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Business Executive for National Security
June 2, 2022
US-Russia Nuclear Arms Control

The Nuclear Risk Dimension of the War On Ukraine

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Remarks by Daryl G. Kimball
Executive Director, Arms Control Association
June 20, 2022

“No matter who tries to stand in our way ... they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history ....” Russian President Vladimir Putin, February 24

"If someone wants to interfere in the situation in Ukraine from the outside and creates an unacceptable threat of a strategic nature for Russia, the response will be lightning-fast, decisions on this matter have been made,” Mr. Putin said at a meeting with members of the Council of Legislators April 27.

"Russia's response will be immediate and will lead you to consequences that you have never faced in your history. We are ready for any development of events," the Russian president added. He said that Russia has all the tools for this, "such as no one can boast of now. We will use them, if necessary," Vladimir Putin warned.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, along with his implied threats of nuclear weapons use against any who would interfere, have raised the specter of a nuclear conflict in ways we have not experienced in the post-Cold War era.

  • Russia’s war on Ukraine and the ongoing possibility of military conflict between Russian and NATO forces have significantly increased the risk of nuclear weapons use.
     
  • Unlike the extremely dangerous 13-day-long Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, the war in Ukraine, will likely last many more months. And unlike the 1962 crisis, which did not involve a sustained exchange of fire, the war in Ukraine does. As a result, the world will remain in a condition of heightened nuclear danger for some time to come.
     
  • President Putin’s statements threatening possible nuclear use, and his announcement early in the conflict that he was raising the readiness level of Russian strategic nuclear forces, are designed to ward off outside military interference by U.S. and NATO forces in his attack on Ukraine.
     
  • From a legal perspective, the International Court of Justice unanimously determined in its 1996 advisory opinion that a threat to engage in nuclear weapons use, particularly under the circumstances suggested by Mr. Putin, is contrary to international humanitarian law, and, of course, the threat to use nuclear weapons, violates the UN Charter, and under any circumstance, is prohibited by the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
     
  • Putin’s threats also violate Article II of the 1973 bilateral Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War, which pledged the United States and Russia to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the other Party, against the allies of the other Party and against other countries, in circumstances which may endanger international peace and security.”
     
  • So far, President Joe Biden has not engaged in inflammatory nuclear rhetoric or raised the alert status of U.S. nuclear forces. U.S. and NATO leaders have made it clear their military forces will not directly enter the conflict. Nevertheless, the risk of escalation is real. A close encounter between NATO and Russian warplanes or an attack by Russia on NATO territory or vice versa could become a flashpoint for a wider conflict.
     
  • Because Russian and U.S. strategies reserve the option—under extreme circumstances—to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear threats, fighting could quickly go nuclear. Russian nuclear doctrine states that nuclear weapons can be used in response to an attack with weapons of mass destruction or if a conventional war threatens the “very existence of the state.” Right now, these conditions do not exist. But if the Kremlin believes a serious attack on Russia is underway, it might order the use of short-range, tactical nuclear weapons to tip the military balance in its favor. Such a scenario would seem unlikely, but it cannot be ruled out.

    U.S. President Joe Biden’s new Nuclear Posture Review states that the “fundamental role” of the U.S. arsenal will be to deter nuclear attacks while still leaving open the option for nuclear first use in “extreme circumstances” to counter conventional, biological, chemical, and possibly cyberattacks.
     
  • In addition to the possibility of an escalation of the fighting beyond the borders of Ukraine to involve NATO and Russian forces and territory, there is the potential, albeit small this time, that Russia might consider the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine itself. In April, CIA Director William Burns said that although there is no sign that Russia is preparing to do so, “none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons."
     
  • Since then, Russian officials have denied there is any intention to do so because the Russian state is clearly not under imminent threat from either Ukraine or NATO. But if the Kremlin thought an attack from the United States or NATO was underway or if the Kremlin finds that Russian forces are on the verge of a catastrophic defeat in Ukraine, Putin might consider the nuclear option, perhaps beginning with the use of short-range, “tactical” nuclear weapons, to try to tip the balance in Russia’s military favor or to try to end the conflict.
     
  • Once nuclear weapons are used in a conflict, particularly between nuclear-armed adversaries, we are in completely uncharted territory. Theories that a nuclear war can be “limited” are just theories. In practice and in the fog of nuclear war, once nuclear weapons are used in a conflict involving the United States and Russia, there is no guarantee it would not quickly become an all-out nuclear conflagration. A recent Princeton Program on Science and Global Security simulation estimates the use of nuclear weapons in war between NATO and Russian forces could lead to the death and injury of nearly 100 million people in just the first few hours. As the head of U.S. Strategic Command General John Hyten said in 2018 after the annual Global Thunder nuclear wargame: “It ends bad. And the bad meaning it ends with global nuclear war.”
     
  • Nuclear threats and alerts of various kinds were not uncommon during the Cold War, before the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and after. But Russia’s implied nuclear threats to shield an attack by a nuclear-armed state against a non-nuclear-weapon state is unprecedented—and unacceptable—in the post-Cold War era. And since the Soviet Union dissolved, no U.S. or Russian leader has raised the alert level of nuclear forces to try to coerce a potential nuclear adversary’s behavior.
     
  • Such actions are dangerous for all sides. Nuclear threat rhetoric and orders to raise the operational readiness of Russian or U.S. nuclear forces could be also misinterpreted in ways that lead the other side to make nuclear countermoves that trigger nuclear escalatory moves, fears of an imminent attack, and potentially nuclear weapons use.
     
  • We must also understand that another feature of the war is that Russia is “using” its nuclear weapons to provide cover for a major conventional military intervention against an independent, sovereign non-nuclear-weapon state. We must also recognize that this is not a uniquely Russian idea. Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, said in February 2021 that “[w]e must acknowledge the foundational nature of our nation’s strategic nuclear forces, as they create the ‘maneuver space’ for us to project conventional military power strategically.”
     
  • Putin’s invasion also underscores the fact that nuclear weapons don’t prevent major wars. Rather, they can facilitate aggression by nuclear-armed states and make wars waged by nuclear-armed states far more dangerous—especially when nuclear-armed states become pitted against one another and there is an increased risk of miscalculation and miscommunication.
     
  • Of course, Russia’s 2014 occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and its more recent invasion violates the security assurances extended to Ukraine in 1994 by the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States through the Budapest Memorandum—and makes a mockery of the negative security assurances extended to nonnuclear weapons states in the context of the NPT.
     
  • NATO countries may argue that because Russia has not attacked a NATO member, this shows the utility of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. In reality, U.S. and NATO nuclear weapons have proven to be useless in preventing Russian aggression against Ukraine.

    Instead, Ukraine’s allies and friends have responded with political, economic, and diplomatic means to help defend Ukraine and thwart the aggressor, along with military and humanitarian assistance to help Ukraine defend its territory. Even for a state or alliance possessing a robust nuclear arsenal, conventional military capabilities are key to deterring conventional attacks and to battlefield success, or failure.
     
  • Russia’s explicit nuclear threats, which President Biden and other leaders have criticized as “irresponsible,” also create a dilemma for NATO, which is a self-declared nuclear alliance that depends on maintaining the credible threat of nuclear use.

    The more NATO emphasizes the value of nuclear deterrence and the value of possessing nuclear weapons, the more legitimacy it lends to Putin’s nuclear threats and the mistaken and dangerous belief that nuclear weapons are necessary for self-defense. As Pope Francis declared in 2017: “[Nuclear weapons] exist in the service of a mentality of fear that affects not only the parties in conflict but the entire human race [and] create nothing but a false sense of security.”

Finally, the conflict has derailed the “Strategic Stability Dialogue” between Washington and Moscow that was intended to lead to negotiations on new nuclear arms reduction agreements designed to supersede the New START agreement, which will expire in early 2026.

In a statement issued to the Arms Control Association on June 2, President Biden said: “Our progress must continue beyond the New START …” But it remains unclear whether and when the U.S.-Russian dialogue will resume, let alone whether they can reach agreement on capping or further reducing their bloated arsenals beyond 2026.

As a result, neither side can say they are meeting their legally binding nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations under Article VI of the treaty, and it is more likely than not that after 2026, there will be no legally-binding limits on the world’s two largest nuclear stockpiles—something the world has not seen in more than five decades.

Response Options: As the war drags on, it is vital that Russian, NATO, and U.S. leaders maintain lines of communication to prevent direct conflict. They must refrain from threatening nuclear rhetoric and actions that increase the risk of nuclear escalation, such as moving to deploy tactical nuclear weapons, putting strategic weapons on higher alert levels, or developing new types of nuclear weapons designed for fighting and “winning” a regional nuclear war.

In particular, the international community needs to take stronger action to strengthen the legal and political norms against nuclear weapons use and the threat of use of nuclear weapons.

We must also press the nuclear-armed states to finally take the actions necessary to fulfill their commitments to verifiably reduce and eliminate their nuclear weapons and adopt non-nuclear approaches to defense that can more effectively preserve international peace and human security.

The March 2 vote in the General Assembly condemning Russia’s invasion and Putin’s decision to increase the readiness of his nuclear forces, was important but is not sufficient. We should recall that the UNGA issued a declaration in November 1961 that said that “any state using nuclear…weapons is to be considered as violating the Charter of the UN, as acting contrary to the laws of humanity and as committing a crime against mankind and civilization.”

The first meeting of states parties to the TPNW is a crucial and timely opportunity to reinforce the norms against nuclear weapons. States attending the 10th NPT Review Conference must also seek to reinforce the norm against nuclear use and nuclear threats and steer the nuclear possessor states away from nuclear confrontation and arms racing and toward a resumption of disarmament negotiations.

Bottom Lines: The nuclear dimensions of the war on Ukraine are reminders that outdated nuclear deterrence policies create unacceptable risks. If we are to eliminate the danger, we must actively reinforce the legal prohibitions and norms against nuclear weapons development, testing, possession, proliferation, and use—and press for disarmament diplomacy that leads to concrete actions that put us on the path toward the complete, irreversible, and verifiable elimination of all nuclear weapons in our lifetimes.

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Remarks by Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association, to the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons, June 20, 2022

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After Exercise, Russia Downplays Nuclear Threat


June 2022
By Shannon Bugos

Russia simulated launches of nuclear weapons during military exercises in the Kaliningrad enclave in May, according to its defense ministry, even as Russian diplomats attempted to downplay the likelihood of Russia employing nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

Russia has used the Iskander-M missile, shown parading through Red Square, to pummel Ukraine and conducted simulated launches of nuclear weapons with the missile during military exercises in the Kaliningrad enclave in May.  (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)The Russian exercise included “electronic launches” of dual-capable, road-mobile Iskander-M ballistic missiles against targets such as airfields, equipment depots, and military command posts. The Russian Defense Ministry said that more than 100 troops participated in the simulation launched from Kaliningrad, which is located between the NATO countries of Lithuania and Poland along the Baltic coast. Russia has used conventional Iskander-M missiles extensively in Ukraine.

Despite the nuclear simulation and continued threatening rhetoric from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Ministry officials have dismissed the prospect of Russia employing nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine.

When questioned about the possibility of nuclear war, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asserted on May 1 that “Russia has never ceased its efforts to reach agreements that would guarantee the prevention of a nuclear war.” He emphasized that Moscow has agreed twice in the past year to reaffirm the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

Konstantin Gavrilov, head of Russia’s delegation on arms control in Vienna, said more directly on May 4 that “we by no means pursue any nuclear war-related aims on the territory of Ukraine.” Alexey Zaitsev, Russian Foreign Ministry deputy spokesperson, echoed this on May 6, saying that nuclear weapons “are not applicable to the implementation of the tasks set in the course of the special military operation in Ukraine.”

Zaitsev pointed to four scenarios in which Moscow might use nuclear weapons, including when the state’s existence is perceived to be in jeopardy. The scenarios are outlined in the Russian nuclear deterrence policy released in June 2020. (See ACT, July/August 2020.)

The remarks by the Foreign Ministry officials differ from Putin’s statements since the start of the war in Ukraine, in which he has threatened to use nuclear weapons if any country attempts to intercede on Ukraine’s behalf. (See ACT, March 2022.)

“If anyone intends to intervene from the outside and create a strategic threat to Russia that is unacceptable to us, they should know that our retaliatory strikes will be lightning fast,” Putin reiterated on April 27. “We have the tools we need for this…[and] we will use them if necessary.”

U.S. President Joe Biden has described such rhetoric as irresponsible and dangerous. “No one should be making idle comments about the use of nuclear weapons or the possibility that they’d use that,” he said on April 28.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby commented on the Russian war game and threats of nuclear use, dismissing the prospect of a U.S. or NATO reaction. “Has that exercise or has this rhetoric resulted in us changing the footprint on NATO’s eastern flank? No,” he told reporters on May 5.

Nevertheless, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines assured Congress on May 12 that the United States “will remain vigilant in monitoring every aspect of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.”

Thus far, neither the United States nor NATO has mirrored Putin’s decision in February to raise the alert level of Russian nuclear forces. Adm. Charles Richard, head of U.S. Strategic Command, testified in March that he sees no need to change U.S. nuclear force posture. Kirby said on May 5 that the United States is “comfortable and confident that our strategic deterrent posture is well placed and robust enough to defend the homeland, as well as our allies and partners.” (See ACT, April 2022.)

Haines said that “there is not a sort of an imminent potential for Putin to use nuclear weapons.” But she added that he may engage in some further signaling of Russian disapproval of U.S. support for Ukraine “by authorizing another large nuclear exercise involving a major dispersal of mobile intercontinental missiles, heavy bombers, [and] strategic submarines.”

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin resumed communication with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Shoigu, with an hour-long phone call on May 13, the first since the invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24.

During the call, Austin “urged an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication,” according to the Pentagon readout. A senior defense official added that the department had “been consistently asking for this conversation,” but it was not until that week when Shoigu finally agreed.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley then spoke with his Russian counterpart, Chief of Russian General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov, on May 19, also for the first time since the war started.

Moscow and Washington created a Russian-U.S. deconfliction line at the operational level between the Russian Defense Ministry and U.S. European Command in March, but there has been no communication at the most senior level until now.

China has called for restraint. “No one wants to see the outbreak of a third world war,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters on May 23.

The military exercises simulated launches of nuclear weapons.

Fifty Years Ago, the First Strategic Arms Limitation Agreements Were Concluded

Fifty years ago, on May 26, 1972, the first bilateral nuclear arms control agreements were struck: the U.S.-Soviet Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The breakthrough agreements, which began the process of slowing the nuclear arms race, followed the entry into force of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1970. The U.S.-Soviet agreements were the product of intensive negotiations that began in 1969. The chief American negotiator was Gerard Smith, who had been appointed the director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency by then-president Richard...

U.S., Russia Adhering to New Start Despite War


May 2022
By Shannon Bugos

A few days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States and Russia exchanged data on their respective strategic nuclear forces as required by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The data shared on March 1 showed that the countries remain at or below the treaty limits on deployed strategic warheads and their delivery vehicles.

“At a time when direct contacts are being curtailed, antagonism runs high, and trust [is] completely lost, it is nothing short of amazing that Russia and the United States continue to abide by the…treaty and exchange classified information as if nothing had happened,” wrote Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists in an April 6 blog post. The data exchange was made public on April 5.

The treaty limits U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces to 1,550 warheads deployed on 700 delivery vehicles, which are defined as intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers assigned to a nuclear mission.

The United States deploys 1,515 warheads on 686 delivery vehicles, and Russia deploys 1,474 warheads on 526 delivery vehicles, as of the latest data exchange.

Under New START, the two sides are allowed a certain number of on-site inspections each year, but those inspections have been paused since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even so, the two sides have continued to exchange various notifications on the status and basing or facility assignment of their respective strategic forces, for a total of 23,609 notifications as of April 7.

The treaty’s implementing body, the Bilateral Consultative Commission, ordinarily meets twice per year, but those meetings have also been paused because of the pandemic.

Alexander Darchiyev, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s North American Department, said on March 8
that “we’re preparing for the upcoming spring session of the Bilateral Consultative Commission.” Further information on when the commission may convene is unknown.

The exchange of New START data occurred after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Feb. 27 order to move his country’s nuclear forces to the heightened alert status of a “special regime of combat duty” in the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (See ACT, March 2022.) Although additional such orders have not been given, Russian officials have defended Putin’s order in the ensuing weeks. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov eventually downplayed the threat of nuclear war in late March. (See ACT, April 2022.)

On April 20, Russia test-launched a new nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile called the Sarmat. Although Putin called the test a warning to those in the West who “try to threaten our country,” some U.S. experts played down the impact saying Moscow notified Washington in advance as required under New START. The experts also estimated that SARMAT was initially slated to be operationally deployed in 2021, meaning the system is now behind schedule.

Russia and the United States are fulfilling their treaty commitments despite tensions over Ukraine.

“The Threat of Use of Nuclear Weapons and Russia’s War on Ukraine: Meeting the Legal and Political Challenge"

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Tuesday, May 3, 2022
11:00 am to 12:30 pm U.S. Eastern Time

Prior to and during Russia’s war against Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin has threatened the possible use of nuclear weapons should other states “interfere” in Russian military operations. Such threats of the use of force are the cornerstone of nuclear deterrence but, especially where states hold the option to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict, open the door to escalation and the actual use of nuclear weapons.

How can the international community meet the urgent challenges from the threat of use of nuclear weapons?

Our panelists included: 

  • Amb. Alexander Kmentt (Director of Disarmament, Arms Control and Nonproliferation at the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; President-designate for the first Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW)
  • Zia Mian (co-director, Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University)
  • John Burroughs (Senior Analyst, Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy)
  • Alicia Sanders-Zakre (Policy and Research Coordinator at the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons)
  • Daryl Kimball (Executive Director, Arms Control Association)
  • Ariana N. Smith (Executive Director, Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy) - moderator

Sponsored by the Arms Control Association, the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, and the Princeton University Program on Science and Global Security  

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President Vladimir Putin has threatened the possible use of nuclear weapons should other states interfere in Russian war in Ukraine. How can the international community meet the urgent challenges from such threat of use of nuclear weapons?

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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.

 

ENDNOTES

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.

Biden’s Reported Decision to Retain Option to Use Nuclear Weapons Against Non-Nuclear Threats Is Disappointing, Illogical, and Dangerous

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For Immediate Release: March 25, 2022

Media Contacts: Daryl Kimball, executive director (202-463-8270 x107); Shannon Bugos, senior policy analyst (202-463-8270 x113)

(Washington, D.C.)— President Joseph R. Biden has stepped back from a campaign vow and approved an old Obama-era policy that allows for a potential nuclear response to deter conventional and other non-nuclear dangers in addition to nuclear ones, U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal Thursday.

Biden’s policy will reportedly declare that the “fundamental role” of the U.S. nuclear arsenal will be to deter nuclear attacks. Such a policy, the officials said, will leave open the possibility that nuclear weapons could also be used in “extreme circumstances” to deter conventional, biological, chemical, and possibly cyberattacks by adversaries.

“If the report is correct, President Biden will have failed to follow through on his explicit 2020 campaign promise to adopt a much clearer and narrower policy regarding nuclear weapons use, and he will have missed a crucial opportunity to move the world back from the nuclear brink,” charged Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs: “As I said in 2017, I believe that the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring—and, if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack. As president, I will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with the U.S. military and U.S. allies.”

“Putin’s deadly war against Ukraine, his nuclear saber-rattling, and Russia’s policy that reserves the option to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict with NATO underscore even more clearly how extremely dangerous it is for nuclear-armed states to threaten the use of nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear threats—and it reinforces why it is necessary to move rapidly away from dangerous Cold War-era thinking about nuclear weapons,” Kimball said.

“Biden has apparently failed to seize his opportunity to meaningfully narrow the role of nuclear weapons and failed, through his NPR, to distinguish U.S. nuclear policy from Russia’s dangerous nuclear doctrine that threatens nuclear first use against non-nuclear threats,” he added.

“There is no plausible military scenario, no morally defensible reason, nor legally justifiable basis for threatening or using nuclear weapons first—if at all. As Presidents Reagan, Biden, Gorbachev, and even Putin have all said, a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” Kimball said. “Once nuclear weapons are used in a conflict between nuclear-armed states, there is no guarantee it will not result in nuclear retaliation and escalation to an all-out nuclear exchange.”

“We also strongly urge the administration to explain how Biden’s nuclear weapons declaratory policy will differ from Russia’s dangerous nuclear doctrine and under what circumstances the United States might believe it would make sense to initiate the use of nuclear weapons for the first time since 1945,” he said.

Shannon Bugos, a senior policy analyst at the Arms Control Association, added, “The final Biden NPR should also reiterate the longstanding U.S. commitment to actively pursue further verifiable reductions in the still bloated nuclear stockpiles of the United States and Russia, and to seek to engage China and other nuclear-armed states in the disarmament enterprise.”

“The sobering reality is that it would take just a few hundred U.S. or Russian strategic nuclear weapons to destroy each other’s military capacity, kill hundreds of millions of innocent people, and produce a planetary climate catastrophe,” she noted.

“Maintaining ambiguity about using nuclear weapons first is dangerous, illogical, and unnecessary," said Bugos.

Description: 

Biden has apparently failed to seize his opportunity to meaningfully narrow the role of nuclear weapons and failed through his Nuclear Posture Review.

Country Resources:

Putin’s Assault on Ukraine and the Nonproliferation Regime


March 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball

President Vladimir Putin has chosen the path of destruction instead of diplomacy. His months-long buildup of a massive Russian invasion force encircling Ukraine and his decision on Feb. 21 to order Russian soldiers into the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk have set in motion a catastrophic war. Putin’s indefensible, premeditated assault on Ukraine will heighten tensions between NATO and Russia, increase the risk of conflict elsewhere in Europe, and undermine prospects for nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament—for years to come.

A short-range Iskander missile system flight test. Russian intermediate-range missiles, like the controversial 9M729, are launched from similar platforms. (Photo credit: Russian Defense Ministry.)There are many grievances fueling Putin’s latest and most brazen attempt to reset the post-Cold War European security order through military force. Some are real, such as the effect of NATO’s expansion on the military balance in Europe, and some are imagined. No rationale, however, justifies a violent attack by Russia on one of its neighbors.

In an angry speech announcing his decision to move Russian forces into Ukraine, Putin espoused wild, ethno-racialist, and historically inaccurate claims that Ukraine is not a legitimate state and belongs within a greater Russia. He voiced hyperbolic claims that an independent, westward-leaning Ukraine, which he falsely charged might even build nuclear weapons, is a grave threat to Russia.

Putin’s military adventurism—including Russia’s conflict with Georgia in 2008, its takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, its cyberattacks and political influence games—and his push to modernize Russia’s military have already spurred NATO member states to bolster their military postures. Not surprisingly, Putin’s behavior has led Ukrainians to see Moscow as a threat and seek Western support.

Putin’s aggression against Ukraine violates the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States extended security assurances against the threat or use of force against Ukraine’s territory or political independence. In response, Ukraine acceded to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear-weapon state and gave up the 1,900 nuclear warheads it inherited from the Soviet Union. Ukraine, Russia, and the world were safer as a result. But Putin’s behavior undermines the NPT and reinforces the impression that nuclear-armed states can bully non-nuclear states, thus reducing the incentives for disarmament and making it more difficult to prevent nuclear proliferation.

The vicious cycle of mistrust between Russia and the West in recent years has been exacerbated by the loss—through negligence, noncompliance, or outright withdrawal—of important conventional and nuclear arms control agreements that helped end the Cold War. These guardrails included the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, which was designed to prevent major force buildups on the continent; the Open Skies Treaty, which provided transparency about military capabilities and movements; the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which was designed to prevent an unconstrained offense-defense arms race; and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which reduced the danger of nuclear war in Europe. As a result, cooperation between the parties has eroded, concerns about military capabilities have grown, and the risk of miscalculation is higher.

With Putin’s deadly war against Ukraine now underway, the United States, Europe, and the international community must maintain a strong and unified response, including more powerful sanctions against key Russian institutions and leaders. The besieged people of Ukraine require urgent assistance from the international community. As it should, the Kyiv government will get defensive military assistance to deter Putin from seizing more, if not all, of its territory.

In the days and weeks ahead, leaders in Moscow, Washington, and Europe must be careful to avoid new and destabilizing military deployments, close encounters between Russian and NATO forces, and the introduction of offensive weapons that undermine common security. For example, the offer from Russia’s client state, Belarus, to host Russian tactical nuclear weapons, if pursued by Putin, would further undermine Russian and European security, and increase the risk of nuclear war.

Although Putin’s regime must suffer international isolation now, U.S. and Russian leaders must eventually seek to resume talks through their stalled strategic security dialogue to defuse broader NATO-Russia tensions and maintain common sense arms control measures to prevent an all-out arms race.

Russia’s December 2021 proposals on security and the Biden administration responses show there is room for negotiations to resolve mutual concerns, including agreements to scale back large military exercises and prevent the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe or western Russia. Washington must test whether Russia is serious about such options.

In the long run, U.S., Russian, and European leaders, and their people, cannot lose sight of the fact that war and the threat of nuclear war are the common enemies. Russia and the West have an interest in striking agreements that further slash bloated strategic nuclear forces, regulate shorter-range “battlefield” nuclear arsenals, and set limits on long-range missile defenses before the last remaining nuclear arms control agreement, New START, expires in early 2026. Otherwise, the next showdown will be even riskier.

President Vladimir Putin has chosen the path of destruction instead of diplomacy.

Russia, U.S., NATO Security Proposals

 
March 2022

Prior to Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement in February 2022 that Russia would recognize the two Russian-controlled Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine as independent and his decision to order his military forces into Ukraine, Russia and the United States/NATO exchanged written security and arms control proposals. Russia initiated the exchange in December 2021 with proposals related to arms control, risk reduction, and transparency. The United States and NATO put forward their respective counterproposals in January 2022. The following is a side-by-side summary of the various proposals.

Russian Proposals on Security Guarantees to the United States and NATO, Dec. 15, 2021 U.S. and NATO Responses to Russia, Jan. 26, 2022
Arms Control, Risk Reduction, and Transparency

Parties shall not deploy ground-launched, intermediate- and short-range missiles either outside their national territories or inside their national territories from which the missiles can strike the national territory of the other party.

The United States is prepared to begin discussions on arms control for ground-based intermediate- and short-range missiles and their launchers. NATO calls for Russia to engage with the United States on these discussions.

The United States is prepared to discuss transparency measures to confirm the absence of Tomahawk cruise missiles at Aegis Ashore sites in Romania and Poland, so long as Russia provides reciprocal transparency measures on two ground-launched missile bases of U.S. choosing in Russia.

No similar articles.

The United States proposes to begin discussions immediately on follow-on measures to New START, including on how future arms control would cover all U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons (strategic and non-strategic, deployed and non-deployed) and new kinds of nuclear-armed intercontinental-range delivery vehicles. NATO calls for Russia to engage with the United States on these discussions.

NATO calls for all states to recommit to their international arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation obligations and commitments, such as toward the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention. NATO calls for Russia to resume implementation of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty.

NATO is ready to consult on ways to reduce threats to space systems and to promote a free and peaceful cyberspace.

Sources: Article 6, Russia Proposal to U.S.; Article 5, Russia Proposal to NATO; Pages 3 and 4, U.S. Response to Russia; Article 9, NATO Response to Russia
Nuclear and Conventional Forces Posture

Parties shall not deploy nuclear weapons outside their national territories and shall destroy all existing infrastructure for deployment of nuclear weapons outside of their national territories.

Parties shall not train military and civilian personnel from non-nuclear countries to use nuclear weapons or conduct exercises that include scenarios involving the use of nuclear weapons.

The United States and NATO are prepared to discuss areas of disagreement between NATO and Russia on U.S. and NATO force posture, including possibly the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe, and discuss conventional forces concerns, including enhanced transparency and risk reduction through the Vienna Document.

NATO is prepared to discuss holding reciprocal briefings on Russia's and NATO's nuclear policies.

Sources: Article 7, Russia Proposal to U.S.; Article 4, Russia Proposal to NATO; Page 3, U.S. Response to Russia; Article 9, NATO Response to Russia
NATO-Russia Relations

Parties reaffirm that they do not consider each other as adversaries.

Parties shall not undertake actions, participate in activities, or implement security measures that undermine the security interests of the other party. Parties shall not use the territories of other states to execute an armed attack against the other party.

Parties shall settle all international disputes by peaceful rather than forceful means. Parties shall use fora such as the NATO-Russia Council to address issues or settle problems. Parties shall establish telephone hotlines.

NATO poses no threat to Russia.

NATO believes that tensions and disagreements must be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy, rather than through the threat or use of force. NATO calls for Russia's immediate de-escalation around Ukraine. 

NATO supports re-establishing NATO and Russian mutual presence in Moscow and Brussels and establishing a civilian telephone hotline.

Sources: Articles 1 and 3, Russia Proposal to U.S.; Articles 1, 2, and 3, Russia Proposal to NATO; Articles 1, 2, and 7, NATO Response to Russia
NATO Expansion

All NATO member states shall commit to prohibit any further NATO expansion, to include denying the accession of Ukraine. The United States shall not establish military bases in or develop bilateral military cooperation with former USSR states who are not part of NATO. 

The United States and NATO are committed to supporting NATO's open door policy. The United States is willing to discuss reciprocal transparency measures and commitments by both the United States and Russia to not deploy offensive ground-launched missile systems and permanent combat forces in Ukraine.

Sources: Article 4, Russia Proposal to U.S.; Article 6, Russia Proposal to NATO; Pages 1 and 2, U.S. Response to Russia; Article 8, NATO Response to Russia
Military Maneuvers and Exercises 

Parties shall regularly inform each other about military exercises and main provisions of their military doctrines.

Parties shall not deploy armed forces in areas where the deployment could be perceived by the other party as a threat to its national security (except when the deployment is within the national territories of the parties).

Parties shall not fly heavy bombers (whether nuclear or non-nuclear) or deploy surface warships in areas outside national airspace and national territorial waters where they can strike targets in the territory of the other party. 

Parties shall maintain dialogue to prevent dangerous military activities at sea.

NATO calls for Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova.

The United States is prepared to discuss confidence building measures regarding ground-based military exercises in Europe (to include modernization of the Vienna Document) and to explore an enhanced exercise notification regime and nuclear risk reduction measures (including strategic nuclear bomber platforms).

The United States and NATO are prepared to explore measures to prevent incidents at sea and in the air (to include discussing enhancements in the Incidents at Sea Agreement and the Vienna Document).

Sources: Article 5, Russia Proposal to U.S.; Articles 2, 3, and 7, Russia Proposal to NATO; Pages 2 and 3, U.S. Response to Russia; Articles 8 and 9, NATO Response to Russia
Reaffirmation of UN Charter

Parties shall ensure that all international organizations or military alliances in which at least one party participates adhere to the principles contained in the United Nations Charter. 

NATO remains committed to the fundamental principles and agreements underpinning European security, including the United Nations Charter.

Sources: Article 2, Russia Proposal to U.S.; Article 8, Russia Proposal to NATO; Article 3, NATO Response to Russia

 

A chart outlining proposals put forward by the three parties to resolve differences over Ukraine and European security.

Russia’s War on Ukraine and the Risk of Nuclear Escalation: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

Sections:

Body: 

Volume 14, Issue 3, Feb. 28, 2022

Media Contacts: Daryl Kimball, executive director (202-463-8270 x107); Shannon Bugos, senior policy analyst (202-463-8270 x113)

Disponible en español

In the midst of his catastrophic, premeditated military assault on Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin Feb. 27 ordered Russia’s nuclear forces to move to a higher state of alert of “a special regime of combat duty,” unnecessarily escalating an already dangerous situation created by his indefensible decision to invade another sovereign nation.

By choosing the path of destruction rather than diplomacy, Putin has launched a violent military assault that threatens millions of innocent civilians in independent, democratic Ukraine.

Putin has also sharpened tensions between Russia and member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), increased the risk of conflict elsewhere on the European continent, and derailed past and potential future progress on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, possibly for years to come.

Putin’s order to put Russia’s nuclear forces on higher alert is not a complete surprise given his previous implied threats against any nation that tried to stop him in Ukraine.

But clearly, inserting nuclear weapons into the Ukraine war equation at this point is extremely dangerous. It is essential that U.S. President Joe Biden along with NATO leaders act with extreme restraint and not respond in kind. This is a very dangerous moment in this crisis, and all leaders, particularly Putin, need to step back from the nuclear brink.

In justifying his actions, Putin has pointed to longtime grievances, such as NATO’s expansion eastward, and the specious claim that Kyiv has plans to build nuclear weapons or obtain them from the United States. Ukraine was neither headed for NATO membership any time soon nor seeking a nuclear weapons capability. Ukraine did not pose the kind of threat that Putin claimed to justify his invasion.

Tragically, Putin also bypassed diplomatic options that could have addressed many of Russia’s stated security concerns in Europe.

In December, Moscow transmitted to each the United States and NATO a proposal on security guarantees, which included several nonstarters, such as a prohibition on allowing Ukraine to join NATO.

Nevertheless, the Russian proposal, as well as the U.S. and NATO counterproposals, highlighted potential areas for negotiations to resolve mutual security concerns. Yet, with the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has made any further progress on arms control and risk reduction impossible, at least for the time being.

The 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which is the only remaining treaty limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, expires in four years, which is a short period of time for negotiating and securing the necessary domestic support for a replacement arrangement.

As we wrote last week, “Although Putin’s regime must suffer international isolation now, U.S. and Russian leaders must eventually seek to resume talks through their stalled strategic security dialogue to defuse broader NATO-Russia tensions and maintain common sense arms control measures to prevent an all-out arms race.”

Below are answers to frequently asked questions about Putin’s war in Ukraine, Russia’s nuclear weapons, and the risks of escalation.—DARYL G. KIMBALL, executive director, and SHANNON BUGOS, senior policy analyst


What did Putin say, what does it mean, and how should we respond?

Putin’s statement is probably designed to reinforce his earlier implied threats that were clearly designed to try to ward off any military interference in his attack on Ukraine, a non-nuclear weapon state.

“Western countries aren’t only taking unfriendly economic actions against our country, but leaders of major NATO countries are making aggressive statements about our country,” Putin said Feb. 27 in a meeting with defense officials. “So, I order to move Russia’s deterrence forces to a special regime of combat duty.”

A few days prior in his speech announcing his decision to invade Ukraine, Putin threatened any country that “tries to stand in our way or all the more so create threats for our country and our people” with consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history.”

Putin’s threat is unprecedented in the post-Cold War era—and unacceptable. There has been no instance in which a U.S. or a Russian leader has raised the alert level of their nuclear forces in the middle of a crisis in order to try to coerce the other side's behavior.

The White House and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg immediately denounced the move but did not indicate they would follow suit.

“This is really a pattern that we’ve seen from President Putin through the course of this conflict, which is manufacturing threats that don’t exist in order to justify further aggression,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki commented Feb. 27. “At no point has Russia been under threat from NATO [or] has Russia been under threat from Ukraine.”

“We have the ability to defend ourselves,” assured Psaki.

“This is dangerous rhetoric,” Stoltenberg said. “This is a behavior which is irresponsible.”

It is not clear at this point, however, what changes to Russian operational readiness Putin has put into motion. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reportedly told Putin Feb. 28 that all nuclear command posts have been boosted with additional personnel.

Yet, one senior U.S. defense cautioned that while there is “no reason to doubt the validity of this order[,]…how it’s manifested itself I don’t think is completely clear yet.”

Pavel Podvig, director of the Russian Nuclear Forces Project, tweeted Feb. 27 that he is unsure that “we are dealing with elevated readiness level,” adding that, in his view, “it’s different.” Rather, he proposed that Putin’s order “most likely…means that the nuclear command and control system received what is known as a preliminary command.” This type of command, Podvig described, brings the nuclear systems into a working condition, but it “is not something that suggests that Russia is preparing itself to strike first.”

“The basic idea here is clearly to scare ‘the West’ into backing down. But part [of] the danger here is that it's not clear to me Putin has a clear de-escalation pathway in mind (except for the capitulation of Ukraine),” tweeted James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

What Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons also underscores is that nuclear weapons cannot prevent nuclear-armed states from launching major wars and that they increase the risk of an armed conflict between nuclear-armed states and nuclear-armed alliances. Rather than increasing security, they increase the danger of war by way of fostering the possibility of miscalculation and advertent or inadvertent escalation.

In the case of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Putin is essentially using the threat of nuclear weapons as a cover for his massive invasion of a non-nuclear weapons state. Key U.S. officials share the view that nuclear weapons can provide cover for projecting conventional military force. Admiral Charles Richard, head of U.S. Strategic Command, said in remarks published in February 2021 that "We must acknowledge the foundation nature of our nation's strategic nuclear forces, as they create the 'maneuver space' for us to project conventional military power strategically."


Have U.S. or Russian leaders made any similar nuclear threats against one another since the end of the Cold War?

No. Putin’s public implied nuclear threats toward NATO and the United States and his decision to raise the alert status of Russia’s nuclear forces is unprecedented in the post-Cold War era.

However, during the Cold War, between 1948 and 1961 as well as the the period between the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and into the mid-1970s, there were numerous nuclear threats and alerts designed to change the behavior of adversaries.

For example, President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger developed what he called the "madman theory," which posited that threatening massive, even excessive, levels of military violence, including nuclear attacks, would intimidate the North Vietnamese and their patrons in the Soviet Union into submission at the negotiating table.

On Oct. 9, 1969, Nixon and Kissinger instructed the Pentagon to place U.S. nuclear and other military forces around the globe on alert, and to do so secretly. For 18 days in October of that year, the Pentagon carried out one of the largest and most extensive secret military operations in U.S. history. Tactical and strategic bomber forces and submarines armed with Polaris missiles went on alert. This "Joint Chiefs Readiness Test" culminated in a flight of nuclear-armed B-52 bombers over northern Alaska.

The secret 1969 U.S. nuclear alert, though certainly noticed by Soviet leaders, failed to pressure them into helping Nixon win concessions from Hanoi. Nixon switched his Vietnam strategy from one of intimidation to one of steady troop withdrawals and Vietnamization—reinforced by rapprochement with China and détente with the Soviet Union. In the end, he exited Vietnam only after negotiating an unsatisfactory armistice agreement.

In the past, similar nuclear gambits have failed to work as intended. Such threats are unlikely to succeed when the side threatened possesses its own nuclear weapons capabilities, when a non-nuclear state or a guerrilla or terror group is presumably under the protection of a nuclear state, or when the nuclear threat is disproportionate and therefore not credible because it is aimed at a small country or non-state actor.


How many nuclear weapons do Russia, the United States, and NATO currently have?

The United States deploys 1,389 strategic warheads on 665 strategic delivery systems, and Russia deploys 1,458 strategic nuclear warheads on 527 strategic delivery systems as of September 2021 and according to the counting rules established by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Both countries are currently modernizing their nuclear delivery systems.

Strategic warheads are counted using the provisions of New START, which Biden and Putin agreed to extend for five years in January 2021 but will expire in 2026. New START caps each country at 1,550 strategic warheads deployed on 700 delivery systems, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers assigned a nuclear mission.

The U.K. and France, also NATO members, are estimated to possess 225 nuclear warheads and 290 respectively.

The United States also has an estimated 160 B-61 nuclear gravity bombs that are forward-deployed across six NATO bases in five European countries: Italy, Germany, Turkey, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The total estimated U.S. B-61 stockpile amounts to 230.

In addition, Russia is believed to have an estimated 1,900 non-strategic, or tactical, nuclear weapons, all of which are thought to be in central storage, not deployed in the field.

Russia, like the United States, keeps its land-based ICBMs on a high state of readiness at all times, and it is believed that Russia’s SLBMs, like the U.S. forces, are similarly postured. The ICBM forces of both countries are maintained on a “launch-under-attack” posture, meaning they can be launched within minutes of an authorized “go” order by either leader and can arrive at their targets within 20 minutes or less. This posture leaves each side with very little time to make a decision about launching a retaliatory strike if they detect a launch of strategic nuclear weapons against their forces, which creates the risk that a false alarm could trigger nuclear war.

Sea-based strategic nuclear weapons, which are extremely hard to detect and destroy, can be fired nearly as quickly at their targets depending on their location. Other systems, such as strategic bomber-based weapons, take relatively more time to arm with nuclear weapons and reach their target launch points, but bombers can be recalled for a period of time after launch orders are given.


What are the policies governing U.S. and Russian nuclear use?

Both U.S. and Russian presidents have sole authority to authorize the use of nuclear weapons, meaning they do not require concurrence from their respective military and security advisers or by other elected representatives of the people.

Current U.S. and Russian military strategies reserve the option to use nuclear weapons first. In Russia’s case, its military policy allows for the president to order the use of nuclear weapons if the state is at risk or possibly if Russia is losing a major war. The theory is that a “limited” use of nuclear weapons could halt an adversary’s advances or even tip the balance back in favor of the losing side.

Some U.S. officials have argued for deployment of additional types of “more usable” low-yield nuclear weapons in the arsenal. However, even what are deemed low-yield nuclear weapons today still hold immense power. For instance, the low-yield W76-2, a new warhead deployed in late 2019 for U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles, is estimated to have an explosive yield of five kilotons, roughly one-third the yield of the bomb that the United States dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

But once nuclear weapons are used in a conflict involving nuclear-armed adversaries—even if on a so-called “limited scale” involving a handful of “smaller” Hiroshima-sized bombs—there is no guarantee the conflict would not escalate and become a global nuclear conflagration.

Biden and Putin both seem to understand that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” a statement originally endorsed in 1985 by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and reiterated by the five countries with the largest nuclear arsenals in January 2022.

The former head of U.S. Strategic Command, Gen. John Hyten, described in 2018 how the command’s annual nuclear command and control and field training always ends. “It ends bad,” he said. “And the bad meaning it ends with global nuclear war.”

However, such a recognition among leaders does not mean a nuclear war will not break out. After all, Putin has demonstrated that he is an extreme risk-taker.

To reduce the risk of nuclear war and draw a strong distinction between Putin's irresponsible nuclear threats and U.S. behavior, Biden should adjust U.S. declaratory policy by clarifying that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter the first use of nuclear weapons by others. A sole purpose policy would rule out the use of nuclear weapons in a preemptive strike or in response to a non-nuclear attack on the United States or its allies, increase strategic stability, and reduce the risk of nuclear war.

In fact, during the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs: “As I said in 2017, I believe that the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring—and, if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack. As president, I will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with the U.S. military and U.S. allies.”

Ultimately, even the best intentions of one side cannot ensure that the interests of all to prevent the use of nuclear weapons will win out. Therefore, the only action that can actually prevent the use of nuclear weapons is the removal of these weapons from the battlefield and their verifiable elimination.


What would be the effects from an outbreak of nuclear war?

Beyond the many dangers to the millions of innocent people caught in Putin’s war of choice against Ukraine, there is also an increased risk that the war might lead to an even more severe, if unintentional, escalatory spiral involving NATO and Russian forces, both of which have nuclear weapons at their disposal.

The indiscriminate and horrific effects of nuclear weapons use are well-established, which is why the vast majority of the world’s nations consider policies that threaten nuclear use to be dangerous, immoral, and legally unjustifiable and consequently have developed the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

If Russian or NATO leaders chose to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict in Europe, the result could be a quick escalation from a local disaster into a European nuclear war and then a global catastrophe. Millions, perhaps tens of millions, would die in the first 45 minutes.

A detailed study published in 2002 assessed the direct consequences of a major conflict between the United and Russia.

The study concluded that if 350 of the strategic nuclear warheads in the Russian arsenal reached major industrial and military targets in the United States, an estimated 70 to 100 million people would die in the first hours from the explosions and fires.

The U.S. president could quickly retaliate with as many as 1,350 nuclear weapons on long range missiles and bombers and, in consultation with allies, another 160 nuclear gravity bombs on shorter-range fighter-bombers based in five NATO countries in Europe.

Many more people would be exposed to lethal doses of radiation. The entire economic infrastructure of the country would be destroyed—the internet, the electric grid, the food distribution system, the health system, the banking system, and the transportation network.

In the following weeks and months, the vast majority of those who did not die in the initial attack would succumb to starvation, exposure, radiation poisoning, and epidemic disease. A U.S. counterattack would cause the same level of destruction in Russia, and if NATO forces were involved in the war, Canada and Europe would also suffer a similar fate.

More recent scientific studies indicate that the dust and soot produced by a nuclear exchange of 100-200 detonations would create lasting and potentially catastrophic climactic effects that would devastate food production and lead to famine in many parts of the world.


What are the past and present arms control treaties that have limited U.S. and Soviet/Russian nuclear weapons? What is the status of those treaties?

During the Cold War and after, arms control agreements helped to win and maintain the peace.

However, there has been growing mistrust between Russia and the West in recent years, leading to and fueling the loss of pivotal conventional and nuclear arms control and/or risk reduction treaties through negligence, noncompliance, or outright withdrawal.

Some of these treaties, which have acted as guardrails preventing the outbreak of catastrophic conventional and nuclear wars, included:

In the absence of these agreements, cooperation between the parties has eroded, concerns about military capabilities have grown, and the risk of miscalculation skyrocketed.

Of note is also the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits nuclear test explosions and established a global monitoring and verification network. The treaty has 185 signatories, including China, Russia, and the United States. During the course of the nuclear age, at least eight states conducted more than 2,000 nuclear weapon test blasts above ground, underground, and underwater. The CTBT has effectively halted nuclear test explosions. However, the treaty is not yet in force due to the failure of eight states to ratify, leaving the door to nuclear testing in the future ajar.

In addition, the United States and the Soviet Union—and later Russia—negotiated a series of treaties that capped and eventually reversed the nuclear arms race. These included:

  • The 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I): Though important as the first such treaty, it only slowed the growth of the two countries’ long-range nuclear arsenals. It ignored nuclear-armed strategic bombers and did not cap warhead numbers, leaving both sides free to enlarge their forces by deploying multiple warheads onto their missiles and increasing their bomber-based forces.
  • The 1979 SALT II: This treaty was never formally ratified because the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan later that year, but Reagan agreed to respect its limits.
  • The 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I): This agreement, which expired in December 2009, was the first to require the United States and the Soviet Union to reduce their strategic deployed arsenals and destroy excess delivery systems through an intrusive verification involving on-site inspections, the regular exchange of information, and the use of national technical means (i.e., satellites). START I was delayed for several years due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and ensuing efforts to denuclearize Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus by returning their nuclear weapons to Russia and making them non-nuclear weapons states under the nuclear 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and parties to START I.
  • The 1993 START II: This treaty called for further cuts in deployed strategic arsenals and banned the deployment of destabilizing multiple-warhead land-based missiles. However, it never entered into force due to the U.S. withdrawal in 2002 from the ABM Treaty.
  • The 1997 START III Framework: This framework for a third START included a reduction in deployed strategic warheads to 2,000-2,500. Significantly, in addition to requiring the destruction of delivery vehicles, START III negotiations were to address “the destruction of strategic nuclear warheads…to promote the irreversibility of deep reductions including prevention of a rapid increase in the number of warheads.” Negotiations were supposed to begin after START II entered into force, which never happened.
  • The 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT or Moscow Treaty): This treaty required the United States and Russia to reduce their strategic arsenals to 1,700-2,200 warheads each. Unfortunately, it did not include a treaty-specific verification and monitoring regime. SORT was replaced by New START Feb. 5, 2011 .
  • The 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START): This legally binding, verifiable agreement limits each side to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 700 strategic ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers assigned a nuclear mission. The treaty has a strong verification regime. The United States and Russia agreed Feb. 3, 2021, to extend New START by five years, as allowed by the treaty text, until Feb. 5, 2026.

As a result of these agreements, the total stockpiles of the two countries have been slashed from their peaks in the mid-1980s at almost 70,000 nuclear weapons to about 10,000 total U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons today. Plus, we no longer live in a world in which nuclear-armed states are detonating nuclear test explosions to perfect new and more deadly types of nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, the United States and Russia still currently possess far more nuclear weapons than necessary to destroy one another many times over and more than enough to deter a nuclear attack from the other.

Consequently, the United States and Russia should further reduce their nuclear stockpiles and work to get other nuclear-armed countries involved in the process and eventually in the agreements. In 2013, for instance, the Obama administration found that the United States could further cut its deployed nuclear arsenal to about 1,000 without sacrificing U.S. or allied security.

Unless Washington and Moscow resume talks to reach a new agreement to replace New START before its expiration, there will be no limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972—and we risk an all-out nuclear arms race once again.

Admittedly, however, Putin’s destructive, indefensible war on Ukraine will make that task much tougher.


How should the United States and NATO respond to Putin’s threat and minimize the risk of an outbreak of nuclear war?

The danger of miscalculation and escalation, including to the nuclear level, among adversaries is real and high.

Though Russia has yet to locate military forces along the Ukrainian-Polish border, for instance, there is a possibility that Russian and NATO forces will engage militarily, prompting the situation to quickly spin further out of control.

There is also the potential for close military encounters elsewhere involving U.S./NATO and Russian aircraft, warships, and submarines.

In the days and weeks and months ahead, leaders in Moscow, Washington, and Europe, as well as military commanders in the field, must be careful to avoid new and destabilizing military deployments, dangerous encounters between Russian and NATO forces, and the introduction of new types of conventional or nuclear weapons that undermine shared security interests.

For example, the offer from Russia’s client state, Belarus, to host Russian tactical nuclear weapons, if pursued by Putin, would further undermine Russian and European security and increase the risk of nuclear war. Unfortunately, Belarus voted Feb. 27 in a referendum to abandon its status as a non-nuclear state.


How can the United States and Russia get nuclear arms reduction efforts back on track?

Due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin’s regime will and should face the consequences and suffer international isolation imposed through a strong and unified front.

For the time being, this isolation includes a suspension of the bilateral U.S.-Russian strategic stability dialogue, which Biden and Putin resumed in June 2021 and last convened in early January 2022.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman confirmed Feb. 26 that Washington will not proceed with the dialogue under the current circumstances, saying that she sees “no reason” to do so. The day prior, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said that while “arms control is something that will continue to be in our national security interest,…we don’t have another iteration of the Strategic Stability Dialogue planned.”

Eventually, however, U.S. and Russian leaders must seek to resume talks through their bilateral strategic security dialogue in order to prevent even greater NATO-Russia tensions and maintain common-sense arms control and risk reduction measures.

The Russian proposal on security guarantees from December 2021 and the U.S. (as well as NATO) counterproposal from January 2022 contain areas of overlap, demonstrating that there is room for negotiations to resolve mutual security concerns. The areas with the most promise are related to crafting a new agreement similar to the now-defunct INF Treaty; negotiating a follow-on to New START; agreeing to scale back large military exercises; and establishing risk reduction and transparency measures, such as hotlines.

Washington must test whether Moscow is serious about such options and, if possible, restart the strategic stability dialogue—and they must try to do so before New START expires in early 2026, else the next showdown will be even riskier.

In the long run, U.S., Russian, and European leaders—and their people—cannot lose sight of the fact that war and the threat of nuclear war are the common enemies. Russia and the West have a shared interest in striking agreements that further slash bloated strategic nuclear forces, regulate shorter-range “battlefield” nuclear arsenals, and set limits on long-range missile defenses.


Should Ukraine have kept its nuclear weapons that it inherited from the Soviet Union? Will Ukraine seek to have nuclear weapons once again?

Putin’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and the current invasion violate the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances.

In 1994, the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom signed this important agreement, which extended security assurances against the threat or use of force against Ukraine’s territory or political independence. In return, the newly independent Ukraine acceded to the nuclear 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear-weapon state and gave up the 1,900 nuclear warheads it inherited from the Soviet Union.

Ukraine did not have operational control of and could not have safely maintained those nuclear weapons. Any attempt by Kyiv to keep these nuclear weapons would only have resulted in greater danger for Ukraine, Europe, and the world.

Arguments that a nuclear-armed Ukraine would be safer today are fallacies, as are any claims that Kyiv seeks to build or obtain nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons do not make anyone safer and instead pose an existential threat to all of us.

Putin’s takeover of Crimea in 2014 and this new, massive invasion in 2022 serve to undermine the NPT and reinforce the unfortunate impression that nuclear-armed states can bully non-nuclear states, thereby reducing the incentives for nuclear disarmament and making it more difficult to prevent nuclear proliferation.

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Although Putin's regime must suffer international isolation now, U.S. and Russian leaders must eventually seek to resume talks through their stalled strategic security dialogue to defuse broader NATO-Russia tensions and maintain common sense arms control measures to prevent an all-out arms race.

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