“What's really strikes me about ACA is the potential to shape the next generation of leaders on arms control and nuclear policy. This is something I witnessed firsthand as someone who was introduced to the field through ACA.”
– Alicia Sanders-Zakre
June 2, 2022

OPCW at the Crossroads: A Talk With the Chair-Designate of the Fifth Chemical Weapons Convention Review Conference

May 2023

This discussion with Henk Cor van der Kwast took place on March 21 and was hosted by the Chemical Weapons Convention Coalition and the Arms Control Association in advance of the Fifth Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) Review Conference, scheduled for May 15–19. Paul Walker, coalition chair, asked questions and fielded those from the audience. This transcript has been edited for space and clarity.

Henk Cor van der Kwast, shown here in 2021, is the chair-designate of the Fifth Review Conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention, scheduled for May 15 at The Hague.  (Photo by Dean Calma / IAEA)Paul Walker: You've recently come from the 102nd CWC Executive Council meeting. It was quite lively and had some interesting statements by a couple dozen of the state-parties. There's also been the open-ended working group, headed by the Estonian ambassador, Lauri Kuusing, who has been active in considering what results we want out of the fifth review conference.

Henk Cor van der Kwast: I think it's very important to have these talks because the review conference will be difficult. I have no illusion on that, and I don't want to hide it. At the same time, it's quite important because the fourth review conference, in 2018, did not end with a result. So, I think that puts more pressure on us to have a result this time with which the [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] OPCW can act in the future and address its new tasks.

The OPCW is at a crossroads. We have had quite a number of good developments, and I am referring to the destruction of the chemical weapons stockpile in the United States later this year and to the new Centre for Chemistry and Technology, which gives us a lot of possibilities for further cooperation, for verification, but also in a wider international cooperation. Another thing is the addition of [central nervous system-acting] agents to the OPCW list. I'm also referring to the [OPCW] reports on [chemical weapons use by] Syria. I think the last one on Douma was quite an important one. It was an excellent report by the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team. I'm also referring to chemical use cases in the United Kingdom, Malaysia, and the Russian Federation, where Novichok was used. It's important to address those cases and give follow-up to that.

The last point I want to mention from the international framework is the current situation we have in the UN Security Council. What we see is that the Security Council is paralyzed because of one member using its veto more than ever. I've forgotten how many times, but it's quite a number. It's not serious dealing with international politics. At the same time, we've seen that Russia is trying to use the United Nations as a podium for other things. We will have a presentation this week on the abduction of children, whereby the Russians want to give what they call their side of the coin, and they use the UN for that. Having said that, I think it is at the same time fairly important not to have this as a sort of anti-Russian discussion, but to have the central question be, How can we strengthen the OPCW with the new challenges? What I see as most important is that there is a balance between verification on the one hand and international cooperation on the other hand.

The CWC, after all, is an arms control organization, and that should be the starting point. We should see how we can help other states by implementing the convention in the first place, protecting their borders, and protecting them against possible threats of chemical weapons. There are also good developments in that field. The issue of chemical weapons and terrorism, which was shared by the ambassador of South Africa, is a very good example where we have initiative from one group, which is really helping the organization further.

With regard to the presence of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) at the review conference, we are still in discussion with the OPCW Technical Secretariat about how we can enlarge the possibilities for having NGO presentations. It's always a little bit difficult to get the OPCW from the pattern they have used over the last four and a half years to a more open pattern because for the right reasons, they're fairly careful, which is good. But we insist that it's very important to have a good and open exchange.

Walker: Terrorism and terrorist use of chemical weapons has been a big topic of discussion. It’s obviously related to the Russian assassination attempts in 2018 and 2020 and to the innumerable alleged uses of chemical weapons in Syria by the Syrians, but also by ISIS. Will there be any specific resolution proposed at the review conference, perhaps strengthening national implementation or looking more closely at trade and precursor chemicals or other issues, to try to limit the availability of toxic chemicals to national and subnational groups?

Van der Kwast: Yes. There’s a bit of drive, as it was explained to me by several members of the African group, particularly because of ISIS, [which] is very active in northern Africa. There is a serious fear that that might be something that could be used. The other thing is protection. For us, the most important thing is implementation of the convention. Training programs can help, but most important is things like border control. How can we help you to do that? How can we exchange information as different states? Having read the report by the committee on terrorism, I think there are a number of good recommendations, which we can work on. I think it's also important because the report comes from the African group, which is very active at the moment in the OPCW. It's important to continue that engagement. It would be important to have a number of recommendations included in the review conference conclusions.

Walker: Is the goal of the conference to have a final consensus document and an actual vote on a final report or just a chairman's report?

Van der Kwast: That's the central question. My intention is to see how much we can do, and I will do the utmost to have a consensus report, because if you have a consensus report, the effect is the best. Having said that, it's important to realize that if we would have a very meager consensus report—for instance, if there would not be a fairly clear reference to Syria—I mean, what's the value of such a report? So, it is for member states to decide that. As most of you will know, there has been a [preparatory study] on the different possible outcomes of the CWC review conference. I thought that was a good report, and I welcomed it very much because it gave the different options. There are a number of states who say, “Well, there is only one option, and that's the consensus report.” I think there are indeed different possibilities, but we have to concentrate absolutely on a consensus report first and to see how far we get.

I am, for the moment at least, somewhat hopeful. What we have seen so far is, thanks to Ambassador Kuusing, who has done a marvelous job, very transparent, a lot of consultations with all groups sitting down, trying to incorporate as much as he could from the different groups. So, what we have on the table now as a report from the open-ended working group is quite good, but the job is not finished. We will still have some creative talks, and we'll have to see how that is balanced.

Walker: Will the size, quality, and capability of the inspectorate be raised? This is a concern as the end of the declared chemical weapons stockpile destruction winds down. The inspectorate, which used to be over 200 inspectors, now is down to 100 or so. Going forward, we need a strong and capable inspectorate that can surge quickly for challenge inspections and the like. Has that issue been raised?

Van der Kwast: Yes, that has been raised by different countries, as well as by the secretariat. As you say, there's a serious shortage, and it will only get worse. That is also related to the fact that there is a tenure policy of seven years, which often in practice means that if somebody is here for five or six years, they start looking around and if they get a good offer, they disappear to somewhere else. Particularly for inspectors, it's quite important because it takes time to train them. So, one of the things is to see whether we could have a more flexible tenure policy for inspectors, because it's so fundamental.

The other issue related to that is geographical distribution. That's a question that is brought up particularly by the Latin American group. They want to see something there also in the review conference. We have already discussed this in the open-ended working group. We will continue to do so and see if we can find certain solutions for that. We should get more people from those regions, but we should maintain quality because merit is fundamental for people in the OPCW.

Walker: If the review conference does not generate a consensus strategic outcome document, there will not be another opportunity until 2028, leaving potentially a gap of 14 years without a strong strategic document. That is an important point to make with regard to finding consensus at the end of the meeting.

Van der Kwast: I share that absolutely.

Walker: When chemical weapons use is alleged, the CWC is reliant on states-parties to request an investigation or clarification. There is no route available for an alleged use to be addressed if states-parties do not raise the issue directly. Will there be any consideration given at the review conference to finding a means for such issues to be discussed formally and even actions taken by the OPCW Technical Secretariat.

Van der Kwast: It's a very good point. This was raised in relation to the cases in Iran, where the schoolgirls were poisoned and there was also, according to the authorities, a clear link with chemical gases. It was discussed by different states-parties, but obviously, it's very difficult if Iran, one, is not going to do it itself or put the question on the table and, two, is not willing to work together with the OPCW. There have been a number of declarations by different states on this, but it is a sensitive issue. I haven't heard from states who want to bring this up, but I wouldn't be surprised if anybody does because it is an important point.

Walker: To make the new Chemical Technical Center successful, a long-term, stable central budget will be required. To build the center, we relied on 35 to 40 million euros in voluntary donations. As part of a stable budget, states-parties will need to agree on the activities the new center will conduct. How are those conversations going?

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) considers its new chemical technical center, set to open this month in The Hague, as a pathbreaking opportunity to expand training, verification activities and international cooperation in its mission to eradicate chemical weapons. (Photo courtesy of OPCW)Van der Kwast: We absolutely agree that they should not come primarily from voluntary donations but rather mainly from the central budget. At the same time, that might be difficult. I think the good thing is that we have the ChemTech Center, and it has been paid for completely by donations from different states.… [S]tates have given opportunities for the organization to work it out, and I think that's the right order because then you cannot see a situation whereby states that have donated more would direct the direction of activities of the center. That's a good starting point.

But it's important to have a good budget. There we see two developments. First, the intention by many member states, and the organization as well, to have training in the center. There is broad understanding that it is of great value for the organization, for the implementation of the convention, but also for further developing possibilities for states to deal with threats and to follow up on what their chemical industry is doing.

The last point is also important because we see a development over the last 10 to 15 years whereby more factories that are producing chemicals are moving to developing countries, sometimes with disastrous results. It's important that we will have inspections there as well and follow-up and also that the states will be in a position to control that and oversee that. The center also can have a role in educating groups from different countries, and that could help on geographical representation. If we would have special trainings for certain regions, that could help enormously. We'll have to see how the budget develops. For the moment, there is a clear will to see how we can use the center as much as possible.

Walker: The American Thoracic Society has great concerns about the rise in the use of riot control agents worldwide and the limited knowledge about their health effects. The OPCW Scientific Advisory Board has defined conditions for the safe use of riot control agents and recommended to remove certain agents from the not-controlled list. Are you aware of any efforts by states-parties and the review conference to revisit riot control agents as a category, implement the science board recommendations, or investigate the use and toxicity?

Van der Kwast: I agree that it's an issue that deserves more attention. It has been mentioned to me by one or two countries, but not as a quite important issue. I would definitely encourage nongovernmental organizations to see how we could make a point that this is on the agenda as well, because it's absolutely an issue.

Walker: There have been repeated delays in the U.S. chemical weapons destruction program, along with every other country, particularly Russia. The U.S. program, scheduled to be finished in 1994, is now looking at 2023. Are you confident that it will meet the September deadline? If they don't make it, the concern is that there could be political fallout during the review conference, particularly as part of national statements.

Van der Kwast: I think you're absolutely right. I have to say personally also, having been involved before when I was head of the Department for Nonproliferation on this, in 2008-09 we were told that it was rapidly progressing and there was a lot of progress that has not materialized. So, it's important that it happen this time. Otherwise, it will be very bad for the review conference, for the reputation of the United States as the main upholder of this treaty. On the other hand, I have positive signs. We've had presentations regularly by people from the defense ministry, including last week, and that presentation looked very good. But as we all know, you can make presentations, and Americans are particularly good at that, look very good without the results.

Despite accomplishments, CWC member states face serious challenges in the struggle to eliminate chemical weapons.

Nuclear Power Plants Under Attack: The Legacy of Zaporizhzhia

April 2023
By Scott Roecker

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

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

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

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

Surprise Attacks

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

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

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

The Zaporizhzhia Difference

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

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

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

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

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

Nuclear Security Implications

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

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

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

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

The IAEA Seven Pillars

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

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

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

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

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

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

International Laws and Norms

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

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

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

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

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

Nuclear Energy Implications

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lost in the Gap: Toxin and Bioregulator Weapons

April 2023
By Michael Crowley and Malcolm Dando

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

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

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

Julian Perry Robinson long recognized and warned of these failings:

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

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

Advancing Chemical and Life Sciences

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

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

Dual-Use Research

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

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

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

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

Novel Toxin Bio-threat Agents

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

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

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

Toxin Production

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

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

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

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

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

Brain Research Projects

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

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

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

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

‘Less Lethal’ Weapons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenges for Today and Tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. CWC, art. II, para. 8(b)(iii).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

April 2023

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

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

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

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

ACT: When does that center become operational?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ACT: Are you confident the September deadline is firm?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Three-Competitor Future: U.S. Arms Control With Russia and China

March 2023
By Lynn Rusten and Mark Melamed

China’s expanding nuclear arsenal, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the looming expiration in 2026 of the last remaining U.S.-Russian strategic arms control agreement pose unprecedented challenges for U.S. nuclear policy and arms control. This evolving security landscape demands a fresh look at policies aimed at avoiding nuclear war and ensuring the security of the United States and its allies and partners.

Chinese military vehicles carrying DF-5B intercontinental ballistic missiles participate in a military parade in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 2019. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)Critically, Washington should seek to avert an unconstrained multilateral nuclear arms race that would be even more complicated and dangerous than the one during the Cold War. For the next decade, the United States should prioritize maintaining verifiable mutual limits with Russia on nuclear forces while deepening dialogue with China and aiming to bring it into bilateral and multilateral nuclear arms control over the longer term. To prevent limitless arms races and avert nuclear catastrophe, it will be necessary to establish a measure of strategic stability globally and regionally among these three nuclear powers.

For decades, the nuclear age was characterized by a bipolar system in which the two major powers—the former Soviet Union/Russia and the United States—possessed the lion’s share of the world’s nuclear weapons. At the high point of the Cold War, they had more than 30,000 nuclear warheads each. Today, the United States has approximately 3,708 nuclear warheads, and Russia is estimated to have 4,477 nuclear warheads. China, France, and the United Kingdom, as the other recognized nuclear powers, have roughly 400, 290, and 225 warheads, respectively.1

The United States has sized and postured its nuclear forces based on what it deemed necessary to deter Russia from an attack on the United States or its allies or to defeat Russia if deterrence failed. All other nuclear-armed adversaries and strategic threats that might be subject to U.S. nuclear deterrence policy, including China, were considered “lesser included cases,” meaning that whatever nuclear forces were sufficient for deterring Russia also would be sufficient to meet all other U.S. nuclear deterrence requirements. Given recent assessments of China’s plans to expand its nuclear forces over the next decade, that long-standing presumption is facing increasing scrutiny.

Since the early 1970s, the Soviet Union/Russia and the United States have negotiated a series of legally binding, verifiable agreements to limit and reduce their strategic nuclear arsenals. Today, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) limits each side to 1,550 warheads on deployed strategic delivery vehicles. The United States must decide soon whether, when, and what to negotiate with Russia to replace New START before it expires in February 2026. Discussions with Russia on this goal began in the Trump administration and continued under the Biden administration in fall 2021, but broke down when Russia launched its illegal, unjustified war against Ukraine in late February 2022.

Moscow and Washington have since reaffirmed interest in a successor to New START, although each side’s conditions for resuming dialogue remain vague and have changed over time. In January 2023, the United States accused Russia of violating New START by failing to resume on-site inspections following an agreed two-year pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic and by failing to meet in the Bilateral Consultative Commission, the treaty’s implementing body.2 On February 21, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was suspending participation in the treaty by refraining from inspections but would continue to abide by it’s central limits.3 This marks the first time that treaty implementation has been disrupted by political tensions, and it raises the alarming and likely prospect that tensions will continue to impede the resumption of New START inspections and negotiations on a successor agreement.

Enter China

Even as it contends with Russia, the United States is facing the unprecedented prospect of China as a near-peer nuclear competitor in the next 10 to 15 years. The 2022 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review cites China as “the overall pacing challenge for U.S. defense planning and a growing factor in evaluating our nuclear deterrent.”4 According to a 2022 U.S. Department of Defense report,5 China has more than 400 operational warheads, which is double the estimate in 2020, and if the expansion continues apace, will likely field about 1,500 warheads by 2035. The country is increasing the number of delivery platforms based on land, sea, and air, as well as the capacity to produce weapons-grade nuclear material.

This significant expansion of China’s nuclear force was not anticipated. China has long had a no-first-use policy regarding nuclear weapons. Its stockpile was intended to assure a second-strike capability for deterrent purposes and was not kept at a high state of readiness. China has not explained its nuclear plans publicly and has rebuffed U.S. proposals for dialogue about each side’s nuclear policy, forces, and posture.6

The Chinese expansion raises significant questions about how U.S. nuclear policy, deterrence, and arms control will operate in a world where China and Russia are likely to be nuclear peers of the United States.

Some U.S. experts have suggested that the 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads permitted under New START will not be adequate to deter both Russia and China in the future, although they are not specific as to when that time will come or their assumptions about what size and posture of Russian and Chinese nuclear forces would trigger the need for increasing deployed U.S. strategic nuclear forces.7 These experts also have not indicated whether there is some finite number of U.S. nuclear weapons that would be adequate for deterrence if Russia and China each seek to match U.S. nuclear force levels. This raises the question of how the United States avoids an endless arms race if Russia and possibly China each seek to maintain parity with the United States.

Nuclear deterrence is not a simple mathematical problem. It is premised on convincing an adversary that any use of nuclear weapons will result in a devastating response. Russia and the United States have maintained rough parity in their nuclear forces and, through arms control agreements, have done so at increasingly lower levels. Yet, in a world with two near-peer nuclear competitors, it will not be possible for the United States to achieve parity with both Russia and China. Any effort to increase U.S. nuclear forces to match their combined total weapons likely will be countered by Russia’s determination to maintain parity with the United States and could stimulate China to further increase its nuclear forces. This is a recipe for an unending arms race and it will not stop with Washington, Moscow, and Beijing. If they expand, India, Pakistan, and potentially other nuclear-armed countries likely will conclude they need larger stockpiles as well.

Such an arms race is fundamentally unnecessary and counterproductive for advancing global and regional security and strategic stability. Deterrence is based on the credible threat of retaliation in response to an attack. It is implausible that Russia or China will conclude that they could sufficiently degrade U.S. nuclear capabilities with a first strike, even in a worst-case scenario of a joint Chinese-Russian first strike, to avoid massive retaliation.

There is no evidence to suggest that Russia and China are not adequately deterred by the existing U.S. nuclear stockpile or that the New START level of 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads would not continue to deter them at least through 2035. This assumes that Russia remains at rough strategic parity with the United States and that China’s expansion does not exceed the current Pentagon estimate. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Russia and China would be more deterred by an increase in U.S. nuclear weapons. Instead, they may perceive such an expansion as evidence of plans for nuclear war-fighting, not deterrence.

Next Steps With Russia and China

Instead of resigning itself to or embracing an accelerated three-party arms race, the United States should recommit to efforts to mutually constrain the nuclear arsenals of its competitors and to strengthen strategic stability in an increasingly complex security environment. This effort will require elements of continuity and new approaches.

China has resisted proposals to join U.S.-Russian arms control negotiations. Nevertheless, the complexities of an emerging nuclear order in which China, Russia, and the United States will become near peers demand continued efforts to expand multilateral efforts to manage nuclear risks. In recent years, China has been more open to engagement through the P5 process, involving the five nuclear-weapon states recognized under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The United States should explore opportunities for broader and deeper engagement in that channel.

China’s embrace of a January 2022 statement, issued with France, Russia, the UK, and the United States and asserting that a “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” should be welcomed as an opening for deeper engagement. The nuclear-weapon states should build on the statement, which also said, “We each intend to maintain and further strengthen our national measures to prevent unauthorized or unintended use of nuclear weapons,” by considering a regular exchange of information on what each country is doing to strengthen such national measures. This could include commitments to undertake internal nuclear failsafe reviews, as the United States is now doing. Such reviews, which would be carried out independently by each nuclear-weapon state, would identify measures to strengthen safeguards against the unauthorized, inadvertent, or mistaken use of a nuclear weapon, including through false warning of an attack.

The United States also should explore the possibility of a modest trilateral Chinese-Russian-U.S. dialogue on nuclear risk reduction. Notwithstanding statements from Beijing and Moscow about the strength of their partnership and cooperation, Chinese concern about possible Russian use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine is evident. One sign came in November 2022 after Russian President Vladimir Putin made a thinly veiled nuclear threat and Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a public admonition that the international community should “jointly oppose the use of, or threats to use, nuclear weapons.” Although China stonewalled the Trump administration’s efforts to launch a formal trilateral arms control process, it is worth exploring whether the heightened tensions of the past year could provide an opening for engagement on a modest risk reduction agenda.

There are other important issues at the intersection of evolving technologies and nuclear risk to be explored bilaterally and multilaterally. Understanding and mitigating cyberrisks to nuclear command and control and warning systems are critical. Russia and the United States are probably best equipped to begin this dialogue on a bilateral basis and to develop norms and rules of the road, but China should be encouraged to join as soon as possible. Similarly, military activities in space and the risk and benefits of artificial intelligence are ripe for inclusion in a wide-ranging and in-depth strategic stability dialogue with China and Russia, among others.

Strategic Arms Control

Despite China’s projected nuclear expansion over the next 10 to 15 years, there is time and need for additional Russian-U.S. bilateral steps. A prerequisite is resuming full implementation of New START, including on-site inspections. Even if the parties do not return to full implementation of New START or the treaty expires, at some point strategic logic will compel them to seek to restore mutual limits on their strategic nuclear forces. Be it in six months, two years, or longer, they will need to resume discussions on maintaining mutual restraints on strategic nuclear forces after New START expires and including additional types of Russian and U.S. nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles in future agreements, recognizing that success likely will require progress across a broader set of strategic capabilities. Even with hostilities in Ukraine, the imperative to manage nuclear risks necessitates Russian-U.S. cooperation on nuclear arms control.

The United States and its European allies are keen to limit Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons associated with intermediate- and shorter-range delivery systems such as this Iskander-M mobile ballistic missile system. (Photo by Vitaliy Ragulin/Picasa Web Albums via Wikimedia)Negotiations on a new treaty or other agreement to succeed New START will not be easy. The United States wants to include all the categories of weapons that the treaty limits plus Russia’s new novel strategic nuclear systems and places a high priority on adding nonstrategic nuclear warheads.8 Russia has a long-standing interest in constraining U.S. long-range conventional strike capabilities and missile defenses and is not keen to accept limits on nonstrategic nuclear weapons or an intrusive new regime for warhead verification. Military activities in outer space, cybercapabilities, and other factors affecting strategic stability also will influence each side’s thinking. Lessons drawn from the war in Ukraine and an apparent growing disconnect between the Kremlin and the Russian ministries of foreign affairs and defense could further complicate if not impede negotiations.

The most immediate priority should be to avoid a situation in which Russian and U.S. strategic arsenals are entirely unconstrained after 2026. This can and should be done even as dialogue on other issues affecting strategic stability between these two countries and perhaps China are proceeding in parallel and at a different pace. For a successor 10-year Russian-U.S. agreement, retaining the New START limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads should be adequate for the United States to deter Russia and China, recognizing that concerns about China’s nuclear expansion make significant Russian-U.S. reductions below New START levels unlikely. A successor agreement should retain limits and verification on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers covered by New START; include new kinds of strategic systems being pursued by both sides; and potentially include all strategic-range conventional prompt global-strike systems.9

Arms control agreements, particularly the next one with Russia, should be used to encourage each side to adopt more stabilizing nuclear force postures that reduce the risk of nuclear use and the pressure on leaders to launch nonsurvivable nuclear forces early in a crisis. For example, the United States should seek to ban the deployment of the novel Russian systems named Poseidon, a nuclear-powered, nuclear-tipped torpedo, and Burevestnik, a nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed subsonic cruise missile, which are high-risk nuclear doomsday systems prone to catastrophic accident or miscalculation. Such a ban would be similar to prohibitions in the original Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty on deploying strategic nuclear systems undersea or using other exotic basing and delivery modes.

An agreement could limit or ban strategic-range hypersonic vehicles that due to speed and unpredictable flight paths reduce decision time for leaders. It could reinstate a ban on silo-based ICBMs with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) or limit the number of nuclear warheads permitted on each missile, reducing the incentive to “use them or lose them” in a crisis. Deemphasizing ICBMs with MIRVs could set a stabilizing precedent for the future direction of China’s expanding ICBM force. The next treaty also should employ more accurate counting rules for nuclear warheads attributed to heavy bombers, which could lead to a real reduction in the number of each side’s nuclear weapons and a more stringent limit on their nuclear delivery capacity.10

Nonstrategic Nuclear Warheads

The United States and its European allies are keenly interested in limiting Russia’s nonstrategic nuclear weapons given Russia’s larger stockpile, the weapons’ proximity to Europe, and their potential for early use in a conflict, leading to escalation. When the U.S. Senate ratified New START, it called for negotiations with Russia on nonstrategic nuclear weapons, which the Obama and Trump administrations attempted without success due to Russian disinterest. NATO and U.S. interest in limiting these weapons systems has been heightened by Russian nuclear threats during the Ukraine conflict.

Despite the importance of the task, it will not be easy to address this category of weapons systems. Russia and the United States do not have shared objectives, their nuclear stockpiles and operational practices are asymmetrical, there are significant national security sensitivities, and verification will be challenging. Limiting Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons may require trade-offs across other arms control and strategic stability concerns. At a minimum, progress likely will need to come in the context of reengagement on a broader range of issues affecting strategic stability, such as missile defense and long-range conventional strike capabilities.

One approach could be to address nonstrategic nuclear weapons and nondeployed nuclear warheads together by limiting total nuclear warhead stockpiles with a sublimit on deployed strategic warheads and freedom for each side to determine the breakdown of nonstrategic and nondeployed nuclear weapons. Just as the United States has been concerned with Russia’s numerical advantage in nonstrategic nuclear weapons, which are not deployed on a daily basis, Russia has expressed concern about the greater capacity of the United States to upload additional nondeployed nuclear warheads on its strategic delivery systems. This total stockpile approach would permit trade-offs to address each side’s concerns.

There are other options for addressing this weapons category. As a precursor to more ambitious agreements to limit and verify warhead stockpiles, Russia and the United States could agree to increase mutual transparency through exchanges of information about numbers, types, and locations of total warhead stockpiles, including nonstrategic nuclear weapons.

In a more ambitious approach, the two countries could agree to consolidate nuclear warheads at central storage sites away from operational bases in and near Europe west of the Urals with appropriate verification. This move could reduce the risk of short-warning nuclear attacks using not only tactical systems but also intermediate-range missiles that are no longer banned because the United States withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019 in response to Russia’s violation of the treaty. For instance, such a consolidation agreement could require Russia to remove nuclear warheads from storage sites associated with operational bases near its western border, including in Kaliningrad, in exchange for the United States, in consultation with NATO allies, agreeing to remove its nonstrategic nuclear weapons from bases in Europe.

In February 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced at a press briefing that the United States would withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. (Photo by Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images)With the termination of the INF Treaty, there are no longer any constraints on nuclear-capable short- and intermediate-range land-based ballistic and cruise missiles, those having ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.11 Just as the Cuban missile crisis led to new arms control agreements between the Soviet Union and the United States, an eventual end to the war in Ukraine may create opportunities to rebuild the security architecture in Europe.

High on the agenda should be a verifiable agreement by Russia and the United States to ban missiles previously covered by the INF Treaty in Europe west of the Urals. Although negotiating a stand-alone ban would be the most direct path toward reestablishing a prohibition on these missiles in the Euro-Atlantic region, prohibiting or limiting this missile class within a New START successor agreement should also be considered. The United States should consult urgently with NATO on such an agreement, to potentially include transparency measures at missile defense sites in Romania and Poland to rebuff Russian assertions that the United States might deploy offensive missiles in place of missile defense interceptors located there.

Dialogue With China

Although decades of experience provide a blueprint for Russian-U.S. engagement on nuclear issues, no comparable foundation exists with China. The United States will have to adopt a more incremental approach to China on the basis of a shared interest in reducing nuclear risks and forestalling a dangerous arms race. Despite growing distrust between Beijing and Washington, neither wants a nuclear conflict, but the absence of dialogue fuels worst-case planning on both sides.

The greatest risk is miscalculation or miscommunication, particularly in a regional conflict, leading to unintended escalation and potential nuclear use. Without proactive efforts to change this dynamic, there is a growing likelihood of a nuclear arms race between the two countries with broader implications for stability between Russia and the United States and even between China and Russia.

Dialogue is an essential first step toward transparency and confidence-building measures as initial goals and eventually toward arms control agreements. Improving mutual understanding of each other’s security perceptions and concerns by itself may help shape the trajectory of China’s nuclear expansion. Just as the pace of Chinese nuclear development has accelerated in recent years, it could change again in the future, for better or worse, presumably influenced in part by the Chinese-U.S. relationship.

During military exercises last August, China’s rocket force launched a missile targeting designated maritime areas to the east of Taiwan. (Photo by Li Youzhi/Xinhua via Getty Images)Beginning a dialogue on nuclear issues and agreeing on its scope will be challenging. U.S. policymakers are concerned by the opaque nature of Chinese nuclear plans, but leaders in Beijing perceive a narrow focus on nuclear weapons as a U.S. attempt to entrench the current numerical disparity and disadvantage China by seeking increased transparency about its much smaller nuclear force. Conversely, Washington perceives Beijing’s resistance to discussing Chinese nuclear weapons as a way to pursue nuclear competition without adopting the transparency and confidence-building measures that have contributed to strategic stability between Russia and the United States.

Establishing an effective dialogue will require an agenda that is broad enough to include the issues and capabilities that each side perceives as having strategic impact but leave to other appropriate bilateral channels challenges such as the status of Taiwan and territorial disputes in the western Pacific Ocean. At a minimum, the agenda likely will need to include nuclear capabilities and doctrine; the weaponization of outer space; anti-satellite weapons; long-range conventional strike forces, including hypersonic weapons; offensive cybercapabilities; and missile defense programs and the offense-defense relationship. In addition, talks could address regional developments that directly impact strategic stability considerations, including the North Korean nuclear and missile threat and its connection to U.S. missile defense capabilities, which China perceives as potentially undermining its second-strike capability.

At the outset, the goal should be for each side to have a better understanding of the other’s security concerns and perceptions and their influence on policy and capabilities choices. This dialogue could provide a foundation for modest measures, such as a bilateral agreement for advance notification of ballistic missile launches, to reduce the risk of misunderstanding or unintended escalation in response to false warnings. Beijing and Washington also should work toward establishing nuclear risk reduction centers on both sides to serve as a means of quick, reliable communication on select strategic and military issues.

Given both countries’ obligations under Article VI of the NPT and their respective security interests, the longer-term agenda should include discussion of capping and reducing nuclear arsenals. U.S. policymakers should begin thinking now about formulations for stopping and reversing a nuclear arms race before the size of China’s arsenal approaches that of the United States and Russia. This could include an agreement by China, France, and the UK not to exceed a certain number of warheads so long as Russia and the United States agree on a New START successor agreement and other commitments aimed at addressing key Chinese and U.S. security concerns.12

The Risk of a Trilateral Nuclear Arms Race

With Russia’s aggression and renewed hostility in Europe, Moscow’s suspension of New START, the treaty’s expiration in three years, and China’s nuclear expansion plans and tense relations with the United States, U.S. nuclear policy, posture, and arms control are at a crossroads. Although some experts believe these trends necessitate a near-term expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, there is time to pursue a more stabilizing outcome with Russia and China. Strengthening and extending the 77-year taboo against the use of nuclear weapons will require renewed efforts to mutually limit and reduce nuclear stockpiles and delivery systems and the salience of nuclear weapons, while addressing other military capabilities affecting regional and global strategic stability.

None of these objectives can be achieved by engaging in a nuclear arms race with multiple countries. The U.S. national security posture and that of its allies and partners would be better served by diplomatic efforts to constrain the nuclear arsenals of its adversaries and competitors using a combination of proven tools and new approaches. Doing so will require a sober assessment of the security challenges facing the United States, the contributions and limits of nuclear weapons in assuring security, and realistic strategies for managing and reducing mutual nuclear risks with China and Russia. The obstacles are formidable, but the U.S. priority must be averting the alternative of a dangerous arms race in a complicated and unpredictable world of three near-peer nuclear competitors.



1. Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “Status of World Nuclear Forces,” Federation of American Scientists, n.d., https://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/ (accessed February 9, 2023); U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2022: Annual Report to Congress,” n.d., https://media.defense.gov/2022/Nov/29/2003122279/-1/-1/1/2022-MILITARY-AND-SECURITY-DEVELOPMENTS-INVOLVING-THE-PEOPLES-REPUBLIC-OF-CHINA.PDF. Four other states with nuclear weapons, none of which are parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, are estimated to have nuclear arsenals of 160 (India), 90 (Israel), 20 (North Korea), and 165 (Pakistan). Kristensen and Korda, “Status of World Nuclear Forces.”

2. U.S. Department of State, “Report to Congress on Implementation of the New START Treaty,” n.d., https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/2022-New-START-Implementation-Report.pdf.

3. President Putin’s speech and a subsequent statement from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs were silent on whether Russia would continue with the treaty-mandated exchange of data and notifications. See “Foreign Ministry statement in connection with the Russian Federation suspending the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START),” February 21, 2023, https://mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/news/1855184/.

4. U.S. Department of Defense, “2022 Nuclear Posture Review,” October 27, 2022, p. 4, https://media.defense.gov/2022/Oct/27/2003103845/-1/-1/1/2022-NATIONAL-DEFENSE-STRATEGY-NPR-MDR.PDF#page=40.

5. U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2022: Annual Report to Congress,” pp. 94–100.

6. U.S. Defense Department, “2022 Nuclear Posture Review,” p. 17.

7. Eric S. Edelman and Franklin C. Miller, Statement before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on U.S. nuclear strategy and policy, September 20, 2022, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Edelman-Miller%20Opening%20Statement%20SASC%20Hearing%20Sept.%2020%2020226.pdf.

8. Russian and U.S. nuclear weapons stockpiles are roughly comparable numerically, but they are configured differently, and Russia has slightly greater numbers. Both countries are in compliance with the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) limit of 1,550 warheads on deployed strategic delivery vehicles. Beyond that, Russia is believed to have 1,000–2,000 nonstrategic nuclear weapons. The United States has several thousand nondeployed nuclear warheads, but only a small fraction of those is associated with nonstrategic aircraft based in Europe.

9. New START and all previous strategic nuclear arms control treaties with Russia have limited and counted all warheads (or reentry vehicles) attributed to intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles as nuclear warheads, regardless of whether they actually are nuclear. Applying this counting rule to all strategic-range delivery systems that are subject to a new agreement would help to address the concern that even conventionally armed, strategic-range, fast-flying, highly accurate systems, such as ballistic or cruise missiles or new hypersonic vehicles, have strategic effect and should be limited because they put at risk the nuclear forces and command and control and warning systems of the other side.

10. New START counts each heavy bomber as having just one nuclear warhead, when in fact Russian and U.S. bombers can carry up to 16 nuclear bombs or cruise missiles. For more detail on possible elements of a New START successor agreement, see Lynn Rusten, “Next Steps on Strategic Stability and Arms Control With Russia,” in U.S. Nuclear Policies for a Safer World, June 2021, pp. 13–21, https://media.nti.org/documents/NTI_Paper_U.S._Nuclear_Policies_for_a_Safer_World.pdf.

11. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was terminated in August 2019 following the U.S. determination, which was denied by Russia, that Russia violated the treaty by deploying a land-based intermediate-range, nuclear-capable cruise missile, the 9M729. After the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the treaty, it began the development of new missiles that would have been covered by the treaty for possible deployment in Europe or Asia, saying they would be conventionally armed. Russia has proposed to the United States and NATO a moratorium on deploying this class of missiles in Europe and, although not conceding that the 9M729 missile would have been covered by the treaty, seemingly offered to include that missile in the moratorium.

12. For more detail on possible confidence-building measures China and the United States could take to address key concerns, see James McKeon and Mark Melamed, “Engaging China to Reduce Nuclear Risks,” in U.S. Nuclear Policies for a Safer World, June 2021, pp. 36–46, https://media.nti.org/documents/NTI_Paper_U.S._Nuclear_Policies_for_a_Safer_World.pdf.


Lynn Rusten, vice president for the Global Nuclear Policy Program at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, was senior director for arms control and nonproliferation on the National Security Council (NSC) staff. Mark Melamed, the program’s deputy vice president, was NSC director for arms control.

China’s nuclear expansion raises questions about how U.S. nuclear policy, deterrence, and arms control will operate in a world where China and Russia are likely to be U.S. nuclear peers.

Mobilizing Feminist Action for Nuclear Abolition

March 2023
By Ray Acheson

Nuclear weapons are gendered. They have gendered impacts; their existence is predicated and perpetuated in part due to gendered norms about power, violence, and security; and their abolition is challenged by the stark lack of gender diversity in discussions and negotiations related to nuclear policy.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) has done a lot to address these issues in recent years, but other nuclear governance infrastructure, such as the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), has failed to do so. As a result, much more work is needed to advance intersectional approaches to nuclear weapons, an imperative for achieving nuclear abolition.

Gender and Disarmament

Broadly speaking, gender considerations feature in disarmament in three ways: the harm from specific weapons systems, the discourse within disarmament discussions, and the diversity among disarmament and arms control policymakers.

Elayne Whyte of Costa Rica, who in 2017 presided over UN negotiations on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, meets survivors of nuclear weapons use and testing. (Photo by Ari Beser/ICAN)The latter topic has received the most attention within recent disarmament forums, including those related to nuclear weapons. There is a stark disparity in the level (seniority or rank) and the number of men as compared to women in disarmament, nonproliferation, and arms control discussions, negotiations, and processes. Moreover, most discourse and action related to this subject have centered on a binary notion of gender and thus neglected the intersectionality of identities and oppressions that lead to the marginalization and exclusion of certain people.

Feminist conceptions of intersectionality recognize that, although important, increasing the number of women is insufficient to challenge gender norms or diversify perspectives on weapons and militarism.1 Real diversity is not just about adding bodies to meeting rooms but also about creating space for nonhegemonic ideas, imaginations, and perspectives to inspire concrete changes in policy and practice. It is not useful to treat women as a monolithic group. Disarmament work needs people of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, races, classes, abilities, backgrounds, and experiences.

Diversity is not just for its own sake. It is essential for challenging socially constructed norms about identity that impact the approach of diplomats, activists, and academics toward weapons and militarism. Gender norms, for example, perpetuate a binary social construction of men who are violent and powerful and women who are vulnerable and need to be protected. The term “militarized masculinities” has been used by feminists and LGBTQ+ scholars and activists to describe the normative association of cisgendered, heterosexual masculinity with militarized violence. For instance, the framing of war and violence as “strong” and “masculine” is often coupled with a framing of peace and nonviolence as “weak” and “feminine.” In this context, weapons are typically seen as important for security, power, and control while disarmament is treated as something that makes countries weaker or more vulnerable.2

Nuclear weapons are a linchpin of militarized masculinities, signifying the ultimate form of strength and power. In this context, those who amplify the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and call for their prohibition often are accused of being “emotional” and “irrational,” which are typical gendered responses meant to feminize and thus ridicule.3 This gendered framing is extremely problematic with regard to accepting disarmament as a credible approach to security. The persistence of norms around what is considered rational and serious is further compounded by the lack of diversity. People with feminist, queer, and other nondominant perspectives can help challenge ideas that are treated as immutable truths and can articulate alternative conceptions of strength and security.

Diversity among participants and perspectives in disarmament diplomacy and decision-making also impacts consideration of how weapons cause harm and to whom they cause harm. Men tend to comprise most of the direct victims of armed violence and armed conflict. Sometimes, they are targeted for being men, which constitutes gender-based violence;4 but women, girls, and nonbinary and LGBTQ+ people often suffer harm that is disproportionate to the number of those directly involved in conflict or violence. Although less likely to wield weapons, women are still harmed by weapons. They are more likely to be targeted for acts of gender-based violence and may face social and political inequalities and pressures, including in accessing survivor assistance or participating in peace-building or postconflict reconstruction.5

Some weapons harm disproportionately or differentially based on sex. The ionizing radiation from nuclear weapons, for example, causes increased risk of cancers in cisgendered women and girls, affecting reproduction and maternal health.6 Social norms in certain societies also may lead women to suffer increased exposure to such radiation7 and subsequent ostracization.8

Weapons development, testing, and use also have racialized impacts. For example, the nuclear-armed states primarily have carried out nuclear weapons testing on the lands, water, and bodies of indigenous people. Settler states and colonial governments have mined uranium for nuclear weapons primarily on indigenous lands. Nuclear weapons development and radioactive waste storage are situated largely within or near poor communities, especially communities of color. Thus, diversity in participation and perspectives is not just about sex or gender. It also is essential for overcoming white supremacy, racism, and other forms of bias and discrimination in nuclear disarmament policy and practice.

Gender and the TPNW

All of these issues can and should be considered in the context of gender and disarmament. Some intergovernmental forums have started addressing the marginalization of women and the disproportionate gendered harm caused by weapons, but the nuclear space has largely ignored these concerns. So far, governments have not considered gendered norms such as militarized masculinities to any meaningful degree. Although activists and scholars increasingly are raising feminist, queer, and anti-racist perspectives on everything from small arms to nuclear bombs, government policymakers and disarmament diplomats largely have avoided such discussions in favor of an exclusive focus on women’s participation.

After decades of interventions by civil society, however, this approach is slowly starting to change. In addition to banning nuclear weapons, the TPNW, adopted at the United Nations in July 2017, recognizes the disproportionate impact of ionizing radiation on women and girls and calls for women’s increased participation in nuclear disarmament. At the first meeting of TPNW states-parties last June, participants adopted an action plan that commits them to implement the treaty’s gender provisions.9

Ray Acheson, director of Reaching Critical Will, a disarmament program, speaks at an anti-nuclear weapons rally at U.S.-Australian Joint Military Base Pine Gap, in Australia in 2016. (Photo by Tim Wright/ICAN)This includes engaging relevant stakeholders, including international organizations, civil society, affected communities, indigenous peoples, and youth, at all stages of the victim assistance and environmental remediation process; providing victim assistance that is age and gender sensitive; developing guidelines for voluntary reporting on national measures related to victim assistance, environmental remediation, and international cooperation; integrating gender considerations as the treaty is implemented; and considering the different needs of people in affected communities and Indigenous people.

The action plan mandated the establishment of a scientific advisory group comprised of a “geographically diverse and gender balanced network of experts” to support TPNW implementation. It also called for specific actions to operationalize the treaty’s gender provisions by emphasizing the gender-responsive nature of the treaty; taking gender considerations into account across all TPNW-related national policies, programs, and projects; and establishing a “gender focal point” to work during the intersessional period on guidelines for ensuring age- and gender-sensitive victim assistance and for integrating gender perspectives in international cooperation and assistance.

A diplomat from Chile’s UN mission has been appointed to the gender focal point position. A progress report is due at the second meeting of states-parties, to take place November 27–December 1 in New York under the presidency of Mexico.

The declaration approved at the states-parties’ meeting also reiterated a commitment to “work inclusively with affected communities” and emphasized “the innovative gender provisions of the treaty and…the importance of the equal, full and effective participation of both women and men in nuclear disarmament diplomacy.”10 Taken together, the declaration and action plan contain the most inclusive language of any outcome approved by a multilateral disarmament forum or treaty body to date.

The commitment to inclusivity was reflected further in the open consultation process organized by Austria, the meeting host, and in the meeting itself. Governmental representation from states-parties and signatories around the globe, especially from the Pacific region, Latin America and the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and Africa, was strong, while survivors, affected communities, and civil society groups from the global South participated more meaningfully and in greater numbers than in meetings of other nuclear treaty bodies. Even so, participation, especially among activists and academics, was still dominated by the global North and thus disproportionate to the treaty’s membership.

Other weaknesses also persist. The TPNW declaration and action plan reinforce a gender binary. They do not recognize other gender identities or gender nonconforming people, nor do they adequately advance an intersectional approach to disarmament beyond affected communities. These documents also do not comprehensively reflect or explicitly seek to address all harms generated by nuclear weapons.

As Diné activist Janine Yazzie, who is coordinating the protocols of the Nuclear Truth Project, said during a TPNW side event,

The catastrophic impacts of nuclear-related activities do not start nor end with the detonation of a bomb, nor does the mass murder end with the aftermath of the impacts of the blast. No, the mass murder from these industries, and those responsible for creating, investing and protecting them, continues as long as the devastation to the health of our peoples and our environment continues. As long as our waters are undrinkable, our soil is contaminated, and our babies are being born with uranium in their bodies.11

Similarly, in a letter to the Australian prime minister and parliament, members of the Yankunytjatjara, Kokotha, Adnyamathanha, Dieri, and Kuyani peoples and civil society groups in Australia noted that, “[f]ar from being a historical event, we are clear that the [nuclear] tests themselves were not the only damage. The waste left behind and the on-going complications and fears from fallout and contamination, and the mental scares, are still strongly felt in Aboriginal communities across the regions where testing took place.”12

The TPNW aims to stop nuclear threats, nuclear arms races, and nuclear weapons. It also aims at nuclear abolition, not just at arms control or disarmament. This means it aspires to justice, not just to dismantle bombs but to build a world that is safer for all in solidarity with all. In this sense, the TPNW is well suited to address these long-ignored harms and legacies. Although states-parties have more work to do to live up to this potential, the TPNW is still light-years ahead of other nuclear weapons-related treaties.

Gender and the NPT

In contrast, the other key nuclear governance treaty—the NPT—does not reference gender, affected communities, or indigenous populations, and neither do subsequent outcome documents and action plans adopted throughout the treaty’s more than 50-year history. It was only during the most recent NPT review cycle (2017–2022) that states-parties began incorporating any kind of gender perspective, primarily through calls for improving women’s participation and, less frequently, in relation to the gendered impacts of nuclear weapons use and testing.

Ray Acheson, director of Reaching Critical Will, a disarmament program, speaks at an anti-nuclear weapons rally at U.S.-Australian Joint Military Base Pine Gap, in Australia in 2016. (Photo by Tim Wright/ICAN)In 2017, Ireland and Sweden presented research showing that women’s participation rate in NPT meetings is lower than in other multilateral forums. In 2019, both governments hosted side events at the NPT preparatory committee meeting related to gender and nuclear weapons. Ireland submitted working papers in 2017, 2018, and 2019 related to gender,13 and governments affiliated with the Gender Champions Initiative tabled working papers on women’s participation together with the UN Institute for Disarmament Research in 2019 and 2022.14 These papers do not sufficiently incorporate a gender analysis of nuclear weapons discourse or norms, nor sufficiently draw on the knowledge of marginalized people other than “women” in a monolithic sense.

Nevertheless, these working papers introduced the topic of gender and disarmament into the NPT context, which was then reflected in the official record. In 2017, the NPT preparatory committee chair included in his factual summary a recommendation for increasing women’s participation, noting that states-parties “emphasized the importance of promoting the equal, full and effective participation of both women and men in the process of nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear disarmament and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”15 The summary said states-parties “were encouraged, in accordance with their commitments under United Nations Security Council resolution 1325, actively to support participation of female delegates in their own NPT delegations and through support for sponsorship programs.” It acknowledged the gendered impacts of radiation and called for this to be factored into discussions.

In 2018, the chair’s summary similarly noted that states-parties “endorsed the fundamental importance of promoting the equal, full and effective participation and leadership of both women and men in nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear disarmament and the peaceful use of nuclear energy.” They “welcomed the increased participation of women during the session and highlighted the importance of fulfilling commitments under Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000), to support actively the participation of female delegates in their own delegations, including through sponsorship programs.”16

The 2019 chair’s summary endorsed similar language on the “full and effective participation” of women and men and also encouraged states-parties, in accordance with Security Council Resolution 1325, “to actively support gender diversity in their NPT delegations and through support for sponsorship programs.” Finally, it recognized “the disproportionate impact of ionizing radiation on women and girls.”17

Despite the limited nature of these nonbinding reflections and recommendations, some states-parties pushed further at the 10th NPT Review Conference last August. Sixty-seven states-parties signed a joint statement on gender, diversity, and inclusion that recognized that “the intersections of race, gender, economic status, geography, nationality, and other factors must be taken into account as risk-multiplying factors” in relation to nuclear weapons. They noted that nuclear weapons have different effects on different demographics and recommended ways to address the impacts of nuclear weapons and diversify participation in disarmament and nonproliferation work.

Although the statement still largely focuses on increasing women’s participation in a binary and nonintersectional way, it recognizes that, “for women and other underrepresented groups, there must not only be a seat at the table, but also real opportunities to shape conversations, policies, and outcomes.”18

During negotiations on the review conference draft outcome document, a handful of delegations called for a reference to “all genders” in relation to participation, rather than the men-women binary. In urging a more intersectional approach, the Costa Rican delegation suggested language to encourage other metrics of diversity.19 Some governments opposed any reference to gender perspectives or diversity, while others accepted language on women’s participation but opposed the term “all genders.”

In the end, the draft outcome document, which was not adopted for other political reasons, contained eight paragraphs that called for an enhancement of women’s participation in the work of the NPT.20 Although this was a binary rather than intersectional approach, the text was an improvement over past NPT documents, which contain zero references to these issues. In another first for an NPT document, the final draft included a reference to providing assistance to people and communities affected by nuclear weapons use and testing. That was a clear testament to the long, difficult work of TPNW states-parties, civil society groups, and affected communities in raising these issues.

Intersectional Feminism and Nuclear Abolition

Whether in the context of the TPNW or the NPT, the commitment to advancing gender perspectives and diversity in disarmament is still largely words on paper. As has been seen time and again in previous initiatives, women’s participation in disarmament meetings and processes does not necessarily lead to meaningful change. Bodies or identities in themselves do not change policy. Alternative perspectives, analysis, experiences, strategies, and solutions do.

Many feminist, queer, and anti-racist organizers have pointed out that having women, people of color, or LGBTQ+ persons at the table does not necessarily lead to less militaristic solutions to international conflict or to disarmament. Under the Obama administration, for example, women held leadership positions throughout the national security and nuclear weapons establishment, yet the administration still objected vociferously to the banning of nuclear weapons and actively lobbied U.S. allies to reject the TPNW.

Although the call for gender equality is a welcome recognition of the significant exclusions in diplomacy and in governmental offices related to international security and weapons policy, it fails to acknowledge the power structures embedded in the institutions that limit discourse around weapons, militarism, and war. Instead, this call reinforces a men-women binary without acknowledging gender fluidity or nonconformity, does not address intersectional issues related to diversity of identity and experience, and does not examine why women and others need to be empowered to participate in the first place.

To advance the work that has been done by governments so far and to fully integrate feminist, queer, and anti-racist perspectives in disarmament diplomacy, action must be taken beyond calls for greater participation. The TPNW gender focal point, states-parties and signatories, activists, and academics should challenge states that resist the incorporation of gender perspectives, gender and racial diversity, and intersectional approaches in disarmament spaces and promote the TPNW as a progressive framework for these considerations.

They must facilitate the active participation of those who can bring lived experience and non-normative analysis of nuclear weapons. This could include funding participants’ travel to meetings, enabling virtual options for remote engagement, and ensuring that marginalized groups are included in implementing the 2022 action plan and developing further commitments.

Adopting an abolition framework can help facilitate this work. Abolition means seeking to deconstruct the systems and institutions that cause harm while simultaneously building up structures for equality, justice, and well-being. In the context of advancing gender and disarmament, this involves deconstructing gender and militarized masculinities to foster approaches that see disarmament as a positive force for change rather than a capitulation to power.

Dismantling militarized masculinities means refusing to buy into idealized notions of strong men and passive women, of men needing to be providers and protectors and women needing protection, and of states needing weapons and the ability to wage war. Rejecting the gender binary is essential to this work.

Rather than accepting a gendered or racialized dichotomy, nonbinary thinking facilitates different ways of solving problems such as nuclear violence or international security. Instead of us versus them, this approach posits that all states and all peoples and other living things share this planet and have a responsibility to care for each other and to collaborate in creating a better world. It enables the articulation and establishment of other forms of security based on peace and justice rather than violence.

TPNW states-parties should pursue these kinds of ideas to advance the burgeoning intersectional approach adopted in last year’s declaration and action plan. The nature of the process by which governments and activists engage to achieve nuclear disarmament, in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion of people and of perspectives, is important. It is largely because of leadership from women, queer people, and the global South that the TPNW was achieved at all. Their rejection of the nuclear-armed states’ binary conception of security was instrumental to the TPNW’s framing and success so far. This fundamental inclusivity and diversity of ideas and people must continue for the treaty to meet its full potential and abolish nuclear weapons forever.



1. Ray Acheson, “Notes on Nuclear Weapons & Intersectionality in Theory and Practice,” Princeton University Program on Science and Global Security, June 2022, https://sgs.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/2022-06/acheson-2022.pdf.

2. Carol Cohn, Felicity Ruby, and Sara Ruddick, “The Relevance of Gender for Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction,” Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, n.d., https://genderandsecurity.org/sites/default/files/the_relevance_of_gender_for_eliminating_weapons_of_mass_destruction_-_cohn_hill_ruddick.pdf (paper no. 38).

3. Ray Acheson, Banning the Bomb, Smashing the Patriarchy (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2022).

4. See Ray Acheson, Richard Moyes, and Thomas Nash, “Sex and Drone Strikes: Gender and Identity in Targeting and Casualty Analysis,” Article 36 and Reaching Critical Will, October 2014, https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Publications/sex-and-drone-strikes.pdf.

5. See Gabriella Irsten, “Women and Explosive Weapons,” Reaching Critical Will, 2014, https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Publications/WEW.pdf.

6. See Gender and Radiation Impact Project, https://www.genderandradiation.org; Mary Olson, “Human Consequences of Radiation: A Gender Factor in Atomic Harm,” in Civil Society Engagement in Disarmament Processes: The Case for a Nuclear Weapons Ban (New York: UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, 2016), https://www.un.org/disarmament/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/civil-society-2016.pdf.

7. UN General Assembly, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Implications for Human Rights of the Environmentally Sound Management and Disposal of Hazardous Substances and Wastes, Calin Georgescu,” A/HRC/21/48/Add.1, September 3, 2012.

8. See Reiko Watanuki, Yuko Yoshida, and Kiyoko Futagami, “Radioactive Contamination and the Health of Women and Post-Chernobyl Children,” Chernobyl Health Survey and Healthcare for the Victims—Japan Women’s Network, 2006).

9. First Meeting of States-Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Draft Vienna Action Plan,” TPNW/MSP/2022/CRP.7, June 22, 2022.

10. First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Draft Vienna Declaration of the 1st Meeting of States Parties of 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, p. 3.

11. Janene Yazzie, Facebook video message, June 22, 2022, https://www.facebook.com/janene.yazzie/videos/568148638000767.

12. ICAN Australia, “Statement From People Impacted by Nuclear Testing,” June 23, 2022, https://icanw.org.au/statement-nuclear-testing.

13. Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Gender, Disarmament and Nuclear Weapons: Working Paper Submitted by Ireland,” NPT/CONF.2020/PC.I/WP.38, May 9, 2017; Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Impact and Empowerment—The Role of Gender in the NPT: Working Paper Submitted by Ireland,” NPT/CONF.2020/PC.II/WP.38, April 24, 2018; Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Gender in the NPT: Recommendations for the 2020 Review Conference; Working Paper Submitted by Ireland,” NPT/CONF.2020/PC.III/WP.48, May 7, 2019.

14. Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Improving Gender Equality and Diversity in the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Process: Working Paper Submitted by Australia, Canada, Ireland, Namibia, Sweden and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research,” NPT/CONF.2020/PC.III/WP.25, April 18, 2019; Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Integrating Gender Perspectives in the Implementation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons: Working Paper Submitted by Australia, Canada, Ireland, Namibia, Sweden and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research,” NPT/CONF.2020/PC.III/WP.27, April 18, 2019; 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “From Pillars to Progress: Gender Mainstreaming in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons; Working Paper Submitted by Australia, Canada, Colombia, Ireland, Mexico, Namibia, Panama, the Philippines, Spain, Sweden, and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research,” NPT/CONF.2020/WP.54, May 17, 2022.

15. Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Draft Chairman’s Factual Summary,” NPT/CONF.2020/PC.I/CRP.3, May 11, 2017.

16. Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Draft Chair’s Factual Summary,” NPT/CONF.2020/PC.II/CRP.3, May 3, 2018.

17. Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Recommendations to the 2020 Review Conference,” NPT/CONF.2020/PC.III/CRP.4/Rev.1, May 9, 2019.

18. “Joint Statement on Gender, Diversity and Inclusion at the 10th NPT Review Conference,” n.d., https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/npt/revcon2022/statements/4Aug_Gender.pdf.

19. Ray Acheson, “Report on Main Committee I,” NPT News in Review, Vol. 17, No. 7 (August 18, 2022), pp. 5–19, https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/npt/NIR2022/NIR17.7.pdf.

20. 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Draft Final Document,” NPT/CONF.2020/CRP.1/Rev.2, August 25, 2022.


Ray Acheson is director of Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and author of Banning the Bomb, Smashing the Patriarchy.

Nuclear weapons are gendered and have gendered impacts. 

Reconciling the Korean Peninsula’s Dual Nuclear Proliferation Crises

March 2023
By Frank Aum

North Korea’s codification of its nuclear weapons program last September and its ongoing diplomatic deadlock with the United States have intensified two debates: whether Washington should accept the rogue nation’s nuclear weapons status and whether Seoul should follow suit by producing its own nuclear weapons.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, shown here in photo from last May, recently raised the possibility of arming his country with nuclear weapons. (Photo by Jeon Heon-Kyun - Pool/Getty Images) Some arms control advocates argue that accepting North Korea’s nuclear status would provide more tangible security benefits than the current U.S. policy of pushing for denuclearization. Jeffrey Lewis has asserted that this shift would remove the main impediment to bilateral talks and could help reduce the growing risks of an inadvertent conflict.1 Ankit Panda and Toby Dalton have agreed, noting that although denuclearization may be an “unbridgeable” issue for North Korea, it shares an interest in avoiding nuclear war with the United States.2

Analysts such as Bruce Klingner, however, have countered that arms control proponents “mischaracterized denuclearization as requiring North Korea to rapidly abandon the entirety of its nuclear and missile programs before receiving any benefits” and failed to explain how accepting North Korea’s nuclear status would “spark any reciprocal diplomatic, security or military response.”3 In addition, it is important to consider that Pyongyang has not explicitly articulated U.S. acceptance of its nuclear status as a precondition for returning to talks, only that Washington drop its “hostile” policy.4

This debate also underscores the paradox of reconciling North Korea’s unstoppable status as a de facto nuclear weapons country with the unmovable U.S. unwillingness to normalize diplomatic and economic relations with a nuclear pariah state. Even if the United States were to accept North Korea’s nuclear status from a planning perspective, that does not mean that Washington would be willing to accord diplomatic ties, remove all economic sanctions imposed on the North, and permit normal trade, which is what Pyongyang really wants.

Threading the needle on these two dilemmas (arms control versus denuclearization and nuclear acceptance versus diplomatic normalization) will require a more flexible stance by all sides, especially the United States, on how the denuclearization goal is framed. Some analysts have suggested that a more realistic U.S. policy would be to deemphasize denuclearization but not jettison it entirely.5 This approach would acknowledge, rather than accept, North Korea’s nuclear program in order to secure the pragmatic constraints that could make disarmament possible in the long run. Indeed, the United States should maintain denuclearization as an “aspirational, long-term, or fig-leaf goal” to ensure the viability of the nonproliferation regime and U.S. political support for an ultimate deal with North Korea.6 Washington must also pursue aggressive engagement with Pyongyang to jump-start the type of talks that can enhance mutual understanding, achieve diplomatic normalcy, and reduce the risks of nuclear war.7

South Korean marines participated in a military exercise with their U.S. counterparts in Pohang, South Korea in 2018. Such exercises are a crucial feature of the alliance between the two countries and their commitment to security on the Korean peninsula. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)Whether the United States accepts North Korea’s nuclear status or not, the extreme unlikelihood of North Korea giving up its nuclear deterrent anytime soon means that it will continue to occupy a sui generis category akin to the other three nuclear outliers—India, Israel, and Pakistan. In the case of acceptance, North Korea would be closer in terms of perception, treatment, and status to a country such as Pakistan, whose desire for nuclear recognition and trade is undermined by its record on nonproliferation.

Even if North Korea takes steps toward denuclearization, the impossibility of verifying disarmament with certainty would make North Korea a more ambiguous nuclear state like Israel. North Korea would always be in a state of denuclearizing but perhaps never quite getting there, similar to the nuclear-weapon states that committed under Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to pursue negotiations in good faith toward nuclear disarmament but still have not achieved that goal.

The reality of dealing with a nuclear North Korea for the long term has reinvigorated the nuclear ambitions of its southern neighbor. Last month, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol raised the possibility of arming his country with nuclear weapons. It marked the first time that such an idea has been broached publicly by a South Korean leader since the United States withdrew its nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula in 1991. Although the Yoon government quickly downplayed the statements and stressed that they did not reflect actual policy, the comments do echo a growing sentiment among many South Koreans to take greater control over their country’s national security. A 2022 survey found robust South Korean public support for nuclear weapons, with 71 percent of the respondents favoring the development of indigenous nuclear weapons in South Korea and 56 percent favoring the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons to South Korea.8 Even when faced with potential repercussions for acquiring nuclear weapons, such as international sanctions, the withdrawal of U.S. troops, or Chinese retaliation, only 11 percent of those who supported the weapons changed their views.

Television screens, using file footage, show a news report about the North Korean missile launch on November 3. The North’s advancing nuclear weapons and missile programs are the major source of tension on the Korean peninsula.  (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)Some South Korean advocates of nuclear weapons believe that alliance deterrence capabilities and demonstrations of resolve, such as joint military exercises, need to be enhanced to counter the growing threat from North Korea. Some analysts have even suggested that South Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons would ensure a stronger alliance with the United States and prevent decoupling. As Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, has argued, “If South Korea possesses nuclear weapons, the United States will not need to ask whether it should use its own weapons to defend its ally, and the alliance will never be put to a test.”9 Other analysts assert, however, that although the U.S. extended deterrence commitment may be strong today, recurring strains of “America First” policies in Washington suggest this promise could be jeopardized in the future.

Researchers have pointed to different rationales for why South Koreans support indigenous nuclear weapons development. The 2022 survey found the main driver of support to be concern about the Chinese threat (55 percent), followed by the prestige derived from being a state possessing nuclear weapons (26 percent). Contrary to the reassurance rationale offered by some South Korean analysts, the study revealed that 61 percent of the respondents who supported nuclear weapons were confident that the United States would meet its extended deterrence commitments.

Analyst Lauren Sukin has suggested, however, that most South Koreans prefer to have their own indigenous nuclear capabilities precisely because they have faith in the willingness of the United States to use nuclear weapons to defend them, albeit in a reckless way.10 Why should South Korea trust the United States to be cautious in nuclear use, she wrote, when the previous U.S. president promised to wreak “fire and fury” on the Korean peninsula? Among South Koreans who hold this view, there is value in their country having its own nuclear weapons because it could better calibrate nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula with greater restraint.

Nevertheless, Yoon’s provocative statements, while being offhand, still reflect a real desire among some South Korean conservative politicians and analysts to pressure the United States to deliver more concrete security assurances. As a presidential candidate in 2021, Yoon promised to request the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. In 2022, Yoon and U.S. President Joe Biden agreed to expand the scale and scope of joint military exercises and enhance the deployment of U.S. strategic assets to the Korean peninsula. Recently, Yoon mentioned that the two allies were proceeding with nuclear cooperation through joint military planning and exercises, which the Biden administration swiftly clarified would be limited to simulated exercises. Other conservative South Korean analysts have pushed for a NATO-like nuclear-sharing agreement in which South Korean aircraft would be allowed to carry U.S. nuclear weapons during conflict.

One possible reason why Yoon floated the nuclear weapons idea might have been to lay the foundation for an eventual U.S. concession to allow South Korea to develop its own nuclear weapons, if not during his term then during a future conservative administration. There is precedent in South Korea’s five-decade pursuit of greater sovereignty over its ballistic missile capabilities. In 1979, Seoul agreed to U.S.-recommended ballistic missile guidelines that limited development of the weapons to 180 kilometers in range and 500 kilograms in payload. Despite initial concerns about the proliferation of missile technology, the United States, over the years and under considerable South Korean pressure, relented to greater range and payload limits, including 300 kilometers in 2001, 800 kilometers in 2012, an unlimited payload in 2017, and a complete lifting of the guidelines in 2021.

Assenting to South Korean nuclear weapons today may be a bridge too far, but as North Korea’s nuclear status becomes more entrenched and its arsenal grows exponentially, South Korean demands for reassurance will not be sated by status quo U.S. responses.11 After exhausting a range of U.S. deterrence and reassurance options, including declaratory statements about U.S. extended deterrence commitments, enhanced joint military exercises, deployments of U.S. nuclear and strategic assets to the Korean peninsula, senior-level deterrence strategy committees, tailored deterrence strategies, and visits by South Korean officials to U.S. Strategic Command and bomber bases, Washington has little new to offer.

Joint nuclear planning meetings and tabletop exercises may satisfy Seoul for the moment, but there is not much left in the bag except higher-order options such as NATO-like nuclear sharing arrangements, redeployment of U.S. nuclear weapons to South Korea, and acquiescence to South Korea’s own nuclear weapons. A recent report already has recommended that the United States should “lay pre-decisional groundwork for possible redeployment of U.S. low-yield nuclear weapons,” including tabletop planning exercises, environmental impact studies, mapping of storage locations, joint training on nuclear safety and security, and certification of South Korean aircraft for nuclear missions.12

Despite the conventional wisdom that conservative South Korean administrations are better aligned with U.S. security policy, the United States has often had to restrain their aggressive actions, including the push for nuclear weapons, ballistic missile development, and stronger counterprovocation measures against North Korea. It remains to be seen whether South Korea’s simmering desire for nuclear weapons, as in the case of pursuing the lifting of its ballistic missile guidelines, will overcome U.S. objections through attrition. This saga may include warnings about a potential alliance rupture coming from one or both sides. Neither will let this happen, but absent a radical change in the North Korean threat, the alliance defense posture will not remain at the status quo.



1. Jeffrey Lewis, “It’s Time to Accept That North Korea Has Nuclear Weapons,” The New York Times, October 13, 2022.

2. Toby Dalton and Ankit Panda, “U.S. Policy Should Reflect Its Own Quiet Acceptance of a Nuclear North Korea,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 15, 2022, https://carnegieendowment.org/2022/11/15/u.s.-policy-should-reflect-its-own-quiet-acceptance-of-nuclear-north-korea-pub-88399.

3. Bruce Klingner, “This Is Not the Time to Abandon North Korean Denuclearization,” The Hill, October 29, 2022.

4. Frank Aum, “Don’t Isolate North Korea: Why Another Pressure Campaign Would Be a Mistake,” Foreign Affairs, December 22, 2022, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/north-korea/dont-isolate-north-korea.

5. John Carl Baker, “North Korean Arms Control Doesn’t Have to Conflict With Disarmament,” U.S. Institute of Peace, January 19, 2023, https://www.usip.org/publications/2023/01/north-korean-arms-control-doesnt-have-conflict-disarmament.

6. Aum, “Don’t Isolate North Korea.”

7. Frank Aum and George A. Lopez, “A Bold Peace Offensive to Engage North Korea,” War on the Rocks, December 4, 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/12/a-bold-peace-offensive-to-engage-north-korea/.

8. Toby Dalton, Karl Friedhoff, and Lami Kim, “Thinking Nuclear: South Korean Attitudes on Nuclear Weapons,” Chicago Council on Global Affairs, February 2022, https://globalaffairs.org/sites/default/files/2022-02/Korea%20Nuclear%20Report%20PDF.pdf.

9. Sang-Hun Choe, “In a First, South Korea Declares Nuclear Weapons a Policy Option,”
The New York Times, January 12, 2023.

10. Lauren Sukin, “The U.S. Has a New Nuclear Proliferation Problem: South Korea,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 19, 2023, https://thebulletin.org/2023/01/the-us-has-a-new-nuclear-proliferation-problem-south-korea/.

11. Michelle Ye He Lee, “N. Korea’s Kim Vows ‘Exponential’ Increase in Nuclear Arsenal in New Year,” The Washington Post, January 1, 2023.

12. CSIS Commission on the Korean Peninsula, “Recommendations on North Korea Policy and Extended Deterrence,” January 2023, pp. 18–19, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/2023-01/230119_Korean_Commission_2023.pdf.


Frank Aum is the senior expert on Northeast Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a former senior adviser on Korean peninsula affairs at the U.S. Department of Defense.

The reality of dealing with a nuclear North Korea for the long term has reinvigorated the nuclear ambitions of its southern neighbor.

Learning on the Fly: Drones in the Russian-Ukrainian War

January/February 2023
By Kerry Chávez

The international community has watched with bated breath as Ukrainians resisted, even routed Russian forces on many fronts since the latter’s invasion in February 2022. Based on its size, reputation, and bravado, many, including the Kremlin, expected the Russian military to trounce its target in short order.

A Ukrainian soldier loads a bomb on a drone in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, in September amid the Russian war on Ukraine.  (Photo by JUAN BARRETO/AFP via Getty Images)Instead, its stunted progress has induced plenty of double-takes and debates, suggesting flaws in Russian intelligence, motivation, morale, and logistics. There is likely some truth in each of those explanations, but one factor stands out for its differential use and power to explain the Ukrainian upset: drones.1 The Ukrainians have held the line because they harnessed a crucial human and technological resource at their disposal, commercial drones, which have been decisive in the unexpected outcome so far. The Russians faltered because they overlooked them, but they are resurging because they learned from it. These lessons have implications for current and future wars, for preponderant militaries such as the United States all the way to underresourced rebels.

The Ukrainian and Russian sides both have admirable drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), arsenals comprising combat and reconnaissance military-grade models and commercial versions. Military-grade platforms have greater range, altitude, payload, endurance, precision, and data link security. These optimized, more rugged features come at high financial, technical, and infrastructural costs. Consequently, as with all exquisite airpower, they are relatively scarce and difficult to replace. For instance, Russia reportedly possessed only 20 Orion combat drones at the start of 2021. Loath to lose them, users usually field these platforms cautiously and precisely, leaving their limits unreached and their flexible potential untapped. Conversely, commercial drones are far more affordable, available, and user friendly. These models are considered expendable, and users often field them daringly in all sorts of ways. Overall, each type of drone has its trade-offs.

Russia has a larger indigenous drone capacity, producing advanced platforms in all categories, and Ukraine has larger external support (table 1). This is meaningful considering how international sanctions applied to Russia have reduced the ability to replenish a waning fleet either with complete substitutes or component parts. Russia’s recent deal to procure Iranian loitering munitions is a stark case in point. Iran is a disreputable drone supplier to many terrorist groups, and the regime is under enough domestic pressure over human rights abuses that its ability to deliver on this deal might become tenuous. Thus, not only must Russia look abroad to supplement its depleted drone arsenal, but the choice to rely on Iran suggests that it has few other options. That aside, Russia and Ukraine have a comparable assortment of military UAVs across application types.

Russia’s drone fleet was almost entirely indigenous and exquisite at the start of the war, and it was not until midsummer that the military pivoted toward commercial drones and approached Iran to supplement its diminishing military stock. Meanwhile, a mere day into the war, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense issued a social media call for citizens to donate hobbyist drones in droves.2 By the time Russia was beginning to incorporate simpler drones in July, the Ukrainian effort had coalesced into a global fundraising initiative to build an “army of drones,” including thousands of commercial models.3

More fundamentally, an inventory of each side’s drone models does not account for how these actors are wielding them, sometimes as standalone assets and other times in combined arms configurations. Too often, analyses of emerging technologies overfocus on the technologies. Impassive tools, they cannot be dissociated from the human dimension and the strategic context from which they emerge. It is doctrine that drives military action and doctrine that has made the vital difference in the war.

Doctrinal Differences

Military doctrine refers to the framework guiding how an armed force integrates, operates, and adapts to achieve objectives. It is both durable, reflecting a force’s experience-borne perspective about what works, and dynamic, outlining the intellectual tools to solve problems with new ideas, technology, and organization. Rather than what to think, doctrine informs how to think in battlespaces amid the fog and friction of war.4

Tactics, techniques, and procedures are central expressions of doctrine that determine how militaries structure and employ troops and equipment in their missions. Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, Russia expanded its arsenal of reconnaissance drones, touting it as game-changing technology and telegraphing a concept of operations based on advance airborne intelligence. This relied to some degree on doctrine and skills learned in Syria, conclusions about Azerbaijani successes in Nagorno-Karabakh, and clashes in the Donbas since 2014.5 It seemed surprising then how slowly Russian forces progressed, how often they walked into ambushes, and how minimal their drone use appeared to be once the invasion began.

By the logic of traditional aerial doctrine, it should not have been so surprising. Military airpower is advanced and expensive. Building, fielding, maintaining, and replacing assets are major undertakings. Losing a platform is a significant setback. Beginning from a baseline of this scarcity logic, Russia seemed to cautiously field its military-grade UAVs for high-stakes maneuvers and high-value targets. This contributed to subpar intelligence, disjointed logistics, and fractured efforts to advance on the battlefield. As Ukraine’s aerial defenses eliminated several Russian reconnaissance drones early in the war, this logic intensified amid questions about the depth of Russia’s drone fleet and the longevity of its vital aerial campaign.

Meanwhile, Ukraine densely integrated the full spectrum of UAVs into its force structures for reconnaissance and strikes from the start. Amassing what they called a “mosquito air force” of commercial drones, especially the four-rotor helicopter models (quadcopters) with vertical takeoff and landing and hovering abilities, Ukrainian fighters were able to maintain a bird’s-eye view of the war.6 Given that they are relatively cheap and accessible, fighters were untroubled to send them out on demand.

Commercial drones are expendable, equivalent in cost to a small supply of ammunition. As with fired ammunition, loss is built into a small drone’s mission such that military forces do not feel compelled to withhold them on the front lines. Despite initial skepticism about the ragtag Ukrainian drone fleet from Mavics to military-grade models, analysts quickly determined that “it’s wreaking havoc on the Russian army.”7

Ukraine’s prolific use of drones has dramatically affected battlefield behavior. Fighters can observe troop positions and movements, improve targeting for conventional weapons, harass and pressure enemy forces, and video successes that can later be publicized to rally support and demoralize the Russian side. Ukraine’s ability to blend commercial drones into its broader aerial arsenal and team it with traditional weapons and ground troops is a bedrock of its success at resisting the more powerful Russian military.

One Russian defense analyst admitted that “Ukrainians learned how to use their old Soviet guns together with commercial quadcopters. As a result, they have better situational awareness, and better target designation.… To put it bluntly, we do not have air supremacy.”8 Six months into the war, Russian General Yury Baluyevsky affirmed that commercial UAVs have revolutionized reconnaissance and artillery weapons fire, including target acquisition and adjustment, and become a true symbol of modern warfare.

Why did Ukraine innovate so well with UAVs? Why did Moscow fail at this, especially because Russian officials previously had seen this strategy in Syria and the Donbas and acknowledged it to be important? An anonymous U.S. volunteer fighter embedded with a Ukrainian unit pinpointed the reason in November.9 He explained that drones are democratized throughout the Ukrainian rank and file, with command and control decentralized into “islands of forces” that have the freedom to alter tactics on the fly. This enables units to be effective and mobile in a battlefield that is fragmented and fast-moving. The fighter concludes that, “The reality is we are droning them to death.… This is a doctrinal issue.… [T]hey seemingly decided rather early on that this type of [island] structure would work very efficiently against the somewhat lumbering doctrine of the Russians.”

This Ukrainian doctrine arose from necessity. Weaker combatants innovate or die. Those who survive cleverly leverage what resources they have. They pull from available experience, including nonmilitary experience, and experiment more readily. They accept trade-offs that traditional militaries might not, such as rifts in the command chain and information flow or risks accompanying unsecured datalinks.

The traditional, lumbering doctrine of the Russian military has struggled against and struggled to incorporate these scrappy methods. A Russian media report highlighted that this mass use of commercial drones by Ukrainian fighters is “a kind of revolution from below, a very rare case for conservative military circles. Drones entered the army from civilian life.… This is how this practice has spread since 2014.”10 Indeed, Ukrainian militias turned to commercial UAVs after Russia seized Crimea in 2014 and separatist clashes ratcheted up in the Donbas, calling it drone warfare for the poor.

Russia’s and Ukraine’s differential doctrines reflect their military cultures (traditional vs. entrepreneurial), risk profiles (averse vs. acceptant), civil societies (siloed from state affairs vs. highly porous) and fighting animus (hubris vs. gumption). The director of a Russian nongovernmental organization that is now providing small UAVs to the country’s platoons on the battlefield discussed this in November.11 He observed that commercial drones have featured in past conflicts, including the Donbas, but not to this scale and effect. Thus, “proudly open[ing] the 1980s ground force combat manual and [determining that] everything is fine with us,” Russia maintained focus on traditional airpower. The director noted that the United States has done the same, that “none of the modern armies of the world was ready for the Mavic phenomenon.” Seeing the impact of small drones on targeting, information processing, and control, he advocated a shift in military science and worldview from ground troops to generals to government. Russia is beginning to internalize that shift.


Four months into the war in Ukraine, the Russian military launched a second major offensive. This one was different. A more competent force emerged. Most glaringly, ground units began to incorporate commercial drones into their tactics, techniques, and procedures. After watching them used against them to profound effect, Russia emulated Ukraine’s mix of military and commercial UAV use. Although Russian officials had endorsed drones as a key force enabler and even discussed the integration of quadcopters before the war, it apparently took the war itself for Russian doctrine to accord with rhetoric.12

Part of a critical power infrastructure installation burns after a Russian drone attack near a residential building in Kyiv in December. (Photo by Aleksandr Gusev/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)Fascinatingly, this shift was driven by Russian field commanders rather than generals. Following a late June meeting with soldiers from the front line, a government official warned that “we are there like blind kittens—we need quadcopters.”13 In a candid series on Telegram entitled “Cry for Copters,” a Russian artilleryman stressed that all ground units from platoons upward need and have needed from day one to be saturated with commercial drones for reconnaissance and strike. He condemned the “amazing attitude” of military leadership who ignored the widespread plea from foot soldiers who use their own funds to buy quadcopters, spare parts, tools, and firmware.14

As with Ukrainian fighters who have been adept with commercial drones in the Donbas since 2014, Russian fighters there have been on the forefront of support for this shift. In May 2022, Russian-based separatists who control Donetsk established a training facility for commercial drone pilots in combat. One of its founders noted that civilian UAVs turn conventional weapons into sniper rifles, especially for moving targets.15 This tactic, penetrating aerial defenses with small drones and hovering undetected over targets to calibrate targeting and time follow up strikes, has become a staple in the war.

As Russia’s adaptation with commercial drones deepened, official and state media accounts increasingly have amplified its importance. In October, the Russian newspaper Izvestia announced “immediate plans” to outfit platoons with multiple quadcopters to be used in tandem for surveillance, searches, and strikes.16 A month later, it underlined that, “at this point, nothing gets done without quadcopters.… There are no reconnaissance devices comparable to them in capabilities.”17

Two other developments indicate how vital small UAVs have been in this conflict. First, coinciding with its own adaptation with hobbyist drones, the Russian military made targeting Ukrainian UAV operators a top priority. Given that commercial datalinks are unsecured, it is easier to detect pilots’ positions, leading operators on both sides to develop steel nerves and tactics to move continuously on foot during flight and to deploy drones in short forays to avoid detection. As drone use has become increasingly dense, diverse, and dangerous, both sides continuously watch, probe, and adapt to circumvent one another’s aerial strategy and defense. They are truly learning on the fly.

Second, in October the Russian company Almaz-Antey began large-scale production of an indigenous quadcopter, the type of commercial drone making the most difference, to sidestep the politics and expense of importing. At the government’s request, it could be easily convertible to combat use.18 This marks a major evolution: from an era of solely military UAVs to the emergence of a vast commercial drone market to militaries mass-producing commercial models for state arsenals. These trends, spanning military affairs from doctrine to combat tactics and stretching back and forward into civil society, suggest that small drones will be organic to modern conflict.


The exploitation of small UAVs in conflict or in support of a violent agenda is not new. Aum Shinrikyo experimented with quadcopters to disperse sarin in Tokyo as far back as 1995. Since the commercial drone industry began mass production around 2012, several groups have incorporated them into their inventories for reconnaissance, propaganda generation, and weaponization. The Islamic State group at its peak stands out as an ace innovator, but drones have featured in the Syrian civil war and Myanmar insurgencies, are a fixture in the cartel and smuggling underworlds, and were a fundamental asset in the Donbas well before the full war was unleashed.19

A Ukrainian soldier flies a drone on the outskirts of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine in late December. (Photo by SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP via Getty Images)The role of UAVs in the war, however, is distinct. First, the scale of their use in this conflict is dominant. Second, past applications of drones certainly have helped weak actors contend against stronger adversaries in unconventional conflicts, but now there is a precedent for their utility in a total war against a major power. Third, although small UAVs have been in many a rebel’s backpack and a terrorist’s tool kit, the effort to tuck them into as many Russian and Ukrainian rucks as possible is a significant pivot in state military behavior. Finally, the salience of this war has attracted more attention than other theaters where hobbyist drones have been employed. Overall, the UAV phenomenon in this war has implications across time, space, and domains.

Regarding time, the phenomenon will shape the current conflict and echo in future wars. In this war, there is active learning and aerial adaptation on both sides. Despite the significance of the Russian military’s summer resurgence, which prominently leveraged DJI UAVs, it might not be enough to offset the country’s early missteps, casualties, and conventional weapons attrition, especially amid ongoing international sanctions. There are signals that Russia is running out of key equipment and components, its recent contracts to receive Iranian Shahed-136 loitering munitions being a notable one. Whether Russia can overcome its early inertia amid these constraints remains unclear. Of particular concern is how these factors might affect the potential for nuclear escalation. The probability of a nuclear strike likely tracks with the degree of Russian desperation more generally. Insofar as incorporating commercial UAVs, which cannot carry a nuclear payload, improves the fighting capacity of military units, drone use should diminish the nuclear threat.

Ahead of future wars, militaries should analyze how small drones shape force structures, combined arms formations, and combat operations. Russia certainly will. This recommendation applies to militaries from the small to strong. Minor forces unable to field large, advanced air forces will find a flexible, reliable surrogate in increasingly advanced commercial drone models. Preponderant militaries, prone to rely on their exquisite platforms, should take note as well. The prevalence and persistence of multiple aerial assets that commercial technology enables affect the massing and maneuver of modern warfare assets. Fighters would do well to invest in, train on, and assimilate commercial aerial and counterdrone technologies that prepare them to maintain an edge in offense and defense.

The commercial drone phenomenon also has substantial implications for violent nonstate actors, such as insurgents, rebels, and terrorists. On average weaker and thus needing to be more innovative to surmount such shortcomings, these groups have long been the pioneers of the quadcopter phenomenon. Ukraine is a highly publicized proving ground for small drones. As ambitious onlookers in these organizations watch, they vicariously will learn, emulate, and innovate in other theaters. Consequently, there likely will be a burst of diffusion and creativity with drones for violent and illicit purposes. This is concerning because armed nonstate actors are not constrained by politics, norms, and laws like state militaries. They will not be shy to use small UAVs to their fullest multiuse potential to advance their agendas.

What is apparent is that the wartime benefits that commercial drones offer—intelligence, target designation, strike capacity, and propaganda and psychological effects—also can become assets for violent nonstate actors outside of warzones. This means that the threat extends into the national, local, and site-specific security domains, including such high-value targets as structures with symbolic importance, sensitive infrastructure, and population-centric venues. Stakeholders probably will look to apply new regulations where possible, whether on commercial platforms, component parts, or airspaces. This development probably will also lead to more counterdrone solutions and installations where stakeholders identify acute vulnerabilities.

A final corollary might come in the form of psychological reverberations. A Russian commercial drone pilot instructor has described the moral and psychological exhaustion of small UAVs in combat. Their appearance on the battlefield is a harbinger of harm, even if they are merely watching in the moment. Furthermore, soldiers develop phobias, always wondering if a drone is hovering nearby undetected.20 As aerial clips depicting the war’s grimness and fear continuously circulate, they could have residual effects in the public consciousness. If criminal or terroristic uses of drones proliferate beyond this war, which is likely, even a toy joyride might trigger public fear in some local communities.

The implications of drone use in Ukraine are likely to be long-standing, far-reaching, and multidimensional. Regulation and security challenges related to commercial UAVs were imminent before the war began, but the pointed and intensely watched application of this technology in Ukraine will amplify them. Keen observers will not repeat Russia’s mistake. They will take notes and adapt now, whether in doctrine, tactics, or defense.



1. This is a common lay term for unmanned aerial vehicles that this article uses interchangeably. Technically, drones also describe unmanned ground vehicles and unmanned aquatic platforms, submarine or surface, all of which are being used in the Russian-Ukrainian war but to a significantly lesser degree.

2. Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, “Do You Have a Drone? Put It to Use for the Experienced Pilots!” Facebook, February 25, 2022, https://www.facebook.com/MinistryofDefence.UA/posts/263895272589599.

3. Aila Slisco, “Ukraine Building 'Army of Drones' Though Donations to Monitor Front Line,” Newsweek, July 7, 2022.

4. John Spencer, “What Is Army Doctrine?” Modern War Institute, March 21, 2016, https://mwi.usma.edu/what-is-army-doctrine/.

5. Samuel Bendett, “Where Are Russia’s Drones?” Defense One, March 1, 2022, https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2022/03/where-are-russias-drones/362612/.

6. Yana Dlugy, “Ukraine’s ‘Mosquito’ Air Force,” The New York Times, August 10, 2022.

7. David Axe, “Ukraine’s Drones Are Wreaking Havoc on the Russian Army,” Forbes, March 21, 2022.

8. Pyotr Skorobogaty, “Украина: гладиаторские бои” [Ukraine: Gladiatorial Fights], Центр прикладных исследований и программ [PRISP Center], August 4, 2022, http://www.prisp.ru/analitics/11005-skorobogatiy-ukraina-gladiatorskie-boi-0408.

9. Anonymous, “And by God It Worked,” Ukraine Volunteer Transcripts, November 5, 2022, https://ukrainevolunteer297689472.wordpress.com/2022/11/05/and-by-god-it-worked/.

10. Dmitry Astrakhan, “Drones in the Clear Sky: How Drones Change the Course of the SVO,” Izvestia, October 24, 2022, https://iz.ru/1414691/dmitrii-astrakhan/dron-sredi-iasnogo-neba-kak-bespilotniki-meniaiut-khod-svo (in Russian).

11. Nikita Yurchenko, “Vladimir Orlov, Veche: The Second Wave of Mobilization Is Inevitable—You Need Not 300 Thousand, but 2 Million," Interregional Public Organization “Veche,” November 21, 2022, http://veche-info.ru/news/9453.

12. Samuel Bendett, “To Robot or Not to Robot: Past Analysis of Russian Military Robotics and Today’s War in Ukraine,” War on the Rocks, June 20, 2022, https://warontherocks.com/2022/06/to-robot-or-not-to-robot-past-analysis-of-russian-military-robotics-and-todays-war-in-ukraine/.

13. Buryatia Representatives, “The Budget of Buryatia Will Be Spent on Sights and Quadrocopters for a ‘Special Operation,’” Taiga.info, June 30, 2022, https://tayga.info/178163 (in Russian).

14. @rusfleet, “Notes of Midshipman Ptichkin: Cry for Copters,” Telegram, September 7, 2022, https://t.me/rusfleet/5304 (in Russian).

15. Dmitry Grigoriev, “Враг изощрен, но шансов нет. Как беспилотники помогают России в СВО” [The enemy is sophisticated, but there is no chance. How drones help Russia in SVO], Аргументы и факты, August 12, 2022, https://aif.ru/politics/world/vrag_izoshchren_no_shansov_net_kak_bespilotniki_pomogayut_rossii_v_svo.

16. Astrakhan, “Drones in the Clear Sky.”

17. Dmitry Astrakhan, “At the Moment Nothing Without Copters,” Izvestia, November 28, 2022, https://iz.ru/1432143/dmitrii-astrakhan/v-dannyi-moment-bez-kopterov-nikuda (in Russian).

18. TopWar Staff, “Концерн ВКО «Алмаз-Антей» запустил серийное производство многофункциональных беспилотников типа квадрокоптер” [Concern EKO ‘Almaz-Antey’ launched mass production of multifunctional drones of the quadrocopter type], Военное Oбозрение, October 26, 2022, https://topwar.ru/204047-koncern-vko-almaz-antej-zapustil-serijnoe-proizvodstvo-mnogofunkcionalnyh-bespilotnikov-tipa-kvadrokopter.html.

19. Kerry Chávez and Ori Swed, “The Proliferation of Drones to Violent Nonstate Actors,” Defence Studies 21, no. 1 (2021): 1–24, https://doi.org/10.1080/14702436.2020.1848426.

20. Grigoriev, “Враг изощрен, но шансов нет.”


Kerry Chávez is an instructor in the political science department at Texas Tech University; project administrator at the university’s Peace, War and Social Conflict Laboratory; and a nonresident research fellow with the Modern War Institute at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Ukraine has held the line in the war by harnessing commercial drones but Russia is now doing that too.

Reducing Strategic Risks of Advanced Computing Technologies

January/February 2023
By Lindsay Rand

In the past few years, U.S. policymakers have struggled to craft policies that embrace the benefits of advanced computing technologies and enable competitive innovation while mitigating risks from their widespread applications. Even as a U.S.-Chinese technology competition looms, policymakers must recognize the arms-racing risks to strategic stability and pursue policies, even if unilateral, to resolve the ambiguity around computing technologies that are deployed in strategic settings.

U.S. technicians test the operational capabilities of a swarm of 40 drones at the U.S. National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. in 2019. (U.S. Army Photo by Pv2 James Newsome)Although computing technologies have been a security focus since World War II, a strategic shift toward technology competition with China and a rapidly accelerating pace of innovation are challenging prior U.S. governance strategies. A narrower version of this problem was faced in the 1970s, when U.S. policymakers and their UK counterparts agreed on restricting the flow of high-end computers to Eastern Bloc countries over national security concerns but disagreed on whether to control low-end computer trade.1

In the context of a renewed competitive environment, the United States again faces the challenge of crafting policies that will accelerate domestic research and development to compete for and maximize the economic and strategic benefits of these technologies while identifying and curtailing potential national security risks from deployment and proliferation. Yet, policies based on controlling exports of computing technologies, which were leveraged in the 1970s, will be less effective today in the context of a broader network of private sector actors and a wider set of hardware and software computing technologies. For example, the risks of advanced computing application have been highlighted with the development of drone swarm technologies.2 Swarms are fleets of drones that are networked using a variety of advanced computing technologies to perform synchronized maneuvers. Militaries are interested in swarms because they could provide the opportunity to overwhelm an adversary’s offensive or defensive systems or support expanded, persistent intelligence operations.3 Swarms also have civilian applications across many industries, including for emergency response and agriculture, and many technologies developed for private sector applications are repurposed for military operations.

Without adequate vetting and testing of how the various advanced computing elements will perform in a strategic environment, however, swarms with defects or unverified components prematurely deployed could produce significant consequences and lead to escalation scenarios through adversary interference, unintended and unsupervised activities that provoke adversaries, or faulty deployment that is misinterpreted as malicious intent.4 Wider proliferation of swarm-applicable computing technologies also increases the likelihood that swarming will be leveraged for nefarious purposes, such as for easier delivery of chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons.5

If the history of Cold War competition bears any resemblance to challenges that can be expected in the digital age, Washington will face a pacing issue as it competes to assert leadership in the field but slows innovation enough to assert more effective guidelines for the legitimate use of, access to, and R&D on advanced computing technologies.

Biden administration policies clearly indicate an intent to compete for technological leadership. Given the precedent set by the Cold War, an era of accelerated innovation should be expected. In supporting rapid innovation, however, policymakers could miss an important chance to preempt risky applications and their broad proliferation unless guardrails for safer use, such as clearer definitions, metrics, and testing requirements for military applications, are soon identified and implemented.


Advanced computing technology is a broad category that encompasses systems and techniques used to improve computation hardware and software. Artificial intelligence (AI) is perhaps one of the best-known categories of advanced computing technologies and signals a remarkable improvement in computing software proficiency. Also, key hardware technologies have increased the brute force of computing power, including quantum computers and exascale supercomputers.

In terms of policymaking and governance, improvements in advanced computing hardware are more compatible with existing forms of regulations and controls. Hardware components necessarily consist of tangible elements that can be tested and evaluated in observable ways and are more easily defined and controlled in agreements. One of the key challenges with managing advanced computing technologies is the fact that many are software based, meaning no physical objects associated with the innovations can be tracked, verified, or monitored. This means policymakers must seek new governance options.

Although each hardware or software technology could uniquely improve computing speed or complexity, there is also an element of amplification in the interaction between advanced computing technologies. For example, hardware improvements could allow for more powerful software capabilities or software improvements could further maximize utility under constraints of existing hardware.6 Additionally, significant improvements in either category could catalyze R&D breakthroughs across other branches of advanced computing technologies.7 This interconnection indicates that domino effects in advanced computing R&D, as well as deployment, are feasible and likely, emphasizing the importance of early policy efforts to clearly define and regulate different types of advanced computing technologies.

Momentum in Recent Policies

Recently published strategies and policies on advanced computing technologies indicate that the Biden administration is facing competing pressures in managing the new technologies. On May 4, President Joe Biden signed two presidential directives on quantum computing and the broader category of quantum information sciences.8 Together, they send mixed signals to private sector stakeholders and governmental agencies about the national strategy for supporting and directing R&D on quantum information sciences and technology.9

The first directive calls for bolstering domestic quantum R&D capacity by enhancing the National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee, which provides independent assessments and recommendations on the national quantum program, and by declaring the importance of U.S. leadership in quantum information sciences and quantum technology applications.10 The second directive, which recognizes the potential risks that quantum technologies pose to cybersecurity, calls for efforts to minimize such vulnerabilities by bolstering cryptography standards and increasing awareness of risks and new security requirements across agencies.11 The two directives present a complex narrative legitimating concern about quantum technologies while endorsing an arms-racing-style competition with near-peer technology competitors for leadership.

In October, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy released a white paper titled “Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights” that echoes a similar underlying strategy but with a different policy scope.12 The document declares its purpose to be “to protect the American public” in an age of AI and proposes methods to ensure safe, effective systems; protections against algorithmic discrimination; and data privacy. It also calls for procedures to provide notice when an automated system is being used and an explanation of the scope and mechanisms of its operation, as well as access to human alternatives to the automated system and human consideration and fallback mechanisms if an automated mechanism errs.

Although the document assumes a greater regulatory role than any quantum policy to date, it has been criticized for not explicitly acknowledging the need for caution in the use of AI in any specific circumstances and for the absence of legal force. Without cautioning careful evaluation for use-case suitability, the document could be interpreted as condoning broader, even indiscriminate application of AI technologies as long as the minimal guidelines are met.13 This is despite the widely recognized and legitimate concerns regarding the technology, including the discrimination implicit in algorithms applied for surveillance and the exacerbation of crisis stability and escalation risks in defense applications.14 Further, because of the lack of legal authority, the document really only serves as a recommendation.

As these policies continue to be published, it has become apparent that the Biden administration will prioritize competing for international leadership on advanced computing by fostering rapid technology innovation and limiting regulatory policies. By minimizing regulatory constraints, the administration is likely hoping to reduce any friction that could impede innovation in the United States or disincentivize private sector investment and R&D.15 Although this decision may support strategic competition, it necessarily limits risk reduction to recommendations and reactive measures and makes clear that the resulting risks from deploying these technologies are necessary symptoms to be treated rather than prevented through more rigorous evaluation and testing.

If the dangers of unrestrained technology competition were recognized and acknowledged as arms racing, could risk reduction efforts be improved by governmental adoption of more proactive policies to serve as guardrails for innovation? Importantly, the U.S. decision to compete for international leadership and thus promote the relatively unfettered development of advanced computing technologies introduces risks to strategic stability when leveraged for military applications that may have been undervalued. Understanding the impact of these flawed policies that signal intent to engage in arms racing and devising more constructive ones should be an urgent U.S. priority.

Strategic Stability Risks

In the national security domain, advanced computing technologies are referenced as enabling technologies. This term is used to indicate that they are not weapons themselves but that they enable strategic operations and have broader applications than traditional military technologies.16 Even as enabling technologies, however, advanced computing technologies can create destabilizing risks in three primary ways.

First, they increase offensive cybercapability by allowing for data mining or longer, more persistent engagement, as in the case of AI, or more brute force, as in the case of quantum computing. Numerous articles have been written identifying the strategic stability implications of cybercapabilities, including in their application to critical infrastructure, nuclear command and control, and military operation domains.17 In the cyber application, a drastic, asymmetric advantage gained by one country establishing a clear lead in advanced computing technologies would have significant consequences for the offense-defense balance. In creating a perceived imbalance in military capabilities between adversaries, such an advantage could impose new crisis escalation risks or further incentivize arms-racing dynamics.18

Second, advanced computing technologies increase data processing power, which has been called the weaponization of data. In this context, an increased ability to survey “big data” could enable a country to determine strategically significant operational trends, identify vulnerabilities, or detect the asset locations of its adversaries.19 For example, advanced computing technologies may allow a country to harness big data to improve detection, tracking, and targeting of the mobile nuclear weapons delivery systems that constitute a nuclear-armed state’s second-strike capability.20

The extent to which data can fundamentally disrupt conditions for strategic stability and mutual vulnerability, however, is still not clear. There is an important caveat in discussing this risk factor, namely, the fine line between recognizing the significance of harnessing the ability to analyze large amounts of data and avoiding outsized expectations by considering feasibility and practical constraints that may impede deployment in practice. A country’s perception of an adversary having these capabilities could be destabilizing on its own, but an assessment of the extent to which better data processing power actually could render certain assets vulnerable provides increased clarity on the magnitude of this risk.

Finally, advanced computing technologies shorten decision-making time by accelerating the pace of conflict scenarios. Although the first two risk areas primarily highlight the possibility of deliberate deterrence failure by changing the actual or perceived balance of mutual vulnerability required for deterrence, increasing the speed of combat is most often associated with inadvertent deterrence failure scenarios. Specifically, advanced computing technologies are likely to increase crisis instability by shrinking decision-making time and forcing humans to rely on fully or partially automated decisions in crises. This risk has been discussed extensively in the context of lethal autonomous weapons systems.21

One risk of advanced computing technologies is that they shorten decision-making time by accelerating the pace of conflict scenarios. In December, a Ukrainian soldier loaded a mortar launcher before firing on Russian positions in eastern Ukraine.  (Photo by SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP via Getty Images)Beyond these three categories, an additional strategic stability impact arises from the signaling, hype, and investment in these advanced computing technologies. In the policy sphere, the perception of capability is almost as important as the actual capabilities at hand given the ambiguity of these technologies, especially software-based capabilities. For example, there is no way for a country to verify the quality and scope of AI or computing mechanisms that another country is using to augment its system, and thus policymakers and strategists must rely on perception. Because of this ambiguity, a country’s failure to send clear signals to its adversary could incentivize technology buildup and heighten arms-racing instability. Even among domestic stakeholders, hype, or the exaggerated perceptions of a technology’s potential, can lead policymakers to adopt different strategies than they would if they knew a technology’s true limitations.

Biden’s recent policy announcements are particularly risky for this exact reason. When these sorts of policy statements are not accompanied by greater specificity on the purpose of the reported strategies, how the United States intends to leverage its leadership, and what is even meant by leadership, then such policies could be interpreted as a readiness to engage in a technology arms race and a willingness to accept crisis and arms-racing instability.

Governance Challenges

Even in a geopolitical climate that would be favorable toward arms control policies or cooperative regulations on advanced computing technologies, dual-use applications and definitional ambiguity would pose major obstacles.

The term “dual use” refers to the fact that advanced computing technologies have military and civilian applications. In addition to military technologies, advanced computing technologies could be used in nearly any industry, a fact evidenced by the heavy flow of venture capital investment and the large volume of start-up companies geared toward specific applications. This means that technology-based regulations or agreements could impact a wider circle of private sector technology developers and users than those strictly in the defense industrial base. In a competitive environment, policymakers have to navigate private sector interests carefully because overly restrictive regulations could dampen innovation and impact economic security.

Issues also arise from definitional ambiguity given the nascent stage of development of the new technologies.22 Software-based advanced computing technologies pose particularly pernicious definitional challenges because of their ambiguous nature, but distinguishing across different types of advanced computing hardware is also challenging at early R&D stages, as exemplified by quantum technologies. Metrics for evaluating the capability of a certain technology and testing procedures to ensure that the technology operates as expected increase transparency around the capabilities and limitations of a technology, but are often elusive for new technologies.

Given these governance challenges and in the context of a national strategy promoting technology competition with adversaries that makes traditional agreements to restrict certain military applications unlikely, policymakers should prioritize risk reduction policies to minimize disruption to strategic stability. This includes unilateral efforts, as well as cooperation with international allies, to produce clear definitions for each type of advanced computing technology, metrics for evaluating performance, and procedures to test functionality in strategic environments. Although documents such as the AI bill of rights blueprint provide guidance for technology innovation, they will not effectively reduce strategic risks without definitions to scope the technology, metrics to evaluate performance, and testing procedures to identify any risks to be mitigated before acquisition or deployment.

The best immediate policy option is for the United States unilaterally to pursue metrics and rigorous testing procedures to increase transparency and reduce risks in the strategic environment. Even without formal international agreements, rigorous standards precluding acquisition and deployment in strategic environments mitigate unintended escalation risk that could be perceived as being the fault of the United States. Also, this could help reduce hype and mitigate arms-racing risks by providing greater clarity on the computing technologies that are leveraged in a given domain. Finally, a better understanding of a technology’s performance will improve U.S. policymaking. For example, understanding the limitations of missile defense early on was helpful in formulating policy rhetoric around the technology, even if it could not curb acquisition demand.

The power and reach of risk reduction governance mechanisms can be enhanced through U.S. policymaker engagement with broader networks at home and abroad. As the swarming example illustrates, many advanced computing technologies will be developed by the private sector for alternative civilian purposes. U.S. policymakers involved in military acquisition processes should ensure that private sector innovators are aware of the operational risks to which computing technologies will be exposed in strategic environments that may differ from those in civilian environments. Likewise, U.S. policymakers should engage with allies that historically have helped facilitate technology risk reduction measures, such as the UK-U.S. partnership to limit computing technology exports to Eastern Bloc countries.

The Exascale-class HPE Cray EX Supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. (Photo courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory)In domestic outreach, policymakers must engage relevant federal agencies and the private sector. On interagency cooperation, policymakers need to weigh economic and security concerns among various governmental stakeholders to identify applications where use-case-oriented testing could reduce strategic risk without creating an obstacle to innovation. Balancing these objectives and ensuring compliance with the metrics and evaluation protocols that are developed will require working to increase trust and understanding with private sector technology developers and users. To some extent, this was undertaken in 2018 when the U.S. Department of Commerce requested comments from the public on the criteria for defining and identifying emerging technologies, but the degree to which the views of private sector stakeholders were considered is not clear.23

Although definitions and testing procedures should be crafted to fit the application needs of the United States, U.S. policymakers should work with allied countries to facilitate dialogue on standards. The United States has a mixed post-Cold War record of cooperating with allies on emerging dual-use technology R&D, but a new series of cooperative agreements on quantum information sciences with Australia, Denmark, Finland, France, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom suggest that U.S. policymakers view strategic research partnerships as increasingly important for advanced computing technologies.24 These types of agreements, based in R&D, can help propagate definitions and protocols abroad.

With time and network outreach, unilateral risk reduction measures eventually could have a broader reach. Globalized academic networks and private markets mean that definitions and standards adopted by the United States may permeate naturally to other countries. Especially if technical experts deem the definitions and testing procedures as opportunities to validate their own technologies, U.S. adversaries and competitors may even find strategic benefits in incorporating their own risk reduction measures. These efforts could lay the groundwork for eventual cooperation when geopolitical tensions cool or, at the very least, could provide a starting point for Track 2 dialogue. Furthermore, once better definitions, metrics, and testing procedures are in place, U.S. policymakers can use the increased transparency to develop better policies to restrict use or access eventually and to guide necessary R&D.

The Need for Action

Ultimately, many of the challenges associated with regulating advanced computing technologies in the digital age are not so dissimilar from those faced in the Cold War era. If the history of nuclear weapons is any indication, a reactive policy approach may lead to a decades-long arms reduction and risk reduction process that took years to yield real results and now has ground to a halt for political reasons. Policymakers would be wise to avoid this mistake and instead create space for more proactive governance on advanced computing technologies by establishing unilateral risk reduction measures and laying the groundwork now for eventual agreements.

As it stands, the current U.S. approach of prioritizing competition underestimates the risks of arms racing and the disruptions to strategic stability that advanced computing technologies may provoke. Although an environment of strategic competition will create an impetus for rapid innovation, policymakers would be wise to view better standards in strategic deployments as guardrails to protect against escalation and risks rather than road bumps or detours that fundamentally will impede U.S. innovation.


1. Frank Cain, “Computers and the Cold War: United States Restrictions on the Export of Computers to the Soviet Union and Communist China,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 40, No. 1 (2005): 131–147.

2. Yongkun Zhou, Bin Rao, and Wei Wang, “UAV Swarm Intelligence: Recent Advances and Future Trends,” IEEE, Vol. 8 (2020): 183856-183874.

3. Zachary Kallenborn, “InfoSwarms: Drone Swarms and Information Warfare,” Parameters, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Summer 2022): 87–102.

4. James Johnson, “Artificial Intelligence, Drone Swarming and Escalation Risks in Future Warfare,” The RUSI Journal, Vol. 165, No. 2 (2020): 26-36. See also Jurgen Altmann and Frank Sauer, “Autonomous Weapon Systems and Strategic Stability,” Survival, Vol. 59, No. 5 (2017): 117–142.

5. Zachary Kallenborn and Philipp Bleek, “Swarming Destruction: Drone Swarms and Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Weapons,” The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 25, Nos. 5-6 (2018): 523–543.

6. Max Levy, “Machine Learning Gets a Quantum Speedup,” Quanta, February 4, 2022, https://www.quantamagazine.org/ai-gets-a-quantum-computing-speedup-20220204/.

7. Vedran Dunjko and Hans Briegel, “Machine Learning & Artificial Intelligence in the Quantum Domain: A Review of Recent Progress,” Report on Progress in Physics, Vol. 81, No. 7 (2018): 074001.

8. Patricia Moloney Figliola, “Quantum Information Science: Applications, Global Research and Development, and Policy Considerations,” CRS Report, R45409 (November 1, 2019), https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R45409/5.

9. The White House, “Fact Sheet: President Biden Announces Two Presidential Directives Advancing Quantum Technologies,” May 4, 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/05/04/fact-sheet-president-biden-announces-two-presidential-directives-advancing-quantum-technologies/.

10. Exec. Order No. 14073, 87 Fed. Reg. 27909 (May 9, 2022).

11. The White House, “National Security Memorandum on Promoting United States Leadership in Quantum Computing While Mitigating Risks to Vulnerable Cryptographic System,” National Security Memorandum 10, May 4, 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/05/04/national-security-memorandum-on-promoting-united-states-leadership-in-quantum-computing-while-mitigating-risks-to-vulnerable-cryptographic-systems/.

12. White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, “Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights: Making Automated Systems Work for the American People,” October 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Blueprint-for-an-AI-Bill-of-Rights.pdf.

13. Khari Johnson, “Biden’s AI Bill of Rights Is Toothless Against Big Tech,” Wired, October 4, 2022, https://www.wired.com/story/bidens-ai-bill-of-rights-is-toothless-against-big-tech/.

14. Alex Engler, “The AI Bill of Rights Makes Uneven Progress on Algorithmic Protections,” Lawfare, October 7, 2022, https://www.lawfareblog.com/ai-bill-rights-makes-uneven-progress-algorithmic-protections.

15. Larry Downes, “How Should the Biden Administration Approach Tech Regulation? With Great Care,” MIT Sloan Management Review, January 19, 2021, https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/how-should-the-biden-administration-approach-tech-regulation-with-great-care/.

16. Michael Horowitz, “Artificial Intelligence, International Competition, and the Balance of Power,” Texas National Security Review, Vol. 1, No. 3 (May 2019): 37–57.

17. See Jacquelyn Schneider, “The Capability/Vulnerability Paradox and Military Revolutions: Implications for Computing, Cyber, and the Onset of War,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 42, No. 6 (2019): 841–863.

18. Rebecca Slayton, “What Is the Cyber Offense-Defense Balance?” International Security, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Winter 2016/17): 72–109.

19. Damien Van Puyvelde, Stephen Coulthart, and M. Shahriar Hossain, “Beyond the Buzzword: Big Data and National Security Decision-Making,” International Affairs, Vol. 93, No. 6 (2017): 1397–1416.

20. Natasha Bajema, “Will AI Steal Submarines’ Stealth?” IEEE Spectrum, July 16, 2022, https://spectrum.ieee.org/nuclear-submarine. See also Paul Bracken, “The Hunt for Mobile Missiles: Nuclear Weapons, AI, and the New Arms Race,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, 2020, https://www.fpri.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/the-hunt-for-mobile-missiles.pdf.

21. Michael Horowitz, “When Speed Kills: Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems, Deterrence, and Stability,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 42, No. 6 (2019): 764–788.

22. Matt O’Shaughnessy, “One of the Biggest Problems in Regulating AI Is Agreeing on a Definition,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 6, 2022, https://carnegieendowment.org/2022/10/06/one-of-biggest-problems-in-regulating-ai-is-agreeing-on-definition-pub-88100.

23. U.S. Department of Commerce, “Review of Controls for Certain Emerging Technologies,” 83 Fed. Reg. 58201 (November 19, 2018).

24. See “U.S. and France Sign Statement of Cooperation for Quantum Technology,” Quantum Computing Report, December 3, 2022, https://quantumcomputingreport.com/u-s-and-france-sign-statement-of-cooperation-for-quantum-technology/.


Lindsay Rand is a doctoral candidate in public policy at the University of Maryland and a Stanton pre-doctoral fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Facing competition from China on advanced computing technologies, the United States must accelerate domestic research and development to maximize the benefits of these technologies while curtailing potential national security risks.

Assessing the Ninth BWC Review Conference: An Interview with Conference President Leonardo Bencini

January/February 2023

Leonardo Bencini of Italy was president of the ninth review conference of the Biological Weapons Convention. (Photo courtesy of UN Geneva)The ninth review conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which took place November 28 to December 16, came at the end of a year in which worsening international relations made it more difficult than usual to achieve multilateral cooperation on even the most pressing security challenges. The Russian war on Ukraine exacerbated tensions between Moscow and NATO and shook the system of treaties and institutions on which post-Cold War stability has depended. The United States accused Russia of possibly planning to use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine. Russia accused the United States of funding a network of biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine. Review Conference President Leonardo Bencini of Italy was determined that the meeting should preserve the credibility of the BWC by producing a final consensus document. One focus of debate was Article X of the BWC, under which states-parties “undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the use of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins for peaceful purposes.” In February, a report by the UN Institute for Disarmament Research said progress on Article X was a prerequisite for the success of the review conference. Another focus of debate was effective ways for the BWC to be verified. Days after the conference ended, Carol Giacomo, editor of Arms Control Today, spoke with Bencini about what the meeting accomplished and the challenges ahead. The interview has been edited for length and clarity

ARMS CONTROL TODAY: What do you think the review conference achieved?

Leonardo Bencini: The Biological Weapons Convention has been in a deadlock, some people say, for 21 years since negotiations broke down on the issue of verification. For a lot of countries, the issue of verification is a very important one. At this review conference, we established a working group, which is mandated to deal with basically every aspect of strengthening the convention, including verification and other key aspects. So, I think that we’ve succeeded in breaking the deadlock and set out a very good plan of action. We hope that next year we will start the working group and that we can indeed discuss all the key issues concerning the implementation of this convention.

ACT: Why should people care?

Bencini: I’ll tell you why people should care. We have to preserve this convention because it is the only instrument that we have that brings every country together. That’s why we were so keen to get a result. You might say it’s no big deal, but it is a big deal actually because we really had to break this deadlock so that we could still say that we do have a convention on biological weapons, and it is a convention that concerns, now, 184 countries. So basically, there are only 13 countries left to join. My own country believes very much in it, and that’s why we decided to take on this responsibility, because we don’t want fragmentation of the way in which the international community deals with the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It is absolutely vital that we have a forum where all countries meet and discuss and try to find shared solutions.

Another reason is that we managed to get a deal at the end of a terrible year. You know the international context. In August, we were in New York for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference. We didn’t approve a final document there. In September, we had a very disappointing end of the Conference of Disarmament in Geneva. The First Committee of the UN General Assembly in New York was very difficult too. So, it’s been very hard. [UN] Secretary-General [António] Guterres’s statement on December 16 said that the result of this BWC review conference gives us a glimmer of hope in an international context that is particularly bleak. So, I think that, yes, it gives us a glimmer of hope.

ACT: The international environment is indeed very tense and difficult, but establishing a working group still seems like a minimal accomplishment.

Bencini: That’s as far as we could go. We also had another section in the final document that we couldn’t approve, the article-by-article review. We couldn’t approve it basically because of the war in Ukraine and because Russia proposed some language that the United States could not accept. We had to drop the entire section, but we saved the decisions and recommendations, which was what mattered.

You’re right to say, basically, you just created this working group. You might say, you couldn’t agree this time on substantive issues, why should you agree next time? We don’t know, but we have to preserve the system, we have to preserve the convention, and we had to give it a new impetus. I’m sure that all the issues that we couldn’t agree on this time will be there in the future. But hopefully, the international environment will get better over the next five years, which is the timeline that we have in front of us, and we’ll be able to achieve agreements on a number of issues. If we didn’t hope so, we wouldn’t do anything. In fact, a lot of people said, “Why are you taking this on?” We said, “Because we believe we can bring something home,” and we did.

Disarmament negotiations are so complex, and the consensus rule makes agreements so difficult to reach. You have to have everyone involved. One country is enough to wreck the whole thing. Even I was quite surprised at the positive reaction that we had after the conference when everyone was congratulating us and themselves. It was really good because you could see that, in fact, people care. They knew that we got something, even something small, but something meaningful, something that gives us work to do, something that gives us a timeline, something that gives us homework. Now we’ve got something to work on for the next five years.

ACT: Do you think that a working group and what came out of this conference is enough to mitigate the threat that Russia has become to the BWC regime?

Bencini: We live in the same world, but I think it was encouraging to see that we’re much together in agreement, of which Russia is also a party. The Russian Federation joined the consensus. We negotiated also with them, and I think this is very important. Although what we agreed on basically was what we’re going to discuss for the next five years, I think it was important to have every country involved. We hope that this sends a good signal. This is what Secretary-General Guterres said also, but we don’t know yet. Let’s hope at least.

Russia’s call for a UN Security Council meeting in October to discuss its allegations of “military-biological activities” by the United States in Ukraine added to international tensions that made the Biological Weapons Convention review conference in December more difficult. Washington and Kyiv denied the charges.  (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)ACT: My understanding is that agreement on things like the proposed cooperation advisory group and the scientific advisory board looked very promising, even near the end of the conference, and yet they were not agreed to. What happened to those ideas, which arguably seem in everybody’s interest?

Bencini: There were countries that couldn’t join the consensus. I won’t mention them by name, but that’s what happened. Remember one thing: Now, we have outlined a mechanism, both for Article X and science and technology; in fact, the science and technology part is quite developed. We had a very detailed proposal, and the facilitator, who’s been working on that, won’t give up. So, we have a plan laid out there, and I’m sure that this will form the basis of future negotiations. It was important to keep any final decisions and recommendations with reference to mechanisms, both for Article X, which many states-parties care very much about, and the scientific and technology dimension, which in principle every country cares about.

ACT: What was achieved that shows the public that the BWC is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, other pandemic threats, and biological risks generally?

Bencini: That the process is not dead. It continues and needs to be developed, of course, but we’ve learned a lesson from the pandemic, and we had to respond somehow. Bear in mind, if the international context had been different, if the international context had been that of a year ago, we would have achieved much more. So, we have to always remember the general context.

As I said, [the BWC] is an instrument that is very important. People don’t quite realize how important it is because it’s easier to think of the nuclear threat. It’s more difficult to understand biological weapons because they can be any kind of weapon. But now after the pandemic, people are beginning to understand this as well. When we think of biological weapons, we should not just think of human beings being targeted. You can target a crop, and there are countries whose economies rely almost entirely on one crop. If you want to damage them, that’s enough. So, you don’t even have to infect human beings with a pathogen, you can just infect a plant. There are many ways.

I won’t go into details because I’m not an expert, but definitely biotechnology has advanced very fast in the past few years, and we need to keep up. It’s not easy, but there is a message that I want to give, that this convention is indeed important. Let’s not consider it less important than the NPT. I would say the threat could even be worse, because while it’s easier to monitor and verify a country that wants to develop a nuclear weapons program, it’s much more difficult to verify biological weapons. There are hundreds of thousands of establishments and facilities in the world that could be weaponized.

That is why we also need to address this issue from the national implementation point of view. We have to have scientists on board. We have to make sure that we have an international network of expert people to communicate with one another, but we don’t have enough resources in this BWC. If I told you that, yes, everyone wants to really strengthen this convention, that would be a lie. If this time we managed to keep this process going, that was an achievement in itself.

ACT: You said one important challenge is verifying BWC compliance. What can be done to strengthen the capability for holding BWC violators accountable?

Bencini: That needs to be further examined, studied, looked into with the help of scientists who tell us where the technology is now and what we need to do because you can’t imagine a standard verification regime for biological weapons. You need to be more creative, more innovative, and listen to the scientists. It’s a completely different approach. The approach that was followed 20 years ago will not work now, which is the reason why, when countries said, “We have to restart negotiations for a legally binding protocol from where we left off,” that wouldn’t work. This is why we need to discuss with fresh eyes, with a new approach, the issue of verification and compliance—how to verify, how to make sure that you get compliance from states-parties. Let’s remember one thing: Most of the time, the only difference between a peaceful program and a program to develop biological weapons is intent. It’s not the process. The process is the same, but it’s very difficult indeed to demonstrate this.

Tatiana Molcean, the Moldovan ambassador to the United Nations and other international organizations in Geneva, served as chairwoman of the committee of the whole for the ninth review conference of the Biological Weapons Convention. The conference drafting committee was also headed by a woman. (Photo by Mariia Koroleva)ACT: Can you talk about the gender gap and the need to promote a more inclusive BWC decision-making process? I understand that some proposals to include equal representation of women in BWC-related activities were excluded from the final document. What is the plan for doing better?

Bencini: There is a reference in the final document about the need to include more women. There were other references, actually, and also in the part that was dropped, because the countries that believe in this made it a priority. I made it a priority of my presidency. I said from the beginning I want to give this review conference gender balance, I want to make this a priority, and I did. I’m very pleased that we achieved the chairs of the two main committees—the committee of the whole and the drafting committee—were women. I had a team of facilitators, and the majority of them were women. When the conference bureau met, the majority of the people around the table were women. So, I was very pleased with that because we had very competent women in the team that made a difference.

Of course, we need to do much more. You have to raise the issue over and over again and keep at it. There are countries that don’t support it as much as we like. Unfortunately, they are more or less the same countries that oppose the other possible developments in the convention, but it doesn’t matter. We have to keep making it a priority because the vast majority of states-parties consider it a priority. A lot of Latin American and Asian countries have taken up initiatives on this issue. I think it’s very much on the agenda.

ACT: The right to exchange equipment, materials, and information for peaceful purposes under the BWC is under attack. How can states-parties ensure that Article X continues to be upheld?

Bencini: We had an intensive discussion with respect to Article X, and we managed to get a good agreement that couldn’t enjoy consensus unfortunately. But again, the vast majority of Non-Aligned Movement countries worked very much in a very cooperative manner with, for instance, Western countries. I think if the international context had been different, we would have had a good deal on that.

Remember one thing, that this should not be a development forum. We should discuss basically how to exchange information and do matchmaking. The peaceful use of science and technology is a very important principle in every disarmament and nonproliferation convention, not just in this one, but it has to be done in a way that is agreeable to everyone. It shouldn’t be just a developing world issue; it is an issue that concerns every country.

I do understand that many countries would like more technology transfer, and we have seen this during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some countries didn’t feel that enough was done to transfer technology in that respect, and I do believe that we should do more, absolutely. But there are a lot of organizations that are involved in development. The BWC remains a disarmament and nonproliferation treaty. It is not a development treaty. So, let’s not make a development forum out of Article X. It should be a matchmaking arena, if you wish. We have to work toward that direction.

ACT: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Bencini: If it had not been for the international context, we would have had a historic agreement. It would have gone so far, and so, it is regrettable. Even in this context, the review conference produced one of the very few agreements that was reached in the international scene anywhere on any issues this year. That by itself is a very important achievement. Everyone that was involved in this should be very proud of it. This is what gives us hope and motivation to carry on. Next year, we’ll have the first meetings of this working group, and we’ll take it from there.

Although the outcome was modest, the conference produced one of the few international agreements of 2022, he says.


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