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

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
October 2022
Edition Date: 
Saturday, October 1, 2022
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The Cuban Missile Crisis at 60: Six Timeless Lessons for Arms Control

October 2022
By Graham Allison

October marks the 60th anniversary of the most dangerous crisis in recorded history. In October 1962, U.S. President John Kennedy faced off with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation, each with his nation’s nuclear arsenal in hand. In the midst of the crisis, in a quiet aside with his brother, Kennedy offered his estimate that the risks of nuclear war were between one in three and even. Nothing that historians have discovered in the decades since has lengthened these odds. Had this crisis ended in nuclear war, hundreds of millions of people in the Soviet Union, the United States, and Europe could have experienced sudden death.

This photograph of a ballistic missile base in Cuba was among the evidence that helped persuade U.S. President John Kennedy to order a naval blockade of Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. (Photo by Getty Images)As the best documented major crisis in history, in substantial part because Kennedy secretly taped the deliberations in which he and his closest advisers were weighing choices they knew could lead to a catastrophic war, the Cuban missile crisis has become the canonical case study in nuclear statecraft. Over the decades since, key lessons from the crisis have been adapted and applied by the successors of Kennedy and Khrushchev to inform fateful choices. Of the many lessons from this nearly apocalyptic episode, six offer timeless insights for arms control.

First, to survive in a world of mutually assured destruction or MAD, a nuclear power must constrain itself and find ways to persuade its nuclear adversary to constrain itself. MAD is the acronym used by Cold War strategists to capture the essence of objective conditions in which a nuclear power cannot attack an adversary that has a robust nuclear arsenal without triggering a response that destroys itself. Thus, even if country A can destroy country B totally, it cannot do so without B responding with an attack that destroys itself. A nation’s choice to attack an adversary that has a reliable second-strike nuclear arsenal is therefore functionally equivalent to a choice to commit national suicide. In these conditions, a nation’s survival requires it to coexist with its adversary since the alternative is to co-destruct.

Second, from the brute fact that “a nuclear war cannot be won” because at the conclusion the attacker would also have lost their own society, U.S. President Ronald Reagan drew a large categorical imperative: a nuclear war “must therefore never be fought.” Reagan’s often-repeated one-liner, that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must therefore never be fought,” almost says it all.

Reagan struggled with this radical, disruptive, profound truth. However good the United States was—very, he believed—and however evil the “Evil Empire” was, as he rightly named the Soviet Union, if these two deadly adversaries could not fight a nuclear war or a full-scale conventional war that would likely escalate to nuclear war, then what? Then, the whole character of their competition would have to be fundamentally different from relations between great powers through previous centuries. As Kennedy summarized his own attempt to internalize this fact, because “we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.”

Lesson three spotlights the necessity for communication, especially private communication, between leaders of nuclear-armed states. Prior to the missile crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev developed a back channel in which they exchanged private letters. During the crisis, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy communicated secret messages from his brother the president to Khrushchev through the Soviet ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, including the terms of a secret deal that led to peaceful resolution of the crisis.

Yet, the technologies of the day through which these communications were transmitted took 11 hours. In a case where messages were being sent about urgent issues, such delay obviously risked catastrophe. Thus, immediately after the missile crisis, Kennedy proposed and Khrushchev accepted the establishment of the hotline that allowed direct, secret telephone communication between the leaders.

U.S. President John Kennedy signs the order for a naval blockade of Cuba on October 23, 1962 at the White House during the Cuban missile crisis. (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)Kennedy believed that the most important lesson of the missile crisis was the necessity for mutual constraints, which he understood required unilateral constraints. In the major foreign policy speech of his career, the American University commencement speech given five months before he was assassinated, Kennedy highlighted what he identified as the central takeaway from the missile crisis: “Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.” This meant avoiding repeats of confrontations like the Cuban missile crisis because if there was a one-in-three chance of nuclear war in that case and if this game of nuclear Russian roulette were replayed repeatedly, the likelihood of nuclear war would approach certainty.

The fifth lesson requires that adversaries find ways to constrain their own unilateral activities, including in explicit agreements, as the price for inducing their adversary to accept mutual restraints. Thus began what has been known in the decades since as arms control. Kennedy’s unilateral announcement that the United States was ending all nuclear testing in the atmosphere challenged the Soviet Union to match it in kind. In fact, Khrushchev did. This was followed by negotiations that over time produced constraints on deployment of offensive nuclear weapons (the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks and the strategic arms reduction treaties) and defenses against ballistic missiles (the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty). Each of these treaties was in essence a bargain in which both nations agreed to forgo actions they would otherwise have taken in exchange for the other doing likewise.

Particularly for a state that identified itself as and truly was a superpower, the proposition that U.S. policymakers would forgo actions they felt advanced U.S. interests in exchange for an adversary forgoing actions that the United States judged threatening to its interests was almost unthinkable. Thus, for example, when Reagan agreed to eliminate U.S. intermediate-range nuclear-armed missiles as the price for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev eliminating the Soviets’ intermediate-range nuclear-armed missiles, he was denounced by hawkish commentators.

The leading conservative intellectual of the time, William Buckley, devoted an entire issue of his National Review to condemning Reagan’s Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty as a “suicide pact.” Columnist George Will wrote in 1987 that “Reagan has accelerated the moral disarmament of the West—actual disarmament will follow.” About such criticism, Reagan observed, “Some of my more radical conservative supporters protested that in negotiating with the Russians I was plotting to trade away our country’s future security. I assured them we wouldn’t sign any agreements that placed us at a disadvantage, but still got lots of flak from them—many of whom, I was convinced, thought we had to prepare for nuclear war because it was ‘inevitable.’”

The sixth lesson recognizes that to avoid future confrontations like the Cuban missile crisis would require finding ways to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to additional states. Kennedy was haunted by the specter of “the possibility in the 1970s of the president of the United States having to face a world in which 15 or 20 or 25 nations may have these weapons” (fig. 1). As he said, “I regard that as the greatest possible danger and hazard.”

Source: Graham Allison


To escape that future, the United States launched a series of initiatives that created the nonproliferation regime, the centerpiece of which is the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In that treaty, non-nuclear-weapon signatories forswore nuclear weapons in exchange for other states, including their adversaries or potential enemies, making an equivalent pledge. In contrast to the 15 or 25 nuclear-weapon states that Kennedy envisaged, today just nine states have nuclear weapons.

Six decades on, the Cuban missile crisis remains a pivotal moment in arms control. Given the nightmare that could have been, the world can be grateful for generations of effort that literally bent this arc of history. Yet, given the pressures for further proliferation of nuclear weapons resulting from the lessons leaders are now drawing from Russia’s war against Ukraine, as well as the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the toppling of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi in 2011, sustaining this success will require another burst of strategic imagination and relentless effort in the decades ahead.

Graham Allison is the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. His latest book is Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? His first book was Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis.

What lessons from the Cuban missile crisis can be applied to today's confrontation with Russia? Nuclear expert Graham Allison has some answers.

No Viable ‘Nuclear Option’ for Russia in Ukraine

October 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball

Sixty years ago this month, the Soviet Union and the world teetered on the edge of nuclear Armageddon over Russian missile deployments in Cuba. Once again, the world is facing the heightened risk of nuclear war, this time due to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reckless and unjustified invasion of Ukraine and his attempts to intimidate the West with nuclear threats.

"May That Nuclear War Be Cursed!” a 1978 painting by the celebrated Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko. This work and others of hers were diplayed in a museum in Ivankiv in northern Ukraine, which came under Russian attack in the early days of the 2022 invasion.In March and April, Putin warned of the possible use of nuclear weapons to deter direct NATO or U.S. military involvement. Now, as Russia suffers serious military losses in its war against Ukraine, Putin is making not-so-veiled threats that he may use nuclear weapons, not just to deter outside intervention but to tip the balance of the conflict in Ukraine.

If there are indeed discussions about nuclear weapons use in the Kremlin, Putin’s military, diplomatic, and political advisers have a duty to point out that such aggression against Ukraine would be illegal, provide Russia with no practical military advantage, and create grave threats to Putin's regime, Russia itself, and global security.

On Sept. 21, in a national address announcing an increased mobilization of Russian military forces, Putin said, “When the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff.”

Putin's words imply that if he believes there is an attack on Russian territory or on Ukrainian territory illegally claimed by Russia, he might order the use of tactical nuclear weapons to decimate Ukraine's defense forces or its cities, demonstrate Russian resolve, and attempt to force Ukraine and its allies to surrender.

Putin’s latest threat veers from Russia’s official nuclear doctrine, which reserves the option to use nuclear weapons in response to an attack with weapons of mass destruction or if a conventional war threatens the “very existence of the state.”

So far, there is no sign that Russia is deploying any of its estimated 450 land- and air-based short-range nuclear weapons, but as CIA Director William Burns noted in April, “[N]one of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons.”

When U.S. President Joe Biden was asked by a “60 Minutes” reporter on Sept. 18 if the Russians might be considering using chemical or tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine, he replied, “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. You will change the face of war unlike anything since World War II.” He added that “the extent of what they do will determine what response would occur.”

Biden is right to speak forcefully against nuclear war and warn of the consequences. Modern short-range nuclear weapons are devastating and indiscriminate killing machines. Most of the 450 air- and ground-based, short-range nuclear warheads in Russia's inventory have an explosive yield equivalent to about 10 kilotons of TNT. The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima produced a yield of some 15 kilotons and led to the deaths of more than 140,000 people within six months of the attack.

Not only would the use of nuclear weapons be enormously destructive, it would blow apart what support Putin still has from China’s Xi Jinping and India’s Narendra Modi, unleash international wrath, trigger even more dissension to Putin’s rule within Russia, and possibly lead to exactly what he wishes to avoid: direct U.S. or NATO intervention on the side of Ukraine.

Worse yet, an outbreak of military hostilities between the nuclear-armed NATO alliance and Russia could quickly go nuclear. Notions that nuclear war can be "limited" are fantasy. Once a nuclear attack is initiated, there is no guarantee it would not escalate quickly into an all-out nuclear conflagration, killing hundreds of millions of people in a matter of hours or days.

To prevent catastrophe, global leaders should reinforce Biden’s caution against Putin’s flirtations with nuclear weapons use. They should underscore why everyone loses, especially Russia, if Putin breaks the 77-year-long taboo against using nuclear weapons; and they should do so now, not after the fact.

The states-parties to the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons have shown the way through their recent Vienna Declaration, which condemns all threats to use nuclear weapons as violations of international law, including the UN Charter. The declaration demands “that all nuclear-armed states never use or threaten to use nuclear weapons under any circumstances.”

If Russia or any state uses nuclear weapons, UN member states should pursue a “uniting for peace” resolution to overcome crippling gridlock in the UN Security Council and authorize effective, collective measures to restore the peace and hold Putin accountable under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

Putin may be cold, calculating, and cruel; but even by his own logic, nuclear weapons use runs counter to his interests, the interest of his regime, and of course the world. Nuclear war made no sense in 1962; it makes no sense in 2022, or ever. It is imperative for responsible leaders to reinforce the nuclear weapons taboo now.


Sixty years ago this month, the Soviet Union and the world teetered on the edge of nuclear Armageddon over Russian missile deployments in Cuba.

Will Russia’s War on Ukraine Spur Nuclear Proliferation?

October 2022
By Robert Einhorn

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upended many of the norms and expectations essential to the success of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.

At their June summit in Madrid, where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke remotely, NATO leaders agreed to augment alliance capabilities to defend the frontline states. (Photo by Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images)In his August 1 address to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken referred to the potentially damaging impact of the invasion: “So what message does this send to any country around the world that may think that it needs to have nuclear weapons to protect, to defend, to deter aggression against its sovereignty and independence? The worst possible message.”1 According to foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius the Russian war “might prove the greatest stimulus to nuclear proliferation in history.”2 Similar concerns are shared by many other experts.3

Such proliferation pessimism in the midst of Russia’s brutal effort to erase Ukraine as an independent state is understandable. Some non-nuclear-weapon states under threat from hostile nuclear powers may reconsider whether they need their own nuclear deterrent to guarantee their security. Moreover, the perception that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling succeeded in deterring NATO’s direct intervention in the conflict may reinforce the determination of nuclear-armed states such as North Korea to hold on to their nuclear weapons. It also may increase the fears of non-nuclear-weapon states that are potential victims of nuclear power aggression that they could be left without a nuclear protector and forced to fend for themselves.

In theory, the Ukraine experience could incentivize more countries to pursue their own nuclear weapons capabilities, but nuclear proliferation does not occur in theory. It occurs in particular countries, with particular security situations and adversaries, security relationships with friendly states, national priorities, technological and financial capabilities, and domestic balances of political power.

To evaluate the impact of the Russian invasion on real-world prospects for further proliferation, it is essential to focus on particular cases, including the countries often considered possible candidates for reconsidering their nuclear options. When one does that, the outlook for further proliferation does not appear as pessimistic as has been widely assumed.


If any country is likely to “go nuclear” as a result of the war, Ukraine would be a logical bet. Russia’s all-out invasion last February, annexation of Crimea in 2014, and support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine were clear-cut violations of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. That agreement committed Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States to safeguard Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and significantly influenced Ukraine to remove Soviet-era nuclear weapons from its territory and join the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state. In a February 19 speech, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asserted that Russia’s aggression “put in doubt” the package of decisions contained in the memorandum, presumably including Ukraine’s decision to renounce nuclear weapons.4

Nevertheless, for many of the reasons that Ukraine renounced nuclear weapons in the early 1990s and maintained its non-nuclear-weapon status despite Russia’s 2014 encroachments, it is very unlikely to opt for nuclear weapons now. Although Ukraine has a substantial nuclear energy infrastructure, it lacks the specialized facilities needed to produce fuel for nuclear weapons or the weapons themselves. Devoting time and resources to construct those facilities would make little sense when the national priority for years to come will be rebuilding the country in the wake of the war’s devastation.

More fundamentally, Ukraine believes, probably more now than in 1994, that its future is with the West. Even if NATO membership is never in the cards—many Ukrainians and NATO members doubt that it is—Ukraine recognizes that U.S. and European military assistance is essential to its war effort and to defending against future Russian aggression. Moreover, Ukraine is determined to join the European Union and become more integrated economically, politically, and socially with the rest of Europe.

Ukraine knows that embarking on a nuclear weapons development program would alienate its Western partners and put those interests in jeopardy. It could find itself cut off from security assistance and subject to sanctions, including on the civil nuclear cooperation needed to sustain its heavy reliance on nuclear power to meet its energy requirements. Ukraine also knows that an embryonic nuclear weapons program, if detected, could well provide a pretext for a preemptive Russian military attack.

Thus, the likelihood of Ukraine pursuing nuclear weapons development is low and would be even lower if Western security assistance enables the country to achieve a relatively acceptable outcome to the war and if the United States and its allies follow through on their declared intention to strengthen Ukrainian defenses against future Russian aggression.

Frontline NATO States

The frontline states of NATO, mainly Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, might be considered candidates for reevaluating their nuclear options. Putin’s expansive, pre-invasion description of Russia’s geopolitical ambitions, essentially to turn the clock back to the days of the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence, was perceived by those NATO allies as a serious and immediate threat. Since the invasion, they have been on edge about the prospect of Russia expanding the war to their territories and urgently appealed to their NATO partners to bolster their capabilities to deter a Russian incursion.

At their June summit in Madrid, NATO leaders agreed to augment alliance capabilities to defend the frontline states and to “defend every inch of allied territory at all times.”

These force enhancements, the prospect of more in the future, and the renewed solidarity and sense of purpose displayed by NATO countries in response to the Russian invasion should convince the frontline allies that their interests are much better served by relying on NATO’s Article V security guarantee than pursuing an indigenous nuclear weapons capability.

Japan and South Korea

Russian aggression may indirectly affect the security calculations of U.S. allies Japan and South Korea. Neither feels directly threatened by Russia, but they are worried that its attack on Ukraine and its nuclear threats designed to deter U.S. and NATO intervention in the conflict could embolden China and North Korea to act aggressively in the region. They worry that China and North Korea might assume that their ability to strike the U.S. homeland with nuclear weapons would deter the United States from coming to the defense of its allies.

The situations are very different. The United States is not bound by treaty to defend non-ally Ukraine, but is obliged to defend allies Japan and South Korea. Moreover, unlike in Ukraine, the United States stations large numbers of military personnel in both East Asian nations, which ensures that aggression against them would implicate vital U.S. interests and virtually guarantee U.S. involvement in the conflict. Nonetheless, the unsettling Ukraine experience, combined with the threatening nuclear and missile capabilities of China and North Korea and persistent regional uncertainty about the reliability of U.S. security commitments, could increase interest in Japan and South Korea in pursuing their own nuclear deterrents.

In recent years, South Koreans have grown increasingly concerned about the ability of their alliance with the United States to deter North Korea. Political figures, especially from the ruling conservative People Power Party; prominent former officials; and think tank experts have suggested options to enhance deterrence, including the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, NATO-like nuclear-sharing arrangements that would enable South Korean pilots to deliver U.S. nuclear weapons in the event of war, and South Korea’s acquisition of its own nuclear weapons capability. South Korean public opinion has long favored indigenous development of nuclear weapons. A recent poll found that 71 percent favored an independent South Korean deterrent, greater than the 56 percent that favored the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea.5

In Japan, the nuclear debate has been more subdued, with the Japanese public opposed to acquiring nuclear weapons.6 Still, the subject is no longer taboo. As in South Korea, questions about the credibility of the U.S. extended nuclear deterrent have led the Japanese strategic community to think seriously about options for strengthening deterrence in a more challenging security environment.

Although support has grown in both countries for reassessing the wisdom of remaining non-nuclear-weapon states, neither is likely to opt for its own nuclear weapons. The Biden administration has done much to reassure the Japanese and South Koreans by giving high priority to strengthening U.S. alliances and reinforcing the U.S. extended deterrent, a sharp contrast to President Donald Trump’s transactional, often dismissive approach to these long-standing allies.

In addition, while continuing to depend heavily on the U.S. nuclear deterrent, these allies have given high priority to increasing their own military spending and boosting their own conventional defense and deterrence capabilities. These national efforts, by enhancing overall alliance deterrence and reassuring citizens of the governments’ ability to defend against growing regional threats, may reduce the perceived need for Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear weapons.

Moreover, the strong and skillful leadership displayed by the United States in rallying broad international support for penalizing Russia and assisting Ukraine militarily, even in the absence of a formal alliance with Ukraine, could serve to warn China and North Korea of the risks of aggression and to reassure U.S. allies and partners about the U.S. willingness to stand with them against future aggression.

Another factor working against Japanese and South Korean nuclearization is that acquiring nuclear weapons would not be cost free. A decision by either country to withdraw from the NPT and pursue nuclear weapons development would be a body blow to the global nonproliferation regime and elicit strong international opprobrium. Trading partners could be expected to scale back cooperation in certain strategically sensitive goods and technologies. Among other penalties, international civil nuclear cooperation could be cut off, dramatically effecting Japan and South Korea, which depend on nuclear power for energy.

Both countries would be aware that national nuclear forces and their production and storage facilities would become potential targets of preemptive attack in a crisis, especially in the early stages of nuclearization before survivable retaliatory capabilities are established.

In weighing the costs and benefits of going nuclear, a key factor would be the likely reaction of the United States, which has long opposed the acquisition of nuclear weapons by its East Asian allies. For many years, Japan and South Korea have had good reason to believe that a decision to go nuclear would lead to the weakening of their alliances with the United States and possibly the unraveling of U.S. security guarantees, including the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

With the United States increasingly focused on geopolitical competition with China and Russia, there has been speculation that it would be more tolerant of Japan and South Korea developing nuclear weapons and might even see the move as valuable if it helped tilt the global strategic balance against the United States’ great-power rivals. In that event, Washington might be reluctant to impose security, economic, and other penalties on an ally for choosing its own deterrent.

Depending on the evolution of the international security environment, such a U.S. attitude cannot entirely be ruled out. At least for now, it does not appear likely. The Biden administration seems strongly committed to opposing proliferation, including by its allies in East Asia. It wants to maintain a consistent, global nonproliferation policy and believes that regional stability is better served by continued reliance on the U.S. extended deterrent than by proliferating national nuclear capabilities that would heighten tensions and the risks of nuclear confrontation, intentional or inadvertent, that could involve the United States.

Going forward, the main driver of Japanese and South Korean nuclear decision-making will be the perceived reliability of U.S. security assurances in countering the growing threats from China and North Korea. For now, the Biden administration’s renewed emphasis on strengthening its East Asian alliances and enhancing the credibility of its extended nuclear deterrent, together with Japanese and South Korean conventional defense enhancements, make it unlikely they will opt for their own nuclear deterrent.


Given its precarious geopolitical situation, Taiwan might be expected to revive its interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. China has long been determined to unify the self-governing democratic island with the mainland, by military force if necessary, and President Xi Jinping has stepped up political pressures and military intimidation to hasten that outcome. Taiwan clandestinely pursued a nuclear weapons capability throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s, but it was caught and forced, largely by the United States, to accept constraints on its nuclear activities that effectively crushed its nuclear aspirations.

Taiwan has plenty of incentive and financial resources to pursue nuclear weapons but is unlikely to do so because authorities recognize the downsides. In this photo, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen makes remarks during a visit to Penghu Air Force Base on Magong Island in 2020. (Photo by Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images)Taiwanese authorities have drawn parallels between Russia’s invasion of non-nuclear Ukraine, whose legitimacy as an independent state has been challenged by Putin, and an emboldened China’s threat to invade non-nuclear Taiwan, which China views as a renegade province. Like Ukraine, Taiwan faces a mortal threat from a nuclear-armed state and is not the recipient of binding security guarantees from any nuclear power.

Taiwan has plenty of incentive, financial resources, and technical expertise to make another run at nuclear weapons development, but is unlikely to do so. Years ago, it accepted constraints that block its potential paths, including the renunciation of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities, the removal of plutonium-bearing spent fuel, and the shutdown of a research reactor that could be a source of weapons-grade plutonium. After the discovery of Taiwan’s covert program, the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) pressured Taiwan to accept more rigorous scrutiny of its civil nuclear program, including implementation of an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement, even though Taiwan’s nonstate legal status makes it ineligible to adhere formally.7

Authorities in Taipei also recognize the downsides of seeking nuclear weapons. They know that the United States, their principal benefactor, strongly opposes a nuclear-armed Taiwan, which would radically alter the cross-strait status quo that the United States is determined to uphold. Taiwan’s leaders understand that pursuing their own nuclear deterrent would likely forfeit the substantial increase in political support and military assistance they have received from the Trump and Biden administrations, including after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Taiwan’s international political isolation would worsen, and the international trade and investment relationships that are the source of the island’s prosperity could fall victim to sanctions. Not least, China would view a nuclear weapons program as a redline-crossing move intended to ensure Taiwan’s independence and almost certainly trigger a Chinese military response.

Taiwan’s leaders probably understand that, despite President Joe Biden’s apparent personal conviction that the United States should defend Taiwan if it is attacked, the official U.S. position will remain one of strategic ambiguity. Nonetheless, the United States has moved to beef up its military posture in the western Pacific, and a bipartisan group of U.S. senators has introduced the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022 aimed at boosting U.S. security assistance to Taiwan and designating it a major non-NATO ally.8 Taiwan’s leaders probably perceive the U.S. position as evolving in a more reassuring direction, even if it still falls short of a formal guarantee. With U.S. encouragement, Taiwan seems more inclined to take its defense requirements more seriously, to commit the needed funds and political capital to address the growing threat, and to acquire the military and intelligence capabilities most relevant to countering likely scenarios of Chinese aggression.9

Relying on growing U.S. support and stepped-up national defense efforts will be seen by Taiwan’s authorities as a more promising approach to safeguarding the island’s self-governing status than pursuing nuclear weapons.


The non-nuclear-weapon state most likely to seek to join the nuclear club is Iran, although its interest in doing so long predated the Russian invasion and, unlike frontline NATO states in Europe or U.S. allies in East Asia, it does not feel directly or indirectly threatened by Russian aggression.

An Iranian technician works at Iran’s uranium conversion facility in Isfahan in 2007. Experts fear that Iran could have the capability to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon in a matter of days if the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal is not revived. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images)The Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2018 and Iran responded with a large-scale buildup of its uranium-enrichment program. Indirect negotiations between the United States and Iran on an agreement to return to JCPOA compliance are at an impasse. Biden administration officials say prospects for a deal in the near term, particularly before the U.S. midterm elections in November, are unlikely.

In the absence of JCPOA revival, Iran could soon have the capability to produce enough weapons-grade uranium to fabricate a nuclear weapon in a matter of days. Reviving the JCPOA and its tight nuclear restrictions would lengthen that “breakout” time to around six months, giving the international community sufficient warning to discover an Iranian breakout and intervene to stop it, if necessary with military force.

An agreement would keep Iran that safe distance from the nuclear threshold for another eight years, but with the JCPOA’s nuclear restrictions scheduled to expire in 2031, a return to the nuclear deal would not permanently close Iran’s nuclear weapons options.

Thus, if the JCPOA is not revived or if it is revived but an extension of its restrictions beyond 2031 cannot be negotiated, Iran’s nuclear program would at some point be unrestricted. In either circumstance, the United States and its partners would have to rely on diplomatic pressures, economic sanctions, and ultimately the threat of preemptive attack to impede Iran’s advance to a nuclear weapons capability.

A nuclear-armed Iran is not inevitable. Iranian leaders may well decide that, in light of the potential economic costs and security risks of building nuclear weapons, their goals would be better served by settling for a threshold nuclear capability, which would give them a future option to acquire nuclear weapons relatively quickly at a time of their choosing. Such a capability could be seen in Tehran as enhancing their regional clout. Alternatively, as many observers predict, Iran may decide that the benefits of actually possessing nuclear weapons are much greater than having a threshold capability. In such a case, however, Iran would still face the obstacle of a few states, especially the United States and Israel, being willing to employ any means necessary to stop it.

At the margin, Iran’s choice might be influenced by the fallout over Ukraine. Although the strengthening of strategic ties between Moscow and Tehran preceded the invasion, it has accelerated since then,10 perhaps giving Iranian leaders the impression that they could count on Russia in withstanding the international pressures that would follow Iran’s nuclear breakout. Whatever Iran decides, it still will be driven fundamentally by the regime’s calculations of its own regional and domestic interests, not by any lessons from the war in Ukraine.

Saudi Arabia

Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s interest in nuclear weapons is independent of the war in Ukraine and based almost entirely on its judgment that arch-rival Iran is determined to be nuclear armed. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has declared his intention to match a future Iranian weapons capability.11 Contributing to this desire to follow Iran down the nuclear path is a belief shared by several other U.S. partners that the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East and cannot be relied on to protect them from efforts by Iran and its proxies to dominate the region.

Biden’s July trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia was designed in part to counteract that belief and reassure friends that the United States will remain engaged and help them push back against encroachments by Iran. In that connection, the Biden administration has sought to build on the Abraham Accords promoted by the Trump administration and assemble a coalition of Israel and Arab states concerned about the Iranian threat. It has promoted a cooperative missile and air defense and intelligence network to defend against missile, rocket, and drone attacks by Tehran and its proxies.12

Even if the Biden administration makes headway in rebuilding confidence in the U.S. commitment to the region, that is unlikely to dissuade the crown prince from seeking to match an Iranian nuclear capability, given his intense distrust of Iran and his uncertainty about the policies of future U.S. administrations.

Saudi Arabia is likely to have a difficult time catching up with Iran, however. The Saudis have an ambitious plan to build nuclear power reactors, and in negotiations with Washington on a bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreement, have rejected U.S. proposals that they renounce uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing and adhere to an additional protocol to their safeguards agreement. Nonetheless, the kingdom is many years away from having the technical and human infrastructure required to produce nuclear weapons indigenously.

To build the bomb, the Saudis would need large-scale foreign assistance. Several nuclear supplier states, including China, France, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, are eager to sell them nuclear power reactors, but the Saudis would need enrichment or reprocessing facilities to attempt production of nuclear weapons themselves. It is doubtful that Riyadh could find a state possessing such proliferation-enabling technologies that would be willing to provide them or would be willing to sell a fabricated nuclear weapon or its fissile or nonfissile components.

Neither China nor Russia is likely to assist Saudi ambitions by providing proliferation-sensitive nuclear equipment or technology. They do not want a highly destabilizing nuclear arms competition in the Middle East, especially one pitting Saudi Arabia against Iran, their increasingly valued strategic partner.

Proliferation analysts tend to look more toward Pakistan or North Korea as potential nuclear enablers, but with Pakistani nuclear activities under heavy scrutiny in the post-A.Q. Khan era and the government pursuing good relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is unlikely to provide critical help. Saudi Arabia will not be able to count on North Korea either given that illicit North Korean trading networks and possible Saudi efforts to shop the nuclear black market are likely to be key targets of U.S. and other intelligence and interdiction operations.

The Saudis are highly motivated and likely to persist if the Iranian nuclear threat continues to advance, but they have a steep hill to climb in acquiring a threshold nuclear capability or nuclear weapons, and the probability of succeeding is not high.

Worrisome Trends

The bottom line is that it is premature to write an obituary for the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. Although Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unnerved the international community, it does not seem to be the proliferation trigger that many analysts predict.

A Ukranian soldier stands atop an abandoned Russian tank near a village on the outskirts of Izyum in the Kharkiv Region of eastern Ukraine on Sept. 11. The Russian invasion has raised new questions about the potential spread of nuclear weapons.  (Photo by Juan Barreto/AFP via Getty Images)This assessment is based on current circumstances, and circumstances can change. Nonproliferation experts have identified developments that could increase the likelihood of proliferation in the years ahead.13 For example, highly adversarial U.S.-Chinese and U.S.-Russian relations could significantly alter the global nonproliferation landscape. The major powers increasingly could prioritize geostrategic interests over nonproliferation goals. For example, China and Russia might be less inclined to rein in North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions that could help offset U.S. power and influence. Already, they are less likely to collaborate with the United States than they did in past negotiations with North Korea and Iran.

In addition, the relative decline in U.S. post-Cold War primacy could weaken Washington’s hand in addressing nonproliferation challenges. Although the United States remains the nonproliferation regime’s leading supporter, its ability to get friends and foes to fall in line behind its nonproliferation policies has diminished. Moreover, despite the Biden administration’s efforts to reassure friends and warn foes that the United States is back as a world leader and committed for the long haul, uncertainty about future U.S. overseas presence and security commitments is likely to persist, given deep domestic divisions at home and the possible return to America First policies.

A Positive Record

The global nonproliferation regime has had a remarkably positive record. In 1992, nine states were believed to possess nuclear weapons (China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the UK, and the United States). Thirty years later, despite predictions of a “cascade of proliferation,”14 there are still the same nine nuclear-armed states.

In light of today’s worrisome trends, however, the future of nuclear nonproliferation hardly can be taken for granted. At the same time, the factors that have reinforced the judgment of particular countries to remain non-nuclear, despite the war in Ukraine, will persist. These include the political, economic, and security risks a non-nuclear-weapon state would encounter in pursuing a nuclear weapons program; the financial and technical hurdles some non-nuclear-weapon states would face in embarking on such a program; the security assurances some of these states receive from allied nuclear-armed states; and the recognition by many non-nuclear-weapon states that acquiring nuclear weapons would not be the answer to the actual security challenges they face.

Whatever the likelihood of additional states acquiring nuclear weapons, it is essential to do whatever can be done to make that outcome less likely. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should be a wake-up call to the United States and other key nations that unless they give high priority to preventing further proliferation by reducing incentives for their friends to acquire nuclear weapons and making it riskier for others to acquire them, the remarkable success of the global nonproliferation regime will be much more difficult to sustain.



1. Antony J. Blinken, Remarks to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference, August 1, 2022, https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinkens-remarks-to-the-nuclear-non-proliferation-treaty-review-conference/.

2. David Ignatius, “Watching Russia’s Military Failure Is Exhilarating. But a Cornered Putin Is Dangerous,” The Washington Post, March 17, 2022.

3. Michael E. O’Hanlon and Bruce Riedel, “The Russia-Ukraine War May Be Bad for Nuclear Proliferation,” Order From Chaos blog, March 29, 2002, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2022/03/29/the-russia-ukraine-war-may-be-bad-news-for-nuclear-nonproliferation/; Steven Pifer, “Why Putin’s Betrayal of Ukraine Could Trigger Nuclear Proliferation,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 1, 2022, https://thebulletin.org/2022/06/why-putins-betrayal-of-ukraine-could-trigger-nuclear-proliferation.

4. Mariana Budjeryn and Matthew Bunn, “Ukraine Building a Nuclear Bomb? Dangerous Nonsense,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 9, 2022, https://thebulletin.org/2022/03/ukraine-building-a-nuclear-bomb-dangerous-nonsense/.

5. Toby Dalton, Karl Friedhoff, and Lami Kim, “Thinking Nuclear: South Korean Attitudes on Nuclear Weapons,” Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Lester Crown Center on U.S. Foreign Policy, and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 2022, https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/sites/default/files/2022-02/Korea%20Nuclear%20Report%20PDF.pdf.

6. Rupert Wingfield Hayes, “Will Ukraine Invasion Push Japan to Go Nuclear?” BBC News, March 26, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-60857346.

7. David Albright and Corey Gay, “Taiwan: Nuclear Nightmare Averted,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 54, No. 1 (1998): 54–60.

8. Michael Martina and Patricia Zengerle, “U.S. Senators Introduce Broad Taiwan Bill to Boost Security Assistance,” Reuters, June 17, 2022.

9. Joyu Wang, “In Taiwan, Russia’s War in Ukraine Stirs New Interest in Self-Defense,”
The Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2022.

10. Benoit Faucon, “Iran and Russia Are Cementing an Alliance With Grain, Drones, and Satellites,” The Wall Street Journal, August 27, 2022.

11. “Saudi Crown Prince: If Iran Develops Nuclear Bomb, So Will We,” CBS News, March 15, 2018, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/saudi-crown-prince-mohammed-bin-salman-iran-nuclear-bomb-saudi-arabia/.

12. Nancy Youssef and Stephen Kalin, “U.S. Proposes Helping Israel, Arab States Harden Air Defenses Against Iran,” The Wall Street Journal, June 9, 2022.

13. Eric Brewer, “The Nuclear Proliferation Landscape: Is Past Prologue,” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Summer 2021): 181–197.

14. “A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility; Report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change,” United Nations, 2004, p. 39, https://www.un.org/peacebuilding/sites/www.un.org.peacebuilding/files/documents/hlp_more_secure_world.pdf.

Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, previously served as assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation in the Clinton administration and the secretary of state’s special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control in the Obama administration.

The outlook for further proliferation does not appear as pessimistic as has been widely assumed.

10th NPT Review Conference: The Nonproliferation and Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy Pillars

October 2022
By Sergey Batsanov, Vladislav Chernavskikh, and Anton Khlopkov

Despite the near-universal recognition of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as the cornerstone of international security, it faces growing challenges. This was amply demonstrated at the recent 10th NPT Review Conference, where issues relating to all three pillars of the treaty—disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy—were the subject of contentious debate.

Royal Australian Navy submarine HMAS Sheean arrives for a port visit in Hobart, Australia last year. A decision by Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States to form a new military and political alliance, known as AUKUS, was a major topic at the 10th NPT Review Conference, where states-parties expressed concern about UK and U.S. plans to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. (Photo by LSIS Leo Baumgartner/Australian Defence Force via Getty Images)Delayed four times because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference has shown that as the international security environment continues to deteriorate, the NPT discussions are becoming increasingly politicized. This situation poses challenges for the future: Can states-parties adequately prioritize issues directly related to the NPT and compartmentalize them from their numerous disagreements in other areas, and what is the best way to do this? These are profound and difficult questions, but the ability to find a solution will have a direct impact on negotiations at the review conference in 2026 and the ability of the NPT to remain the bedrock of international arms control and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.

Despite four weeks of intense negotiations, participants at the review conference, which ended on August 26 in New York, were unable to reach consensus on the substantive part of the outcome document.1 That was not unprecedented. Four of nine previous review conferences, in 1980, 1990, 2005, and 2015, concluded with a similar result.2 This one, however, was somewhat special. First, it was held in the context of the 50th anniversary of the NPT’s entry into force and the 25th anniversary of the treaty’s indefinite extension. Second, it marked the first time that two consecutive review cycles ended without the adoption of a consensus final document or substantive decisions.

In 2015, consensus was blocked by the Canadian, UK and U.S. delegations. This year, Russia was the only one to openly oppose adoption of the draft outcome document as submitted by the conference president. Even so, statements at the closing plenary and earlier discussions demonstrated a wide range of disagreements among delegations about the draft outcome document regarding all three NPT pillars. The New Zealand delegation, for example, expressed “deep disappointment” at how little had been achieved on disarmament issues despite “demands from non-nuclear weapon states.”3 The Mexican delegation, on behalf of more than 60 countries that are signatories to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, noted that the draft final document falls dramatically short of advancing nuclear disarmament and implementing Article VI of the NPT.4

Iran’s representative said the language regarding the weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East is the weakest its delegation has ever seen.5 The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) countries emphasized that the growing interest of states-parties in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy should not be used as grounds to impose additional restrictions under the pretext of preventing proliferation.6 The Austrian delegation called the document “very disappointing” and regretted that the only chance to achieve an outcome document is when no delegation wishes to take the blame for breaking consensus.7

Conference Outcomes

Even before the conference opened, many experts warned that NPT states-parties had accumulated too many disagreements and that reaching consensus on the outcome document would be extremely difficult if not impossible.8 For example, the Trump administration withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2018. It also refused to seek ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as documented in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. The United Kingdom decided to increase its nuclear stockpile and the trilateral AUKUS alliance took shape, under which the United States and the UK agreed to help Australia obtain nuclear submarines that are likely to use highly enriched uranium (HEU) as fuel.

Other factors looming over the conference were the unprecedented international security challenges manifested by crisis in Ukraine and the high level of confrontation among the delegations, including the five nuclear-weapon states. Indeed, some experts noted that this review conference was perhaps the most politicized in the history of the NPT. Ukraine, including the safety of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, became a major issue and the major politicizing factor at the conference. To the detriment of consensus building, some participants, mostly EU members, consistently brought up issues related to the Ukrainian crisis during the plenary sessions and meetings of all three main conference committees.

Many delegations were eager to find compromise on most agenda items and drafted an outcome document that addressed to some degree the majority of the key NPT challenges. Even so, the draft document ultimately was weak in language and substance, and the willingness to look for compromise was not enough to find language on the Ukrainian issue that would be acceptable to all delegations. Apart from Ukraine and disarmament issues, much of the debate focused on issues of nuclear nonproliferation and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, which previously were considered relatively less divisive in the context of recent NPT review cycles.

AUKUS Alliance

The new AUKUS political and military alliance among Australia, the UK, and the United States has provoked, as expected, strong negative reaction from China, which AUKUS is designed to counter, mainly by military means. The Chinese delegation, supported by Russia, was sharply critical of the alliance at the conference.9 Austria, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, and the Philippines also expressed concerns about AUKUS and related “naval propulsion arrangements.” Their arguments included concerns about the further militarization of the Pacific and Indian oceans, the prospect of military infrastructure expansion in the region by the nuclear-weapon states, and the application of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards in connection with the naval nuclear propulsion program. These factors run the risk of rekindling Australia’s appetite for nuclear weapons, which was evident in the late 1950s and almost until the country acceded to the NPT in 1973.10

Under the agreement, the UK and the United States are expected to supply the HEU needed as a fuel for the nuclear-powered submarines that Australia will receive. The failure to design and implement effective IAEA safeguards solutions with regard to this nuclear material would risk setting a precedent that could weaken the safeguards regime and facilitate the proliferation of sensitive nuclear materials and technology.

Assurances should be provided via IAEA safeguards implementation that Australia will honor its obligation under its comprehensive safeguards agreement not to use the nuclear material in question for the production of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.11 There are other legal, technical, and procedural issues that deserve serious and thoughtful consideration. China, Russia, and some other countries also are concerned that the AUKUS participants may engage the IAEA in backroom negotiations and declare whatever they precook as a gold standard of safeguards application in connection with the naval nuclear propulsion program.

The review conference negotiations resulted in compromise language on this issue. The draft outcome document notes the interest of the NPT parties in this issue, as well as the need for non-nuclear-weapon states that pursue naval nuclear propulsion to engage with the IAEA in an open, transparent manner.

In various post-conference commentaries, there was a strong sense that by agreeing to this compromise language China had departed from its more far-reaching initial proposals. Regardless, Beijing and Moscow succeeded in defending their main interest: the AUKUS-related safeguards issue is now recognized as a serious one, and a proper way for addressing it with the IAEA has been indicated.

Middle Eastern WMD-Free Zone

In 2015, disagreements over the issue of the zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East were the main reason why that year’s review conference was unable to reach a consensus outcome document. Many experts anticipated it would also be one of the most controversial topics at the 10th review conference, given the unresolved differences between the Group of Arab States and the United States and the absence of the U.S. and Israeli representatives at the first two sessions of the UN conference on establishing a zone.

The working paper submitted by the Group of Arab States stressed that the UN conference was “an additional step” toward establishing a zone and called on all invited parties to “participate earnestly and constructively.”12 The Arab states noted that Israel had not yet taken part in the zone conference. They urged Israel to join the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state and to place all its nuclear facilities under IAEA comprehensive safeguards. Russia stressed that the UN conference “was a necessary step to break the deadlock in implementing the 1995 resolution on the Middle East.” It called on Israel to join the negotiations and the United States to join as an observer.13

The review conference draft outcome document “acknowledged the developments” of the first and second session of the UN conference on the zone in November 2019 and November 2021 and completely omitted references to Israel from the relevant section. According to some reports, several Middle Eastern countries were not invited to help draft the text in question; the main negotiations were carried out by the Egyptian and U.S. delegations. This prompted rumors that Iran, which essentially was excluded from the drafting process, might block adoption of the final document. Several other participants, including Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinians, expressed dissatisfaction with the “weak” final text.

Thus, despite the agreement on the language of the relevant paragraphs in the draft final document, serious contradictions on the issue of a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone within the NPT process have persisted. The United States refrained from commitments to participate in the next zone conference in November. Continuing the negotiating process without Israel and the United States is likely to increase further confrontation on this issue in the next NPT review cycle.

Iran Nuclear Deal

It would seem logical to see references in the draft final document to the importance of restoring the JCPOA as early as possible. Strengthening the NPT is, in essence, the goal of the JCPOA and UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the deal. Moreover, despite the uncertainty and stagnation that preceded the NPT review conference, many hoped the JCPOA talks had reached the final stage and would soon conclude successfully.

The most common explanation for the absence of any reference to the JCPOA in the draft final document is that the European Union, as coordinator of the JCPOA negotiations and in agreement with the United States, thought it counterproductive to give additional exposure to the nuclear deal. In principle, such a policy was justified, given the delicate stage of the negotiations, but it does not explain the complete absence of any mention of the JCPOA. One can assume that it was complications related to the Biden administration’s fears about the potential effect that restoring the JCPOA might have on the U.S. midterm elections in November.

Moreover, given Israel’s negative attitude toward the JCPOA, the inclusion of language calling for a swift and successful conclusion of negotiations could have led to a behind-the-scenes dispute between Israel and the United States. Ironically, Iran also was not eager to see a call for a successful conclusion of the JCPOA talks because of concern that the wording would be used to pressure Iran on its negotiating position and further complicate delicate internal political discussions in Tehran.

Regardless, the United States, Iran, and others were careful not to give negative signals about the JCPOA negotiations during the conference. Since then, there are signs that this kind of reasonable caution has given way to mutual recriminations about delaying the agreement. It looks certain that the endgame will be delayed until after the U.S. elections in November.

Korean Peninsula

Unlike the JCPOA, tensions on the Korean peninsula, which for several years has stagnated as an issue with no dialogue or negotiations taking place, sparked a heated debate at the review conference. The Japanese and South Korean delegations, with French, UK and U.S. support, promoted the maximalist concept of the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear weapons program, essentially abandoning more pragmatic approaches that were used with some success during the Korean peninsula dialogue in 2018–2019.

Tensions on the Korean peninsula were the subject of heated debate at the 10th NPT Review Conference in New York on Aug. 1–26, according to the authors. This undated handout picture, released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) last April, reportedly shows the test-fire of a new type of tactical guided weapon in North Korea. (Photo by STR/KCNA VIA KNS/AFP via Getty Images) China, supported by Russia, has tried to promote more balanced and realistic language, insisting on the generally acceptable term “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” instead of “denuclearization of the DPRK,” which refers specifically to North Korea. China also called for a “principle of phased and synchronized actions.”14 Russia stressed that “the process of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula should be phased and based on equality and mutual respect for interests.”15

As a result, the draft final document expressed “unwavering support for the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” while noting the need to reduce tensions and resolve the situation through negotiations and diplomacy.

In general, the conference discussions confirmed that South Korea and the United States have returned to the more confrontational policies vis-à-vis North Korea. This creates potential for an escalation of regional tensions, as well as widening differences over the Korean peninsula and other regional security issues with Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington on one side and Beijing and Moscow on the other.

Achieving progress requires these capitals to realize that the factors contributing to tensions are not only North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, but also increased military activity in Northeast Asia by the states inside and especially outside of the region. More subtle approaches that take into account the security interests of all states involved are needed urgently to unblock the current dangerous impasse on the Korean peninsula.

Nuclear Energy, Safeguards, and Export Controls

Conference discussions and the draft final document highlighted the growing role of peaceful nuclear technologies, especially nuclear power, amid the challenges of economic development and decarbonization. The document recognized that “nuclear technologies and innovations, including advanced reactors and small and medium-sized or modular reactors…can play an important role in facilitating energy security, decarbonization and transitioning to a low carbon energy economy.” It also stated that “nuclear technologies can contribute to addressing climate change, mitigating and adapting to its consequences, and monitoring its impact,” thus reflecting the ongoing process of rethinking the role of nuclear power in the global energy transition.

As discussed at the 10th NPT Review Conference, many states, including members of the nonaligned movement, are concerned that international restrictions designed to prevent nuclear proliferation are applied unfairly, preventing developing countries from accessing nuclear energy for peaceful energy. EDF's Sizewell B nuclear power station, shown here, is located in Sizewell, England. (Photo by Chris Radburn/AFP via Getty Images)At the same time, the conference revealed deep disagreement over the balance between the inalienable right of all NPT states-parties to develop peaceful uses of nuclear energy and the multilateral and national export control regimes and strengthened IAEA safeguards that seek to control the nuclear activities of non-nuclear-weapon states. Many states-parties believe the current balance is not right.

Many states, including the NAM countries, expressed concern over “certain unilateral, politically motivated restrictions imposed on developing countries that seriously hamper states-parties from exercising their inalienable right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” They cited as unacceptable the use of “interpretations in the application of safeguards” and “measures and initiatives aimed at strengthening nuclear safety and nuclear security” for these purposes.16 Some states singled out unilateral economic sanctions as one factor limiting the right to develop the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, while other states stressed that international export control regimes were developed without the proper involvement of developing countries.

There were many statements about the importance of safeguards and the need for their robust application, including at very high levels.17 The conference also discussed the role of an additional protocol to safeguards agreements. Some states, including the Vienna Group of Ten,18 EU countries, and the United States, insisted that an additional protocol “together with a comprehensive safeguards agreement represents the current verification standard.” Nonaligned countries noted that “additional measures related to the safeguards shall not undermine, condition, or in any way negatively affect the rights of the non-nuclear-weapon states-parties” to the NPT.19 Cuba rejected “proposals to make ratification of the additional protocol mandatory for access to nuclear assistance, cooperation, and technology transfer”20 while Brazil and Russia stressed its voluntary nature.

The draft final document attempted to bridge the disagreements, emphasizing the “distinction between voluntary, confidence-building measures and the legal obligations of states” and noting that “it is the sovereign decision of any state to conclude an additional protocol.” It said an additional protocol represents an “enhanced verification standard” but only for individual states and called on participants “to ensure that measures to strengthen nuclear security do not hamper international cooperation in the field of peaceful nuclear activities.”

Most of the problems are not new, and they were skillfully diluted in a number of generally acceptable paragraphs, which would have commanded general consensus if the document were to be adopted. Yet, there was one more matter, which received little attention: Because of a combination of factors, such as the growing need for nuclear energy, important technological innovations, and a general destabilization of the international security architecture, the world may soon witness an intensified competition on the global energy market. That may further complicate the developing world’s access to nuclear energy and stimulate nuclear proliferation risks.

Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant

The main issue complicating conference discussions was the safety and security of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe. Russian forces took control of the plant, with its six VVER-1000 reactors, in March. In August, two reactor units were in operation, and Ukrainian management and staff have continued to carry out their day-to-day work while the site remained under Russian control.21

The Ukraine crisis and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, occupied by Russian military forces since March, dominated discussion at the 10th NPT Review Conference, which was unable to reach consensus regarding those issues. (Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, over the past two months, Ukrainian armed forces have shelled the plant and its infrastructure more than 30 times and the nearby city of Energodar more than 70 times. There are other challenges, including difficulties rotating personnel who operate the station under stressful conditions.22

The topic of Zaporizhzhia, although urgent, disproportionately dominated discussions in the conference main committees 2 and 3 and was introduced in an extremely politicized manner. Delegates mixed up actual, legitimate issues with false information and with demands that have more to do with the battlefield situation. Ultimately, the paragraphs concerning Zaporizhzhia in the draft final document became the primary deal breaker that prevented consensus.

It is impossible to imagine that Western delegations were not aware of Russian redlines regarding Ukraine. They are understood to have included language that contained explicit or implicit criticism of Russia in the context of the Ukrainian crisis, could be instrumentalized for changing the situation on the battlefield, or questioned the status of Crimea as part of Russia.

The Russian delegation made several written proposals to find generally acceptable wording on those points, but they were not taken into account. By contrast, the proposed IAEA expert mission to Zaporizhzhia was never among the Russian redlines; Moscow had accepted that proposal in April.

Analyzing the conference from the general debate to the drafting process, there are reasons to assume that given the wide range of disagreements and the resulting practical impossibility of reaching agreement on a final document, some countries decided, even before the conference opened, to use it to advance political agendas unrelated to the NPT and to push the Russian delegation toward blocking the final document by insisting on unacceptable language referencing Ukraine-related issues.

Outlook and Priorities

Considering the heightened geopolitical tensions, it is hardly reasonable to judge the results of the next review cycle solely by whether there is a consensus document. At the same time, the NPT and the nonproliferation regime in general are facing serious escalating challenges that need to be addressed. If there is yet another failure to agree on an outcome document at the next conference in four years, that could lead to a profound systemic crisis for the NPT regime.

Against this backdrop, the NPT states-parties should start doing their homework as early as possible, nationally and internationally, to ensure they are well prepared for the 2026 review conference. The next review cycle will be shorter than usual, with the first meeting of the conference preparatory committee taking place next year. Most likely, the next cycle will also be more intensive because the just-concluded conference set up a working group on further strengthening the review process. The three sessions planned for the preparatory committee should be complemented by regular, inclusive informal meetings and consultations involving all major stakeholders. Think tanks and civil society also should play a role.

No matter the definition of success, the 2026 review conference is unlikely to succeed without constructive, regular expert- and political-level dialogue on all three NPT pillars among the five nuclear-weapon states, especially the three depositories of the treaty (Russia, the UK, and the United States). It is symptomatic that all the depositary countries were involved in blocking adoption of final documents at the last two review conferences.

At the moment, there is a need to generate the political will to assign higher priority to nuclear nonproliferation issues, understand real threats to the nonproliferation regime, and make an extra effort to keep the regime protected from new and dangerous challenges. To do that, there also needs to be serious informal, unofficial track 2 and 1.5 discussions where it may be easier to honestly explore and understand the risks the world is facing and their consequences.



1. 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Tenth NPT Review Conference), “Draft Final Document,” NPT/CONF.2020/CRP.1/Rev.2, August 25, 2022.

2. The 1995 review and extension conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was unable to reach consensus on a comprehensive final document, but the states-parties agreed on a package of other decisions, which included the indefinite extension of the NPT.

3. Lucy Duncan, “Closing Statement to the NPT Plenary,” August 26, 2022, https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/14.0447/20220826/q82W3cj6s5AC/ILjj78K3EC8e_en.pdf.

4. “Closing Statement: TPNW Supporting States,” n.d., https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/14.0447/20220826/q82W3cj6s5AC/2DpugfhGk9QE_en.pdf (statement by Mexico on behalf of the states-parties and signatories of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the 10th NPT Review Conference, August 26, 2022).

5. Gabriela Rosa, “Updates From the 10th NPT Review Conference,” Arms Control Association, August 26, 2022, https://www.armscontrol.org/blog/2022/updates-10th-NPT-RevCon.

6. “Statement by the Delegation of the Republic of Indonesia on Behalf of the Group of the Non-Aligned States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” August 26, 2022, https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/14.0447/20220826/q82W3cj6s5AC/XTzgnxLhAvfb_en.pdf.

7. Alexander Kmentt, Closing remarks by Austria at the 10th NPT Review Conference, August 26, 2022, https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/14.0447/20220826/q82W3cj6s5AC/FRT4JM0nRL8m_en.pdf.

8. See, for example, Robert Einhorn, “COVID-19 Has Given the 2020 NPT Review Conference a Reprieve. Let’s Take Advantage of It,” Brookings, May 13, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/articles/covid-19-has-given-the-2020-npt-review-conference-a-reprieve-lets-take-advantage-of-it/; Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, “The Postponement of the NPT Review Conference. Antagonisms, Conflicts and Nuclear Risks After the Pandemic,” May 6, 2020, https://pugwashconferences.files.wordpress.com/2020/05/20200506_npt_postponement_and_the_pandemic-3.pdf; Tariq Rauf, “The NPT at 50: Perish or Survive?” Arms Control Today, March 2020, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2020-03/features/npt-50-perish-survive; Daria Selezneva, “Challenges of Maintaining the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” World Economy and International Relations, Vol. 64, No. 3 (2020): 29–35, https://doi.org/10.20542/0131-2227-2020-64-3-29-35.

9. Igor Vishnevetskii, Statement on behalf of the delegation of the Russian Federation at Main Committee II of the 10th NPT Review Conference, n.d., https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/14.0447/20220808/p4jjDsUzwclF/Lyfm0ubgY5Wt_en.pdf (hereinafter Vishnevetskii statement.)

10. See, for example, Jim Walsh, “Surprise Down Under: The Secret History of Australia’s Nuclear Ambitions,” The Nonproliferation Review, Fall 1998, pp. 1–20.

11. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “The Structure and Content of Agreements Between the Agency and States Required in Connection With the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” INFCIRC/153 (Corrected), n.d., para. 14 (a)(ii).

12. Tenth NPT Review Conference, “Specific Regional Issues and Implementation of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East: Working Paper Submitted by the Group of Arab States,” NPT/CONF.2020/WP.8, August 26, 2020, paras. 10, 11.

13. Tenth NPT Review Conference, “Suggestions of the Delegation of the Russian Federation to Be Reflected in the Outcome Document of the 10th Review Conference of the NPT,” NPT/CONF.2020/MC.II/CRP.2, August 16, 2022, paras. 6, 8, and 9.

14. Fu Cong, “Upholding the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons for World Peace and Development,” August 2, 2022, https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/14.0447/20220802/d9cjQBjtSPPR/qDSy5JAAfxdY_en.pdf.

15. Vishnevetskii statement.

16. Tenth NPT Review Conference, “The Inalienable Right to Develop Research, Production and Uses of Nuclear Energy for Peaceful Purposes: Working Paper Submitted by the Members of the Group of Non-Aligned States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” NPT/CONF.2020/WP.25, November 24, 2021.

17. See, for example, President of Russia, “Greetings on the Opening of the Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” August 1, 2022, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/69096; Antony J. Blinken, Remarks to the NPT review conference, August 1, 2022, https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinkens-remarks-to-the-nuclear-non-proliferation-treaty-review-conference/.

18. The Vienna Group of Ten includes Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden.

19. Tenth NPT Review Conference, “Safeguards: Working Paper Submitted by the Members of the Group of Non-Aligned States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” NPT/CONF.2020/WP.22, November 22, 2021.

20. Yiliam Gomez Sardinas, Statement on behalf of the delegation of the Republic of Cuba in Main Committee III of the 10th NPT Review Conference, August 8, 2022, https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/14.0447/20220808/fHzmajQMkLne/maEg2ohM0p34_es.pdf (in Spanish).

21. IAEA, “Nuclear Safety, Security and Safeguards in Ukraine: 2nd Summary Report by the Director General, 28 April–5 September 2022,” n.d., p. 14, https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/22/09/ukraine-2ndsummaryreport_sept2022.pdf.

22. Speech by the Governor from the Russian Federation, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to International Organizations in Vienna M. I. Ulyanov on item 9 of the agenda of the session of the IAEA Board of Governors, September 15, 2022, https://www.mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/1830064/ (in Russian).

Sergey Batsanov, director of the Geneva Office of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a former Soviet and Russian ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament. Vladislav Chernavskikh is a research associate at the Moscow-based Center for Energy and Security Studies. Anton Khlopkov is the director of the Center for Energy and Security Studies.

In this year’s conference, Russia was the only NPT state-party to openly oppose adoption of the draft outcome document, but other countries also had disagreements.

10th NPT Review Conference: Why It Was Doomed and How It Almost Succeeded

October 2022
By Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova

Widely expected to be a disaster, the 10th review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) came surprisingly close to adopting a final outcome document. Although most delegations were disappointed with the draft outcome document, which was short on forward-looking disarmament steps, all the states-parties, except Russia, were prepared to join the consensus in an apparent effort to shore up the NPT regime, which has not had an agreed outcome in more than a decade.

Gustavo Zlauvinen (Seated, Center) of Argentina, president of the 10th review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, presides as Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida addresses the conference at the UN on August 1.  (Photo by Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images)The conference, originally scheduled for 2020 and repeatedly postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, convened in New York on August 1–26 in an extraordinarily difficult international environment. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had entered its sixth month, and as the conference’s first week drew to a close, news came of the shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, exacerbating concerns about the risk of a nuclear accident. More than a political backdrop, the war was of direct relevance to treaty implementation and the review conference deliberations, from the violation of security assurances provided to Ukraine when it acceded to the NPT to the safety and security of nuclear facilities and the ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to continue implementing safeguards in occupied Ukrainian facilities.

The 10th NPT review cycle, which began in 2015, had already been difficult before Russia attacked Ukraine in February 2022. Nuclear-weapon states failed to implement most of the disarmament steps agreed by previous review conferences and signaled continued or growing reliance on nuclear weapons for their security. The crisis in U.S.-Russian arms control turned into near-total collapse while modernization of nuclear arsenals continued in all five nuclear-weapon states and the trend toward overall reduction of global nuclear stockpiles began to reverse.1

There was little reason to expect the review conference to be successful in agreeing on the review of the implementation of the treaty and a set of further measures on disarmament. Why then, on the morning of the last day of the conference, did many delegations believe they were about to adopt by consensus a final document, however underwhelming they found it? Several factors can account for this situation: the surprisingly business-like atmosphere at the conference that raised expectations among the delegates, the relatively low level of engagement by the Russian delegation, and, most importantly, the commitment of the majority of states-parties to achieving an agreed outcome.

Another contributing factor was an early agreement between Egypt and the United States on language regarding the Middle Eastern zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which quietly settled a usually divisive issue. The text reaffirmed the importance of establishing such a zone and acknowledged the developments in the first two sessions of the new conference process on the Middle East zone established by the UN General Assembly in 2018.2 In the end, however, the NPT review conference failed over the impossibility of reconciling the positions between Ukraine and the West on the one hand and Russia on the other on the war against Ukraine and occupation of its nuclear facilities.

The Rooms Where It Happened

The review cycle was characterized by increasingly acrimonious interactions between some of the key states. It was manifested particularly in the more frequent resort to the right of reply, a practice under conference procedural rules when a delegation takes the floor to respond to (perceived) criticism directed at it by another delegation. Given that relations between Russia and the United States and the European countries continued to deteriorate, there was a risk that once the conference formally convened, it would collapse from the beginning. In the run-up to the review conference, however, U.S. diplomats indicated that, unlike their predecessors from the Trump administration, they had no intention of engaging in multiple rounds of right of reply. For his part, Gustavo Zlauvinen of Argentina, the conference president, used both personal rapport with the delegations and procedural methods to “keep the temperature down.”

A business-like atmosphere was conducive to serious negotiations, but it could not make up for substantive disagreements among states-parties on a wide range of issues. By the middle of the third week of the conference, it became clear that none of the three main committees dealing with disarmament, nonproliferation and regional issues, and the peaceful uses of nuclear technology would be able to agree on substantive reports for inclusion in the final document.

The Russian war in Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats have raised concerns about the possibility of the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Russia's short-range Iskander system (9K720), shown here, can carry nuclear warheads. (Photo by Boevaya mashina via Wikimedia Commons)At that stage, Zlauvinen invited a small group of states to conduct parallel negotiations on the disarmament and nonproliferation sections, based on the main committees’ drafts. These negotiations were convened at the Mission of Finland, chaired by Jarmo Viinanen, the Finnish ambassador for arms control. Separately, following the president’s request, Ingeborg Denissen of the Netherlands, the chair of Main Committee III, continued consultations on the peaceful uses section of the outcome document. Additional smaller groups negotiated directly on such matters as the status of the IAEA additional protocol, naval nuclear propulsion, and language addressing North Korea’s nuclear program. Zlauvinen also continued discussions on the draft final document with all the delegations in the closed plenary sessions. All of these processes fed into the revisions of the draft outcome document, the third and final version of which was released on the evening of August 25 and rejected by Russia at the closing plenary the next day.3

The practice of negotiating in small groups away from the conference floor has become a feature of NPT review conferences, but has been criticized for lack of transparency by civil society and smaller delegations who are left out of such groups. Although some of the small group participants, such as Indonesia, briefed other delegations on their involvement, it was difficult to get an accurate picture of where things were for a large number of NPT states-parties, let alone nongovernmental observers. At the same time, the small group approach is the most efficient way to find common language on the more contentious issues. With states-parties as divided as they are, small group negotiations will likely remain a staple of future conferences, but those on the inside should consider ways to keep their counterparts better informed on the progress of such talks.

High Risks and Low Gains

Nuclear disarmament traditionally has dominated the debates at the review conferences. For most non-nuclear-weapon states, the urgency of progress on disarmament has only grown since the most recent conference, in 2015. Nuclear-weapon states, however, point to the deteriorated international security environment as the reason to continue their reliance on nuclear weapons. This fundamental difference in approaches meant that, after days of intensive negotiations in New York, little movement could be made on updating existing commitments on nuclear disarmament, enhancing transparency, and reducing nuclear risks.

Most states-parties believed it was necessary for the conference to express concern about growing nuclear risks and condemn threats of use of nuclear weapons. For European and other Western countries, however, such condemnation was mostly specific to Russia’s rhetoric and nuclear threats issued soon after invading Ukraine, while for most of the developing countries, as well as Austria and Ireland, it was important to condemn all threats of use of nuclear weapons, direct and indirect. The latter group’s concern was that condemning only specific threats in the context of a military conflict would legitimize implicitly the more “general” threats that underlie the policies of nuclear deterrence.

Several states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) proposed to draw on the text of the Vienna Declaration adopted in June 2022, in which they “condemn unequivocally any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances.”4 Disappointingly but not surprisingly, the final draft of the outcome document contained no explicit condemnation of any threat of use. Instead, it expressed deep but vague concern that the threat of nuclear weapons use was “higher than at any time since the heights of the Cold War.” The draft document did commit the nuclear-weapon states to implement risk reduction measures, including keeping nuclear forces at the “lowest possible alert levels,” placing the need for such measures in the context of concern over the humanitarian consequences of any nuclear weapons use.

The TPNW itself was once feared to be a potentially contentious point for the review conference, given the fierce opposition from nuclear-weapon states to its negotiation in 2017 and their insistence that the new treaty undermines the NPT. Although disagreements on the TPNW persist, they did not threaten to derail the conference. Well before the conference started, the TPNW states indicated they would not seek to place the ban treaty at the center of the disarmament debates and would rather focus on commitments adopted by past NPT review conferences. Although the TPNW states did propose language recognizing the treaty’s complementarity with the NPT, its contribution to implementing Article VI, and reinforcement of nonproliferation obligations, in the end they were prepared to accept only a short factual reference acknowledging the existence of the treaty and its entry into force.

It was important for this review conference to reaffirm the validity of commitments agreed by past conferences, including the 2010 action plan and the 13 practical steps for nuclear disarmament adopted in 2000. The central point of the debate on past commitments, however, was the need to build on them. The African Group, Austria, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ireland, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines, Switzerland, and Thailand, among others, called for the adoption of specific benchmarks, timelines, and targets on disarmament to better measure progress in the future. That said, the non-nuclear-weapon states made few if any specific proposals on such quantitative targets and timelines, while the nuclear-weapon states rejected the idea of benchmarks and measurability altogether. The final draft of the outcome document contained only one time-bound disarmament-related commitment, for the United States and Russia to pursue negotiations on a “successor framework” for deeper, irreversible arms reductions before the expiration of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 2026.

The lack of implementation of past commitments and resistance to establishing benchmarks for progress undermine the credibility of the review process. Enhanced accountability on nuclear disarmament was one of the key points of debate on the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 and lies at the basis of decisions on strengthening the review process and principles and objectives for nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament that were adopted together with the decision to extend the treaty indefinitely.5 More than a quarter century later, non-nuclear-weapon states would be right to question if the strengthened review serves its purpose when “looking forward” amounts to reaffirmation of measures previously agreed but not implemented.6 The conference agreed to establish a working group on further strengthening the review process, and states-parties should take this opportunity to critically review the current structure and ways to make it more efficient and fair.7

No Common Ground

Perhaps the biggest question ahead of the conference was how it would address the war in Ukraine in general and its nuclear aspects in particular. During the general debate, many states-parties condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and threats to use nuclear weapons.8 As the situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant deteriorated, many states also expressed concern about the safety and security of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities and argued that the conference document should reflect these concerns and call on Russia to return the occupied facilities to Ukrainian control. Russia hit back with accusations that Ukraine itself, with support from NATO states, was shelling the power plant.

As the situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant deteriorated, many states-parties at the 10th review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty expressed concern about the safety and security of this and other nuclear facilities in Ukraine. (Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)On the conference floor, Russia’s reaction to any text referencing Ukraine’s nuclear facilities was to request its deletion. Speaking in Main Committee III, the Russian representative argued that any paragraph on Ukraine, however “nominally neutral,” would provoke acrimonious debates that would “destroy any chance for consensus” and therefore the best solution would be to delete all such paragraphs.9 Many states objected to such proposals, and the paragraphs addressing the situation at Ukraine’s nuclear facilities remained, with some changes, in the draft texts until the end. The one notable change during the final days of the conference was the appearance and then removal of a direct reference to Russia, calling on it to return control over the nuclear facilities to Ukraine.

Because several delegations who had concerns with specific formulations in the draft document engaged directly with Zlauvinen and each other to find compromise language until the final draft was issued on August 25, the lack of change in the text on Ukraine seemed to suggest there was agreement on it. It was only on the afternoon of August 26, when it was too late to negotiate, that Russia brought a set of proposed amendments to the president, leading Russia to break the consensus.

There are different possible explanations why events unfolded this way. It appears that Russia concluded early that there could be no middle ground between it and Ukraine, the United States, and the European countries and that it was never going to accept a document with any reference to Ukraine. Russia apparently did not seek direct consultations with other delegations to look for a compromise language on the subject. Some of the diplomats involved in the small-room negotiations also remarked on the relatively low level of engagement by the Russian delegation on other issues. It would suggest that Russia did not treat achieving an agreed outcome as a high priority.

Loathe to be completely isolated, Russia seemed to have been biding its time, perhaps expecting the conference to collapse on other issues. When by the morning of the last day no other state conveyed an intent to reject the final document, however, Russia had no choice but to act alone. Even then, speaking at the closing plenary, the Russian representative argued that there were “many other delegations” unhappy enough to object to the document. Statements over the next several hours proved him wrong.

Questions Ahead

The amount of hard work put into the preparations and negotiations at the 10th review conference and how close it came to an agreement despite the difficult circumstances and low expectations are a testament to the commitment of the NPT states-parties. Non-nuclear-weapon states were prepared to adopt the final document not because it delivered significant progress on disarmament but because they recognized that the moment required unity and continued faith in the regime. This was the second time in a row that the non-nuclear-weapon states were willing to set aside their disappointment with the final document for the sake of an agreed outcome, something the nuclear-weapon states should not take for granted.

A review conference without an agreed outcome would not precipitate a dramatic collapse of the regime, but there will be more questions in coming months and years about the meaning and purpose of the process and the degree to which states-parties wish to participate and commit resources to it. The first preparatory committee meeting of the next review cycle is due to take place in 2023, and it is difficult to foresee much positive energy there. In the meantime, more states are likely to be drawn to the TPNW, at least as observers to the meetings of states-parties. Closer engagement between TPNW and non-TPNW states could benefit the dialogue on nuclear risks, the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use, and victim assistance, and put pressure on the NPT and nuclear-weapon states to deliver on agreed commitments.



1. For information on nuclear weapon stockpiles and modernization, see Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “Global Nuclear Arsenals Are Expected to Grow as State Continue to Modernize—New SIPRI Yearbook Out Now,” June 13, 2022, https://sipri.org/media/press-release/2022/global-nuclear-arsenals-are-expected-grow-states-continue-modernize-new-sipri-yearbook-out-now; Federation of American Scientists, “Status of World Nuclear Forces,” n.d., https://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/ (accessed September 17, 2022).

2. For more information on the Middle East zone conference, see UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, “Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction: Overview,” n.d., https://meetings.unoda.org/meeting/me-nwmdfz-2019/ (accessed September 17, 2022).

3. Draft final report of the conference, along with the draft reports of the Main Committees and Subsidiary Bodies, can be accessed on the Reaching Critical Will website, https://reachingcriticalwill.org/disarmament-fora/npt/2022/documents.

4. First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Draft Vienna Declaration of the 1st Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: ‘Our Commitment to a World Free of Nuclear Weapons,’” TPNW/MSP/2022/CRP.8, June 23, 2022, para 4.

5. See Jayantha Dhanapala and Randy Rydell, “Multilateral Diplomacy and the NPT: An Insider’s Account,” UN Institute for Disarmament Research, UNIDIR/2005/3, 2005, p. 36, https://www.unidir.org/sites/default/files/publication/pdfs/multilateral-diplomacy-and-the-npt-an-insider-s-account-323.pdf; Michal Onderco and Leopoldo Nuti, eds., “Extending the NPT? A Critical Oral History of the 1995 Review and Extension Conference,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2020, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/uploads/documents/Extending%20the%20NPT%20-%20A%20Critical%20Oral%20History%20of%20the%201995%20Review%20and%20Extension%20Conference.pdf.

6. Decision 1 of the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference mandates that “Review Conferences should look forward as well as back,” meaning that they should not only review the implementation of the treaty but also identify areas and means for making progress in the future. 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Final Document: Part I, Organization and Work of the Conference,” NPT/CONF.1995/32 (Part 1), 1995, p. 8.

7. Although it was initially part of the draft final document, conference president Gustavo Zlauvinen was able to get an agreement on a separate decision to establish the working group.

8. For a detailed review of the general debate, see Ray Acheson and Allison Pytlak, eds., NPT News in Review, Vol. 17, No. 2 (August 4, 2022), https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/npt/NIR2022/NIR17.2.pdf.

9. Remarks at the ninth meeting of Main Committee 3 on August 18, 2022, https://media.un.org/en/asset/k1e/k1e5mw8k13.

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova is director of the International Organizations and Nonproliferation Program at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.

It appears that Russia concluded early that there could be no middle ground on Ukraine.

Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–2022)

October 2022
By James Timbie

At the October 1986 summit in Reykjavik, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and their teams found themselves in a parallel universe, where the Strategic Defense Initiative had potential, in Reagan’s view, to protect U.S. citizens from nuclear ballistic missile attack and, in Gorbachev’s view, to negate the Soviet Union’s deterrent forces, leaving his country at the mercy of the United States. It was a universe where sensitive, not-yet-developed U.S. missile defense technology would be shared with Washington’s principal adversary and where an offer to eliminate ballistic missiles was countered with an offer to eliminate all strategic forces, which in turn was countered with an offer to eliminate all nuclear weapons.

A portrait of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, is displayed on the wall during his memorial service at the Column Hall of the House of Unions in Moscow, on September 3. (Photo by Evgenia Novozhenina/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)From one perspective, the summit was hastily arranged with little preparation. The United States refused to schedule a meeting as long as journalist Nicholas Daniloff of U.S. News and World Report was held in Soviet custody on espionage charges. He was released on September 23, and the Reykjavik talks were announced on September 30 beginning on October 11. No scripted meetings were planned; no joint statement was negotiated in advance. Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz looked forward to a personal dialogue between the two presidents. Experts then would follow up to produce detailed documents.

From another perspective, however, the groundwork for the summit had been put in place for some time. U.S. and Soviet negotiating teams had been meeting for years to examine possible limits on strategic nuclear forces, on intermediate-range nuclear forces, and on missile defense systems. They had engaged in detailed technical discussions across this broad spectrum of issues and had staked out well-defined positions that diverged in important ways. Both sides brought to Reykjavik senior officials and experts with considerable experience in these subjects who could provide the leaders with assessments of proposals and engage in technical negotiations if asked to do so.

Gorbachev took the initiative, offering new proposals on reductions in strategic and intermediate-range nuclear forces. Some of his opening offers represented significant movement toward U.S. positions. When negotiating teams met overnight, further Soviet concessions were forthcoming, so that by the second day the basic framework of what would later become the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty had been worked out.

Yet, these substantial moves, the first actual reductions in nuclear arms ever to be agreed, were contingent in Gorbachev’s view on further limits on missile defense systems. His proposal was for an agreement under which the two sides would not withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty for at least 10 years, followed by a period of negotiations lasting three to five years on how to proceed after that. In the meantime, research and testing of space-based components of missile defense systems would be confined to laboratories.

So began the remarkable dialogue between Reagan and Gorbachev, trading ideas for drastic reductions in strategic offensive arms linked to flexibility on missile defense systems. Reagan proposed eliminating all offensive ballistic missiles over a 10-year period, after which either side would be free to deploy missile defense systems. He argued that once ballistic missiles were eliminated, missile defense would not be problematic for the Russians and could be a useful hedge against cheating or against potential weapons of third countries. Reagan further pledged that if advanced missile defense technology proved successful, the United States would share it with the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev countered with a proposal to eliminate all strategic offensive arms, including bombers and ballistic missiles, over a 10-year period, coupled with a commitment not to withdraw from the ABM Treaty during that time and not to test space-based missile defense components outside laboratories.

Gorbachev made a serious technical error in pressing to prohibit testing of space-based missile defense components. As Soviet scientists could have told him at the time and as subsequent events have demonstrated, U.S. space-based missile defense systems would not pose a serious threat to the Soviet strategic missile force for the foreseeable future for technical reasons. Either Gorbachev believed that Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative truly threatened the Soviet deterrent, or others in the Soviet leadership gave him no flexibility on this question.

Reagan held firm on the flexibility to test missile defense systems in space and the right to deploy them after the 10-year elimination period. Gorbachev held firm on no testing of space-based missile defense components and on leaving to subsequent negotiations the future of missile defense following the 10-year elimination period.

In the back and forth over eliminating ballistic missiles versus eliminating all strategic offensive arms, Reagan offered to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Gorbachev agreed they could do that, provided the United States conceded on the missile defense issue.

The talks in Reykjavik came to an abrupt end. As Reagan and Gorbachev emerged from the summit venue at Hofdi House, the waiting reporters could tell immediately by the exhausted faces and body language that the leaders had tried and failed to reach the breakthrough they had envisioned. When Shultz met the press after the conclusion of the talks, his disappointment was obvious too.

Gorbachev’s death on August 30 at the age of 91 has prompted new speculation about what might have happened if he and Reagan had come to an agreement on the breathtakingly ambitious schemes they discussed and wanted. Prior to Reykjavik, both leaders had put forward proposals for eliminating all nuclear weapons. The exchanges in Reykjavik showed their strong attraction to such drastic measures, but there was little support for them at home. Even as Reagan, Gorbachev, and Shultz reached for transformative agreements among themselves, they would have faced a titanic struggle in Washington and probably in Moscow as well if they had pushed forward. They were eager to try; what the outcome would have been is difficult to say.

Most of the U.S. team flew home the night the summit ended, but Shultz had a date to brief the NATO allies in Brussels the next day. As he boarded his official airplane, he was exhausted and disappointed at trying so hard and coming so close to something that big. So, I composed a four-by-six card with a list of all that had been achieved in those two days, resolving on favorable terms many long-standing obstacles in the INF Treaty and START negotiations. It was an impressive record and made clear that the Reykjavik summit was one of the most productive meetings of its kind. I handed the card to Charlie Hill, a close Shultz adviser, to give to the secretary, and shortly thereafter I was called up to the front of the plane to go through the list. When we got to NATO headquarters the next day, Shultz gave positive presentations to the allies and to the press on all that had been accomplished.

As Shultz predicted, notwithstanding the continuing differences over missile defense systems, over time the Soviets came back to the framework on strategic and intermediate-range nuclear forces developed in Reykjavik, and the INF Treaty and START were completed successfully in 1987 and 1991.

Nuclear arms competition with the United States was only one of many major economic, political, and security challenges facing Gorbachev. In many cases, he looked to the United States for help. He listened attentively to Shultz on economic reform. He partnered with the United States on a series of steps to reduce the military threat to the Soviet Union, including not only the INF Treaty and START but also reductions in nuclear and conventional forces in Europe. Perhaps most remarkable was Gorbachev’s decision to enable Soviet support for a UN Security Council resolution authorizing force against Iraq, a long-time Soviet ally, just prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

As Gorbachev’s economic and political perestroika reforms transformed life in the Soviet empire, events spun out of his control, ultimately leading first to the Warsaw Pact countries and then the Soviet republics to break away as independent countries. Gorbachev deserves credit for allowing the Eastern European countries to make their own way in the world, including by joining NATO.

His plans for a new political relationship between Moscow and the republics, leading to a decentralized and rejuvenated Soviet Union, were overtaken by the 1991 coup. That stimulated the leaders of the republics, including Boris Yeltsin, who had been democratically elected president of Russia thanks to Gorbachev’s reforms, to press ahead and declare their independence, bringing an end to the Soviet Union that Gorbachev tried but ultimately failed to reform and preserve.

James Timbie, an Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, was a senior adviser at the U.S. Department of State from 1983 to 2016, where he played a central role in negotiating nuclear arms reductions agreements with the Soviet Union and Russia, including accompanying Secretary of State George Shultz to the Reykjavik summit.

Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–2022)

Ukraine Shuts Down Zaporizhzhia

October 2022
By Kelsey Davenport

Ukraine shut down the remaining operational reactor at its Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in September amid increased fighting around the facility and deteriorating conditions for the plant’s workers.

Rafael Mariano Grossi (R), director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), speaks with Ukrainian Minister of Energy German Galushenko on arrival of the IAEA inspection mission to Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine on Aug. 31.  (Photo by Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images)Although shutting down the reactors reduces the likelihood of a large-scale release of radiation in the event of further attacks or an accident, it does not eliminate the risk entirely. The site still needs external power to run the cooling systems that prevent the shuttered reactor units from melting down. Also, spent nuclear fuel is stored onsite and could release radiation if struck during an attack.

Multiple attacks severing the main and backup power lines for the plant, including during a period in September when it was completely without external power, underscored the precarious situation that Zaporizhzhia’s operators faced in trying to keep the reactors operating safely and the shutdown units cool.

Before Zaporizhzhia was reconnected to offsite power, Petro Kotin, the head of Ukrainian nuclear operator Energoatom, warned that operators would have to rely on diesel generators to cool the shuttered reactors after the last unit was shut down on Sept. 11. That unit had been providing power for the site. He described the generators as the “last line of defense before a radiation accident.”

The blackout underscored the continued risk posed by fighting in the area and led to renewed calls from world leaders to establish a no-fire zone around the Zaporizhzhia plant and for Russia to withdraw its military forces from the nuclear facility.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) who visited the site on Sept. 3 with an agency team, said on Sept. 17 that the “power status has improved” but the “general situation for the plant located in the middle of a war zone remains precarious.” Members of the IAEA team remain at Zaporizhzhia to continue assessing the safety and security of the facility.

In a report on the site visit, the IAEA noted that “while past events had not yet triggered a nuclear emergency,” there is a “constant threat to the nuclear safety and security because critical safety functions” at the site could be impacted by continued shelling.

In the report, the IAEA renewed its calls to halt shelling immediately in the vicinity of Zaporizhzhia to avoid further damaging the plant and to establish a “nuclear safety and security zone.”

Grossi told reporters on Sept. 20 that he is engaged in talks with Russia and Ukraine about first establishing a zone of protection around the site and then pushing for demilitarization of the area. Grossi said he would not be deterred by Russia’s Sep. 19 announcement to mobilize new troops and urged Moscow and Kiev to agree to the protection zone “as soon as possible.”

The IAEA Board of Governors echoed the report’s call for Russia to cease all actions against Zaporizhzhia and all other nuclear facilities in Ukraine. In a resolution approved on Sept. 15, the board also denounced Moscow for its “persistent violation actions” against nuclear sites. Of the 35 states represented on the board, 26 supported the resolution, seven abstained, and Russia and China were opposed. The board passed a similar resolution on March 3 after Russia occupied the Chernobyl nuclear facility. (See ACT, April 2022.)

In expressing support for the resolution, Laura Holgate, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, said on Sept. 15 that “Russia alone will be responsible for any resulting nuclear hazards, and Russia alone can prevent them by heeding international calls to remove its forces from those facilities and withdraw from Ukraine altogether.”

She also endorsed Ukraine’s proposal to demilitarize the areas surrounding Zaporizhzhia.

Russia continues to deny that it has attacked the Zaporizhzhia plant and blames Ukraine for shelling the facility. (See ACT, September 2022.)

Alexey Likhachev, head of the Russian nuclear energy operator Rosatom, accused the IAEA of allowing “a political component” to influence its work in Ukraine. He said on Sept. 18 that the IAEA knows “full well what is happening” and who is behind the attacks on Zaporizhzhia.

Although Russia attacked Zaporizhzhia and continues to occupy the nuclear site in violation of international law, it appears to have an interest in keeping the facility operational.

Kotin said that Russia has a “crazy idea” to connect Zaporizhzhia to the energy grid in Crimea, which Russia has occupied since 2014, and shared a plan to do so with Ukrainian personnel managing the nuclear power plant.

Rosatom has a presence at Zaporizhzhia, but it would likely be challenging for the energy corporation to operate the reactors and connect the power plant to the grid in Crimea without support from Ukrainian personnel working at the facility. The reactors were designed and largely constructed when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, but they have been extensively updated and modernized since then.

In addition to the threats posed by shelling, the IAEA has drawn attention to the extreme stress that the Ukrainian plant operators are facing and the negative impact that has on safety and security at the nuclear plant.

After shelling cut off electricity to the nearby town of Energodar, where many of the plant’s personnel live, Grossi said on Sept. 9 that given the “dire circumstances that the people of Energodar are facing, there is the significant risk of an impact on the availability of essential staff on site to continue to safely and securely operate” Zaporizhzhia.

He described the situation in Energodar and the lack of offsite power for the nuclear power plant as “completely unacceptable.” He added that the “dramatic development demonstrates the absolute imperative to establish a nuclear safety and security protection zone now.”

Although the situation at Zaporizhzhia poses the most serious risk for a radiation release, Energoatom said that Russian shells struck the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant on Sept. 19. A blast damaged transmission lines and buildings at the plant, but the reactors were not impacted and continue to operate, Energoatom said.

Grossi said the explosions at the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant “all too clearly demonstrate the potential dangers also at other nuclear facilities in the country” and that “any military action that threatens nuclear safety and security is unacceptable and must stop immediately.”

The shutdown occurred amid increased fighting around the facility and deteriorating conditions for the plant’s workers.

Delay Risks Effort to Restore Iran Deal

October 2022
By Kelsey Davenport

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said he is serious about reaching a deal with the United States to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, but Iran’s advancing nuclear program threatens prospects for reviving the accord if talks remain stalled until after the U.S. election in November.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addressed the UN General Assembly on Sept. 21. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)Iran and the United States, which have been negotiating indirectly through the European Union for the past 18 months, came close to reaching an agreement to restore the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in August before new Iranian demands stalled progress.

In his address to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 21, Raisi said that the United States “trampled on the accord” and that Tehran cannot trust Washington to meet its commitments without “guarantees and assurances.”

In his address to the United Nations that same day, U.S. President Joseph Biden also reiterated his commitment to restoring the JCPOA if “Iran steps up to its obligations.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sept. 10 that the prospect for a deal in the “near term” is unlikely, but did not mention pausing talks until after the U.S. elections on Nov. 8.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said more explicitly that he expects the stalemate to continue given the “political situation” in the United States and that he does not “have anything more to propose” to break the impasse. Borrell also said he did not expect progress at the UN General Assembly session, despite Raisi’s presence and planned meetings with other states that are party to the JCPOA.

In a Sept. 20 meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, Raisi criticized the European parties to the JCPOA for acting in an unconstructive manner, while Macron urged him to take the deal at hand. French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told reporters ahead of the meeting that there “will not be a better offer on the table and it’s up to Iran to take the right decisions.”

If talks remain stalled, Iran’s nuclear advances could deal a fatal blow to efforts to restore the accord. The fact that Iran’s diminishing breakout time, or the period it would take to produce enough weapons-grade material for a bomb, is less than 10 days does not appear to be influencing the Biden administration’s calculus on whether restoring the JCPOA remains in the U.S. national security interest. But irreversible research and development and gaps in monitoring are likely to influence U.S. thinking.

According to a Sept. 7 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran is continuing to install and operate additional advanced centrifuges, which can enrich uranium more efficiently. The JCPOA prohibits Iran from producing enriched uranium with these advanced machines and strictly limits its production of the machines. The report also noted that Iran is continuing to experiment with the setup of its advanced centrifuge cascades, installing some in a way that allows a quicker switch between enrichment levels. The information that Iran gains from these processes cannot be reversed and dilutes the nonproliferation benefits of a restored accord.

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom said in a Sept. 10 statement that Iran’s advancing nuclear program has escalated “way beyond any plausible civilian justification.”

Gaps in IAEA monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program also put at risk efforts to restore the JCPOA. In the Sept. 7 report, the IAEA raised concerns about its ability to determine Iran’s inventory of centrifuges in the event of a restored nuclear deal. Inspectors have not had access to Iran’s centrifuge manufacturing facilities since February 2021, and in June 2022, Iran disconnected cameras at those sites that were collecting data for the agency to use to reconstruct a record of nuclear activity if the JCPOA is restored. (See ACT, July/August 2022; March 2021.)

Even if Iran cooperates and provides documentation about activities at the sites during the gap in monitoring, “considerable challenges would remain to confirm the consistency of Iran’s declared inventory of centrifuges,” the agency’s report said. The challenge in establishing a baseline inventory could complicate IAEA efforts to verify that Tehran is abiding by the JCPOA’s terms.

If talks resume, a deal is far from certain. In its most recent response to Borrell’s draft text, Iran included demands that the years-long IAEA safeguards investigation be closed by an earlier date than the EU proposed. Iran is also seeking assurances that the agency would not conduct future investigations into Iran’s nuclear past. But Borrell has little space to negotiate on the issues because the investigation relates to Iran’s obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to declare all nuclear materials and activities to the IAEA. Only the agency can determine if Iran has provided credible cooperation to explain the presence of the uranium that inspectors detected at three undeclared locations in Iran. The IAEA is also obligated to follow up on any credible evidence of undeclared nuclear materials in the future.

The Biden administration has made clear it will not pressure the agency to prematurely close the investigation but will support closing the file on Iran at the IAEA Board of Governors when the agency is satisfied. (See ACT, September 2022.)

The European nations involved in the negotiations (France, Germany, and the UK) said Iran’s failure to cooperate with the agency and its demands regarding the safeguards investigation “raises serious doubts as to Iran’s intentions and commitment to a successful outcome.”

The Iranian Foreign Ministry called the European statement “unconstructive,” while the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) criticized the IAEA characterization of the investigation. The AEOI said that “there are no disagreements over [Iran’s] calculated materials” and that “simply observing contamination in a few places cannot be considered as implying the presence of undeclared nuclear materials.”

But Iran has not provided any evidence to support its claim that the presence of uranium at the undeclared locations was a result of contamination, according to a May 30 report by the IAEA.

Although the IAEA board did not take action against Iran for failing to cooperate with the agency’s investigation during its Sept. 12–16 meeting in Vienna, France, Germany, the UK, and the United States issued a statement endorsed by more than 50 countries encouraging Iran to meet its safeguards obligations and address the IAEA’s questions.

Iran and the United States came close to agreement in August before new Iranian demands stalled progress.

Putin Calls Up Reservists, Renews Nuclear Threat

October 2022
By Carol Giacomo and Shannon Bugos

Despite stunning setbacks in the war against Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has escalated the fight, announcing a mobilization of 300,000 military reservists and brandishing new threats of using nuclear weapons.

Police officers detain a man in Moscow on Sept. 21 during protests against the military mobilization of 300,000 men announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of an effort to replenish forces deployed to fight Russia’s war on Ukraine. (Photo by Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images)Although Russia expanded its unprovoked war on Ukraine with an invasion on Feb. 24, Putin now seeks to reframe the military campaign as a defense of Russian sovereignty against Western nations that are attempting to “weaken, divide and ultimately destroy” Russia. “The citizens of Russia can rest assured that the territorial integrity of our Motherland, our independence and freedom will be defended—I repeat—by all the systems available to us,” he said in the official Kremlin translation of a speech on Sept. 21.

“This is not a bluff,” he said.

Hours later, U.S. President Joe Biden used his address at the UN General Assembly in New York to push back. Referring to Russia, Biden made clear that what has happened is that “a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council invaded its neighbor” and aims to “[extinguish] Ukraine’s right to exist as a state.”

Biden condemned Putin’s comments as “irresponsible nuclear threats” and warned him against following through, repeating the Reagan-Gorbachev admonition that “[a] nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Biden also promised that “we will stand against Russia’s aggression,” but assured the assembled leaders that “we do not seek another Cold War.”

Putin has issued several previous threats to employ nuclear weapons against any perceived outside interference in Ukraine, but some U.S. officials and independent experts interpreted the latest threats as blunter and more serious. (See ACT, March and April 2022.)

After U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Sept. 25 that the United States had warned Russia there would be “catastrophic consequences” if it used nuclear weapons, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov the next day said that Washington needs to “calm down and cease to inflate the situation [thus] bringing it closer to a dangerous line.”

Meanwhile, Ukrainian regions under Russian control—Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk, and Donetsk—conducted referendums on joining Russia. On Sept. 30, Putin signed decrees annexing the regions as part of Russia in violation of international and Ukrainian law.

After Putin’s address, Andrey Baklitskiy, a nuclear expert with the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, tweeted that Putin’s “statements go beyond the Russian nuclear doctrine, which only suggests Russian first-use [of nuclear weapons] in a conventional war when the very existence of the state is threatened.”

“Putin adds ‘territorial integrity’ and very abstract protection of people, independence, and freedom,” he wrote, adding, “Coming from the person who has the sole decision-making power regarding Russian nuclear weapons, this will have to be taken seriously.”

A senior White House official, briefing reporters in New York on Sept. 21, said “the language and formula [Putin] used today is quite similar to how he’s spoken before” about a potential nuclear weapons use. But the official added, “We don’t see anything in terms of specific information, signals, or moves that would indicate” that any moves with nuclear or unconventional weapons is imminent.

In a Sept. 18 interview with CBS 60 Minutes, Biden refused to detail how the United States would respond to Russian nuclear use, offering only that, “It’ll be consequential. [Russia will] become more of a pariah in the world than they ever have been, and depending on the extent of what they do, will determine what response would occur.” According to previous media reports, the Biden administration is focusing primarily on non-nuclear responses, such as sanctions and conventional strikes. (See ACT, July/August 2022.)

Rose Gottemoeller, chief U.S. negotiator for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, warned on Sept. 13 that Putin may “strike back now in really unpredictable ways that may even involve weapons of mass destruction,” such as nuclear weapons. She recommended that if this happens, the United States should not respond in kind.

“We’ve been concerned from the outset of this crisis with Putin rattling the nuclear saber that he might put in play for a nuclear demonstration strike,” Gottemoeller said in an interview with the BBC. She said the strike could be “a single strike over the Black Sea or perhaps a strike at a Ukrainian military facility.”

In the Sept. 21 briefing, the White House official described the latest Russian moves as “an act of weakness” resulting from Putin failing to achieve his strategic objectives. This is another episode where “Putin has tried to rattle his saber, tried to scare us off, tried to make us think twice about our strategy. He has not succeeded before; he won’t succeed now,” the official added.

Russia and many in the West expected Russian forces to overrun Ukraine within weeks after the invasion. Instead, the Ukrainians have held their ground and are even regaining lost territory. An estimated 60,000 Russian forces have been killed, thousands of vehicles have been destroyed or captured, and there have been major problems with supply chains, training, and recruitment.

Putin’s decision to call up 300,000 men for military service has provoked protests and resistance and caused thousands of Russian men to flee the country.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin escalated the war in Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden decried Putin’s nuclear threats as “irresponsible.”

North Korea Passes Nuclear Law

October 2022
By Kelsey Davenport

North Korea passed a new law in September that updated its nuclear doctrine and provided greater clarity about command and control of the country’s nuclear weapons. Although the central tenets of North Korea’s nuclear strategy remain unchanged since 2013, the passage of the law further exacerbated tensions between North Korea and South Korea.

People at a railway station in Seoul on Sept. 25 watch a television screen showing a news broadcast with file footage of a North Korean missile test, after the South Korean military said that North Korea fired a ballistic missile. Days earlier, a U.S. aircraft carrier arrived in South Korea for joint drills in a show of force against North Korea. (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)In a Sept. 9 speech heralding the law, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said that the country’s status as a nuclear weapons state “has now become irreversible” and that there will “never be any declaration of giving up our nukes or denuclearization” in future negotiations.

North Korea’s willingness to denuclearize has long been questioned because it views its nuclear deterrent as necessary to protect the Kim regime and the state, but past commitments to give up nuclear weapons have never been tested by a credible negotiating process.

The United States and South Korea dismissed Kim’s pronouncement and emphasized their continued goal of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. In a Sept. 12 press briefing, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesperson Moon Hong-sik said that South Korea “remains firm” in its commitment to “pursue North Korea’s complete denuclearization.” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that the United States will continue to pursue “the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” in close consultation with allies in the region and that U.S. policy toward Pyongyang remains unchanged.

The law also reiterated that Kim has sole authority over any decision to use nuclear weapons, but for the first time noted that “a nuclear strike shall be launched automatically and immediately” according to an “operation plan decided in advance” if the leader’s command and control “is placed in danger owing to an attack by hostile forces.”

This provision signals that Pyongyang is prepared to use nuclear weapons in the event of a so-called decapitation strike designed to eliminate the North Korean leadership, which South Korea and the United States have simulated in joint exercises, and to deter such an attack by demonstrating it will not neutralize the country’s nuclear options.

Furthermore, the law codifies the two missions for the nuclear arsenal that Kim laid out in an April 2022 speech. In those remarks, he reiterated that the primary mission of the North Korean nuclear arsenal is to deter an attack, but also suggested that nuclear weapons will be used to repel an attack if deterrence fails. Prior to Kim’s speech, North Korean missile testing suggested that the country was developing repellent capabilities.

The law states that the nuclear forces “shall carry out an operational mission for repulsing hostile forces’ aggression” to achieve victory if “war deterrence fails.”

In addition to laying out these two missions, the law enumerates circumstances under which North Korea could use nuclear weapons. They could be interpreted broadly to apply to a range of scenarios. The law, for instance, references the use of nuclear weapons if a “fatal military attack against important strategic objects” is “judged to be on the horizon” or if necessary for “taking the initiative in war.” These ambiguous statements would allow for using nuclear weapons first against a non-nuclear-weapon state or conducting a preemptive nuclear strike.

Moon said that if North Korea attempts to use nuclear weapons against South Korea, the North will face “an overwhelming response” from the U.S.-South Korean alliance. He also noted that South Korea is enhancing its own deterrence capabilities.

U.S. Defense Department press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said Kim’s speech was “unhelpful and destabilizing” but the United States has a “tried and true policy and process” for deterring North Korea.

The United States and South Korea also continue to reevaluate alliance capabilities in response to North Korea’s evolving nuclear capabilities, including at the third meeting of the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group, which took place Sept. 16 in Washington.

A joint statement released after the meeting described the new North Korean law as “escalatory and destabilizing” and said any nuclear attack by Pyongyang would be met with an “overwhelming and decisive response.” The United States also committed to continue deploying strategic assets in the region to “deter and respond” to North Korean threats, the statement said.

Although the new law is consistent with Kim’s pronouncements regarding North Korean nuclear policy, its passage by a largely symbolic legislature is unlikely to inhibit Pyongyang if future circumstances require changes to the nuclear policy. The law, for instance, states that North Korea “as a responsible nuclear weapons state” will not share or “transfer nuclear weapons, technology, and equipment” or weapons-grade nuclear materials. But North Korea’s record of assisting states in the past with illicit nuclear activities and ballistic missile programs suggests its willingness to assist proliferators under certain conditions.

Activity at North Korean nuclear sites suggests that the country continues to engage in activities that could be used to expand its stockpile of fissile material available for nuclear weapons to meet evolving deterrence requirements. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi told the agency’s board of governors on Sept. 11 that there are indications that North Korea’s five-megawatt electric reactor, which produces plutonium, continues to operate and that the expansion of the centrifuge enrichment facility at the Yongbyon nuclear complex is externally complete.

Grossi also reported that the North Korean nuclear test site “remains active and prepared to support a nuclear test,” although his agency did not observe extensive work at the location over the summer. He said the reopening of the test site is “deeply troubling.”

The new law exacerbated tensions between North Korea and South Korea.


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