuclear positive and negative security assurances that are pledged by the United States and the UK and Russia, the three depositary states of the NPT, to all non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the NPT. So that was essentially the content of the memorandum. The only new thing was the consultation mechanism that was written into it that should any issues arise in connection to the memorandum, parties should consult. I think what Ukrainians envisioned was ironically some form of guaranteed neutrality, something we're talking about for Ukraine right now. It wasn't a NATO Article 5 type of protection, but rather, we just want our borders secured, what can you promise or threaten for the breach of that?

It was a tricky question then, just like it remains a tricky question now, not only because Ukrainians are keen on joining NATO, given the peril they are in, but also because there seems to be an asymmetrical interest and engagement in Ukraine from Western and Russian sides. It clearly looks like the Kremlin's current ruler, [President Vladimir] Putin, wants to reshape Ukraine. He wouldn't be happy with just leaving it neutral and deciding its own affairs. So what would the West have to threaten in terms of negative consequences to keep Putin away? At that point, it becomes some kind of security commitment that involves something more robust than just reassurances taken from other multilateral instruments.

Even though the Budapest Memorandum did not contain robust guarantees, and they were not legally binding, the mere fact that Ukraine's succession to the NPT took place in conjunction with this document made the Budapest Memorandum part of the broader nonproliferation regime. Therefore, its breach has an impact on the nonproliferation regime writ large because it erodes one of the main bargains enshrined in that regime, that if you make this decision to forgo a nuclear weapon, that should not happen at the expense of your security. The survival of a non-nuclear state should not be imperiled by a country that has nuclear weapons that has been granted this privilege under the NPT to be a recognized nuclear power. The nonproliferation regime is essentially discriminatory in nature, and this memorandum is among the bargains that ameliorates that inequality.

What I see happening now, meaning after 2014 and the seizure of Crimea and the way the issue of the Budapest Memorandum has been treated in Ukraine's public discourse, is that much of the nuance about the history of disarmament, about what Ukraine had and didn't have, about what it would have taken for Ukraine to refashion its nuclear inheritance into a fully fledged deterrent, gets lost. So the story is boiled down to “Ukraine had the world's third-largest nuclear arsenal, it gave it away for nothing, and now look what happened.”

Even though it is incorrect, it is understandable, and it's extremely damaging to the credibility of the nonproliferation regime. I imagine the value of security assurances like the ones in the Budapest Memorandum has declined considerably as a tool in nonproliferation going forward. Think about what we can promise North Korea to convince it to disarm. Think about other states that are looking at Ukraine and again might not know all the nuances of the story. What conclusions will they likely make? It reinforces in a very damaging way some of the existing tensions within the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

Even apart from Ukraine, the tension between nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states has been high, and the outcome of that is the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, this insurgency that has been mounted by the non-nuclear-weapon states who are saying, “You guys are not holding up your side of the deal, in particular when it comes to fulfilling NPT Article VI on pursuing arms control and disarmament.” The damage of Russia’s breach of its commitments to Ukraine in connection with the latter’s disarmament is difficult to assess. At this point, we can't foresee all of the possible consequences, but I really don't see how this could amount to anything good.

ACT: Was it a mistake for Ukraine to give up those weapons?

Budjeryn: I think it was not. I think it was the right thing to do. But I think the West could do a better job in dispelling Ukraine’s regrets. We've heard President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reference the Budapest Memorandum and how those guarantees are not holding up. I think it has been a failure of Western policy to sideline that document altogether. I, for one, cannot understand why the United States and the UK, the other two signatories, have made so little of the Budapest Memorandum. The consultation mechanism provided for in the memorandum was invoked, there was a meeting of the signatories on March 5, 2014, just as the Russian troops were taking over Crimea. Even though Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was in Paris where the meeting was happening, he did not bother to show up. But U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was at the table, as was UK Foreign Secretary William Hague. They issued a joint statement in support of Ukraine sovereignty, and that was it.

After that, all the military assistance that came to Ukraine, all the statements of support were not framed in reference to the memorandum and in reference to the commitments made by the other signatories under the memorandum. If the United States is providing Javelins and over $2 billion in military assistance, why not say, “We have committed to uphold your security back in the day, now our bill has come due, this is what we're doing.” I also really don't understand why the Obama administration decided to stay out of the negotiations between Ukraine and Russia on stopping the war in eastern Ukraine. France and Germany were at the table. Maybe it was part of U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategy of “leading from behind” where the Europeans were expected to take charge. I think the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum should have been the ones at that table, especially the United States. It would have been a different set of negotiations had the United States joined that format.

So, the West kind of bears the responsibility not for signing the wrong thing back in 1994, but not making enough of the document that already existed and certainly had the scope for serving as a framework for that kind of political and security support for Ukraine.

ACT: Could the memorandum serve that same purpose today in Ukraine?

Budjeryn: It should. I mean, as Zelenskyy's statement at the Munich Security Conference indicates, the Budapest Memorandum has a very bad reputation right now in Ukraine. But I don't think all is lost. I think there's still an opportunity to take it out, dust it off, and make good of it precisely because it does link Ukraine's current security situation back to its decision and validates it.

But I think the credibility of the Western world and the entire global nuclear order is at stake here because you have a country that did the right thing, that disarmed in accordance with the global nonproliferation consensus, and thus contributed to international security. Then you have one of the major nuclear powers going rogue, basically. We haven't even talked about the Russian shelling of nuclear power plants. This is something we expect terrorists to do, not a stakeholder in the global nuclear governance and a founding member of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The nuclear dimensions of this war in Ukraine have to be emphasized to reassure Ukraine that it did do the right thing and to communicate to other potential proliferators that are looking at all of this and taking notes that, no, you will not be left to stand alone, which is, to the extent possible, something that the United States and Europe are already doing. But they need to make that linkage.

Russia's war on Ukraine erodes a main bargain of the nonproliferation regime, that if a country forgoes nuclear weapons, its security will not be threatened.

Nuclear Threats and Alerts: Looking at the Cold War Background


April 2022
By William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball

Implicit or explicit nuclear threats have been the default position of states possessing nuclear weapons for decades. Such threats are the essence of deterrence: if you attack, we will destroy your society or your most vital military assets. All the same, making a nuclear threat is unusual and alarming. For that reason, explicit threats and the raising of nuclear alert levels have become rare since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

A photograph of a ballistic missile base in Cuba was used as evidence with which U.S. President John F. Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis October 24, 1962. (Photo by Getty Images)Chinese nuclear threats against Japan and U.S. President Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” threats to North Korea were shocking. The implied nuclear threats that Russian President Vladimir Putin made to the United States and NATO in March as he pressed his full-scale invasion of Ukraine were also startling. Putin said that anyone who stood in the way of the assault would face consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history.” A few days later, he put Russian strategic forces on “special combat readiness.” That nuclear threats can be made today is a shock to those who thought the end of the Cold War had made them historical curiosities.

The recent brandishing of nuclear threats evokes the Cold War days of the 1950s and early 1960s, when such threats, were the modus operandi of superpower conduct during international crises. Such threats became generally irrelevant during the later years of the Cold War and after. How did that come about?

During the Cold War, the possession of nuclear weapons emboldened some national leaders to make threats that they thought would advance their positions in a crisis by coercing or deterring their adversaries. During the Korean War, as a signal to China and the Soviet Union, U.S. President Harry Truman authorized the deployment of nuclear weapons components to Guam, although he otherwise saw military use of nuclear weapons as virtually “taboo.” Rejecting the idea of proscribed weapons, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration considered nuclear options as integral to crisis diplomacy and military planning.1

One political narrative that acquired near-legendary status was the claim that the Eisenhower administration had broken the Korean War diplomatic logjam by using nuclear threats against China. Although Secretary of State John Foster Dulles sent messages to Moscow and New Delhi in the hope that they would reach Beijing, his threats were vaguely general in nature: the United States could take stronger military action and “extend [the] area [of] conflict.” To this day, it is unclear whether those messages reached Beijing or were understood as nuclear threats. More decisive factors in ending the war were the death of Soviet leader Josef Stalin, the eventual flexibility of Communist negotiators, and the conventional bombing of North Korea by the United States. Nevertheless, Eisenhower and Dulles believed their implicit nuclear threats had made a difference. Vice President Richard Nixon agreed.2

Such threats became more explicit later. During the 1954–1955 crisis in the Taiwan Strait, China bombarded the nearby offshore islands, and the United States came incorrectly to fear that Beijing was planning to attack Taiwan. Mao Zedong and the Chinese leadership miscalculated by not anticipating that the United States would bring nuclear-armed aircraft carriers into the area or that Eisenhower would declare publicly that nuclear weapons could be “used as a bullet or anything else” if war broke out with China. The crisis eventually simmered down, but the Chinese decided they needed their own nuclear weapons for deterrence, while Eisenhower and his associates concluded that threats and deterrence had succeeded.3

The Soviet leadership made its threats explicit during the 1956 Suez crisis when the British, French, and Israelis invaded Egypt in response to the latter’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. The Eisenhower administration opposed the invasion and put the British under enough financial pressure to compel them to back down. The United States also raised the alert level of strategic nuclear and naval forces out of concern that the Soviets might intervene to support Egypt.4 The Soviets responded with crude atomic blackmail. The Communist Party’s first secretary, Nikita Khrushchev, sent a letter to UK Prime Minister Anthony Eden asking “what situation would Britain find itself in, if she were attacked by stronger states possessing all types of modern destructive weapons?” The threat had no impact, however, because London was already calling off the invasion. Yet, Khrushchev came away from the crisis convinced that nuclear threats were effective.5

There were more nuclear alerts in 1958, although threatening language was avoided. A political crisis in Lebanon prompted the United States to send the Marines to stabilize the situation. The U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) placed nuclear forces in the United States and at overseas bases on alert to deter possible Soviet intervention. Later that summer, another Taiwan Strait crisis erupted, with Beijing again shelling the offshore islands. Although Washington did not stage a SAC alert in that event, it initiated a major show of force with the deployment of nuclear-armed aircraft carriers.6

The Taiwan Strait crisis possessed dangerous potential, and Eisenhower was determined to avoid using nuclear weapons. He instructed the U.S. military that if a conflict broke out, they could only use conventional weapons first. Eisenhower had moved away from casual references about the use of nuclear weapons and was now viewing them as virtually taboo. He told UK Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd that nuclear weapons could only be used for the “big thing” (general war) because when “you use [them] you cross a completely different line.”7

In 1959 the Pentagon devised the Defense Condition (DEFCON) system as a way to raise military alert levels on a systematic, coordinated basis. In the wake of the crisis over the 1960 U-2 downing, when Khrushchev walked out of the Paris summit in protest, top U.S. officials were concerned the Soviets might move against the United States or its European allies. Thus, Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates raised the DEFCON position from 4 to 3, a higher state of readiness, as a “prudent” move.8

Cuban Missile Crisis

The October 1962 Cuban missile crisis involved the most well-known and dangerous Cold War nuclear alerts and threats. By secretly deploying nuclear-armed intermediate- and medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba, Khrushchev sought to improve the Soviet strategic position and to use nuclear threats to shield Cuba from another U.S. invasion. After the United States discovered the missiles, the Kennedy administration blockaded Cuba and put U.S. strategic forces on a DEFCON 2 alert, one step away from a general war posture. The Soviets also raised their nuclear alert levels, but not as high as the United States. Neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev wanted war, but miscalculations and accidents could have realized their worst fears, motivating both to reach a settlement, lest the situation spin out of control. The U.S. DEFCON status symbolized the risks of further confrontation.9

U.S. President John F. Kennedy speaks about the Cuban missile crisis during a televised speech to the nation on October 24, 1962 when the world was closer to a nuclear conflict than most people understood at the time. (Photo by Getty Images)Neither side ever raised their nuclear alert systems to such high levels again. The grave dangers of a nuclear crisis made Moscow and Washington more cautious, leading to a period of détente that unfolded in the following years. Nixon, elected president in 1968, pursued détente as an element of Cold War strategy, but threat-making was an important thread in his diplomatic approach. Influenced by his experience during the Eisenhower years and by his observations of Khrushchev, Nixon developed what came to be known as the “Madman Theory,” the notion that threatening excessive or extraordinary force could bring diplomatic gains. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger later explained that the "president’s strategy has been to ‘push so many chips into the pot’ that the other side will think we might be ‘crazy’ and might really go much further.”10

During Nixon’s first year in office, as he tried to settle his biggest political problem, the Vietnam War, he made various low-level threats and feints to warn of the risks of escalation in an effort to coerce North Vietnam to be more yielding in the peace talks. As tough-minded as Nixon thought he was, he saw nuclear weapons as militarily unusable in the Vietnam context. What he especially wanted from threats was to prompt the Soviet Union to motivate its North Vietnamese clients to be more cooperative. He and Kissinger deeply overestimated Moscow’s clout with Hanoi, and none of the threats worked, making Nixon angry. To force Hanoi to make concessions, Nixon had plans to escalate the war in October 1969, but called them off because of the risks that escalation would spark U.S. domestic upheaval.11

In an attempt to make the Soviets worried enough to help Washington negotiate with the North Vietnamese, Nixon secretly instructed the Pentagon in early October 1969 to raise the alert levels of nuclear forces. During the following weeks, as part of what was called the Joint Chiefs of Staff Readiness Test, SAC put its bomber forces on higher alert. The Navy raised the readiness levels of its forces while aircraft carriers and other ships conducted unusual maneuvers to get Moscow’s attention. At the close of the alert, SAC flew sorties of nuclear-armed bombers over northern Alaska on 18-hour stretches. Likely as a sign of Nixon’s concern about Moscow’s support for Hanoi, the U.S. Navy shadowed Soviet merchant ships on their way to Hanoi. It was all low-key; Washington wanted the alert to jar Moscow, not to alarm. Even if they understood Nixon’s underlying purpose, however, the Soviets did not help with Vietnam War diplomacy. In any event, because there was no crisis in its relationship with Washington, Moscow may have seen the U.S. alert actions as pointless or not credible.12

Nixon did not abandon madman threats or alerts. During the September 1970 crisis in Jordan, Nixon expanded the U.S. naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean. During a supposedly off-the-record press briefing, he threatened intervention against Soviet-client Syria, suggesting it was not a bad thing if Moscow thought he was capable of “irrational or unpredictable action.”13 Several years later, Kissinger used Nixon’s tactics during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. On October 24, 1973, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev informed Washington that Moscow might intervene unilaterally to enforce an agreed cease-fire by sending peacekeepers to help separate Egypt’s beleaguered Third Army from the Israelis. The statement was a bluff, but Kissinger and the U.S. National Security Council (NSC) overreacted by ordering U.S. strategic forces to go on DEFCON 3 as a warning. The Soviets were disconcerted, but did not react. Nixon did not participate in the decision because, reeling from Watergate developments, he was inebriated.14

DEFCON 3 was a higher state of readiness than the usual DEFCON 4, but it was not as threatening as the Cuban missile crisis DEFCON 2. With the Soviets having reached strategic parity with the United States, nuclear threats and confrontations had become too dangerous to consider or endure. This was the last major DEFCON until September 11, 2001. Nevertheless, unexpected incidents, such as false warnings of missile attacks or misunderstandings over military exercises (Able Archer ’83), illuminated the continued perils of the superpower nuclear competition.

The history of nuclear threats and crises demonstrates that U.S. leaders found it easier to try to overawe the Soviets or the Chinese during the 1950s when the retaliatory capability of these adversaries was small or nonexistent. By the 1960s, confrontations were all too dangerous, as Kennedy learned, not least during a September 1963 NSC meeting when he was told how much devastation the Soviets could inflict on the United States.15 Thus, in the context of mutual assured destruction, threats to use nuclear weapons have low credibility because of their suicidal nature. Yet, threat language, including Putin’s recent outbursts, must be assessed carefully. The terrible carnage in Ukraine raises the question as to whether Putin would break international norms by using nuclear weapons. Just as troubling is the prospect that if Putin raised alert levels during this crisis, the attendant dangers of accidents, incidents, or miscalculations could produce the escalation that nobody wants.

 

ENDNOTES
 

1. Matthew Jones, After Hiroshima: The United States, Race, and Nuclear Weapons in Asia, 1945–1965 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 68. For U.S. presidents and the nuclear taboo, see Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

2. Jones, After Hiroshima, pp. 158–159; U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Memorandum of meeting with the president, Washington, D.C., February 17, 1965, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb517-Nixon-Kissinger-and-the-Madman-Strategy-during-Vietnam-War/doc%201A%20DDE%20and%20LBJ%201965.pdf; Benjamin H. Read to Dean Rusk, memorandum, March 4, 1965, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb517-Nixon-Kissinger-and-the-Madman-Strategy-during-Vietnam-War/Doc%201B%20Read%20to%20Dean%20Rusk,%204%20March%201965.pdf.

3. Gordon H. Chang and He Di, “The Absence of War in the U.S.-China Confrontation Over Quemoy and Matsu in 1954–1955: Contingency, Luck, Deterrence?” The American Historical Review, Vol. 98, No. 5 (December 1993): 1500–1524.

4. Center for Naval Analyses, “Suez Crisis, 1956 (U),” CRC 262, April 1974, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/20515408/doc-5-cna-suez-1956.pdf; U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC), “Monthly History: 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing,” October-December 1956, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/20515409/doc-6-1956-55-srw-oct-dec-56.pdf.

5. William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003), pp. 359–360.

6. See George S. Dragnich, “The Lebanon Operation of 1958: A Study of the Crisis Role of the Sixth Fleet (U),” Center for Naval Analysis, September 1970, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/20515410/doc-7-cna-lebanon-1958.pdf; Headquarters Second Air Force, “Second Air Force Historical Data (Unclassified Title) From 1 July to 31 December 1958,” May 1959, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/20515411/doc-8-2nd-af-history-1958.pdf; SAC, “Sixteenth Air Force, 1 July-31 December 1958 (Unclassified Title),” n.d., https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/20515412/doc-9-16th-af-1958.pdf; Jacob Van Staaveren, “Air Operations in the Taiwan Crisis of 1958 (U),” USAF Historical Division Liaison Office, November 1962, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/20515413/doc-10-taiwan-1958.pdf; M.H. Halperin, “The 1958 Taiwan Straits Crisis: An Analysis (U),” RAND Corp., RM-4803-ISA, January 1966, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/20791449/halperin-summary-of-study.pdf. See also Gordon H. Chang, Friends and Enemies: The United States, China, and the Soviet Union, 1948–1972 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), pp. 86–201.

7. UK Mission to the United Nations, Telegram to UK Foreign Office, No. 1071, September 21, 1958, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/4316143/Document-05-United-Kingdom-Mission-to-the-United.pdf.

8. See U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Unclassified memorandum on uniform readiness conditions, 3M-833-59, January 3, 1961, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/20515420/doc-17-1961-1-3-sm-833-59-remove-blue-mark-on-p-1.pdf; U.S. Commander in Chief Europe to U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Communication, May 16, 1960, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/20515421/doc-18-5-16-60-from-cincerur.pdf; U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff to U.S. Commander in Chief Europe, Communication, May 15, 1960, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/20515422/doc-19-5-16-60-jcs-from-douglas.pdf; U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff to U.S. Commander in Chief Europe, Communication, May 16, 1960, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/20515423/doc-20-5-16-60-re-press.pdf; U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff to U.S. Army Attache Ottawa, Communication, May 16, 1960, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/20515424/doc-21-5-16-60-to-ottawa.pdf.

9. Among the estimable accounts of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s missile crisis decision-making, see Taubman, Khrushchev, pp. 529–577; Sheldon M. Stern, Averting “the Final Failure”: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003). For DEFCON 2, see SAC, “Strategic Air Command Operations in the Cuban Crisis of 1962,” Historical Study, Vol. 1, n.d., https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/20591109/08-us-strategic-air-command-history-and-research-division-historical-study-no-90-vol-i-strategic-air-command-operations-during-the-cuban-crisis-of-1962-circa-1963-top-secret-excised-copy.pdf; M.V. Forrestal to MacGeorge Bundy, Memorandum, October 24, 1962, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/20589957/09.pdf; Col. L.J. Legere, Memorandum on daily White House staff meeting, October 24, 1962, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/20589958/10.pdf.

10. William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2015), pp. 50–65. For “chips into the pot,” see “Kissinger,” n.d., https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb517-Nixon-Kissinger-and-the-Madman-Strategy-during-Vietnam-War/doc%2022%208-10-72%20Kissinger%20conv%20with%20G.%20Tucker.pdf.

11. Burr and Kimball, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter, ch. 3–7.

12. Ibid., pp. 265–309. See also Thomas Schwartz, Henry Kissinger and American Power (New York:
Hill & Wang, 2020), pp. 83–84.

13. Burr and Kimball, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter, p. 329.

14. Schwartz, Henry Kissinger and American Power, pp. 239–242; Raymond L. Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations From Nixon to Reagan (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1994), pp. 420–428. See also Martin Indyk, Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy (New York: Knopf, 2021), pp. 178–183. For DEFCON 3, see U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Status of Actions Report, Operations Planners Group (OPG),” October 1973, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/20589944/22.pdf; SAC, “History of Strategic Air Command FY 1974,” Historical Study, No. 142, January 28, 1974, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/20589945/23.pdf; SAC, “Chronology: Middle East Crisis (U),” Historical Study, No. 139, December 12, 1973, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/20589946/24.pdf; SAC, “Second Air Force Chronology of Middle East Contingency, 6 October-9 November 1973,” n.d., https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/20589947/25.pdf.

15. Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, “Summary Record of the 517th Meeting of the National Security Council, September 12, 1963,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, Volume VIII, National Security Policy (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1996), doc. 141.


William Burr, a senior analyst with the National Security Archive at George Washington University, directs the Archive's nuclear security documentation project. Jeffrey Kimball is an American historian and emeritus professor at Miami University who has argued that threats to use nuclear weapons have not been effective at advancing the U.S. foreign policy goals. They are coauthors of Nixon's Nuclear Specter.

The recent brandishing of nuclear threats evokes the early days of the Cold War when such threats were the modus operandi of superpower conduct.

Russian Tactics Fuel Uncertainty in Ukraine


April 2022
By Shannon Bugos

With its invasion of Ukraine stalled in key cities, Russia has defended President Vladimir Putin’s decision to raise the alert level of Russian nuclear forces, employed nuclear-capable hypersonic weapons for the first time in combat, and reportedly requested military assistance from China. The moves underscore the unpredictable nature of the war.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in an extraordinary video address to the U.S. Congress on March 16, pleaded for more U.S. support as his country fights to defend itself against invading Russian forces. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite-Pool/Getty Images)“Talk of nuclear war has already begun,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on March 3. “It is not us who started the talk about a nuclear war,” he added, instead accusing France, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the United States, and NATO of making threatening statements about nuclear weapons use.

But on March 29, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov lowered the rhetoric, telling PBS that “no one is thinking about … using a nuclear weapon” and that the war in Ukraine has “nothing to do with” any threat to Russia’s existence. The latest version of 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.

Three days after ordering an invasion of Ukraine in February, Putin commanded Russian nuclear forces to move to a “special regime of combat duty.” (See ACT, January/February 2022.) The next day, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu informed Putin that all nuclear command posts were reinforced with additional personnel.

But a senior U.S. defense official said on March 3 that Putin’s order is still “not completely clear to us” and “we continue to watch this very, very closely.” Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, shared his assessment on March 17 that the order appears “to refer to heightened preparations designed to ensure a quick transition to higher alert status should the situation call for it.”

U.S. President Joe Biden on Feb. 28 dismissed the idea that the public should worry about nuclear war, and Lavrov said on March 10 that he does not believe that a nuclear war is likely. Yet, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned on March 14 that “the prospect of nuclear war is now back within the realm of possibility.”

Nuclear experts and U.S. officials have suggested that Putin’s threatened use of nuclear weapons is aimed at deterring any U.S. or NATO interference in Ukraine and projecting an image of an indomitable Russia.

“Russia is attempting to use these forces as a shield for conventional aggression,” Caitlin Talmadge, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University, wrote in The Wall Street Journal on March 3. “Putin is betting that despite the conventional military might of the U.S. and its allies, they will shrink from confrontation at least partly out of fear of nuclear escalation.”

Berrier told the House Armed Services Committee on March 17 that “[a]s this war and its consequences slowly weaken Russian conventional strength, Russia likely will increasingly rely on its nuclear deterrent to signal the West and project strength to its internal and external audiences.”

A woman looks at a computer screen showing a dissenting Russian Channel One employee, Marina Ovsyannikova, entering an on-air TV studio during Russia's most-watched evening news broadcast on March 15. The protester held a poster reading "No War" and condemning Moscow's military action in Ukraine. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)Neither the United States nor NATO made reciprocal changes to the status of their nuclear forces. “I am satisfied with the posture of my forces,” Adm. Charles Richard, head of U.S. Strategic Command, informed Congress on March 1. “I have made no recommendations to make any changes.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also chose to delay a test of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile scheduled for early March “in an effort to demonstrate that we have no intention in engaging in any actions that can be misunderstood or misconstrued” by Russia in the wake of Putin’s nuclear order, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby announced on March 2. The delay is not “going to change our strategic deterrent posture one bit,” Kirby added.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, criticized Austin’s decision, describing it as a “disappointing” and “hollow” gesture given Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon revealed on March 3 the creation a few days earlier of a bilateral Russian-U.S. deconfliction line at the operational level between the Russian Defense Ministry and the U.S. European Command.

“When we tested it, [Russia] did pick up the other end,” Kirby said, describing the communication channel as “valuable” because it will aim to reduce the risks of any potential miscommunication or escalation between the two nuclear powers.

Yet, three weeks later, Kirby revealed that calls from Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to their Russian counterparts had gone unanswered.

Early in its invasion of Ukraine, Russia appealed to China for military aid and additional economic assistance, according to media reports quoting unnamed U.S. officials who declined to provide further details.

Russia and China denied the allegation, which first surfaced on March 13. “China is not a party to the [Ukraine] crisis,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi responded a day later. The ministry’s spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, said the United States “has been maliciously spreading disinformation targeting China.”

Peskov commented that “Russia has an independent potential to continue the operation” in Ukraine and therefore has “no reason” to request external aid.

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan warned on March 13 that China will “absolutely [face] consequences for large-scale sanctions evasion efforts or support to Russia to backfill them.” Sullivan met the next day in Rome with Yang Jiechi, a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo and director of the foreign affairs commission, for a “candid” and “intense” discussion that included the war in Ukraine, said a senior U.S. official.

Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping followed that meeting with a call on March 18, during which Biden “described the implications and consequences if China provides material support to Russia as it conducts brutal attacks against Ukrainian cities and civilians,” according to the White House readout.

The White House has criticized China for assisting Russia in spreading disinformation by claiming that the United States has been funding biological and chemical weapons labs in Ukraine.

Smoke rising after an explosion in Kyiv on March 16, during Russia’s war against Ukraine. (Photo by Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)Putin and Xi have met 38 times since 2013 and issued a joint statement on Feb. 4 that underscored the close relationship between the two countries. Thus far, China has provided some humanitarian aid to Ukraine, but has yet to condemn the invasion or support what it calls “outrageous” sanctions against Russia.

China pledged in 2013 “to provide Ukraine with corresponding security guarantees” if Ukraine suffered a nuclear attack. This vague statement, ratified by the Chinese legislature in 2015, adds further uncertainty to Beijing’s stance on the invasion.

Meanwhile, Russia has claimed that it used Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missiles to destroy “a large underground warehouse of missiles and aviation ammunition of Ukrainian troops” in the Ivano-Frankivsk region in western Ukraine on March 18, as well as to strike a large fuel depot in the Mykolaiv region in southern Ukraine the following day.

Although these attacks would mark the first use of new hypersonic weapons in combat, Austin said on March 20 that even if Moscow’s claim proved true, he would not view the use of the Kinzhal system as “a game changer.”

Biden confirmed on March 21 that Russia did use a hypersonic weapon because “it’s the only thing that they can get through [Ukraine’s air defenses] with absolute certainty.” Kirby later specified that the Pentagon ascertained the use of a Russian hypersonic weapon “at least in one instance.”

Russia’s use of the Kinzhal system is “certainly possible” but, if true, would be “a bit of a head-scratcher” as to why these particular targets necessitated its use, a senior U.S. defense official said on March 21.

The Pentagon has assessed that the possible motivations behind the alleged use of the Kinzhal system could be that Moscow is running low on precision-guided munitions after launching more than 1,370 various missiles as of March 28, aiming to create some new momentum in the invasion, or wanting to gain leverage at the negotiating table.

Adding to the speculation, The Drive’s War Zone reported on March 19 that the first supposed strike with the Kinzhal system did not occur in western Ukraine but in “a heavily bombarded rural area in the far eastern area of Ukraine.” The news site also suggested that the Kinzhal missile was likely not used in this particular instance as claimed.

The Kinzhal system is believed to be an Iskander-M road-mobile, short-range ballistic missile modified for use on MiG-31K jets. The purported Kinzhal missiles used in March were conventional, although the system is thought to be dual capable.

Russia’s war on Ukraine continues to creep closer to NATO borders, with the firing of an estimated 30 cruise missiles on a Ukrainian military training facility in Yavoriv, located about 15 miles from the Polish border, on March 13. The attack killed at least 35 people and injured 134.

The Russian fighter jets that carried out the attack took off from Saratov and were aiming for the International Peacekeeping and Security Center, which in the past has served as a site for U.S. and NATO troops to provide training for the Ukrainian military.

A few days later, Russia launched missiles at an aircraft repair facility near an airport in Lviv, a major city about 43 miles from Poland in western Ukraine.

“We will collectively defend and protect every inch of NATO territory,” Biden said on March 24 following an emergency summit of NATO leaders in Brussels. But he has repeatedly emphasized that NATO will avoid direct confrontation between the alliance and Russia because doing so would lead to “World War III.”

“We have a responsibility to ensure the conflict does not escalate further because this would be even more dangerous and more devastating,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said after the summit. The alliance also announced four new battlegroups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia, in addition to those in Poland and the Baltics.

Ukrainian and Russian diplomatic delegations have met multiple times over the first few weeks of the war, but details of their discussions have been murky. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on March 20 that he stands prepared to negotiate directly with Putin. “Without negotiations, we cannot end this war,” he said.

 

With its invasion stalled, Russia has raised the alert level of its nuclear forces and employed nuclear-capable hypersonic arms for the first time.

U.S. Mulls Options if Russia Uses WMD


April 2022
By Leanne Quinn

Amid growing concerns that Russian President Vladimir Putin could use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Ukraine, the Biden administration has gathered behind the scenes a group of national security officials to prepare potential responses should chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons be deployed.

World leaders confer March 24 on the sidelines of meetings of NATO and the G7 in Brussels to discuss the Russian war in Ukraine, L to R: Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, U.S. President Joe Biden, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.  (Photo by Henry Nicholls - Pool/Getty Images)Dubbed the Tiger Team, the group also is brainstorming options for the United States and NATO if Russian forces go beyond the Ukrainian border and attack a NATO member in a strike against a convoy carrying weapons and aid to Ukraine. The team meets three times a week in classified sessions, according to a March 23 report by The New York Times.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said that, desperate over Russia’s failure to dominate in the war against Ukraine, Putin could be preparing to use chemical or biological weapons in battle.

Putin's "back is against the wall, and now he's talking about new false flags he's setting up, including asserting that we in America have biological as well as chemical weapons in Europe. Simply not true," Biden said on March 21 at a Business Roundtable event.

"They are also suggesting that Ukraine has biological and chemical weapons in Ukraine. That's a clear sign he's considering using both of those," he said.

Ahead of an emergency meeting of NATO leaders in Brussels on March 24, Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg put the focus on growing evidence that Russia was preparing to use chemical weapons. Stoltenberg said NATO would give Ukraine special equipment to help protect against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats.

Their comments came as Russian forces struggled to make progress in their increasingly brutal assault on Ukraine, which began on Feb. 24.

Russia is a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and to the Biological Weapons Convention, which outlaw those armaments. As recently as January, Russia joined the United States and other major nuclear-weapon states in declaring that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Speaking at a U.S. Senate hearing on March 10, CIA Director William Burns stated that Russia’s use of chemical weapons “either as a false flag operation or against Ukrainians” is a possibility. The Russians have “used those weapons against their own citizens, they’ve at least encouraged their use in Syria and elsewhere, so it’s something we take very seriously,” Burns said.

Russia could potentially employ chemical weapons in a variety of ways. Russia could use a chemical weapon
“for assassinations against military and political leadership, … to clear buildings, [or] on the military battlefield. They could use it to go after bomb shelters because chemical agents can penetrate into buildings,” Andrew Weber, a top nonproliferation official in the Obama administration, said during an MSNBC interview.

Biden stated on March 11 that “Russia would pay a severe price if they used chemical weapons.”

When asked at a March 14 press briefing what those consequences could entail, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki responded, “[T]that would be a conversation that we would have with our partners around the world.” She predicted there would be a “severe reaction from the global community.”

In a March 16 telephone call, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan delivered a similar warning to Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, about the “consequences and implications” of any possible Russian decision to use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine.

The United States and Russia have been publicly trading allegations about chemical and biological weapons across multiple international forums.

In December 2021, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that U.S. military contractors were secretly smuggling chemical weapons components into Ukraine for mercenaries to use. Russia did not provide any evidence to back up its claim, which the United States and Ukraine have categorically denied.

Pushing the issue further, Russia called for a special meeting of the UN Security Council on March 11 to discuss Russian claims that Ukraine was attempting to “clean up” traces of a military biological program funded by the United States. Vasily Nebenzya, Russian ambassador to the United Nations, charged that the United States operates at least 30 biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine.

At the UN, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield insisted “there are no Ukrainian biological weapons laboratories supported by the United States, not near Russia’s border or anywhere.” She confirmed that the United States has supported Ukraine’s public health laboratory infrastructure, which played an important role in assisting Ukraine’s COVID-19 response, but said none of these labs has anything to do with biological weapons.

Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN undersecretary-general and high representative for disarmament affairs, also dismissed the Russian claims. “The United Nations is not aware of any biological weapons programs” in Ukraine, she told the Security Council meeting.

During a meeting of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Executive Council on March 8–11, the United States and 48 other nations sponsored a joint statement condemning Russian disinformation about chemical weapons in Ukraine.

Joseph Manso, the U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, called Russia’s allegations against the United States “preposterous” and said Russia’s disinformation campaign was “a means to distract from its transgressions and aggressions.” In an attempt to underscore the U.S. commitment to the CWC, Manso announced that the United States would host a virtual chemical demilitarization transparency event on March 22 for OPCW delegates. That meeting, led by Bonnie Jenkins, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, highlighted the progress the United States has made in destroying its chemical weapons stockpile and reaffirmed that the destruction efforts would be finished by the treaty-mandated deadline of September 2023.

As a member state of the CWC, the international treaty that bans the use or stockpiling of chemical weapons, Russia was obligated to destroy its chemical weapons arsenal. The OPCW verified that Russia finished destroying its declared stockpile of 40,000 metric tons in September 2017.

Despite this, the U.S. State Department said in April 2021 it “cannot certify that Russia has met its obligations for its complete declarations” of its chemical weapons production and development facilities and stockpiles. The United States and other Western governments have accused Russia of the attempted assassination of Russian defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in 2018 and of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition leader, in 2020. A chemical nerve agent called Novichok was used in both cases.

Amid concerns that Russia could use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Ukraine, a group of U.S. national security officials is mulling potential responses.

West Rushes Weapons to Ukraine


April 2022
By Jeff Abramson

Western countries are expediting billions of dollars in weapons deliveries to Ukraine after Russian forces invaded the country with a diverse arsenal of controversial arms and escalated strikes on civilian targets.

Employees at the airport in Kyiv on Feb. 11 unload a Boeing 747-412 plane with the FGM-148 Javelin, a man-portable anti-tank missile provided by the United States as part of its military support to Ukraine ahead of the Russian invasion.  (Photo by Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)Despite widespread condemnation of Russian aggression and an increasingly dire situation in Ukraine, the United States and its allies resisted calls by Ukraine for direct military engagement and the supply of fighter jets that could put U.S. and NATO forces directly in conflict with Russian troops.

As the United States began warning the international community of Russian invasion plans in December, it authorized a $200 million drawdown of military equipment from its existing stocks for delivery to Ukraine. In January and February, as Russian forces massed along Ukraine’s borders, countries such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the United Kingdom also began delivering military equipment, including portable anti-tank Javelin and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft Stinger missile systems.

After Russia launched the war on Feb. 24, more than a dozen additional countries quickly moved to send military supplies to Ukraine, rushing processes that often take months or years, while imposing comprehensive economic and other sanctions on Russia and its leaders.

Almost immediately, the United States authorized another $350 million in military assistance. On March 16, after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the U.S. Congress via video link, the Biden administration announced an additional $800 million in assistance, including 800 Stinger and 2,000 Javelin missile systems, 1,000 light anti-armor weapons, and 6,000 AT-4 anti-armor systems. In total, the administration has announced or provided more than $2 billion in military aid to Ukraine since January 2021.

Critically, Germany, which previously refused to send lethal aid to Ukraine, decided on Feb. 26 to transfer 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger systems and permit other countries to reexport German weapons. The European Union and other countries also announced plans for weapons deliveries, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

As Zelenskyy continued calls for direct intervention to “close the sky” over Ukraine from Russian aircraft and for the provision of other military assistance, U.S. President Joe Biden made clear that he would not contribute U.S. forces directly into the war zone or establish a no-fly zone, despite pressure from many members of Congress.

One complicating factor is that the Ukrainian military is trained on Soviet and Russian systems and would find it easier to operate those systems if they could be transferred from the stocks of European countries that have such weapons.

In early March, the administration rejected an offer by Poland to donate MiG fighter jets to the United States, which would then be passed along to Ukraine. Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said on March 9 that such an arrangement would provide “little increased capabilities at high risk.” Later in the month, there was discussion of countries such as Slovakia possibly providing Russian S-300 or other anti-aircraft systems to Ukraine. Russia warned it would target weapons supplies to Ukraine, creating escalation concerns.

The weapons that have been provided were altering the battle as Ukrainian forces fought back, destroying Russian tanks and aircraft.

Meanwhile, Russia increasingly targeted civilian areas, drawing international condemnation and a quick decision by the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court to open a war crimes investigations. Hundreds of incidents of civilian targeting had been documented by late March. A strike on a drama theater in Mariupol that had “children” written on the ground outside so as to be visible from the air was one of the more high-profile examples cited in the U.S. media and by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

On March 18, the spokesperson for the UN high commissioner for refugees said that more than 4 million people had fled Ukraine and millions more were internally displaced. The UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights recorded 3,090 civilian casualties in the country, but said there were likely many more. “Most of the civilian casualties recorded were caused by the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area,” the office said.

Cluster munitions and “vacuum” bombs drew particular attention for their use in or potential impact on civilian areas. Human Rights Watch and others documented Russian use of cluster munitions starting as early as Feb. 24 in multiple locations in Ukraine. Some 110 countries are state-parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the use of weapons that deliver submunitions that often maim civilians during a strike or long afterward when “duds” that initially failed to explode are disturbed and later detonate. On March 2, the UK as president of the convention said it was “gravely concerned,” and many countries have called out Russia for using these weapons.

That same day, before 141 countries voted for a UN General Assembly resolution calling for Russia to end its invasion, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Russia was “preparing to increase the brutality of its campaign against Ukraine,” specifically mentioning “cluster munitions and vacuum bombs.” Vacuum bombs, also known as thermobaric weapons, release a fuel in the air that is later detonated to create powerful explosions and shockwaves, typically targeting buildings and bunkers. There is evidence that Russia deployed this weapon as part of its TOS-1A system surfaced early in the war, amid concern that they could harm civilians.

On March 29, Human Rights Watch accused Russian forces of using banned antipersonnel mines in the eastern Kharkiv region of Ukraine. The mines, which can indiscriminately kill and maim people within a 16-meter range, are outlawed by the 1997 International Mine Ban Treaty.

Western countries are expediting arms deliveries to Ukraine after the Russian invasion.

Ukrainian Nuclear Plants Come Under Russian Fire


April 2022
By Shannon Bugos

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised the risks of nuclear catastrophe after Russian forces took control of the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plants, causing fires at both sites. Ukraine said it regained control of Chernobyl on March 31 when the Russians left.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, uses a diagram of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant as a reference point as he talks to journalists in Vienna on March 4 about the situation at the Ukrainian nuclear power plants that have been put at risk by Russia's war in Ukraine. (Photo by Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images)A projectile launched by Russian troops caused a fire at a training complex on the Zaporizhzhya site, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, on March 4, although the flames were later extinguished. A Russian shell also hit one of the reactors, but the thick walls of the reactor’s containment structure absorbed the strike. The plant houses six of Ukraine’s 15 reactors, which are split among four active nuclear plant sites. Together they supply about half of the country’s electricity.

“Firing shells in the area of a nuclear power plant violates the fundamental principle that the physical integrity of nuclear facilities must be maintained and kept safe at all times,” said International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi.

During an emergency UN Security Council meeting on March 4, Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya denied his government was to blame. “A massive anti-Russia information campaign is unfolding,” he said, arguing instead that Ukrainian forces attacked Russian forces patrolling outside the plant and set the training building on fire as they departed.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield criticized Russia’s attack on the nuclear power plant as “incredibly reckless and dangerous.” She said that “[n]uclear facilities cannot become part of this conflict.”

In a March 4 blog post, Ed Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, explained that “[n]one of the reactors were built to withstand a military assault.” Ukraine’s nuclear power plants are also “vulnerable to indirect fire that could damage critical support systems and surrounding infrastructure, potentially resulting in a fuel meltdown and a radiological release that could contaminate thousands of square miles of terrain,” he wrote.

The IAEA reported on March 6 that a Russian commander took control of site management at Zaporizhzhya, including actions related to technical operations, and that Russian forces switched off some mobile networks and internet access, interrupting communications between the staff and Ukraine’s nuclear regulatory agency. This agency, known as the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRI), has been providing the IAEA with status updates.

“Employees of the station are under strong psychological pressure from the occupiers,” said Energoatom, Ukraine’s state nuclear company, on March 11. “All staff on arrival at the station are carefully checked by armed terrorists.”

The IAEA reported on March 6 that the technical teams had begun to rotate in three eight-hour shifts.

The dangerous challenges facing the personnel at Zaporizhzhya mirror those at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which has been under Russian control since Feb. 24.

After 25 days of working nonstop, more than 200 staff members at Chernobyl were finally allowed to change shifts and return home, with half leaving on March 20 and the rest a day later. But 13 staffers declined to rotate, and most Ukrainian guards remained as well, according to Ukrainian officials.

The Chernobyl staff deserves “our full respect and admiration for having worked in these extremely difficult circumstances,” Grossi said on March 20. “They were there for far too long.” A nuclear reactor exploded at Chernobyl in 1986, leading to the eventual closure of the plant’s reactors. The nuclear power plant, located inside a large exclusion zone, is no longer active.

For nearly 600 hours while held at gunpoint by Russian forces, the facility’s staff in charge of safeguarding spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste grabbed sleep when possible at their workstations, survived on a severely diminished diet, and had their phones confiscated, according to a March 15 report by The Wall Street Journal, which managed to talk to some workers stuck inside.

Some maintenance and repairs could not be completed at Chernobyl due to “the psychological, moral, and physical fatigue of the personnel,” the SNRI said on March 19.

Earlier in the month, Russian forces also twice damaged the facility’s power line, cutting the plant off from Ukraine’s power grid and jeopardizing the cooling systems for the spent nuclear fuel rods. Kyiv also reported on March 22 that Russian troops have destroyed a laboratory that processed radioactive waste and carried out other “strategic, unique functions.”

Further compounding the radiation concerns at Chernobyl has been the breakout of multiple seasonal fires around the site. Russian forces controlling the plant have stymied efforts by Ukrainian officials and firefighters to put out the flames.

Grossi began separate consultations with the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers on March 10 in Turkey to establish a framework for ensuring the safety and security of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities. The potential deal will make “no political references to the situation in the plants or no connection that could be construed as legitimizing the presence of anybody in a foreign territory,” he said on March 21, adding that he hopes to reach agreement “very soon.”

The chairs of the U.S. congressional nuclear weapons and arms control working group—Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Reps. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and John Garamendi (D-Calif.)—sent a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden on March 14 suggesting that “the technical expertise of the [IAEA] should be made available to monitor and advise on the rapidly changing situation on the ground.”

They urged him “to find ways to encourage IAEA’s involvement in monitoring” Ukraine’s nuclear power plants.

Chernobyl is located along Russia’s northern invasion route to Kyiv, which is less than 100 miles south from the plant.

The Russian invasion has sharply raised the risks of nuclear catastrophe.

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