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The War in Ukraine is our Nuclear Arms Wake-up Call

Carefully crafted arms control and disarmament mechanisms are rusting-out before us

By: /
14 November, 2023
The Genbaku Dome in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, Japan. The building was the only remaining structure following the explosion of an atomic bomb that killed over 140,000 people during the Second World War.  Image by Alice Cheung/Pixabay. The Genbaku Dome in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, Japan. The building was the only remaining structure following the explosion of an atomic bomb that killed over 140,000 people during the Second World War.  Image by Alice Cheung/Pixabay.
Paul Meyer
By: Paul Meyer
Adjunct professor of international studies, Simon Fraser University

In reflecting on the consequences of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine on prospects for nuclear disarmament, the situation we are experiencing today might best be understood as a crisis of communication. Simply put, the nuclear armed protagonists of our manmade crisis are not speaking to one another. And in the absence of such communication the risks attendant upon misunderstandings, misperceptions and miscalculations grow. Couple this breakdown of communication with the ongoing war against a sovereign state, the maintenance of thousands of nuclear missiles on a high-alert status and the maintenance of “launch on warning” doctrines and there is every reason to be alarmed.

The nine nuclear armed states and in particular the five nuclear weapon states party to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT – United States, Russia, UK, France and China) like to assert that they are “responsible” nuclear powers. To some degree there were measures and agreements put in place during the atomic era to establish guardrails for the on-going competition amongst these states and their arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. The strategic relations between the two superpowers of the Soviet Union (now Russia) and the United States (representing 90% of the world’s nuclear arsenals) were salient. Despite the ideological and armed confrontation between the two camps, a series of agreements on arms control, disarmament and confidence building measures were concluded, recognizing the mutual security interest both parties had in imposing some restraint on their nuclear forces.

Prominent among these steps were arrangements for communication, notably the establishment of the “hot line” between capitals in the aftermath of the near-death experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Importantly, these arms control measures were negotiated over months and sometimes years with regular contact between the members of the respective delegations to the talks. The opposing sides inevitably got to know one another, to forge personal relationships and gain insight into the threat perceptions and priorities of the other side. These contacts between members of the respective national security establishments, at several levels, constituted a form of confidence building measure in and of itself.

Regrettably these “best practices” for managing the relations between adversaries seem to have been forgotten. As someone once remarked about “lessons learned” exercises, the only lesson to be retained is that no lesson is ever learned.

The end of the Cold War led, over the last few decades, to a certain complacency regarding nuclear weapons on the part of political leaders as well as their publics. States stood idly by as the conventional and nuclear arms control architecture, so painstakingly constructed during the Cold War, was systematically dismantled. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement, the Open Skies Treaty, the Iran nuclear deal (aka the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and the New START accord were all terminated or “suspended” by the parties involved even if that latter concept was not provided for in the text of the agreement. 

This situation has set off alarm bells not only in the West. The noted Russian analyst Alexei Arbatov has stated “It is no accident that in this current climate of international confrontation, when threats of using nuclear weapons have again become foreign policy instruments, arms control treaties are falling apart like a house of cards”. Alongside this mass kill-off of treaties was the failure to bring into effect agreements that in theory commanded universal support. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was concluded in 1996, but still has not entered into force as eight states (including China and the United States) have refused to take the necessary steps to permit this.  Arbatov rightly pointed to calls within the Moscow security establishment for Russia to cancel its ratification of the CTBT given the United States refusal to ratify the treaty. This revoking of Russia’s ratification duly occurred in late October with a law adopted unanimously in the Duma and which President Putin signed earlier this month.

A treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, an agreed objective of the international community since the 1950s has not seen a single day of negotiation. The UN’s supposed forum for the negotiation of multilateral arms control and disarmament agreements, the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament in Geneva has not concluded any agreement since 1996 and can’t even agree on and implement a work programme. States pay lip service to the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) objective while content to keep the putative negotiations confined to the dysfunctional Conference on Disarmament rather than seek the initiation of a negotiation though a resolution of the UN General Assembly that would not be subject to the veto of one or more states.

Although an attempt was made in June 2021 by Presidents Biden and Putin to launch a “strategic dialogue” to consider a range of issues, this initiative was an early casualty of Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022. While both sides still claim to want to negotiate a follow-on treaty to the 2010 New START accord prior to its expiration in February 2026 no resumption of talks has occurred. In addition, the full-range of military to military contacts have been put on ice and hostile rhetoric has largely replaced constructive dialogue. Also troubling is the unwillingness of China to respond to overtures from the United States to initiate a strategic dialogue of their own. It appears that even the existing bilateral crisis communication channels were not used on the Chinese side when the United States attempted to reach out during the recent “balloon” incident. Taiwan had a similar problem of Beijing not answering the phone even when crisis communication channels had been agreed.

I recall once being told about a hot-line established between the militaries of India and Pakistan pursuant to a bilateral confidence building agreement. When the Pakistani commander was asked why it seemed the communication channel had not been utilized since it was set up years earlier, he responded that to pick up would be a concession to the other side. The attitude of refusing to talk to your adversary because you object to their behaviour belongs in the school yard and is not befitting of relations between major powers.

This rusting out of the arms control and disarmament mechanisms and the attendant communication links has gone on largely unnoticed by politicians and publics alike. It is only with the revival of so-called “great power rivalry”, the initiation of aggressive war and the acceleration of the arms race that the world is beginning to pay attention. President Putin’s threats of nuclear weapons use, explicit or implicit, have highlighted the role these weapons can play as instruments of coercion and intimidation. Such use constitutes a form of negative communication and is incompatible with the responsibility of a nuclear power, especially one that is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Greater awareness of the threat that nuclear weapons pose is a necessary if not sufficient factor in persuading political leaders that the nuclear status quo is not viable. The surviving multilateral arms control agreement, the NPT with its 190 states parties is itself on life support. The last two Review Conferences of the NPT in 2015 and 2022 have failed to adopt outcome documents revealing unbridgeable differences amongst its parties. More evident now is the deep frustration of the non-nuclear weapon states over the failure of the NPT to deliver on its promises, in particular its Article VI commitments for nuclear disarmament. This frustration gave birth in 2017 to a new “humanitarian disarmament” accord – the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which entered into force in January 2021 and now has 69 states parties and 93 signatories.

The TPNW sets out a higher standard for nuclear disarmament than does the NPT. It prohibits all possession of nuclear weapons and not just their use but also the threat of their use. It explicitly seeks to stigmatize these weapons (and the enabling doctrine of nuclear deterrence) as a step towards their eventual elimination. Reflecting its humanitarian origins, the TPNW also sets out “positive” obligations for victim assistance and environmental remediation. While the TPNW is a refreshing expression of the desires of the vast majority of states, it is also true that it has been rejected by all nine states possessing nuclear weapons and there is no current indication that this hostile attitude will alter in the foreseeable future. Regrettably, Putin’s nuclear “sabre-rattling” has many reaching for their nuclear umbrellas if one is available to them.

It’s clear now, that  advocates of nuclear disarmament will have to manage their expectations over the next few years, while remaining active in seeking opportunities to make progress however incremental. They will need to consistently advocate for responsible behaviour by their governments, especially in espousing the resumption of communication amongst adversaries to keep the nuclear demons at bay. Indeed, there are specific actions that must be pursued:

  1. Build on the common adherence to the NPT to construct bridges between the camps supporting and opposing the TPNW, including attendance as observers to TPNW meetings of state parties such as the second meeting to be held this November.
  2. Continue to press for NPT reform that will enhance transparency and accountability with respect to Article VI obligations – common reporting templates and dedicated time for discussion of national reports. The lack of an agreed outcome to the working group that met in the week prior to the Preparatory Committee this August should not deter states from insisting on reform measures – resorting to voting on these procedural steps if necessary.
  3. Promote adoption of “No First Use” doctrines in keeping with existing commitments within the NPT to reduce the saliency of nuclear weapons in national security policies.
  4. Amplify the declaration issued by the G20 in its summit meetings of 2022 and 2023 to the effect that any threat or use of nuclear weapons is “inadmissible.”
  5. Advocate for de-alerting and related steps which insert a fire break for nuclear use.
  6. Urge states to ban all cyber operations directed against nuclear weapon complexes.
  7. Press the nuclear weapon states not to employ artificial intelligence (AI) in the control systems for their nuclear forces in a manner than supplants human control and responsibility.
  8. Call upon the participants in the NWS/P5 process to conduct serious negotiations on nuclear risk reduction and nuclear arms control in keeping with their NPT obligations.
  9. Support the initiation of negotiations on a Fissile Material Treaty via a UN General Assembly authorized process as opposed to the dysfunctional Conference on Disarmament .
  10. Call for the resumption of bilateral talks between Russia and the United States  to conclude a follow-up agreement to New START prior to its expiration in February 2026

This is not an unambitious ‘to do’ list, but one which can derive some positive impetus from the nuclear dark clouds and gale forces the world is currently experiencing.

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