Assessing the role of nuclear P5 in ensuring strategic stability

Graduate student
November 1, 2022

The creation of the P5 process is a positive step for the nonproliferation regime. For the first time in the history of the NPT, a permanent dialogue mechanism of the five nuclear-weapon states (P5) – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – on nonproliferation issues has been established. Strategic stability is one of such issues. The relevance of the topic is dictated by the lack of specific multilateral mechanisms to maintain strategic stability.

The P5 states have no understanding of the definition of “strategic stability”; different capacities prevent them from speaking on an equal footing. The definition of “strategic stability” was first agreed upon in the 1990 US-USSR Joint Statement as “the ratio of US and Soviet strategic forces in which there are no incentives to launch a first strike”[1]. The legal framework and instruments for maintaining strategic stability are predominantly bilateral – US-Russian – in nature. The multilateral nature of the P5 process may prevent frank conversations, for example on doctrines and issues related to missile defense development, which may be “too sensitive to be discussed in the P5 format”[2].

The geopolitical context is one of the key sources of challenges because relations among the P5 do not take place in a vacuum. Clearly, the current foreign and security policy context creates unprecedented obstacles for the format. As the number of nuclear warheads has fallen dramatically since the end of the Cold War, with further reductions in the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the US, there is an increasing need to consider the nuclear capabilities of other states[3].

Discussing strategic stability in the P5 format requires taking into account the national interests of each of the nuclear five states and understanding that strategic stability goes beyond arms control. In the near future, the P5 is not ready for disarmament and far-reaching reciprocal concessions due to rising international tensions. The 2022 NPT Review Conference, which ended up without a consensus final document, explicitly demonstrated this trend. In the current circumstances caused by the Russian military operation and accompanying discussions about the possible use of nuclear weapons, it seems possible to reduce tensions only in the multilateral P5 format.

Conditions for nuclear disarmament and an understanding of strategic stability

When discussing issues of strategic stability, it is the P5 that should set the tone and determine the criteria, principles, and conditions for ensuring it. Since its foundation, the P5 Process has been facing challenges along the way. In this regard, the P5 should pursue a “small steps” tactic that promotes a step-by-step approach to strategic stability and includes the most compromised topics. Thus, the dialogue could take place along these lines: jointly defining the conditions for nuclear disarmament and pursuing their support; strengthening confidence-building and transparency measures; and reducing strategic (nuclear) risks.

CountryPosition
RussiaNuclear disarmament must be approached through a lens that includes developments in missile defense, NATO’s joint nuclear missions, extra-regional forces deploying Aegis Ashore systems in Europe, “global lightning strike” systems and other long-range precision weapons, the emergence of weapons in space, and the transformation of outer space into a zone of armed conflict[4].   Sergey Ryabkov emphasizes that attempts to force the nuclear powers to forgo arsenals without considering strategic realities and legitimate security interests are counterproductive. Russia does not question the possible prohibition of nuclear weapons as an effective measure for nuclear disarmament under Article VI of the NPT, but this is admissible only at the final stage of the multilateral disarmament process to guarantee its irreversibility. In the current circumstances, such a step is premature[5]. The Russian side has also repeatedly suggested that the UK and France engage in nuclear arms control talks with the U.S.[6]. This comes against the backdrop of Washington’s ongoing attempts to get China included in the talks.
U.S.For Washington, security threats are defined by external adversaries who allegedly put US national security at risk, and nuclear deterrence is viewed as a defensive posture. Russia, China, the DPRK, and Iran are identified as threats to US security in both the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review and the 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance[7] [8]. The emphasis is on strengthening the role of the nuclear component of US military power as the main tool of deterrence.   The US nuclear strategy does not rely solely on massive and immediate strikes against the enemy. Robert Soufer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defence policy, stressed: “Our nuclear strategy [articulated in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review] calls for individual deterrence with flexible capabilities, including a mix of nuclear capabilities and incremental response options”[9]. The Guidelines argue that an ‘open international system’ is central to a stable security environment. It has been indicated so far that the administration views the Indo-Pacific region as the source of the most pressing challenge to security stability.
FranceThe French define three main parameters in the concept of nuclear deterrence: technical, human, and political reliability[10]. Technical: a potential adversary must be confident that, no matter how sudden and intense the attack, it will not escape a nuclear response that will cause irreparable damage; human: the competence, determination and engagement of the people in charge of the components of strategic nuclear forces is a necessity; political: nuclear weapons are above all political weapons, and the political weight that nuclear weapons lend must be close to France’s policy in the world and its place as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The modernization or reduction of nuclear forces must correspond to these principles.   For its security, France identifies the following threats[11]: “threats of force” (the traditional use of military force or the threat of such force between States); “risks of weakness” (the consequences of a State’s inability to fulfil its sovereign responsibilities on its own territory, thereby endangering its security)“threats and risks amplified by globalization and its consequences”, (terrorism, cyberthreats, etc.).
UKThe term “strategic stability” is used in the UK as an extremely important indicator of regional and global well-being and security. Protecting and maintaining strategic stability is a critical objective of UK defence and security planning. The conditions for strategic stability are defined by the concepts of “crisis stability” and “arms race stability”. The former is understood as the absence of incentives for unmanageable crisis escalation, while arms race stability refers to the absence of incentives for qualitative or quantitative behaviour in the arms race. In practical terms, strategic stability in Europe means that the UK can productively focus its efforts on promoting risk reduction measures, disarmament commitments and supporting allies and partner states in countering threats in the east of the region[12].   According to the December 2006 White Paper on the future of the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent, nuclear weapons continue to guarantee ultimate security[13]. This conclusion echoes that of the Strategic Defence Review of July 1998[14]. According to the Comprehensive Defence and Foreign Policy Review 2021, the UK retains a nuclear deterrent force, noting that “an acute and direct security threat” is Russia[15]. Threats to UK security[16]: remaining nuclear arsenals;growing number of states possessing nuclear weapons;proliferation of ballistic missile technology; States’ capacity to develop chemical and biological weapons;tнhe risk that nuclear weapon states will sponsor nuclear terrorism from their territory in the future.   The UK can only deter such threats in the future with its continued possession of nuclear weapons. Conventional means do not have the same deterrent effect.
ChinaOnly the Chinese leadership is committed to a ‘no first use’ policy, while the other P5 states reserve the right to use nuclear weapons if the very existence of a state is threatened.   China views “strategic stability” as political trust and respect between countries. However, a specific concept of “strategic stability” has evolved, according to which technical backwardness may lead to an attack on a country.[17]. According to Tong Zhao, a senior fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, “most often when the Chinese talk about strategic stability, they are referring to the US-China relationship and the extent to which both sides are willing to live in peace with each other. For the Chinese, this entails mutual recognition of the other side’s interests.”[18]   When the U.S.-Russian consultations on strategic stability and arms control took place in June 2020, the U.S. wanted to involve the PRC in the talks. The director of the Arms Control Department of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Fu Tsung, refused, saying that “if the U.S. is willing to reduce nuclear arsenals to Chinese levels, China will be happy to join,” because the main responsibility for nuclear arms reduction lies with the U.S.[19]. The main responsibility for nuclear arms reduction lies with the U.S. and Russia. China also promotes the idea of the US and Russia committing not to use nuclear weapons first, which is rejected by both countries[20].   The Chinese side maintains a position of “mutual vulnerability,” in which no country would be able or willing to threaten nuclear war without risking its own destruction. To enhance strategic stability, China has made the following recommendations: suspend the development and deployment of missile defense systems, prevent the militarization of space and strengthen preventive diplomacy in arms control[21].

Nuclear risk reduction

Nuclear risk reduction involves measures that, as long as nuclear weapons exist, prevent and reduce the risk of their intentional or unintentional use[22]. These measures range from declaratory policies, cooperation, launching a regular and open dialogue in a permanent working group, to agreements limiting the role, types and numbers of certain nuclear weapons. By setting aside sensitive issues, the P5 countries can discuss a less politicized area of common interest, build trust, reduce risks of misunderstanding and misjudgement, and create a constructive working environment in the run-up to the 2022 NPT Review Conference. It seems appropriate to consider the impact of hypersonic and cybernetic technologies, dual-use developments in artificial intelligence, space and robotics. Currently, there are no mechanisms in place to address their impact on nuclear risks.

In the current context, member states of the Stockholm Nuclear Disarmament Initiative believe that progress can be made at the next JCPOA on nuclear risk reduction, as many NSGs and NWSs have put the issue on the agenda. On May 2021, a working paper with a risk reduction package was submitted on behalf of the Stockholm Initiative countries, led by Switzerland[23]. Aidan Liddle, the UK’s permanent representative to the international organisations in Geneva, supported the initiative and noted that the P5 countries could develop a joint working paper on strategic risk reduction. Such a document was unveiled on 7 December 2021[24]. The P5 acknowledged the commitment to work together to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict and promote strategic stability and predictability.

Another significant document adopted by the nuclear P5 on January 3, 2022, was the “Joint Statement on Preventing Nuclear War and Preventing an Arms Race”[25]. For the first time, the leaders of the “nuclear five” jointly reaffirmed the “Gorbachev-Reagan Principle”: a nuclear war could not be won and must never be fought. With Russia launching a special military operation in Ukraine on February 24, 2022, particular steps to reduce nuclear risks can be traced. First, Russia and the U.S. keep pursuing the “Gorbachev-Reagan Principle”. On May 2, 2022, the White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a regular briefing: “I would say that the Russians themselves have, over time, including as recently as last year, made clear that a nuclear war could not be won. We agree with that. And that is important for every country to restate and every elected official to restate around the country here as well[26].” This statement was not only an attempt to “calm down” the international community, but it also reaffirmed the fundamental principles of the NPT regime.

Until now, the Joint P5 Statement on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races, dated January 3, 2022, demonstrates its efficiency and there are indications that this trend will continue. On May 6, 2022, Deputy Director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Information and Press Department Alexei Zaitsev also said: “We had to refute repeatedly the insinuations about Russia’s potential use of nuclear weapons during the special military operation in Ukraine. This is a deliberate lie”[27].He also reaffirmed Russia’s commitment to the principle that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Furthermore, in Jen Psaki’s statement, there might also be a call for other states, besides the P5, to join this “Reagan-Gorbachev Principle”. In a broader sense, such a step could be the contribution of non-nuclear states to the P5 nuclear arms-control efforts as the P5 reiterates that it underlines its “desire to work with all states to create a security environment more conducive to progress on disarmament with the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all.”[28] As for potential non-nuclear states’ contribution, they could also be a driving force to offer the P5 an additional meeting on a nuclear risk reduction topic.

Second, a “red line” has been clearly marked. If NATO nuclear weapons appeared on Ukrainian territory, Russia would be exposed to an unacceptable military risk. In such a case, Moscow would be forced to neutralise this military risk, which would probably require the use of not only conventional but also nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, on May 7, 2022, Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg said that “NATO sees no indication of increased readiness of Russian nuclear forces”[29]. On May 27, 2022, Russia urged the U.S. to return to a “professional and mutually beneficial dialogue on WMD non-proliferation”[30].

Moreover, even though the P5 is constrained by geopolitical circumstances, there should always be a channel for discussions at the expert level. Expert-level communication is paramount to making civil society’s voice heard in the P5 Process. With frozen political communication channels, it is expert dialogue that should be a bridge to the constant exchange of views. Another path to improving the P5 format work is isolating specific questions. Considering that questions discussed in the P5 format are intertwined, nuclear arms control might be sufficiently isolated from other ones, which are indeed “highly emotional”. There is a common understanding among the P5 of the irreversibility of nuclear weapons. In fact, this irreversibility should be viewed as an axiom since there is no place for manipulating the risk of nuclear war. This “red line” should be out of reach on any level. To some point, isolating it means not doubting the avoidance of nuclear war. This task is arduous but still seems real. If the idea of isolating nuclear arms-control from other sensitive topics works, it can be tailored to other overarching issues, such as climate, the fight against terrorism, etc., notwithstanding the required great political will. 

On August 26 of this year, the 10th NPT Review Conference ended without an outcome document. At two consecutive Review Conferences, the participating states were unable to reach consensus. At the 2015 NPT RevCon, a consensus document was not adopted because of disagreement over language on advancing the goal of establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Things were different at the 2022 Review Conference: there were many disputes over each of the three “pillars” of the NPT. The most acute of these was the issue of the Zaporizhzhia NPP. The 2022 RevCon is blamed for its politicization and the inability of the P5 to take tangible steps towards nuclear disarmament and reach consensus. Nevertheless, there were certain positive moments in terms of strategic stability, at least at the bilateral – U.S. – Russia – level. 

During the General Debate session at the beginning of the 2022 NPT RevCon the representatives of Russia[31] and U.S.[32] in their speeches placed the critical importance of the extension of the New START Treaty through February 4, 2026. Russia pointed out that the agreement was reached regarding the conditions for such work. Igor Vishnevetskii, Deputy Head of the Delegation of the Russian Federation at the 10th NPT Review Conference, underlined that as its ultimate goal, Russia proposed developing a new “security equation” that would take into account all factors of strategic stability in their interrelationship and encompass offensive and defensive nuclear and conventional weapons capable of meeting strategic challenges. U.S. Secretary Antony Blinken highlighted President Biden’s commitment to disarmament. “He extended the New START Treaty with Russia until 2026, and that’s made our countries and our world safer by preserving verified restrictions on our strategic nuclear arsenals and avoiding an arms race”, he continued. Additionally, Russia and the U.S. reiterated their readiness to negotiate expeditiously a framework to replace New START.

In this regard, the Draft Final Document of the 2022 RevCon contains a reaffirmation of the importance of the preservation and continued implementation of bilateral arms control agreements between the Russian Federation and the United States[33]. Furthermore, states reiterated the importance of further progress, including the negotiation of a successor agreement, leading to further reductions in their stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

Strengthening confidence-building and transparency measures

The indispensable aspect in terms of strategic stability is to maintain transparency and build confidence among the P5. The following could serve for as a goal. The first is a comprehensive programme of briefings developed by Russia and the U.S. for experts from other countries on their disarmament cooperation: how verification regimes were developed and implemented, and how differences are resolved. A similar proposal was partly reflected in the 2011 Vienna Document on OSCE Confidence and Security-Building Measures, which, in addition to providing information on armed forces, defence policy and budget, recommended periodic high-level seminars on military doctrines and study visits to meet with officials of organisations involved in defence planning and relevant bodies such as government agencies (planning, finance, economy), defence ministries, general staff[34]. These experiences can be transferred to the nuclear P5 process in order to build confidence and increase transparency in inter-state relations.

The second is a system of notification of exercises beyond strategic bomber exercises. The 1987 “Agreement between the United States and Russia on the Establishment of Centers for Reducing Nuclear Danger” provides channels of communication for the exchange of notifications within the framework of the START, etc[35]. This experience of U.S.-Russian cooperation could later be carried over into the P5 process.

Finally, the UK and Norwegian initiatives to explore technical and procedural problems associated with a future nuclear disarmament verification regime. This experience has potential, and it could be recommended for the whole P5 process. Non-nuclear weapon states’ verification partners would help increase transparency and legitimacy with the non-nuclear weapon states community, mitigate criticism, and build trust among themselves and within the P5.

The situation has drastically changed after Vladimir Putin’s speech relating to a partial mobilization of Russian forces.[36] On the same day, September 21, the U.S. Strategic Commander spoke about the reality of the U.S. entering a conflict with China and Russia. Navy Admiral Charles Richard pointed out that “all of us in this room are back in the business of contemplating competition through crisis and possible direct armed conflict with a nuclear-capable peer.” “We have not had to do that in over 30 years. The implications of that are profound. They’re profound for homeland defense. They’re profound for strategic deterrence, as well as us achieving national objectives. And this is no longer theoretical.”, he continued[37]. So, for the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, the media and ruling circles are debating the potential use of nuclear weapons.

Conclusion

For a successful implementation of the P5 process format for discussing strategic stability, the nuclear P5 will need to first come to a common denominator on its definition. Second, identify the range of issues that the P5 will be ready to discuss at this stage. Thirdly, to continue the dialogue on reducing strategic risks and further strengthening transparency and confidence-building measures in the current context at the expert level. In a situation of acute confrontation, it is unrealistic to expect practical steps on the part of the nuclear P5. Historically, the transition from confrontation to negotiations takes considerable time (in the 1980s, for instance, it took 5-6 years). However, expert-level discussions on various aspects of such a transition are possible and may be useful. Such discussions can be initiated by both nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states.

Beyond all doubt, the P5 Process is currently facing a whole set of new difficulties. However, this format is the unique discussion platform for the permanent members of the UN Security Council. There was already a precedent in the history of the nuclear P5 process for a long pause in formal meetings in 2017-2018 (it was only in 2019 that China resumed the nuclear P5 conferences). Although the nuclear P5 states continue to take concrete steps to reduce nuclear risks (reaffirming the “Gorbachev-Reagan Principle”, “red line marking”), the 2022 NPT RevCon demonstrated the deadlock in the P5 process and inability to move further in ensuring strategic stability. Nonetheless, the P5’s strategic risks reduction measures have so far proven to be effective. The best outcome of current tensions would be adherence to the principle that “a nuclear war could not be won and must never be fought”.


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[10] France Doctrine // FAS. URL:  https://nuke.fas.org/guide/france/doctrine/index.html

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[12] Ibid.

[13] Defence White Paper 2006 // FAS. URL: https://nuke.fas.org/guide/uk/doctrine/sdr06/index.html (accessed: 15.06.2022)

[14] Strategic Defence Review // FAS. URL: https://nuke.fas.org/guide/uk/doctrine/sdr98/index.html (accessed: 15.06.2022)

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[17] Нежданов В. Перспективы развития ядерных сил Китайской Народной Республики в контексте специфики идейных подходов и понимания стратегической стабильности // PIR Center. URL: https://pircenter.org/media/content/files/14/16345484160.pdf (accessed: 23.06.2022)

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[31] Statement by Mr. Igor Vishnevetskii, Deputy Head of the Delegation of the Russian Federation at the 10th NPT Review Conference (General Debate) // Reaching Critical Will. URL: https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/npt/revcon2022/statements/2Aug_Russia.pdf (accessed: 05.08.2022).

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[35] Cоглашение между Cоюзом Cоветских Cоциалистических Республик и Соединенными Штатами Америки о создании центров по уменьшению ядерной опасности (ed. October 7, 2013). URL: https://docs.cntd.ru/document/901876909 (accessed: 05.07.2022).

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