"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
April 2023
Edition Date: 
Saturday, April 1, 2023
Cover Image: 

Global Nuclear Freeze Could Avert New Arms Race

April 2023
By Daryl G. Kimball

After more than a decade of deteriorating relations and dithering on disarmament, the three largest nuclear powers—Russia, the United States, and China—are on the verge of an unconstrained era of dangerous nuclear competition.

A Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile is launched during a test at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome on April 20, 2022. (Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation)Because there are no winners in a nuclear war or a costly nuclear arms race, leaders in Washington, the leading non-nuclear-weapon states, and concerned people everywhere need to press these states, as well as France and the United Kingdom, to exercise restraint and engage in disarmament diplomacy.

The problems go back at least to 2013, when Russia rebuffed a U.S. proposal to negotiate a further cut of their strategic arsenals of one-third below the levels of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), from 1,550 to 1,000 deployed warheads. Since then, the two sides have barely discussed new arms control ideas as they aggressively pursued rival nuclear weapons modernization programs. Today, each possesses some 4,000 warheads of all types.

On Feb. 21, just two years after agreeing to extend New START by five years, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia is suspending implementation of the pact, although for now it will observe its limits. He claims he will not engage in arms control talks until the White House softens support for the defense of Ukraine against Russia’s brutal war of aggression.

At the same time, China has embarked on a major buildup of its relatively small but still deadly nuclear arsenal. According to the Pentagon, China has more than 400 deployed warheads, 300 of which are on land- and sea-based strategic missiles, and possibly could deploy about 1,500 warheads by 2035.

Putin’s decision to suspend New START is not the end of the treaty, but it makes it likely that, after New START expires in 2026, there will be no agreement limiting U.S. and Russian arsenals for the first time since 1972. Without such constraints, each side could quickly double its strategic arsenal to 3,000 or more deployed warheads by uploading additional warheads on missiles. If Russia and the United States break out of New START limits, China undoubtedly would accelerate its own nuclear buildup to ensure its nuclear retaliatory capabilities.

Key figures in the U.S. nuclear weapons establishment, including former Pentagon war planners, defense contractor-funded pundits, and Republicans from districts hosting nuclear facilities, argue that the United States should respond by increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal and developing new nuclear weapons for the first time in decades.

What is to be done? To start, Russia and the United States need to reengage on nuclear risk reduction talks and agree to continue observing the central limits of New START until a new nuclear arms control framework is concluded. Under Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, they are obligated to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to
nuclear disarmament.”

As importantly, leaders in Washington and other capitals should urge China, France, and the UK to agree to freeze the size of their arsenals as long as Russia and the United States meet their disarmament responsibilities. A global freeze on the expansion of nuclear arsenals would not eliminate the threat of nuclear war, but it would increase the chance that China finally might engage in arms control and improve conditions for progress on nuclear risk reduction and disarmament.

U.S. policymakers should not increase the already enormous U.S. arsenal or press for new weapons, such as a nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile out of fear of facing two near-peer nuclear rivals.

As U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Dec. 9, “Nuclear deterrence isn’t just a numbers game. In fact, that sort of thinking can spur a dangerous arms race.” The Pentagon also says a new sea-launched cruise missile with a new warhead would have “zero value” and would not be completed until 2035 or later.

Any decision to increase the number of deployed U.S. strategic nuclear weapons above New START levels or to build new varieties of nuclear weapons would not only be costly but counterproductive. It would make it more likely that China would decide to deploy more nuclear weapons on an even wider array of delivery systems over the coming decade.

The U.S. nuclear arsenal far exceeds what is necessary to hold sufficient assets of an adversary at risk of nuclear obliteration and thus deter a nuclear attack. Even if Russia and China increase their long-range nuclear arsenals, that move would have little to no effect on the U.S. “assured second-strike capabilities,” which include nearly 1,000 nuclear warheads on strategic submarines.

Nuclear weapons pose global dangers. Their elimination requires a global enterprise involving renewed, robust leadership, dialogue, and action by all nations. A unified push for further Russian-U.S. arms cuts combined with a global nuclear weapons freeze could create the conditions for serious and overdue multilateral action on disarmament and a safer world for all.

After more than a decade of deteriorating relations and dithering on disarmament, the three largest nuclear powers—Russia, the United States, and China—are on the verge of an unconstrained era of dangerous nuclear competition.

Nuclear Power Plants Under Attack: The Legacy of Zaporizhzhia

April 2023
By Scott Roecker

Almost six months after Russia began its military assault on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in March 2022, experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) finally set off on their first visit to assess the situation at the site.

Ukraine’s beleaguered Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, under control of Russian forces for more than a year, is pictured in October from Prydniprovske in Dnipropetrovsk oblast. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images) The trip had been painstakingly negotiated over the summer months, with approvals needed from Ukrainian and Russian government officials. Finally, with an agreement in place, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi and his team of 14 safety, security, and safeguards experts were on the way to the beleaguered plant. By September 1, they had made it to the final checkpoint, just a few hundred meters from their destination, but were blocked from entering the facility. With bombings in the vicinity, the team refused to back down and eventually was allowed to enter. It was an inauspicious start to one of the most important missions in recent IAEA history.

Russia’s attempt to take control of the Zaporizhzhia plant, located in the small city of Enerhodar, began on the night of March 3. Widely broadcast videos clearly show explosions all around the nuclear facility. The jarring footage immediately raised questions about what might happen if a missile were to hit a nuclear reactor, spent fuel pools, nearby dry spent-fuel storage areas, or backup generators that have been needed frequently because of the unreliable power grid. Nuclear power plant security quickly became a hot topic in the news media, even as the very concept of how best to protect nuclear plants was turned upside down.

Until that harrowing night, nuclear security experts and practitioners focused mainly on the threat to nuclear facilities posed by insiders or terrorist organizations, not state actors with invading armies. Given what the world has witnessed at Zaporizhzhia, a new approach is needed that focuses on increasing resiliency to keep plants operating safely while reducing the risk of catastrophic radiation release. That had not been a big priority in the past. Equally important is the need to strengthen international laws and norms to head off any similar attacks in the future.

Surprise Attacks

In the lead-up to the war, few anticipated that Russia would go so far as to target Ukraine’s nuclear facilities, but it did not take long for Russia to make its intentions clear. On the first full day of fighting, Russian troops massed in neighboring Belarus poured over the Ukrainian border into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The site was overtaken quickly as Russian forces set up a defense around the four nuclear reactors located at the site, including infamous Unit No. 4, which exploded during a routine test on April 26, 1986, with devastating consequences.

In the hours and days after that catastrophic accident, contamination spread over a large swath of territory, including what is now called the “Red Forest,” where a particularly large amount of radioactive dust had fallen a few kilometers east of the reactor. Fast forward to 2022 when occupying Russian troops dug trenches in this same area to protect against a Ukrainian counterattack that never came. After 36 days of occupation, Russian war goals shifted, and the troops left abruptly but not before looting the facility. No one knows how the radiation exposure will impact these forces.

Over the course of the war, Russia also has targeted nuclear research centers in Kharkiv and most recently in Kyiv. These centers include research reactors and related laboratories that support efforts to use nuclear materials for peaceful purposes, such as medicine and science. Both of these facilities, as well as a third one in Crimea, previously had housed highly enriched uranium, which can be used to build nuclear weapons. This material was repatriated to Russia in 2012 as part of the effort to minimize weapons-useable nuclear material under the nuclear security summit process launched by U.S. President Barack Obama. It is unclear why Russia chose to target these facilities.

The Zaporizhzhia Difference

Russia’s actions have generated a great deal of discussion regarding the risks associated with nuclear facilities in a time of conflict, but in recent decades, there are numerous examples of nuclear installations that have been attacked or destroyed. The earliest example of this was when Israel bombed a French-made research reactor in Iraq on June 7, 1981.1 A similar action took place in the Syrian desert on September 5, 2007, when two jets launched from Israel with a mission to destroy a facility that likely included what was intended to be a nuclear reactor.2 In both examples, the reactors were under construction and had not started operations, meaning they did not have any nuclear material at the site and there were no IAEA safeguards in place.

Cyberattacks against nuclear facilities also are a growing concern, with countries using such tactics for a variety of objectives, from gathering data to causing physical damage to the facilities. In the case of the largest nuclear reactor in India, hackers associated with North Korea infiltrated its system to uncover information on how that particular reactor design operates.3

More famously, the Stuxnet computer virus was uploaded to computers operating centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz uranium-enrichment plant in the mid-2000s, causing the centrifuges to fail at a much higher rate than would be expected, much to the bafflement of the scientists at that facility. The Stuxnet attack, which was widely attributed to the United States and Israel, was even more implausible because the computers in question were not connected to the internet. It was an important reminder that so-called air-gapped digital systems that are disconnected from networks are still vulnerable to sophisticated attacks.

The situation unfolding in Ukraine, however, is quite different from the types of one-off attacks in Iraq, Syria, and Iran, none of which could have ended with a catastrophic radiation release. The Zaporizhzhia plant has been subjected to prolonged shelling near and, at times, directly at the facility, risking the possibility of a deadly release at any moment. The motives of the earlier attacks, whether aimed at stealing nuclear secrets or preventing weapons proliferation to new countries, were also different. At Zaporizhzhia, the attacks forced specialists from warring countries to work alongside each other to maintain operations throughout the conflict. To operate a reactor this way is less than ideal, to say the least.

Furthermore, the war in Ukraine is the first time military attacks have been launched on multiple nuclear facilities in a country that has a robust and mature nuclear power infrastructure. Although there are obvious strategic gains to be had by taking control of commercial power-producing facilities such as Zaporizhzhia, Russia also has taken aim at nuclear research facilities that hold little to no strategic importance. These brazen barrages increase the possibility of a significant nuclear incident that could change the course of nuclear power expansion around the world, similar to what was seen in the aftermath of previous nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and in 2011 at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan. Those accidents dampened interest in nuclear power because countries were concerned about the safety of nuclear reactors.

Nuclear Security Implications

Today, the concept of nuclear security has been fundamentally upended. Before Zaporizhzhia, responsible states doing their best to protect their nuclear facilities would develop a threat assessment, known as a design basis threat, to identify the full range of realistic threat scenarios. These would include situations in which adversaries seeking to gain access to facilities might commit an act of sabotage or steal special nuclear material that could be used in a nuclear weapon. Based on the scenario, nuclear operators would create and evaluate the security systems against the threat. The possibility of a state actor, with an invading army, taking control of a nuclear facility would be considered a scenario beyond the threat assessment and not something against which the nuclear operator should prepare to defend.

Despite the limitations inherent in trying to protect a plant from being bombed or attacked by an army, nuclear operators still can take important steps to reduce the risk of radiological release in times of conflict or in other situations that might impede normal operations. Over the last several years, there has been an increase in crises impacting nuclear facilities, whether due to staffing issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic or disruptions and threats related to climate change, including an increase in forest fires. There are lessons to be learned from all these events on how to reduce risk in times of crisis.

One lesson centers on the concept of resiliency.4 In the case of Zaporizhzhia, having adequate backup power options onsite and offsite has helped maintain essential cooling functions at the reactors and spent fuel ponds during times when the main power to the site was cut off. Without proper cooling, a reactor could melt down, as it did in the wake of the 2011 tsunami at Fukushima. The risk of radiation release is also a serious concern with the spent fuel ponds. Having sufficient options for backup power, as well as other key supplies, should be a mandatory requirement at all nuclear power plants worldwide.

Reducing the amount of spent fuel stored at nuclear facilities is another way to reduce risk. Once the fuel is removed from the reactor core, it must cool for a period of time before it can be shipped to an off-site location for long-term storage and disposition. Given the relatively limited options available for long-term storage, however, radioactive spent fuel too often is stored at reactor sites beyond the time required to cool it before transport to a more safe and secure location. Countries must prioritize the development of long-term repositories for nuclear materials to reduce the associated risks of radiation release. Until then, fuel should be transferred from pools to hardened, on-site facilities.

The IAEA Seven Pillars

In addition to and building from the two priorities outlined above, the IAEA has outlined what it calls seven “indispensable” pillars of nuclear safety and security for nuclear installations in response to the situation at Zaporizhzhia.5 The agency believes these pillars are essential for the safe operation of that facility and applicable to reactor operators facing other crises. They were issued the day after Zaporizhzhia came under attack and almost six months before the IAEA team of experts visited the site.

The pillars provide specific guidance on a range of topics, beginning with the foundational components for safe operation. These include the physical integrity of reactor facilities such as the reactor and spent fuel ponds and the safety and security systems. They expand from there to focus on the importance of the human element in the safe operation of a nuclear power plant, addressing the working conditions and the ability to maintain communications with regulators and relevant organizations.

The pillars clearly reflect concerns with the situation at the two nuclear sites when occupied by Russia. In the case of the employees at Chernobyl, one shift of nearly 300 employees was forced to remain at the site for more than three weeks.6 The conditions at Zaporizhzhia, where employees reportedly have been forced to operate under duress and intimidation, also do not meet this IAEA guidance.

The remaining pillars address resiliency and the importance of effective radiation monitoring systems and adequate emergency response measures. On the latter point, establishing a robust emergency response plan for nuclear facilities can prevent a bad incident from turning into something truly disastrous. The international community has stepped up here and sent supplies to Ukraine, which have been helpful in preventing a serious incident at nuclear power plants across the country.7

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), briefs journalists in Kyiv in January after his agency finalized the stationing of permanent IAEA missions at three Ukrainian nuclear power plants: Rivne, Chernobyl, and South Ukraine. (Photo by Sergii Kharchenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images)To monitor the situation at nuclear sites in Ukraine with regard to these pillars, the IAEA has stationed a permanent presence at Zaporizhzhia since the initial site visit in September. This monitoring team initially included two experts focused on nuclear safety and security and has been expanded to four experts in recent months to cover additional topics, such as safeguards. This group provides much needed, unbiased information about what is taking place at the site. The experts also provide regular updates via the IAEA website. In early 2023, the IAEA deployed permanent missions to the other nuclear facilities in Ukraine: Khmelnytsky nuclear power plant, Rivne nuclear power plant, South Ukraine nuclear power plant, and Chernobyl. With these additional teams in place, the IAEA will have at least 11 nuclear safety and security experts in Ukraine at any given time.8

The international community should incorporate the concepts outlined in the seven pillars for nuclear facilities worldwide. As crises around nuclear sites have become a more frequent occurrence, the IAEA pillars are as applicable in those situations as they are in Ukraine today. Although the IAEA guidance is somewhat tailored for the situation in Ukraine, the pillars nevertheless provide a baseline on which countries could expand and strengthen a best practices regime for operating nuclear facilities in challenging conditions.

International Laws and Norms

Following Russia’s invasion, it is clear that the international legal and normative foundation also should be strengthened to head off potential future attacks on nuclear facilities. Existing international laws and norms regarding the protection of nuclear installations in times of conflict are outdated and incomplete. The 1949 Geneva Conventions state that “nuclear electrical generating stations…shall not be made the object of attack” unless they are providing electrical power in “regular, significant and direct support of military operations.” One lesson from Ukraine is that the legal framework for protecting nuclear facilities needs bolstering, as do international norms pertaining to such behavior.

There have been several initiatives over the years to do so. India and Pakistan signed a bilateral agreement in 1989 to recommit every year to forgo targeting nuclear installations in each other’s country and to provide an annual list of facilities that qualify for that agreement. The Pelindaba Treaty that created an African nuclear-weapon-free zone includes an explicit “prohibition of armed attack on nuclear installations.” These bilateral and regional approaches could be the starting point for a discussion on language for a stronger international norm.

The United States could lead on strengthening this norm by pledging not to attack other countries’ civilian nuclear facilities and encouraging other countries to do the same. Another possibility could be to establish a consensus that an attack on a civil nuclear facility is in no one’s interest and does not achieve any legitimate military goal.

There is an excellent opportunity for such an announcement at the upcoming Group of Seven (G7) summit in Hiroshima in May. Each member country (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States) has operating nuclear power reactors and a vested interest in the continued safe operation of nuclear reactors worldwide. As is now well established, the negative consequences of nuclear accidents are felt around the world. The G7 nations can take the first step toward reinforcing these improved norms and then encourage other countries to join this pledge.

Absent these norms, the IAEA has been working tirelessly to establish a nuclear safety and security protection zone around Zaporizhzhia. What seems like a commonsense policy—in the words of the IAEA, “Don’t shoot at the facility, don’t shoot from the facility”—must be reinforced with verifiable legal mechanisms. Although many of the relevant governments and international organizations are focused on preventing the unthinkable from taking place at Zaporizhzhia, there is more work to be done now to stave off any other future conflict that could threaten nuclear reactors.

Nuclear Energy Implications

The jury is still out on what Russia’s actions in Ukraine will mean for nuclear energy in the future. Nuclear newcomers, as well as countries with more advanced nuclear energy capabilities, are taking note of Russia’s actions. The images of a military force using a nuclear reactor as a base of operations to launch attacks on nearby cities create another difficult complication for countries considering nuclear power.

A multi-layered confinement structure at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant seals off the debris of the plant’s fourth reactor that resulted from the disastrous 1986 nuclear accident. (Photo by Hennadii Minchenko/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)As like-minded states seek to roll back climate change and reach zero carbon emissions in the next few decades, nuclear power could play an important role in the overall mix of energy sources to achieve that goal. If a significant nuclear incident occurs at Zaporizhzhia or elsewhere in Ukraine or during the next conflict, it could have a major chilling effect on global interest in expanding nuclear energy. That was the reaction in the wake of other serious nuclear incidents, including Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island, which all led to unintended release of radioactive particles. As a result, the world turned away from nuclear power for a time in favor of other, less climate-friendly sources. Given the enormous challenges of climate change, another such disaster could have significant long-term impacts that go well beyond the specific environmental impacts from the nuclear incident itself.

Ironically, Russia had positioned itself as a global leader in nuclear energy in the last several decades and is providing nuclear reactors to several countries, including Egypt, Iran, and Turkey. The scenes of Russian forces firing weapons at Zaporizhzhia certainly will give some nations pause about continuing cooperation with Russia on nuclear power. Indeed, last May, Finland terminated its contract with Rosatom, Russia’s semiprivate, semiofficial agency responsible for nuclear reactor designs and manufacturing, for the purchase of one nuclear power reactor.

Fortunately for Finland and other countries considering nuclear power, there are options from which to choose. Given the events in Ukraine, it is more important than ever to implement a nuclear energy program that is safe, secure, and consistent with the nonproliferation norms that have been established over the last few decades. New types of small modular reactors that are currently in the design phase in Canada, France, Japan, and the United States should give countries more options and flexibility when considering nuclear power if they are deployed responsibly.

There is much work to be done to strengthen security around nuclear power plants in times of crisis. Although Russia’s actions in Ukraine pose the most immediate challenge, the world cannot wait until a resolution of that war to begin tackling this broader issue. For now, one can only hope that a nuclear catastrophe in Ukraine is avoided and that Enerhodar (“energy’s gift” in Ukrainian) remains the vision for nuclear energy in the future.



1. Joyce Battle and William Burr, “Israeli Attack on Iraq’s Osirak 1981: Setback or Impetus for Nuclear Weapons?” National Security Archive, June 7, 2021, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/iraq-nuclear-vault/2021-06-07/osirak-israels-strike-iraqs-nuclear-reactor-40-years-later.

2. “Israel Admits Striking Suspected Syrian Nuclear Reactor in 2007,” BBC, March 21, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-43481803.

3. Prabhjote Gill, “Here’s Why North Korean Hackers Attacked India’s Nuclear Power Plant,” Business Insider India, November 13, 2019, https://www.businessinsider.in/tech/news/heres-why-north-korean-hackers-attacked-indias-nuclear-power-plant/articleshow/72035492.

4. Geoffrey Chapman et al., “Nuclear Security in Times of Crisis,” Centre for Science and Security Studies, King’s College London, 2021, https://www.kcl.ac.uk/csss/assets/nuclear-security-in-times-of-crisis-handbook.pdf.

5. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “IAEA Director General Grossi’s Initiative to Travel to Ukraine,” March 23, 2022, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/pressreleases/iaea-director-general-grossis-initiative-to-travel-to-ukraine.

6. Reis Thebault, “After 600 Hours in Russian-Controlled Chernobyl Power Plant, Workers Get to Go Home,” The Washington Post, March 21, 2022.

7. “IAEA Delivers Radiation Monitoring Equipment to Ukraine,” Nuclear Engineering International, July 20, 2022, https://www.neimagazine.com/news/newsiaea-delivers-radiation-monitoring-equipment-to-ukraine-9861624.

8. IAEA, “Update 143 - IAEA Director General Statement on Situation in Ukraine,” January 26, 2023, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/pressreleases/update-143-iaea-director-general-statement-on-situation-in-ukraine.

Scott Roecker is the vice president for nuclear materials security at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

The Russian assault on Zaporizhzhia has made clear the need for a new approach that increases resiliency and keeps nuclear power plants operating safely in conflict zones.

Lost in the Gap: Toxin and Bioregulator Weapons

April 2023
By Michael Crowley and Malcolm Dando

International treaties designed to prevent the weaponization of chemical and biological substances are not keeping up with modern science, and danger is lurking ahead.

Although the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) were designed to be comprehensive in the substances encompassed and responsive to technological change, a regulatory gap risks both regimes failing to effectively prevent the development of toxin and bioregulator weapons now and in the future.

Police in Tbilisi, Georgia, used water cannons, pepper spray and tear gas against thousands of people who gathered outside the Georgian parliament on March 8 to protest a controversial draft law that would require some organizations receiving foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.” Activists decry the law as a breach of human rights. (Photo by Daro Sulakauri/Getty Images)Recognizing that the store of potential future agents is essentially open-ended, both treaties are intended, inter alia, to cover and prevent the weaponization of toxins, bioregulators, and other substances of biological origin, as well as their synthetic analogues.1 The threat from the misuse of these potential agents continues to grow with advances in and the convergence of the chemical and life sciences and associated technologies. Because of long-standing textual ambiguities, however, exacerbated by inconsistencies and failures in implementation by states-parties, the apparent overlapping protection of the BWC and the CWC masks a dangerous regulatory gap.

Julian Perry Robinson long recognized and warned of these failings:

Such overlap ought to mean, one might think, that the weapons are well controlled, being subject not just to one but to two international disarmament treaties. In the real world, however, that is not the way it is. That overlap seems simply to have given people involved in implementing one of the two treaties opportunity to relinquish responsibility for anything also covered by the other treaty. The area of overlap thus risks becoming a gulf into which things disappear. It looks like this has been happening to toxins.2

The fifth CWC review conference, scheduled for May in The Hague, has an explicit mandate to examine long-term issues of concern and to “take into account any relevant scientific and technological developments.”3 It is imperative that the 193 member states of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which implements the CWC, collectively recognize and address the significant and growing dangers from the potential malign application of the rapidly advancing chemical and life sciences. If they fail to do so, they risk eroding the OPCW’s capability to effectively prevent the emergence and proliferation of tomorrow’s chemical weapons.

Advancing Chemical and Life Sciences

The chemical, life, and associated sciences are undergoing a revolution in capabilities that is allowing scientists to understand and manipulate living systems in unprecedented ways. Although capable of producing immense societal and health benefits, these capabilities can be misused for malign purposes—the so-called dual-use problem. Of particular potential relevance are developments and convergences in neuroscience, medicinal chemistry, pharmacology, toxicology, immunology, molecular biology, systems biology, and synthetic biology, as well as their interactions with nanoscience, artificial intelligence research, and computer science.

Such overarching processes have significantly impacted and advanced the discovery and study of toxins and bioregulators, their mechanisms of action, the corresponding receptor and subreceptor sites with which they interact, and the broader functioning of the human brain, central nervous system, and other affected regulatory and physiological systems. These advances have occurred in parallel with the increasing ability to chemically synthesize peptide bioregulators and incorporate chemical modifications, resulting in analogues with markedly different physiological properties. Undeniably, this knowledge, and associated technological advances, will be a significant benefit, but given the multi-faceted applicability, it could instead be exploited in the development of toxin and bioregulator weapons or for other malign manipulation of core human physiological systems.

Dual-Use Research

One area of continuing concern has been the secrecy surrounding defense establishment research and associated activities related to toxins, bioregulators, bioregulatory pathways and physiological systems, and measures to facilitate agent dissemination and uptake. The necessity of such defense work is recognized and specifically permitted when it is conducted for “protective purposes” under the CWC or for “prophylactic, protection and other purposes” under the BWC. To increase confidence and prevent misperceptions, states are required to report on such work through annual CWC Article X declarations and are encouraged to submit similar details through the BWC confidence-building measures process. Unfortunately, public transparency in this area is insufficient to address disquiet surrounding the intentions and applications of such research and associated activities conducted by many national defense establishments.

For example, there have been decades-long concerns about institutions funded by or related to the U.S. military reportedly carrying out biological weapons-related research for “defensive purposes,” which has been perceived by certain states and civil society observers as coming dangerously near or actually crossing the line into offensive weapons research. Specific concerns have related to the apparent questionable U.S. interpretation that the BWC allows development of biological weapons when intended for “threat assessment” and the development of defensive countermeasures. A particular disquiet followed the 2004 establishment of the U.S. National Biological Threat Characterization Center with planned capabilities to investigate “aerosol dynamics, novel delivery of threat, novel packaging, simulation & modelling (epidemiology), genetic engineering, environmental stability, work on bioregulators and immunomodulators, genomics/proteomics [and] red teaming [i.e., duplication of threat scenarios].”4

Open-source information indicates that a range of contemporary toxin and bioregulator research of possible dual-use application has been carried out by the center and other U.S. military and military-related institutions and researchers. This has included investigation of staphylococcal superantigen functioning, production
of engineered nontoxic botulinum toxins through “rational design,” employment of recombinant technology to develop a nontoxic staphylococcal enterotoxin B mutant, and work on aerosolized ricin and botulinum toxin.

The United States has provided sufficient information or allowed publication of scientific papers on much of this research indicating their medical or protective purpose. Although the United States is far more open than many countries, given the lack of full public reporting and transparency for certain facilities and programs, it is not possible to determine the purpose of all such research or its potential application.

Novel Toxin Bio-threat Agents

Dual-use toxin research of potential concern extends far beyond previously investigated weapons agents. Military and nonmilitary institutions and scientists have searched out a growing range of “novel” toxins that could be weaponized, including those derived from indigenous poisonous plants, amphibians, reptiles, scorpions, and marine animals. In some cases, the stated intent and associated activities were clearly medical or for other protective purposes. In others, the intention was unstated or unclear; and in certain cases, the purpose appears explicitly to be toxin weaponization.

Scientists from the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and related bodies published a series of papers on their investigations of toxins derived from native Indian stinging and poisonous plants. In 2018 they argued that because the BWC “banned the use or stockpiling of most of the pathogenic bio-threat agents [this will] necessitate…search [for] some novel natural bio-threat agents from stinging plants that may be used as future bio-weapon[s] for self-defense purposes.” They consequently undertook a study to “identify, characterize and screen the potential of…stinging plants on the basis of their secondary metabolite contents that may be used for the formulation of novel future bio-threat agents for self-defense.”5

DRDO research continued into plants that produce “toxins that have the ability to adversely affect human health in a variety of ways, ranging from relatively mild allergic reactions to serious medical complications, including death.” They successfully identified several poisonous plants that can be used for the development of novel, multisystem, targeted warfare agents for defensive applications. They identified poisonous components from 10 plants and investigated their “mode of action,” which could “have harmful effect[s] on various biological systems like nervous, cardiac, digestive, respiratory, dermal, etc[.] simultaneously.”6 Some of the toxins investigated as potential agents, such as aconitine, are highly toxic and can be lethal. Others, although not as poisonous, potentially could be employed as “less lethal” toxin weapons.

Toxin Production

Concerns extend to large-scale production of potential weapons agents by certain states. Following its August 2013 chemical nerve agent attack on its own population, Syria was pressured to accede to the CWC and undertake an expedited chemical weapons disarmament process. On October 23, 2013, Syria declared its stockpile of chemical weapons and agreed to facilitate their verification and subsequent destruction under OPCW supervision. In its initial declaration, however, Syria failed to provide adequate information about its toxin-related activities. According to a press report, “Western officials with access to intelligence about Syria, [highlighted] topics of concern [including] deadly…agent ricin.”7

The United States and other CWC states-parties questioned the “accuracy and completeness of Syria’s declaration,” and in April 2014, the OPCW director-general established a Declaration Assessment Team “to attempt to resolve many of these concerns, including toxin-relevant activity.”8 Following the team’s work, Syria in 2014 amended its initial declaration. Subsequently, the OPCW director-general reported that Syria had declared “a facility for the production of ricin,” later identified as the Al-Maliha facility, as a “chemical weapons production facility.” He stated that “the newly declared facility is subject to verification and destruction.” According to Syria’s amendment, “the entire quantity of ricin produced was disposed of prior to the entry into force of the Convention for the Syrian Arab Republic.”9 In July 2018, the OPCW reported that its Technical Secretariat had verified the destruction of all Syrian declared chemical weapons production facilities, which included Al-Maliha.10

Despite this, there are still unresolved questions concerning Syria’s toxin production activities that reflect limitations in the OPCW reporting and verification system. First, if Syria had admitted its continued possession of a ricin stockpile after its accession to the CWC, it would have been required to declare all locations and quantities of such stockpiles and facilitate OPCW verification of its stockpile declaration through on-site visits and then verification of all stockpile destruction. Because Syria stated that it had destroyed its ricin stockpiles at some stage before accession, no such reporting and OPCW verification took place.

Second, Syria stated that its ricin production had been for medical purposes, such as cancer research and treatment. This assertion appears to conflict with Syria’s formal declaration of the facility to the OPCW as a chemical weapons production facility because this designation specifically excludes a “single small-scale facility for production of chemicals listed in Schedule 1 for purposes not prohibited under this Convention.”11 Clearly, this open question needs to be resolved. If the Al-Maliha ricin production facility was intended solely for medical or other civilian purposes, why did Syria not simply present proof to the OPCW and the public and continue with such important medical work?

At the time, Reuters reported skepticism regarding Syria’s reasons for not including the facility in its initial OPCW declaration. It quoted one unnamed diplomatic source as saying that “‘Syria will argue that the facilities were not revealed earlier because they were in a rush when they first had to report them…. They had said the ricin was for medical purposes, but we don’t believe that’s true.’”12 Given the previous, repeated obfuscation about its chemical weapons program, there is still legitimate concern as to whether Syria has been completely forthright about its activities at Al-Maliha and whether any further production facilities or stockpiles of ricin or other potential toxin weapons remain.

Brain Research Projects

In the last two decades, the technologies available to neuroscientists have developed rapidly and made it increasingly possible to understand the circuits in the central nervous system that underlie our behavior and the roles played by bioregulators in such processes. The obvious advantages of this work, for example in helping people with brain dysfunctions and injuries, has led states to initiate large-scale brain research projects. In certain countries, notably China, scientists at military medical institutions and other defense-related facilities are involved in much of the research. A number of research strands of the China Brain Project and related work of Chinese scientists on neurological systems and associated bioregulators, including noradrenaline, 5-HT, serotonin, and orexin, in a variety of simple animal models (fruit flies, zebrafish, and mice) have potential dual-use applicability.

To better understand more complex human behaviors and the mechanisms that produce them, large-scale work is also being carried out in China on the nervous system and responses of nonhuman primates, such as macaque monkeys. This has important dual-use implications because previous biological weaponeers did not restrict their work to manipulation of basic functions of the brain but also sought to influence human emotions, cognition, and consequent behavior. As noted in 2017,

this raises concerns about tacit capabilities…and the yoking of [nonhuman primate] studies and findings to military agendas under programs of dual- or direct-use…. Of particular note in such efforts is Junweikejiwei, the newly developed Chinese research agency that conjoins efforts of the [Chinese Academy of Sciences] and China’s Ministry of Defense, and which is modeled after the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to engage rapid, high-risk/high-return approaches to bioscience and technology.13

It is certain that work within the China Brain Project includes studies of higher functions of the brain using advanced biotechnology with nonhuman primates as test subjects. One of China’s leading researchers highlighted the “goals of non-human primate research,” which included studies of the cognitive functions using nonhuman primates as the animal model and the generation of genetically modified, including transgenic, monkeys as animal models of human brain disorders and for basic neurobiology research. The research seeks to explore the neural basis of cognition, including how molecules and cells establish synaptic contacts and generate neural circuit activities.14 Although the purported purposes of such research are benign, there are risks of potential malign application, including to inform or facilitate development of bioregulator weapons to attack, subtly influence, or subvert human cognition.

‘Less Lethal’ Weapons

Concerns about the malign application of toxins, bioregulators, and other substances of biological origin, as well as their synthetic analogues, have extended to their development and use as so-called, often misnamed “less lethal weapons.” A particular focus of growing disquiet among many CWC states-parties, as well as medical and scientific bodies, has been development and use of weapons employing central nervous system-acting chemicals.

A photo taken October 26, 2002 shows hostages being evacuated by bus from the Dubrovka theater in Moscow where Chechen rebels held theater-goers hostage since October 23. Over 120 hostages died following the use of aerosolized central nervous system-acting chemicals by Russian security forces. (Photo by Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images)These are a disparate group of toxic chemicals whose purported purpose as weapons is to cause prolonged but nonpermanent disability or incapacitation. They include centrally acting agents producing loss of consciousness, sedation, hallucination, incoherence, paralysis, and disorientation. Many putative agents have low safety margins, and inappropriate doses cause serious, sometimes permanent health effects, even death.

The United States conducted long-term research into a range of potential central nervous system-acting chemicals, including pharmaceutical chemicals and bioregulators and related bioregulatory pathways, for law enforcement and military purposes on and off from the 1970s to the early 2000s. In addition to military- and law enforcement-funded projects intended to inform or facilitate potential development of such weapons, a wider range of potentially relevant dual-use research into related fields, such as brain research projects, has been funded in part by U.S. defense agencies. There is no evidence that any weapons employing central nervous system-acting chemicals were developed or fielded. In 2013 the United States unilaterally rejected the development, stockpiling, and use of this category of weapons and reconfirmed that position in November 2021.

The highly significant U.S. shutdown of such programs can be contrasted with the continuing worrisome activities of Russia. Until its collapse, the Soviet Union had undertaken research and attempted development of weapons employing central nervous system-acting chemicals, including pharmaceutical chemicals and bioregulators. According to high-level whistleblowers, during the 1980s at least, the Soviets explored potential bioregulator weapons in this category, investigating endorphins, enkephalins, and other neuromodulating peptides potentially capable of altering human cognition and emotions. One whistleblower alleged that “the mood-altering possibilities of regulatory peptides were of particular interest to the KGB.” Although no evidence of development or use of bioregulator weapons has been found, it is unclear whether all such activities terminated following the change in political system in Russia.

In 2002, Russian security forces employed an aerosolized central nervous system-acting pharmaceutical chemical weapon in a large-scale anti-terrorist operation to rescue more than 900 hostages held in a Moscow theater. Although most hostages were freed, more than 120 of them were killed by the chemical agent, and many more continue to suffer long-term health problems. Since then, Russian dual-use research into pharmaceutical chemicals with potential central nervous system weapons application has been reported. Russia stated that law enforcement use of such weapons is not regulated by the CWC. It rejected the legitimacy of the 2021 CWC conference of state-parties “understanding” that law enforcement use of aerosolized versions of these chemicals was prohibited under the convention.

Riot control agents are defined under the CWC as chemicals not listed in one of the treaty schedules, which rapidly produce sensory irritation or disabling physical effects that disappear within a short time following termination of exposure. In addition to chemically synthesized chemicals, these agents include a number of substances of biological origin, notably capsaicinoids. The CWC prohibits the use of riot control agents as a method of warfare, but permits their use for “law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes,” provided they are used in “types and quantities” consistent with such purposes.

Riot control agents have been frequently misused for serious human rights violations, most commonly in noncustodial settings to restrict, intimidate, and punish public protesters worldwide and in the prisons, detention centers, and police stations of certain countries to mistreat individuals.15 A recurring medical concern has been their use in excessive quantities in the open air or in confined spaces where the targeted individuals cannot disperse. In such situations, serious injury or death can result, including from the toxic properties of the chemical agents or asphyxiation.16

This situation could dramatically worsen as development, marketing, and deployment of systems capable of delivering significant amounts of riot control agents over wide areas or extended distances intensifies. In addition to potential misuse for collective mistreatment or punishment of crowds, such wide-area riot control agent delivery mechanisms could be employed as force multipliers in conjunction with firearms, making lethal force more deadly on a large scale. Although nominally developed for law enforcement, they also may be incorporated into military arsenals in the future and used in armed conflict in contravention of the CWC and, in the case of capsaicinoids, the BWC.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), headquartered in The Hague, implements the Chemical Weapons Convention, whose states-parties will consider ways to strengthen the treaty at a review conference in May. (Photo by Yuriko Nakao/Getty Images)The OPCW Scientific Advisory Board in its February 2023 report for the forthcoming review conference has voiced concerns over the “continued development, testing, production, and promotion of diverse” wide-area riot control agent delivery mechanisms. It warned that “the capabilities being developed increasingly resemble military equipment. These systems could be repurposed and filled with other chemicals,” including chemical warfare agents, central nervous system-acting chemicals, and bioregulators.17

Civil society researchers have documented development and promotion of wide-area riot control agent delivery mechanisms, including indoor dispersion devices, water cannons, external area denial devices, multibarrel projectile launchers, large-caliber projectiles, and delivery mechanisms mounted on remote weapons systems, unmanned ground vehicles, and drones.18 Widespread deployment has not been documented, but the world may now be at a tipping point where proliferation, use, and misuse may be beginning.

Challenges for Today and Tomorrow

Perceptions of the potential threats from or uses of toxin and bioregulator weapons will be influenced by the unique and evolving international, regional, and national security environment that each state faces. Such considerations are complicated where the borders may blur, shifting between large and small international and noninternational armed conflicts, large-scale human rights violations, revolutions and uprisings, insurgencies, terrorism, and organized crime. Of obvious concern would be potential state interest in perceived military utility and consequent development and acquisition of toxin and bioregulator weapons with wide-area battlefield effects causing mass fatalities and casualties through severe disruption of the central nervous system and other core bodily functions.

Alternatively, state militaries may be attracted to “less lethal” forms of such weapons that cause unconsciousness, immobilization, or other temporary incapacitation or that more subtly alter the perception, emotions, and behavior of opposing combatants. In addition to their use in full-scale armed conflict, military forces could employ toxin or bioregulator weapons in other scenarios of potential or actual combat such as peacekeeping, peace enforcement, counterinsurgency, or counterterrorism operations, particularly where civilians and combatants are mixed.

Police and security forces, in addition to continued use of existing riot control agents, may in the future be tempted to utilize toxins and bioregulators for domestic law enforcement to manipulate or punish protesting crowds or for other large-scale policing of public assemblies. In custodial situations, certain toxins and bioregulators could make prisoners compliant and trusting, while alternative agents could cause discomfort, pain, or illness; induce depression or anxiety; and so be employed in torture. Certain state intelligence and internal security forces, such as the Soviet Union, previously attempted to develop bioregulator and toxin weapons for use in espionage operations, including covert assassinations. It seems plausible that such activities will continue, potentially for use against their own citizens and targets in third countries.

Building on the existing capabilities of the chemical, life, and associated sciences and postulating potential research trajectories, it can be imagined how the malign application of future developments, if insufficiently regulated, could enable states to chemically manipulate and subjugate large swaths of their own or foreign populations. Although such repressive capabilities are speculative now, the world’s rapidly increasing knowledge of and ability to manipulate the body’s bioregulatory pathways, coupled with advances in wide-area agent dissemination, mean that such threats are likely to increase in the coming years if not addressed now.

The BWC and CWC were primarily intended to prevent and address the development and use of biological and chemical weapons in armed conflict and to facilitate the destruction of all extant weapons production capacity and stockpiles. There are serious questions about whether these conventions and the associated control regimes can respond adequately to the diverse and potentially malign applications of the chemical and life sciences on the battlefield and beyond. The CWC review conference beginning May 15 will be an important indicator about whether that treaty can meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.



1. Toxins can be considered to be toxic, or poisonous, material of natural origin and their synthetic analogues or derivatives that can cause death, permanent harm, or temporary incapacitation. Bioregulators are naturally occurring chemicals produced within living organisms that normally help to ensure the proper functioning of vital physiological systems in those same organisms. If present in or introduced into the body in excessively large amounts, these benign chemical messengers will produce extremely devasting toxic effects, becoming highly potent de facto toxins.

2. Julian Perry Robinson, “Bringing the CBW Conventions Closer Together,” The CBW Conventions Bulletin, No. 80 (September 2008), p. 2, http://www.sussex.ac.uk/Units/spru/hsp/documents/cbwcb80.pdf.

3. Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction, art. VIII, para. 22, January 13, 1993, 1974 U.N.T.S. 45 (hereinafter CWC).

4. Lt. Col. George Korch, “Leading Edge of Biodefense: The National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center,” n.d., slide 12, https://biosecurity.fas.org/resource/documents/nbacc%20ppt.pdf (presentation, U.S. Department of Defense Pest Management Workshop, Jacksonville, Florida, February 2004).

5. Sanjay Mohan Gupta, Kamal Kumar, and Rakshit Pathak, “Phytochemical Analysis of Indian Stinging Plants: An Initiative Towards Development of Future Novel Biothreat Agents for Self-Defence,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, India Section B: Biological Sciences, Vol. 88, No. 2 (2018): 819–825.

6. Sanjay Mohan Gupta et al., “Himalayan Toxic Plants of Defense Importance,” ACTA Scientific Medical Sciences, Vol. 2, No. 3 (June 2018): 44–48.

7. Louis Charbonneau, “Western Intel Suggests Syria Can Still Produce Chemical Arms,” Reuters, April 25, 2014.

8. Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, U.S. Department of State, “2015 Report on Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” June 5, 2015, https://2009-2017.state.gov/t/avc/rls/rpt/2015/243224.htm#Syria.

9. Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Executive Council, “Note by the Director-General: Progress in the Elimination of the Syrian Chemical Weapons Programme,” ECM44/DG.1, July 25, 2014, para. 4(b).

10. OPCW Executive Council, “Note by the Director-General: Progress in the Elimination of the Syrian Chemical Weapons Programme,” EC-89/DG.1, July 24, 2018.

11. CWC, art. II, para. 8(b)(iii).

12. Anthony Deutsch, “Exclusive: Syria Reveals More Chemical Weapons Facilities to Watchdog - Sources,” Reuters, September 17, 2014.

13. Guillermo Palchik, Celeste Chen, and James Giordano, “Monkey Business? Development, Influence, and Ethics of Potentially Dual-Use Brain Science on the World Stage,” Neuroethics, Vol. 11, No. 2 (February 2017): 111–114.

14. Mu-ming Poo, “China Brain Project and Non-human Primate Research in China” (Presentation, The Brain Forum, Lausanne, 2016), slide 11, https://thebrainforum.org/downloads/Presentations-2015-and-2016/China-Brain-Project-and-non-human-primate-research-Prof-Mu-ming-Poo.pdf.

15. For illustrative cases, see Amnesty International, “Tear Gas: An Investigation,” n.d., https://teargas.amnesty.org/#top (accessed March 18, 2023); Michael Crowley, Chemical Control: Regulation of Incapacitating Chemical Agent Weapons, Riot Control Agents and Their Means of Delivery (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 50–80.

16. See Amnesty International, “Tear Gas: An Investigation,” n.d., https://teargas.amnesty.org/#top (accessed March 18, 2023); Michael Crowley, Chemical Control: Regulation of Incapacitating Chemical Agent Weapons, Riot Control Agents and Their Means of Delivery (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 48–49 and pp. 72–75.

17. OPCW Review Conference, “Report by the Director-General: Report of the Scientific Advisory Board on Developments in Science and Technology to the Fifth Special Session of the Conference of the States Parties to Review the Operation of the Chemical Weapons Convention,” RC-5/DG.1, February 22, 2023, para. 80

18. Crowley, Chemical Control; Michael Crowley, Tear Gassing by Remote Control, Remote Control Project/Bradford University/Omega Research Foundation, December 2015.


Michael Crowley is an honorary visiting senior research fellow at Bradford University and research associate with the Omega Research Foundation. Malcolm Dando is a fellow of the Royal Society of Biology in the United Kingdom and Leverhulme Emeritus Fellow at Bradford University. This article is drawn in part from the authors’ recent book: Toxin and Bioregulator Weapons: Preventing the Misuse of the Chemical and Life Sciences, Palgrave Macmillan, 2022.

International treaties designed to prevent the weaponization of chemical and biological substances are not keeping up with modern science. 

Strengthening the Chemical Weapons Convention: An Interview with Joseph Manso, U.S. Ambassador to the OPCW

April 2023

Joseph Manso, U. S. ambassador to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, says that “a violator of the norm against chemical weapons [such as Syria] will not be treated as a normal country.” (Photo: OPCW)Delegates to the fifth review conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) will convene in The Hague on May 15 with two markers on their scoresheet. One is positive: the United States is on track to complete the destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile in September, in line with its CWC obligations. The other is ominous: two CWC states are known violators of the 26-year-old convention, which outlaws the development, production, and use of deadly chemical weapons and requires the verifiable destruction of remaining stockpiles. As the convention’s implementing body, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), recently confirmed that Syria has used chemical weapons five times against its own civilians. U.S. and European officials have accused Russia of using a chemical agent in its attempted assassinations of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and of Sergei Skirpal, a former Russian military intelligence office, and his daughter, Yulia, in the United Kingdom. Political leaders, academics, and civil society groups have many ideas how the CWC can be strengthened, including enhancing OPCW forensic capabilities, adding more chemicals to the CWC ban list, and reframing the CWC mission to expand the use of challenge inspections. Yet, the review conference takes place under the same tough conditions plaguing many international meetings in the past year. Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine has upended the international system, intensifying hostilities and mistrust among leading nations and making it more difficult to deal with security challenges. Carol Giacomo, editor of Arms Control Today, spoke with Joseph Manso, the U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, about expectations for the review conference. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

ARMS CONTROL TODAY: What do you think have been the major successes of the CWC over the
past three decades?

U.S. Ambassador Joseph Manso: I think it is a tremendous success. The United States really values both the CWC and the OPCW. Among the successes would be, first of all, the now-almost-completed destruction of declared chemical weapons stockpiles. I am emphasizing declared stockpiles, and this is, I think for the first time, the elimination of a whole category of weapons of mass destruction. It’s an impressive achievement and has strongly reinforced the norm against chemical weapons use, and I think that’s tremendously important. Even today, only a very small number of countries challenge that norm, and they don’t do so openly. The Assad regime [in Syria] does not admit to using chemical weapons. The Russian Federation, even when Navalny was poisoned or the Skripals were poisoned, does not admit to using chemical weapons because they know that the norm against chemical weapons use is so strong that if they admitted to it, they would really have no sympathy in the international community. So, I would say destruction of a whole class of weapons of mass destruction and reinforcement of the norm against chemical weapons use are two very significant achievements.

Then there is the work of the [OPCW] Technical Secretariat in international cooperation and assistance, which is important [and] ongoing, and we hope to see it further strengthened. Part of what will strengthen it is the new Center for Chemistry and Technology that’s coming online. The center has a lab, much expanded from what the OPCW has now. It also has classrooms for training and cooperation, conference spaces for meetings, and an equipment storage area that allows for hands-on training with very sophisticated equipment to detect and analyze various chemical weapons and compounds. The bottom line is, I think the OPCW has done a lot of good work.

ACT: When does that center become operational?

Manso: The 12th of May is the official opening, but the Technical Secretariat is in the process of moving into the facility now.

ACT: The OPCW determined that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against the opposition in Syria. There has been public shaming, but no real price paid for that. How does that serve deterrence? It certainly isn’t deterring Assad.

Manso: That’s a fair question. I would say there are a couple of points to it. First, before the OPCW did this investigating allegations of chemical weapons use alone, it had a joint team with the United Nations, the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), which attributed four chemical weapons attacks in Syria to the Assad regime. The Russians decided they were not happy with this and vetoed the extension of the JIM. They used their veto three times in one day to prevent any extension of the JIM. So then, the OPCW created the Investigation and Identification Team, which has now attributed five chemical weapons attacks, through rigorous scientific methods and analyzing the evidence, to the Assad regime. This is a tremendous advance over what the OPCW could do previously, when its teams were authorized to say whether or not chemical weapons were used, but they were not authorized or mandated to attribute the attacks to any particular party. So, it is a step in the right direction and some added teeth for the OPCW because the organization can investigate and say chemical weapons were used or not and can attribute it to a particular party.

Last August, people in Idlib, Syria, staged a demonstration against the Assad regime for its chemical weapons attack on Eastern Ghouta in 2013. Thousands of women and children were affected by the poisonous agents used in the attack.  (Photo by Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)The other thing is that the OPCW is a treaty-based international organization. It is a political organization, not a court of law or a military alliance. It is not fair to expect them to do things that legitimately fall in the domain of other types of institutions. What the OPCW can do, and I would agree with you that deterrence is important, is the OPCW can extract a political price for using chemical weapons. A violator of the norm against the use of chemical weapons will not be treated as a normal country. People will know that you are not a normal country, that you used chemical weapons. In fact, at an OPCW Conference of the States Parties meeting in 2021, it was determined that Syria would be stripped of certain rights and privileges at the OPCW, such as the right to vote and the right to hold office until it fulfills its obligations. Now you might say, well, President [Bashar] Assad probably isn’t up at night worrying about whether or not he has an OPCW vote or Syria holds an office at the OPCW. But there is a broader strategy here, and the broader strategy is to isolate the Syrian regime, delegitimize them, and not have them treated as a normal country.

This OPCW action is not an isolated incident. It is part of this broader policy of not treating the Assad regime as a normal country and reinforcing other tools so there is a political price to pay. Having said that, there’s also a conversation, and I’m not the right guy to go into detail on this, on judicial pathways for attributing judicial responsibility for chemical weapons use. That’s what courts could do. One person to talk to about this would be, for example, Beth Van Schaack, who is the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice. There are criminal cases that have been brought against the Assad regime by officials in Germany and France, and now there is an ongoing discussion of whether there should be an international attempt to hold them judicially responsible.

ACT: Is that something that the United States is planning to participate in, to lead?

Manso: Well, not me personally because I’m the U.S. representative to the OPCW and the OPCW is not a judicial body. But if you ask, is the United States interested in this, the answer is yes, and we’re very interested in participating in these conversations on judicial responsibility for chemical weapons use and seeing how this could be designed and carried out. But we’re in the early days on this.

ACT: You said the norm against chemical weapons has been strengthened. But Russia is a major impediment. It has been accused of using chemical weapons itself and is creating havoc in Ukraine. The Russians are aligned with Assad and don’t hold him to account. What do you do about that?

Russia is blamed for the near fatal poisoning of the now-imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, seen inside a glass cell during a district court hearing in Moscow in 2021. Russia and Syria are the only two states-parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention that are accused of using chemical weapons. (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)Manso: I would say that Russia is not in compliance with its obligations under the CWC, and I would very much agree that the evidence points to Russia having used a chemical agent in its attempted assassination of Navalny and also for the acts [against the Skripals] on UK soil. But I have two other points. One, it is only a very small number of countries that are willing to use chemical weapons. You have Syria and Russia. North Korea probably was also involved in an incident, but they’re not a member to the CWC. So, of the countries in the CWC that have used chemical weapons, it’s essentially Russia and Syria. As I said, they deny it. So, they feel the need to try to cover their tracks; Bellingcat has done a great job of uncovering those tracks.

I’m very glad the Navalny film won the Oscar, and I hope Navalny is released from his unjust imprisonment. But at the end of the day, on the enforcement of regimes, you strive for perfection, you don’t always get it. Most countries abide by the CWC. There are a very small number of bad actors, and we need to focus on that. You don’t cover it up, but also don’t ignore the fact that most countries are in fact playing by the rules.

ACT: As we look toward this review conference in May, apart from Russia and Ukraine, what other challenges do you see, and what are you expecting to come out of it?

Manso: The review conference is also an opportunity. The future holds different challenges than the past. Destruction of the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile should be completed by September. The new Center for Chemistry and Technology is coming online, as I said, in May. So, we have an opportunity to strengthen the OPCW and make it fit for purpose for the future.

We’d like the verification regime and international cooperation and assistance programs enhanced. We would like to see further work on dealing with the threat of nonstate actors or terrorists using chemical weapons. We would very much like to see continued scientific work and improved capacity for addressing the threats from new and novel types of toxic chemicals. All of these are opportunities to make this organization fit for the future. So, the U.S. policy is, we value the CWC, we value the OPCW. Based on that policy, we’re very much looking to have a positive forward-looking agenda as part of the review conference.

What always happens in diplomacy is that getting consensus on a final conference document among all the CWC states-parties is going to be difficult. As in other arms control forums over the past year, sometimes you succeed and sometimes you don’t, and my crystal ball is no better than anybody else’s. If you ask me, will the review conference succeed, the answer is, we’re committed to doing our part to make it a success. We’d certainly like to see a consensus document, which I think most participating countries would like to see. Let’s stay flexible and work for success.

ACT: On verification measures, what would you consider success coming out of this review conference?

Manso: There are a lot of different angles on verification, so part of it would be the OPCW retaining the knowledge that they have gathered from these various investigations that they’ve done and combining that with the new lab where they’d be able to do things like chemical forensics.

It is also about making the industry verification regime more efficient and updating the approach there. We could explore the challenges in the industry cluster and see what is needed in terms of improvements. The idea would be that better verification helps build confidence in the treaty. From the U.S. point of view and the point of view of many other countries, while you want to do verification more efficiently and you want to do it well, you don’t want to do it in a way that creates an undue burden on industry.

ACT: Is improved verification a priority among the things you’d like to see come out of the review conference?

Manso: It’s one of the priorities. The overarching priority is full implementation of the treaty. That means we do better on verification, and it also means we do better on areas like international cooperation and assistance.

ACT: Of the eight CWC states-parties that have declared that they possess chemical weapons, the United States was the first to begin destruction of its stockpile under the treaty but is now scheduled to be the last one to complete the process. What has been the holdup?

Manso: If you’re going to deal with these issues, you’re going to deal with local governments, with local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), with the U.S. Congress, with environmental concerns. It’s a complicated process. Not that we can’t do it, not that we haven’t been doing it, not that we aren’t going to finish in September; but if you ask me why it took us such a long time, one, we did have a large stockpile; and two, we had to work it through our system. Our system is not the fastest system in the world, but it does provide for stakeholders to express their views and be satisfied.

If you go to Bluegrass, Kentucky, or Pueblo, Colorado [where the last U.S. chemical weapons stockpiles are based], the local communities are very well informed of what’s going on in those destruction sites. They are very well aware of the environmental safeguards that have been taken. I was very pleasantly surprised at the level of local support for those efforts. That didn’t happen overnight or easily, and with the congressional history of this, even just moving those chemicals around to get them to certain destruction sites was a controversial thing because who wants a trainload of chemical weapons passing through their community? These were the kinds of environmental and political issues you would expect in a project of this type. Not only is the United States committed to the destruction of our own stockpile, but we have given substantial funding and expertise to help other countries destroy their stockpiles, including the Russian Federation.

ACT: Are you confident the September deadline is firm?

Manso: Yes, we are. There are two sides to the deadline. We agreed to a compromise at the OPCW, in which September was the deadline. But my understanding, and again the experts on this are over at [the U.S. Department of Defense], and what they tell me is we’re on track. In fact, we have destroyed more than 99 percent of the U.S. stockpile.

ACT: There are still four countries outside the CWC: Egypt, Israel, North Korea, and South Sudan. Can you bring them into the fold?

Manso: The United States is committed to universality, so we’d like to see everybody in. I do think it’s different for each country. South Sudan is working with a number of other participating states on developing its national legislation. My impression is that this is a capacity issue. It’s a new country, it’s a new government. I don’t think they have a political problem with acceding to the CWC, but they want to develop the capability so they’re able to say they can fulfill their obligations. South Sudan’s accession is a work in progress; I would not call it a problem.

North Korea, that is a problem. They’re not inclined to join. They probably have a very big stockpile, and it’s part of a much bigger problem that goes beyond just the OPCW. I think what we can do in partnership with the OPCW Technical Secretariat is stay ready so that when the U.S. stockpile destruction is over, the OPCW maintains the expertise to verify destruction so that they could help the North Koreans, should that ever come to pass.

That leaves us with Egypt and Israel. I think there the likely scenario would be that they both decide to join the CWC at the same time. Given the larger dynamics of the politics in the Middle East, that’s a tough one. But that’s the broad expectation, that when the politics are ripe, we could get both of them in. We would be happy to work with our Egyptian and Israeli friends on this.

ACT: You’ve been very supportive of the involvement of NGOs in the CWC and the OPCW, although some states-parties have put up roadblocks. What would it take for the CWC and the OPCW to become more inclusive of civil society?

Manso: Not just the United States. There are many countries that are very supportive of including NGOs. One thing we did at the last conference of the states-parties was, together with Canada, Norway, Germany, and the European Union, organize a series of events outside of the conference hall. We were able to invite those NGOs that had been blocked and also the NGOs that were in the hall, so the NGOs could talk with each other through organized programs. I certainly think that more could be done along those lines, and maybe we could have—these are just ideas—a one-day meeting with NGOs and civil society before important OPCW meetings. As long as you don’t have it on the premises of the conference, NGOs could participate, and nobody could block them. Under the current OPCW guidelines, and it’s going to be hard to change them because of the nature of international organizations, there is the possibility to block NGOs from participating in the [conference] hallway, but you can’t block them from showing up in The Hague and interacting with delegations.

Then maybe we can incrementally modify and improve the guidelines so it gets a little bit harder to block NGOs. A lot of organizations have this problem. It’s not unique to the OPCW, but there is a group of delegations that are committed to immediate relief, by doing events for NGOs connected to the meetings but not in the meeting hall so they can’t be blocked. They are also committed to incremental improvements in the guidelines so that we can better interact with NGOs. It should be one of the topics at the review conference: how do we improve our connection to civil society. NGOs are part of civil society, but that could also include academics and industry representatives. I mean we should be able to have fluid interaction with civil society.

ACT: Have you set up those kinds of side meetings for the May review conference?

Manso: We’re talking about them right now, and I would think that we’ll get serious about planning them right after the Executive Council session, which is on March 14–17. The only thing I’d add is that this administration is very committed to arms control. The United States wants to maintain a leadership position in arms control. We want to see it advance, even understanding that the overall geopolitical framework is not always the easiest. But we remain committed to arms control in general and the OPCW specifically. The whole idea of using the review conference to strengthen the OPCW, enhance its capabilities, enhance the norm against chemical weapons use, all of that is part of the broader policy.

ACT: As we discussed, Russia is a problem, but does China work with you?

Manso: I will say China does sometimes support the Russians. Depends on the issue, but not every time. We can certainly talk to our Chinese colleagues, absolutely.


Despite chemical weapons violations by Russia and Syria, Manso is bullish about the treaty and its impact.

Catherine McArdle Kelleher (1939–2023)

April 2023
By Nancy Gallagher

Catherine McArdle Kelleher, who died on February 15 of complications from atrial fibrillation, advanced the objectives of international security and arms control as a scholar, practitioner, institution-builder, role model, mentor, and friend. She is best known for her work on conventional arms control and cooperative security in Europe, her establishment of Women in International Security (WIIS), and her enthusiastic participation in countless workshops, Track 2 dialogues, and professional meetings. Whatever she was doing, she was always on the lookout for an opportunity to move the ball forward.

Catherine McArdle Kelleher participates in a panel discussion at the 2015 Arms Control Association annual meeting. (ACA photo)After graduating from Mount Holyoke College in 1960, Catherine spent a year at the Free University of Berlin as a scholar in the Fulbright Program, studying East-West relations during one of the worst crises of the Cold War. That galvanized her determination to earn a doctorate in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she became one of the first three women in the United States to get a doctorate in security studies. Catherine spent the rest of her career trying to prevent nuclear war, make Europe more peaceful and secure, increase East-West understanding, and help other women make their own mark on the field.

Her research on the politics of nuclear weapons in Germany from the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s combined her knowledge of technological-military matters, alliance and bureaucratic politics, and people. Detailed information gleaned from extensive interviews with German elites distinguished her work, making it the definitive treatment. One reviewer, clearly impressed by Catherine’s ability to get powerful people to share information, wrote, “It seems unlikely that, if and when governmental records are available, there will be very much to add to her account.”

Catherine used her diverse professional experiences at small colleges, major research universities, think tanks, military education institutions, and government to envision something that did not exist in the early 1980s but was sorely needed and to create it at the University of Maryland: an interdisciplinary school of public policy. This involved bridging multiple gaps, not only between government and academia but also across the deep disciplinary divisions that kept professors of political science, economics, philosophy, history, and physics from working together. She never wanted to be cloistered in an ivory tower; she wanted to work across silos to generate research and educate students to change the world.

Catherine founded the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) and filled it with people who cared as much as she did about security, alliance politics, defense spending, and international cooperation. U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s rapid military buildup and his “evil empire” rhetoric were stoking concerns that conventional military confrontation in Europe could lead to a global nuclear war. Yet, few academics saw security policy as an appropriate subject for rigorous scholarly research or wanted to soil their reputations by trying to reason with government officials. Catherine took it upon herself to change that. She helped convince the Carnegie Corporation and the MacArthur Foundation to provide start-up funding for a network of academic centers where professors, researchers, and students would do rigorous interdisciplinary analysis of critical security challenges, then publish their findings, make presentations, and provide confidential advice in ways designed for maximum policy impact. Many of the most influential scholars and practitioners in the field spent formative time at one of these centers.

One of Catherine’s great frustrations was how much more difficult it was for women than men to make an impact on security policy. She and a small group of women who had gotten doctorates in the 1960s, including Angela Stent and Enid Schoettle, felt that doors that had opened briefly for them had closed again by the 1980s, turning security studies back into a “boys club.” WIIS was established at CISSM to pry those doors back open by mentoring young women and creating professional development opportunities for them. Many of the women who now hold top security-related positions in government, academia, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) gained self-confidence, strategic skills, and practical tips for handling sticky professional situations through their association with Catherine and other formidable women in the WIIS network. My own career got a much needed boost when I was offered a year-long WIIS fellowship at CISSM in 1995 to turn my dissertation into a book and organize a workshop featuring women who were bridging the gap between theory and practice of arms control.

Catherine spent the early 1990s at the Brookings Institution, where she worked in a consortium of scholar-practitioners using the rapid evolution of security in Europe from crisis in the early 1980s to cooperation in the late 1980s to generalize a new paradigm for post-Cold War global security. She argued that institutions established during the Cold War, especially the European Community and NATO, transformed long-time adversaries, particularly France and Germany, into a vibrant “security community rooted as much in shared values, intentions, and attitudes among like-minded states as in effective fighting capabilities positioned against a common enemy.” For this, she credited the time- and resource-intensive process of building and operating many different institutions with overlapping responsibilities, developing a multiplicity of cross-cutting relationships providing mutual reassurance, pursuing a commitment to transparency, and fostering broad popular support for multilateral solutions as being at least equal in legitimacy and effectiveness to national security strategies.

European efforts to start developing these political elements in East-West relations began in the 1970s, when the United States was primarily focused on military determinants of strategic stability. By the early 1990s, Euroatlantic countries that had been part of competing military and ideological blocs during the Cold War were successfully building the core of a cooperative security system, including “offensive force limitations, defensive restructuring, confidence building operational measures, overlapping organizational arrangements facilitating transparency and verification, and joint controls on the proliferation of military technology.”

Catherine argued that the prospects for deepening and broadening cooperative security in Europe and beyond depended at least as much on successfully addressing political challenges as on military-technical forms of arms control. In her capacities as personal representative in Europe for the U.S. secretary of defense, defense adviser to the U.S. ambassador to NATO (1994–1996) and deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia (1996–1998), she worked discretely to address sensitive political issues. These included the U.S. willingness to grant other countries a truly equal role in decision-making, the pace of Russia’s democratic transition and economic reform, and the ability of state-based European institutions to adapt to security challenges that crossed national borders and involved nonstate actors. The Clinton administration’s accomplishments and frustrations involving nuclear and conventional arms control and cooperative threat reduction got the lion’s share of attention from government officials and NGOs, but the political challenges that Catherine was trying to address were equally important.

Much of Catherine’s impact came from her tireless efforts to promote dialogue among government officials and nongovernmental experts from different countries in a wide array of forums. She played this convener role most formally as the director of the Aspen Institute in Berlin during 1998–2001 and also for 15 years as vice chair for international dialogues on the National Academies of Sciences Committee on International Security and Arms Control. She served on a lengthy list of editorial boards, advisory boards, commissions, panels, and leadership bodies of professional organizations. These included the Arms Control Association’s Board of Directors in 2001–2019 and the Deep Cuts Commission.

“She was sharp and witty. Her creative ideas and works expanded our thinking on arms control matters and she advanced peace and security for all of us,” said Daryl Kimball, the association’s executive director. For this work and more, Catherine was given the 2017 Therese DelPeche Memorial award for exceptional service to the nongovernmental nuclear policy community.

Catherine returned to academia for the final two decades of her career, first as a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and a senior fellow at the Watson Institute at Brown University, then as a College Park professor at the University of Maryland. She used her association with the Navy to evaluate the security value and opportunity costs of sea-based systems for regional missile defense. She used her academic affiliations to raise fundamental questions about how to ensure that the global elimination of nuclear weapons would actually make the world a safer place. In these projects, Catherine always included young scholars who could bring fresh perspectives and benefit professionally from interacting with more seasoned professionals, helping lift up the next generation and the next. We serve as her living legacy.

A memorial service will be held for Catherine later this spring. The University of Maryland maintains the Catherine M. Kelleher Fellowship Fund for International Security Studies, which supports an exceptional graduate student pursuing a graduate degree at the School of Public Policy.

Nancy Gallagher is the director of the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland and a research professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

Catherine McArdle Kelleher (1939–2023)

Inheriting the Bomb: The Collapse of the USSR and the Nuclear Disarmament of Ukraine

April 2023

Ukrainian Nuclear Disarmament: Blunder or Base Camp?

Inheriting the Bomb: The Collapse of the USSR and the Nuclear Disarmament of Ukraine
By Mariana Budjeryn
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022

Reviewed by Douglas B. Shaw

Mariana Budjeryn’s Inheriting the Bomb: The Collapse of the USSR and the Nuclear Disarmament of Ukraine adds depth to our understanding of how Ukraine’s nuclear decisions after the collapse of the Soviet Union relate to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2022 invasion and how nuclear disarmament and the state relate to the world order. It provides a rich description of an important historical example of nuclear disarmament and calls attention to specific tensions between nuclear weapons and state security.

The book offers important lessons, including that nuclear decisions are multicausal, domestic political contexts matter, U.S. fears of proliferation could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty matters, and the seemingly powerless can be powerful.

It also combines authentic scholarship with a poetic comprehension that challenges the common understanding of successful nuclear disarmament in Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan as a single U.S. nonproliferation victory facilitated by the Soviet defeat in the Cold War. Challenging this oversimplification is important to help understand why, if we “won” and they “lost,” so many Ukrainians have perished in today’s Russian war and why Russian nuclear weapons still threaten the United States with mass destruction.

Fifteen years ago, in outlining the need for a “vision and steps” approach to nuclear disarmament, former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) likened nuclear disarmament to reaching a high “mountaintop.” That goal is difficult to visualize today, but it is useful for measuring progress and establishing a higher, safer “base camp” as an interim step. Amid Ukraine’s stunning self-defense against Russian invaders, Budjeryn paints an intricate picture of Ukrainian nuclear disarmament that if it survives, could help the world visualize such a base camp.

Former Nuclear Statehood

Budjeryn identifies two reasons, unrelated to Western pressure, why nuclear disarmament was written into Ukraine’s Declaration of Sovereignty: Chernobyl and independence. She centers the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster as a sharp demonstration of “Ukraine’s lack of political agency in its own affairs” and as a motivation for the emergence of Ukraine as an independent state. As the author recounts, “Chernobyl became a banner under which all Ukrainians could be rallied toward a greater independence from Moscow, on humanitarian and civic, rather than ethnonationalistic, grounds.”

A 43rd Rocket Army ICBM silo being dismantled in Ukraine in the 1990s with funding assistance provided through the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. (Photo courtesy of Russian Maj. Gen. Nikolai Filatov and the National Security Archive)Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament was neither utopian naïveté nor enlightenment, but rather an imperative of independence. Moscow exercised direct control over nuclear weapons throughout the Soviet Union by means of rigidly centralized weapons command structures that were an obstacle to local self-determination. From the perspective of Ukrainians under Soviet rule, “[T]here were nuclear weapons in Ukraine and at the same time it was as if there were none” because these weapons were managed entirely by Moscow. The Soviet Union’s “armed forces, its enormous nuclear arsenal, and its military-industrial complex now stood, largely intact, resembling an exoskeleton from which the political body had suddenly slipped out,” Budjeryn recalls. Moscow continued to exploit local unfamiliarity with the nuclear weapons operations to avoid sharing control of the nuclear weapons in Ukraine. As Russian President Boris Yeltsin explained, “[T]hey don’t know how things work.” Even the reconstruction of the Commonwealth of Independent States strategic forces excluded the republics from nuclear decision-making.

Deterrence is not local politics, but nuclear arsenals and nuclear disarmament are. Some 30,000 troops of the Soviet 43rd Strategic Missile Army and massive defense enterprises, including intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) manufacturer Pivdenmash, were among the many who could be displaced by nuclear disarmament. Unsurprisingly, “Ukrainian political elites diverged with regards to what exactly nuclear ownership entailed.” The Ukrainian president and Defense Ministry made claims to nuclear weapons ownership in an effort to obtain financial compensation and security guarantees from foreign governments. Some members of the Rada, Ukraine’s legislature, sought to extract more value from abroad by using nuclear ownership as a political hedge. Some members of the Ukrainian defense establishment sought to soften the dislocation by converting Ukraine’s massive inheritance of ICBMs, targeted at the United States and tipped with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), into a conventional deterrent.

The Ukrainian military-industrial complex played a major but sometimes confusing role in shaping Ukrainian nuclear disarmament. The ICBMs with MIRVs, produced by Ukraine’s Pivdenmash and left stationed in Ukraine after the Soviet Union collapsed, were ill-suited to Ukrainian defense needs. Their nuclear warheads required ongoing maintenance from enterprises in Russia and were not appropriate to hold targets in Russia at risk. Leftover Soviet air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) would have been a better fit for Ukraine’s prospective deterrence needs, but Budjeryn observes that “the ALCMs, it seems, did not have a lobby.” When former Pivdenmash director Leonid Kuchma became Ukraine’s second president in 1994, his advocacy for converting Ukraine’s ICBMs to carry conventional payloads was reported in The Economist under the headline “Ukraine: A Nuclear State.”

Ultimately, although cobbling together a nuclear deterrent force would have been technically possible, Ukrainian political leaders judged it unwise. As Budjeryn writes, Ukraine “needed to join the international community more than it could afford to defy it.” There was an upside, however, as “Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine found themselves in a position of leverage vis-à-vis powerful nuclear-armed states if only by virtue of their sovereignty and international law.”

Beyond Strawman Nuclear Disarmament

Budjeryn’s characterization of “Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament” is provocative. The elimination of nuclear weapons from all former Soviet republics other than Russia is often treated as a single, unremarkable success of U.S. nonproliferation policy, a historical footnote from which broader solutions should not be sought. The author contradicts this common view with a meticulous, factual demonstration that Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament was an uncertain but relentlessly pursued path of positive actions reflecting national interest and involving great risk, expense, and effort. This perspective contrasts starkly with the more popular strawman version of nuclear disarmament as a sort of utopian mirage, desirable but wholly unattainable.

Budjeryn pursues her concept of nuclear disarmament unapologetically, asserting that “the story of Ukraine, as well as Belarus and Kazakhstan, is a testament that nuclear disarmament is possible.” This achievable nuclear disarmament is a global human challenge but perhaps one most easily grasped from a Ukrainian perspective: “I knew that no thing created by humans is fail-safe and that we could not afford a nuclear failure.”

The author’s concept of nuclear disarmament complicates the common understanding of the state. Prevailing realist conceptions of world order privilege states as unitary, rational actors that are alike in kind, analogous in their interactions to billiard balls bouncing around a pool table. By contrast, Budjeryn describes the distinct character of an independent Ukrainian state in opposition to the bungling nuclear authoritarianism of the Moscow-based Soviet center, in which “not even the Politburo members had the full picture.”

She locates newly independent Ukraine in a world in which states are increasingly constructed by international law, writing that as these new independent states emerged, “the nuclear nonproliferation regime made up of institutions and shared understandings of the meaning of nuclear weapons and their role in international politics, was a constitutive part of [world] order.” This view of the state as a creature of international law may have been more familiar in Ukraine, which was a member of the United Nations and party to some 120 international treaties while part of the Soviet Union. Even if “the state made war and war made the state,” as Charles Tilly famously observed, law is the material from which contemporary states are fashioned.

At the same time, Budjeryn sees that, in the collapse of the bipolar Cold War world order, “nuclear weapons gained new meanings.” The world’s largest nuclear arsenal had not preserved Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s control during the 1991 coup, when “minutes before [he] had the power to authorize the launch of hundreds of intercontinental missiles [and suddenly] was rendered impotent.” Ukraine’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, described nuclear weapons as a liability that “can be more dangerous than Chernobyl.” Worse still, she writes, nuclear weapons made Ukraine “automatically…the object of nuclear deterrence for the United States, Russia, and other nuclear states.” From this perspective, nuclear weapons became more unpredictable, existential dangers than reliable tools of policy. Ukraine responded creatively by attempting “to fashion its nuclear inheritance as property, not weapons per se.”

What Someone Will Pay

Depictions of Russia as “Upper Volta with rockets” and fears that the Soviet Union’s disintegration would yield “Yugoslavia with nukes” focused U.S. imaginations on proximate goals of securing and consolidating the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. The United States prioritized preventing the emergence of nuclear-armed states other than Russia. “On the one hand, this priority reflected the extraordinary positive insights of Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, and others, that a new kind of Cooperative Threat Reduction was necessary…. What followed was a ‘very curious form of cooperation’ in which the United States ‘rooted for the safe transit of nuclear weapons from these other countries back to Russia so they could then be put online and aimed at the United States.’”

U.S. President George H.W. Bush (L) greets Ukrainian leader Leonid Kravchuk at Borispol Airport near Kyiv in 1991 to discuss the upcoming nuclear disarmament summit in Moscow. (Photo by Wally McNamee/Corbis via Getty Images)Washington’s bold intervention, however, remained cautious with regard to regional politics. Budjeryn recalls that “Washington preferred to ‘deal with the devil we know’ in Moscow, and was slow to develop relationships in the new independent states.” When Jack Matlock, U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, advised that the United States should open diplomatic posts in Soviet cities outside Moscow, President George H.W. Bush asked, “[F]or what?” Ukraine soon realized that nuclear weapons were the only leverage it had to bolster its security.

U.S. myopia toward Ukrainian interests slowed nuclear disarmament progress. As Kravchuk expressed in dismay, “[P]ressure always provokes counter-pressure.” From the Ukrainian perspective, the state’s experience “as an integral part of a nuclear superpower [that] inherited nuclear arms after that power collapsed” was perfectly compatible with international law and had nothing in common with the nuclear proliferation intentions of what were then termed “pariah” or “rogue” states. Ukraine’s “claim to ‘nuclear ownership’ was a simple acknowledgement of this predicament.”

“In this atmosphere,” Budjeryn writes, “the opposition to nuclear disarmament grew, especially in the Rada, which in turn further exacerbated tensions with the United States and Russia.” Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk was quoted as observing that, “[i]f American policy had been different, Ukraine would have ratified START [the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] long ago.”

After independence, Ukraine played a key role in constraining Russian nuclear options because, without Ukraine’s Pivdenmash, Russia could not sustain its MIRV ICBM force and, as a result, “it was either unilateral disarmament or conceding to bilateral de-MIRVing with the Americans.” Ukraine drove Russia into arms control concessions it would not otherwise have made.

Ukraine as a Nuclear Disarmament Base Camp

Budjeryn slams a factual wrecking ball through John Mearsheimer’s 1993 article “The Case for a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent.” Rather than a billiard ball struck by irresistible force, in the author’s telling, Ukraine had the agency and options to choose nuclear disarmament as a security strategy. She finds fault with Russia’s invasion not in Ukraine’s lack of arms but in the shoddy architecture of international law into which Ukraine’s independent sovereignty was inscribed. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum could have been a durable part of post-Cold War European security architecture, but instead ended up papering over a Ukraine-sized vacuum between the expanded NATO and revisionist Russia, she wrote. “That the next European war should be ignited in this vacuum is no surprise.” International law operates through anarchy when it accurately reflects the distribution of material power among states; it cannot constrain power disparities it does not acknowledge.

Budjeryn concludes with a clear-eyed understanding of the challenges and opportunities of negotiated security, writing that “a deal that can be achieved at low cost to the powerful parties, gives them a prerogative not only in making it, but also in breaking it.” As the author laments, the corollary with the present is that “[i]f Mr. Putin decides to launch a nuclear strike in Ukraine, there is nothing to deter him.” No threat of retaliation-in-kind is being leveled against Russia, none would be credible, and a rash retaliatory nuclear strike would risk escalation without resolving the conflict. Trying to stretch the U.S. extended deterrence to cover Ukraine through overreliance on strategic ambiguity risks escalation, undermines other U.S. deterrent threats, invites a commitment trap in which maintaining credibility could become an argument for a nuclear strike, and pushes nuclear deterrence further outside its antiquated design parameters.

Budjeryn’s larger point is more promising, that Ukraine demonstrates that nuclear disarmament is possible. “When all was said and done, the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal was transformed into nuclear power-plant fuel, a heap of scrap metal, and four signatures under the Budapest Memorandum,” she writes.

Russia’s war will end someday. If Russia wins, it will be because of nuclear weapons, whether these weapons are used or not. If Ukraine wins, it will be despite nuclear weapons and will be proof that human beings have agency even in the toughest neighborhood. Nothing will balance the lives destroyed and displaced by Russian aggression or substitute for the world’s failure to prevent Putin’s war. Regardless, in addition to its moral necessity, Ukraine’s survival will demonstrate that nuclear disarmament is possible.

Douglas B. Shaw is senior adviser to the president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Author Mariana Budjeryn challenges the common understanding of successful nuclear disarmament in Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan as a single U.S. nonproliferation victory.

April 2023 Books of Note

April 2023

Euromissiles: The Nuclear Weapons That Nearly Destroyed NATO
By Susan Colbourn

Susan Colbourn’s book explores the importance of the intermediate-range Euromissiles to the transatlantic alliance at the height of the Cold War. Overall, the book asserts that the dilemma plaguing Western allies then was that the Euromissiles—the Russian SS-20 “Saber” ballistic missile, the U.S. Pershing ballistic missile, and the U.S. Gryphon cruise missile—exposed the fault lines and uneasy compromises that had been present since NATO’s creation. These fault lines centered on how to ensure the credible defense of European allies and how to assuage the concern, felt particularly in West Germany, that missile parity between the Soviet Union and the United States would erode the U.S. ability to extend its deterrent to Europe. After all, the assumption was that U.S. nuclear superiority balanced the Warsaw Pact’s superior conventional forces.

Colbourn argues that this sense of insecurity was heightened by the introduction of the SS-20 in 1976 and the rejection by the anti-nuclear movement of the U.S. neutron bomb. By focusing on alliance dynamics, the book delves into strategy, diplomacy, social movements, and arms control aspects of the Euromissiles crisis. She particularly takes note of the impact of the anti-nuclear movement and the unique personality of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. More importantly, Colbourn highlights how the ruptures in the alliance security consensus posed by the question of the Euromissiles did not go away after the entry into force of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and continue to be relevant to this day.—GABRIELA IVELIZ ROSA HERNÁNDEZ


The Fragile Balance of Terror: Deterrence in the New Nuclear Age
Edited by Vipin Narang and Scott D. Sagan
January 2023

This book is a collection of articles on challenges to nuclear policy and strategy in the emerging new nuclear age. Questioning the theoretical foundations of classical “nuclear balance” and “nuclear stability” in the face of contemporary issues, the book examines why deterrence is bound to be more precarious in the future.

The first series of articles in the book analyze characteristics that differentiate the nuclear landscape in the 21st century from the Cold War period. Multipolarity in nuclear competition makes nuclear interactions more complex. Nondemocratic forms of governance and the leadership of personalist dictators in new states with nuclear aspirations mean predictions cannot be made based on the model of rational deterrence. In addition, changes in information and intelligence sharing make it more difficult to deescalate crises. In the second half of the book, experts scrutinize the ways in which persisting technological and structural challenges shift for nuclear states, in terms of planning for reliability and survivability and for the implementation of command and control over nuclear forces. Lastly, the concept of “nuclear learning” is brought into question. The editors conclude by offering a series of novel solutions for crisis management, operational arms control, nonproliferation, and counterproliferation to mitigate the threats and challenges discussed in the book.—CHRIS ROSTAMPOUR

Euromissiles: The Nuclear Weapons That Nearly Destroyed NATO
By Susan Colbourn

The Fragile Balance of Terror: Deterrence in the New Nuclear Age
Edited by Vipin Narang and Scott D. Sagan
January 2023

AUKUS Plans Announced

April 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

The leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced plans for Australia to purchase at least three nuclear-powered submarines from the United States and work with the UK on a new submarine design to meet Australian security needs.

U.S. President Joe Biden (C) delivers remarks on the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) defense partnership along with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (R) and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego in March. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)The March 13 announcement by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, U.S. President Joseph Biden, and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak comes 18 months after London and Washington revealed their intentions to provide Canberra with nuclear-powered submarines under the terms of the so-called AUKUS deal. (See ACT, October 2021.)

After meeting with Albanese and Sunak in San Diego, Biden said the “overriding objective” of the AUKUS initiative is to “enhance stability in the Indo-Pacific amid rapidly shifting global dynamics.” Albanese described the initiative as the “biggest single investment in Australia’s defense capability” and said it will strengthen “national security and stability in our region.”

According to a fact sheet released by the three countries, Australia will purchase three U.S. Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarines beginning in 2030s, with congressional approval, to meet its defense requirements while it works with the UK on a new submarine design and builds up its industrial base for domestic production. Prior to that, Australian naval personnel will train with the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy. Beginning in 2027, both countries will forward-deploy nuclear submarines to Australian bases.

The new class of Australian-UK submarine, referenced as the SSN AUKUS, will incorporate U.S. components. Prior to this agreement, the United States had shared technology pertaining to nuclear submarine development only with the UK. The first of the SSN AUKUS submarines will be built in the UK and delivered to Australia in the late 2030s. Australia will aim to build up its capacity to produce SSN AUKUS submarines domestically by the 2040s. The submarines built in Australia will receive nuclear power reactor units that are welded shut, making it more difficult for the weapons-grade fuel to be removed, according to the fact sheet.

Although all three leaders reiterated their commitments to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, the decision to provide Australia with submarine reactors fueled by weapons-grade uranium and to jointly develop SSN AUKUS-class submarines raises concerns about proliferation and the precedent this deal will set.

Australia, as a non-nuclear-weapon state-party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), is prohibited from developing nuclear weapons. But Australia can possess weapons-grade materials. Under Article 14 of a country’s NPT-required comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a country can remove nuclear materials from a A version of the Virginia-class submarine that Australia plans to purchase in the 2030s from the United States, with the approval of the U.S. Congress, under the new AUKUS defense partnership. Meanwhile, Australia will work with the United Kingdom on a new submarine and build up its industrial base for domestic production. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)safeguarded, peaceful program for military purposes that do not involve the development of nuclear weapons, such as naval propulsion.

In a March 14 letter, Australia notified IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi of its intent to “commence negotiation” on an arrangement pursuant to Article 14. The letter said it was Australia’s intent to “include a robust package of safeguards and verification measures” that will enable the IAEA to confirm the “non-diversion of nuclear material, the non-misuse of nuclear facilities, and the absence of undeclared nuclear activities.”

Biden and Albanese also reiterated their commitments to maintaining nonproliferation standards. Biden said the deal sets the “highest standards” for verification and transparency with the IAEA.

But there is no precedent for a state utilizing Article 14 for naval propulsion and how a state must “make it clear” that the material removed from safeguards will not be used for weapons purposes.

In a March 14 statement, Grossi said he would “ensure a transparent process” and that the agency must “ensure that no proliferation risks emanate from this project.” He said the Article 14 agreement will be submitted to the IAEA Board of Governors “for appropriate action.”

Other states, most notably China, have objected to the AUKUS deal on nonproliferation grounds. Although there are legitimate proliferation concerns, Beijing’s mixed record on supporting nonproliferation objectives raises questions about the sincerity of its opposition.

In a March 14 press conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the decision will “exacerbate” the arms race, “undermine the international nuclear nonproliferation regime,” and destabilize the region. He said the three AUKUS countries are motivated by “geopolitical interests” and are going down the “wrong and dangerous path.”

He said this arrangement “violates the purpose and object of the NPT” and the safeguards implications affect all IAEA members. He said the AUKUS deal should not proceed until IAEA member states reach consensus regarding the safeguards issues.

The next day, Wang said there is no way to effectively safeguard the nuclear material and ensure it will not be diverted to build nuclear weapons. He also said there are differences over how to interpret Article 14 of a safeguards agreement. It remains unclear whether the Biden administration has the support in Congress to push through the AUKUS deal, which has bipartisan critics.

In a December letter to Biden, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and ranking member Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) raised concerns about the capacity of the United States to sell submarines to Australia and still meet U.S. security needs. They warned about “stressing the U.S. submarine industrial base to the breaking point.” They urged Biden to ensure that “sovereign U.S. national security capabilities will not be diminished” because of the AUKUS deal.

But Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), founder of the bipartisan AUKUS Congressional Working Group, described the March 13 announcement as a “seminal moment” and said it “lays out a clear path” to enhance the Australian Navy and achieve U.S. national security goals in the Indo-Pacific region.

Australia also faces domestic criticism that could challenge the AUKUS project. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating who, like Albanese is in the Labor party, described it as the “worst deal in all history” and argued that Australia was overreacting to the threat posed by China.

Former Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull from the opposition Liberal Party welcomed the announcement of U.S. and UK submarines rotating through the country, but said Australia would have been better off to continue working with France to buy cheaper nuclear submarines that use low-enriched uranium, which cannot be used for weapons. Paris was taken by surprise with the AUKUS announcement in September 2021.

Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States agreed that Australia would purchase at least three U.S. nuclear-powered submarines. 

Iran Agrees to Increase Nuclear Transparency

April 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reached an agreement to increase agency monitoring over the country’s nuclear program, but the deal is unlikely to be sufficient to quell concerns about Tehran’s sensitive activities.

Rafael Mariano Grossi (L), director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and other IAEA officials address journalists in Vienna after meeting Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and, Mohammad Eslami, Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), during a two day visit to Tehran. (Photo by Dean Calma / IAEA)IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi traveled to Tehran on March 3–4 to discuss agency concerns about safeguarding Iran’s nuclear program. In a March 4 statement, the IAEA and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) announced that Tehran would “on a voluntary basis” allow the agency to “implement further appropriate verification and monitoring activities.”

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said on March 6 that Iran must cooperate and take the agreed steps “without delay.”

Although Grossi has raised concerns for months about the implications of Iran’s decisions in 2021 and 2022 to reduce inspector access and transparency, recent events highlighted the risk posed by monitoring limitations. In January, IAEA inspectors at the Fordow uranium-enrichment facility determined that Iran was operating its two cascades of more efficient IR-6 centrifuges in a design that was significantly different from what was declared to the agency. The IAEA concluded in a Feb. 1 report that the reconfiguration of centrifuges should have been declared to that agency as required by the country’s safeguards agreement.

Inspectors took samples from the Fordow site the day after they noticed the centrifuge reconfiguration, which revealed the presence of uranium enriched to 84 percent uranium-235, significantly above the declared levels of 60 percent U-235 for that area of the facility.

These undeclared activities are particularly concerning given the advanced nature of Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA’s Feb. 28 report revealed that Tehran doubled its production of uranium enriched to 60 percent U-235 since the prior report was issued in November. Tehran now has enough material enriched to that level to produce weapons-grade uranium, or 90 percent U-235, for two bombs.

In the report, the agency said Iran described the spike in enrichment as an “unintended fluctuation” that occurred when it began enriching uranium to 60 percent U-235 or when it changed the feed cylinder.

Laura Holgate, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, told the agency’s Board of Governors on March 8 that Iran’s activities at Fordow, whether intentional or inadvertent, “intensify tension and push unprecedented boundaries.” She said Iran must clarify the origins of the 84 percent U-235 material immediately.

In a March 4 press conference, Grossi said that it is not the IAEA’s job to determine Iran’s intentions, but said the agency must understand what occurred for safeguards purposes. He said discussions regarding the particles are ongoing.

Grossi also said that Tehran agreed in February to a 50 percent increase in inspections at the Fordow facility. AEOI spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi confirmed the additional inspections, but other comments seemed to contradict Grossi’s description of the additional measures covered by the March 4 agreement.

Rafael Mariano Grossi (L), director-general of International Atomic Energy Agency, is welcomed by Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, at the airport in Tehran as Grossi began a two-day visit in March focused on the Iranian nuclear program. (Photo by Atomic Energy Organization of Iran /Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)At the press conference, Grossi suggested that Iran agreed to reinstall surveillance equipment, including cameras and a monitor that tracked Iranian uranium enrichment in real time, that Tehran disconnected in June 2022. But Kamalvandi suggested that Iran will not install any new cameras or take steps contrary to a December 2020 nuclear law that required the AEOI to halt more intrusive access for inspectors and certain transparency measures specific to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

After the December 2020 law came into effect, the AEOI did allow monitoring equipment to surveil certain facilities to which Iran suspended IAEA access in February 2021. Iran said it would turn the data over to the agency if the JCPOA were restored. Kamalvandi’s comments cast doubt on whether the IAEA will be able to install any equipment at new sites or facilities that have been modified. It is also not clear if the March 4 agreement will allow the agency to access that data or if the IAEA will have regular access to any future recordings.

In a March 7 statement to the IAEA Board of Governors, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom urged Iran to install all the equipment that the agency deems necessary.

Grossi has warned since June that the monitoring gap will make it difficult for the agency to maintain its continuity of knowledge over Iran’s nuclear program. For the first time, in the Feb. 28 report, the agency concluded that it is no longer possible to restore continuity of knowledge and that reestablishing baselines in areas such as inventories of centrifuge components and uranium ore concentrate stocks will have a significant degree of uncertainty. This will make verifying limits under a restored JCPOA more challenging, the report noted.

The March 7 statement also covered a years-long IAEA investigation into the presence of processed uranium at three locations that were not declared to the agency under Iran’s safeguards agreement. For more than two years, the agency has sought technically credible explanations from Iran for the uranium, which was processed prior to 2003.

The March 4 agreement states that Iran “expressed its readiness” to provide the agency with “further information and access” to resolve the probe. Grossi said that day that Iran agreed to allow inspectors access to sites, locations, and individuals.

But Kamalvandi said there was no discussion of access to individuals and that Tehran would have turned down any such request. He also said there is no need for the IAEA to return to the three sites under investigation.

When pressed about Kamalvandi’s comments, Grossi on March 6 defended the progress made, saying that he reached a new understanding with Iranian officials regarding the investigation.

The Board of Governors censured Iran for failing to cooperate with the IAEA investigation while meeting in November. Although the states did not pursue a censure during the March 6–10 board meeting, France, Germany, and the UK warned about future action if Iran does not cooperate.

They said in a March 8 statement that the IAEA has “heard enough promises” from Iran and that the board will “have to be prepared to take further action” if Tehran does not cooperate. This could include referring Iran to the UN Security Council.

While in Tehran, Grossi said that any attack on a nuclear facility is illegal. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the statement as “unworthy” during a March 5 cabinet meeting and said that “nothing will prevent us from protecting our country.”

In the past, Israel has taken credit for attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists.

Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency reached a deal to increase monitoring over the country’s nuclear program, but it is unlikely to quell concerns. 

U.S. Is Largest Arms Exporter in a Changing Market

April 2023
By Ethan Walton and Jeff Abramson

The United States remains the largest and growing exporter of major conventional weapons systems, according to an annual survey by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Ukrainian forces are seen in March at their artillery position in Zaporizhzhia during the war between Russia and Ukraine. In 2022, Ukraine was the third-largest importer of weapons systems tracked by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. (Photo by Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) Although the report’s authors are cautious in predicting the future, their findings appear to show shifts in the global arms trade, in part driven by the war in Ukraine, that will result in more weapons flowing to Europe and a diminished role for Russia in the coming years.

The United States accounted for 40 percent of all major arms exports during 2018–2022, up from 33 percent during 2013–2017, compared to Russia’s 16 percent share, the report said. The report focuses on five-year comparisons and uses its own metrics to standardize values across weapons systems platforms.

Continuing a trend noted in earlier reports, arms imports increased in Europe, rising 47 percent over the period, while global trade declined by roughly 5 percent. Given the many commitments by the United States and countries in the region to replenish weapons stocks that have been transferred to Ukraine, it is logical to expect even higher imports in the future in Europe. (See ACT, April 2022.)

During a Feb. 16 virtual event hosted by the Forum on the Arms Trade, Pieter Wezeman, a co-author of the report, questioned whether Europe should rapidly rearm given that Russia appears less militarily capable than expected “or whether there are other ways to deal with that Russian threat.”

Ukraine, which in prior years barely registered on the global arms import trade chart, was the third-largest importer of the weapons systems tracked by SIPRI in 2022. Still, the value of its imports was lower than might be expected as the SIPRI approach emphasizes high-value weapons such as fighter jets, which countries supplying Ukraine largely withheld during the reporting period.

But in mid-March, Poland and Slovakia announced plans to provide MiG fighter aircraft to Ukraine, despite concerns that the transfer would escalate the war. Those same concerns had kept Western countries from providing the fighter jets earlier. Whether significantly more fighter jets, including U.S. and European versions not derived from Russian designs, will also be sent to Ukraine is likely to be one of the most watched issues in the arms trade over the coming months.

Since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the United States has pledged more than $33 billion in security assistance to Ukraine. U.S. President Joe Biden has indicated repeatedly that Washington will stand by Kyiv, but the topic has become more controversial as the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign heats up. In responses to Fox News released March 13, for example, both former President Donald Trump and potential Republican presidential candidate Gov. Ron DeSantis (Fla.) indicated that they are not as supportive of such assistance to Ukraine.

The war is also expected to keep Russia on a downward arms trade trajectory. Although Russia still accounts globally for the second-largest percentage of major exports, its 16 percent share in 2018 to 2022 is significantly less than the 22 percent in the previous five-year period. A prolonged war in Ukraine will likely force Russia to use its own weapons rather export them. Meanwhile, Washington and its allies are expected to continue pressuring importers to not deal with Moscow, which has relatively few outstanding international orders for weapons systems, according to the report.

India, the world’s largest importer of major weapons systems, sustains an evolving relationship with Russia. Over the past five years, it received 31 percent of Russia’s global arms exports, but those comprised only 45 percent of India’s total imports, down from 64 percent in the previous five years. India has taken a middle stance on the war in Ukraine, rhetorically supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty but continuing significant imports of Russian oil.

As New Delhi emphasizes self-reliance in its defense industry and separate ties with the West, its approach and role in the arms trade is changing. France overtook the United States as India’s second-largest major weapons systems provider, accounting for 29 percent of imports, including 62 combat aircraft and four submarines. The United States accounted for 11 percent of India’s imports. In January, the two countries established a strategic partnership on critical and emerging technologies to collaborate on artificial intelligence, quantum technology, and defense industrial capacities.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s second-largest importer, purchased more than three-quarters of its major weapons systems from the United States. Within the Middle East more broadly, the United States provided 54 percent of imported major weapons systems. Whether a new Biden administration conventional arms transfer policy that appears to more highly value human rights will lead to a decline in weapons systems transfers to the region, home to many autocratic regimes, is as yet unclear.

Other recent developments may also dramatically change regional demand for weaponry. On March 10, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to reopen diplomatic relations in a deal China helped mediate. A day earlier, The New York Times reported that Saudi Arabia was seeking more U.S. weapons systems and assistance with civilian nuclear capabilities as a price for normalizing relations with Israel. A potentially less tense Middle East could result in fewer weapons systems heading to the region, but there could be an increase in transfers driven by a U.S. desire to limit Chinese and Russian influence and to promote Israeli-Saudi relations.

Over the past five years, Chinese exports have declined from 6.3 percent during 2013–2017 to 5.2 percent during 2018–2022. China was not a significant exporter to the Middle East. It sent 80 percent of its major weapons systems transfers to Asia and Oceania, with more than half going to Pakistan, according to the report.

A new report appears to show shifts in the global arms trade that will result in more weapons flowing to Europe and a reduced role for Russia.


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