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"The Arms Control Association’s work is an important resource to legislators and policymakers when contemplating a new policy direction or decision."

– General John Shalikashvili
former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Arms Control Today

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.

Ukraine Seeks Protection Against Possible Chemical Attack


May 2022
By Leanne Quinn

Ukraine, preparing to defend against Russian capabilities, has requested bilateral assistance and protection against chemical weapons from the members of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the international treaty that bans the use of chemical weapons.

Among those responding to Ukrainian requests for help to protect against possible Russian chemical weapons attacks is Direct Relief, a California-based humanitarian organization. The group has sent more than 220,000 vials of atropine, which can counter the effects of nerve agents. (Photo by Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Western officials have repeatedly voiced concerns about the potential for a chemical incident or attack in Ukraine. (See ACT, April 2022.)

Ukraine on March 18 submitted a letter to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international chemical weapons watchdog requesting bilateral assistance from CWC states-parties to protect Ukraine against chemical weapons.

Article X of the CWC provides that any member state can request assistance and protection against the use or threat of use of chemical weapons, including riot control agents.

The letter directed states-parties to contact the Embassy of Ukraine in The Hague to coordinate the provision of assistance and detection equipment, alarm systems, protective equipment, decontamination equipment, medical antidotes and treatments, and advice on protective measures.

In a March 24 joint statement, NATO heads of state promised that the allies would “continue to provide assistance [to Ukraine] in such areas as cybersecurity and protection against threats of a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear nature.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed on April 4 that the United States is providing Ukraine with “lifesaving equipment and supplies that could be deployed in the event of Russian use of a chemical or biological weapon against Ukraine.”

That same day, the United States confirmed it had contributed $250,000 to the OPCW Trust Fund for Implementation of Article X and earmarked the money to provide protection and assistance to Ukraine should chemical weapons be used in the conflict. France contributed $949,000 to the trust fund.

Direct Relief, a California-based humanitarian organization, announced on April 8 that it had fulfilled a request from the Ukrainian Ministry of Health for vials of atropine, a drug that can counter the effects of nerve agents such as sarin. More than 220,000 vials of the drug were delivered to Ukraine from a Direct Relief distribution warehouse in Santa Barbara.

Meanwhile, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said during an April 7 press briefing that the organization was making contingency plans for “all scenarios” that could impact Ukrainians, from “treatment of mass casualties to chemical assaults.”

During that same briefing, Heather Papowitz, a WHO incident manager in Ukraine, said that WHO has trained more than 1,500 health workers and partners in Ukraine on how to respond to chemical hazards and has provided guidelines and supplies.

That same day, foreign ministers from the Group of Seven countries and the EU high representative issued a joint statement starkly warning Russia to refrain from using chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.

“We warn against any threat of use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. We recall Russia’s obligations under international treaties of which it is a party, and which protect us all. Any use by Russia of such weapons should be unacceptable and result in severe consequences,” the statement said.

 

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Western officials have voiced concern about the potential for a chemical incident or attack in the war-torn country.

AUKUS to Collaborate on Hypersonics


May 2022
By Shannon Bugos

Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have agreed to collaborate on accelerating the development of advanced hypersonic and counter-hypersonic capabilities in an expansion of the initial scope of their trilateral security partnership.

An artist’s rendering of the Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept system, which the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said in mid-March had been successfully tested. (Illustration by DARPA)This partnership, known as AUKUS, “committed today to commence new trilateral cooperation on hypersonics and counter-hypersonics, and electronic warfare capabilities, as well as to expand information sharing and to deepen cooperation on defense innovation,” according to a joint statement by U.S. President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Johnson on April 5.

AUKUS was launched in September 2021 with a pledge by Washington and London to equip Canberra with conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines. (See ACT, November and October 2021.) The three countries also agreed to work together in four areas of advanced capabilities—cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and undersea capabilities—in recognition of their “deep defense ties,” according to the joint statement first announcing the AUKUS partnership last year.

The inaugural meetings of the two trilateral joint steering groups were held in December 2021, during which the group on advanced capabilities “discussed other additional capabilities and agreed to identify potential opportunities for collaboration” in addition to the four existing areas. The April announcement marked the first disclosure of how the three countries plan to expand their partnership on new, emerging, and advanced capabilities and technologies.

The partnership emerged with a stated objective to “ensure peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific,” Biden said in September. Thus far, the three members have been careful in not directly attributing the new partnership to shared concerns regarding China, but the connection is widely accepted. Beijing has sharply criticized the initiative from the outset and repeated its criticisms following the April announcement.

The AUKUS partnership “not only increases nuclear proliferation risks and brings shocks to the international nonproliferation system, but also intensifies the arms race and undermines peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on April 6. “Countries in the region should be on a higher alert.”

The AUKUS pledge to collaborate on hypersonic technology came on the same day as the revelation by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of a second successful test of the Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) in mid-March. The agency kept news of the test quiet for about two weeks in order to avoid escalating tensions as Biden traveled to Europe for meetings with NATO, the European Union, and the Group of Seven concerning Russia’s war in Ukraine, a U.S. defense official told CNN.

The second HAWC free flight test featured the Lockheed Martin version of the system, as opposed to the Raytheon version successfully tested in September. (See ACT, November 2021.)

During the March test, the HAWC vehicle was released from a B-52 bomber off the West Coast and was accelerated by a booster engine before the air-breathing scramjet ignited and allowed the vehicle to cruise at speeds higher than Mach 5 for an extended period of time.

This test “successfully demonstrated a second design that will allow our war-fighters to competitively select the right capabilities to dominate the battlefield,” said Andrew Knoedler, HAWC program manager for DARPA.

The forward momentum with the HAWC hypersonic program was contrasted with a major delay in the schedule for the Air Force’s Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) system, which was slated to be the first deployed U.S. hypersonic weapon, with an initial operational date of fiscal year 2022.

An Air Force statement provided to Bloomberg News on April 6 stated that the new operational date has been moved to sometime in the next fiscal year.

The ARRW system failed three flight booster tests, in April, July, and December 2021. The system must successfully complete booster and all-up-round test flights before a contract is awarded to Lockheed Martin to kick-start production.

The Air Force statement noted that, “due to recent flight test anomalies,” the first all-up-round test has been rescheduled to take place between October 1 and December 30 with additional tests later in fiscal year 2023. A January report by the Pentagon’s testing and evaluation office also found that the schedule for the ARRW system “could be delayed due to the limited number and availability of hypersonic flight corridors, target areas, and test support assets.” (See ACT, March 2022.)

The flood of news regarding the development of U.S. hypersonic weapons followed the confirmed Russian use of hypersonic weapons for the first time in combat and the resultant calls by some U.S. officials for the Pentagon to speed up its efforts.

Russia claimed in mid-March that it used Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missiles to destroy an ammunition warehouse in western Ukraine and a fuel depot in southern Ukraine. (See ACT, April 2022.) U.S. Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, head of U.S. European Command, confirmed to the Senate Armed Service Committee at a March 29 hearing that Russian forces have fired “multiple” hypersonic missiles at military targets in Ukraine.

“I think it was to demonstrate the capability and attempt to put fear in the hearts of the enemy,” said Wolters. “I don’t think they were successful.”

Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on April 5 featuring Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, asserted that the United States “is behind our adversaries” with regard to hypersonic weapons, referring to Russia and China.

But Austin cautioned that “we have to be careful” when it comes to claims that the Pentagon is falling behind in developing and deploying these capabilities. “Hypersonics is a capability, but it’s not the only capability,” he responded.

After Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) also claimed that Washington is falling behind in the hypersonic race, Austin questioned the basis for the assertion, asking, “What do you mean we are behind in hypersonics?”

The defense secretary and other Pentagon officials such as Heidi Shyu, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, have met with hypersonics industry executives at least twice this year in order to quicken the pace of hypersonic weapons systems development, which the department has prioritized as a critical technology.

Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States are expanding the focus of their partnership to the development of advanced hypersonics.

North, South Korea Exchange Threats


May 2022
By Kelsey Davenport

North and South Korea exchanged threats in early April as Pyongyang continues to take steps to advance its nuclear weapons capabilities.

Kim Yo Jong (R), a senior North Korean official, seen in 2018 with her brother, leader Kim Jong Un (L), warned South Korea that its recent threats of a preemptive strike on the North are a “very big mistake.” (Photo by Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images)South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook said on April 1 that Seoul can “accurately and swiftly strike any target” in North Korea. He touted “greatly improved” South Korean missile capabilities and said that the country can conduct precision strikes against the “origin of any attack and its command and support facilities.”

South Korea is also working to develop a multilayered missile defense system to ensure that the country can “respond overwhelmingly to the North’s shifting missile threats,” Suh said.

Suh's comments came a week after North Korea claimed it tested a more powerful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). (See ACT, April 2022.)

Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and vice department director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, said in an April 4 statement that Suh’s threats of a preemptive strike on North Korea were a “very big mistake.” If South Korea “opts for military confrontation” with North Korea, “our nuclear combat force will have to inevitabl[y] carry out its duty,” she said. Pyongyang’s nuclear force is primarily for preventing war, but in the event of conflict, will eliminate the enemy’s armed forces, Kim said.

She said South Korea can avoid such a disaster by refraining from “untimely provocation.”

In addition to its recent ICBM test, North Korea is continuing to develop its short-range missile capabilities. The South Korean military confirmed that North Korea tested two short-range systems in the city of Hamhung on the eastern coast of the country on April 16. The missiles flew 68 miles, according to South Korea.

North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) described the system as “a new-type tactical guided weapon” and noted that Kim Jong Un oversaw the test.

The KCNA statement credited the new system with “drastically improving the firepower of the frontline long-range artillery units and enhancing the efficiency in the operation of tactical nukes,” suggesting that the missiles tested are nuclear capable.

The North Korean focus on long- and short-range nuclear-capable ballistic missiles suggests that Kim is seeking the capabilities to deter an attack on North Korea and to repel an invasion, should deterrence fail.

In an April 18 press briefing, U.S. Defense Department press secretary John Kirby called the test a provocation and urged North Korea to refrain from tests. He reiterated that the Biden administration is willing “to sit down in good faith and have a diplomatic discussion about how we denuclearize the Korean peninsula.” He said Pyongyang has answered the administration’s willingness to negotiate without preconditions, “only with more tests.”

Sung Kim, U.S. special envoy for North Korea, reiterated the U.S. willingness to engage in dialogue during an April 18 visit to South Korea, but said that the United States and South Korea also will “maintain the strongest possible joint deterrent capability.” He said the UN Security Council needs to send a “clear signal” to North Korea that “we will not accept its escalatory tests as normal.”

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called for action by the Security Council after the ICBM test on March 24. She said the next day that the United States would be introducing such a resolution.

Although the Security Council has yet to act, the United States on April 1 announced new sanctions targeting the North Korean Ministry of Rocket Industry, which is involved with procuring missile components, and several organizations affiliated with the ministry.

North Korea also appears to be taking preparatory steps in case Kim decides to resume nuclear testing. Satellite imagery of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site shows increased activity at the main administrative area of the facility and indicates that North Korea “has continuously advanced work to restore Tunnel 3” at the site, according to an April 14 analysis from the Open Nuclear Network, a Vienna-based think tank.

North Korea last tested a nuclear weapon in 2017. In April 2018, in an effort to demonstrate North Korean willingness to engage in negotiations with the United States, Kim announced nuclear and long-range missile testing moratoriums. As part of that commitment, North Korea moved to render the site inoperable by blowing up its testing tunnels in May 2018.

Hostile words are flying as North Korea advances its nuclear weapons capabilities.

 

Cluster Munitions Use in Ukraine Spurs U.S. Debate


May 2022
By Jeff Abramson

Spurred by the use of landmines and cluster munitions in the Russian war on Ukraine, Democratic members of the U.S. Congress have called for changes in U.S. policy on such weapons.

After shelling in Lysychansk during the Russian war in Ukraine in April, a man walks past an unexploded tail section of a 300mm rocket which appear to contain cluster bombs launched from a BM-30 Smerch multiple rocket launcher. (Photo by Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)“We strongly believe the credible allegations of Russian use of cluster munitions necessitate a change to the administration’s cluster munitions policy,” 27 representatives said in a letter released April 21.

The group, led by Reps. Bill Keating (Mass.), Jim McGovern (Mass.), and Sara Jacobs (Calif.), argued that past justifications for current U.S. policy, which allows for use of landmines and cluster munitions, “are no longer relevant.”

They pointed to U.S. military efforts to mitigate civilian deaths in war through guided munitions as part of their appeal to President Joe Biden “to take all the necessary steps” to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM).

Earlier, on April 7, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) also called for the United States to join the convention in remarks on Capitol Hill marking international mine awareness day.

The United States, Russia, and Ukraine are not among the 110 states-parties to the CCM. That treaty bans the use of the weapons, which deliver smaller submunitions that often fail to explode as intended and historically have harmed many more civilians than soldiers.

Almost from the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, global concerns were raised about Russian targeting of civilian areas and use of controversial weapons, such as cluster munitions and landmines. In late March, Human Rights Watch reported on Russian use of a recently developed landmine equipped with a sensor to detect approaching persons. It ejects an explosive charge into the air that can kill and maim individuals up to 50 feet away, making it more harmful with its initial blast and more difficult to demine than many other anti-personnel mines. (See ACT, April 2022.)

The president of the Mine Ban Treaty, Alicia Arango Olmos, who is also the Colombian ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, condemned landmine usage in Ukraine, saying on April 5 that it “violates key principles of international humanitarian law and further exacerbates the heavy toll being brought upon the civilian population of Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, The New York Times reported on April 18 that Ukrainian forces had used cluster munitions in Husarivka in eastern Ukraine, the first such reported use by Ukrainian forces since 2015. When asked about Ukraine’s use, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on April 18 that he was not in a position to comment and reiterated U.S. support for Ukraine. Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said the United States could not independently confirm the usage.

As U.S. policymakers argued that condemnations of Moscow would be stronger if Washington would join the treaty banning cluster munitions, similar assertions were made about landmine policy. There have been no commitments by Biden to change cluster munition policy, but his administration’s responses to queries about landmines may indicate a weakening of promises to restrict their use.

A long-time champion of the Mine Ban Treaty, Leahy said in a speech on April 7 that a decision by the United States to join the treaty “would not guarantee that Russia would, but it would greatly enhance our credibility to call out their use of mines.” In June 2021, a bicameral, bipartisan group of 21 members of Congress called on the president to put the United States on the path to joining the treaty, saying it “will enhance our credibility in seeking to stigmatize the use of anti-personnel mines.”

When asked about the utility of mines during a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on April 7, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed to their use in Ukraine, saying that “anti-tank or anti-personnel landmines are very effective.”

That statement appears to run counter to ones made in 2021 by Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the UN, indicating that the Biden administration intended to roll back a Trump-era policy that allowed for the potential use of landmines by U.S. troops anywhere, instead of just on the Korean peninsula, as specified under Obama administration policy. (See ACT, December 2021.) A senior Pentagon official said on April 8 that a review of U.S. landmine policy is still underway and “could be informed by this conflict.”

Although the United States and Russia are not among the 164 states-parties to the Mine Ban Treaty, Ukraine is. There is no evidence that Ukrainian forces are using anti-personnel landmines banned by the treaty.

In announcing $800 million in additional aid to Ukraine on April 13, the Biden administration listed among the transfers “M18A1 Claymore anti-personnel munitions configured to be consistent with the Ottawa Convention,” meaning in a command-detonated mode.

The Mine Ban Treaty, also known as the Ottawa Convention, prohibits the use of “victim-activated” anti-personnel mines, which are exploded by the presence, proximity, or contact of a person. Command-detonated landmines, those for which a human decides to explode the weapon, are not explicitly banned by the treaty. These include Claymore mines in a command-detonated configuration. The treaty also does not explicitly ban anti-vehicle or anti-tank mines, which typically require heavier than human loads to detonate.

In 2020 the U.S. Defense Department argued that the United States needed to retain the use of mixed mine systems, such as those deployed via Volcano dispensers, that combine anti-personnel and anti-tank weapons in order to “discourage and delay adversaries from hand clearing of minefields intended to block, fix, or channel enemy tanks and vehicles.”

Democratic members of the U.S. Congress, spurred by the use of cluster munitions and landmines in Ukraine, have called for changes in U.S. policy on such weapons.

States Review Nuclear Security Treaty


May 2022
By Kelsey Davenport

States met for the first time to review implementation of a treaty that aims to prevent the malicious use of nuclear materials by setting security and physical protection requirements for peaceful nuclear programs.

The International Atomic Energy Agency hosted the first review conference for the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials in March at its Vienna headquarters. (Photo by Dean Calma/IAEA)The Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) entered into force in 1987, but its requirements were limited to securing peaceful nuclear materials during international transit. A 2005 amendment to the treaty expanded the legally binding physical protection measures to cover nuclear materials during domestic use, storage, and transit. The amended treaty requires state-parties to meet five years after its entry into force, which occurred in 2016, to assess the adequacy of the treaty.

Representatives from 106 of the 129 states that are party to the amended convention participated in the March 28–April 1 conference at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna.

In opening remarks, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi described the review meeting as a “significant milestone in international nuclear security.” He called for universalization of the amended treaty, noting that as the use of nuclear technology expands, “the atlas of opportunity and threat is being regrown in unpredictable ways and at unprecedented speed.”

In their concluding document, the states assessed that the amended treaty is adequate to meet current needs, but noted that the risk environment is changing due to the expansion of peaceful uses of nuclear materials, advanced reactors, and new technologies. States requested that the IAEA convene a second review conference at a later date to assess the treaty’s adequacy again. The amended CPPNM does not require regular reviews after the first conference, but subsequent conferences can be held after five or more years if a majority of states-parties request it.

The United States noted its strong support for a subsequent review conference in its national statement. The statement, delivered by Bonnie Jenkins, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said it was “essential” to continually review the global nuclear security regime and that “all states benefit from strong global nuclear security, because an act of nuclear terrorism anywhere will have grave consequences.”

The conference also served as an opportunity for states to share best practices and announce new nuclear security commitments. Several countries, including the United States, highlighted actions taken to address the risk posed by cyberattacks. Jenkins said the United States completed inspections at all U.S. nuclear power plants to ensure compliance with cybersecurity requirements and that it is committed to conducting inspections every two years.

Jenkins also announced that the United States is continuing to work with the IAEA to verify the disposition of 40 metric tons of excess plutonium and is requesting that the agency conduct an International Physical Protection Advisory Service mission. The statement said such missions are “important tools for ensuring the adequacy of national nuclear security regimes.”

The conference document encouraged all states to make use of such missions and to share good practices identified in the process.

 

The meeting of the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material aimed to prevent the malicious use of nuclear materials.

 

New Approaches Needed to Prevent Nuclear Catastrophe


April 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a massive assault on independent, democratic, non-nuclear Ukraine has unleashed a war that has killed thousands, displaced millions, and raised the risk of nuclear conflict.

At an emergency session of the UNGA March 2,141 member states voted in favor of a resolution deploring "in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine” and “condemning the decision of the Russian Federation to increase the readiness of its nuclear forces."Instead of reverting to destabilizing Cold War-era behaviors, leaders and concerned citizens in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere need to embrace new thinking and strategies about nuclear weapons and disarmament that move the world from the shadow of nuclear catastrophe.

Putin and other Russian officials have made implied nuclear threats and put their strategic nuclear forces on a heightened state of readiness to ward off a direct U.S. or NATO military intervention in Ukraine. It is not a new or uniquely Russian idea. U.S. officials also claim that U.S. strategic nuclear forces create “maneuver space” to “project conventional military power.”

Nuclear threats and alerts were not uncommon and were no less dangerous during the Cold War. Such rhetoric and orders to raise the operational readiness of nuclear forces can be misinterpreted in ways that lead to nuclear countermoves, escalation, and a nuclear attack.

Biden wisely has not matched Putin’s nuclear taunts, but the risk of escalation is real. A close encounter between NATO and Russian warplanes, which could result if NATO imposed a no-fly zone in Ukraine, could lead to a wider conflict. Because Russian and U.S. military strategies reserve the option to use nuclear weapons first 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 is underway, it might use short-range, tactical nuclear weapons to tip the military balance in its favor.

Unfortunately, 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.

There is no plausible military scenario, and no legally justifiable basis for threatening or using nuclear weapons first, if at all. Once nuclear weapons are used between nuclear-armed states, there is no guarantee it will not lead to an all-out nuclear exchange.

New thinking is needed. The adoption of policies prohibiting the first use of nuclear weapons would increase stability. But even that would not eliminate the dangers of nuclear deterrence strategies and arsenals, which depend on maintaining the credible threat of prompt retaliation in response to a nuclear attack.

U.S. and European citizens need to mobilize and press their leaders to pursue even bolder initiatives to steer the nuclear possessor states away from nuclear confrontation and arms racing.

For example, UN General Assembly members, particularly those who negotiated the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, should consider a “uniting for peace” resolution in response to the immediate threat of nuclear use. Such resolutions have been used in rare cases when the UN Security Council, lacking unanimity among its five permanent, nuclear-armed members, fails to act to maintain international peace and security.

Such a resolution could build on the March 2 vote in the General Assembly condemning Russia’s invasion and Putin’s decision to increase the readiness of his nuclear forces and would recall the assembly’s declaration of 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.”

An updated resolution could declare that the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is contrary to international law and mandate negotiations on legally binding security guarantees against unprovoked attacks from states possessing nuclear weapons.

The resolution could mandate that any state that initiates a nuclear attack shall be stripped of its voting privileges at the United Nations and recommend collective measures to restore the peace under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Such an initiative would reinforce the nuclear weapons taboo at a critical juncture.

Responsible states must also come together on a meaningful disarmament plan at the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference in August. Although Putin’s war has derailed U.S.-Russian talks for now on further cuts in their bloated strategic arsenals and new agreements to limit short- and intermediate-range nuclear weapons systems, they are still bound by their disarmament obligations under Article VI of the NPT.

The last remaining U.S.-Russian arms reduction agreement, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, expires in 2026. Without commonsense arms control guardrails, the dangers of unconstrained global nuclear arms racing will only grow.

Putin’s war on Ukraine is a sobering reminder that outdated nuclear deterrence policies create unacceptable risks. The only way to eliminate the danger is to reinforce the norm against nuclear use and pursue more sustainable path toward their elimination.

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a massive assault on independent, democratic, non-nuclear Ukraine has unleashed a war that has killed thousands, displaced millions, and raised the risk of nuclear conflict.

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


April 2022
By Oliver Meier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

ENDNOTES

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

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

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


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

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

Arms Control Must Remain the Goal


April 2022
By Andrei Zagorski

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

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

Mutual Signaling

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

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

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

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

A Wake-Up Call?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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


April 2022
By George Perkovich

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

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

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

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

U.S. Dysfunction

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

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

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

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

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

Problems With Russia and China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

ENDNOTES

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

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

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

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


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

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

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