“[My time at ACA] prepared me very well for the position that I took following that with the State Department, where I then implemented and helped to implement many of the policies that we tried to promote.”
– Peter Crail
Business Executive for National Security
June 2, 2022
November 2022
Edition Date: 
Tuesday, November 1, 2022
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Loosening the Nuclear Knot

November 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball

Over the long, dangerous course of the nuclear age, the easing of tensions and resolution of crises between the nuclear-armed states have relied not only on good luck and self-restraint, but on effective, leader-to-leader dialogue.

For example, a key turning point in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis was the decision by President John F. Kennedy to listen to advisers recommending a diplomatic course of action and back-channel talks. This allowed the two sides, as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev described it, to “take measures to untie that knot” and thus avoid “the catastrophe of thermonuclear war.”

The P5 countries (France, China, United States, United Kingdom, Russia) met in Paris on December 2-3, 2021 to discuss the P5’s contributions to the 10th NPT Review Conference. (Photo credit: Permanent representation of France to the Conference on Disarmament)Today, tensions that once again could lead the United States into direct conflict with Russia, as well as China, are growing. As Russian President Vladimir Putin doubles down on his disastrous decision to invade Ukraine and issues dangerous threats to use nuclear weapons, the risk of nuclear war is probably higher than at any point since 1962. The invasion has also led to the suspension of the U.S.-Russian strategic stability dialogue and talks designed to maintain limits on their strategic nuclear arsenals.

At the same time, U.S. and Chinese forces are engaging in ever more provocative military maneuvers around Taiwan, creating the potential for a conflict that itself could lead to nuclear escalation. In response to its more adversarial relationship with the United States, China is preparing to expand its relatively smaller nuclear arsenal of just more than 200 warheads to as many as 700 warheads by 2027.

In June, U.S. President Joe Biden wisely declared that even as he seeks to “rally the world to hold Russia accountable for its brutal and unprovoked war on Ukraine, we must engage Russia on issues of strategic stability.” In August, he announced that his administration is ready to negotiate a new nuclear arms control framework with Russia to replace the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty when it expires in 2026, but those talks have not begun.

Likewise, senior U.S. officials say that, despite intensified military competition with China, it is vital to engage in talks with leaders in Beijing on improved crisis communication, forms of mutual restraint, and arms limitations. Unfortunately, Chinese officials have rebuffed U.S. overtures for bilateral strategic risk reduction talks.

To loosen the knot of war, the Biden administration needs to explore other pathways for dialogue. One option surely under consideration but not yet deployed in this crisis is the multilateral P5 process, which involves all five nations recognized as nuclear-weapon states under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States).

The group has met annually since 2009 to explore confidence-building measures in relation to their nuclear forces. The United States holds the rotating chair, but has not yet convened a meeting. To date, the P5 process has been underutilized and has underperformed. But in this time of heightened nuclear danger, the Biden administration must try to use it to ease nuclear tensions with China and Russia.

Leaders in Beijing continue to tout the process. Last month, Li Song, Chinese ambassador for disarmament affairs, told a UN meeting that the five NPT nuclear-weapon states “should further enhance communication on such issues as strategic stability and reduction of nuclear risks.” With Russia continuing to issue veiled nuclear threats, it is in the vital interest of all five states to pursue joint steps and joint statements designed to lower the temperature.

For instance, the group might consider updating and implementing the 1973 U.S.-Soviet Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War, which pledges the two states “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the other party” and “avoid military confrontations, and as to exclude the outbreak of nuclear war.” The agreement requires that “if at any time there is the risk of a nuclear conflict,” each side “shall immediately enter into urgent consultations with each other and make every effort to avert this risk.”

The United States might also propose that the P5 process be augmented to allow for sustained discussions on specific arms control proposals relevant to all five states. Since the recent collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Russia and the United States have expressed interest in negotiating a new arrangement to limit or ban certain types of these weapons. At their February 2022 summit, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping called for talks with the United States to curtail possible deployments of missiles that had been limited by the treaty. The Biden administration should test their seriousness by advancing proposals for mutual restraints on these types of ballistic and cruise missile systems by all three states through the P5 process.

As they stared into the nuclear abyss 60 years ago, Kennedy and Khrushchev turned to diplomacy to reach the compromises necessary to preserve their nations' survival. Today's leaders must be even more creative and persistent in the pursuit of risk reduction and disarmament if we are to avoid arms racing the the possibility of nuclear catastrophe.

Over the long, dangerous course of the nuclear age, the easing of tensions and resolution of crises between the nuclear-armed states have relied not only on good luck and self-restraint, but on effective, leader-to-leader dialogue.

The U.S. Defense Budget and Russia’s War on Ukraine

November 2022
By Monica Montgomery

The Russian war on Ukraine has led to significant increases in U.S. defense spending this year in terms of direct war-related expenditures and the Pentagon’s base budget. Even before the war, however, the push to invest more in defense had been advancing with the backing of a majority in Congress concerned about rising threats from Russia and China. The conflict in Ukraine is certain to have a profound impact on this trend.

U.S. weapons transfers to Ukraine, such as this MK-19 automatic grenade launcher being aimed at Russian positions by Ukrainian soldiers near the front-line in the Donetsk region, are having a big impact on the U.S. defense budget.  (Photo by Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)The areas of defense spending that need reevaluating in this new environment raise major questions with which Washington urgently needs to grapple. The challenge for lawmakers is clear. They must unlearn the ways in which defense spending has been determined in recent years, based on fuzzy strategies and bad-faith arguments by those who stand to benefit from a bloated defense budget, and relearn how to focus the spending on real security requirements and fixed goals.

Rising Defense Budget

Even before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the U.S. defense budget had been trending upward at a greater rate than inflation or the risk climate would dictate. Last year’s bill to authorize defense-related spending and policies, the fiscal year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), increased the topline authorization level by $25 billion above President Joe Biden’s request, a request that was already billions more than the previous year. The initial votes to boost the defense budget took place months before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian forces into Ukraine and even before there was widespread concern in Washington that Russian troop buildups along Ukraine’s borders could lead to direct conflict. In fact, discretionary dollars allocated for national defense programs have increased by an average of $23 billion annually during the administrations of Biden and President Donald Trump.1 Since the end of World War II, the United States has spent proportionally more on the military than it does now only during the 2009 and 2010 spending peaks of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Proponents of higher defense spending argue that these historic levels of spending are justified, and in the eyes of some, they are still insufficient. The United States is operating in a new strategic environment, they say, one with two near-peer strategic rivals in Russia and China; enduring threats from North Korea, Iran, and proxy terrorist groups; and new, emerging technologies and war-fighting domains. To these worried minds, the solution is obvious: a strong military bolstered by a robust defense budget to address all these threats simultaneously.

The prioritization of a strong national defense understandably receives widespread support within Congress and among the voters who sent them there, but how should the country define exactly what constitutes a strong national defense? The easiest metric is seemingly the amount of money set aside for the military. After all, it seems logical that a well-funded defense budget will ensure that U.S. national security strategy objectives are met. In theory, it is the president’s duty to outline a cohesive national security strategy and translate it into a budget. Congress will then work to fulfill its constitutional duty to translate the budget into real dollars, ensuring that the U.S. military receives adequate funding without wasting taxpayer dollars or crowding out other nondefense national priorities.

In practice, however, the defense budget is often increased year after year without solid grounding in a defined, workable strategy. Although the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy, released in October, emphasizes “shared challenges” that necessitate cooperation across international borders, the dominate focus is to “outcompete” rival major powers, namely China and Russia.2 This latest catchphrase of “strategic competition” also had been central to the national security strategy outlined by the Trump administration, but most policymakers and experts in Washington would be hard-pressed to define what the term actually means or how competition can be a security end goal in itself. What the strategic competition mindset does provide is a magic word to ensure that any program, regardless of its future relevance or utility, will be funded if the request is categorized as necessary to compete against China or Russia. Yet, competing with China and Russia in every corner of the globe would be very expensive, requiring ever-larger investments in operations, maintenance, and the retention of legacy platforms that detract from opportunities to right-size the military for the future and seek noncompetitive methods of addressing shared threats such as nuclear proliferation and climate change.3

Compounding this dynamic is the outsized influence exerted on the budget process by the service branches, with their parochial concerns; defense contractors and other powerful lobbies; and lawmakers who have strong interests in serving their districts and play lead roles in developing and approving spending.4 The result is a failure to effectively translate an already opaque defense strategy into dollars, leaving the government with an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to crafting the budget and a misguided notion that if enough money is thrown at a threat, it can be defeated.

Support for Ukraine

Unsurprisingly, many lawmakers immediately seized the opportunity following the Russian invasion to call for boosting the U.S. defense budget beyond existing high spending levels. On the same day that Russian tanks first rolled into the Donbas region of Ukraine, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) concluded his statement regarding the invasion with a pitch not only for shoring up Ukrainian and NATO defenses, but also for increasing the base U.S. defense budget. “We need to rebuild our atrophied ability to deter and defend against aggression by these adversaries. That means we must invest more robustly in our own military capabilities to keep pace,” he said.5 Similar statements from many other members of Congress from both sides of the aisle followed in the weeks and months after the invasion.

Understandably, Congress, in unison with the White House, has been eager to supply Ukraine and frontline NATO allies with the necessary weapons and support to defend themselves against unprovoked Russian aggression. To do so, the United States has provided historic levels of military aid to Ukraine in the months prior to and since the start of the war, mostly through emergency supplemental appropriations. In total, the United States has provided $28 billion in defense aid for Ukraine in fiscal year 2022.6 Specifically, these funds have been used to subsidize, train, equip, and advise Ukrainian forces through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative; to replenish stocks of U.S. equipment sent to Ukraine; and to fund Department of Defense operations and personnel accounts, including covering costs related to additional U.S. troop deployments to Europe.7

Although much of this money has flowed directly to the frontline, a significant chunk has gone to the Pentagon and to defense contractors to cover costs related to U.S military support for Ukrainian forces.8 The most recent supplemental defense funding approved by Congress in late September also included some longer-term and less war-related spending, including for research and development accounts and for bolstering the U.S. domestic defense industrial base. As more needs and expenses accrue down the line, Congress can be expected to continue providing additional emergency funding for Ukraine for the foreseeable future in a similar manner, although the quantity and type of weapons that the United States should be providing persists as a source of debate.

As a result, justifying increases to U.S. defense spending through the regular appropriations and authorization processes to cover Ukraine-related costs should be seen as disingenuous double-dipping into the pockets of taxpayers because the supplemental emergency funding is covering those costs. Topline increases in the base budget have little or nothing to do with shoring up Ukrainian forces or replenishing U.S. stocks. Rather, they are exploiting Russian aggression to beef up the U.S. military. To this end, many of those calling for increases in the annual defense budget in response to the war are making a direct link between Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and a supposed weakness in the U.S. defense budget.9

This claim is unfounded. By some estimates, the U.S. defense budget in 2021 accounted for 38 percent of the world’s total military expenditures and was 12 times greater than the share of Russian spending on its own military.10 Based on these figures alone, it is difficult to imagine how anyone could argue credibly that a more robustly funded U.S. military would have stopped Russia from invading Ukraine. Moreover, the embarrassingly bad performance of the Russian military has highlighted what most experts already knew: there is already a huge qualitative gap between Russia and the West.

The strength of the U.S. military was not a factor in Putin’s calculus to invade Ukraine earlier this year, however warped that calculus may have been. That Russia has been careful thus far not to escalate the conflict in a way that would provoke direct U.S. and NATO intervention, combined with Putin’s reckless overreliance on nuclear blackmailing, underscores the comparative weakness of Russian conventional forces.11 Instead of inflating the threat posed by Russia, U.S. policymakers should conclude from Russia’s war failures that the United States needs to fundamentally modify its defense strategy to take into account the factors that allowed Ukraine to resist Russian aggression successfully without excessive spending.

Budget Inflation in 2022

Predictably, this lesson was not reflected in recent budget developments on Capitol Hill. In the fiscal year 2023 NDAA that is now making its way through Congress, the House voted to boost the defense topline by $37 billion while the Senate added $45 billion beyond the White House request, which already was higher than previously projected.

The increases in this year’s defense policy bills were endorsed by bipartisan majorities during markups in the relevant committees and were explained largely as responses to the war in Ukraine and to offset historic inflation at home. “War. Inflation. That’s it.… That sets the tone for more, more, more for the military,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who chairs a House Armed Services subcommittee and opposed the increase.12

An examination into the specifics, however, shows that funding related to inflationary pressures and Ukraine only account for a fraction of the overall increases. The bulk of programs receiving funding boosts came directly off the “unfunded priorities lists” developed by certain segments of the Pentagon and National Nuclear Security Administration, just as was done in the previous fiscal year when the defense budget also was increased. These lists, commonly referenced as “wish lists” or “risk lists” depending on one’s perspective, are a budget gimmick. They allow the military service branches, combatant commands, and various defense-related agencies to circumvent top civilian leadership at the White House and Pentagon by directly providing Congress with a list of so-called priorities that did not make it into the administration’s budget request and can be used as an easy road map for boosting the budget.13

Although the House and Senate amendments to increase defense expenditures differed in some areas, funding has been authorized to procure additional ships and aircraft, sustain legacy weapons systems that the services are trying to retire, invest in unproven missile defense technologies, and fund R&D projects and infrastructure upgrades that were not deemed priorities in the administration’s budget request. The utility of many of these programs for countering Russian aggression in the current conflict is unclear, and their impact on offsetting inflationary pressures at the Pentagon is nil. In fact, this stunt is exactly what Pentagon leaders warned Congress against doing, as expressed by Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks in May: “What we don’t want is added topline [funding] that’s filled with new programs that we can’t support and afford in the out-years and that doesn’t cover inflation…. That is my number one concern.”14

Although the House and Senate have yet to negotiate a final NDAA and appropriations package for 2023, the national defense discretionary topline figure likely will total more than $850 billion, even before accounting for any additional emergency supplementals related to Ukraine. Many lawmakers will be tempted to look at this large figure and conclude that it meets the mark of responding to Russian aggression in Ukraine and domestic inflation, but more spending does not necessarily equal more security. In fact, the specifics of this year’s overall boost reveal a continuation of congressional bad habits to fund the Pentagon in a manner inconsistent with its own wishes and at the expense of taxpayers.15

The Nuclear Budget

One area of the defense budget that is likely to be singled out as requiring bigger investments following the invasion of Ukraine is the nuclear weapons portfolio. Although Russia’s lagging conventional capabilities have been on full display in the war, so has its use of nuclear saber-rattling to project strength and deter outside intervention on Ukraine’s behalf. Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons are cause for concern in themselves, but they also have provided fodder to nuclear hawks who would like to see the U.S. nuclear arsenal grow in quantity and capabilities.

The Pentagon aims to replace Ohio-class ballistic submarines, such as the USS Henry M. Jackson, pictured here in 2015, with the new Columbia-class submarine whose total acquisition costs have grown by more than $3.4 billion. (Photo by U.S. Navy)The total price tag for U.S. nuclear weapons sustainment and modernization plans could reach $1.5–2.0 trillion over 30 years. Although much of this spending already has been committed, there still are many opportunities to trim excess and avoid exacerbating a new arms race while maintaining a credible and reliable U.S. deterrent. Nevertheless, close watchers of the nuclear budget certainly will not be surprised if the total figure reaches the high end of the total estimate or increases even further.

Many of the modernization plans already have faced or are likely to face schedule delays and cost increases beyond their initial projections. For example, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported this summer that the estimated total acquisition costs for the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program have grown by more than $3.4 billion since the congressional watchdog’s last annual assessment.16 Similarly, the Air Force’s total cost estimate for the long-range standoff weapons system, a new air-launched cruise missile being developed by Raytheon Technologies under a sole-source contract, has already ballooned by $5.4 billion, an increase of 50 percent from the service’s original estimate in 2016.17 The new cruise missile’s associated warhead, the W80-4, has been plagued by delays that could risk cost increases down the line.18

Spending on nuclear programs is likely to see a further uptick if the long-standing push to develop new U.S. nuclear weapons gains fresh momentum from Putin’s nuclear threats. This trend was already in process with the development and deployment of the W76-2 low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead that was added to existing modernization plans by the Trump administration. Despite Biden’s previous opposition to the weapon, his administration gave its endorsement to retaining the W76-2 warhead in the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, deeming the geopolitical landscape too hostile to remove the warhead from U.S. submarines.

Moreover, the Biden administration’s sensible decision not to move forward with another Trump-era plan, for a new low-yield sea-launched cruise missile, was met with fierce criticism from Republicans. These lawmakers channeled comments from certain high-ranking military commanders who publicly disagreed with Biden’s decision, even though the Navy leadership itself opposed the program.19 This pressure led Democratic leaders of the House and Senate armed services subcommittees that authorize nuclear weapons spending to broker deals with their Republican counterparts to allow $45 million for R&D of the system to move forward in the 2023 defense authorization bill. Even such a relatively low level of funding for the missile and its associated warhead potentially could translate into full-scale development and production in coming years.

By the end of this decade, when modernization spending as now projected is set to peak, nuclear weapons could account for nearly 10 percent of total U.S. national defense spending.20 Nothing about the situation in Ukraine recommends such a course. If anything, Russia’s lack of military success, despite possessing the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, argues for less U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons for anything beyond deterrence. Instead of adding even more weapons and requirements to U.S. nuclear modernization plans, Congress needs to enforce greater oversight of the ballooning nuclear budget with the aim of keeping plans on schedule and on budget. To reduce nuclear escalation risks, the priority should be placed on negotiating with the Russians to ensure that the last remaining bilateral treaty regarding U.S. and Russian strategic arms, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, does not expire in 2026 without a plan to maintain its limitations and address additional areas of risk. History has proven that, even during periods of heightened dangers and tensions, the most sensible and urgent path forward requires difficult diplomacy.

The Path Forward

In recent years, there have been several efforts in Congress to interrupt the status quo budget process and rein in wasteful defense spending. The most visible one is the campaign, led primarily by progressive members of the House and Senate as part of the annual defense policy process, to implement a 10 percent cut in the defense budget that would be applied across the board, except for personnel and health programs. Other proposals have gained more traction, including amendments put forward on the floor to reverse just the increases added to the national defense budget topline in committee markups. Although these efforts all failed, they have provided important openings for an overdue debate on the trajectory of defense spending and the process that fuels it. More specifically, such initiatives have highlighted the inadvisability of simply mandating increases or decreases to the topline without solid strategic reasons.

Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) (L) and Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) confer during a U.S. House Armed Services Committee hearing in April on the Biden administration’s fiscal year 2023 defense budget request. (Photo by Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)Lawmakers in both parties and from across the political spectrum have put forth proposals to enact more targeted cuts in expensive and controversial military programs, such as the F-35 fighter jet and the new Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile, and to allow for the retirement of costly, unwanted platforms such as the Littoral Combat Ship. Finally, there has been a steady drumbeat of proposals that seek to root out waste, fraud, and abuse in the Pentagon and increase oversight of defense dollars. Specific proposals in this category include repealing the statutory requirements for unfunded priorities lists, imposing more penalties on the Pentagon until it passes a financial audit, and reforming acquisition laws to prevent private contractors from engaging in price gouging.

In sum, Congress does not lack proposals for scaling back bloat in the defense budget and making the Pentagon a more fiscally responsible and effective entity, all of which would enhance U.S. national security. Unfortunately, the majority of lawmakers do not appear keen to enact overdue reforms or harden their oversight of the Pentagon. These critical failings are likely to be exacerbated by hawkish lawmakers who will continue to point to Putin’s war on Ukraine, despite evidence of the Russian military’s serious shortcomings, as an easy excuse for pouring more money into every Pentagon account, including programs that do little to bolster U.S. national security.

This approach makes Americans less safe. Through blank checks and hyperfixation on competition, the defense budget overextends the military and allows for fiscal mismanagement at the Pentagon at the expense of readiness and efficiency. The current approach also provides little room to adequately address nontraditional threats such as climate change and pandemics, as well as the cooperative solutions needed across the U.S. government and with allies and adversaries to address them. This moment calls for a long overdue examination of how to spend smarter and center a defined, achievable strategy in U.S. budgetary decisions, not the other way around.



1. Stephen Semler, “Reagan’s Military Buildup vs. Pentagon Spending in the Trump-Biden Era,” Speaking Security Newsletter, No. 166, August 2, 2022, https://stephensemler.substack.com/p/reagans-military-buildup-vs-pentagon.

2. The White House, “National Security Strategy,” October 2022, pp. 11–12, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Biden-Harris-Administrations-National-Security-Strategy-10.2022.pdf.

3. Cornell Overfield, “Biden’s ‘Strategic Competition’ Is a Step Back,” Foreign Policy, October 13, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/10/13/biden-strategic-competition-national-defense-strategy/; Becca Wasser and Stacie Pettyjohn, “Why the Pentagon Should Abandon ‘Strategic Competition,’” Foreign Policy, October 19, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/10/19/2022-us-nds-national-defense-strategy-strategic-competition/.

4. Julia Gledhill and William D. Hartung, “Spending Unlimited,” TomDispatch, September 11, 2022, https://tomdispatch.com/spending-unlimited/.

5. Office of Senator Mitch McConnell, “McConnell on Putin Invading Ukraine: ‘The World Is Watching’ for America’s Response,” press release, February 22, 2022, https://www.mcconnell.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/pressreleases?ID=50ACBABF-06BF-4B40-A463-1687FA07D542.

6. Additional humanitarian funding has been provided from other nondefense accounts, so the $28 billion figure only represents programs under the purview of the Department of Defense.

7. For more on the specifics of the $28 billion provided in Defense Department funds to Ukraine so far, see Christina L. Arabia, Andrew S. Bowen, and Cory Welt, “U.S. Security Assistance to Ukraine,” Congressional Research Service in Focus, IF12040, August 29, 2022, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF12040.

8. Steve Ellis, “Surprise: Today’s ‘Must Pass’ CR Bill Includes Defense Company Goodies,” Responsible Statecraft, September 30, 2022, https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2022/09/30/surprise-todays-must-pass-cr-bill-includes-defense-company-goodies/.

9. See Kori Schake, “American Must Spend More on Defense,” Foreign Affairs, April 5, 2022, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2022-04-05/america-must-spend-more-defense; Elbridge A. Colby, “More Spending Alone Won’t Fix the Pentagon’s Biggest Problem,” Time, March 28, 2022, https://time.com/6161573/us-defense-budget-strategy/.

10. Diego Lopes Da Silva et al., “Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2021,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, April 2022, https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2022-04/fs_2204_milex_2021_0.pdf.

11. For a deeper discussion on these points, see Lyle J. Goldstein, “Threat Inflation, Russian Military Weakness, and the Resulting Nuclear Paradox: Implications of the War in Ukraine for U.S. Military Spending,” Costs of War Project, September 15, 2022, https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/Threat%20Inflation%20and%20Russian%20Military%20Weakness_Goldstein_CostsofWar-2.pdf.

12. Connor O’Brien, “‘There Was Almost No Debate’: How Dems’ Defense Spending Spree Went From Shocker to Snoozer,” Politico, July 26, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/07/26/democrats-defense-spending-military-00048041.

13. For more on the history of and possible future for wish lists, see Andrew Lautz, “Congress Should Do Away With DoD Unfunded Priorities Lists, A Multibillion-Dollar Wish List Boondoggle,” National Taxpayers Union Issue Brief, March 31, 2021, https://www.ntu.org/library/doclib/2021/03/Congress-Should-Do-Away-With-DoD-Unfunded-Priorities-Lists-A-Multibillion-Dollar-Wish-List-Boondoggle.pdf.

14. Andrew Clevenger, “Pentagon to Work With Congress to Mitigate Inflation’s Budget Bite,” Roll Call, May 6, 2022, https://rollcall.com/2022/05/06/pentagon-to-work-with-congress-to-mitigate-inflations-budget-bite/.

15. For more information, see Ben Freeman and William Hartung, “Spending More and More for Less and Less at the Pentagon,” The Hill, April 15, 2022, https://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/3269553-spending-more-and-more-for-less-and-less-at-the-pentagon/.

16. U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Weapon Systems Annual Assessment: Challenges to Fielding Capabilities Faster Persist,” GAO-22-105230, June 2022, https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-22-105230.pdf.

17. Kingston Reif, “New Cruise Missile Cost Rises,” Arms Control Today, September 2021, pp. 32–33.

18. Dan Leone, “Two-Year Delay for First W80-4 Warhead, but NNSA Says Will Still Deliver On-time to Air Force,” Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor, Vol. 26, No. 31 (August 4, 2022), https://www.exchangemonitor.com/two-year-delay-for-first-w80-4-warhead-but-nnsa-says-will-still-deliver-on-time-to-air-force-2/?printmode=1.

19. Shannon Bugos, “U.S. Defense Officials Balk at Biden’s Nuclear Budget,” Arms Control Today, June 2022, pp. 30–32.

20. Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos, “Biden’s Disappointing First Nuclear Weapons Budget,” Arms Control Association Issue Brief, Vol. 13, No. 4 (July 9, 2021), https://www.armscontrol.org/issue-briefs/2021-07/bidens-disappointing-first-nuclear-weapons-budget.

Monica Montgomery is a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation focusing on issues involving nuclear arms control, nonproliferation, and the U.S. defense budget.

Must ever increasing military spending be the answer to new security threats?

The Case for Strengthening Transparency in Conventional Arms Transfers

November 2022
By Paul Holtom, Anna Mensah, and Ruben Nicolin

Every year, more than $100 billion worth of weapons are transferred to countries and other buyers all over the globe. Most of these international transactions happened in the shadows until 1991, when there was a concerted effort to ensure a measure of transparency about who is buying, who is selling, and what weapons are involved in the world’s deadliest conflicts.

France, Italy, Norway, and Sweden were once leaders in publishing data about their arms exports but now do less, according to one tracking tool. Here, French soldiers prepare a Leclerc tank to be sent to Romania as part of the NATO Battle Group Forward Presence. (Photo by Francois Nascimbeni/AFP via Getty Images)Although news reports and press releases provide the public with information on some orders and deliveries of conventional arms, fewer states are publicly reporting on their arms transfers compared to 10 or 20 years ago. If not for reporting by the world’s largest exporters of conventional arms on their activities, multilateral instruments designed to provide transparency on international arms transfers would be almost worthless. All of this raises the questions of what happened to the promise of those multilateral instruments, the UN Register of Conventional Arms (UNROCA) and the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), and what can be done to reverse the decline in reporting on arms exports and imports.

Tracking Conventional Arms

Thirty years ago, in December 1991, against the backdrop of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, UN member states established the UNROCA “to prevent excessive and destabilizing accumulation of arms [and] enhance confidence, promote stability, help states to exercise restraint, ease tensions, and strengthen regional and international peace and security.”1 By the turn of the millennium, more than 120 UN member states were providing information annually for the register on their imports and exports of seven categories of conventional arms: tanks, armored vehicles, large-caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft and unmanned combat aerial vehicles, attack helicopters, warships, and missiles and missile launchers (fig. 1). In addition, several states provided what is labeled “background information” in their annual submission on the number of conventional weapons that their national armed forces acquired from domestic arms production, as well as how many major conventional weapons systems are in their national inventory. The norm of transparency in international arms transfers appeared to be well established as the information provided by states was made publicly available by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs.

To ensure the relevance and effectiveness of the register, a review mechanism was established under which the UN secretary-general appoints a group of governmental experts every three years to evaluate its operation and make proposals for further development. Each group determines if new weapons systems need to be included in national submissions to the register. It also looks at ways to promote participation in the register and how to use submitted information to build confidence and security among states.

In the spring and summer of 2022, the most recent experts group noted that its triennial review “took place against a backdrop of heightened international tension and mistrust, which underlined the continued relevance of the register and highlighted once again the continuing need for transparency and confidence-building instruments in political and military affairs.”2 Although there has been a dramatic downward trajectory in register reporting for more than a decade, the group lamented that it was meeting at a time when only 37 states had submitted their 2021 data to the register, compared to 124 submissions in 2001.3 It is time for new ideas to reinvigorate the move toward more and better transparency on the international arms trade.

Transparency in Decline

Sharing information on military capabilities with other states and making it available to the public has long been a sensitive issue for government officials and security personnel. Yet, since the end of the Cold War, transparency in international arms transfers looked to have been widely accepted. About 170 UN member states, more than three-quarters of the total, have participated in the register at least once.

Furthermore, the register has served as a point of reference and inspiration for regional confidence-building and information exchanges on international arms transfers in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. For example, states participating in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe have exchanged annual reports on their imports and exports of conventional arms using UNROCA descriptions since 1998.4 States-parties to the Inter-American Convention on Transparency in Conventional Weapons Acquisitions, which entered into force in November 2002, are obliged to submit annual reports on imports and exports of items falling within the seven categories established by the UNROCA.5 Most recently, the register served as a key point of reference for the ATT, which obliges states-parties to report annually on their exports and imports of seven categories of major conventional weapons and also small arms and light weapons. Article 13(3) of the ATT even encourages states-parties to provide the same information for the ATT and the register.

UNROCA reporting levels logically might be expected to exceed those for the ATT because all UN member states are called on to participate in the register, whereas just more than half of these states are obliged to report on international arms transfers to the ATT Secretariat. Yet, almost from the start, ATT annual reporting rates have been higher than those for the register. Whereas all submissions to the UNROCA are available publicly, ATT states-parties can opt for their annual reports to be made available only to other ATT states-parties. In the first year of ATT reporting, two reports were made available for ATT states-parties only, while the other 52 reports were publicly available. By contrast, of the 64 ATT states-parties that submitted their annual report for 2021 by October 12, 2022, 20 states (31 percent) had chosen not to make their report publicly available.6 The figures for publicly reporting on arms exports and imports today look very similar to the 41 UNROCA submissions in the online database at the end of September 2022 and 44 ATT annual reports publicly available for 2021. Thus, a larger number of ATT states-parties prefer to provide information on their arms transfers only to other states. So, it is not just the register that is failing to expand public reporting on international arms transfers, as more ATT states are seeking to keep their transfers out of the public eye. This looks like a broader problem.

For the UNROCA, the dramatic decline in participation corresponds with a lack of countries submitting a “nil return,” that is, countries with no imports or exports of major conventional arms to report but that still participate in the register by declaring nothing to report. The annual average number of nil returns in 2000–2003 was 59 percent of submissions compared to 10 percent for 2020.7 The 2022 register experts group identified several factors to explain this, including limited capacities and lack of dedicated personnel for collecting and compiling data for submissions in national administrative structures and a lack of commitment to the register because it does not directly appear to link with their national security priorities, such as countering terrorism or organized crime. Other possible factors are an increasing burden on states that have multiple reporting obligations and limited capacity of the UNROCA Secretariat to encourage and support expanded participation.8

The Role of Major Arms Exporters

Despite the fact that an increasing number of countries are producing conventional weapons, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that the five largest arms exporting states accounted for 75 percent of the volume of international transfers of major conventional arms in 2012–2021, with the top 20 exporters accounting for 98 percent of that amount.9 All of the top 20 exporters in 1992–2021 have reported at least once to the register, with half of these states submitting information for at least 27 of the 30 years for which register submissions have been due. In addition, the 15 largest exporters that are also ATT states-parties have a 100 percent reporting record when it comes to ATT annual reports. Therefore, even though overall UNROCA reporting rates are in decline, the world’s largest arms exporters, in many cases due to requirements in national law or regulations, are still supporting the transparency norm and hopefully providing a reliable overview of the global flow of conventional arms.

At the same time, the quality of the information provided by these global leaders in arms exports varies. China and Russia only provide data on the number of items exported for each register category. For example, although Russia reported that it delivered 12 combat aircraft to Vietnam in 2021, it did not identify the type of aircraft. In contrast, Belarus reported the delivery of four MiG-29 jet fighters to Serbia that same year. Without this qualitative information, the utility of register submissions for confidence-building purposes is limited.

Although the Chinese and Russian approaches to reporting arms transfers have not changed in the past 30 years, other major exporters have altered their reporting practices and not always for the better. The Small Arms Survey’s Small Arms Trade Transparency Barometer, which has tracked the information provided by major small arms exporters for the past 20 years, found that some former transparency leaders, notably France, Italy, Norway, and Sweden, now publish less detailed information on arms exports.10 Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine could have a further detrimental impact on the transparency of several of the world’s largest arms exporters. The situation is dynamic and subject to change, but one could expect that states supplying conventional arms to Ukraine would not want the details to be made publicly available as they could reveal insights about Ukrainian military capabilities. Germany did not provide details about military materiel sent to Ukraine earlier this year, although it now regularly updates a governmental website with data on conventional arms and ammunition delivered to Ukraine, as well as planned transfers.11 France, Japan, Portugal, and Spain have announced plans to assist Ukraine militarily, but have not officially provided specific data on the arms and ammunition being delivered.12 It is a real question as to how forthcoming these states will be when it comes to filing their ATT annual reports or register submissions in 2023.

Improving Transparency and Accountability

Some initiatives to improve transparency and accountability are underway, but more are needed. For example, in 2021 the seventh ATT conference of states-parties agreed that the parties can instruct the treaty secretariat to provide relevant information contained in the ATT annual report to the UNROCA Secretariat to be used for register submissions.13 In other words, an ATT state-party can prepare and submit one report on arms transfers and satisfy both its treaty reporting obligation and its register commitment. As of mid-October, 18 ATT states-parties that had made their annual reports publicly available for 2021 indicated that they could be used in such a manner.14 It appears that 11 of these states already are included in UNROCA figures, so the total number of submissions should be increased from 40 to 47 for 2021. Although this approach may not push the number of register submissions above the total number of ATT annual reports for this year, it has already made a difference in its first trial year and could encourage others to use the same approach in the future.

The 2022 UNROCA experts group and the ATT working group on transparency and reporting have proposed other good ideas for building national capacities to enable data collection and processing to compile complete submissions for the register and ATT annual reports. These ideas include providing more support to people appointed by governments to coordinate the report compiling processes, including by offering international cooperation and assistance. These groups have stressed the benefits of data sharing for increasing trust and building confidence among states. It is expected that by examining reports and engaging with states and international and regional organizations, it will be possible to identify in advance potential risks for conflict and illicit diversion.

The information contained in ATT annual reports and the register should be for bilateral and multilateral consultations on situations where there is a potential of arms transfers posing a risk to international and regional security. Such exchanges are usually confidential, but occasionally cases come to light in which information provided to the register can highlight concerns and prompt action to address diversion or arms fueling conflicts. Perhaps the highest profile case was in 2008 when a vessel transporting new military materiel from Ukraine to Kenya was seized by pirates. This occurred shortly after Ukraine provided information in its 2007 register submission on its delivery of tanks, artillery, and small arms to Kenya. Investigations by journalists and arms specialists engaged with the United Nations determined that at least some of the arms and ammunition to Kenya were diverted to South Sudan. In this case, Ukraine’s register submission provided information that was not only used in confidential bilateral consultations, but also enabled a public debate on accountability in Kenyan arms transfer activities because the information was publicly available.

It is critical that efforts to increase public reporting on international arms transfers address the specific challenges faced by individual states, rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach. The benefits derived from this transparency process and the administrative burden that reporting imposes can be very different from one state to another. At the same time, capacity-building assistance alone will not lift the level of reporting on international arms transfers.

Transparency for All

The UNROCA was premised on an understanding that transparency in arms transfers builds confidence among countries and can provide some warning if excessive or destabilizing accumulations of arms are taking place. As long as major arms exporters continue to report regularly on their conventional transfers, it will be possible to discern and address trends in international arms transfers that could be problematic.

Yet, the register is also intended to build confidence among states that are not major arms exporters. Although many states submitted a nil return 20 years ago, the commitment of these states has dwindled. For Latin America and the Caribbean, the level of participation has dropped dramatically, and there have been no African submissions for several years. Notably, states from these regions submit ATT annual reports, but are not participating in the UNROCA.

One of the main reasons given for the difference in reporting is that the ATT includes small arms and light weapons in its scope, and this has not always been the case for the register. Almost all states are involved in the international transfer of these weapons on a regular basis, and many have highlighted the illicit trade in this category as a pressing security challenge. Increasing transparency about these international transfers could help demonstrate that the register can meet the security needs of more states.

To address that weakness, every UNROCA experts group has discussed whether to include small arms and light weapons as an eighth reporting category, mirroring the ATT. Since 2003, UN member states have been invited to provide information on international transfers of these weapons, but this category is treated as a lower-level commitment than reporting on exports and imports of artillery, combat aircraft, and tanks. In the search for creative options to fix the problem, the 2016 experts group created a formula designed to encourage “states in a position to do so” to provide information on international transfers in this underreported small arms category. Small arms and light weapons do not yet constitute a formal new category, but the slow elevation of their status should mean that most states will have to report on at least some of these transfers in their UNROCA submission and that the register is beginning to reflect broader security concerns than just those that were most acute 30 years ago.

Another challenge for the register is that although it requires states to report on imports and exports, states can also acquire conventional arms through national production. States are encouraged to provide information to the register on weapons acquired from indigenous production, but only four did so in this year’s submission. Every register experts group has discussed upgrading the reporting on procurement through national production so that this method of arms acquisition is treated similarly to imports and exports. Such a change could demonstrate that the register does not require states that import or export conventional arms to be more transparent than those that produce their own. Removing this discriminatory element might not result in a dramatic increase in register participation, but it would ensure that the register can more accurately capture the different ways in which states strengthen their military capabilities.

Conventional arms continue to be the main weapons used in conflicts around the world, causing untold deaths and destruction and setting back the socioeconomic development of vulnerable populations. Although open sources, journalists, and specialized arms investigators provide valuable information on weapons flows into conflict areas, it is public reporting by states that can provide a comprehensive, accurate picture of international arms transfers and in this way foster genuine trust and confidence-building among states. Such transparency remains as important for international peace and security today as it was 30 years ago.



1. UN General Assembly, A/RES/46/36, December 6, 1991.

2. UN General Assembly, “Continuing Operation of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms and Its Further Development: Note by the Secretary-General,” A/77/126, June 30, 2022, para. 88.

3. A UN report published in the summer of 2022 indicated that only 37 member states had participated in the register. By September 2022 the online database indicated that 41 member states have provided information. UN General Assembly, A/77/165, July 14, 2022, https://front.un-arm.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/A-77-165-UN-Register-of-Conventional-Arms-002.pdf; UNROCA, Transparency in the global reported arms trade, https://www.unroca.org/.

4. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, FSC.DEC/13/97, July 16, 1997, https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/8/3/453696.pdf.

5. OAS, CITAAC. Most national reports can be found online at: https://www.oas.org/csh/english/conventionalweapons.asp.

6. Arms Trade Treaty, “Annual Reports,” October 5, 2022, https://thearmstradetreaty.org/annual-reports.html?templateId=209826.

7. UN General Assembly, “Continuing Operation of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms and Its Further Development,” para. 28.

8. Ibid., paras. 33–37.

9. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “SIPRI Arms Transfers Database,” March 14, 2022, https://www.sipri.org/databases/armstransfers.

10. Small Arms Survey, “The Small Arms Trade Transparency Barometer,” February 21, 2020, https://www.smallarmssurvey.org/database/small-arms-trade-transparency-barometer.

11. Federal Government of Germany, “Military Support for Ukraine,” October 11, 2022, https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-en/news/military-support-ukraine-2054992.

12. For publicly available information on commitments and deliveries of conventional arms and ammunition to Ukraine in 2022, see Arianna Antezza et al., “The Ukraine Support Tracker: Which Countries Help Ukraine and How?” Kiel Working Paper, No. 2218, August 2022, https://www.ifw-kiel.de/fileadmin/Dateiverwaltung/IfW-Publications/-ifw/Kiel_Working_Paper/2022/KWP_2218_Which_countries_help_Ukraine_and_how_/KWP_2218_Version5.pdf; Kiel Institute for the World Economy, “Ukraine Support Tracker,” October 11, 2022, https://www.ifw-kiel.de/topics/war-against-ukraine/ukraine-support-tracker/; Claire Mills, “Military Assistance to Ukraine Since the Russian Invasion,” House of Commons Library Research Briefing, No. 9477, October 17, 2022, https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-9477/CBP-9477.pdf.

13. Arms Trade Treaty Secretariat, “Final Report,” ATT/CSP7/2021/SEC/681/Conf.FinRep.Rev1, September 2, 2021; Arms Trade Treaty Working Group on Transparency and Reporting, “Co-Chairs’ Draft Report to CSP7,” ATT/CSP7.WGTR/2021/CHAIR/676/Conf. Rep, July 22, 2021.

14. Dumisani Dladla, “Arms Trade Treaty: Status of Reporting” (presentation, August 24, 2022), https://www.thearmstradetreaty.org/hyper-images/file/ATT_CSP8_ATTS_Status%20of%20Reporting/ATT_CSP8_ATTS_Status%20of%20Reporting.pdf.


Paul Holtom, head of the Conventional Arms and Ammunition Programme at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, has been a consultant to the 2013, 2016, 2019, and 2022 groups of governmental experts on the UN Register of Conventional Arms. Anna Mensah is an associate researcher with the program, focusing on weapons and ammunition management, arms transfers, and diversion prevention. Ruben Nicolin is a graduate professional with the program, focusing on weapons and ammunition management, transparency, and reporting.

Transparency in conventional arms transfers can advance stability, but fewer countries are reporting their activities.

Protecting Civilians in the War Zone: An Interview With Michael Gaffey

November 2022

From the start of its war on Ukraine, Russia and its military forces have pummeled civilian neighborhoods, inflicting grievous pain on ordinary people. By mid-October, the onslaught reached new ferocity as Russia bombarded civilian targets and infrastructure in Kyiv and elsewhere, threatening millions of Ukrainians with shortages of water, heating, and electricity as winter sets in.

(Photo courtesy of the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations in Geneva)The war gave fresh urgency to the new international political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas that was agreed in June and will open for endorsement at a conference in Dublin on Nov. 18. The declaration recognizes the devastating harm to civilians from bombing and shelling in towns and cities and commits signatory states to impose limits on the use of these weapons and take action to address harm to civilians. States that sign the document commit to develop or improve practices to protect civilians during conflict, collect and share data, and provide victim assistance.

Regarding weapons use, the states also commit to “ensure that our armed forces adopt and implement a range of policies and practices to help avoid civilian harm, including by restricting or refraining as appropriate from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, when their use may be expected to cause harm to civilians or civilian objects.”

Michael Gaffey, the new head of Ireland’s development agency who as Irish ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva chaired negotiations on the declaration, spoke to Carol Giacomo, editor of Arms Control Today. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Arms Control Today: You worked a long time on this political declaration. Now that it’s about to take effect, what do you really hope to achieve?
Michael Gaffey: We’ve been holding negotiations since 2019, but Ireland and other countries have been involved on the issues arising from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas for quite a number of years. The UN secretary-general called on the international community to negotiate a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and Ireland took on the role of leading the consultations in 2019. I think reaching agreement on a political declaration represents a sign of hope in times of great difficulty in international relations, when the use of explosive weapons in urban areas is causing huge concern and harm.

We are very grateful to states, international organizations, and civil society for reaching this agreement in Geneva in June. The Irish government will hold an international conference in Dublin on November 18 to adopt the declaration and to have as many countries as possible sign up to it. The political declaration doesn’t involve a prohibition on the use of any type of weapon. What it does is recognize very clearly that the use of explosive weapons in populated areas is a problem and that the humanitarian impact, the impact on civilians, is large and wide-ranging. The impact is direct, and it’s indirect. What I think we will achieve from this is that there will be follow-up action by governments and militaries of states that sign the declaration. This will improve the level of protection for civilians from the use of explosive weapons in urban areas. That’s why we regard it as a significant move forward. We always said our aim was to have a declaration that would lead to real change in the protection of civilians.

ACT: There are already international laws, including laws against genocide and harming civilians in war. Yet, they are violated every day, including in Ukraine. Not to be pessimistic, but to some extent, is this declaration wishful thinking?
Gaffey: I don’t think so. The use [of these weapons] is covered by international humanitarian law, but what we’ve got in the declaration is agreement that there actually is a problem regarding the protection of civilians, and that we need to better implement international and humanitarian law. We expect to have a range of countries coming to the Dublin conference from all regions, including large, militarily active states, recognizing this and agreeing to work at a political level and with their militaries to take action on that basis.

Russian strikes on populated neighborhoods in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities gave fresh urgency to adoption of the new international political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. (Photo by Oleksii Samsonov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)It is not just that we’ve agreed that countries need to “ensure that our armed forces adopt and implement a range of policies and practices to help avoid civilian harm, including by restricting or refraining as appropriate the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, when their use may be expected to cause harm to civilians or civilian objects.” We’ve also got agreement on just what that harm is and how wide-ranging the harm is, not just in terms of deaths and injuries but also in terms of civilian infrastructure, food systems, health systems, and long-term development.

The implementation of the declaration will hopefully lead to change in military practices, which would reduce the harm to civilians. Yes, there is some idealism in that, but it’s only idealistic if we then sit back and say that words alone bring change. We’re not going to do that. There has to be follow-up, and that will involve political cooperation and military-to-military contact on the sharing of best practices on the protection of civilians. It will involve member states, international organizations, and civil society, because civil society is very much to the fore in highlighting the need for this declaration, and we agreed that it needs to be fully involved in the implementation. What we said on June 17 when we reached the agreement was, this isn’t the end of a process, this is the start of a process, and its success will only be measured, not by its adoption but how it is implemented. That will be the next step.

ACT: The war in Ukraine has brought renewed attention to this problem of explosive weapons targeting civilians in populated areas. If this declaration is implemented, how might the war in Ukraine be different?
Gaffey: The impetus for this declaration was there even before the war in Ukraine because we had seen the increased urbanization and harm to civilians of conflict in Yemen, in Iraq, in Syria, and in other places. It is true that, in the final phase of our negotiations, we were seeing on our screens really clear evidence of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas of Ukraine. That did help the push toward agreement, but it’s very important to emphasize that this is not a Ukraine-alone declaration. It is a humanitarian disarmament declaration about an issue that is happening in Ukraine but also elsewhere.

This declaration doesn’t have legal force, and it doesn’t prohibit the use of any specific type of weapon. Our aim is to get as many states onboard for the declaration so that those states, in their military operations, will be acting differently and will be putting the protection of civilians to the fore. Now, while it is open to all, some states may not sign up to it, but we need to build up a sense of pressure and moral force behind this declaration. After all, the UN secretary-general several times called for us to negotiate this. It was never seen as a legal instrument but a political instrument, and one that we have to keep promoting and implementing, so that militaries will make lasting changes in their approach, prioritizing the protection of civilians.

As you say, a lot of the law is there. A lot of the suggested practices are there. But weapons are developing all the time, practices are not being observed, and the more countries that we can get to return to this issue on the basis of this declaration, the more we are going to be able to see change in the impact on civilians. Today in Ukraine, we’re seeing the opposite. We’re seeing civilians directly under fire. So, that is why the declaration is the start of a process for change. It will take time, but it’s a real positive that we have agreement and will have agreement from a large number of states and from across different regions.
It is not a European or a Western initiative. Presumably, to be honest, some of what might be seen as the most egregious offenders may not sign up to it, but we want to create a sense of what needs to be done and pressure to do so. The declaration also focuses on the behavior and actions of non-state actors that put civilians in danger. I do think that declarations like this can have a real impact.

ACT: You do have the United States on board, correct?
Gaffey: We expect the United States will be on board, yes.

ACT: What about Russia, China, and other major military powers?
Gaffey: We won’t know for sure who will sign up until we launch the declaration. Some countries have indicated already that they will sign. Others will indicate closer to the day. I would say Russia was fully aware of the consultations in Geneva and China participated in the consultations, so that’s a hopeful point. This is a process, and we’ll see how it goes, but we were really encouraged by the level of countries that participated and sustained engagement right through COVID. I’m not sure we would have had that level of engagement 10 years ago.

ACT: You said an important piece of this declaration has to do with militaries changing how they operate. Have you seen any signs so far that any militaries are beginning to make these changes?
Gaffey: Militaries and defense ministries were involved in delegations and participated in the negotiations. In Section 3 of the declaration, we have agreement in broad terms on what needs to be done, for instance, on comprehensive training of armed forces on the application of international humanitarian law. There is a commitment to ensure that our armed forces, including in their policies and practices, take into account the direct and indirect effect on civilians and civilian objects, which can reasonably be foreseen in the planning of military operations and the execution of attacks.

The declaration has commitments on the clearing and removing of explosive remnants of war. We also have agreement that there will be political engagement between states, and there will be military-to-military engagement on what this means in practice. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is very engaged also in looking at what this will mean in practice. I think we’re satisfied that there will now be a process underway that will involve consideration by militaries, in a shared setting, of how to implement the commitments in the political declaration. Everything’s not going to change in a day or even a year, but there is going to be a new process underway, which we believe does put the protection of civilians front and center in a way that hasn’t happened in recent years. Now, that might seem idealistic; but I think it’s also something that’s realistic, frankly.

ACT: Given the panoply of conflicts today, would the coalition that is working on this declaration prefer to focus first on one crisis such as Yemen and try to get some better result there, or will the focus be more wide-ranging?
Gaffey: We wouldn’t want to limit implementation. We have a declaration that should be applicable globally, but we also want countries to engage with it, to sign up to it on a cross-regional basis, from different regions. In the run-up to the negotiations, there were a number of regional conferences, in Maputo and in Santiago. That shows the way that I think we should work. We’ve got a commitment to progress across regions. Countries will, of course, examine how the declaration is being implemented regionally, in their own regions, but I don’t think we would all focus exclusively on just one country. I think the regional element is vital because it is not a centralized process and international humanitarian law needs to apply universally.

ACT: Given the thousands of people being killed in conflicts today, is a voluntary commitment like this enough?Gaffey: There’s been a big debate on this issue of prohibition or legal obligations. It was recognized in recent years that to start to make progress on the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas, rather than starting to negotiate a new instrument, if we could focus on a political declaration, we could start to get movement, even though it’s voluntary. It was a long and difficult process. To be honest, countries didn’t agree to any of this easily; there were a lot of compromises.

The debate on the use of the word “avoid,” committing to “avoiding” using explosive weapons in populated areas, was probably the most difficult part of the negotiations. I think what we will do with this is see if we can achieve a better understanding and clarity on what practical steps are required to reduce civilian harm in conflict, including with respect to the full implementation of international humanitarian law. It’s another step after that to look at the issues that you have raised. But if we can get greater clarity and commitment on the implementation of international humanitarian law, this would be a big step forward.

We set out on this process with the intention of it making a difference, and we think that our conference in November and the follow-up to that will start to make a difference. That is an obligation we are placing on ourselves in signing up to the declaration. Of course, everyone won’t sign up to it, but if we get enough, we can create a new sense of pressure here.

ACT: The international network on explosive weapons and many civil society proponents of the declaration had called for stronger prohibition language. Do you think this process could eventually lead to a stronger legal commitment?
Gaffey: Those groups called for prohibition, but they also have welcomed the declaration because they see its potential to move forward in terms of political-level understanding and military-level change in operations. Between states working on implementation and civil society pushing on the declaration’s potential and then working with the UN and the ICRC, I think we have a real opportunity to achieve progress on the protection of civilians in conflict. We have been ambitious, and we have together built a broad community of interest. All are committed to change. The challenge for us is to demonstrate over the coming years that that change will happen.

ACT: Without a verification mechanism, how will you assess implementation of the declaration?
Gaffey: That was something we didn’t set out in detail, to be honest, and for a reason because we wanted to get the commitments clear first. We were not prescriptive about follow-ups in the declaration. We do envisage regular meetings to review implementation of the declaration, including exchanging policies, practices, and views on implementation. Critically, these meetings will involve not just states, but also the UN, the ICRC, other international organizations, and civil society. In this way, we will put together a sort of broad verification mechanism that is collaborative.

After the Dublin conference, there will be work by all parties on implementation. When will the next meeting take place? I imagine it will be about 18 months after the November conference. Where will depend on who steps forward with an offer to host. I know this is an issue under active consideration. At that point, states and the UN and the ICRC will work with civil society to demonstrate progress made, that there are policies and practices starting to come into effect that will make a difference.

Michael Gaffey (L), Irish ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva who headed negotiations on the political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and Jamie Walsh, Irish deputy permanent representative in Geneva in charge of disarmament issues, bring down the gavel after the declaration was agreed in June.  (Photo courtesy of the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations in Geneva)ACT: Since the declaration was agreed in June, you have moved on to a new position as director of Ireland’s development agency, Irish Aid. Is there a connection between those two roles?
Gaffey: There’s a tendency sometimes for arms control negotiations and consultations to take place in a totally different room from the humanitarian consultations. Development is often in yet another different room. So, I do think it is a major challenge for us in our multilateral engagement to look at the problem from the eyes of the civilians who are experiencing the impact of explosive weapons. Getting the humanitarian and development and arms control communities to work together is vital. It is very much how the UN Sustainable Development Goals are framed. Humanitarian disarmament is a traditional foreign policy priority for Ireland, notably through our work on the anti-personnel landmine convention and the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and our focus on the declaration carries this forward.

ACT: Any final thoughts?
Gaffey: I would emphasize that this declaration is cross-regional, it’s global, it’s not exclusive, and it’s not solely about Ukraine. It results from collaboration between states, civil society, and international organizations. That continued collaboration can ensure that a political declaration is effective. The goal is to reduce the unacceptable level of harm to civilians in conflict.

The Irish diplomat discusses the initiative he led to better protect civilians from the ravages of war.

Inspectors for Peace: A History of the International Atomic Energy Agency

November 2022

The Evolution of a Nonproliferation Icon

Inspectors for Peace: A History of the International Atomic Energy Agency
Elisabeth Roehrlich
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022
329 pp.

Reviewed by Kelsey Davenport

For nearly 70 years, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been at the forefront of some of the most significant international crises. From assessing the safety and health implications of the reactor meltdowns at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 to providing technical assistance to address food insecurity and improve public health, the IAEA’s broad mandate has a global impact. The agency has become associated most closely, however, with its role in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Its work in investigating the misappropriation of peaceful nuclear technology for illicit weapons purposes in states such as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea has repeatedly thrust the agency into the international spotlight and earned it the nickname of “nuclear watchdog.”

The IAEA’s role in verifying that materials and technologies are not diverted from peaceful nuclear programs, a process known as safeguards, was not a foregone conclusion. The concept of safeguards was first raised in 1945, when Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States issued a statement supporting the spread of nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes but stipulating that certain knowledge would not be shared until appropriate safeguards were in place. That statement and subsequent discussions in the UN Atomic Energy Commission (UNAEC) in the late 1940s raised some fundamental questions about how safeguards would be applied and the consequences for violating them. It was not until after U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace speech in 1953, which envisioned an agency that would assist states in accessing the technology and materials needed for civil nuclear applications, that negotiations would commence on establishing the IAEA.

Eisenhower’s Role

Eisenhower’s speech did not mention safeguards, but it included an idea for the Soviet Union and the United States to donate fissile material to a stockpile administered by the agency from which states could draw for civil applications, such as nuclear research. Although the primary purpose of the agency would be to advance peaceful nuclear technology, Eisenhower saw an arms control benefit in pressuring the Soviet Union to relinquish a significant quantity of its nuclear materials, thus limiting the potential size of any future Soviet nuclear arsenal. Although the United States ultimately abandoned the idea of a Soviet-U.S.-supplied international stockpile of nuclear materials during negotiations to form the IAEA in the early 1950s, the prospect of sharing nuclear materials and technologies raised concerns about states diverting nuclear materials from civil to military programs. This realization underscored for negotiators the importance of including a safeguards role for the agency.

Even so, it remained an abstract concept. Negotiators struggled to articulate how measures to verify that nuclear materials would not be diverted for weapons purposes would work in practice, prompting developing states to view the concept of safeguards and inspections of nuclear facilities as an attempt by the great powers to limit access to the benefits of nuclear technology. Perhaps nothing reflects the slow development of safeguards more clearly than the fact that the first inspector was not hired until two years after the IAEA was established and the first safeguards inspection was not conducted until 1962.

In Inspectors for Peace: A History of the International Atomic Energy Agency, author Elisabeth Roehrlich provides a masterful, detailed account of the agency’s evolution and the external events that have shaped its mandate, particularly what has become its most well-recognized and, at times, contentious role: the application of safeguards. Her focus on key events that highlight the paradox of the IAEA’s dual role—it promotes nuclear technologies and materials for peaceful civil applications and energy production even while deterring their use for military purposes—illustrates how these seemingly conflicting priorities were necessary to generate and sustain international support for the agency. It was a carrot-and-stick approach. Providing states with access to nuclear technology was a necessary trade-off to ensure control over how those technologies would be used.

Archival Data

For decades, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been on the frontlines of preventing nuclear proliferation, including working to limit Iran's nuclear program and resolve Russian threats to nuclear power plants in Ukraine. Here, Iran’s nuclear chief, Mohammad Eslami, speaks during the agency’s general conference in Vienna in September. (Photo by Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images)Although many themes and events in the book, such as the role safeguards played in negotiations over the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the IAEA response to Chernobyl, are well documented in other works, Roehrlich’s access to IAEA archival materials that were only made available after 2016 and extensive interviews offer unique insights and perspectives into the agency’s work. Her decision to begin the narrative prior to the agency’s establishment also rewards the reader with a more detailed understanding of how great-power thinking about proliferation threats and the means to prevent further nuclear-armed states evolved from the end of World War II, particularly for the United States. This early history provides a critical backdrop for understanding why IAEA safeguards were initially so weak and were applied only to select nuclear facilities in a few states.

For instance, Roehrlich discusses reports commissioned by the United States to inform its approach to the UNAEC negotiations. The reports emphasized that on-site inspections would not be sufficient to prevent proliferation and that safeguards violators should be punished swiftly. The United States would move away from these expert recommendations in negotiations to establish the IAEA and to establish safeguards provisions in the NPT. Interestingly, the IAEA’s lack of enforcement mechanisms, the slow process of referring noncompliant states to the UN Security Council for action, and the inadequacy of limited on-site inspections would be exposed later as gaps in the agency’s safeguards mandate that states, such as Iran, exploited.

The Safeguards Debate

The principles that safeguards should be minimally invasive and narrowly construed to apply only to the nondiversion of nuclear materials overrode these earlier U.S. concerns during safeguards negotiations in the 1960s and 1970s, including in the committee that was established in 1970 to develop guidelines for the NPT-required safeguards. Lobbying by states supplying source materials, especially uranium, resulted in these materials being exempted from safeguards under the guidelines developed by the committee for negotiating safeguards agreements, another loophole that complicates IAEA safeguards efforts.

Although these limitations may have been necessary to secure international support for safeguards guidelines, they underscored the weaknesses in the tools available to the IAEA that states exploit even now. Recognition of these weaknesses eventually prompted negotiations to strengthen the agency’s safeguards role. Roehrlich examines the cases that exposed these gaps—Iraq, North Korea, Libya, and Iran—and the negotiations on what became the 1997 Model Additional Protocol, the basis for a supplement to a state’s safeguards agreement, in the penultimate chapter of the book. Although conclusion of an additional protocol with a state significantly strengthens the IAEA’s safeguards mandate by providing inspectors with greater access to information about a country’s nuclear program and its facilities, it remains a voluntary commitment. Several states have refused to negotiate an additional protocol with the agency, citing concerns about great-power attempts to make access to nuclear technology overly burdensome. These arguments are similar to those voiced during debates over safeguards in the 1950s.

The negotiation of the NPT led to a significant expansion of the IAEA’s safeguards role and renewed debates over how to design a comprehensive safeguards approach. These discussions, which took place primarily in the safeguards committee set up in 1970, show that states believed that safeguards would deter states from pursuing nuclear weapons development, and they pursued a model reflecting that approach. As Roehrlich’s primary source material highlights, states involved in the safeguards negotiations also believed that the risk of public exposure of illicit nuclear activities, denial of access to further technical cooperation, and IAEA referral of noncompliance to the UN Security Council, which could lead to sanctions, would be sufficient to prevent states from diverting nuclear materials and technologies to military programs. Her discussion of India’s nuclear test in 1974 and the clandestine nuclear weapons programs in Iran, Iraq, and North Korea underscored the weakness of this approach and how determined proliferators were able to take advantage of gaps in the safeguards regime to exploit civil nuclear programs for illicit purposes and were not deterred by the potential consequences.

In the 1970s, the safeguards committee also debated whether IAEA inspectors should be limited to trusting the nuclear declaration provided by a state or whether they could independently question and verify that information, including by using intelligence shared with the IAEA by member states. Roehrlich details how the United States supported the latter, stricter approach, arguing that if the IAEA is to carefully scrutinize a state’s nuclear declaration, it must be able to obtain and use additional sources of information. Her analysis of the committee’s records shows that, despite general agreement among members of the sanctions committee that the IAEA should be able to verify and scrutinize a state’s nuclear declaration, the guidelines that were finally adopted did not define verification and only required states to share the minimum amount of information necessary for the IAEA to carry out its work. Meanwhile, the IAEA’s use of intelligence from member states to check state declarations remains contested. Iran in particular continues to argue that the evidence on which the IAEA has relied to accuse Tehran of operating an illicit nuclear weapons program prior to 2003 was manufactured by Israel.

Soviet-U.S. Cooperation

Of special interest, given current geopolitics, is the extent to which the United States and the Soviet Union were willing to cooperate to establish and strengthen safeguards, even at the height of the Cold War. Throughout the book, there are countless examples of how the shared goal of preventing proliferation, particularly after the Cuban missile crisis, was critical in expanding and strengthening safeguards and empowering the IAEA inspectorate. This cooperation enabled the negotiations in 1964 and 1965 that developed IAEA guidelines for safeguarding and inspecting all types of nuclear reactors and efforts in the 1970s that developed the guidelines for NPT-required safeguards. The superpowers even recognized the limitations of the IAEA in controlling the spread of dual-use technology and cooperated on establishing voluntary, independent export controls for dual-use technologies, leading to the establishment of the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 1975.

As Roehrlich notes, this history of cooperation sometimes came at the expense of support for allies. For example, the United States prioritized reaching an agreement with the Soviet Union on an NPT text over its plans to expand nuclear weapons sharing with European allies and opposed proposals made by certain European states during the NPT negotiations to self-inspect because of their concerns that safeguards would become a tool of industrial espionage.

Although the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is best known for working to stem nuclear proliferation, it has a broad mandate that includes advancing the peaceful uses of nuclear technology. IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi (L) in October visited Azerbaijan's National Center of Oncology, where the IAEA funded part of the hospital's medical equipment. (Photo by Karen Minasyan/AFP via Getty Images)The strength of this past cooperation raises the question as to whether tensions between Russia and the United States over contemporary crises, such as Iran and North Korea, are an aberration or mark a new era when geopolitics trumps shared nonproliferation priorities.

For instance, although the six countries that negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015 managed to prevent Russia’s invasion of Crimea from disrupting unity in those nuclear talks, Russia attempted to use this year’s negotiations to restore the Iran agreement, officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to pursue relief from sanctions imposed by the United States after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Moscow backed off this approach when it became clear that its demands jeopardized reaching an agreement on the JCPOA. At the same time, Russia has resisted using the IAEA Board of Governors to censure Iran for failing to cooperate with the agency’s investigation into past Iranian nuclear activities and opposed efforts by the UN Security Council over several years to tighten restrictions on North Korea for illegal missile testing.

New Tensions

The IAEA’s past triumphs in navigating between the East and West at the height of the Cold War may offer valuable lessons for nuclear cooperation as tensions rise between Russia and the West over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its illegal occupation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

The events examined by Roehrlich demonstrate the IAEA’s challenges as a technical organization operating in a political environment. She analyzes how states have used the agency’s various policymaking organs, such as the more selective and powerful Board of Governors and the inclusive General Conference, to advance political agendas. These include the push to condemn South Africa’s apartheid regime and strip the country of its place on the IAEA board in 1977 and the consolidation of the Group of 77 lobbying efforts to place greater emphasis on the IAEA’s technical cooperation role, a campaign that continues today. As the author notes, accusing the IAEA of “politicizing” an issue has become standard practice for indicating disagreement with the agency’s approach.

The book underscores how certain unresolved tensions persist, plaguing the agency’s work. After Israel bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, for instance, the IAEA decided to share confidential safeguards information to support its conclusion that Iraq was not violating its safeguards commitments and challenge Israeli allegations that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein intended to use the reactor to produce material for a nuclear weapons program. The decision to periodically make information about safeguards and the status of a country’s nuclear program public, such as in the case of Iran, remains contentious. Opposition to sharing information continues to demonstrate the tension between using greater transparency to provide assurances about the state of a country’s nuclear program and protecting safeguards confidentiality.

Readers looking for a comprehensive history of the IAEA’s evolving technical assistance role may be left wanting. Even so, the book provides valuable insights into how the safeguards mission impacts the IAEA’s role as a nuclear technology promoter and how safety and security crises affect the agency’s positioning in debates over the expansion of nuclear power. Furthermore, the accessibility of the book broadens its appeal beyond the nuclear policy community. Roehrlich’s attention to the organizational and bureaucratic aspects of the IAEA’s work and its adaptation in response to new nuclear crises offers a window into the role that international organizations can play in managing knowledge and establishing norms. She also highlights the challenges of building political consensus in international organizations, particularly when comprised of a diverse group of states with different priorities.

Inspectors for Peace is a tour de force about the IAEA’s history and evolution and thus a must-read for understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the agency’s role in preventing proliferation.

Kelsey Davenport is director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association.

The book highlights the paradox of IAEA’s dual role of promoting the peaceful use of nuclear technology while deterring their use for military purposes.

November 2022 Books of Note

November 2022

Atomic Steppe: How Kazakhstan Gave Up the Bomb
By Togzhan Kassenova

In this sweeping and deeply researched account, Togzhan Kassenova explores how her home country of Kazakhstan and its people were deeply scarred by four decades of Soviet nuclear testing, how they later played a central part in bringing the age of nuclear testing to a close, and how, long after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, they continue to address the dangerous legacy of nuclear weapons and pursue national strategies to reduce and eliminate the dangers of nuclear weapons. Meticulously researched, this history is based on primary documents, accounts of key officials, and on-the-ground interviews with affected people in the nuclear testing zone known as “the Polygon.”

Not only does Kassenova provide new insights on an overlooked chapter of the nuclear age, but she gives voice to ordinary Kazakhs whose lives were affected by the 456 nuclear test explosions conducted between 1949 and 1991 over and under their lands. The book explores the thinking behind Russia's nuclear testing program, the effect on the Kazakh population, how popular resistance to nuclear testing became a catalyst for the push for independence, and how the leaders of the new country tackled unique environmental remediation and nonproliferation challenges, often alongside U.S. partners, while balancing relations with Russia. Atomic Steppe is a new classic in the field that contains essential lessons for future efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons and address the human toll of nuclear testing.—DARYL G. KIMBALL


Transforming Nuclear Safeguards Culture: The IAEA, Iraq, and the Future of Non-Proliferation
By Trevor Findlay
June 2022

Trevor Findlay’s book offers a careful analysis of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) biggest failure, Iraq. Despite its core mission to prevent nuclear proliferation, the IAEA did not grasp the extent of Iraq’s nuclear capabilities until leader Saddam Hussein was defeated in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and agency experts entered the country to inspect its nuclear facilities. Although Iraq signed a safeguards agreement with the IAEA, it had amassed a substantial nuclear weapons infrastructure separate from the peaceful nuclear facilities and materials that were declared to the agency and were subject to IAEA nuclear safeguards. To determine why this happened and how it can be avoided in the future, Findlay adds unique value by focusing on an overlooked factor: the impact of the IAEA’s organizational culture, which, he writes, had become “cautious, process-driven rather than goal-oriented, and complacent about potential non-compliance” and ignored the possibility that states “might fail to declare everything that they possessed.” He argues that organizational culture must be taken into account in efforts to strengthen IAEA safeguards and sees evidence of positive change.—CAROL GIACOMO

Atomic Steppe: How Kazakhstan Gave Up the Bomb
By Togzhan Kassenova

Transforming Nuclear Safeguards Culture: The IAEA, Iraq, and the Future of Non-Proliferation
By Trevor Findlay
June 2022

Iran Supplies Arms to Russia

November 2022
By Gabriela Rosa Hernández

Iran has solidified its role as Russia’s wartime arms supplier as Russian forces, facing battlefield losses, intensify their attacks on Ukraine’s civilian population and infrastructure.

Drones supplied to Russia by Iran are wreaking havoc on civilians in Ukrainian cities like Kyiv where in October, people cleared blast debris and leaves outside a house where a couple was killed by a Russian drone strike. (Photo by Ed Ram/Getty Images)Last summer, Iran began delivering drones that loiter, then explode on impact with a target, for Russian use in Ukraine, according to U.S. officials.

On Oct. 18, Tehran upped its involvement by agreeing to provide Moscow with surface-to-surface missiles and many additional cheap drones, Reuters reported.

Two days later, the United States disclosed that it had evidence that Iran sent personnel to Crimea to assist Russian forces in launching attacks on Ukraine. “Tehran is now directly engaged on the ground,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

He described the Iranian presence as “relatively small” and said the goal appeared to be “to help the Russians use [drones] with better lethality” after early failures.

“We don’t believe it’s going to change the course of the war,” Kirby said of Russia’s drone use.

But he expressed concern that Iran may go farther and transfer advanced missiles to Russia, and as a result, the United States is looking “actively, right now” at possibly providing Ukraine with air defense systems to deal with the Iranian threat.

Ukraine and its Western partners expect that Iran will send Russia the Fateh-110, a mobile short-range ballistic missile, and the Zolfaghar, a Fateh variant.

The Pentagon is trying to speed the deliveries of National Advanced Surface to Air Missile Systems, according to CNN. The United States has committed eight of these systems to Ukraine. Raytheon Technologies CEO Greg Hayes told CNBC on Oct. 25 that his company recently delivered two of the defense systems to Ukraine and they were being installed.

“Russia’s use of these drones wears down Ukraine’s air defenses, putting stress on Ukraine’s supply lines and communications. Ukrainians are discussing items like the German Gepard as a successful system against these threats,” said Samuel Bendett, an expert on Russia’s use of unmanned and robotic military systems.

Iran’s sale of the missiles and drones to Russia constitutes a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which was adopted in support of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Under the resolution, Iran is banned from exporting ballistic missiles until 2023.

“[B]oth of the types of [drones] that…Iran had been provisioning to Russia meet the parameters under [limitations contained in the resolution] because they are capable of a range equal to and greater than 300 kilometers,” Vedant Patel, U.S. State Department principal deputy spokesperson, said on Oct. 18.

In recent weeks, Russia has launched air attacks on several Ukrainian cities by using missiles, Shahed-136 loitering munitions, and Mohajer-6 drones, according to Ukrainian officials and their Western partners.

Tehran and Moscow have denied that Iran is supplying weapons to Russia for use in Ukraine. “The hardware that is used is Russian.… It has Russian names,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, according to TASS on Oct. 18.

The same day, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said that claims about drone transfers are “based on false information and spiteful assumptions [that] are part of the targeted and political propaganda campaign waged by media of some countries against” Iran. He said Iran has been a neutral party to the war.

Russian attacks on Ukraine’s civilian centers, including Kyiv, and vital infrastructure have been terrorizing and destructive. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted on Oct 18 that, since Oct. 10, “30 percent of Ukraine’s power stations have been destroyed, causing massive blackouts across the country. No space left for negotiations with Putin’s regime.” According to the BBC, as much as 40 percent of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure has been damaged.

Responding to the Russian attacks, Ukraine requested an array of air defense systems and support training for Ukrainian operators from Israel, Axios reported.

Russia vehemently opposed such cooperation and warned that if Israel provides arms “[i]t will destroy all diplomatic relations between our countries,” Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, wrote on Telegram on Oct. 17. Two days later, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel will help Ukraine develop an air defense alert system but not deliver weapon systems, according to CNN.

Siding with Russia in the Ukraine war, Iran delivered drones, promised missiles.

Iran Expands Nuclear Program Amid Protests

November 2022
By Kelsey Davenport

Iran announced steps to further expand its nuclear program as talks with the United States to restore the 2015 nuclear deal remain at an impasse that is likely to persist given the protests in Iran.

Demonstrations in Berlin, shown above, and other major cities have voiced solidarity with Iranians who staged protests following the death of Mahsa Amini. The 22 year-old woman died in the custody of Iran’s morality police for not wearing her hijab correctly.  (Photo by Abdulhamid Hosbas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)In an Oct. 10 report, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) noted that Iran informed the agency of its plans to install an additional three cascades of IR-2 centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium. The report also confirmed that Iran had completed the installation of six cascades of IR-2 centrifuges and one cascade of IR-4 centrifuges since the last IAEA report was issued on Sept. 7. The IR-2 and IR-4 centrifuges enrich uranium more efficiently than Iran’s IR-1 model, which Tehran is limited to using to produce enriched uranium under the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), until 2026.

Once operational, these more advanced machines will further expand Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity, which is already greater than at any point in the country’s history.

If negotiations resume, there is a risk that the United States will determine that Iran’s advancing nuclear program has undercut the nonproliferation benefits of the JCPOA. In such case, Washington may conclude that it is no longer worth the political price to lift sanctions as the deal requires and will abandon efforts to resurrect the accord.

The Biden administration is also taking action to increase pressure on Iran while negotiations remain stalled, including new sanctions targeting Iran’s petrochemical sector announced in October.

Although Iran and the United States continue to express support for restoring the deal, domestic politics make this increasingly challenging.

The Raisi government is facing widespread protests in Iran after a young woman, Mahsa Amini, died in the hospital in September after being beaten by police for not adhering to the country’s strict dress code for women. Tehran has accused foreign powers of instigating the protests.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kananni said on Oct. 10 that the United States and Europe are linking the negotiations on the JCPOA to “recent issues in Iran.” Iran will not allow any country to meddle in its internal affairs, he said.

It is unclear what linkages Kananni was referencing, given that talks on the JCPOA remain stalled. U.S. officials have said Washington can support the protestors and a nuclear deal at the same time, but it would be politically more difficult for the Europeans and the United States to reach an agreement with Iran while the government in Tehran is violently suppressing the protests, particularly before the U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 8.

In an Oct. 14 speech, U.S. President Joe Biden said that the United States stands “with the citizens, the brave women of Iran…who are demonstrating to secure their very basic, fundamental rights.” Two days earlier, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that the nuclear talks are “not our focus right now” and that the Biden administration is prioritizing “shining a spotlight” on the protestors. The administration also has lifted some sanctions, such as measures that restricted access to the internet and communications technologies, which officials say will support the protestors.

Even after the elections, the U.S. political will may not exist to restore the nuclear agreement with Iran because of the protests. “The Europeans had already lost their patience for dealing with Iran, and now we’ve lost our appetite” even though a deal “would still yield important nonproliferation benefits,” an official from a European country that is a party to the deal said on Oct. 13.

The Biden administration is also under pressure not to reach an agreement with Iran at this time, given that a restored JCPOA would allow the Iranian government to access frozen assets and benefit from sanctions relief.

In addition to voicing support for the protestors, the EU and the United States imposed sanctions on Iranian individuals and entities involved in the crackdown. The EU also passed sanctions over Iran’s sale of drones to Russia. Russia has used these drones in its war against Ukraine, including attacks on civilians.

French Foreign Ministry spokesperson Anne-Claire Legendre told reporters in an Oct. 13 press briefing that the use of drones to bombard civilian targets “likely constitute war crimes” and violates UN Security Council Resolution 2231. Under that resolution, Iran is prohibited from exporting missile systems or unmanned aerial vehicles, such as drones, that are capable of delivering a weapon of mass destruction.

That threshold is defined as carrying a 500-kilogram payload a distance of more than 300 kilometers.

If JCPOA talks resume, a deal is far from certain. A major issue preventing agreement is Iran’s demands that the IAEA close its investigation into undeclared nuclear materials and activities from the pre-2003 period within a specific time frame and to refrain from further investigations.

The United States has made clear that it will not tie the IAEA’s hands, but will support closing the investigation when the agency is satisfied that Iran has cooperated with its inquiries. (See ACT, October 2022.)

Mohammad Eslami, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, met IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi on Sept. 26 to resume talks over how to address the agency’s investigation, which has remained stalled since May.

Tweets from Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian suggested that the two sides had agreed on a path forward for resolving the safeguards investigation, but the IAEA made no similar statement.

Grossi confirmed that the meeting took place, but said only that there is a lot of work ahead to reach a conclusion.

Even if the IAEA issue can be resolved, the United States is concerned that if talks resume, Iran may raise new demands or attempt to reopen closed issues, as it has in the past.

Robert Malley, U.S. special envoy for Iran, told NPR on Oct. 7 that all other parties agreed to a deal to restore the JCPOA in March and then again in August.

But each time, he said, Iran countered with “some new demands, most of the time either an unrealistic demand or one that was extraneous to the nuclear talks, something that had nothing to do with it.”

Iran’s nuclear advances and crackdown on protests added new uncertainties to efforts to restore the 2015 nuclear deal. 

NATO, Russia Conduct Simultaneous Nuclear Exercises

November 2022
By Shannon Bugos

NATO kicked off its annual nuclear exercise, dubbed Steadfast Noon, in mid-October, and Russia launched its scheduled Grom strategic nuclear exercises about a week later. The exercises heightened tensions more than usual this year, as they took place after Russia intensified its brutal assault on Ukraine and once again wielded threats of using nuclear weapons.

A Belgian F-16 jet fighter was among the weapons systems that participated in NATO’s annual nuclear exercise, called Steadfast Noon, in mid-October as tensions with Russia heightened over the war in Ukraine. (Photo by Kenzo Triboulillard/AFP via Getty Images)NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Oct. 11 rejected the prospect of canceling the “routine training” of Steadfast Noon, saying doing so would send “a very wrong signal.”

“If we now created the grounds for any misunderstanding, miscalculation in Moscow about our willingness to protect and defend all allies, we would increase the risk of escalation,” Stoltenberg said.

The Steadfast Noon exercise involved 14 of NATO’s 30 members and up to 60 tactical nuclear fighter jets and surveillance aircraft in Europe, with Belgium’s Kleine Brogel Air Base serving as home base. U.S. officials noted in a very rare disclosure that some B-52H strategic bombers from U.S. Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota also participated.

The flights are intended to practice delivering U.S. B61 nuclear gravity bombs, although the aircraft will fly unarmed. The exercise will include flights over Belgium, the United Kingdom, and the North Sea. In advance of the exercise, Western officials emphasized that Steadfast Noon would not feature a scenario related to Ukraine and would take place more than 600 miles from Russia. The NATO exercise lasted two weeks, starting Oct. 17.

The Grom, or Thunder, exercise began Oct. 26. The last Russian exercise was in February, less than a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close supervision. (See ACT, March 2022.) The Russian exercises usually feature the deployment of strategic nuclear systems; launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as systems such as new hypersonic weapons; and large-scale military troop maneuvers.

A Western official told Reuters on Oct. 13 that, with Grom occurring alongside the war in Ukraine, “we do have an additional challenge to really be sure that the actions that we see, the things that are occurring, are actually an exercise and not something else.”

But U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said on Oct. 13 that the United States is aware that “Russian nuclear units train extensively at this time of year,” even though Russia “probably believes this exercise will help it project power.”

Over the course of the war, Putin has issued multiple threats to use nuclear weapons against any country seen as interfering in Ukraine and, more recently, to protect “the territorial integrity of our motherland…by all the systems available to us.” (See ACT, October 2022.)

After Russia’s claimed annexation of four Ukrainian regions in September, which was roundly condemned worldwide as illegal, the Kremlin stressed its view that an attack in those regions equals an attack on Russia. That assertion gives rise to the possibility that Russia may contemplate using nuclear weapons against Ukraine if the Ukrainian military carries out an attack in those regions.

“All these territories are inalienable parts of the Russian Federation,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov said on Oct. 18. “Their security is provided for at the same level as [it is for] the rest of Russia’s territory.”

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov attempted to downplay Putin’s threats on Sept. 23, claiming that Moscow is “not threatening anyone with nuclear weapons.”

Yet, a week later, Putin issued another nuclear threat. He argued that the United States set a precedent for nuclear use with the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, stating “we will defend our land with all the forces and resources we have, and we will do everything we can to ensure the safety of our people.”

CNN reported on Sept. 28 that U.S. officials have said that the threat of Putin ordering the use of nuclear weapons is more “elevated” now than at any time since the war began.

Nevertheless, U.S. and allied intelligence agencies that closely monitor Russian nuclear forces continue to assess that there are no indications of potential imminent Russian nuclear weapons use. The Pentagon has said repeatedly that it sees no need to adjust the U.S. strategic nuclear force posture.

Analysts have suggested that Russia may consider using nuclear weapons in a strike at a Ukrainian military facility or in a “display,” such as the detonation of a nuclear weapon over the Black Sea or Arctic Ocean.

U.S. President Joe Biden emphasized the seriousness with which the United States and its allies treat Putin’s numerous nuclear threats in Oct. 6 remarks. “We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since [U.S. President John F.] Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis” in October 1962, Biden said. “We’re trying to figure out, What is Putin’s off-ramp?”

Biden later commented that he does not think that ultimately Putin will call for the use of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

The United States and NATO have declined to detail potential responses, whether diplomatic, military, economic, or a combination, to Russian nuclear use.

“We have communicated directly, privately, at very high levels to the Kremlin that any use of nuclear weapons will be met with catastrophic consequences for Russia [and] that the United States [and] our allies will respond decisively,” U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Sept. 25. “We have been clear and specific about what that will entail.”

Sullivan later stressed that the Biden administration maintains its goal “to avoid a direct conflict between nuclear superpowers.”

French President Emmanuel Macron dismissed on Oct. 13 the possibility that Paris would order the use of its nuclear weapons in response to a Russian nuclear strike. France’s vital national security interests, on which its nuclear doctrine rests, “would not be at stake if there was a nuclear ballistic attack in Ukraine or in the region,” Macron said in an interview with TV channel France 2.

Despite the war and the rhetoric, the United States and Russia continue to exchange data on their respective nuclear arsenals, as required by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The most recent exchange took place on Sept. 1, with the information released to the public a month later.

According to the exchange, the United States has 1,420 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 659 delivery vehicles, and Russia has 1,549 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 540 delivery vehicles.

The treaty limits are 1,550 for the warheads and 700 for the delivery vehicles.

On-site inspections conducted under New START remain paused since Russia prohibited inspections of its nuclear weapons-related facilities in August. (See ACT, September 2022.)

Washington stated in September that the resumption of on-site inspections is a prerequisite for the two countries to negotiate a new arms control arrangement to replace New START, which expires in February 2026. (See ACT, October 2022.)

A U.S. State Department spokesperson told Arms Control Today on Oct. 18 that “the United States is working with Russia to schedule a session of New START’s Bilateral Consultative Commission for the purpose of resuming inspections.” The commission is the implementation body of the treaty, intended to serve as a forum in which to discuss any concerns and issues that may arise as the countries carry out treaty activities and procedures.

Russian threats to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine added new tensions as NATO, Russia held separate military exercises.

Russia Claims to Federalize Ukrainian Nuclear Plant

November 2022
By Kelsey Davenport

The director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) met the presidents of Ukraine and Russia to press for the establishment of a zone of protection around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, but new Russian claims on the Ukrainian facility likely will complicate these efforts.

Rafael Mariano Grossi (L), director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on Oct. 11 as part of his effort to secure support for a zone of protection around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. (Photo by Pavel Bednyakov/AFP via Getty Images)In an Oct. 11 press release, the IAEA said that Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi, who visited Kyiv on Oct. 6 and St. Petersburg on Oct. 11, engaged in “intense consultations” with Ukraine and Russia over establishing the protection zone and emphasizing the urgency of the situation. The agency did not indicate what barriers remain to reaching an agreement, but Grossi was quoted as saying, “We can’t waste any more time.”

Prior to Grossi’s arrival in Moscow, attacks in the vicinity of the Zaporizhzhia power plant again severed the power lines connecting the facility to external power sources. Although the lines were restored within days, Grossi called the attack “tremendously irresponsible” and said on Oct. 9 that the situation remains “untenable.” The nuclear reactors were not operating at the time, but the plant relies on external power to run the cooling systems that prevent the reactor units from melting down. (See ACT, October 2022.)

Grossi’s visits to Kyiv and St. Petersburg followed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that Russia was federalizing the Zaporizhzhia plant. In an Oct. 5 statement, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin said that Zaporizhzhia is “now on the territory of the Russian Federation” and should be “operated under the supervision of our relevant agencies.” He said Russia’s decision “is designed to ensure the safe operation of the nuclear power plant.”

Moscow also claimed to have annexed the Zaporizhzhia region and other areas, under varying degrees of control of the Russian military, after a September referendum, which has been widely denounced by the international community as illegitimate and having no legal effect.

In response to the federalization announcement, Petro Kotin, the head of Ukraine’s energy agency Energoatom, reiterated that the plant will “work under Ukrainian law, within the Ukrainian energy system.”

An individual who worked in Ukraine’s energy sector told Arms Control Today in an email on Oct. 13 that there is a “near zero chance” that the IAEA will be able to negotiate a zone of protection around the Zaporizhzhia power plant after Russia’s “illegitimate federalization” of the facility. Putin will not want to face any restrictions on territory he now claims is part of Russia, the source said, even though Moscow has an interest in preventing further damage to the Zaporizhzhia site. Russia plans to connect the reactors to the power grid in Crimea, but it is not clear it will have the technical capacity to do so without the help of Ukrainian personnel. (See ACT, September 2022.)

After the federalization announcement, Russia said it was planning to restart two of the six reactors. A new four-person IAEA team arrived at Zaporizhzhia on Oct. 7 to relieve the prior agency team monitoring the facility. The new team confirmed on Oct. 14 that preparatory activity to restart one of the reactors had commenced but the restart would take “a number of days.”

Ukrainian firefighters work to put out a fire after a strike in Zaporizhzhia on October 6, amid the Russian war on Ukraine. One day earlier, Russia laid formal claim to the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, which it has occupied militarily since early March. (Photo by Marina Moiseyenko / AFP via Getty Images)Although Russia attacked the nuclear power plant in March and has occupied it since then in violation of international law, Ukrainian personnel have continued to operate the plant under significant duress. After the Ukrainian head of the Zaporizhzhia team, Igor Murashov, was kidnapped by the Russians in early October and held before being released, Kotin said the plant’s operations would be directed from Energoatom’s central offices. Grossi said Murashov’s absence had an “immediate and serious impact on decision-making in ensuring the safety and security of the plant.”

To solidify its hold on the nuclear power plant, Russia is demanding that the Ukrainian plant operators sign new employment contracts with Rosatom, Russia’s state-run nuclear energy company. Grossi said the workers face “unacceptable pressure” due to the Russian demands. He said he has “made clear that the staff must be allowed to carry out their vital tasks without undue interference or pressure.”

Laura Holgate, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, referred to the referendum as a sham. She reiterated that Zaporizhzhia and the power it produces “rightfully belong to Ukraine.”

During the IAEA General Conference on Sept. 26, Anna Moskwa, the Polish minister for climate and the environment, called for suspending Russia’s membership from the agency if Russia does not “leave all Ukrainian power plants immediately.” If suspension does not work, “let’s kick them out” of the IAEA, she said, noting that the IAEA is about “safety and security of nuclear technologies” and Russia’s actions are a “test of credibility” for the agency.

Russia and Ukraine also used the IAEA meeting to trade accusations. In a statement on Sept. 26, Ukraine said that Russia is a “nuclear terrorist state” and the only country that “shells facilities” at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and “terrorizes and tortures” its employees. Ukraine called for IAEA member states to “use all levers of influence” to stop Russia’s occupation of the nuclear facility.

In its Sept. 26 statement, Russia denied responsibility for the attacks on Zaporizhzhia, instead blaming Ukraine for attacking the power plant and sabotage groups for targeting power lines. Russia has no armed forces at the site, only national guard personnel performing security duties, the statement said. Moscow believes that “assurance of nuclear safety and physical protection” is an “absolute priority,” the statement added.

Although IAEA member states did not take direct action against Russia during their meeting, they adopted a resolution on nuclear security that specifically referenced the risk posed to Ukraine’s nuclear facilities. The resolution did not mention Russia by name, but noted the “significant loss of control” over the Zaporizhzhia plant and the “negative consequences on nuclear security.” The resolution also recalled the “need to immediately cease all actions against and at nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful purposes.”

Russia attempted to block a vote on the resolution by walking out of the meeting and pressuring other states to do the same in order to prevent a voting quorum. Russia’s efforts failed, and the resolution was adopted on Sept. 30.


IAEA efforts to establish a zone of protection around Zaporizhzhia are running into obstacles.


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