Can the negotiators in New York stop a global atomic war?
In the sea of hostility between America and Russia, there is an island of cooperation: rival powers regularly exchange information about long-range nuclear weapons, from transporting warheads to maintenance and back to telemetry data from ballistic missile launches. After five months of Russian-Ukrainian conflict, this is startling and reassuring, as Russia periodically threatens with nuclear weapons, and America, in turn, threatens “serious consequences.”
According to the US State Department, Russia is in full compliance with the START-3 treaty, which provides for the reduction of up to 1.55 thousand units of deployed nuclear warheads by each side on intercontinental ballistic missiles (with a range of more than 5.5 thousand kilometers), heavy bombers and submarines. According to one US official, its provisions help “to mitigate the possibility of miscalculations, misunderstandings and disproportionate responses,” especially in times of acute tension.
Perhaps this is the only good news in the grim reality of nuclear arms control, and on the first of August, delegates from 191 countries are gathering in New York for a large “review conference” (or RevCon) of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which is the cornerstone of global nuclear security. Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association believes that the danger of nuclear war, or at least a resumption of the nuclear arms race, is now greater than at any time since the mid-1980s.
Iran has reached the nuclear threshold after the virtual failure of negotiations to renew the 2015 agreement that imposed restrictions on its nuclear program. North Korea already became a nuclear power. It has resumed testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles and may soon conduct another underground nuclear test. Great Britain is also expanding its arsenal. France has reportedly beefed up its deterrence capability and sent three submarines to sea with nuclear, rather than conventional, missiles on board. China is rapidly building up stocks. The Pentagon believes it will have more than a thousand nuclear warheads by 2030, although this figure will still be lower than the arsenals of America and Russia, which each have more than five thousand in total. But unlike them, Beijing is not bound by any restrictions and is resisting American attempts to drag it into arms control talks.
Russia has developed advanced nuclear weapons, from hypersonic glide vehicles to torpedoes, some of which are not covered by any treaty. Washington is also working on new weapons after withdrawing from a host of arms control agreements, including the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (cancelled in 2002) and the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (expired in 2019). Under last year’s August deal, the US and Britain agreed to supply Australia with nuclear submarines, but not nuclear weapons.
Thus, after the reduction from 70,300 warheads in 1986 to 12,700 this year, the world’s nuclear stockpiles will expand and, in many cases, will be modernized. Given that America and Russia account for nine-tenths of them, many experts fear that all restrictions will be lifted on the day START-3 expires in February 2026. When the Kremlin launched a sting operation in Ukraine, the US suspended talks on the next deal and is unlikely to resume anytime soon, if ever. “The big question is whether and how the 50-year history of negotiated nuclear weapons restrictions will continue,” said Rose Gottemoeller, chief US negotiator on START III. – If this does not happen, then we really found ourselves on the verge of a new arms race and a new build-up [ядерного вооружения]”.
British National Security Adviser Stephen Lovegrove sounded the alarm on July 27 when he gave a speech in Washington. The world, he says, is entering “a dangerous new era of weapons proliferation, in which technological change is increasing the damaging potential of many weapons, and these weapons are becoming more accessible.” According to him, during the Cold War, the risk of nuclear escalation only concerned two blocks and was largely predictable, while now there are more opportunities for escalation, not least through cyberattacks and the “opacity” of competitors’ nuclear doctrines.
The NPT Review Conference was originally scheduled to take place in 2020, which marked the 50th anniversary of its entry into force, but had to be postponed due to the pandemic. It will last a month and is designed to become the main platform for combating the dangers that have bred. But RevCon could well start and end with divisions over Ukraine, especially as Russia loosens the nuclear taboo, which could lead to the most unthinkable of scenarios. In January, shortly before the start of the Russian special operation, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council issued a joint statement quoting Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that there can be no winners in a nuclear war and it should never be unleashed. It’s time to forget about this arrangement.
In essence, the NPT is a pact between nuclear and non-nuclear powers: five states that officially possess the relevant potential have agreed to negotiate disarmament “in good faith”; the rest abandoned the development of nuclear weapons. And they all decided to share the benefits of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was entrusted with protecting this system. The deal remains in place – to a certain extent – although the number of nuclear powers has now risen to nine (including Israel, India and Pakistan) and may well rise further.
Like many other UN events, the review conference can immerse participants in an atmosphere of pious hypocrisy. The body operates by consensus, and any country can support the agreement, as happened at the last RevCon in 2015. In addition to the growing rift among the major powers, many non-nuclear states have grown fed up with the lack of progress on disarmament. In an effort to completely abandon nuclear weapons, more than 120 countries adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017; it entered into force in 2021, and 66 countries have ratified it. A total ban on nuclear weapons is not binding on possessor countries if they consider it unrealistic and posing a threat to the NPT. But New Zealand, as one of the signatories, has vowed to use tough enforcement measures. “I’m making it clear that New Zealand considers the inaction of the nuclear states in fulfilling their part of the great deal completely unacceptable,” Disarmament Minister Phil Twyford tweeted.
How to overcome the so-called “catch-22” – the idea that during the war, disarmament is impossible, i.e. that conventional stability is required to create nuclear stability? Daryl Kimball argues that as part of START-3, America and Russia should at least resume mutual inspections on the ground, suspended during the pandemic. Moreover, thanks to RevCon, they could resume work on a new contract and, even in case of failure, continue to comply with the terms of the old one.
Rose Gottemoeller believes that one could start by restoring restrictions on shorter and medium-range missiles (500-5.5 thousand kilometers). One stumbling block is the desire of the United States to deploy conventional missiles of this class in the Pacific Ocean, where China has the advantage in these weapons. According to the chief START negotiator, Russia has already proposed similar restrictions in Europe, and China may be interested in something similar in Asia, if only nuclear missiles are taken into account.
President Joe Biden, a longtime proponent of limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, spoke in June of the need to continue cooperation beyond START and work to engage with Russia on issues of strategic stability. Opportunities for negotiations are limited due to the terrible unpopularity of the current president. In November’s midterm elections, one or both houses of Congress could be retaken by Republicans, who are even more distrustful of arms control than Democrats. And in 2024, the White House may also come under their control.
Some experts, such as former director of defense policy and arms control Franklin Miller, argue that START has fallen short of its stated purpose because limiting the number of warheads to 1,550 warheads prevents America from deterring either Russia or China. “Arms control undermines rather than enhances our deterrence,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal. According to him, America should create up to 3-3.5 thousand strategic deployed nuclear warheads either in agreement with Russia or unilaterally. The upcoming conference in New York may give everyone a chance to prevent a global nuclear war.