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DOCUMENT: U.S. President’s Letter to the Arms Control Association

U.S. President’s Letter to the Arms Control Association

Will Domestic Politics Trump Nonproliferation in Stalled Iran Deal?

June 2022
By Barbara Slavin

Only a few years ago, the notion that Iran could be weeks away from amassing sufficient material for a nuclear weapon would have generated a massive crisis in Washington and monopolized international diplomacy. Yet, there seems to be little palpable sense of urgency today, despite the fact that Iran is enriching uranium to near weapons grade and is on the verge of the proverbial breakout about which Iran hawks have warned so often in the past.1 Meanwhile, negotiations on restoring compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and rolling back Iran’s nuclear advances have been in limbo since mid-March.

A Shahab-3 surface-to-surface missile is displayed in Tehran next to a portrait of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at a 2021 exhibition marking the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq war. (Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)In the U.S. view, the ostensible reason for the impasse is an Iranian demand for sanctions relief that goes beyond what is required by the JCPOA. Iran has been seeking removal of the foreign terrorist designation of a powerful branch of the Iranian military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The U.S. Department of State added this designation in 2019 as the Trump administration ran low on new targets to sanction under its “maximum pressure” campaign. The Biden administration, which says it wants to revive the JCPOA, has indicated that it would be willing to lift the designation, which has little practical effect because the IRGC remains subject to numerous other U.S. sanctions, if Iran makes a gesture of its own.2

That could entail an Iranian promise to engage in follow-on talks on regional issues or a pledge not to try to kill former U.S. officials implicated in the 2020 assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, head of the Qods Force branch of the IRGC.3 Iran has refused so far, although efforts to find a mutually acceptable compromise continue.

In many ways, the issue appears to be an excuse and not the real cause for the diplomatic deadlock. Other factors have led to the delay in restoring compliance with the JCPOA, in particular, the war in Ukraine. With Russian forces committing atrocities daily in Ukraine and the Western world focused on punishing Russia and rearming the Ukrainians, there is less political bandwidth left to deal with the Iran issue.

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The merits of restoring the JCPOA also have come under increasing scrutiny in the United States and Iran. The landmark deal, intended to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions and to reintegrate Iran into the global economy, never fulfilled its potential, given that it had only nine months of full implementation before Donald Trump was elected U.S. president in 2016. The agreement started to fall apart after the Trump administration unilaterally quit in 2018 and reimposed all the sanctions lifted by the JCPOA. The administration then added more sanctions even though Trump officials acknowledged Iran was complying with the deal at that time. Iran eventually ramped up its nuclear activities, busting through the limitations established by the JCPOA on stockpiles, enrichment levels, and use of advanced centrifuges, as well as provisions for strict international monitoring.

As of February 2022, Iran possessed more than 3,000 kilograms of enriched uranium. That is more than 10 times the stockpile allowed under the JCPOA and includes more than 30 kilograms enriched to 60 percent uranium-235, perilously close to weapons grade.4 By May 10, the stockpile was at more than 40 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent, Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) told the European Parliament.5 Although much of this activity can be reversed, the knowledge Iranian scientists and engineers have acquired is permanent, meaning that the long-term nonproliferation benefits of the agreement, if restored, would inevitably be less than when the deal was implemented in 2016.6

U.S. officials continue to assert that the JCPOA, whose limitations on enriched uranium stockpiles are supposed to last until 2031, remains beneficial. “We are still at a point where, if we were able to negotiate a mutual return to compliance, that breakout time would be prolonged from where it is now,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said on May 4, 2022.7 “We would have greater transparency. There would be those permanent, verifiable limits reimposed on Iran. That would be in our national security interest.”

Yet, the domestic political climates in Iran and the United States have shifted in ways that have made compromise more difficult. It remains to be seen if there is sufficient political will and creativity to end the impasse.

Weakened Iranian Pragmatists

Trump’s abrogation of the JCPOA gravely undermined the so-called pragmatist camp in Iran that had negotiated and championed the deal, making President Hassan Rouhani and his team look foolish and naïve. This perception complicated negotiations even after the Biden administration took office, with Iran refusing to sit directly with the U.S. delegation in Vienna and initially seeking some form of guarantee that a subsequent U.S. administration would not quit the deal again. Nevertheless, substantial progress was made in indirect talks, which resumed in April 2021.

Negotiations paused in June 2021 for the Iranian presidential elections. Rouhani’s successor, Ebrahim Raisi, was handpicked by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in large part for his hard-line views on domestic and foreign policy, as well as his fealty to Khamenei. Raisi, like Khamenei, was critical of the JCPOA and named a cabinet of like-minded officials.8 The new Iranian administration then waited until November 2021 to send a team to Vienna, where talks resumed with the other parties to the JCPOA (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) plus the European Union.

As with the previous team, the Iranians refused to meet directly with U.S. negotiators, arguing that the United States had forfeited its right to be considered a JCPOA party by quitting the agreement without cause. The Iranians also initially demanded the unfreezing of billions of dollars of their assets stuck in foreign banks9 as a precondition for negotiations, a nonstarter for Washington while the Iranian nuclear program continued to advance.

There was also a wrangle over a separate but related issue: a long-running dispute between Iran and the IAEA over Iran’s alleged efforts nearly two decades ago related to possible nuclear weapons development. An 11th-hour trip to Tehran by Grossi in early March 2022 resulted in an agreement that Iran would provide additional documentation about suspect sites in time for the IAEA Board of Governors meeting in June.10 Grossi complained on May 10 in a session with the European Parliament that Iranian officials have been slow to provide clarification about the origin of traces of enriched uranium found at the sites.11

A more positive development had occurred on February 4, when the Biden administration announced that it was waiving sanctions on foreign cooperation with Iran’s civil nuclear program. Price said that the waivers were in the U.S. “vital national interest regardless of what happens with the JCPOA.”12 In fact, the waivers were necessary prerequisites to a deal because they facilitate the disposition of Iran’s excess stockpile of enriched uranium and the resumption of modifications to the Arak heavy-water reactor to make it more proliferation resistant. The waiver would also allow an underground site at Fordow to cease uranium enrichment and return to the production of isotopes for medical use as specified by the original agreement, Price explained.

The Ukraine Effect

According to participants, negotiators completed a 27-page draft agreement in mid-March that specified the steps Iran would take to roll back its nuclear progress in return for relief from U.S. nuclear-related sanctions.13 Talks had been interrupted in late February by a Russian effort to exploit the JCPOA to circumvent some of the sanctions imposed on Russia over the invasion of Ukraine. In the end, the Russians backed down and accepted the terms of the original deal, under which Russia agreed to accept excess enriched U-235 from Iran and provide other civil nuclear cooperation that does not deal with broader Iranian-Russian trade issues. Nevertheless, the momentum in Vienna was broken by the war in Ukraine and the Russian attempt to hold the Vienna talks hostage to sanctions exemptions. Despite valiant efforts by EU envoy Enrique Mora14 and other would-be mediators, the stalemate has continued.

In interviews with ACT and in Iranian press reports, Iranian analysts have stated that, for domestic political reasons, Raisi feels he needs to squeeze more concessions from the United States than the Rouhani team obtained, resulting in the demand to take the IRGC off the list of foreign terrorist organizations. At the same time, Iran is no longer feeling the pinch of U.S. secondary sanctions to the extent it was a few years ago. Iran has managed to increase its oil exports, primarily to China, to more than one million barrels a day. Given the steep rise in prices due to the war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia, Iran is earning sufficient revenues to meet its basic needs.15 Even if the United States could enforce secondary sanctions on Iranian oil customers, there is little motivation to do so at a time of global shortages and sky-high energy prices.

Biden’s Ambivalence

As the Iran issue appears to have lost urgency, the Biden administration also seems increasingly ambivalent about the value of the JCPOA when weighed against the potential domestic political costs of compromising with a long-time U.S. adversary. President Joe Biden did not announce a U.S. return to the JCPOA on the first day of his presidency as many proponents of the deal had hoped. He did appoint an experienced Iran envoy, Rob Malley, who had participated in the original negotiations, within a week of taking office. Yet, Malley took months consulting with U.S. allies and Middle Eastern partners such as Israel, which opposed the original deal, and with Arab countries, which were concerned about the increased oil revenues that Iran would receive and possibly divert to its regional partners.

Biden administration officials such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan also talked about their desire for a “longer and stronger” deal before the old one could be revived.16 This language reflected a genuine desire to improve on the original and an effort to placate powerful deal opponents among Democrats such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.), who had the power to slow the confirmation of Biden appointees in a closely divided Senate.17 As a result, precious time was lost before the Iranian presidential elections and the replacement of the Iranian negotiation team with JCPOA skeptics.

With U.S. midterm elections now approaching, the Biden administration seems particularly leery of acceding to Iran’s demands regarding the IRGC. Although it is largely a conscript organization, IRGC elements, particularly the Qods Force, have been implicated in attacks on U.S. military forces in the Middle East, as well as in support of anti-U.S. nonstate actors, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthis, and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units. Biden appears concerned about looking weak and the impact this might have on select races in November when Democrats are at risk of losing control of the House and Senate.

For Biden, the JCPOA was never the signature issue it was for President Barack Obama, who considered the deal his most important foreign policy achievement. Biden has been much more engaged in solidifying NATO in the face of Russian aggression and is also eager to focus on the challenge of China. He appears unwilling to expend as much political capital as Obama did on the Iran agreement even though public opinion polls show that the deal is more popular in the United States now than it was in 2015 and experts acknowledge that there is no realistic plan B for containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the long term.18

Iran’s Goal

One possible reason for the lack of urgency in Washington over Iran’s nuclear advances is that the U.S. intelligence community continues to find no evidence that Iran has resumed work on developing an actual nuclear weapon, despite its growing stockpile of enriched uranium.19 Iran has always denied that it seeks to build nuclear weapons, but the fact that it was found to have possessed a clandestine program two decades ago20 and that its cooperation with the IAEA has been less than stellar has fueled suspicion and concern. Still, Iran’s program has been the slowest moving in the history of nuclear proliferation, given that its activities began in the 1950s under the U.S.-led Atoms for Peace initiative.

Since Iran’s nuclear work first began, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have built nuclear arsenals, but Iran has not. The Iranian program was suspended following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when Western companies halted work on nuclear projects in Iran. The program was revived in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war when Iran feared that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons. Progress in the 1990s was slow, inhibited by successful U.S. appeals to Russia and China, but picked up in the mid-2000s after the 2005 election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The organized weapons program halted in 2003 and certain weaponization-related activities continued until 2009, but there has been no evidence of illicit weapons work since then, according to the IAEA and the U.S. National Intelligence Council. The JCPOA halted and rolled back the program significantly until the Trump withdrawal.

As a signatory of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran has pledged to remain free of nuclear weapons, a pledge it reiterated in the preamble of the JCPOA. The key provisions of the agreement were designed to make it extremely difficult for Iran to violate that pledge without being detected. If Iran returns to compliance again, it must blend down or export hundreds of tons of excess U-235 and remove advanced centrifuges. These actions must be verified and monitored by the IAEA, with no time limits on that cooperation, to provide confidence that Iran cannot “sneak out” and amass material clandestinely for a bomb. Iran, under its interpretation of the JCPOA, says it is entitled to breach these limits again if the United States does not fulfill its obligations to waive key sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and financial transactions.21

Supporters of the agreement concede that, because of the additional technical knowledge that Iran has accumulated since the United States unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, Iran’s ability to break out and amass sufficient material for a single nuclear weapon has been significantly increased.22 When combined with the limitations on uranium stockpiles and IAEA monitoring, however, a restored agreement should still provide sufficient time for the international community to react should violations occur. Without an agreement, Iran could continue amassing larger and larger quantities of U-235 enriched to higher and higher levels. This activity would be inherently destabilizing. It could spark a nuclear arms race in the region, prompting Saudi Arabia in particular to acquire a nuclear arsenal, and provoke new sabotage or other kinds of attacks on Iran by Israel or even the United States, both of which have vowed to never allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

The Role of Congress

Because the agreement would be a restoration of the original, not a rewrite, the Biden administration has argued that it is not obliged to submit the deal for formal review by Congress under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Act of 2015.23 Malley testified on May 25 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, however, that the administration will invoke the law if a deal is struck to allow Congress to publicly debate the issue.24 It is extremely doubtful that a veto-proof majority of two-thirds of the House and Senate could be assembled to block restoration of the JCPOA. Even so, Republicans are united against the deal; even some Democrats, most prominently those who did not support the agreement in 2015, have expressed concern that it does not cover non-nuclear issues such as Iran’s growing arsenal of ballistic missiles and drones.25

Senator John Hoeven (ND), at podium, and other Republican senators hold press conference at the U.S. Capitol in March to discuss their objections to negotiations aimed at restoring Iranian and U.S. compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.  (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)A more serious issue is what might happen in 2024 if a Republican is elected president. Trump and other GOP hopefuls are opposed to the JCPOA and might follow the precedent set by Trump in 2018. It will be important for supporters of the agreement to underline the negative consequences of the Trump withdrawal for U.S. nonproliferation and regional security interests. It will also be key for the United States and other parties to intensify efforts to deescalate broader tensions between Iran and its neighbors and between Iran and Israel to build a stronger foundation for the JCPOA.

Fortunately, Iran, a Shia theocracy, has already made some progress toward improved relations with its Sunni Arab rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Iran and Israel remain bitter adversaries, but the removal of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli prime minister and the formation of a broad coalition government in Israel has led to less prickly relations between Israel and the Biden administration. There was also a brief pause in Israeli attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists and facilities. That appears to have ended, however, with the May 22 assassination of an IRGC officer in Tehran and a mysterious "explosion" May 26 near the Parchin military facility that killed an Iranian engineer.26

Much will depend on Iran’s evaluation of the material benefits it is slated to receive if it returns to compliance with the JCPOA. Iranians have suffered greatly from Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign, not to mention the COVID-19 epidemic, endemic economic mismanagement, and corruption. According to Iranian statistics, the percentage of Iranians classified as poor has doubled over the past three years to more than a third of the population.27 Inflation is higher than 40 percent, and unemployment is also in double digits. The waiving of U.S. secondary sanctions on key sectors of the Iranian economy, especially oil and gas, and the repatriation of some $100 billion in hard currency assets would provide a substantial, if temporary, boost to Iran’s economy. To sustain these benefits, Iran would need to institute reforms of its own, increasing transparency in its banking sector, reducing consumer subsidies, and tackling corruption more effectively.

Iran’s Foreign Policy Orientation

Another unfortunate result of the maximum-pressure campaign and a factor in Iran’s ambivalence about returning to compliance with the JCPOA has been the solidification of the Iranian regime’s anti-Western orientation. The U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA vindicated Khamenei’s view that the United States is untrustworthy and led him to boost Iran’s economic dependence on China and strategic cooperation with Russia, countries that do not criticize the Islamic Republic for human rights abuses or foreign adventurism. This orientation does not reflect the views of many Iranian people, who traditionally have looked toward Western countries for trade and investment, as well as for cultural ties, underscoring the fact that a large Iranian diaspora resides primarily in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia. Regardless, the “look to the East” policy is still supported by hard-liners who now control all elements of the Iranian government and is important to their domestic political power base.28

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi speaks in May to Iran’s first international event on privatization. (Photo credit: Iranian government website)When the original nuclear deal was reached, supporters made clear that it was valuable on its own merits. Still, there was hope that the JCPOA, as the product of unprecedented, direct, high-level U.S.-Iranian diplomacy, would lead to some broader détente and even normalization of ties between Washington and Tehran. As then-Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif famously put it, the JCPOA could be “the foundation, not the ceiling” of Iran’s foreign relations, including with the United States.29

Those hopes have been dashed by the Trump withdrawal and the political backlash against pragmatists in Iran. That said, a revived JCPOA is a prerequisite for any improvement in bilateral ties, including the release of jailed dual nationals and a resumption of people-to-people engagement. It would give the United States a seat at the table again in the joint commission that monitors the JCPOA and thus a venue to raise issues that go beyond the nuclear file. It would facilitate Western support for programs to address climate change and other severe threats to the Iranian people and to the world at large. It would also make it easier for Iran to engage with its neighbors on deescalating tensions and resuming normal diplomatic and economic interaction.30

Despite anti-government protests in Iran regarding the poor economy and harsh repression of civil society, the Iranian system has withstood immense challenges and does not appear likely to fall in the near future. It is incumbent on U.S. policymakers to continue to express their views on Iranian policies that are harmful to the Iranian people and to the interests of the United States and its allies and partners. Yet, one lesson of the past four, if not 40, years has been that the United States should use opportunities to lessen tensions when it is in the interest of both countries and the broader Middle East. As former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage once said, “Diplomacy is the art of letting the other guy have our way.”31

If the JCPOA can be revived, it will show that diplomacy can achieve what military conflict cannot. If it finally collapses, it will sadly confirm that the agreement was merely the exception that proved the rule in four decades of U.S.-Iranian enmity.



1. “White House Says Iran Is ‘a Few Weeks or Less’ From Bomb Breakout,” Times of Israel, April 27, 2022.

2. “Secretary of State Blinken Testifies in Senate Foreign Relations Hearing 4/26/22,” April 27, 2022, https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/secretary-of-state-blinken-testifies-in-senate-foreign-relations-hearing-4-26-22-transcript.

3. Laura Rozen, “U.S. on Iran Deal Deadlock: ‘We Know the Status Quo Can’t Endure for Long,’” Diplomatic, May 4, 2022, https://diplomatic.substack.com/p/us-on-iran-deal-deadlock-we-know?s=w.

4. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors, “Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in Light of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015),” GOV/2022/4, March 3, 2022, pp. 9–10.

5. Rafael Mariano Grossi, “Exchange of Views With European Parliament: The Work of the IAEA at an Unprecedented Moment in History,” May 10, 2022, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/cmsdata/248145/EP_IAEA_20220510dg.pdf.

6. “U.S. Sees Iran’s Nuclear Program as Too Advanced to Restore Key Goal of 2015 Pact,” The Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2022.

7. U.S. Department of State, “Department Press Briefing—May 4, 2022,” May 4, 2022, https://www.state.gov/briefings/department-press-briefing-may-4-2022/.

8. Mehrzad Boroujerdi, “Who’s on Iran’s Current Nuclear Negotiating Team? Some Have Controversial Pasts,” IranSource, January 11, 2022, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/whos-on-irans-current-nuclear-negotiating-team-some-have-controversial-pasts/.

9. Barbara Slavin, “Iran Offers Less for More as Vienna Talks Stall,” IranSource, December 6, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/iran-offers-less-for-more-as-vienna-talks-stall/.

10. IAEA, “Joint Statement by HE Mr. Mohammad Eslami, Vice-President and President of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, and HE Mr. Rafael Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency,” March 5, 2022, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/pressreleases/joint-statement-by-he-mr-mohammad-eslami-vice-president-and-president-of-the-atomic-energy-organization-of-iran-and-he-mr-rafael-grossi-director-general-of-the-international-atomic-energy-agency.

11. “IAEA Warns That Iran Not Forthcoming on Past Nuclear Activities,” Reuters, May 10, 2022.

12. U.S. Department of State, “Department Press Briefing - February 7, 2022,” https://www.state.gov/briefings/department-press-briefing-february-7-2022/.

13. Stephanie Liechtenstein and Nahal Toosi, “Iran Nuclear Talks Freeze Amid Terrorist Label Spat—Even With Deal on the Table,” Politico, April 28, 2022, https://www.politico.eu/article/iran-nuclear-talks-freeze-amid-terrorist-label-spat-even-with-deal-on-the-table/.

14. Laurence Norman, “Europe to Make Fresh Push to Revive Iran Nuclear Deal,” The Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2022.

15. Parisa Hafezi, “Analysis: Rising Oil Prices Buy Iran Time in Nuclear Talks, Officials Say,” Reuters, May 5, 2022.

16. Steven Erlanger and David E. Sanger, “U.S. and Iran Want to Restore the Nuclear Deal. They Disagree Deeply on What That Means,” The New York Times, May 9, 2021.

17. A U.S. negotiator stated in February 2021 that Menendez was a key factor inhibiting U.S. willingness to quickly return to compliance with the JCPOA. U.S. official, conversation with author, Washington, D.C., February 13, 2022.

18. Matthew Kendrick, “Many U.S. Voters Support a Binding Nuclear Deal With Iran. That Might Not Count for Much,” Morning Consult, February 16, 2022, https://morningconsult.com/2022/02/16/iran-deal-polling-us-voters/; Atlantic Council, “Is There a Plan B for Iran?” YouTube, December 9, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4jLhkO2dHU.

19. U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community,” February 2022, https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/assessments/ATA-2022-Unclassified-Report.pdf.

20. U.S. National Intelligence Council, “National Intelligence Estimate; Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,” November 2007, https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Reports%20and%20Pubs/20071203_release.pdf.

21. Francois Murphy, Parisa Hafezi, and John Irish, “Exclusive: Iran Nuclear Deal Draft Puts Prisoners, Enrichment, Cash First, Oil Comes Later - Diplomats,” Reuters, February 17, 2022.

22. Laurence Norman, “U.S. Sees Iran’s Nuclear Program as Too Advanced to Restore Key Goal of 2015 Pact,” The Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2022.

23. Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, 42 U.S.C. § 2160e (2015).

24. U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, "The JCPOA Negotiations and United States’ Policy on Iran Moving Forward," Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, May 25, 2022, https://www.foreign.senate.gov/hearings/the-jcpoa-negotiations-and-united-states-policy-on-iran-moving-forward05252201

25. Andrew Desiderio, “Congress Fires Its First Warning Shot on Biden’s Iran Deal,” Politico, May 5, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/05/05/congress-warning-biden-iran-deal-00030448.

26. Farnaz Fassihi and Ronen Bergman, "Israel Tells U.S. It Killed Iranian Officer, Official Says," The New York Times, May 25, 2022.

27. Nadereh Chamlou, “Can President Ebrahim Raisi Turn Iran’s Economic Titanic Around?” IranSource, February 1, 2022, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/can-president-ebrahim-raisi-turn-irans-economic-titanic-around/.

28. Javad Heiran-Nia, “How Iran’s Interpretation of the World Order Affects Its Foreign Policy,” IranSource, May 11, 2022, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/how-irans-interpretation-of-the-world-order-affects-its-foreign-policy/.

29. “Iran Deal Not a ‘Ceiling’: Zarif,” Islamic Republic News Agency, July 14, 2015, https://en.irna.ir/news/81683560/Iran-deal-not-a-ceiling-Zarif.

30. Barbara Slavin, “The Potential Side Benefits of a Revived JCPOA for Middle East Stability,” IranSource, April 5, 2022, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/the-potential-side-benefits-of-a-revived-jcpoa-for-middle-east-stability/.

31. Barbara Slavin, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007), p. 223.

Barbara Slavin directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

There seems little U.S. urgency to restore compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal despite the fact that Iran is advancing its nuclear capabilities.

Nuclear Overtones in the Russia-Ukraine War

June 2022
By Manpreet Sethi

Nuclear weapons today occupy center stage in an unexpected theater in Europe. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has drawn attention to these weapons of mass destruction and the alarming possibility of their use in a manner that had mostly been forgotten. When the Cold War ended more than three decades ago, it was not anticipated that the threat of nuclear weapons use would make such a comeback. South Asia and the Korean peninsula were considered the more likely nuclear flashpoints, not Europe.

The remains of a school in Kharkiv, Ukraine, that was destroyed during fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces on May 24. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)More than two months have elapsed since the start of the conflict. Although the actual fighting is taking place between nuclear-armed Russia and non-nuclear Ukraine, the threatening shadow of the nuclear weapons possessed by the United States and NATO is palpable. Since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, this is the first real engagement between the United States and Russia where they are indirectly yet directly involved. Millions of lives have been disrupted, and several thousand people have died. This is an irreparable and inconsolable human loss.

There also will be long-lasting implications for states, whether possessing nuclear weapons or not, as to how these capabilities are perceived in the future. This experience has created profound nuclear challenges, but also offers some opportunities for reducing nuclear risks.

Nuclear Challenges

One immediate concern is the manner in which nuclear Russia has used force against non-nuclear Ukraine. A popular view emerging internationally is that Russia exploited its nuclear status to invade its neighbor and that its nuclear weapons, in effect, gave it the immunity to wage a war against a non-nuclear-weapon state.

This perception raises the stock value of nuclear weapons and could lead a non-nuclear-weapon state to reexamine its security requirements, especially when it experiences hostile relations with countries that possess nuclear weapons. It will have implications for how a non-nuclear-weapon state evaluates the worth of negative security assurances provided to it by the nuclear-weapon states. Despite such assurances being made to Ukraine in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia, for instance, Russia has used the threat of the potential use of nuclear weapons as a way to deter Ukraine from soliciting and receiving outside support. This episode raises the possibility of similar instances of nuclear coercion against additional non-nuclear-weapon states, which, in turn, could lead these states to acquire their own nuclear weapons to fend off nuclear-armed adversaries.

A second challenge arises from the heightened risks of nuclear use when two nuclear-armed states engage in conventional war with each other. During the Cold War, it was generally assumed that, in case of a direct conflict between two countries with nuclear weapons, presumably the United States and the Soviet Union, the fighting would turn quickly into a nuclear exchange. As a result, the planning process in both countries shifted to the realm of nuclear war-fighting. The size and structure of the U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, targeting strategies, and civil defense measures were constructed with the inevitability of a nuclear war in mind. Little attention was paid to containing a war at the conventional level.

Fortunately, incidents of direct military engagement between nuclear-armed states were few. The only direct conflict during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States took place in 1962 over Cuba, and a direct military clash between the Soviet Union and China took place over the Ussuri River in 1969. All other confrontations between nuclear superpowers were fought through their proxies in third countries that were themselves non-nuclear. This record, not surprisingly, reinforced the thinking among scholars and political leaders that nuclear deterrence averts war between nuclear-armed nations. Tomes have been written about how the presence of nuclear weapons induces nations to be prudent and to establish “tools for crisis management to reduce the prospect of the outbreak of unintended warfare, either nuclear or conventional.”1 Such a belief is also responsible for the positive spin around nuclear weapons as keepers of stability and peace between nuclear-armed nations and hence against the case for nuclear disarmament.

Interest and concern about the possibility of conventional wars that could be fought between nuclear-armed states picked up after India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998. Given their historically troubled relationship and geographical contiguity, the possibility of conventional war within this nuclear shadow presented a significant new challenge. The West rushed to provide Islamabad and New Delhi with “nuclear learning” from its experience. Over the years, India and Pakistan have found ways of navigating the narrow space of conventional military operations against the backdrop of their nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the risk of escalation can never be obviated.

The experience of Southern Asia, a term used to define the nuclear dynamics among China, India and Pakistan, underscores that when caught in a direct confrontation, nuclear-armed states, irrespective of their doctrine or apparent nuclear bluster, are cognizant of the consequences of intentional use and the risks of inadvertent use of nuclear weapons. Therefore, leaders take conscious measures to avoid risks and are forced to do two things: show high tolerance for their adversary’s military and political actions, and moderate the use of their own military capability to remain below the other side’s perceived nuclear threshold. A former Indian defense minister made this observation after the nuclearization of South Asia: “Nuclear weapons did not make war obsolete; they simply imposed another dimension on the way warfare was conducted…. [C]onventional war remained feasible, though with definite limitations, if escalation across the nuclear threshold was to be avoided.”2 As history has shown, nuclear-armed states of all hues are compelled to impose constraints on the use of their conventional military forces to avert raising the level of the crisis.

When India fought the war with Pakistan in 1999 over the Kargil district that had been clandestinely occupied by Pakistani army troops disguised as mujahideen, the Indian Air Force was instructed to operate without crossing the Line of Control, which divides the Indian- and Pakistani-controlled parts of Kashmir. Air operations to evict the intruders were conducted in a constrained space in order to avoid any chance of provoking Pakistan into expanding the conflict, thereby risking nuclear escalation. In more recent times, India’s response to continued cross-border attacks from Pakistan have taken the form of short, swift surgical strikes, as in 2016, or carefully calibrated air attacks, as in 2019. These operations have been crafted by India to punish without exploiting the full force of its conventional military capabilities. Pakistan’s retaliatory attacks also appear to have been prudently tailored to keep escalation in check.3

A similar pattern seems to be emerging in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, where in order to steer clear of the specter of nuclear escalation, both sides are moderating their military actions. The United States and NATO have refrained from undertaking any overtly provocative actions. The Ukrainian demand for help in imposing a no-fly zone has been rejected. The United States cancelled a scheduled test of an intercontinental ballistic missile and refused to raise the alert levels of its nuclear forces despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats and order to put his nuclear forces on somewhat higher alert. The objective of these Western efforts has been to avoid any action that could be misread by Moscow as a provocation.

Meanwhile, Russia has had to tolerate a certain level of arms and ammunition transfers to Ukraine. Even a strategic blow such as the sinking of the Russian flagship Moskva or reported high casualties among Russian troops have been absorbed. Despite the nuclear brinksmanship suggested when Putin threatened consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history,” concerns about the use of nuclear weapons to redeem losses on the ground appear farfetched. This is true even though the Russian leadership has not hesitated to draw attention repeatedly to nuclear weapons, whether by testing a Sarmat missile on April 20 or reiterating the threat of “unpredictable consequences” if heavy arms were supplied to Ukraine by Western powers. Indeed, keeping the nuclear threat in the news is part of the Kremlin’s nuclear strategy of deterrence.

As it appears now, the war could progress in slow motion indefinitely until both sides can find an off-ramp that allows them to avoid the appearance of defeat, or the war could “break out of the boundaries that have currently kept it contained.”4 More often than not, outright victories and defeats are difficult to ascertain in such conflicts. Nations are forced to tailor their political-military objectives along more and more limited lines as the conflict stretches on. In fact, the success of military campaigns is claimed more frequently in the individual narratives articulated by each side rather than on the ground. Indian-Pakistani military engagements since 1998 illustrate these facts.

The challenge remains that when two nuclear-armed states engage in conflict, they have the capacity to hold the world hostage to nuclear destruction. Executing conventional wars in the shadow of nuclear arsenals may be possible, but it is not devoid of high risks.

Norm-Affirming Opportunities

Incidences of direct military engagement between nuclear-armed adversaries and the manner in which they have been conducted also illuminate another interesting issue pertaining to the perceived military utility of nuclear weapons. Nuclear strategists and practitioners understand well that nuclear deterrence is a game of psychological manipulation. Nuclear bluster and brinkmanship are an important dimension of nuclear deterrence, especially by weaker conventional powers. Like Pakistan or North Korea, Russia appears to have used nuclear saber-rattling to deter its adversary from the large-scale use of conventional forces. Despite all the noise that must accompany strategies of first use of nuclear weapons or those premised on the notion of “escalate to deescalate,” it is never easy to find the appropriate military use for nuclear weapons. The nature of the armament as a weapon of mass destruction and the attendant risk of retaliation after first use make it a blunt instrument, at least from the point of view of war-fighting.

Therefore, in all crises between nuclear-armed states, nuclear weapons have not shown themselves to be useful for achieving any worthwhile political or military objectives through premeditated first use. This is particularly the case when both sides have assured second-strike capabilities, thereby raising the risk of an exchange that would cause unacceptable damage to both sides.

Once this logic is understood, it is possible to envision some opportunities that can be exploited to strengthen the norm of nonuse of nuclear weapons and reinforce the basics of nuclear deterrence. What needs to be underscored is the fact that nuclear weapons are distinct from conventional weapons. The instantaneous release of large amounts of energy in the form of blast and thermal heat, ionizing radiation, and the long-term radioactivity from nuclear fallout are unavoidable with nuclear detonations.5 The empirical data from the destruction wrought on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by, respectively, 15-kiloton and 20-kiloton nuclear warheads are widely available. Today’s warheads are even more powerful and destructive. Although lower yields have been experimented with as one way of reducing the deleterious effects of nuclear explosions, a 2001 report concluded that even a ground burst of a nuclear yield as small as 1 percent of the Hiroshima weapon would “simply blow out a massive crater of radioactive dirt, which rains down on the local region with especially intense and deadly fallout.”6

Given that this is the true nature of the weapon, there hardly can be any credible scenarios where it could be used effectively to achieve an objective. Could any war aim be worth this cost to the adversary and to one’s own self given the retaliation that would likely follow? Over time, Washington and Moscow accumulated large stockpiles of varying yields in the hope of gaining an advantage in nuclear exchanges. Yet, neither country has been seriously inclined to test this hypothesis in real-life situations.

No matter how the war in Ukraine evolves, the nuclear threats by Russian President Vladimir Putin (R), shown with Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, have revived fears of nuclear conflict and changed how countries think about deterrence and other nuclear-related theories. The two men attended the Victory Day Parade, marking the Soviet Union's defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, in Red Square on May 9.  (Photo by Contributor/Getty Images)Nations cannot defend themselves by using nuclear weapons. They can only do so by deterring the adversary’s use of a nuclear weapon by the threat of retaliation. In fact, the threat of using these weapons in any scenario other than retaliation, such as against terrorists, conventional offensives, and cyberattacks or space attacks, could only be counterproductive by escalating hostilities. Clearly, these weapons are most effective for only a narrow role.

Embracing this simple reality could make it possible for nations to agree to accept no first use of nuclear weapons as a doctrinal precept. If deterrence is the only function that nuclear weapons can credibly perform, then a no-first-use doctrine does not put nuclear-armed states at a disadvantage. Rather, it brings many benefits. For one, it allows countries to retain their nuclear weapons for the sense of notional security derived from their presence until such time as nuclear-armed states begin to see them as useless. At the same time, the no-first-use policy liberates nations from the need to build and maintain large arsenals with first-strike capabilities, which bring their own risks of safety and security.

Moreover, the policy releases national leaders from having to make the momentous decision to breach the nuclear taboo, which can never be easy because the act will provoke retaliation. It also frees adversaries from the use-it-or-lose-it dilemma, which could trigger nuclear preemption. Thus, a no-first-use policy offers crisis and arms race stability even in the presence of nuclear weapons.7 Because nuclear weapons possessors are unwilling to relinquish their arsenals until conditions are “right,” a no-first-use policy can help create those conditions by constricting possibilities for using the weapon, thus making them useless over time.

Backing Off the Nuclear Precipice

Six decades after the Cuban missile crisis, the Russian-Ukrainian war has brought nations yet again to the nuclear precipice. Talk of World War III is in the air. Of course, the United States and NATO have taken adequate precautions to avoid any move that could propel the world toward nuclear escalation. Some Russian ministers have announced that their country has no reason to use nuclear weapons except to defend against an existential threat. These efforts contribute toward minimizing the chance of intentional nuclear use. Nevertheless, the inadvertent use of the weapons due to miscalculation, misperception, or accident should not be overlooked. Given that tensions are high and information warfare well in progress, one cannot dismiss the presence of a thick fog of war that could make countries stumble into nuclear use.

As a result, it is imperative that this moment be seized by all those who believe that living with nuclear weapons is too risky to drive home the dangers of nuclear weapons and the alarming challenges that they pose for states with nuclear weapons and those without. The very existence of these armaments adds to the risk of escalation to the nuclear level in every war. Additionally, these weapons trigger anxieties about nuclear blackmail and coercion among nonpossessor states.

The war raging in Ukraine offers an important opportunity to sensitize nations and their populations to nuclear risks. All could do with a stiff dose of nuclear learning. The fate of future generations will rest on the world’s behavior today.



1. Richard Falk and David Krieger, The Path to Zero: Dialogues on Nuclear Dangers (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2012), p. 26.

2. Raksha Mantri, “The Challenges of Limited War: Parameters and Options” (address, New Delhi, January 5, 2000), http://www.idsa-india.org/defmin5-2000.html.

3. See Nuclear Crisis Group, “South Asia: Post Crisis Brief,” June 2019, https://www.globalzero.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/South-Asia-Post-Crisis-Brief.pdf.

4. Lawrence Freedman, “Escalators and Quagmires,” Comment Is Freed, April 29, 2022, https://samf.substack.com/p/escalators-and-quagmires.

5. Some of these arguments draw on an earlier paper by the author. See Manpreet Sethi, “Back to Basics: Pledging Nuclear Restraints,” in Off Ramps From Confrontation in Southern Asia, ed. Michael Krepon, Travel Wheeler, and Liv Dowling (Washington: Stimson Center, 2017).

6. Robert W. Nelson, “Low-Yield Earth-Penetrating Nuclear Weapons,” Federation of American Scientists, n.d., https://programs.fas.org/ssp/nukes/new_nuclear_weapons/loyieldearthpenwpnrpt.html.

7. With their declared no-first-use doctrines, China and India have demonstrated the benefits of this despite their long military stand-off since April 2020. See Ramesh Thakur and Manpreet Sethi, “India-China Border Dispute: The Curious Incident of a Nuclear Dog That Didn’t Bark,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September 7, 2020, https://thebulletin.org/2020/09/india-china-border-dispute-the-curious-incident-of-a-nuclear-dog-that-didnt-bark/.

Manpreet Sethi is a distinguished fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies in New Delhi.

The war raging in Ukraine offers an important opportunity to sensitize nations and their populations to nuclear risk. The fate of future generations will rest on the world's behavior today.

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

June 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ACT: How can you hold Russia to account?

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

ACT: What else would make the review conference successful?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 2022
By Michael T. Klare

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

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

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

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

Exercise Global Shield ’82

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

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

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

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

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

The Origins of the B-52

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

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

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

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

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

B-52 Operations in Vietnam

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

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

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

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

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

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

B-52s in the 21st Century

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

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

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

Great-Power Competition

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. Ibid., p. 769.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 2022
By Oliver Meier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

Arms Control Must Remain the Goal

April 2022
By Andrei Zagorski

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

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

Mutual Signaling

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

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

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

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

A Wake-Up Call?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

April 2022
By George Perkovich

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

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

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

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

U.S. Dysfunction

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

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

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

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

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

Problems With Russia and China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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