Nuclear war to prevent, arms race to avoid: now officially

Graduate student
January 9, 2022

On January 3 this year, the nuclear-weapon states issued “The Joint P5 Statement on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races”. For the first time, the leaders of the “P5” jointly affirmed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”. This statement was scheduled to be presented in the margins of the NPT Review Conference, which was to be held in January of this year. Notwithstanding that the NPT RevCon was postponed, this statement saw the light.

As expected and then confirmed by Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, the “Joint Statement” of the P5 leaders was initiated by Russia. The P5 document complements and elaborates on the bilateral statement previously adopted at the highest level with the United States following the June 16, 2021, Russia-U.S. summit in Geneva in the “Joint Statement on Strategic Stability”. Subsequently, the Russian side suggested that the Reagan-Gorbachev principle be reaffirmed by the rest of the P5 states. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov noted, “Now we hope that a similar statement can be adopted by the entire P5”. In addition, on June 28, 2021, this principle was confirmed by the PRC and Russia in a “Joint Statement on the 20th Anniversary of the Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation between the countries.

The crucial idea in the Joint Statement of the P5 is that any war, whether nuclear or conventional, between nuclear-armed states, is inadmissible. In turn, nuclear weapons – for as long as they continue to exist – should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war. It also reaffirms the P5 previous commitments on de-targeting, reaffirming that none of our nuclear weapons is targeted at each other or any other State.

In his article published in the run-up to the NPR RevCon 2022, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the existence of 13,000 nuclear weapons worldwide as a growing threat, with the risk they could be used higher than at any time since the Cold War. Nuclear annihilation is just one misunderstanding or miscalculation away”. The end of the Cold War left the world community with a dangerous falsehood: that the threat of nuclear war was a thing of the past.

The P5 leaders stressed their commitment to the NPT obligations, including the Article VI obligation “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”.

Particular attention is also paid to maintaining and further strengthening our national measures to prevent unauthorized or unintended use of nuclear weapons. The P5 underlined their 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. Marc Finaud, head of arms proliferation at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, said that the P5 had taken the lead and returned to the Reagan-Gorbachev principle after demands from non-nuclear states and NGOs. “There is this desire to reassure the world that all these concerns about the risk of nuclear war are unfounded”, he mentioned.

In the Joint Statement, the P5 stressed the intention to continue “seeking bilateral and multilateral diplomatic approaches to avoid military confrontations, strengthen stability and predictability. This idea sounds particularly relevant to the Russian side in the run-up to a series of meetings on the security guarantee dialogue initiated by Moscow: January 10 in Geneva with the United States, January 12 in the Russia-NATO Council, and January 13 in the framework of the OSCE. We will see how the principle of constructive dialogue with mutual respect and acknowledgement of each other’s security interests and concerns plays out.

As PIR Center consultant Andrey Baklitskiy rightly pointed out, when the P5 say nuclear war is bad it’s a banality. But when they can’t even say it, it’s when you have to start worrying”. Certainly, the “The Joint P5 Statement on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races” is an encouraging signal to the world community. However, the P5 leaders currently face the important task of taking concrete steps to implement the verified actions. In particular, the German Foreign Ministry positively assessing the Joint Statement stressed that we need concrete steps towards nuclear disarmament in order to move closer to the joint goal of a world without nuclear weapons.