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Arms Control Today

Nuclear Threats and Alerts: Looking at the Cold War Background

April 2022
By William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuban Missile Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russian Tactics Fuel Uncertainty in Ukraine

April 2022
By Shannon Bugos

With its invasion of Ukraine stalled in key cities, Russia has defended President Vladimir Putin’s decision to raise the alert level of Russian nuclear forces, employed nuclear-capable hypersonic weapons for the first time in combat, and reportedly requested military assistance from China. The moves underscore the unpredictable nature of the war.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in an extraordinary video address to the U.S. Congress on March 16, pleaded for more U.S. support as his country fights to defend itself against invading Russian forces. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite-Pool/Getty Images)“Talk of nuclear war has already begun,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on March 3. “It is not us who started the talk about a nuclear war,” he added, instead accusing France, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the United States, and NATO of making threatening statements about nuclear weapons use.

But on March 29, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov lowered the rhetoric, telling PBS that “no one is thinking about … using a nuclear weapon” and that the war in Ukraine has “nothing to do with” any threat to Russia’s existence. The latest version of Russian nuclear deterrence policy in 2020 details four scenarios under which Moscow might deploy its nuclear arsenal, including a threat to the nation’s existence.

Three days after ordering an invasion of Ukraine in February, Putin commanded Russian nuclear forces to move to a “special regime of combat duty.” (See ACT, January/February 2022.) The next day, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu informed Putin that all nuclear command posts were reinforced with additional personnel.

But a senior U.S. defense official said on March 3 that Putin’s order is still “not completely clear to us” and “we continue to watch this very, very closely.” Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, shared his assessment on March 17 that the order appears “to refer to heightened preparations designed to ensure a quick transition to higher alert status should the situation call for it.”

U.S. President Joe Biden on Feb. 28 dismissed the idea that the public should worry about nuclear war, and Lavrov said on March 10 that he does not believe that a nuclear war is likely. Yet, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned on March 14 that “the prospect of nuclear war is now back within the realm of possibility.”

Nuclear experts and U.S. officials have suggested that Putin’s threatened use of nuclear weapons is aimed at deterring any U.S. or NATO interference in Ukraine and projecting an image of an indomitable Russia.

“Russia is attempting to use these forces as a shield for conventional aggression,” Caitlin Talmadge, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University, wrote in The Wall Street Journal on March 3. “Putin is betting that despite the conventional military might of the U.S. and its allies, they will shrink from confrontation at least partly out of fear of nuclear escalation.”

Berrier told the House Armed Services Committee on March 17 that “[a]s this war and its consequences slowly weaken Russian conventional strength, Russia likely will increasingly rely on its nuclear deterrent to signal the West and project strength to its internal and external audiences.”

A woman looks at a computer screen showing a dissenting Russian Channel One employee, Marina Ovsyannikova, entering an on-air TV studio during Russia's most-watched evening news broadcast on March 15. The protester held a poster reading "No War" and condemning Moscow's military action in Ukraine. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)Neither the United States nor NATO made reciprocal changes to the status of their nuclear forces. “I am satisfied with the posture of my forces,” Adm. Charles Richard, head of U.S. Strategic Command, informed Congress on March 1. “I have made no recommendations to make any changes.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also chose to delay a test of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile scheduled for early March “in an effort to demonstrate that we have no intention in engaging in any actions that can be misunderstood or misconstrued” by Russia in the wake of Putin’s nuclear order, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby announced on March 2. The delay is not “going to change our strategic deterrent posture one bit,” Kirby added.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, criticized Austin’s decision, describing it as a “disappointing” and “hollow” gesture given Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon revealed on March 3 the creation a few days earlier of a bilateral Russian-U.S. deconfliction line at the operational level between the Russian Defense Ministry and the U.S. European Command.

“When we tested it, [Russia] did pick up the other end,” Kirby said, describing the communication channel as “valuable” because it will aim to reduce the risks of any potential miscommunication or escalation between the two nuclear powers.

Yet, three weeks later, Kirby revealed that calls from Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to their Russian counterparts had gone unanswered.

Early in its invasion of Ukraine, Russia appealed to China for military aid and additional economic assistance, according to media reports quoting unnamed U.S. officials who declined to provide further details.

Russia and China denied the allegation, which first surfaced on March 13. “China is not a party to the [Ukraine] crisis,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi responded a day later. The ministry’s spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, said the United States “has been maliciously spreading disinformation targeting China.”

Peskov commented that “Russia has an independent potential to continue the operation” in Ukraine and therefore has “no reason” to request external aid.

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan warned on March 13 that China will “absolutely [face] consequences for large-scale sanctions evasion efforts or support to Russia to backfill them.” Sullivan met the next day in Rome with Yang Jiechi, a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo and director of the foreign affairs commission, for a “candid” and “intense” discussion that included the war in Ukraine, said a senior U.S. official.

Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping followed that meeting with a call on March 18, during which Biden “described the implications and consequences if China provides material support to Russia as it conducts brutal attacks against Ukrainian cities and civilians,” according to the White House readout.

The White House has criticized China for assisting Russia in spreading disinformation by claiming that the United States has been funding biological and chemical weapons labs in Ukraine.

Smoke rising after an explosion in Kyiv on March 16, during Russia’s war against Ukraine. (Photo by Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)Putin and Xi have met 38 times since 2013 and issued a joint statement on Feb. 4 that underscored the close relationship between the two countries. Thus far, China has provided some humanitarian aid to Ukraine, but has yet to condemn the invasion or support what it calls “outrageous” sanctions against Russia.

China pledged in 2013 “to provide Ukraine with corresponding security guarantees” if Ukraine suffered a nuclear attack. This vague statement, ratified by the Chinese legislature in 2015, adds further uncertainty to Beijing’s stance on the invasion.

Meanwhile, Russia has claimed that it used Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missiles to destroy “a large underground warehouse of missiles and aviation ammunition of Ukrainian troops” in the Ivano-Frankivsk region in western Ukraine on March 18, as well as to strike a large fuel depot in the Mykolaiv region in southern Ukraine the following day.

Although these attacks would mark the first use of new hypersonic weapons in combat, Austin said on March 20 that even if Moscow’s claim proved true, he would not view the use of the Kinzhal system as “a game changer.”

Biden confirmed on March 21 that Russia did use a hypersonic weapon because “it’s the only thing that they can get through [Ukraine’s air defenses] with absolute certainty.” Kirby later specified that the Pentagon ascertained the use of a Russian hypersonic weapon “at least in one instance.”

Russia’s use of the Kinzhal system is “certainly possible” but, if true, would be “a bit of a head-scratcher” as to why these particular targets necessitated its use, a senior U.S. defense official said on March 21.

The Pentagon has assessed that the possible motivations behind the alleged use of the Kinzhal system could be that Moscow is running low on precision-guided munitions after launching more than 1,370 various missiles as of March 28, aiming to create some new momentum in the invasion, or wanting to gain leverage at the negotiating table.

Adding to the speculation, The Drive’s War Zone reported on March 19 that the first supposed strike with the Kinzhal system did not occur in western Ukraine but in “a heavily bombarded rural area in the far eastern area of Ukraine.” The news site also suggested that the Kinzhal missile was likely not used in this particular instance as claimed.

The Kinzhal system is believed to be an Iskander-M road-mobile, short-range ballistic missile modified for use on MiG-31K jets. The purported Kinzhal missiles used in March were conventional, although the system is thought to be dual capable.

Russia’s war on Ukraine continues to creep closer to NATO borders, with the firing of an estimated 30 cruise missiles on a Ukrainian military training facility in Yavoriv, located about 15 miles from the Polish border, on March 13. The attack killed at least 35 people and injured 134.

The Russian fighter jets that carried out the attack took off from Saratov and were aiming for the International Peacekeeping and Security Center, which in the past has served as a site for U.S. and NATO troops to provide training for the Ukrainian military.

A few days later, Russia launched missiles at an aircraft repair facility near an airport in Lviv, a major city about 43 miles from Poland in western Ukraine.

“We will collectively defend and protect every inch of NATO territory,” Biden said on March 24 following an emergency summit of NATO leaders in Brussels. But he has repeatedly emphasized that NATO will avoid direct confrontation between the alliance and Russia because doing so would lead to “World War III.”

“We have a responsibility to ensure the conflict does not escalate further because this would be even more dangerous and more devastating,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said after the summit. The alliance also announced four new battlegroups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia, in addition to those in Poland and the Baltics.

Ukrainian and Russian diplomatic delegations have met multiple times over the first few weeks of the war, but details of their discussions have been murky. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on March 20 that he stands prepared to negotiate directly with Putin. “Without negotiations, we cannot end this war,” he said.


With its invasion stalled, Russia has raised the alert level of its nuclear forces and employed nuclear-capable hypersonic arms for the first time.

U.S. Mulls Options if Russia Uses WMD

April 2022
By Leanne Quinn

Amid growing concerns that Russian President Vladimir Putin could use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Ukraine, the Biden administration has gathered behind the scenes a group of national security officials to prepare potential responses should chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons be deployed.

World leaders confer March 24 on the sidelines of meetings of NATO and the G7 in Brussels to discuss the Russian war in Ukraine, L to R: Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, U.S. President Joe Biden, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.  (Photo by Henry Nicholls - Pool/Getty Images)Dubbed the Tiger Team, the group also is brainstorming options for the United States and NATO if Russian forces go beyond the Ukrainian border and attack a NATO member in a strike against a convoy carrying weapons and aid to Ukraine. The team meets three times a week in classified sessions, according to a March 23 report by The New York Times.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said that, desperate over Russia’s failure to dominate in the war against Ukraine, Putin could be preparing to use chemical or biological weapons in battle.

Putin's "back is against the wall, and now he's talking about new false flags he's setting up, including asserting that we in America have biological as well as chemical weapons in Europe. Simply not true," Biden said on March 21 at a Business Roundtable event.

"They are also suggesting that Ukraine has biological and chemical weapons in Ukraine. That's a clear sign he's considering using both of those," he said.

Ahead of an emergency meeting of NATO leaders in Brussels on March 24, Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg put the focus on growing evidence that Russia was preparing to use chemical weapons. Stoltenberg said NATO would give Ukraine special equipment to help protect against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats.

Their comments came as Russian forces struggled to make progress in their increasingly brutal assault on Ukraine, which began on Feb. 24.

Russia is a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and to the Biological Weapons Convention, which outlaw those armaments. As recently as January, Russia joined the United States and other major nuclear-weapon states in declaring that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Speaking at a U.S. Senate hearing on March 10, CIA Director William Burns stated that Russia’s use of chemical weapons “either as a false flag operation or against Ukrainians” is a possibility. The Russians have “used those weapons against their own citizens, they’ve at least encouraged their use in Syria and elsewhere, so it’s something we take very seriously,” Burns said.

Russia could potentially employ chemical weapons in a variety of ways. Russia could use a chemical weapon
“for assassinations against military and political leadership, … to clear buildings, [or] on the military battlefield. They could use it to go after bomb shelters because chemical agents can penetrate into buildings,” Andrew Weber, a top nonproliferation official in the Obama administration, said during an MSNBC interview.

Biden stated on March 11 that “Russia would pay a severe price if they used chemical weapons.”

When asked at a March 14 press briefing what those consequences could entail, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki responded, “[T]that would be a conversation that we would have with our partners around the world.” She predicted there would be a “severe reaction from the global community.”

In a March 16 telephone call, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan delivered a similar warning to Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, about the “consequences and implications” of any possible Russian decision to use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine.

The United States and Russia have been publicly trading allegations about chemical and biological weapons across multiple international forums.

In December 2021, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that U.S. military contractors were secretly smuggling chemical weapons components into Ukraine for mercenaries to use. Russia did not provide any evidence to back up its claim, which the United States and Ukraine have categorically denied.

Pushing the issue further, Russia called for a special meeting of the UN Security Council on March 11 to discuss Russian claims that Ukraine was attempting to “clean up” traces of a military biological program funded by the United States. Vasily Nebenzya, Russian ambassador to the United Nations, charged that the United States operates at least 30 biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine.

At the UN, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield insisted “there are no Ukrainian biological weapons laboratories supported by the United States, not near Russia’s border or anywhere.” She confirmed that the United States has supported Ukraine’s public health laboratory infrastructure, which played an important role in assisting Ukraine’s COVID-19 response, but said none of these labs has anything to do with biological weapons.

Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN undersecretary-general and high representative for disarmament affairs, also dismissed the Russian claims. “The United Nations is not aware of any biological weapons programs” in Ukraine, she told the Security Council meeting.

During a meeting of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Executive Council on March 8–11, the United States and 48 other nations sponsored a joint statement condemning Russian disinformation about chemical weapons in Ukraine.

Joseph Manso, the U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, called Russia’s allegations against the United States “preposterous” and said Russia’s disinformation campaign was “a means to distract from its transgressions and aggressions.” In an attempt to underscore the U.S. commitment to the CWC, Manso announced that the United States would host a virtual chemical demilitarization transparency event on March 22 for OPCW delegates. That meeting, led by Bonnie Jenkins, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, highlighted the progress the United States has made in destroying its chemical weapons stockpile and reaffirmed that the destruction efforts would be finished by the treaty-mandated deadline of September 2023.

As a member state of the CWC, the international treaty that bans the use or stockpiling of chemical weapons, Russia was obligated to destroy its chemical weapons arsenal. The OPCW verified that Russia finished destroying its declared stockpile of 40,000 metric tons in September 2017.

Despite this, the U.S. State Department said in April 2021 it “cannot certify that Russia has met its obligations for its complete declarations” of its chemical weapons production and development facilities and stockpiles. The United States and other Western governments have accused Russia of the attempted assassination of Russian defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in 2018 and of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition leader, in 2020. A chemical nerve agent called Novichok was used in both cases.

Amid concerns that Russia could use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Ukraine, a group of U.S. national security officials is mulling potential responses.

West Rushes Weapons to Ukraine

April 2022
By Jeff Abramson

Western countries are expediting billions of dollars in weapons deliveries to Ukraine after Russian forces invaded the country with a diverse arsenal of controversial arms and escalated strikes on civilian targets.

Employees at the airport in Kyiv on Feb. 11 unload a Boeing 747-412 plane with the FGM-148 Javelin, a man-portable anti-tank missile provided by the United States as part of its military support to Ukraine ahead of the Russian invasion.  (Photo by Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)Despite widespread condemnation of Russian aggression and an increasingly dire situation in Ukraine, the United States and its allies resisted calls by Ukraine for direct military engagement and the supply of fighter jets that could put U.S. and NATO forces directly in conflict with Russian troops.

As the United States began warning the international community of Russian invasion plans in December, it authorized a $200 million drawdown of military equipment from its existing stocks for delivery to Ukraine. In January and February, as Russian forces massed along Ukraine’s borders, countries such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the United Kingdom also began delivering military equipment, including portable anti-tank Javelin and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft Stinger missile systems.

After Russia launched the war on Feb. 24, more than a dozen additional countries quickly moved to send military supplies to Ukraine, rushing processes that often take months or years, while imposing comprehensive economic and other sanctions on Russia and its leaders.

Almost immediately, the United States authorized another $350 million in military assistance. On March 16, after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the U.S. Congress via video link, the Biden administration announced an additional $800 million in assistance, including 800 Stinger and 2,000 Javelin missile systems, 1,000 light anti-armor weapons, and 6,000 AT-4 anti-armor systems. In total, the administration has announced or provided more than $2 billion in military aid to Ukraine since January 2021.

Critically, Germany, which previously refused to send lethal aid to Ukraine, decided on Feb. 26 to transfer 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger systems and permit other countries to reexport German weapons. The European Union and other countries also announced plans for weapons deliveries, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

As Zelenskyy continued calls for direct intervention to “close the sky” over Ukraine from Russian aircraft and for the provision of other military assistance, U.S. President Joe Biden made clear that he would not contribute U.S. forces directly into the war zone or establish a no-fly zone, despite pressure from many members of Congress.

One complicating factor is that the Ukrainian military is trained on Soviet and Russian systems and would find it easier to operate those systems if they could be transferred from the stocks of European countries that have such weapons.

In early March, the administration rejected an offer by Poland to donate MiG fighter jets to the United States, which would then be passed along to Ukraine. Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said on March 9 that such an arrangement would provide “little increased capabilities at high risk.” Later in the month, there was discussion of countries such as Slovakia possibly providing Russian S-300 or other anti-aircraft systems to Ukraine. Russia warned it would target weapons supplies to Ukraine, creating escalation concerns.

The weapons that have been provided were altering the battle as Ukrainian forces fought back, destroying Russian tanks and aircraft.

Meanwhile, Russia increasingly targeted civilian areas, drawing international condemnation and a quick decision by the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court to open a war crimes investigations. Hundreds of incidents of civilian targeting had been documented by late March. A strike on a drama theater in Mariupol that had “children” written on the ground outside so as to be visible from the air was one of the more high-profile examples cited in the U.S. media and by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

On March 18, the spokesperson for the UN high commissioner for refugees said that more than 4 million people had fled Ukraine and millions more were internally displaced. The UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights recorded 3,090 civilian casualties in the country, but said there were likely many more. “Most of the civilian casualties recorded were caused by the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area,” the office said.

Cluster munitions and “vacuum” bombs drew particular attention for their use in or potential impact on civilian areas. Human Rights Watch and others documented Russian use of cluster munitions starting as early as Feb. 24 in multiple locations in Ukraine. Some 110 countries are state-parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the use of weapons that deliver submunitions that often maim civilians during a strike or long afterward when “duds” that initially failed to explode are disturbed and later detonate. On March 2, the UK as president of the convention said it was “gravely concerned,” and many countries have called out Russia for using these weapons.

That same day, before 141 countries voted for a UN General Assembly resolution calling for Russia to end its invasion, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Russia was “preparing to increase the brutality of its campaign against Ukraine,” specifically mentioning “cluster munitions and vacuum bombs.” Vacuum bombs, also known as thermobaric weapons, release a fuel in the air that is later detonated to create powerful explosions and shockwaves, typically targeting buildings and bunkers. There is evidence that Russia deployed this weapon as part of its TOS-1A system surfaced early in the war, amid concern that they could harm civilians.

On March 29, Human Rights Watch accused Russian forces of using banned antipersonnel mines in the eastern Kharkiv region of Ukraine. The mines, which can indiscriminately kill and maim people within a 16-meter range, are outlawed by the 1997 International Mine Ban Treaty.

Western countries are expediting arms deliveries to Ukraine after the Russian invasion.

Ukrainian Nuclear Plants Come Under Russian Fire

April 2022
By Shannon Bugos

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised the risks of nuclear catastrophe after Russian forces took control of the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plants, causing fires at both sites. Ukraine said it regained control of Chernobyl on March 31 when the Russians left.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, uses a diagram of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant as a reference point as he talks to journalists in Vienna on March 4 about the situation at the Ukrainian nuclear power plants that have been put at risk by Russia's war in Ukraine. (Photo by Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images)A projectile launched by Russian troops caused a fire at a training complex on the Zaporizhzhya site, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, on March 4, although the flames were later extinguished. A Russian shell also hit one of the reactors, but the thick walls of the reactor’s containment structure absorbed the strike. The plant houses six of Ukraine’s 15 reactors, which are split among four active nuclear plant sites. Together they supply about half of the country’s electricity.

“Firing shells in the area of a nuclear power plant violates the fundamental principle that the physical integrity of nuclear facilities must be maintained and kept safe at all times,” said International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi.

During an emergency UN Security Council meeting on March 4, Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya denied his government was to blame. “A massive anti-Russia information campaign is unfolding,” he said, arguing instead that Ukrainian forces attacked Russian forces patrolling outside the plant and set the training building on fire as they departed.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield criticized Russia’s attack on the nuclear power plant as “incredibly reckless and dangerous.” She said that “[n]uclear facilities cannot become part of this conflict.”

In a March 4 blog post, Ed Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, explained that “[n]one of the reactors were built to withstand a military assault.” Ukraine’s nuclear power plants are also “vulnerable to indirect fire that could damage critical support systems and surrounding infrastructure, potentially resulting in a fuel meltdown and a radiological release that could contaminate thousands of square miles of terrain,” he wrote.

The IAEA reported on March 6 that a Russian commander took control of site management at Zaporizhzhya, including actions related to technical operations, and that Russian forces switched off some mobile networks and internet access, interrupting communications between the staff and Ukraine’s nuclear regulatory agency. This agency, known as the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRI), has been providing the IAEA with status updates.

“Employees of the station are under strong psychological pressure from the occupiers,” said Energoatom, Ukraine’s state nuclear company, on March 11. “All staff on arrival at the station are carefully checked by armed terrorists.”

The IAEA reported on March 6 that the technical teams had begun to rotate in three eight-hour shifts.

The dangerous challenges facing the personnel at Zaporizhzhya mirror those at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which has been under Russian control since Feb. 24.

After 25 days of working nonstop, more than 200 staff members at Chernobyl were finally allowed to change shifts and return home, with half leaving on March 20 and the rest a day later. But 13 staffers declined to rotate, and most Ukrainian guards remained as well, according to Ukrainian officials.

The Chernobyl staff deserves “our full respect and admiration for having worked in these extremely difficult circumstances,” Grossi said on March 20. “They were there for far too long.” A nuclear reactor exploded at Chernobyl in 1986, leading to the eventual closure of the plant’s reactors. The nuclear power plant, located inside a large exclusion zone, is no longer active.

For nearly 600 hours while held at gunpoint by Russian forces, the facility’s staff in charge of safeguarding spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste grabbed sleep when possible at their workstations, survived on a severely diminished diet, and had their phones confiscated, according to a March 15 report by The Wall Street Journal, which managed to talk to some workers stuck inside.

Some maintenance and repairs could not be completed at Chernobyl due to “the psychological, moral, and physical fatigue of the personnel,” the SNRI said on March 19.

Earlier in the month, Russian forces also twice damaged the facility’s power line, cutting the plant off from Ukraine’s power grid and jeopardizing the cooling systems for the spent nuclear fuel rods. Kyiv also reported on March 22 that Russian troops have destroyed a laboratory that processed radioactive waste and carried out other “strategic, unique functions.”

Further compounding the radiation concerns at Chernobyl has been the breakout of multiple seasonal fires around the site. Russian forces controlling the plant have stymied efforts by Ukrainian officials and firefighters to put out the flames.

Grossi began separate consultations with the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers on March 10 in Turkey to establish a framework for ensuring the safety and security of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities. The potential deal will make “no political references to the situation in the plants or no connection that could be construed as legitimizing the presence of anybody in a foreign territory,” he said on March 21, adding that he hopes to reach agreement “very soon.”

The chairs of the U.S. congressional nuclear weapons and arms control working group—Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Reps. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and John Garamendi (D-Calif.)—sent a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden on March 14 suggesting that “the technical expertise of the [IAEA] should be made available to monitor and advise on the rapidly changing situation on the ground.”

They urged him “to find ways to encourage IAEA’s involvement in monitoring” Ukraine’s nuclear power plants.

Chernobyl is located along Russia’s northern invasion route to Kyiv, which is less than 100 miles south from the plant.

The Russian invasion has sharply raised the risks of nuclear catastrophe.

Biden Policy Allows First Use of Nuclear Weapons

April 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball

President Joe Biden has signed off on a months-long, Pentagon-led review of U.S. defense strategy and nuclear weapons policy. On March 28, the White House announced that it had transmitted to Congress the classified version of the National Defense Strategy (NDS). Senior administration officials told Arms Control Today that this document includes the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and the Missile Defense Review (MDR)
as annexes.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Chafee (DDG 90) launches a Block V Tomahawk, the weapon’s newest variant, during a missile exercise. President Joe Biden has reversed his predecessor’s policy and cancelled plans for a nuclear version of the sea-launched cruise missile. (U.S. Navy photo by LTJG Sean Ianno)Senior U.S. officials said that Biden has decided not to follow through on his 2020 pledge to declare that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies. Instead, he approved a version of a policy from the Obama administration that leaves open the option to use nuclear weapons not only in retaliation to a nuclear attack, but also to respond to non-nuclear threats.

Biden’s policy declares that the “fundamental role” of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is to deter a nuclear attack, but will still leave open the option that nuclear weapons could be used in “extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners,” officials told ACT. According to a March 25 report by The Wall Street Journal, this might include nuclear use to deter enemy conventional, biological, chemical, and possibly cyberattacks.

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

A senior administration official who spoke with Arms Control Today on March 29 emphasized that under Biden, the United States would maintain a “very high bar for considering nuclear weapons employment.”

“The NPR also underscores our commitment to reducing the role of nuclear weapons and reestablishing U.S. leadership in arms control, and it emphasizes the administration’s commitment to stability, avoiding costly arms races, and facilitating risk reduction and arms control arrangements where possible,” a senior U.S. official told ACT.

The results of the NPR were briefed to NATO allies when Biden joined other leaders in Brussels on March 24 for a summit focused on the alliance’s response to the Russian war against Ukraine. The classified version of the NPR was briefed to select congressional members on March 28, and the unclassified version will be released in April.

Since the end of the Cold War, successive presidents have updated U.S. nuclear weapons and risk reduction policy through comprehensive nuclear posture reviews, which produce a strategy document that outlines the role of these weapons in U.S. strategy, the plans for maintaining and upgrading nuclear forces, and the overall U.S. approach to nuclear arms control and nonproliferation.

Each previous post-Cold War NPR, including those by President Bill Clinton in 1996, President George W. Bush in 2002, President Barack Obama in 2010, and President Donald Trump in 2018, has made adjustments that reflect the foreign and military policies of each administration, overall reflecting more continuity than change. The number of targets in the nuclear war plans has been reduced since the mid-1990s, but the United States and Russia maintain their strategic forces on a “launch under attack” posture, and U.S. presidents have all refused to rule out the potential use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear threats.

The Russian nuclear weapons use policy is similar to the U.S. policy. It states that Russia “reserves the right to use nuclear weapons,” including when Moscow is acting “in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” (See ACT, July/August 2020.)

According to press reports, Biden’s NPR will cancel development of a new nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile proposed by the Trump administration and a Cold War-era high-yield gravity bomb, the B-83. But it will green-light other nuclear weapons modernization and sustainment programs, including a new fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles, a new strategic bomber, new air-launched cruise missiles, and the new Columbia-class strategic submarines.

Biden’s decision to revive the Obama-era approach on nuclear weapons use policy was very likely influenced by the views of allies at a time of heightened concern about Russian aggression. The allies want to maintain continuity and cohesion in response to President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale attack on Ukraine, which has been considered a U.S. “strategic partner” since 2008.

Biden’s decision not to adopt a sole-purpose nuclear declaratory policy not only runs counter to his previous public statements, but it also ignores the advice of many in his own party. In July 2021, for instance, Democratic lawmakers from the House and Senate met with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan about the review, which had just been launched. Among other recommendations, they urged Biden to follow through on his pledge to adopt a sole-purpose policy. In their meeting, Sullivan told the lawmakers the president still supported that approach, according to sources who spoke with Arms Control Today.

The President has abandoned his 2020 sole purpose pledge.

Restored Iran Deal May Be in Reach

April 2022
By Samuel M. Hickey

European and U.S. negotiators have thrown cold water on indications that the Iranian nuclear deal could soon be restored.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe (L) and Anoosheh Ashoori, UK-Iranian nationals detained for years by Iran, were freed on March 16 after the UK government settled a longstanding British debt by paying Iran millions of dollars for Chieftain tanks that were never delivered. Their release occurred as U.S. and European negotiators are edging toward reviving a deal that would limit Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told the European Parliament on March 28 that, “It would be a shame not to reach some sort of an agreement when we’re so near to reaching one. But I cannot guarantee that we will reach an agreement.” His comments echoed Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, who said on March 27 that he is not confident agreement between Western powers and Iran is imminent.

Their comments followed signs that all parties were preparing to resume compliance with the deal after months of negotiations.

Russia has dropped its last-minute demands for carve-outs in U.S. sanctions imposed because of the war in Ukraine, so the remaining hurdles to restoring the United States and Iran to mutual compliance with the deal are between Washington and Tehran, according to negotiators and close observers of the lengthy process.

Restoring compliance with the deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), would verifiably block Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons development and incentivize Tehran to maintain an exclusively peaceful nuclear program. It also would restore the most rigorous monitoring regime that exists on any nuclear program.

Experts say that it is unlikely that the war in Ukraine will scuttle the talks at this stage despite Russia’s recent efforts to slow the negotiations and delay the return of Iranian oil and natural gas to the market.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Western response have driven the price of oil above $110 per barrel. Iran has the fourth-largest oil reserves in the world, behind Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Canada, while Russia is eighth. Iran has the second-largest natural gas reserves, behind Russia. If the JCPOA is restored, the deal will be implemented over several months, and it will take at least two months for Iranian oil to hit the markets. It may be summer before Iranian oil and natural gas will impact global markets.

The United States and the European Union have imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia for its war on Ukraine. In putting up the 11th-hour roadblock to the Iran deal, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov demanded on March 5 that the United States “give us written guarantees at the minimum level of the Secretary of State that the current [sanctions] process launched by the [United States] will not in any way harm our right to free, fully fledged trade and economic and investment cooperation and military-technical cooperation with Iran.”

But once it became clear that Russia was isolated in this demand, even by Iran, Russia appeared to soften its position. In an apparent about-face, Lavrov said on March 15 that Russia had received “written guarantees” from the United States that Russian nuclear cooperation with Iran would not be affected. Later, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price confirmed that the United States will not sanction Russia for participating in nuclear projects in Iran related to the nuclear deal.

Under the JCPOA, Russia is mandated to take Iran’s excess uranium back to Russia where it is to be down-blended to low-enriched uranium. Russia is also obligated to redesign Iran’s nuclear facility at Fordow from an enrichment site to a research center for producing stable radioactive isotopes. Finally, Russia will provide nuclear fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor and the Bushehr nuclear power reactor and take back the spent fuel. Some sanctions waivers were issued by the United States in February to facilitate technical discussions in preparation for a deal.

Another encouraging sign was the release on March 16 of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, UK nationals who had been imprisoned in Iran for spying. There are hopes that if implementation of the nuclear deal is resumed,Iran will release other Western nationals held in Iran.

The remaining issues in negotiations on the Iran deal are between Washington and Tehran. One of the stickiest ones was overcome the same day Russia put up its roadblock. On March 5, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi secured a road map to address outstanding safeguards disputes at three undeclared locations in Iran, fueling optimism that the JCPOA could be restored.

The key sticking point seems to be whether to take Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) off the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. Other than that, there appears to be little changing in the U.S. counterterrorism sanctions.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2019 decision to name the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization was the first time a state entity was added to the list. But the designation is and was always expected to be mostly symbolic. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, “The designation is unlikely to apply additional financial pressure on the IRGC because it is already designated for sanctions under several Executive Orders that, in general, carry penalties similar to [foreign terrorist organization]-related penalties and have already deterred most foreign companies from conducting transactions with the IRGC.”

Despite the advances in Iran’s nuclear program made possible by the U.S. decision to withdraw from the deal in May 2018, Iran has not made a decision to produce nuclear weapons. According to CIA Director Bill Burns and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, there is no evidence that Tehran is working on weaponizing nuclear fuel. U.S. officials estimate that if Iran ever made the decision, it is probably one to two years away from being able to build a sophisticated nuclear weapon.

European and U.S. negotiators threw cold water on chances of soon restoring the Iran nuclear deal but others
remain hopeful.

Iran, IAEA Agree on New Safeguards Plan

April 2022
By Samuel M. Hickey

Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have agreed to adopt a “practical and pragmatic approach” to resolving outstanding safeguards issues and thus bring Iran back into compliance with its nuclear verification commitments, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said following a trip to Tehran on March 5.

Rafael Mariano Grossi (C), head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Mohammad Eslami (R), head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, hold a press conference during Grossi’s visit to Tehran on March 5.  (Photo by Amid Farahi/ISNA/AFP via Getty Images)The two sides issued a statement outlining a series of steps that will guide Iranian-IAEA cooperation on safeguards disputes at three undeclared locations in Iran.

Although this arrangement is separate from diplomatic efforts by China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the fate of the JCPOA is closely tied to Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA.

As a consequence of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal in May 2018, Iran began to reduce its compliance with the JCPOA one year later. It eventually ceased implementing the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement, which provides extra tools so the IAEA can verify the peaceful use of nuclear materials, and a special monitoring arrangement that was intended to ensure that the IAEA maintained continuity of knowledge about Iran’s nuclear activities.

The IAEA is currently “flying blind” about the details of Iran’s activities at the three sites because it is unable to retrieve surveillance data being stored on the agency’s cameras. The IAEA’s ability to retrieve this data and reconstitute a full picture of Iran’s nuclear program is likely also contingent on the revival of the JCPOA. (See ACT, January/February 2022.)

The safeguards dispute pertains to pre-2003 nuclear activities, when Tehran had a nuclear weapons program. The IAEA concluded its investigation into these activities in 2015, but is obligated to follow up on evidence that points to undeclared nuclear materials and activities that Iran should have disclosed under its safeguards agreement. The IAEA is seeking information and clarification about the presence of undeclared uranium.

Initially, there were four undisclosed locations of concern in Iran. The IAEA recently concluded its investigation into the second of the four locations where natural uranium in the form of a metal disc may have been present, conducting verification activities at the site called Jabr Ibn Hayan Laboratories. Although the agency could not identify the disc, it also could “not exclude that the disc had been melted, re-cast and may now be part of the declared nuclear material inventory” at the laboratory. While explaining the decision at a press conference, Grossi said, “[W]e do not have enough questions that could sustain a process.” The agency is expected to reopen the case if it receives new information.

To clarify the remaining issues, the joint statement of the IAEA and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) details a timeline of cooperation. Under that, by March 20, 2022, Iran was to provide written explanations to questions raised by the IAEA related to the three locations. Within two weeks of that happening, the IAEA will submit to the AEOI any questions on the received information; one week later, the IAEA and AEOI will meet in Tehran to discuss any remaining questions.

At that time, separate meetings will be held to consider each disputed Iranian location. Finally, Grossi will aim to report his conclusion to the IAEA Board of Governors meeting in June.

Although experts saw this agreement as a positive step, they said it is still possible that any lingering queries about the safeguards disputes could affect implementation of a revived JCPOA. Also, if the IAEA is not satisfied, then the other participants in the nuclear negotiations may have similar hesitations about implementing that deal.

Grossi said political pressure is not driving a solution. "We have to be left alone in our professional work and we will determine with the experts at the safeguards department," he said on March 5.


Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have adopted a “practical and pragmatic approach” to resolving safeguards issues.

India Accidentally Fires Missile Into Pakistan

April 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball

India officially acknowledged it had accidentally fired a sophisticated, unarmed missile into Pakistan on March 9 due to a “technical malfunction,” raising concerns about safeguards against miscalculation between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.

A version of the Brahmos cruise missile that India accidentally fired into Pakistan on March 9 due to a “technical malfunction.” Developed jointly by India and Russia, the missile has a range of 300 to 500 kilometers. Significantly, the missile did not hit a military target or civilians, and Pakistan did not fire back. (Photo by Pallava Bagla/Corbis via Getty Images)“On 9 March 2022, in the course of a routine maintenance, a technical malfunction led to the accidental firing of a missile,” the Indian Defense Ministry said in a terse statement on March 11. The ministry said it had ordered “a high-level court of enquiry” into the incident.

The Pakistani Foreign Affairs Ministry expressed concern about the incident, calling it an unprovoked violation of its airspace that could have endangered passenger flights and civilian lives. According to Pakistani officials, the missile was unarmed and crashed near the country's eastern city of Mian Channu, about 500 kilometers from Islamabad.

A Pakistani military spokesman told a news conference on March 10 that the missile originated from the northern Indian city of Sirsa. “The flight path of this object endangered many national and international passenger flights both in Indian and Pakistani airspace as well as human life and property on ground,” he said.

An unnamed Pakistani official told Reuters on March 12 that the missile was a nuclear-capable, land-attack Brahmos cruise missile jointly developed by Russia and India. The Brahmos has a range of 300 to 500 kilometers.

The incident raises questions not only about India’s operational safety procedures and controls, but also the extent to which its offensive strike missiles are deployed in a launch-ready condition.

Significantly, the missile did not hit a military target or kill civilians in Pakistan, the misfire occurred during a time of relative calm between the two countries, which have fought three wars, and the missile was not armed with a nuclear warhead.

The Indian government took 48 hours to officially confirm the misfire despite a 2005 agreement that requires each country’s defense ministry to give its counterpart at least 72 hours’ notice before conducting a ballistic missile flight test.

The agreement stipulates that neither India nor Pakistan will allow missile tests to land close to, or the flight trajectories of missile tests to approach, their accepted borders or the Line of Control, the cease-fire line running through the disputed region of Kashmir. (See ACT, October 2005.)

India blamed the misfire on a “technical malfunction.” 

Arms Trade Rising in Europe, Other Regions

April 2022
By Jeff Abramson

The United States continues to account for an increasingly larger share of major conventional weapons exports at a time when European countries are acquiring more weaponry, according to the latest annual arms transfer survey by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Tensions with Russia and China are driving growing weapons imports by countries in Europe and elsewhere, trends expected to continue and likely be exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

An F-35A Lightning II jet fighter, conducting joint operations from Kadena Air Base, Japan, approaches a tanker aircraft for refueling. The F-35 is a main driver of current and future U.S. arms sales in Europe, according to an annual report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Yosselin Perla)The United States accounted for 39 percent of all major arms exports from 2017 to 2021, more than twice Russia’s 19 percent and greater than the 32 percent U.S. share from 2012 to 2016.

Europe posted the fastest increase in arms imports of all regions, acquiring 19 percent more major arms in 2017–2021 as compared to the earlier five-year period. The United States provided more than half of the transfers into the region, with orders for the U.S. F-35 combat aircraft at the heart of current and future expected increases, the report said. SIPRI wrote that the regional increase “was at least partly driven by deterioration in relations between most European states and Russia.”

That relationship has declined further since the end of 2021, with widespread European condemnation of Russian aggression in Ukraine, decisions by more than a dozen European countries to send arms to Kyiv in February and March, and Russia’s removal from the Council of Europe in March. Germany’s decisions to stop opposing its own provision of lethal aid to Ukraine and to begin investing far more heavily in its own military, as announced in February by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, are other indicators of a now-expected military buildup within Europe.

Shifts in India’s arms imports also are under scrutiny. The world’s largest arms importer received less than half its weapons from Russia in the most recent five years, down from nearly 70 percent in 2012–2016. France now provides 27 percent and the United States 12 percent of India’s major weapons imports, according to SIPRI.

But India does not appear ready to distance itself more fully from Russia. In March, India abstained on a critical UN General Assembly vote condemning Russia for the war in Ukraine, despite pushes from its so-called Quad partners, Australia, Japan, and the United States. A still-pending decision by the Biden administration on whether to apply sanctions under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act against India for procuring Russian S-400 air defense systems may indicate how much the administration wishes to try to force a wedge between New Delhi and Moscow. (See ACT, April 2021.)

Although the report found that the global value of arms transfers was down nearly 5 percent over the past five years, it noted that, within Asia and Oceania “a growing perception of China as a threat is the main driver of arms imports,” with weapons from the United States contributing to certain national and subregional increases. Australia’s imports rose by 62 percent, driven by U.S. combat- and anti-submarine aircraft. F-35 fighter jets and air defense systems underpinned South Korean and Japanese import increases of 71 percent and 152 percent, respectively. Taiwan is expected to significantly increase its imports following recent orders of U.S. arms offered by the Trump and Biden administrations.

In the Middle East, the United States accounted for more than half the exports to the region and for 82 percent of major weapons imports by Saudi Arabia, the world second-largest arms importer and one whose imports rose by 27 percent over the past five years. The administration has said that it would stop transferring “offensive” weapons that the Saudis could use in the war in Yemen, but it has notified Congress of more than $1 billion in weapons and services it wishes to sell to Riyadh, with $650 million in air-to-air missiles surviving a Senate vote that sought to block them. (See ACT, January/February 2022.)

As with Saudi Arabia, the administration has been critical and supportive of arms transfers to Egypt. After withholding $130 million in support in 2021, it notified Congress in January of potential transfers to Egypt under the Foreign Military Sales program of 12 C-130J Super Hercules aircraft totaling $2.2 billion and three air defense radars totaling $355 million. In March, a Senate resolution of disapproval to block the sale led by Rand Paul (R-Ky.) received fewer than 20 votes. (See ACT, November 2021.) At a Senate hearing later in the month, Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said Washington would provide F-15 fighter jets to Cairo. Congress has yet to be officially notified of the sale.

According to SIPRI, the United States accounted for less than 7 percent of Egypt’s weapons imports over the past five years, with Russia providing 41 percent, followed by France, Italy, and Germany, each providing between 11 and 21 percent.

The United States accounted for 92 percent of Israel’s major arms imports over the past five years even as the relationship has faced greater scrutiny in Congress. In the omnibus appropriations legislation that became law on March 15, Congress provided $1 billion for Iron Dome supplies to Israel that had been held up by Paul over a disagreement concerning the source of such funding. (See ACT, November 2021.)

The United States accounts for an increasing share of major conventional weapons exports, according to a new report.


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