Discussing the crisis of nuclear order at the Munich Security Conference 2023: who is to blame?

Coordinator, Information & Publications Program
March 10, 2023

The 59th Munich Security Conference (MSC) was held from February 17 to 19, 2023. One of the world’s famous platforms for discussing current global security issues, this year the conference brought together dozens of ministers and leaders from different countries, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Rishi Sunak, Vice President of the United States Kamala Harris, President of Brazil Lula da Silva, Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party Wang Yi, etc.

At the MSC in 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his famous speech on the threats of American unipolarity, the vision of Russia’s place and role in the changing modern world. And 16 years later, the threats to global security caused by Russia’s actions in Ukraine are being discussed again in Munich.

But the current MSC is special not only because of the war in Ukraine. This is the premiere for its new chair, Christoph Heusgen, a former adviser to former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, German Ambassador to the United Nations in New York (2017–2021). In relation to Russia, he takes a much tougher position than his predecessor, Wolfgang Ischinger. On the initiative of the new chair, the Russian and Iranian delegations were not invited to the conference this year.

Published a couple of days before the conference, the Munich Security Report 2023, the title of which was a play on words: Re:vision also referred to as «revisionists» to the current order, summed up all the current problems, paying a significant role to the current nuclear safety issues [1]. Although nowadays the key nuclear threat seems to come only from Russia because of the Ukrainian conflict, it was not only Russia that got its share of harsh criticism. The «revisionists» of the report were also called China, the United States, China, the DPRK, Iran and the TPNW.

All eyes on Russia

This conference almost coincided with the anniversary of the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, and the lion’s share of speeches and discussions were related to expressing solidarity with Ukraine, the need to provide more assistance to Kyiv, and preventing Russia’s victory by any means. In matters of nuclear threats, the concerns of the world community are caused by the statements of the top Russian leadership on the possibility of using nuclear weapons, as well as ensuring the safety of the Zaporozhye NPP.

Regarding Russia’s nuclear threats, the authors of the Re:vision report refer to the speech on the «Address of the President of the Russian Federation» dated September 21, 2022, and «Signing of agreements on the admission of the DPR, LPR, Zaporozhye and Kherson regions to Russia» dated September 30, 2022 [2]. «The citizens of Russia can rest assured that the territorial integrity of our Motherland, our independence and freedom will be defended – I repeat – by all the systems available to us», said Vladimir Putin addressing to the Nation on September 21, 2022. The former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who now holds the post of Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, expressed this more directly, when commenting on the creation of a tribunal to investigate Russia’s actions and possible defeat of Russia, he said, «The defeat of a nuclear power in a conventional war may trigger a nuclear war» [3]. Regarding the country’s nuclear forces moving to a «special regime of combat duty», Medvedev stated that everyone must understand the threats that other states would face if they attempted to influence the course of our country through military means [4]

Indeed, the unspoken taboo on even the potential use of nuclear weapons by the P5 was violated by Russia after many decades (the last times the UK threatened China with nuclear weapons in 1965, and Argentina in 1982 [5]). And these Russian nuclear threats came after the recent Five Nuclear-Weapons States statement of January 2022 (a month before the start of Russia’s campaign in Ukraine) that «nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought» [6]. But the changed international situation and increasing Western interference in the conflict forced the Russian authorities to use their trump card with nuclear weapons.

It was not only the statements and high alert regime that inspired fear of a nuclear threat. The report also criticizes the shelling of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, the Zaporozhye NPP, as well as the abduction of station personnel. All of these risks were caused by Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and it appeared that it didn’t matter who was firing at and endangering the nuclear power plant – the Ukrainian Armed Forces or the Russian Federation. 

The authors of the report analyzed possible nuclear strikes by Moscow and stated that this should not go unpunished. However, the response to such actions should not cause further escalation. Now it is difficult to imagine how this can be done after the possible beginning of nuclear war, but none of the parties to the conflict is definitely interested in such an outcome. As one of the authors of the NPT, Roland Timerbaev said, «Apparently, it’s just wrong to call it a weapon. After all, a weapon is a tool or mechanism created in order to win a war or defend against an enemy, and a nuclear weapon cannot lead its owner to victory or provide defense against the enemy» [7]. Any use of nuclear weapons in war can lead the world to a point of no return and destruction on a global scale.

Arms control regime crisis

Of course, the current crisis is caused not only by Russia’s actions and Western interference in the Ukrainian conflict but is global and systemic and began way before it. The MSC report mentions countries that are involved in the erosion of the modern nuclear nonproliferation regime and their misdeeds:

• The US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002;

• North Korea – from the NPT in 2003;

• the USA – from the JCPOA in 2018;

• the USA – from the INF Treaty (caused by violations of the terms of the treaty by the Russian Federation – the report notes) in 2019;

• the USA in 2020 and Russia in 2021 – from the Treaty on Open Skies.

The MSC report mentions that the last existing bilateral nuclear arms control treaty, START-3, expires in 2026, and that there is no replacement for it. But the authors did not know then that literally in the same month, Russia would announce the suspension of participation in this treaty and the arms control regime would remain without its last treaty and approach the wrong kind of «global zero» [8].

Another problem are the failures of the NPT 2022 and Russia’s disagreement to include items regarding the safety of the Zaporozhye NPP in the final document. But the report does not say that this document could have been adopted, if not for the strong desire of some Western countries to link the final document of the conference on nuclear nonproliferation to Ukraine. The entire document, along with a huge set of other topical security issues, was sacrificed because of the principles and rigidity of the two sides. Of course, this will not help increase global security. 

The report criticizes the actions of the United States (rather, the policy of the former US president Donald Trump) to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal, which led not only to the failure of the UN Security Council resolution, but also to a reduction in the time that Iran will need to produce its own nuclear weapons. The revival of the JCPOA since 2021 has been hampered by the opposition in Iran and the United States, as well as Tehran’s policy of supporting Russia and suppressing protests inside the country. Here, the authors of the report do not say that by the beginning of the war in Ukraine and the suppression of protests in Iran, negotiations on the revival of the JCPOA had reached an impasse. In Iran, conservatives came to power, replacing the reformers deceived by the United States with the signing of the JCPOA. Therefore, it would be fairer for the United States to take the first steps and make some concessions to revive the deal and strengthen regional and global security, but the Joe Biden administration turned out to be principled and did not show much activity in trying to revive the deal, continuing, in fact, Trump’s disastrous policy.

Not signing the JCPOA increases the possibility of Iran having nuclear weapons, which, according to the fair comment of the authors of the report, may lead to further proliferation and spread of nuclear weapons in the region. So, in this scenario, Saudi Arabia will try to acquire nuclear weapons itself [9], and Israel, which already has nuclear weapons, can carry out a preventive attack on Iranian territory. But as it was indicated in the published report of PIR Center on the new nuclear nine, at present the creation of nuclear weapons in Saudi Arabia is unlikely [10]. The country lacks or is at a low stage of development for the infrastructure, technology, and personnel necessary to start a nuclear program of a military-applied nature. Statements periodically made by the top political leadership about the need to create a nuclear arsenal in the event of the appearance of nuclear weapons in Iran should be considered an attempt to draw the attention of the United States to the concerns of the Kingdom regarding the Iranian nuclear program and its possible military dimension. It seems that Saudi Arabia’s policy towards nuclear weapons is rational; it is based on a sober analysis of the benefits and costs of acquiring a nuclear arsenal. There are currently no incentives to acquire a nuclear arsenal at any cost: the security of the Kingdom is currently provided by military-technical cooperation with the United States [11].

Talking about the current challenges to the nonproliferation regime, the report of the MSC points to four countries with nuclear weapons outside the official nuclear club – India, Pakistan, Israel and the DPRK. And here the following risks are seen – Pakistan may pose a threat because of internal political instability, and North Korea because of aggressive policies. In 2022 alone, the country conducted a record 86 missile tests [12]. Against the background of increased confrontation between the countries of the nuclear club, the nonproliferation regime may face further problems. The current intensification of geopolitical tensions in the world is unlikely to help reduce armaments.

Nevertheless, the authors of the report quite optimistically urge the international community to reaffirm its commitment to the arms control regime. However, against the background of the active phase of the conflict in Ukraine, we can hardly expect any progress here. Perhaps after its end, as after the end of the Caribbean crisis, countries will finally be able to pay attention to the destructive processes associated with the growth of armaments.

Another culprit

China, another force in the revisionism of the established world order, is seen as the third nuclear power in the world and will continue to build up its nuclear arsenal in the coming decades [13]. Thus, the US Department of Defense estimates that the number of nuclear warheads will increase from 350 in 2021 to 1,000 by 2030. The figures are greatly exaggerated, which is further confirmed by the authors of the report, but the fact that China is engaged in increasing its nuclear arsenal, is not transparent in these matters, and also refuses to take part in arms control negotiations, is of concern. Despite some pessimism of the authors of the report, the chairman of the conference Christoph Heusgen, closing the forum, highlighted the meeting of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi against the backdrop of tense relations between the two countries. «The world does not need another conflict», he said [14].

Unfortunately, neither the authors of the report nor the speakers at the conference mentioned the United Kingdom, which in 2022 announced an increase in the number of its nuclear warhead stockpile by over 40% [15], and the former Prime Minister of the country, Liz Truss, directly stated that she was willing to hit Britain’s nuclear button if necessary – even if meant «global annihilation» [16]. Yes, the UK is a more democratic and transparent state, but these statements of the country’s authorities hardly help strengthen the non-proliferation regime. Instead of setting an example to other countries, London itself further inflames aggressive and militaristic sentiments in the world. In this context, the recent suspension of the implementation of the START-3 conditions by Russia, as well as the requirement to include Britain and France in the negotiations, was expected. Perhaps joint negotiations on arms control with the participation of all parties of the nuclear club would be a compromise and fair solution to reduce the threat to humanity.

Another revisionist who poses a danger to the existing regime indicated in the report is the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). The parties to this agreement are dissatisfied with the lack of progress on disarmament under Article 6 of the NPT. But as it is rightly noted against the background of increasing geopolitical tensions, the request for nuclear weapons will not subside, despite the broad support of the «Global South».

Doubts about the US nuclear umbrella

As part of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the issue of the appearance of these weapons among US allies is also noted in the MSU report. This is due to the increasing threats from, first of all, China and Russia, as well as uncertainty on the part of the US regarding its obligations. This is stated in the report, but there is nothing saying that the United States itself may be interested in a conditional proliferation strategy, supplying sensitive nuclear technologies to allies in exchange for unconditional loyalty. The recent example is the AUKUS, trilateral military-technical alliance with Australia, under which Canberra is supposed to receive nuclear submarines. And although Washington insists that such a level of cooperation has become possible only because Australia has demonstrated a high commitment to the nuclear nonproliferation regime, it is obvious that other US allies can say the same about themselves [17]. Imposing one-sided policies in a world that is becoming more and more multipolar every year is becoming more inappropriate.

But despite the expressed doubts about the leadership of the United States, the chairman of the conference Christoph Heusgen said on the last day of the conference that he was impressed by the «transatlantic unity» demonstrated in Munich. «We have more stamina than Vladimir Putin», he added [18]. Apparently, after all, not everything is as bad with transatlantic ties as indicated in the report.

Waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel

If the MSU was quite optimistic and encouraging – transatlantic unity was confirmed, support for Ukraine and the need to fight the forces of revisionism were expressed many times, the «Nuclear Order» chapter in the MSU report was more disappointing – the conditions for restoring the normal functioning of the arms control regime were suboptimal: competition between states was increasing, the low level of trust between nuclear and potential nuclear powers persisted, and few were willing to risk losing their geopolitical competitive advantages by pursuing arms control measures. Nevertheless, the international community must reaffirm its commitment to arms control. The further erosion of the international nuclear arms control regime has eliminated important safeguards against further nuclear proliferation, an arms race between existing nuclear weapons states, unintended nuclear escalation and all associated risks. But the Cold War had showed us that even in times of great power rivalry, cooperation in the field of arms control can be possible.

In general, it is worth summarizing that the MSU one-sidedly reflects the concerns and assessments of only Western countries, sometimes ignoring the escalating steps of their allies – nothing is said about the latest actions of Britain and the risks of AUKUS, mainly only the provocative American policy under Trump is indicated, but all the actions of Russia and China are criticized – «You can see the speck in your friend’s eye, but you don’t notice the log in your own eye…». It is obvious that a real balance of power and the success of arms control negotiations can only be achieved under conditions of mutual compromises and concessions. In other cases, the countries will continue to compete and prove who is «the boss in the house».


[1] Munich Security Report 2023 Re:vision, MSC, https://securityconference.org/en/publications/munich-security-report-2023/

[2] Vladimir Putin, «Address by the President of the Russian Federation», Moscow: Kremlin, September 21, 2022, https://perma.cc/JY2N-JG67; see also Vladimir Putin, «Signing of Treaties on Accession of Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics and Zaporozhye and Kherson Regions to Russia», Moscow: Kremlin, September 30, 2022, https://perma.cc/7L4W-SXNZ.

[3] Medvedev warns of nuclear war if Russia defeated in Ukraine. Aljazeera, January 19, 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/1/19/medvedev-warns-of-nuclear-war-if-russia-defeated-in-ukraine

[4] Putin Orders Russian Nuclear Weapons on Higher Alert, Arms Control Association, March 29, 2022, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2022-03/news/putin-orders-russian-nuclear-weapons-higher-alert

[5] Thatcher ‘threatened to nuke Argentina’, The Guardian, November 22, 2005, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/nov/22/books.france

[6] Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapons States on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races, Kremlin, January 3, 2022, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67551

[7] Security Index Occasional Paper Series № 4 (8), 2020, PIR Center, April 28, 2020, https://pircenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/20-04-28-INF-SI-RUS-%E2%84%964-8-2020.pdf

[8] Russia Suspends New START and Increases Nuclear Risks, CSIS, February 23, 2023, https://www.csis.org/analysis/russia-suspends-new-start-and-increases-nuclear-risks

[9] Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, interviewed by Thierry de Montbrial, December 11, 2022, World Policy Conference 2022, https://perma.cc/BA6L-KKZM.

[10] Новая ядерная девятка? Оценка угроз распространения ядерного оружия в мире. Доклад. Издание 2-е (исправленное и дополненное) / Ред. В.А. Орлов, С.Д. Семенов. М.: ПИР-Пресс, 2023. – 230 с. – (ПИР-Библиотека – книжная серия), https://nonproliferation.world/editions/new-nuclear-nine-report/

[11] Ibid.

[12] Sue Mi Terry, «North Korea Raises the Nuclear Stakes: The Kim Regime’s Dangerous New Capabilities and Doctrine», Foreign Affairs, October 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/V4CB-6EMY.

[13] Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, «Chinese Nuclear Weapons, 2021», Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 77:6 (2021), 318–336, https://doi.org/10.1080/00963402.2021.1989208

[14] США предупредили Китай о последствиях за возможную помощь РФ, DW, February 19, 2023, https://www.dw.com/ru/ssa-predupredili-kitaj-o-posledstviah-za-vozmoznuu-pomos-rf/a-64753945

[15] Britain to expand nuclear warhead stockpile by over 40% as global threats rise, Reuters, March 16, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-politics-nuclear-weapons-idUSKBN2B81N4

[16] Liz Truss says she’s ‘ready’ to hit nuclear button if necessary, Independent, August 24, 2022, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/liz-truss-nuclear-button-ready-b2151614.html

[17] Новая ядерная девятка? Оценка угроз распространения ядерного оружия в мире. Доклад. Издание 2-е (исправленное и дополненное) / Ред. В.А. Орлов, С.Д. Семенов. М.: ПИР-Пресс, 2023. – 230 с. – (ПИР-Библиотека – книжная серия), nonproliferation.world/editions/new-nuclear-nine-report

[18] В Мюнхене завершилась конференция по безопасности, DW, February 19, 2023, https://www.dw.com/ru/v-munhene-zaversilas-konferencia-po-bezopasnosti/a-64756511