NPT Review Conference amid geopolitical turmoil

June 29, 2022

The current conflict in Ukraine will overshadow the discussion at the NPT review conference in August. We have already seen that here, in Vienna, at the IAEA Board of Governors meeting in March, and the current IAEA Board of Governors meeting, which took place in early June. There were attempts by some to either expel Russia from IAEA or to expel Russia from the Board of Governors. People have wanted out the number of Russians working at the IAEA that they should be reduced. So, this all is very non-productive and confrontational discourse.

In the previous discussions where there were some people including some who would be on the US delegation to the NPT and some other delegations, I had proposed that at the NPT review conference, during the first week we have general debates where all the countries make their opening statements. The review conference begins this work in the Three Pillars of the Treaty, three main committees: nuclear disarmament, nuclear non-proliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. So, my proposal was, during the general debates those countries that need to get items off their chest regarding Russia and Ukraine do so in the first week. And those countries who want to make a statement criticizing or condemning Russia, can have a statement of like-minded states, and it doesn’t need to be adopted by the Conference. So, those countries who would like to say something in their statement can say it, and then we end the discussion on Ukraine and Russia and starting the second week, we really get to the business of review of the Treaty across its three pillars.

This is not an entirely novel suggestion on my part. The Review Conference of the amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials faced similar issues, and there too discussion was going off track, that was a bad time, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant site was under Russian control, as was the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant. So, fortunately they decided that they would have a separate statement criticizing Russia for its actions on two nuclear power plants, and then they moved on to the business of the review of the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials.

Nonetheless, as you would know, starting from 2018 the atmosphere and discourse between the two largest possessors of nuclear weapons started to deteriorate in the NPT review conference context because until the PrepCom in Geneva in 2018 whatever the problems might have been between Russia and other states, they did not bring those problems to the NPT, they were more or less on the same page, which is to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, to strengthen IAEA safeguards, nuclear safety and security. But starting in 2018 the atmosphere began to deteriorate, they started fighting with each other at the PrepCom, and this discourse became even fiercer in the 2019 PrepCom in New York, which was then exacerbated by Russian complaints that Russian delegates did not get visas to New York in time or got the visas very late.

And so, as we can imagine, the PrepCom April-May 2019 to August 2022 the relationship between the two sides is very close to being fractured. I’ve taken part in a number of meetings in person and online where there have been senior former US officials, as well as some who would be at the review conference, and the US position, as I understand it, is that there can be no discourse or negotiation with Russia until the conflict in Ukraine is stopped and the status quo ante is restored of 23 February 2022. There will be no discussions on New START or any other issue. So, in that sense I’m quite concerned.

There are many terms that are now in use: risk reduction, strategic stability, crisis stability, the arms race stability. You can find these terms in the NPT documents, but there is no agreed definition. What is strategic stability? Ho do we know that we are in a situation of strategic stability? Is it a quantitative definition, is it a qualitative definition – ho do we know that? It is very difficult. And then usually the discussion on strategic stability in the same centers later on, at least in the NPT context and also in some General Assembly resolution also talks about the “undiminished security for all.” So, nuclear weapon states can always argue that “if I reduce nuclear weapons given the current context, my security will be diminished”. And so, we get into a circular, what I call an oxymoronic argument that we have not made the progress now for decades because we want strategic stability, we want “undiminished security for all”, and then basically nothing happens.

I was actually very taken by a recent presentation by Brad Roberts from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who, as you know, was the lead on the Obama administration Nuclear Posture Review. He in his presentation gave a prognosis that if we use the counting rules of New START and we look at the holdings of United States, Russia, and China in 2027 so, as you know, the counting rules an a New START are 700 deployed launchers – ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers – and 800 deployed and non-deployed, which means two sides can have 100 non-deployed, and then the limit on warheads is 1550 on either side, and then, as you also know, the counting rule for heavy bombers is one warhead, even though they may carry up to 20 on cruise missiles or gravity bombs. So, according to that Roberts says that if we extrapolate to 2027 based on his calculations, in 2027 one could expect the United States to have deployed launchers, using START counting rules, somewhere around 675; the Russian figure, according to him, would be 510; but interestingly for him is that Chinese figure would be 542, so, more than Russia. And then again, using New START counting rules, his calculations for deployed warheads would be for the United States – 1457, for Russia – 1447, and for China – 702. And then the third category, if we count the deployed and non-deployed: Russia – 764, and China – 603. So, what he was trying to show is that in the next round it cannot be only bilateral Russia-US, but also has to bring in China. And as we all know, the Chinese position is that “we are not coming to the negotiating table until the two other sides come down” to their numbers. But if we use Brad Roberts numbers, then the Chinese would be in a different position in the next two years if they are building up and approaching at least a level of launchers of two largest nuclear powers.

And he also has an interesting point that today the United States looks for at least a counterforce targeting requirement of 600 targets. But by 2026, using the extrapolated data, the US would need to hold at least 1100 targets. It means nearly a doubling. So, the question then is: where do we get with nuclear arms control, what happens with the New START Treaty, and before February and following from the Geneva meeting in June of last year on the strategic stability dialogue, the two sides were talking about discussing all types of nuclear warheads, but the nuclear warhead is neither strategic nor tactical, it depends on the delivery system. A delivery system can carry a big warhead with megaton range or small warhead with kiloton range or even subkiloton range, it depends on the launcher. If it’s on a certain launcher – it’s under INF Treaty terms, that’s a shorter or intermediate range; if it’s on the longer – 5500 km – then it’s a strategic weapon. But the nuclear warhead in that sense is neutral.

As you know, in 2018 the United States launched this “Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament”, which later became “The Environment for Nuclear Disarmament”. But it really did not contribute to any discussion on how to bring about the next round of nuclear arms control. The “Stockholm Initiative” talks about stepping stones and they want to set up a working group, coming out of the NPT Review Conference, who would deal with strategic stability and risk reduction. Again, we don’t know what these two terms mean. And now Sweden and Finland are joining NATO: how do we expect the Stockholm Initiative to remain neutral? This country would be entering an alliance which relies on nuclear weapon. The new NATO strategic concept will reiterate that NATO remains a nuclear alliance, it relies on nuclear weapon, including forward deployed nuclear weapons, which are in Europe. So again, we don’t know how to deal with this issue.

On the CTBT: I think that the CTBT is dead. We need to recognize that. The eight remaining Annex 2 countries – we have seen zero progress. We know what the conditions are under which the Middle Eastern countries will join the CTBT. Nobody has come up with the solution how to get India and Pakistan to even sight the Treaty. And then let alone North Korea, which might be preparing another nuclear test. So, this is frozen now, with 36 of the 44 ratified, but eight have not ratified, and soon we’ll be coming up with anniversary of this Treaty being open for signing in 1996. So, I think that the way of dealing with this is to maintain the norm, but the reason why I raise this is I saw an interview on CNN by a very hawkish retired American general who was commenting on the Ukraine conflict and he said it is fine for the United States to detonate a small nuclear device over the South Pacific to send a message to Moscow that it needs to stop attacks on Ukraine and also now the view of people like him is that Ukraine is approaching a situation where it can defeat the Russian army. And that is now the objective, which is why you see more and more long-range and heavy weapons from NATO going into Ukraine and the Ukrainian president making statements where it seems he is ready to fight until the last Ukrainian is left standing. But somebody else had pointed out that Russia too could do the same thing with detonating small nuclear device in or over Novaya Zemlya, it wouldn’t hurt anyone, it would check the ground, again, it would send the important message that the Russian situation is deteriorating and if the Russian forces are facing defeat, would this be a viable signaling measure that, you know, this is it, you’ve reached the end of our game here, and the Ukrainian support needs to stop, there needs to be some settlement? Again, these are open questions, at least in Vienna, some people are discussing and I’m sure they will come up in the NPT review conference as well.

And finally, I wanted to point out that nuclear risk reduction is not something new. We already have a number of instruments: you might remember incidents at sea between the Soviet Union and the United States, prevention of dangerous activities; these are both from the 1980s. Very few people remember this. And we are really in dangerous times where the US and NATO airplanes and Russian airplanes are coming very close to each other in airspace and are engaging in dangerous activities both at sea and in the air. Part of this is signaling, part of this is trying to figure out what the chain of command would be once the threshold rises. A few years ago, a Chinese fighter plane intercepted an American intelligence-gathering plane just outside Chinese waters; two planes collided, the Chinese pilot died, the American plane was damaged heavily, landed in China and was returned to the US in boxes after being dismantled. So, risk reduction is not something new. We should remember what we have already on the table and not stock on a plain piece of paper.

People also forget that there is also this Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War, going back to 1973. We have a lot of achievements that people have forgotten, pretending as they don’t exist. Part of this is, in my view, a lack of expertise and knowledge among the new diplomats coming up; a part of this is deliberately ignoring what has existed in the past.

While the nuclear weapon states statement this January was important, the five of them agreed that the nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought, they have forgotten two very key elements of the Reagan-Gorbachev agreement. The agreement not only said “war can never be won and must never be fought”, but they also said in the same paragraph that any war between the two sides would be catastrophic and the two sides must avoid both the conventional and the nuclear war between them, and neither side would seek military superiority, and it is interesting that nuclear states, particularly the Russians and Americans only remember that we can never win and therefore shouldn’t fight a nuclear war, and they forget they also have to agree not to seek military superiority, and also not to engage in a proxy war. The Ukraine conflict now is really a proxy war. And again, this is really dangerous.