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"I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them."

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
Daryl Kimball

No Viable ‘Nuclear Option’ for Russia in Ukraine


October 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

50 Years of Bilateral Nuclear Arms Control and Much More to Be Done

Inside the Arms Control Association September 2022 Five decades ago, the first bilateral nuclear arms control agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union were concluded: the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and the Interim Agreement on Strategic Arms Limitations (SALT), the latter being approved by a joint Congressional resolution and signed by President Richard Nixon in September 1972. “This is not an agreement which guarantees that there will be no war,” Nixon said. “But it is the beginning of a process that is enormously important, that will limit now and, we hope, later...

An Opening for Renewed Disarmament Diplomacy


September 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball

In addition to increasing human suffering and reminding the world of the risks of nuclear weapons, the Russian war on Ukraine halted U.S. and Russian arms control talks that are necessary to maintain verifiable caps on, perhaps even reduce, the world’s largest nuclear arsenals. But now there is an opportunity for renewing disarmament diplomacy.

Photo by Vasily Maximov/AFP via Getty Images)U.S. President Joe Biden, building on his letter to the Arms Control Association on June 2 in which he said that “our progress must continue beyond the New START [New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] extension,” issued a statement on Aug. 1 at the start of the 10th review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in which he declared, “Even at the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were able to work together to uphold our shared responsibility to ensure strategic stability. Today, my administration is ready to expeditiously negotiate a new arms control framework to replace New START when it expires in 2026. But negotiation requires a willing partner operating in good faith.”

This call for further nuclear arms control negotiations was welcomed by dozens of states at the NPT review conference, where frustration over the deficit in disarmament diplomacy ran high. Importantly, the United States and Russia agreed in the draft NPT document “to pursue negotiations in good faith on a successor framework to New START before its expiration in 2026, in order to achieve deeper, irreversible, and verifiable reductions in their nuclear arsenals.” Despite Russia’s decision to block consensus on the draft NPT document over other issues, both sides should follow through on the New START follow-on talks.

Without new arrangements to supersede New START, there will be no limits on the size or composition of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972. Moreover, efforts to engage China and the other nuclear-armed states in the disarmament enterprise will fall flat, and the dangers of unconstrained global nuclear arms racing will only grow.

Although Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin say they want to negotiate new arms reduction agreements, they have not resumed their dialogue, and each suggests progress depends on the other.

Russia says it supports New START and talks on follow-on agreements, but first wants more details on the Biden administration’s proposal for talks. Complicating matters, Russia announced on Aug. 8 that it would not allow the resumption of inspections under New START that were suspended in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Russia claims that U.S. travel restrictions make it difficult for Russia to conduct inspections of U.S. nuclear installations while U.S. inspectors do not face similar rules.

Given that the war in Ukraine could drag on indefinitely and that time is running short on New START, it is imperative that Moscow and Washington immediately resolve the differences blocking the restart of New START inspections and begin negotiations, without conditions, on new arms control arrangements to supersede New START.

The key objective should be deeper, verifiable reductions to a total of 1,000 deployed strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems per side, which would be roughly a 33 percent decrease from the levels in New START.

New understandings need not be expressed as formal treaties that require approval by the Russian Duma and the gridlocked U.S. Senate. Binding executive agreements, like the first U.S.-Soviet arms control deal, would suffice.

At a minimum, U.S. and Russian leaders should issue unilateral reciprocal commitments to respect the central limits of New START until such time as new agreements that supersede New START are concluded. With the recent collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, negotiators also should pursue a verifiable moratorium on the deployment in Europe of missiles formerly banned by the treaty.

Progress will not be easy and political support is not assured. With the Dr. Strangelove Caucus in Congress already clamoring for the United States to abandon New START, the Biden administration and nongovernmental organizations committed to nuclear risk reduction need to expand their efforts.

Franklin Miller, a former Defense Department official, argues that, in response to China and Russia, the United States should withdraw from New START to allow a buildup from the current level of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads to 3,000 or 3,500. Such radical notions would repudiate 50 years of U.S. policy, violate U.S. legal obligations under the NPT to pursue disarmament, and open the door to a dangerous new era of nuclear arms racing and nuclear proliferation.

Negotiations on a New START follow-on framework are essential to reduce the Russian nuclear threat, constrain a potential Chinese nuclear buildup, and lower the risk of nuclear conflict. Now is the time for Washington and Moscow to resume talks on nuclear arms control. In 1979, Sen. Biden (D-Del.) told an Arms Control Association meeting that “[p]ursuing arms control is not a luxury or a sign of weakness, but an international responsibility and a national necessity.” That was true during the Cold War, and it remains true today.

 

In addition to increasing human suffering and reminding the world of the risks of nuclear weapons, the Russian war on Ukraine halted U.S. and Russian arms control talks that are necessary to maintain verifiable caps on, perhaps even reduce, the world’s largest nuclear arsenals. But now there is an opportunity for renewing disarmament diplomacy.

Russia Blocks NPT Conference Consensus Over Ukraine


September 2022
By Gabriela Rosa Hernández and Daryl G. Kimball

Russia blocked the 2022 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference from reaching consensus on a substantive outcome document on Aug. 26 because of differences over the nuclear safety crisis caused by the Russian occupation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine.

Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzya (L) and Chinese Ambassador to the UN Zhang Jun confer at a UN Security Council meeting on August 24. During that meeting and the concurrent NPT review conference, Russia and Ukraine traded accusations about the nuclear security crisis engulfing the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine. (Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)At a time of rising nuclear dangers, 151 NPT states-parties worked intensively Aug. 1–26 at UN headquarters to hammer out a document designed to assess implementation of the landmark treaty and identify actions to advance its core goals and objectives of disarmament, nonproliferation, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

But the effort to agree on a joint declaration collapsed in the final hours of the conference when Russia demanded changes to several paragraphs in the 35-page draft outcome document, including those that stressed “the importance of ensuring control by Ukraine’s competent authorities” of the Zaporizhzhia facility.

Ukraine and dozens of other countries originally sought explicit references to Russia’s responsibility for the deterioration of safety at the nuclear plant, which was seized by Russia in March.

Russian and Ukrainian officials exchanged accusations over the course of the conference and in a special session of the UN Security Council on Aug. 10 about who bore responsibility for the shelling of the Zaporizhzhia facility, which remains occupied by Russian military forces. The text was modified in an effort to strike an acceptable balance, but in the end, Russia was alone in opposing the compromise language.

The result marks the second consecutive NPT review conference that failed to reach consensus on a final outcome document. Given the growing tensions among the five nuclear-armed NPT member states, the conference conclusion was not surprising. Never before has an NPT conference been convened in the midst of a major war in Europe involving one of the treaty’s three depositary states: the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia.

In remarks following the meeting, conference president Gustavo Zlauvinen said that, despite the failure to reach consensus, “this should not detract from the fact that the states have engaged in sustained, in-depth negotiations…that brought us extremely close to an outcome document that contained agreed actions steps. This shows the commitment by all delegations to the treaty” and “provides a basis for momentum going forward.”

Zlauvinen cited the conference agreement on a procedural measure “to establish a working group to strengthen the review cycle to achieve more transparency and accountability and to accelerate the actions states have agreed to pursue.”

The conference breakdown also elicited expressions of disappointment and determination from many of the states-parties.“[T]he NPT will remain a fundamental and irreplaceable cornerstone of the rules-based order,” insisted Adam Scheinman, head of the U.S. delegation, in a closing statement on Aug. 26. “This month has shown that while we still have much work to do, we do agree on more than we disagree, and we are prepared to define ourselves by what we hold in common rather than by what divides us.”

Russia may have been alone in blocking consensus, but it was not the only nuclear-weapon state that resisted making clear commitments to fulfill NPT goals. As time ran out on the conference, many states-parties expressed unhappiness with various elements of the Aug. 25 draft final outcome document, but chose not to oppose consensus. Many non-nuclear-weapon states were displeased with the lack of ambition in the disarmament action plan after years of inaction.

“Costa Rica was prepared to join the consensus on the final document because of our commitment to the treaty…. In truth, the document was well below our expectations, falling short on concrete measures to advance us toward nuclear disarmament,” Maritza Chan, the Costa Rican ambassador to the United Nations, said in her closing statement on Aug. 26.

In his closing comments, Alexander Kmentt, the head of the Austrian delegation to the conference, noted “the dramatic trust and confidence deficit among some nuclear-weapon states.” They can agree on very little, he said, except the one area of “no forward movement on nuclear disarmament. This damages the NPT, puts the norm against the proliferation of nuclear weapons under duress, and reinforces the credibility deficit of this treaty on the implementation of [NPT] Article VI,” on disarmament.

In the final week of the conference, Zlauvinen invited the Finnish delegation to convene consultations involving some two dozen key states to try to iron out consensus language on the thorniest issues. Those negotiations included the NPT’s five nuclear-armed states (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the United States); the New Agenda Coalition (Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Egypt); Indonesia, which chairs the Non-Aligned Movement; Austria; Iran; Japan; the Netherlands; Sweden; and Switzerland.

For example, the NPT states-parties could not agree on whether the conference should condemn recent threats of nuclear weapons use issued by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 24 and April 27 in the context of the Russian war on Ukraine. As Zlauvinen reminded delegates at the opening of the conference, “[W]e live in a time when the unthinkable—the use of nuclear weapons—is no longer unthinkable.”

Representatives from France, the UK, and the United States, along with their NATO allies, also criticized Putin’s nuclear threats and wanted the conference to condemn “irresponsible rhetoric concerning potential nuclear use intended for military coercion, intimidation, or blackmail” but not nuclear threats that “serve defensive purposes, deter aggression and prevent war,” according to a working paper issued by the three countries on July 29.

Many non-nuclear-weapon states, including Austria, Costa Rica, and Ireland, argued that such attempts to distinguish between nuclear threats are unhelpful and that all threats of nuclear use must be condemned as contrary to international law and the UN Charter. In the end, states could only agree that the final draft should commit the nuclear-weapon states “to refrain from any inflammatory rhetoric concerning the use of nuclear weapons.”

The topic of naval nuclear propulsion also drew significant attention. China and Indonesia expressed concerns about the nonproliferation implications of the AUKUS initiative announced in September 2021, by which the United States and the UK would share advanced nuclear submarine propulsion technology with Australia. The project will likely involve highly enriched uranium, which can be used for nuclear weapons, and creates unique challenges for maintaining International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards on the nuclear material.

A small group negotiated compromise text on this issue that simply noted “the topic of naval nuclear propulsion is of interest to the states-parties to the treaty” and “the importance of a transparent and open dialogue on this topic.”

The Chinese delegation also opposed references in the draft calling for a voluntary halt of fissile material production for nuclear weapons purposes, pending negotiation of a fissile material cutoff treaty.

Several state-parties called attention to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which prohibits all nuclear weapons activities and aims to ban all nuclear weapons, as a mechanism that could encourage nuclear-weapon states to implement their NPT Article VI obligations. The draft text acknowledged the entry into force of the TPNW in 2021.

One of the most significant agreed elements in the draft conference outcome document was a pledge by Russia and the United States to fully implement the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) "and to pursue negotiations in good faith on a successor framework to New START before its expiration in 2026, in order to achieve deeper, irreversible, and verifiable reductions in their nuclear arsenals.”

Although the review conference failed to formally reach consensus, several states expressed hope that Washington and Moscow would fulfill their pledges to resume negotiations to further reduce the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals.

States-parties agreed that the next NPT review conference will be in 2026 with the next preparatory meeting in 2023.

Despite the disappointing outcome, NPT states-parties still hope Russia and the United States will honor pledges to resume nuclear negotiations.

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