“For 50 years, the Arms Control Association has educated citizens around the world to help create broad support for U.S.-led arms control and nonproliferation achievements.”

– President Joe Biden
June 2, 2022

How to Save the Irreplaceable Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: An Interview With Adam Scheinman

June 2022

The world has been trying to contain the nuclear genie ever since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. A core element of that effort centers around the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which entered into force in 1970 and now includes 191 states-parties, including five of the world’s nine states that have nuclear weapons.

In August, hundreds of diplomats representing the states-parties, along with representatives of civil society, will convene at UN headquarters in New York for the 10th NPT Review Conference. This event occurs more than a quarter-century after the states-parties agreed on the indefinite extension of the NPT at the 1995 review and extension conference.

The month-long meeting will cap a five-year review of implementation and compliance with the treaty. Diplomats will attempt to reach agreement on an outcome document that helps to advance the treaty’s main goals: preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons while supporting the peaceful use of nuclear technology, halting and reversing the nuclear arms race, and achieving nuclear disarmament.

Over the past decade, growing tensions among the major nuclear powers have been accompanied by the intensifying risk of nuclear proliferation, nuclear competition, and nuclear weapons use.

Now, the NPT regime faces a new challenge: the attack by Russia, one of its recognized nuclear-armed members, against Ukraine, a non-nuclear-weapon state, along with open threats of nuclear weapons use by Russia against any state that might try to intervene.

As a result, this review conference could prove to be one of the most important in the 50-plus-year history of this bedrock nuclear agreement. Carol Giacomo, chief editor of Arms Control Today, asked Adam Scheinman, the U.S. special representative of the president for nuclear nonproliferation, to discuss the Biden administration’s expectations for the meeting. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Arms Control Today: In a recent interview, nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker told the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that Russian President Vladimir Putin has “blown up” the global nuclear order. How has the Russian invasion of Ukraine affected the global nuclear proliferation and disarmament regime, including the negative security assurances that nuclear-weapon states have extended to non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the NPT?

Adam Scheinman: I think that's really an important question. I have absolutely enormous respect for Dr. Hecker. He's a legend in the field, but I'd say "blown up" is a little bit hyperbolic. There's no doubt that this is a very serious shock to the nonproliferation system and wider global order, but I wouldn't say the damage is total or irreversible. It is going to require that the international community respond and recenter the NPT in that rules-based order.

It's certainly the case that Russia’s aggression undercuts every core precept of the NPT. It's totally irresponsible. Russia’s nuclear saber rattling is out of step with the treaty’s disarmament goals. It has betrayed the security assurances given to Ukraine in 1994 that helped bring Ukraine into the treaty as a non-nuclear-weapon state, and its military actions around Ukrainian civilian nuclear facilities raise fears of a serious radiological calamity. It also threatens the right of NPT parties to access the peaceful atom. So, these are very serious problems. It's going to require that we deal with them equally seriously.

More than 50 years after U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as U.S. President Lyndon Johnson (R) looked on, the agreement remains the bedrock of the international arms control and disarmament regime. But it has grown increasingly unstable, especially since Russia invaded Ukraine. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)I would say that the argument of some that Russia's violation of the Budapest Memorandum shows that security assurances are worthless is just wrong. It's Russia that violated the security assurances. That's an indictment of Russia, not of the utility of security assurances that the other nuclear-weapon states have given, including the United States, and implement faithfully.

If nothing else, I think Russia's war on Ukraine should focus the minds of the parties on the fact that, by every conceivable measure that I can think of and most intellectually honest people can think of, the world is better off with the NPT than without it. So, if we're interested in solving nuclear problems, the fact that there's wide agreement around the idea that we’re better off with it should give us some optimism that the treaty will hold together and we’ll find our way through this troubling time.

ACT: In light of this war, has the NPT review conference taken on greater significance?

Scheinman: I think this review conference was always going to be significant. We're at the 50-year, half-century point with the NPT, which is pretty astonishing. It's hard to find examples of durable, global security treaties in history. Even before Russia's invasion, we understood that the NPT faces pretty serious challenges; I think of them as both political and strategic in nature. The political challenge concerns well-documented frustrations over the pace of nuclear disarmament, one that the United States in fact shares, even if we don't agree with everyone on the solutions offered to deal with it.

Of a more strategic character, I think it's pretty widely understood that if Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapon and if North Korea’s nuclear buildup were to continue, others might wish to leave the treaty and seek their own nuclear weapons capabilities. So, I think that's more of a strategic kind of problem for the treaty.

But without a doubt, I think this review conference takes on even greater significance and consequence following Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. We hope that NPT parties will come to the review conference and reject Russia's very reckless behavior, and we should insist that states-parties take their obligations to one another seriously. So if there's ever a time for parties to set aside their differences and focus on what we share and put a marker down in support of this treaty, I think this is the time.

ACT: What else does the United States want to see emerge from the review conference? Will President Joe Biden or Secretary of State Antony Blinken address the conference?

Scheinman: I can't really tell you today who will address what, when, and where, but the administration is tracking our preparations for the conference very closely. The NPT is very much part of the president's commitment to multilateral institutions, treaties, and norms to uphold the rules-based order and tackle big transnational problems like nuclear proliferation. So, what do we want to emerge? I think one is that the conference reaffirm the commitment of the states-parties to all three pillars of the treaty and to strengthen it. Given the current security climate, it should be evident how important it is that we work collectively to insulate the NPT and preserve its authority. There is no global treaty that can take its place, so it's important that we work to preserve it. It's a really big deal and is why the United States nominates a special representative with the task of watching over the treaty.

One additional point: It's apparent that Russia's actions have created a new fault line in the NPT. It's one that distinguishes states that act responsibly from those that don't. What I think can emerge at the review conference is convergence on a set of principles and actions that advance the treaty's contributions to international security and highlight the security and economic benefits shared by its members. It necessitates holding states to account when they act outside of accepted norms.

ACT: How can you hold Russia to account?

Scheinman: We should understand that the review conference is not an enforcement mechanism. It serves a political function; states-parties can make clear in their national positions that this is totally unacceptable. They can work on a set of principles or proposals that a review conference could endorse or if not the entire review conference, then the vast majority of states. It should be made clear that it's not acceptable to threaten the use of nuclear weapons, as Russia has. It's not acceptable to put at risk nuclear facilities and impede the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) ability to conduct safeguards inspections and allow for safe and secure operations. It's that political action that I think the conference can take to hold Russia to account.

ACT: What else would make the review conference successful?

Scheinman: There's a tendency to rate a successful review conference by whether it produces a consensus final document. In the history of the NPT, I think we've only had five such consensus final documents, and the treaty has continued to function and has force. So, I wouldn't say the fact of reaching consensus is the right measure of success. We certainly will do our best to secure a consensus, but I think it's as important that we deal openly and honestly with the challenges made plain by Russia's actions, as well as longer standing challenges, such as regional proliferation concerns, securing universal adherence to the [Model] Additional Protocol, and expanding peaceful nuclear uses in energy and for sustainable development.

ACT: How can the conference constructively encourage North Korea to reengage in diplomacy? Is there a new opening with the North Koreans because of their COVID-19 problem?

Scheinman: I can't really say whether the COVID-19 issue has opened the door to diplomacy. There are others in the administration responsible for North Korean policy and have a better feel for what is or is not possible. But I'd say that the review conference ought to address North Korea, and in particular, I think we all need to be very concerned about reports of a possible North Korean nuclear test and ongoing efforts to develop ballistic missiles.

The administration has said repeatedly that the door is open to diplomacy with North Korea and we're ready to meet without preconditions. We hope North Korea takes up the offer, and we'd like to see the review conference urge that it do so. The review conference should also call attention to North Korea's reckless behavior and its repeated violations of UN Security Council resolutions.

There's one other point worth noting. It's not specific to North Korea; it's more of a consequence of what North Korea has done by exiting the treaty. This is the issue of preventing abuse of the treaty’s withdrawal provision. It's been 20 years since North Korea announced its intention to leave. In that time, NPT states-parties have not agreed on a single step to discourage abuse of withdrawal. I would think at a minimum we should discuss this issue openly and agree that, as a principle of international law, states remain accountable for violations of the treaty that occurred when still a party to it. There's no “get out of jail free” card because you withdraw. It's that kind of abuse of withdrawal that we ought to discourage, and I hope we can have a productive discussion at the review conference.

ACT: Do you think there will be agreement on a course of action?

Scheinman: I would very much like to see something in an outcome document that at least restates the principle in international law. Other ideas include convening extraordinary meetings of the parties, cutting off nuclear supplies to a state that engages in such behavior. There are a number of ideas that could be considered.

ACT: When you say cutting off supplies, do you mean the supply of nuclear material and fuel?

Scheinman: Yeah, any nuclear-related exports ought to be terminated in such cases. It's hard to think how this would work in practice, but the withdrawing country could also be required to return materials that have been supplied so they are not used for a military program. States-parties could also insist that international safeguards remain in place in the withdrawing state. North Korea kicked out the IAEA inspectors after terminating its IAEA safeguards agreement. We don't want to see that in the future. We should aim to preserve verification, even as we pursue all diplomatic options.

ACT: In 2010 the review conference agreed to an action plan on all three pillars of the treaty, including Article VI. Does the administration recognize those past commitments as still valid? Will it seek to update those goals, particularly Article VI, through the consensus document?

Scheinman: I think this issue of past commitments, which is talked about quite a bit, is a bit of a red herring. It's important to understand that only the terms of the treaty are legally binding on states-parties and that any commitment recorded at review conferences in a consensus document are political. They reflect what seems achievable or desirable at the time they were made. Now, it's certainly the case that many of the actions in review conference final documents remain relevant and certainly important. Others are past their shelf life. There's a call in previous documents for fully implementing the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty, which hasn't been in force for two decades now. Other actions are important, but were the product of the time, when conditions for action were more favorable.

That's certainly the case in terms of U.S.-Russian arms control opportunities in the early post-Cold War period and also in connection with the Oslo Middle East peace process in the mid-1990s. What I will say is that we remain firm in our support for legal undertakings in the NPT, as I hope all parties are, and in our support for realistic arms control and disarmament measures. We also recognize the political importance of implementing commitments made in past documents. But security conditions change in unpredictable ways, and so it's probably more productive if we take a forward-looking approach and not lose time debating the history.

ACT: Do you expect the proposal for a Middle Eastern zone free of weapons of mass destruction will be as contentious as in the past? What is the U.S. approach on this issue?

Scheinman: I think whether the issue is likely to be contentious is a question for others, not for us. We have no desire to hold the review conference hostage to this issue or any other particular issue, and I hope other states-parties see it the same way. In terms of our approach, we have consistently supported the goal of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction and systems for their delivery.

But we also made clear that progress toward that goal can only be achieved through direct and consensus-based dialogue among all states in the region, which as a practical matter is both the arms control issue and the wider regional security issue. That remains our position. I'm well aware that there's a UN conference process on the Middle Eastern zone that started a couple of years ago. We're not participating in it, but I expect parties can find a way to address it at the review conference in an even-handed and factual manner.

ACT: In past review conferences, the five nuclear-weapon states have consulted on issue-coordinated statements. Are you consulting with Russia and China in preparation
for the conference? If yes, do you see hope for constructive action beyond a reiteration of the statement from December, that a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought?

Scheinman: I don't want to comment on specific diplomatic undertakings at the moment, but I'll say that we have to be realistic about what can be achieved among the five in the current environment. Russia's war on Ukraine naturally limits possibilities for productive work among the five; I think that's just the reality of where we are today. But in the interim, we'll continue to work with others on topics that hold promise for engagement among the five down the road.

One example is strategic risk reduction, a topic having obvious relevance to strategic stability and disarmament goals. At the end of the day, I think we should probably recognize that a full and functioning P5 process is not a precondition to work on issues of common interest, whether of interest to the five nuclear-weapon states or the wider NPT membership. I really don’t expect the five to issue new statements beyond the one on preventing nuclear war that Russia joined in January, six weeks before invading Ukraine. We certainly stand by the statement. Whether Russia does, they'll have to speak for themselves.

ACT: The United States has identified China and its expanding nuclear capability as a threat. What conversations are you having with China about the review conference and its Article VI obligations?

When states-parties meet for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty 10th Review Conference in August, one wildcard is the role that China, on a path to increase its nuclear weapons capability, will play in determining the treaty’s future. The DF-41 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles, shown here, are an important part of the Chinese arsenal. (Photo by GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)Scheinman: There’s no doubt that China’s rapid nuclear buildup is out of step with the other nuclear-weapon states. It is certainly out of step with the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. I'd say it's not exactly keeping with the spirit of Article VI, and that merits some attention at the review conference. Our approach has been to seek bilateral discussions with China on measures to reduce and manage strategic risks. President Biden conveyed our interest to President Xi Jinping last November, suggesting that we ought to have some commonsense guardrails in place to ensure that competition doesn't veer into conflict. To this point, China has not engaged or shown interest in engaging. We hope China will take a fresh look at this and see the value of exchanges both for regional stability and for nuclear security.

ACT: Are the Chinese really not talking to you about the review conference?

Scheinman: I didn't really answer in that context. I was answering more in the context of bilateral strategic stability discussions. But now, in the context of the NPT review, we did meet regularly with China as part of the P5 process prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But our NPT dialogue with China isn’t limited to the P5, and we will pursue all avenues for dialogue as we would with any other NPT state-party. We have our differences but probably many more NPT issues on which we agree.

ACT: May 26 marks the 50th anniversary of the first U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms control agreements: the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) agreement and the ABM Treaty, which emerged after the NPT entered into force in 1970. If there is no official U.S.-Russian dialogue on strategic stability, nuclear risk reduction, or disarmament now, how does the Biden administration think the two sides can maintain verifiable limits on their strategic stockpiles past 2026, when the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is due to expire?

Scheinman: I'm glad you note the anniversary of SALT I and the ABM Treaty. It has particular personal meaning to me because my first job in the field out of grad school was for a small Washington-based think tank led by Ambassador Gerard Smith, who was the negotiator of the SALT I and ABM treaties. This is someone who understood the purposes of nuclear arms control as well as anyone. He understood that arms control was needed for both stable nuclear deterrence and to preserve the future credibility of the NPT, that we couldn't choose whether to base our nuclear strategy on deterrence or arms control, that we have to do both together, and I think that is exactly true for today. It's among the reasons why President Biden on his first day in office gave the administration direction to extend New START for five years, to 2026.

Looking ahead, our thinking about future steps in arms control with Russia hasn’t changed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We remain interested in pursuing a future agreement that maintains control on intercontinental-range systems and deals with some of the novel nuclear systems that Russia has developed, as well as nonstrategic nuclear weapons, which aren't subject to any arms control agreement and which Russia has developed in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, at least in the intermediate-range category.

We also remain open to pursuing a broader type of arms control to address strategic stability, which could mean discussion of threat perceptions and of non-nuclear systems that can have strategic effect—conventional, missile defense, and so forth. Strategic stability talks are on hold given Russia’s actions in Ukraine. I can’t predict when it would be appropriate to resume that dialogue, but we'll certainly consider doing so when it best serves U.S. interests.

Ahead of a conference to review the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, U.S. President Joe Biden's special representative for nonproliferation says Russia's nuclear saber rattling is out of step with the treaty's goals.

The B-52 Bomber: The Iconic U.S. Instrument of Nuclear Combat and Coercion

May 2022
By Michael T. Klare

It should come as no surprise that the U.S. Air Force dispatched four B-52H Stratofortress bombers from the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Royal Air Force Base Fairford in the United Kingdom on February 10 as part of a European buildup in anticipation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.1 Of all the weapons in the U.S. inventory, none can deliver greater quantities of explosive ordnance, whether nuclear or conventional, and none has the same capacity to arouse awe and trepidation in the minds of potential targets.

A U.S. Air Force B-52H Stratofortress bomber goes through an engine check at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana in June 2021. Eight Pratt & Whitney TF33 engines give this aircraft the capability of flying at high subsonic speeds.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kate Bragg)B-52s deployed to Fairford in recent years have been sent over the Black and Baltic seas on simulated air strikes aimed at key Russian ports, air bases, radar stations, and command posts. Given this history, the recent dispatch to Europe of potentially nuclear-armed bombers was surely intended to signal a U.S. intent to inflict severe harm on Russia if it attacked a NATO member state or U.S. forces stationed in Europe—exactly the sort of coercive messaging B-52s have long performed.

The Boeing Stratofortress, known in Air Force circles as the BUFF, for Big Ugly Fat Fucker, flew for the first time 70 years ago on April 15, 1952. Originally developed by U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) at the end of World War II to deliver atomic bombs on the Soviet Union, it constituted the principal U.S. instrument for obliterating Soviet cities, bases, and industrial centers in the early years of the Cold War. Later, during the Vietnam War, it was converted into a colossal flying dump truck for raining conventional ordnance on enemy positions in South Vietnam and strategic targets in North Vietnam, thus earning a reputation as a particularly dreaded bearer of death and destruction.

Since Vietnam, the BUFF has retained its original nuclear role, although it has also been used on several occasions, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan, to deliver conventional munitions on the battlefield. Under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which was renewed in February 2021 for five years, B-52s, along with some B-2 stealth bombers, are covered under the category of allowable U.S. nuclear delivery systems, and 40 out of 46 nuclear-capable H-model BUFFs presently are assigned to this role.2 To ensure the B-52 will continue flying for decades to come, all remaining aircraft are being refitted with new Rolls-Royce jet engines, extending the plane’s service life well into the 2050s and making this the longest-serving combat aircraft in the history of aviation.3

Exercise Global Shield ’82

I had a unique opportunity to experience the BUFF’s incredible capacity to inspire awe in July 1982 when I observed a simulated nuclear strike on the Soviet Union as a freelance journalist covering exercise Global Shield ’82, SAC’s largest nuclear war exercise until that time. According to the preflight briefings I received, Global Shield ’82 was intended to test SAC's ability to conduct worldwide nuclear strike operations under simulated “general war” conditions, meaning a full-scale thermonuclear contest between the United States and the Soviet Union. This was a time of heightened tensions with Moscow, coinciding with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and other superpower flare-ups. U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who assumed office in January 1981, adopted a harsh stance toward Moscow and immediately boosted military spending by 13 percent. Later that year, he signed National Security Decision Directive 13, which called for a full-scale nuclear assault on the Soviet Union, employing the entire U.S. arsenal, in the event of a future U.S.-Soviet conflict.4 Global Shield ’82 constituted the first actual test of Washington’s ability to implement the directive, with every component of the U.S. nuclear enterprise expected to play a part.

From what I was able to determine from unclassified information, Global Shield ’82 entailed the activation of nearly every B-52 in the Air Force inventory, along with heightened alert status for the other components of the U.S. nuclear triad, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Most SAC bombers were deployed on simulated attack missions on the Soviet Union or possibly China, and at least one Minuteman ICBM was test-fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California toward the Kwajalein test range in the western Pacific, an event I was allowed to witness.5

Although I was given a time, date, and place to appear for my B-52 flight, many aspects of the exercise were kept secret from rank-and-file personnel until the last minute in order to test the ability of air and ground crews to launch the bombers on short notice. Once arrived at Mather Air Force Base in California, I was fitted with a flight outfit and oxygen gear and seated in a crew holding area until a Klaxon sounded, indicating an emergency takeoff. Pilots and crews raced to their planes—each 160 feet of dull-gray metal with distinctive swept-back wings and a low-hanging belly capable of delivering 70,000 pounds of nuclear or conventional ordnance. They were already lined up on the runway in a flight-ready condition, allowing their immediate launch in the event of a Soviet missile strike.

As the flight commenced, the mission was revealed: fly halfway across the Pacific and, after being refueled over Hawaii, reverse course and drop simulated bombs on a target on the U.S. West Coast, presumably a stand-in for Vladivostok or another key location in Russia’s Far East. Periodically during the flight, a radio speaker would broadcast the alphanumeric codes that constitute an emergency action message, a classified directive from nuclear command centers to execute a preplanned action. Each time, the pilot or co-pilot would open a safe in a nearby compartment and remove a red loose-leaf binder with the corresponding actions for each coded signal. These provided instructions on which course of action to follow. In the event of an actual war, they would direct the plane to a predesignated target and indicate which bombs to drop where.

Eventually, we were ordered to deliver the bomber’s simulated nuclear payload on Mono Lake, an iconic tourist site on the California-Nevada border. To get there, the B-52 flew down the spine of the Sierra Nevada mountain range at treetop level. On each approach to a new ridgeline, the pilot appeared to struggle to keep the 183,500-pound plane from crashing into the tallest trees. Upon landing at Mather, 24 hours after departing, that pilot, a 20-something-looking fellow with much older eyes, said on the intercom, “Well crew, we cheated death one more time.”

The Origins of the B-52

The B-52 Stratofortress descended from the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, a four-engine heavy bomber introduced during World War II for use in strategic bombing campaigns over Germany and Japan. The concept of strategic air warfare, or the use of bombers to attack an enemy’s war-making capacity at the rear, as distinct from the tactical use of planes in attacks on frontline troops, was first introduced during World War I. Among its earliest advocates was Lieutenant Colonel Lendrum “Billy” Mitchell, commander of the U.S. Army air component. Mitchell and his associates theorized that enemy forces could be more easily defeated if their factories were no longer able to produce the guns, fuel, ammunition, and other essentials needed to sustain combat. Although rebuffed during World War I, Mitchell’s ideas gained a following among Army Air Corps officials during the interwar period and had a significant influence on U.S. and Allied strategic planning during World War II.6

In consonance with Mitchell’s theories, U.S. and UK strategists determined that they could shorten the war and curtail enemy resistance on the battlefield by inflicting heavy damage on Germany’s and Japan’s industrial and transportation capabilities, especially railroads, refineries, and weapons plants.7 To conduct such strategic air assaults, the United States mass-produced heavy bombers capable of delivering large payloads of ordnance on distant enemy targets. At the start of the war, most of these attacks were conducted by the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, first developed in the mid-1930s. It was succeeded in 1944 by the B-29, a much larger and more capable bomber. Most of these planes were deployed against Japan, where General Curtis LeMay, commander of the 20th U.S. Air Force, used them in nighttime incendiary attacks on urban centers. B-29s of the 20th Air Force were also used to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.8

After those massively destructive bombings, U.S. strategists assumed that nuclear munitions would be the deciding weapon of war and would be delivered to enemy territory by long-range bombers such as the B-29. To provide the United States with the capabilities for such operations, the U.S. Army Air Forces created SAC in 1946 and began developing successors to the B-29. This effort was accelerated in 1947 when Congress, recognizing the centrality of airpower in modern warfare, converted the Army Air Forces into an independent military service, the U.S. Air Force.

By 1948 the pursuit of more-capable bombers had produced two new models: the Convair B-36 Peacemaker, a piston engine-powered aircraft, and the Boeing B-47 Stratojet, the first jet-powered U.S. bomber.9 Although more capable than the B-29, the B-36 and B-47 were considered by many strategic air warfare enthusiasts to lack the combination of speed and range needed to perform the pivotal role expected of bombers in the new era of nuclear warfare. Accordingly, SAC, led after October 1948 by LeMay, commenced a search for a superior aircraft. In 1950, Boeing was authorized by SAC to proceed with development of a new design, which became the B-52 prototype. Two years later, the finished aircraft conducted its first flight; seven months later, the Air Force ordered its first combat-ready versions.10

For the next 20 years, the Stratofortress was largely assigned by SAC to a nuclear strike function in accordance with strategic bombing doctrine and the assumption that any conflict with the Soviet Union would entail massive nuclear attacks on Soviet territory. That was before the widespread deployment of ICBMs and SLBMs, when only long-range bombers such as the B-52 were thought capable of performing that mission. The Stratofortress was then perceived as the symbol of global nuclear annihilation, a status confirmed by its conspicuous role in the 1964 movie “Dr. Strangelove.”

B-52 Operations in Vietnam

The onset of the Vietnam War in 1964 posed a conceptual challenge to Air Force leadership. LeMay, then chief of staff, urged the use of SAC bombers in an orthodox strategic air campaign to break North Vietnam’s will and capacity to support the guerrilla uprising in the South, but Defense Secretary Robert McNamara viewed the war as a limited conventional conflict and chose to employ the BUFFs in an essentially tactical role, using them to drop conventional bombs on guerrilla strongpoints and provide close-air support to U.S. and allied combat units in the South. B-52s commenced these missions in June 1965 and soon became a ubiquitous presence in the war zone. To enhance their bomb-delivery capacity, all B-52Ds underwent a modification, nicknamed “Big Belly,” which increased their capacity from 27 to 84 conventional 500-pound bombs. By 1966, the BUFFs were dropping 8,000 tons of these bombs on enemy positions in South Vietnam every month.11

A Vietnamese man stands in front of the B-52 crash site in Huu Tiep Lake in 2016 in Hanoi, Vietnam. The bomber's wreckage is a legacy of the Vietnam War. (Photo by Linh Pham/Getty Images)As the war ground on and U.S. success appeared increasingly remote, the BUFFs were used in a more typical strategic fashion to degrade enemy supply lines and logistical facilities in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam. At U.S. President Richard Nixon’s behest, B-52s struck such targets in Cambodia in March 1969 under a secret operation code-named Menu. In another operation, called Commando Hunt, B-52s attacked key bottlenecks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, as well as bridges and other transportation nodes in southern North Vietnam.12

It was only toward the end of the war, that B-52s were used in a truly strategic manner, consistent with the thinking of LeMay and SAC’s early pioneers. On March 30, 1972, in what was termed the Easter Offensive, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) leadership launched its largest operation of the war, sending an estimated 14 NVA divisions into the South and endangering key cities, including Saigon. Nixon responded with an all-out air offensive against the North, called Linebacker I, which targeted railroad yards, petroleum storage facilities, and major bridges.

The NVA was eventually halted by superior U.S. firepower, setting the stage for peace negotiations in Paris. When these talks reached a stalemate in late 1972, Nixon ordered a new air offensive against North Vietnam, Linebacker II, that targeted key facilities in and around Hanoi and Haiphong for the first time in the war. By the time these “Christmas bombings” ended on December 29, B-52s had conducted 729 missions in 11 days and dropped 15,000 tons of ordnance on the North. Fifteen B-52s were shot down during this campaign, the largest number ever lost in combat.13

To this day, analysts and historians debate the effectiveness of these B-52 operations in advancing U.S. war objectives. There is general agreement that the use of the BUFFs to pulverize enemy positions in the South, especially in battles around Saigon, helped the United States and its South Vietnamese allies overcome lightly armed guerrilla forces. Yet, extensive Menu and Commando Hunt operations in Cambodia and Laos, respectively, never halted the flow of arms and personnel from the North to the South, nor did they prevent the NVA’s Easter Offensive. The 1972 Christmas bombings helped solidify domestic opposition to U.S. involvement in the war, provoking widespread condemnation and protests. Although Linebacker II was followed by the return of North Vietnamese negotiators to the Paris talks and the signing of a peace accord, the subsequent withdrawal of U.S. forces from the South left governmental forces there at a significant disadvantage. In 1975 they finally succumbed to the North.14

If anything can be said about the B-52 experience in Vietnam, it may be that it solidified the plane’s reputation as a terrifying killing machine. Nobody who watched television from that time can forget the images of the BUFFs dropping bomb after bomb on the unprotected landscape, leaving fires, explosions, and massive craters in its wake, along with the gruesome remains of men, women, and children. Enemy survivors, questioned afterward, speak of the enormous trauma they suffered from these raids. From then on, the B-52 would be valued as much for its ability to instill fear in opponents as for its capacity to deliver munitions on the battlefield.

B-52s in the 21st Century

After the Vietnam War, the B-52 was relegated largely to its prewar role as a mechanism for delivering nuclear munitions on the Soviet Union. Many older BUFFs were retired, and the remaining fleet, mostly later “G” and “H” models, was refitted with modern avionics to enable penetration of enemy airspace. When Reagan took office in 1981 and nuclear war with the Soviet Union again seemed conceivable, the crews of these surviving aircraft were retrained for long-range nuclear strike missions of the sort replicated in Global Shield ’82.15

During the ensuing years, ICBMs and SLBMs overtook the B-52s as the primary systems for delivering nuclear weapons. These missiles are considered more reliable and survivable than long-range bombers and can deliver their warheads with far greater accuracy. Even so, the BUFFs were retained in the strategic arsenal, partly because of the continued political sway of SAC and its successor organization, the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), and partly because they provide senior officials with flexibility. B-52s can be launched quickly in a crisis and, once launched, can be called back midflight if senior officials conclude that a presumed nuclear threat has been falsely identified, maneuvers that missiles cannot perform. B-52s also have been retained in the inventory because their intercontinental range and large ordnance capacity allow them to be employed in various nonnuclear operations. These include, for example, the use of conventional bombs and missiles to strike enemy troop formations and attacks on vital rear-area targets, such as air bases and command facilities.

During the 1991 Gulf War, M-117 750-pound bombs were loaded onto the pylon of a B-52G Stratofortress aircraft prior to a bombing mission against Iraqi forces. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, B-52s played a significant combat-support role by pulverizing enemy positions ahead of advancing U.S. troops and attacking Iraqi supply lines to the rear. B-52s were again used in 2001 during Operation Enduring Freedom to attack Taliban positions around Kabul and later to provide close-air support for U.S. troops fighting remnants of the regime. Two years later, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the BUFFs were employed to attack Iraqi combat formations at the front and to destroy high-value targets in and around Baghdad.16 By this time, B-52s had been equipped to carry a wide variety of precision-guided munitions, including stand-off weapons that could be fired far from their target, thereby sparing the relatively slow-moving BUFFs from attack by enemy anti-aircraft guns and missiles.

Great-Power Competition

Although largely sidelined in the war on terrorism, the B-52 has gained renewed saliency in the era of great-power competition. As initially formulated in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, this outlook holds that a rising China and newly assertive Russia have come to replace Islamic terrorists as the main threat to national security and that, as a consequence, the U.S. military must be retooled for the “high-end fight” against these “near-peer” adversaries. Citing the growing threats posed by China and Russia, the National Defense Strategy and a companion document, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, call for the modernization of the entire nuclear triad and the replacement of many of its components with entirely new systems, among them a new strategic bomber, the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider. Although the initial flight of the first prototype B-21 is scheduled for 2022, it will be many years before B-21s join the bomber fleet in large numbers, and the B-52H will continue as the mainstay of the triad’s air leg until that time. To ensure that the B-52 remains combat worthy, the Air Force recently awarded Rolls-Royce North America a $2.6 billion contract to replace the plane’s existing Pratt & Whitney TF33 turbofan engines with a more modern and capable type, the F130.

Aside from its enduring role as a nuclear delivery system, the BUFF’s main function today is to serve as a flying platform for the launch of advanced conventional weapons against high-value enemy targets, such as radar stations, missile batteries, and command centers. This was a key part of its mission during the 2003 Iraq War and often figures in combat exercises conducted by the Air Force Global Strike Command, the STRATCOM component established in 2009 to oversee all B-52 bomber wings. This command regularly dispatches B-52s on long-range missions intended to demonstrate its capacity to support forward-deployed U.S. and allied forces by bringing an array of advanced conventional and nuclear weapons to bear on adversary forces.

On some occasions, these missions extend beyond training and reassuring allies to intimidating potential adversaries. In such cases, B-52s engage in conspicuous simulated attack maneuvers in the vicinity of enemy cities and military installations. A revealing example was a September 2020 mission by two Minot-based BUFFs that included a mock attack on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. The two bombers approached Kaliningrad from the sea, then swung east and passed the enclave from above the Suwalki Gap, a narrow stretch of land connecting Poland and Lithuania and dividing Kaliningrad from Belarus, before turning west over Sweden and returning to Fairford. At about the same time, another B-52 from Minot conducted a mock attack run over the Black Sea near Crimea. These maneuvers, closely observed by the Russian military, can only be described as intended to remind Russian leaders of the U.S. ability to conduct powerful attacks on their prized assets.17

When conducting such simulated strike missions, the BUFF is assumed to be armed with advanced standoff weapons of the sort used in the Iraq War. Yet, the bombers are now being fitted to carry a new type of conventional weapon, the AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW). This new missile will employ a booster rocket to attain hypersonic speeds of more than five times the speed of sound and an unpowered glide vehicle to strike high-value, time sensitive targets in enemy territory. During its most recent test on December 15, 2021, the AGM-183A failed to launch from its B-52 pylon (the third time it did not operate properly), setting back Air Force plans to begin ARRW production in 2022.18 B-52s assigned to nuclear missions carry nuclear-armed cruise missiles, which are also being modernized with a new variant known as the long-range standoff weapon.

Although the B-52’s function in U.S. nuclear war-planning has contracted over the years, it remains today what it has been for seven decades, a powerful symbol of the U.S. long-range strike capability. Through sheer size, conspicuous appearance, and the ability to deliver massive loads of ordnance, the bomber immediately connotes an incipient potential to inflict catastrophic harm on those who run afoul of U.S. and allied security interests. No wonder then that the Air Force deployed those B-52Hs to Fairford on February 10 as Russia prepared to undertake what has proved to be the largest land war in Europe since World War II.


1. Thomas Newdick, “B-52 Bombers Return to Europe at a Very Tense Time,” The Drive, February 11, 2022, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/44257/b-52-bombers-return-to-europe-at-a-very-tense-time.

2. Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “United States Nuclear Weapons, 2021,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 77, No. 1 (2021), pp. 43–63.

3. John A. Tirpak, “Rolls-Royce Wins B-52 Re-engining Program Worth $2.6 Billion,” Air Force Magazine, September 24, 2021.

4. For background, see Fred Kaplan, The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020), pp. 145–152.

5. For background on Global Shield ’82, see J.C. Hopkins and Sheldon A. Goldberg, “The Development of the Strategic Air Command 1946–86,” Office of the Historian, U.S. Strategic Air Command, 1986, p. 247. See also Bruce Eickhoff, “SAC Trains the Way It Would Fight,” Air Force Magazine, February 1, 1982.

6. See John F. Guilmartin Jr., “Strategy: Air Warfare Strategy,” in The Oxford Companion to American Military History, ed. John Whiteclay Chambers II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 690–691. See also Lee B. Kennett, A History of Strategic Bombing (New York: Scribner, 1982).

7. See Richard G. Davis, “World War II, U.S. Air Operations in: The Air War in Europe,” in The Oxford Companion to American Military History, ed. John Whiteclay Chambers II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 832–833; Conrad C. Crane, “World War II, U.S. Air Operations in: The Air War in Japan,” in The Oxford Companion to American Military History, ed. John Whiteclay Chambers II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 833–834.

8. Crane, “World War II, U.S. Air Operations in: The Air War in Japan,” p. 834.

9. Bill Yenne, B-52 Stratofortress: The Complete History of the World’s Longest Serving and Best Known Bomber (Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2012), pp. 23–25.

10. Ibid., pp. 27–37. See also Walter J. Boyne, Boeing B-52: A Documentary History (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History, 1994), pp. 43–67.

11. John Darrell Sherwood, “Vietnam War, U.S. Air Operations in the,” in The Oxford Companion to American Military History, ed. John Whiteclay Chambers II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 768–769.

12. Ibid., p. 769.

13. See Boyne, Boeing B-52, pp. 95–102; Yenne, B-52 Stratofortress, pp. 91–99.

14. See Sherwood, “Vietnam, U.S. Air Operations in the,” p. 769. See also Stephen Ambrose, “The Christmas Bombing,” HistoryNet, September 29, 2017, https://www.historynet.com/the-christmas-bombing/; Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 1989).

15. See Eickhoff, “SAC Trains the Way It Would Fight.”

16. Yenne, B-52 Stratofortress, pp. 121–131, 145–157.

17. David Axe, “U.S. Air Force B-52s Just Flew a Mock Bombing Run on Russia’s Baltic Fortress,” Forbes, September 25, 2020.

18. Valerie Insinna, “Air Force Hypersonic Weapon Runs Into Trouble After a Third Failed Test,” Breaking Defense, December 20, 2021, https://breakingdefense.com/2021/12/air-force-hypersonic-weapon-runs-into-trouble-after-a-third-failed-test/.

Michael T. Klare is professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of fifteen books, including most recently All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change.

Of all the weapons in the U.S. inventory, none arouses trepidation for a potential target like the B-52 bomber. Now it has a new mission, supporting Ukraine.

The Humanitarian Case for Banning Nuclear Weapons: An Interview With Alexander Kmentt

May 2022

The Russian war on Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons to compensate for his country’s conventional military setbacks there have concentrated public attention on nuclear weapons to a degree not seen in decades. It is also likely to raise the profile of a meeting scheduled for June 21–23 in Vienna of the states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). The treaty, which makes a humanitarian argument for banning all nuclear weapons, went into force in January 2021, and this meeting is the first time that member states are gathering to reinforce its provisions and press forward its mission. Carol Giacomo, chief editor of Arms Control Today, asked Alexander Kmentt, director of disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation at the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and president-designate of the first meeting of TPNW states-parties, to discuss what they hope to achieve, especially in light of the Russian war. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Arms Control Today: What is the subject and the purpose of this first meeting of TPNW states-parties in June?

Alexander Kmentt: The treaty entered into force a little over a year ago, after the 50th state notified the United Nations of its ratification. Because of COVID-19 delays, this is the first time the states-parties are getting together after the treaty entered into force to basically put the treaty and its implementation on track. It's very important because, after the entry into force, we are moving into a different phase. There are several important decisions that need to be taken, from basic organizational ones to substantive ones.

Anti-nuclear activists of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and other peace initiatives protest with the 51 flags of countries that ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in front of the German Chancellery in Berlin on January 22. Their banner reads: “Nuclear weapons are forbidden!” (Photo by Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images)ACT: Can you talk about those substantive decisions?

Kmentt: One basic thing is, we have to agree on rules of procedure, so how are we going to work in the future as states-parties. In terms of substantive decisions, there are several. I can tell you where we are now in the preparations, a little over two months before the meeting starts, but of course all of this is subject to the approval of states-parties. First of all in terms of the main message, states-parties are clear that they want to show that this new treaty is a serious undertaking. The meeting is not an activist gathering. Of course, there will be a very strong civil society presence, which is very important and very welcome. But this is a formal meeting of states-parties who have gone through the due national processes to ratify this treaty and considered this very carefully. The states-parties are embarking on the implementation of this new international legal instrument. This is the most important message because there is such a contestation and false narrative around the TPNW. Secondly, the rationale of the TPNW is the evidence around humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons. We want to very strongly reemphasize these profound arguments and reconnect the nuclear debate to this aspect.

ACT: On the issue of humanitarian response, is there actually going to be a proposal on the table for how you approach this?

Kmentt: Yes. The TPNW has some important, novel aspects with the positive obligations of assistance for victims of nuclear weapons use and nuclear weapons testing, environmental remediation, cooperation, and assistance. We have several states-parties and signatories that have communities and areas that are, to this day, very heavily impacted by past nuclear weapons testing campaigns: Kazakhstan, for example, some of the Pacific Island states, or Algeria—that's a signatory state. So, we are embarking to develop a culture of work to find a way as a community of states-parties to address the humanitarian harm that has been caused, which of course underscores the need for prevention. The rights of victims, essentially, and communities will very much be put into focus. This underscores the humanitarian rationale of the TPNW in a very tangible way.

This approach is inspired by some of the victims-related work that has been done in other conventions, for example, on cluster munitions and anti-personnel landmines, where some of those concepts around a very human security-focused approach to victims have been developed. We are learning and profiting from this past experience.

When member states of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) meet in June, one issue will be ameliorating the effects of nuclear testing on places such as Kazakhstan. The Soviet Union detonated 467 nuclear bombs at the Semipalatinsk test site in the northeastern region of the country before it closed in 1991, resulting in thousands of victims who suffer from radioactive diseases. In this 2007 photo, a 4th generation radiation victim, accompanied by his grandmother (R), was treated for a liver disorder at the Medical Academy Center.  (Photo by John van Hasselt/Corbis via Getty Images)ACT: What other substantive issues will the meeting address?

Kmentt: There is one important decision related to the elimination of nuclear weapons, which the negotiation conference in 2017 explicitly tasked the first meeting of states-parties to take up. The TPNW foresees two ways for nuclear-armed states to join. One is essentially the South African model, by which a state first eliminates its weapons, has this verified, and then joins the TPNW, as was the case when South Africa joined the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear-weapon state in the 1990s. The second avenue is for a nuclear-armed state to join the TPNW and then eliminate its nuclear weapons in an agreed process of verified elimination. So, this is the framework foreseen by the TPNW. The treaty deliberately does not specify this further because the nuclear-armed states did not participate in the negotiations. This will have to be done at the later stage if and when a nuclear-armed state is ready to join the TPNW. Nevertheless, we have to agree at the meeting on a maximum deadline of verified elimination for nuclear-armed states that want to join the treaty. Of course, the individual time frames will have to be negotiated with individual nuclear-armed states once they join and to take into account the specificities.

Secondly, the treaty also foresees a maximum deadline for the removal of nuclear weapons if a nuclear hosting state joins the TPNW. So, this is again another substantive decision for the meeting. Then, the treaty foresees the designation of a competent international authority or authorities that will foresee the future elimination of nuclear weapons within the TPNW framework. Of course, we know that this is not that urgent because nuclear-armed states are currently reluctant to join the TPNW. Nevertheless, we will most likely take a decision to explore this issue in detail during the intersessional period [between states-parties conferences]. We will assess what is available in terms of existing expertise, what the competencies and mandate of such an authority would have to be so that states-parties are in a position to take a very well-informed decision on this issue in the future.

Moreover, universalization is an obligation under this treaty to its states-parties, and we are preparing that. Working on universalization is not merely encouraging new ratifications but promoting the arguments on which the treaty is based, namely the humanitarian consequences of and the risks associated with nuclear weapons.

Two more issues are being discussed. I'm optimistic that we'll find an agreement on how to best harness scientific advice for the treaty. I think that could be a very important deliverable for the first meeting of states-parties. We are discussing proposals for a scientific advisory group that will help states-parties implement technical aspects of the treaty, such as verification, and also to identify what is out there in terms of research on the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons. This is a novel area and could be a very significant contribution for the TPNW and possibly beyond.

Second, states-parties are very clear that they want a strong message on the complementarity of the treaty with the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime, in particular the NPT. States-parties are preparing all these decisions in a very serious way. There is a very high degree of common purpose. I have asked facilitators for all these different topics to prepare working papers that contain recommendations, possible actions, and decisions. I hope that these papers are very broadly supported by states-parties before and at the meeting.

ACT: How is what you are doing affected by the war in Ukraine and Putin’s nuclear threats?

Kmentt: I'm very happy to give you my own perspective on this, but I cannot do that as president of the TPNW meeting because states-parties have not yet formally discussed this. I think all of us struggle to understand what the implications of the war in Ukraine are going to be on the nuclear regime. I think the honest answer is that none of us really knows, except that the repercussions will be really profound. It can go in many different ways. I hope that what we have seen is a jolt that maybe rallies the international community, or at least the vast majority of the international community, into more focused and urgent action on nuclear disarmament.

I'm concerned about some of the nuclear weapons “muscle memory” that we observe. We have seen nuclear threats being made in the context of the situation in Ukraine, essentially to enable a nuclear-weapon state to invade a non-nuclear-weapon state in good standing with the NPT. I think it is profoundly damaging to the NPT. This highlights not only nuclear risks and the fragility of nuclear deterrence, it also further underscores the many legitimacy issues around nuclear weapons. What we have seen by these disconcerting developments turns the notion of nuclear-weapon states in the NPT broadly working together as five upside down. I think the P5 process is in very big difficulty and has lost credibility. I hope that there will still be some areas of cooperation left.

What we also noticed is that maybe the attention on the nuclear issue is back. We in the nuclear community were always convinced that this is an important issue, but the wider public didn't really care. It fell off the radar after the Cold War. I think we see that this is changing, that people realize that this is not something of the past or it's not something that's limited to the North Korean issue. In Europe, we see this very much, and people are scared and for good reason. I think that is also a consequence.

For the TPNW, I think the context is difficult, but it's difficult for the whole disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation field. What we have seen underlines the fragility of nuclear deterrence stability and how precarious this entire construct is. The question is, What conclusions are drawn from this? I think it is also an opportunity for the TPNW to highlight the arguments of humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons. I always was convinced that this is very topical, but I think it has become even more important now. Ultimately, the question is whether reliance on nuclear deterrence as a construct that is supposed to bring stability to international relations is too precarious and unsustainable given the existential risks it entails for all humanity.

ACT: Are you concerned that the current international environment will propel non-nuclear-weapon states, such as Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Turkey, to acquire nuclear weapons?

Kmentt: It's an absolutely pertinent question. It is one of those pivotal moments where we could go two ways. It is possible that we move in the direction of more focus on nuclear weapons and the consequence of that will be a proliferation cascade. Whether the world at the end of that process is more secure, I think, is highly questionable. I suggest that it's not. Or, we use this as an opportunity to reinforce the treaties that we have. Maybe those in the international community that are responsible, that care about this normative framework, try to reinforce this normative framework. It is a real threshold moment. Are we “jumping back to the 1950s,” so to speak, into a situation where we did not yet have a nuclear treaty regime and basically have to restart again with rules and treaties, or can we use this as an opportunity to try to strengthen the framework that we have and prevent it from falling apart? The TPNW is the new kid on the block in this framework and we need to strengthen it.

ACT: Are states outside of the TPNW, such as Finland and Switzerland, still interested in attending the meeting and participating in the process in some way?

Kmentt: The short answer is yes. I think people are watching very carefully, very closely what we do in the TPNW process. There's a lot of false narratives going around, if I can say it in that way, from opponents of the TPNW, and that's why I think TPNW states-parties will be extremely focused on the seriousness of the enterprise. I am very much focused on the first meeting of states-parties, and I want this to be a successful meeting, but at the end of the day, the more important thing, really, is what happens afterwards. My goal is that at the end of the first meeting, the treaty is firmly established as a serious forum to engage meaningfully on the profound issues on which the TPNW is based.

This engagement by skeptics of the TPNW has been lacking. The TPNW has been vilified and accused of all sorts of things. We all understand the political dynamics behind it, but states-parties are undisturbed by that. We remain serious about this treaty, serious about our commitment to the TPNW and for a multilateral approach to nuclear weapons, nuclear disarmament, and nonproliferation. If this message comes out very strongly at the first meeting of states-parties, then I'm optimistic that some of these unfounded criticisms will fall away. At the end of the day, given what we are seeing now, TPNW opponents should ask themselves whether it is a good thing or a bad thing if more states are willing to take on legally binding obligations against nuclear weapons. I would make the point that we should welcome any additional legally binding commitment from any actor at the moment that tries to reinforce the normative framework and the nuclear disarmament regime.

ACT: Are there going to be any surprises? Is anybody going to show up at this conference that maybe we aren't expecting?

Kmentt: The UN secretary-general is the convener of this meeting. He has sent invitations to every UN member state. So, every UN member state is invited to participate, and our door is certainly open. As I said, from the TPNW side, we are not doing anything and will not do anything that will be an easy excuse for anyone not to show up and be part of this discussion. Of course, we cannot force anyone, but it will be the decision of non-states-parties whether or not to attend. It's not something that we do on the TPNW side to exclude the participation of anyone.

ACT: Have you had much conversation with the United States about this?

Kmentt: I had plenty of conversations with U.S. colleagues. Of course, the overall U.S. position on the TPNW hasn't changed. It's very clear, but there is a dialogue, and I think that's important. Certainly [the Biden] administration is very concerned about the future of the NPT, like all of us should be. With all the disagreement that there may be on some issues, I think there is a willingness to find ways of working together where possible. I think there's very clearly the interest there. Logically, the TPNW states-parties understand that the objective of the treaty will only be achieved with engagement with the states that have these weapons. We're not naive in that sense. We know that we cannot wish nuclear weapons away. This is a discursive process.

From my perspective, it is a very powerful proposition to discuss nuclear weapons from the perspective of humanitarian consequences and risks. It's only fair and a legitimate approach because the risks are borne by the entire international community. I’m convinced the TPNW represents the perspective of the vast majority of non-nuclear-weapon states who have felt disenfranchised about the nuclear discourse over the decades. The request for this discussion
is not going to disappear, and the stronger the TPNW becomes, the legitimacy and the weight to ask for this engagement will grow. I think that is why we want to set this treaty up in a serious way because that discussion has to happen at some stage.

ACT: How do you see the TPNW reinforcing what the NPT review conference, which meets in August, will do?

Kmentt: I think the prospects for the NPT review conference are very uncertain at the moment. It's extremely fragile, and we're all concerned about that. I can say this with absolute certainty, TPNW states-parties have absolutely no interest whatsoever that the NPT is damaged, quite the opposite. The entire TPNW community has always felt it was grossly offensive to be accused by some that the TPNW undermines the NPT. If you look at the states that have most actively promoted the TPNW—Ireland, for example, which has practically invented the NPT with the Irish resolution; South Africa, which had nuclear weapons, gave them up, and joined the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state; Mexico, which has led the entire continent with the Treaty of Tlatelolco, Kazakhstan; my own country, Austria; I could go on—these are states that have a clear and clean record in support of the NPT. We always felt that this was really an offensive accusation coming from states whose own NPT Article 6 implementation leaves some scope for improvement, to say the least.

The TPNW clearly reinforces Article 6 of the NPT [requiring states-parties to pursue nuclear disarmament]. This is one of the pillars of the NPT, and even opponents of the TPNW will agree that a prohibition of nuclear weapons is necessary to implement Article 6. The NPT is a framework treaty. Also, the nonproliferation provision of the NPT required additional instruments, for example, the safeguard systems of the [International Atomic Energy Agency]. So, conceptually, a prohibition is necessary to implement Article 6. The disagreement, if you wish, is, should this come at the end of the process of disarmament, or is it better to do it now? You can have a discussion about it, but that a prohibition is necessary, I think, is unequivocally clear.

Take the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), another weapons of mass destruction prohibition treaty. Nobody disputes the validity of the BWC, which does not have any verification provision. The TPNW follows the same logic and very clearly supports the NPT obligation of Article 6. Moreover, I would argue—and this an aspect that is underrepresented—that the TPNW is also a strong measure to support nonproliferation. By looking at the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons, we make the argument that reliance on nuclear weapons is ultimately an irresponsible and unsustainable approach to security, so nobody should have them. This is absolutely a nonproliferation measure. So the TPNW supports the nonproliferation pillar of the NPT as well.

How can anybody with a clear mind therefore say that the TPNW undermines the NPT, because obviously the two essential pillars of the NPT, disarmament and nonproliferation, are supported by the TPNW? There was great care and consciousness in the negotiations to make sure that the TPNW is fully compatible with the NPT, and we are absolutely adamant about this. There will be a very clear message at the meeting of states-parties on complementarity between the TPNW and the NPT. I hope that these politically motivated accusations against the TPNW will stop being made.

The president-designate of the first meeting of states-parties of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons prepares to move the pact forward at a difficult time in Russian-U.S. relations.

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

April 2022
By Oliver Meier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

Arms Control Must Remain the Goal

April 2022
By Andrei Zagorski

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

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

Mutual Signaling

From the beginning of the conflict, the United States and NATO repeatedly conveyed the message that they would not send troops to defend Ukraine, although they were prepared to arm the government in Kyiv and raise the costs of the intervention for Russia. Still, while launching the military operation, Russian President Vladimir Putin explicitly warned the West not to think of intervening militarily, implicitly threatening that this could lead to a nuclear war. “I would now like to say something very important for those who may be tempted to interfere in these developments from the outside,” Putin said on February 24. “No matter who tries to stand in our way or, all the more so, create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history. No matter how the events unfold, we are ready. All the necessary decisions in this regard have been taken. I hope that my words will be heard.”2

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

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

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

A Wake-Up Call?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

April 2022
By George Perkovich

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

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

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

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

U.S. Dysfunction

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

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

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

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

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

Problems With Russia and China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nuclear Threats and Alerts: Looking at the Cold War Background

April 2022
By William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuban Missile Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long in the Making: The Russian Invasion of Ukraine

March 2022

A week before Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, unleashing the biggest military operation in Europe since World War II, three experts on Russia—Rose Gottemoeller, chief U.S. negotiator for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and former NATO deputy secretary-general; Olga Oliker, program director for Europe and Central Asia for the International Crisis Group; and Thomas Graham, distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. presidential adviser on Russia—were interviewed on Zoom and email by Carol Giacomo, chief editor of Arms Control Today, about the origins of the crisis and what an eventual solution might involve. Their comments, made as U.S. and European leaders were still working for a diplomatic solution, have been edited for clarity and length.

ACT: What do you see as the core of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis? What led Russia to demand security guarantees?

ROSE GOTTEMOELLER: Vladimir Putin’s ego. I’m only slightly kidding.

THOMAS GRAHAM: From the Russian standpoint, this is really a question that concerns the post-Cold War settlement back in the 1990s that Russia now believes was imposed on it at a time of extreme strategic weakness in Russia. Of particular concern has been the expansion of NATO eastward across the continent, beginning with the initial invitations issued in 1997 and threatening core principles of Russian security going back decades if not centuries. Russia has sought its security in strategic depth and in buffer zones. They don’t like the idea of a military-political alliance, created to contain the Soviet Union, pressing up against its borders. So while in the United States we talk about a Ukraine crisis, from the Russian standpoint this is a crisis in European security architecture, and the fundamental issue they want to negotiate is the revision of European security architecture as it now stands to something that is more favorable to Russian interests.

OLGA OLIKER: I do think that at the core of this is a European security order that is out of date [and] that does not meet the needs of security as it has developed. Part of that is we have very different views of what it means to be secure in Europe, what sovereignty means in Europe. Why we’ve been unable to adapt the system to current needs is because Moscow on the one hand and Western countries on the other have these misaligned views of what it means to be secure.

Ukrainian soldiers prepare to repel an attack in the breakaway Luhansk region on February 24 after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)GOTTEMOELLER: There is a major economic aspect of this, and that starts at the crisis in 2014 over Ukraine’s association agreement with the European Union. It had nothing to do with NATO. Ukrainians are heading to Europe in terms of its culture, its democratic practices, so it is also about Ukraine eventually joining the EU. For me, it’s a bit artificial the way Putin has created NATO as the enemy because NATO all along, and up to the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, was trying to promulgate a partnership with Russia based on the Rome Declaration of 2002 that Putin himself signed and included a wide range of pragmatic projects. They got increasingly difficult to implement in the years running up to 2014. But there were still some significant practical projects going on, like the European Airspace Initiative, right up to the invasion of Crimea.

From NATO’s perspective, they were trying to make it work for Russia. I won’t say that everybody inside NATO was equally trying to make it work; the former Warsaw Pact states were nervous and anxious about Russia’s engagement and involvement in NATO and suspicious about it undermining NATO. But from a NATO policy perspective, the alliance was trying to make its partnership with Russia work. So, that’s what is being missed in the discussion now. Everybody seems to accept at face value that NATO is a problem for Putin. He created the problem in my view, and what this is more about is Ukraine having a healthy economic relationship with the EU; Ukraine suddenly having more of a future than Russia in a way.

OLIKER: I think there’s a lot of truth to that in terms of the facts, the realities of Ukraine’s evolution [and] Russia’s own economic system. But it is also important not to discount the extent to which Russia has consistently viewed NATO as a threat even as NATO was making overtures and saw itself as working to improve relations with Russia, to improve security. Throughout this process, Russia was always pushing back. The Russian view that NATO is an alliance against Russia, that the United States is a threat, and that NATO and the EU work for the United States one way or another is false but consistent, and that is a driver of Russia’s vision. It is interesting that none of the demands we’ve seen in these Russian draft treaties have anything to say about the EU. In fact, there is about as much risk of the Ukraine joining the EU anytime soon as of their joining NATO anytime soon. Neither of these institutions has any plans to incorporate Ukraine, and the EU is going through its own identity crisis.

For Russia, there is this visceral understanding of Ukraine as naturally its own, and that is crucial to Russia’s self-image and its view that Ukraine, however independent or not independent it is, be aligned with Russia. This is something they created for themselves. You invade a country, you annex a chunk of it, [and] shockingly, it’s not going to be as prone to being aligned with you. But there you have it, and they view this as NATO doing it to Russia rather than Russia doing it to itself, and they see this as a threat. The logic doesn’t quite work, but I do believe that they believe this.

In the diplomatic flurry before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, French President Emmanuel Macron (R) met Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on February 7. The distance between the two men as they sat at a long formal table was a sign of the gap between Moscow and the West over the crisis. (Photo by Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)GOTTEMOELLER: I don’t disagree, but who are the Russians in this case? I think there are different views out there. There are Russians, [Andre] Kortunov [director-general of the Russian International Affairs Council], some retired military and KGB senior officers who are saying, “Is it really such a good idea to be heading in this direction of a war, invasion of Ukraine?” They are also saying, “Do we really want to abandon our Western-facing objectives and throw ourselves into the arms of China, is that a good idea?” The Russians aren’t monolithic on this. There always has been a debate of the Westernizers versus the Slavophiles. In this case, the Westernizers are those who still see the necessity of links to Europe for economic, cultural, [and] traditional reasons and because people like to send their kids to school in Europe versus those who say to heck with Europe, to heck with the West, we’re throwing ourselves into the arms of the Chinese.

OLIKER: Those voices that see Russia as European, that see Russia’s future in cooperating with Europe, are not the voices that the government is listening to. Even among those voices, there are two factors to keep in mind. One is that they do continue, for the most part, to see NATO as fundamentally an anti-Russian institution. Even the most liberal Russian has a very difficult time visualizing a Ukraine that isn’t aligned with Russia. Part of the problem is that very few Russian men, especially, have visited Ukraine since 2014, so they are not familiar with some of the changes that have taken place in that country. My point is that even the most liberal, pro-Western Russian thinks of Ukraine as an appendage to Russia, and that has become unacceptable in Ukraine. It has also become quite unacceptable to a variety of European countries to give that to Russia.

ACT: This Russian animus toward NATO and the West has been going on a long time. Does Putin making a big issue of it now seem artificial?

GRAHAM: In 1999 and 2000, Russia really didn’t have the capability to push back. Russia believes now that it is in much better shape, certainly from a military standpoint, probably from the standpoint of political stability and economically, to push back. Also, the West is in greater disarray now than it has been in many years. Beyond that, there are things over the past year that concern Moscow. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has moved actively against what he sees as pro-Russian forces inside Ukraine, putting under house arrest Viktor Medvedchuk, who served in the Ukrainian government at one point but is seen as very close to Putin and a representative of pro-Russian forces in the Ukrainian system. They closed down three TV stations they claim were broadcasting Russian propaganda. Zelenskyy also in the past year has pushed actively for NATO to make some early-term decision on NATO expansion into Ukraine. He tried to put on the international agenda the question of Crimea, which had not been at the center of discussion on European issues over the past several years.

Since Ukraine was granted the enhanced opportunities relationship with NATO, Russia has seen a much more active NATO presence in Ukraine. The United States is there with instructors. The United Kingdom has been on the ground. We’ve done annual exercises that are more ambitious. The Russians saw this as a threat. Finally, Putin wanted to see how the new Biden administration would deal with Russia. He didn’t want to be written off as a significant global actor. I think the Russians resented the national security strategy guidelines that the administration issued in March 2021, which basically said Russia is a destructive element on the international stage and China is what we’re really concerned about. So, from the Kremlin standpoint, they wanted to make sure Russia was on the agenda in this administration. We had the chaotic exit from Afghanistan, which created some sense of perhaps now is a time to push so we can get a favorable decision out of the Biden administration. Finally, you have the energy crisis in Europe this year, which gave Russia some leverage. So a host of things came together that led the Kremlin to decide this is the moment to throw down the gauntlet about NATO expansion.

ACT: Are you somewhat sympathetic to the Russian side?

GRAHAM: When you’re doing an analysis, you shouldn’t be sympathetic. I am trying to describe what is driving the Russians at this point, and that’s important in the United States if we’re going to develop a policy that advances our interests and defends our principles. I don’t find this unusual. Any major power that felt that a peace was imposed on it will seek to revise that peace when it’s strong enough to do that. We saw Germany do that after the Versailles Treaty was imposed on it in 1919. That said, obviously there are certain things the Russians have done that are problematic from our standpoint. Even if it doesn’t invade Ukraine, and my sense is that is not the first option the Kremlin is thinking about at this point, they have used the threat of force in coercive diplomacy to put this on the agenda. That is problematic. It does lead to questions of how do we deal with this in a way that will resolve the crisis but not encourage Russia to use coercive diplomacy in the future to try to advance its interests. That’s where diplomacy comes in, how do we do this in a way that accommodates Russia but doesn’t undermine our interests or jeopardize our core principles.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signs documents, including a decree recognizing the independence of two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, at the Kremlin in Moscow on February 21. (Photo by Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)ACT: What do you think is Putin’s goal? His foreign minister has called for “radical changes” in European security, among the litany of Russian demands.

OLIKER: What I hope he wants is as much as he can get. Then, when you get to the talks, you can actually negotiate something. What I fear he wants is to prove to the United States and NATO that he cares more about Ukraine and possibly all of European security than they do, that none of the rest of them will use force but he will, and then they’re going to have to reckon with him. I think that would be a horrible misjudgment on Moscow’s part if they really think that is what is going to happen.

GOTTEMOELLER: This hasn’t been emphasized, but this is also about Putin’s domestic situation and trying to position himself for a successful transition. Like most autocrats, he cannot designate a successor for fear that he’ll end up getting knocked off by his successor before time. I think he is trying to also shape Russian politics as the ultimate strongman, the ultimate all-wise, all-powerful leader, and show he is tactically adept. That means he can also handle the domestic political environment. It’s a huge roll of the dice for Putin, whether he can come out of this successfully. Some ways we would not be happy with, some ways we can work with, particularly if Russia heads in the direction of really useful negotiations that produce good results for Russia, of course, but also for NATO and the United States. But I also think he’s trying to position himself as he turns 70 this October, to say, let’s figure out with his barons, his power structure the next moves in terms of governance in Russia, but “don’t mess with me in the meantime.”

ACT: There are specific Russian, U.S., and NATO proposals on the table. Do you see convergence? What is likely to result from talk of realigning or reforming the security architecture of Europe?

GRAHAM: Certainly, these are negotiable at this point, in part because if you look at the draft treaties that Russia presented publicly, see the U.S. and NATO response, there is an agreement that we need to negotiate new arms control measures, confidence-building measures, if we’re going to enhance security in Europe for everybody. So, we’re not going to call it the [Conventional Forces in Europe] CFE Treaty, but certainly some of the principles that informed that treaty would be appropriate today. I think the United States and NATO would be willing to undertake obligations not to deploy certain types of weapons systems or even concentrations of military forces in a certain zone along the Russian-NATO frontier. We’ll see how much flexibility there is on the Russian side.

Ukranians flash the v-sign after taking down the Soviet red flag from the Ukrainian Communist Party headquarters on August 25, 1991 in Kyiv. (Photo by Anatoly Supinski/AFP via Getty Images)In the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, NATO pledged it would not deploy “substantial permanent combat forces” in new member states. We adhere to that up to this point, but we may be able to define that with greater clarity. This would require reciprocity on the Russian part, which means they would have to undertake not to deploy their forces within a certain distance of the border, which means they will put limitations on their ability to move their own forces and staff on Russian territory. The Kremlin standpoint is that Russia has every sovereign right to deploy its forces anywhere it wants to on its sovereign territory and that shouldn’t be a problem for any other country [because] it’s not threatening. That said, if you’re planning on invading a country, you generally concentrate your forces along the border, right? So any concentration of forces along the border does raise legitimate concerns in neighboring countries as to what your intentions actually are. Can we negotiate something like that? I think the answer is yes, but it’s going to be difficult because it will require concessions on both sides. Reciprocity is something the United States is focused on. We believe Russia violated the INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty. That’s the reason we withdrew or at least one of the reasons we withdrew. Russia had its own grievances about our missile defense sites in Poland and Romania.

The whole dance around ending the INF Treaty was undertaken to cast blame on the other side for the demise of the treaty, which both countries actually wanted to get out from under. Now in the current circumstances, in the interests of European security, there’s some interest in reviving this treaty, but limited to Europe. If we’re going to negotiate that, the Russians are going to have to answer our concerns about the missile system that they’ve already deployed. We’re going to have to answer their questions about our missile defense systems. We’ll see over the next several weeks whether there is the political will to find the technical fixes that will allow us to come to an agreement that we will not deploy land-based intermediate-range nuclear forces or nuclear-capable forces in the European theater. Then there are notifications of military exercises, rules of conduct to avoid dangerous incidents at sea and in the air. All those things are negotiable. I think both sides agree they’re important to European security.

OLGA: The analyst, Gabriela Rosa Hernandez, sent me an email on the Russian response of February 17, which she summarized as follows: “There’ll be a military technical response if you keep ignoring us, but we won’t invade Ukraine. We’re not going to negotiate confidence-building measures or arms control deals unless we address the European security architecture and Ukraine’s NATO membership. It’s a package, not a menu.”

Protesters carry a giant Ukrainian flag during a rally in Odessa on February 20 to show unity and support of Ukrainian integrity amid soaring tensions with Russia. (Photo by Oleksandr Gimanov/AFP via Getty Images))It’s not a good Russian response because it is very hard-line. I can see points of overlap. Everybody at this point is okay with a European intermediate-range nuclear forces deal, even if we might have questions about its military usefulness, since the United States isn’t planning to do this anyway. I think the mutual inspections, exercise limits, and things like that, you can do these things. One big disconnect is the Russians want the limits where it’s Russian, and perhaps Belorussian, territory up against NATO territory. When it comes to Ukraine, the Russians want the ability to build up forces all around Ukraine, put a bunch of ships in the Black Sea with missiles on them, and threaten Ukraine. There is no new European security architecture deal, I don’t think, that doesn’t also take into account the security of countries like Ukraine one way or another. If the Russians really do push this “it’s a package, not a menu” story, I mean good luck with negotiating. You can’t negotiate one big package like this quickly.

GOTTEMOELLER: One of Putin’s early-warning shots was to say, “I don’t want to get into the dead-end swamp of endless negotiations.” But now, if they are taking this position that it’s a package and not a menu, that is a recipe for endless negotiations. Speaking from the perspective of a negotiator, I can say that you have to carve off doable do’s where you can quickly see some momentum building and you work through it piece by piece. That’s why, to my mind, that was Putin’s offer in the first place, that we take intermediate ground-launched missiles out of Europe. Although he doesn’t admit the [Russian] 9M729 is a missile that is flying to intermediate range, he was willing to say, “We’ll take it out as a goodwill gesture and put in place monitoring and verification.” That was his so-called moratorium proposal. Now, we’re ready to say, “Yes, let’s do this, and let’s do it quickly and figure out what the monitoring and verification would be.” That is where there could be quick progress, and it would lend momentum to these further things that we want to get done. But if they’re saying, “You’ve got to agree to our whole package and talk about our whole package,” it’s like they’re saying no to real diplomacy.

ACT: Is there a solution to Russia’s opposition to Ukrainian membership in NATO?

GRAHAM: The stumbling point at this point is the issue of NATO expansion eastward into the former Soviet space. The Russian position is never. They want legally binding guarantees about that. The U.S. position is that NATO has an open door and sovereign states have the right to decide who they’re going to associate with for security, political, and other purposes. At the end of the day, this issue has to be put on the table. The question is, How do you bridge the gap between those two positions and come up with some reasonable solution that satisfies minimal security requirements for Russia, but also allows the United States to say it hasn’t compromised its core interests or its core principles? I think the Ukrainians understand NATO membership is a distant possibility for them. So you would think that, given what everybody will tell you in private, we ought to be able to find a clever diplomatic solution to this problem. This is where the idea of a moratorium comes up. My guess is, eventually, we’re going to get there.

In some ways, the simplest solution for NATO and the United States would be for Ukraine to decide that it didn’t want to join NATO, take it out of the constitution, and reinsert a provision about nonalignment. That may be where we end up. But I think the United States, as a major power, ought to simply be prepared to say that we’ve looked at the situation, [that] we don’t believe Ukraine is going to be ready for decades, and that a moratorium is the best way of doing this at this point, then allow the Ukrainians the space to sort out how they feel about that and what they want to do going forward, as opposed to pressuring them to make a statement that takes us off the hook.

ACT: Should negotiations on European security and arms control take place within the
U.S.-Russian strategic stability dialogue format?

GRAHAM: My preference would be for a separate group to work on these questions of European security. There’s not a strict overlap between those people who deal with security architecture and those who are focused and should rightfully be focused on arms control negotiations, developing a follow-on treaty for New START, which expires in four years. You could do that under the umbrella of a strategic stability dialogue by setting up a separate working group with different individuals to focus on this.

A woman clears debris at a residential building in a Kyiv suburb that was believed to be damaged by a military shell on February 25 after Russian forces reached the outskirts of the capital city. (Photo by Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images)While it’s important to have this type of structure, we also need a genuinely confidential back channel where we can discuss what are very sensitive issues. Much of the dialogue over the past several months has been conducted in public. To a great extent, the Russians are to blame for that by publishing those treaties 24 to 48 hours after they had presented them to the United States. It was clear our response was going to be leaked at some point. But these are such sensitive issues, you can’t negotiate them seriously in the public glare because resolution will require backing away from stated positions. That’s very difficult to do given the political context in the United States. It’s also difficult to do on the Russian side. So if you’re really serious, you have to have a platform that is protected from the public glare, where serious people can get together and discuss very sensitive issues that will require difficult trade-offs. You have to do this in confidence and then present the total package to the public for debate. Any element of a compromise solution can be debated to death. When you see the whole package and how pieces fit together, you have a different assessment.

ACT: How does this conflict with Russia end? Is there a chance it could escalate to use of nuclear weapons?

GOTTEMOELLER: I don’t think it will escalate to the nuclear level, but I do think we could get into a serious kinetic conflict that would be bolstered by serious and continuing hybrid attacks. There’s a kind of mixed bag here of hybrid action, cyberattacks; there’s [a] very strong misinformation campaign and then kinetic action gets added on top. Perhaps what I fear most is the spillover that would affect NATO allies, and that’s the reason why the Biden administration has bolstered troops in Poland. Other NATO countries are sending some troops forward to help deter and defend in those states directly bordering on Russia and Belarus. No NATO troops will be involved in Ukraine per se, but I do worry about spillover into NATO countries. We already see spillover on the hybrid side. There are constant cyberattacks on NATO headquarters and on NATO countries individually.

OLIKER: I don’t think this conflict has a real nuclear risk. I think the next conflict, the next crisis does. This is my concern that however this ends, if it does not end with everybody at the negotiating table thinking about how to build a more secure Europe and staying at that negotiating table, in the next crisis, everybody comes to that table saying we failed in Ukraine. This time we have to do more. This time we have to push harder, and by everybody I mean both on the Russian side and on the NATO side. There I start seeing risks of escalation that involve NATO member states, and there I start seeing risks of escalations where the Russians are thinking that there are going to be attacks on the Russian homeland, and that’s where you start getting into nuclear use areas.

But I don’t want to end on that note. For a lot of years, one of the things we’ve been saying, those of us who’ve been trying to push for some conventional arms control mechanisms and not seen much progress, is that it might take a crisis to get everyone to come to their senses and realize how important it is to have these conversations. If this could be that crisis, that would be a huge silver lining. The problem is that it really is a crisis, so it could go in the other direction.

GOTTEMOELLER: Yes, to close as well on a bit more of a positive note, when I was assistant secretary for arms control over 10 years ago, I used to call conventional arms control the redheaded stepchild of the arms control agenda. Any attempts that we made at the time to push forward in that arena, there were a lot of people in Washington who were just not interested or liked the way things were and felt why mess with conventional arms control at all. Then things just keep getting worse. Again, I lay the blame in part at the Russian door. They ceased to implement the CFE Treaty. They put roadblocks in the way of modernizing the Vienna Document; they played a bit fast and loose with implementation of the Open Skies Treaty. But I also think there was a lack of energy and interest on our side. So now there’s energy and now there’s interest. Let’s hope the Russians pay attention. It’s an opportunity we need to grasp.

ACT: Should the primary focus be conventional arms control and not nuclear weapons generally or withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe?

GOTTEMOELLER: From a NATO perspective, that will be off the table. The NATO nuclear mission in Europe is not even a couple hundred warheads. It’s a very small number, but it’s the essential glue that links the NATO alliance to the central strategic deterrent of the United States. But I don’t want to see the strategic stability talks abandoned as we switch our focus to trying to right the conventional architecture in Europe. We have to do both. We also need to be sitting down now to begin to think about how to replace New START.

OLIKER: I think we can do both. Honestly, if we’re willing to sit down for the conventional conversation, we are surely willing to sit down for the nuclear conversation. It won’t be easy. All of these issues—Russia’s nonstrategic nuclear weapons arsenal, missile defense that has frozen things for so long—they’re still there. A real negotiation has to reckon with all of that, and it is in everyone’s interest that it does. However, doing so becomes that much more difficult in the face of escalation.

Three experts on Russia talk about the origins of the crisis and what a resolution could involve.

Russia’s Anti-Satellite Weapons: An Asymmetric Response to U.S. Aerospace Superiority

March 2022
By Jaganath Sankaran

Russia conducted a direct-ascent hit-to-kill anti-satellite (ASAT) test on November 15, 2021, striking a Russian satellite and rendering it into more than 1,500 pieces of orbital debris.1 Reacting to the test, U.S. Space Command commander Army Gen. James Dickinson claimed that Russia is “deploying capabilities to actively deny access to and use of space by the United States and its allies.”2 He further noted that Russia’s counterspace weapons systems undermine strategic stability.

A Soyuz-2 1b rocket booster carrying the Kosmos-2546 military satellite of the Russian Defense Ministry before launch by the Russian Aerospace Forces from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in May 2020. That same year, Russia used other versions of Kosmos satellites in anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons tests. (Photo by Russian Defense Ministry/TASS via Getty Images)Russian military leaders and analysts argue, however, that their counterspace weapons provide a means to restore strategic stability. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu characterized the test as a routine operation of a “cutting-edge future weapon system” to strengthen Russia’s deterrent and defense against U.S. attempts to attain “comprehensive military advantage” in space.3

Russian leaders believe that a change in the character of warfare has been unfolding over the past three decades. They write that the next generation of warfare will be waged in the aerospace domain with weapons enabled by satellite targeting and navigation.4 For instance, in a 2015 speech, President Vladimir Putin asserted that U.S. and NATO forces possess “high-precision long-range non-nuclear weapons comparable in their effect to nuclear weapons.”5 Russians fear that, in a conflict, these weapons may be used against them in a coordinated strike against their nuclear and conventional forces.

At a 2013 conference attended by several cabinet ministers and members of the Russian Military-Industrial Commission, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin identified five conflict scenarios that Russia could face in the future.6 One of them involved a noncontact war with a technologically advanced adversary, presumably the United States and NATO. In this scenario, the United States would strike the Russian homeland, drawing from its “lightning-fast global strike” weapons using satellite targeting and navigation. Rogozin suggested that such a strike could destroy 80 to 90 percent of Russia’s strategic arsenal, rendering its nuclear deterrent almost useless.

These scenarios reflect a worst-case analysis that may not match reality. As Vladimir Dvorkin, a former Russian military officer with deep involvement in Russian nuclear policies, has noted, “[I]t seems rather fantastical to suggest that the Pentagon could be planning a disarming conventional strike against Russia’s strategic nuclear forces: such a measure would not only prove absolutely useless, but would trigger a devastating retaliatory nuclear strike.”7 Dvorkin suggests Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missile silos are hardened to withstand any such strikes, its mobile launchers are difficult to target, and its ballistic missile submarines can be dispersed quickly and are protected by naval forces.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (L) has said Russian ASAT tests reflect a "cutting-edge future weapon system" designed to offset U.S. attempts to gain "comprehensive military advantage" in space. (Photo by Vadim Savitsky/TASS via Getty Images)Yet, these fears permeate the Russian debate on the aerospace capabilities of U.S. and NATO forces. Russian military exercises are now designed to “repel a massive” aerospace strike by hypersonic weapons, short- and medium-range cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles with highly mobile anti-air and anti-space units.8 Russian planning also includes ASAT weapons to target the critical satellite systems that enable these modern aerospace weapons.9

Dissuading Russian ASAT weapons development and testing will require a concerted effort at arms control. In December 2021, the United Nations voted to establish an open-ended working group to prevent an arms race in space.10 The UN forum may offer a chance to establish norms on space and foster a debate on the linkages between space security and other national security considerations. Likewise, the Biden administration seems inclined to pursue a ban on debris-generating ASAT tests.11 Securing multilateral support for such a ban, however, will require engagement and support from the Russians and Chinese. Such engagement will have to incorporate a discussion on the role of advanced aerospace weaponry, address their perceived vulnerabilities to these weapons, and develop ways to limit them.

Russian Anti-Satellite Weapons

The ASAT test in November is the latest in a series of such actions by Russia. The missile used in the test, Nudol, has been tested several times in the past without a hit-to-kill mission. At the 2021 Reagan National Defense Forum, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) noted that Russia had attempted to test its ground-launched ASAT missile “several times in recent years and failed, so it was predictable that they would keep trying until they scored a hit.”12 The latest hit-to-kill demonstration indicates that Russia may have perfected its ASAT missile.

In 2014, the Russian Olymp-K satellite demonstrated co-orbital ASAT capabilities in the geostationary orbit where several critical military command-and-control satellites operate.13 Additionally, Russia has fielded ground-based lasers and a range of satellite-jamming systems to deny and degrade the capacity of weapons that rely on satellited-enabled information. These weapons are detailed in Russian military literature as a vital mechanism to eliminate Russian vulnerabilities to Western precision weapons.

Russia has also tested co-orbital ASAT systems that target satellites beyond low-earth orbit. In October 2017, three Russian satellites—Kosmos-2519, Kosmos-2521, and Kosmos-2523—conducted high-velocity orbital maneuvers. In January 2020, two Russian satellites, Kosmos-2542 and Kosmos-2543, performed coordinated, close-approach orbital maneuvers in the vicinity of a U.S. military reconnaissance satellite, the KH-11. Six months later, in July 2020, the Kosmos-2543 satellite fired a high-velocity projectile into outer space. Such a projectile could act as a potent ASAT weapon. U.S. Space Force commander Gen. John Raymond has described the orbital experiments performed by these satellites as “Russian nesting doll” satellites and claimed they “exhibited characteristics of a weapon system.”14

A Russian Perspective on Future Wars

Russian military scholars examining U.S. and NATO military campaigns note that high-precision aerospace weapons supported by satellite-enabled data have become indispensable to the U.S. way of war.

Igor Morozov, head of operations at the Russian Space Force, has written that, “[d]uring the Second World War, to destroy such a target as a large railway bridge, it was required to make 4,500 sorties and drop 9,000 bombs. In Vietnam, the destruction of a similar target was achieved with 190 bombs and 95 sorties. In the war against Yugoslavia, the same mission was solved by [one to three] cruise missiles fired from a submarine.”15 Similarly, Russian analysts point out that the ratio of standoff long-distance cruise missiles to aircraft-launched precision weapons has steadily increased “from 1:10 in Operation Desert Storm to 1:1.5 in Operation Desert Fox to 1:1 in Operation Allied Force to 1.8:1 in Operation Enduring Freedom.”16

Russian military literature is replete with discussions about how these high-precision aerospace weapons are changing the nature of warfare. Russians argue that, in past wars, the main burden of any confrontation rested on ground forces tasked to breach the enemy’s forward defense and enter the adversary’s territory to occupy it. Future wars, they argue, will not be conducted using the massing of armed troops. Instead, their opening salvo will involve massive air missile strikes at targets throughout the adversary’s territory. The 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 1999 NATO campaign in Yugoslavia are showcased as evidence.

Russian military commentators studying the Gulf War point out it was the first time in the history of modern warfare that a formidable army of half a million troops was unable to override the aerospace operations mounted by U.S. and allied forces.17 Moreover, Russian writings note that, by the time the Iraqi army encountered U.S. ground forces, it had been decimated by the weeks of air and missile strikes made possible by satellite-enabled targeting and navigation.18

Similarly, Russian military commentators conclude that Yugoslavia’s disintegration was achieved at the end of the months-long aerospace campaign without a significant force-on-force conflict. Even more concerning for the Russian analysts was that the military intervention was executed without endorsement by the UN Security Council, setting a dangerous precedent for the West’s arbitrary use of force against sovereign states and possibly Russia itself.19

Russian military analysts use these conflicts as a template to write regularly about a future war in which a massive air missile strike campaign could be mounted against Russia. First, they believe that U.S. conventional hypersonic weapons, developed under the Prompt Global Strike program, would start an aerospace assault against crucial Russian government command-and-control posts and mobile and stationary launchers of nuclear-armed missiles.20 Next, U.S. missile defenses would further degrade Russia’s retaliatory potential.21 These would be followed up quickly with electronic warfare to suppress Russian air and space defense forces. Then, large numbers of standoff high-precision weapons such as cruise missiles, heavy-strike unmanned aerial vehicles, and other strike forces will be used to destroy military facilities and troops, in addition to Russian government administration centers, economic assets, power and energy supply systems, and critical communication nodes.22 Finally, the standoff strikes would coincide with an information warfare campaign to collapse the prevailing political order.23

Some Russian commentators question the viability of such massive attacks against a significant nuclear power using high-speed, high-precision weaponry as “science fiction.”24 One analyst writes that the danger of an attack on Russia with many cruise missiles is improbable and points out that assembling the formations required for such a strike requires lengthy preparations that cannot be done secretly during a crisis.25

Notwithstanding these assessments, most Russian analysts display a severe fear of U.S. and allied technological superiority. Although these fears may reflect an extreme worst-case scenario, many Russian military analysts share them. Therefore, they argue, the dependence of U.S. and NATO forces on space-based assets is a vulnerability of which Russia cannot fail to take advantage in a crisis. Russian military commentators claim ASAT and other counterspace weapons will deter aggression and offer war-fighting advantages if deterrence fails.26

A Russian rocket topped with Kosmos-2543 and Kosmos-2542 satellites is shown as it was erected in November 2019. The following year, Russia deployed both satellites to perform coordinated, close-approach orbital maneuvers in the vicinity of a U.S. military reconnaissance satellite, the KH-11. (Photo by Russian Defense Ministry)These Russian motivations pose profound challenges to pursuing lasting space arms control measures. Several proposed nonbinding behavioral norms may stall the testing of ASAT weapons for the near term. For instance, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks recently argued for a global ban on ASAT tests that create debris.27 These norms can be diplomatically pursued through multilateral dialogues, including at the UN. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated a U.S. desire to develop informal norms to standardize acceptable behavior in space operations. In a speech at the UN Conference on Disarmament, he said the United States wants to engage in “developing standards and norms of responsible behavior in outer space.”28 He further noted, “[W]e should be reducing tensions in outer space, not making them worse.”29

Such diplomatic engagements would provide the United States and its NATO allies with some transparency into Russia’s ASAT and counterspace programs and motivations. Similarly, Russia would gain transparency into U.S. and NATO programs and concerns. Diplomatic engagements can also help communicate redlines and establish a shared understanding of pathways that could lead to conflict escalation in space.30

In the end, however, there are limits to what dialogue and voluntary behavioral norms can accomplish. Without mutual restrictions on aerospace weapons and combat operations, Russians will continue to argue that U.S. and NATO forces retain a significant war-fighting superiority that can be offset only with counterspace systems. Addressing Russia’s perceived vulnerabilities to modern aerospace campaigns will require deeper engagement and structured arms control, possibly with an instrument similar to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Such binding agreements are a difficult proposition in the prevailing geopolitical environment, but they are essential to achieve comprehensive space security and strategic stability.



1. Kylie Atwood et al., “US Says It ‘Won’t Tolerate’ Russia’s ‘Reckless and Dangerous’ Anti-Satellite Missile Test,” CNN, November 16, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/15/politics/russia-anti-satellite-weapon-test-scn/index.html.

2. U.S. Space Command Public Affairs Office, “Russian Direct-Ascent Anti-Satellite Missile Test Creates Significant, Long-Lasting Space Debris,” https://www.960cyber.afrc.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/2844494/russian-direct-ascent-anti-satellite-missile-test-creates-significant-long-last/.

3. “New Russian System Being Tested Hit Old Satellite With ‘Goldsmith’s Precision’- Shoigu,” Tass, November 16, 2021; “Russian Defence Minister General of the Army Sergei Shoigu Confirms Successful Test of Anti-Satellite System,” Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, November 16, 2021, https://eng.mil.ru/en/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12394066@egNews.

4. “Как Станут Вести Войну в Будущем: По Небу Танки Грохотали” [How will the future war be waged: Tanks rumbled across the sky], MKRU, August 9, 2016, https://www.mk.ru/politics/2016/08/09/kak-stanut-vesti-voynu-vbudushhem.html.

5. “Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club,” President of Russia, October 22, 2015, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/50548.

6. “Пять сценариев войны. Дмитрий Рогозин: Россия Должна Быть Самостоятельной, Либо Ее Не Будет Вовсе [Five War Scenarios. Dmitry Rogozin: Russia Must Be Independent and Strong, or It Won’t Exist at All],” Российская Газета [Rossiyskaya Gazeta], July 3, 2013, https://rg.ru/2013/07/03/rogozin.html; Rogozin Dmitry, “Незвездные Войны: Вице-Премьер Дмитрий Рогозин - о Пяти Сценариях Возможных Войн [Not Star Wars: Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin on Five Scenarios of Possible Wars],” Российская Газета [Rossiyskaya Gazeta], July 4, 2013, https://rg.ru/2013/07/04/voyna.html.

7. Vladimir Dvorkin, “Risky Contradictions: Putin’s Stance on Strategic Arms and Missile Defense,” Carnegie Moscow Center, October 2, 2016, https://carnegiemoscow.org/commentary/62719.

8. Anton Lavrov and Roman Krezul, “Воздушный Убой: Силы ПВО На Маневрах Отражали Современные Угрозы” [Aerial slaughter: Air defense forces responded to modern threats during maneuvers], Izvestia, April 6, 2020, https://iz.ru/995981/anton-lavrov-roman-kretcul/vozdushnyi-uboi-sily-pvo-na-manevrakh-otrazhali-sovremennye-ugrozy.

9. U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), “Challenges to Security in Space,” January 2019, p. 24, https://www.dia.mil/Portals/110/Images/News/Military_Powers_Publications/Space_Threat_V14_020119_sm.pdf.

10. Mary Ann Hurtado, “UN Panel Approves Working Group on Space,” Arms Control Today, December 2021, pp. 28–30.

11. Theresa Hitchens, “Biden’s Space Policy Nominee Backs Ban on Destructive ASAT Testing, Pushes Norms,” Breaking Defense, January 13, 2022, https://breakingdefense.com/2022/01/bidens-space-policy-nominee-backs-ban-on-destructive-asat-testing-pushes-norms/.

12. Sandra Erwin, “U.S. Was Not Blindsided by Russia’s Anti-Satellite Test, Say Officials,” Space News, December 5, 2021.

13. Anatoly Zak, “Proton Successfully Returns to Flight Delivering a Secret Olymp Satellite,” RussianSpaceWeb.com, October 19, 2015, http://www.russianspaceweb.com/olymp.html.

14. W.J. Hennigan, “Russian Spacecraft Tailing U.S. Spy Satellite, General Says,” Time, February 10, 2020.

15. Igor Morozov, Baushev Sergey, and Kaminsky Oleg, “Космос и Характер Современных Военных Действий” [Space and the nature of modern military operations], Aerospace Defense, August 11, 2009, http://www.vko.ru/koncepcii/kosmos-i-harakter-sovremennyh-voennyh-deystviy.

16. Maj. Gen. S.V. Kuralenko, “Changing Trends in Armed Struggle in the Early 21st-Century,” Military Thought, Vol. 21, No. 4 (2012): 31.

17. Col. S.G. Chekinov and Lt. Gen. S.A. Bogdanov, “Asymmetrical Actions to Maintain Russia’s Military Security,” Military Thought, Vol. 19, No. 1 (2010): 10.

18. Ibid.

19. Tetekin Vyacheslav, Alexander Gorkov, and Oleg Falichev, “Войска ВКО: Болезни Роста” [VKO troops: Growing pains], Military Industrial Courier, October 7, 2013, https://vpk-news.ru/articles/17720.

20. V.V. Selivanov and Col. Yu.D. Ilyin, “Choosing Priorities in Developing Kinetic Energy Weapons for Military Conflicts,” Military Thought, Vol. 26, No. 4 (2017): 71, 75.

21. “Комментарий Департамента Информации и Печати МИД России в Связи с Новым «Обзором Политики США в Сфере ПРО» - Новости - Министерство Иностранных Дел Российской Федерации” [Commentary by the Department of Information and Press of the Russian Foreign Ministry in connection with the new “Review of US Missile Defense Policy”], Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, January 18, 2019, https://archive.mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3479839.

22. Chekinov and Bogdanov, “Asymmetrical Actions to Maintain Russia’s Military Security,” p. 10.

23. “Как Станут Вести Войну в Будущем: По Небу Танки Грохотали” [How will the future war be waged: Tanks rumbled across the sky].”

24. Yaroslav Vyatkin, “«Быстрый Глобальный Удар» в Исполнении России [’Prompt Global Strike’ Russian-Style],” Аргументы Недели [Arguments of the Week], April 16, 2015, https://argumenti.ru/army/n484/396359; Dmitry Akhmerov, Evgeny Akhmerov, and Marat Valeev, “По-Быстрому Не Получится | Могущество неядерных крылатых ракет иллюзорно [It Won’t Work Quickly: The Power of Conventional Cruise Missiles Is Illusory],” Военно-Промышленный Курьер [Military Industrial Courier], October 19, 2015, https://vpk-news.ru/articles/27617.

25. Ibid. See also Yevgeny Miasnikov, “The Counterforce Potential of Precision-Guided Munitions,” in Nuclear Proliferation: New Technologies, Weapons, Treaties, ed. Alexei Arbatov and Vladimir Dvorkin (Moscow: Carnegie Moscow Center, 2009), pp. 97–99.

26. DIA, “Challenges to Security in Space,” p. 24. See also “Генштаб: Особенностью Конфликтов Будущего Станет Применение Роботов и Космических Средств” [General staff: A feature of future conflicts will be the use of robots and apace assets], Tass, March 24, 2018, https://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/5062463.

27. Theresa Hitchens, “Biden Administration to Propose New Global Norms for Military Space,” Breaking Defense, December 1, 2021, https://breakingdefense.com/2021/12/biden-administration-to-propose-new-global-norms-for-military-space/.

28. U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Geneva, “Secretary Blinken: Remarks at the High-Level Segment of the Conference on Disarmament,” February 22, 2021, https://geneva.usmission.gov/2021/02/22/secretary-blinken-cd/.

29. Ibid.

30. Theresa Hitchens and Joan Johnson-Freese, “Toward a New National Security Space Strategy: Time for a Strategic Rebalancing,” Atlantic Council, June 2016, p. 27, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/report/toward-a-new-national-security-space-strategy-time-for-a-strategic-rebalancing-2/.

Jaganath Sankaran is an assistant professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

Fearing U.S. dominance in a future war in space, Russia is building and testing anti-satellite weapons.


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