What Would Russia’s Break With the West Mean for Nuclear Arms Control?

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Amid the specter of war to Europe’s east, experts and the media have focused on the likelihood of Russian military escalation against Ukraine and the prospects of, and available tools for, deterring war. The ubiquitous musings about “what Putin really wants” have been complemented by a wealth of analysis on European energy security, relations with Russia more broadly, and America’s bandwidth to deal with a powerful China. However, we’ve been missing a deeper look at the ripple effects that military escalation (at worst) or the continuation of Russian-Western diplomatic tensions (at best) could have for nuclear arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament efforts — regionally and globally.

The consequences of a Russian military escalation against Ukraine could well be catastrophic from an arms-control perspective. While Washington would probably find it extremely difficult to continue its Strategic Stability Dialogue with Moscow — commenced last summer in the wake of the U.S.-Russian presidential summit — the deleterious impact on global nonproliferation efforts would not likely be confined to the two countries’ bilateral agenda, should there be a war. And even if military escalation can be avoided, protracted tensions between Russia and the West are set to further frustrate efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons across the board.

 

 

These disruptions would be especially ill-timed in light of the widespread paralysis from which the arms control and nonproliferation regimes have already suffered in recent years. The 2019 collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty and the failure of the 2015 Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons Review Conference to adopt a final document, among other developments, speak to the difficulties that the international community faces in managing old and new nuclear threats alike. And yet, prospects for diplomacy can, and will, get worse as tensions rise on the border of Ukraine. This is in part because of the central role played by Russia and the United States in nearly every aspect of the current nuclear order. Consequently, when animosity between Washington and Moscow grows — and the bandwidth for either side to focus on issues beyond the immediate crisis shrinks — efforts to address pressing nuclear challenges will suffer.

The Iran Nuclear Deal and More

In Vienna, where efforts to restore the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal have been ongoing for months, U.S.-Russian relations have remained remarkably cordial against the backdrop of tensions over Ukraine. U.S. officials have repeatedly praised their interactions with Russian counterparts on the Iranian nuclear dossier as constructive. Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s point-man for the Vienna talks, has echoed that sentiment, regularly applauding his dialogue with U.S. officials as “intensive” and “useful.” But notwithstanding the recent flurry of diplomacy, hopes for an agreement to restore the deal have remained unfulfilled to date. Frustrated, U.S. negotiators have started to signal that negotiations cannot continue forever, with Special Envoy Robert Malley hinting not long ago that they will reach “conclusion in the coming weeks” — leaving somewhat unclear whether he anticipates that conclusion to amount to a positive or negative outcome. The routinely optimistic Ulyanov, meanwhile, stated recently that the Vienna talks have progressed to “five minutes from the finish line,” with a 20-page near-final draft document on the table. While Russia principally rejects “artificial deadlines,” he went on, Iran would do well to take seriously America’s latest warnings that negotiations have to conclude by early March.

Should a Russian offensive in Ukraine materialize prior to the restoration of the Iranian nuclear deal, Russia and its Western counterparts might still manage, over the medium term, to insulate the Iran talks from the political fallout that is certain to ensue — given their stakes in seeing them succeed. Moscow genuinely shares Washington’s desire to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, and in addition has been adamant that the Iranian nuclear deal be restored given its deeper concern with the integrity of the P5+1 process, which affords the Russian government respect and status. The United States, meanwhile, is increasingly worried that only a “handful of weeks” remain to restore the agreement, and judges recent Iranian nuclear advances to be so significant that a restored nuclear deal would fail to recreate Iran’s 12-month “breakout period.” Given their shared concerns, the United States and Russia will likely manage to keep the Vienna deliberations insulated from protracted diplomatic tension in Europe. Should there be renewed war, however, the talks would likely have to be put on hold for a while, given the problematic optics of Western states convening directly with Russia while Ukraine is under fire. The key question then would be how much further Iran could advance its nuclear program amid such a suspension, and what such advances would signify for the deal’s restoration — yet again postponed indefinitely.

The impact of continued tensions between Russia and the West, or even military escalation against Ukraine, on the conference on the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East will be less immediate and decisive. That conference is being convened under the auspices of the U.N. Secretary General and has thus far gathered 21 members of the Arab League and Iran in two sessions in November 2019 and November 2021. The United States — in stark contrast to Russia’s active involvement — has been absent from the process since its inception, in support of Israel’s boycott. The latter alleges that it was excluded from consultations on the resolution that created the process, which in any event is aimed at “singling out” Israel over its non-accession to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Russian diplomats, again led by Ulyanov, insist on the usefulness and legality of the conference process and will surely continue to criticize Washington’s uncompromising stance, quite irrespective of developments in Europe. Efforts toward a zone without weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East will move at a snail’s pace whether the crisis over Ukraine remains entrenched or, worse, escalates further.

Yet, leaving aside the U.N. conference, U.S.-Russian bilateral tensions are likely to affect both countries’ bandwidth to pursue a separate regional process (either building on a restored Iranian nuclear deal or filling a vacuum in its absence) to prevent further nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, in addition to addressing attendant issues such as regional states’ missile programs and Iran’s use of proxies. Should Washington find itself confronted with a protracted headache in the heart of Europe, which would cause an unwelcome distraction from its efforts to manage its competition with China, it is hard to see the Biden administration showing an appetite for initiating such a regional process, let alone one involving Russia. What’s more, even if it tried, any U.S. efforts to tackle Iran’s missile program or proxy warfare will be unlikely to meet with much Russian support. To be fair, Russia’s position on Iranian activities outside the nuclear remit has long been ambivalent, reflective of its principled contention that linking the nuclear and missile dossiers, or singling out Iran on the latter, is impermissible.

That said, Moscow has in recent years at least professed support for regional dialogue — intermittently putting its own Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf Area back on the table, while also recognizing similar Iranian and Chinese proposals. Those initiatives were surely imperfect, in that they failed to take the issues of missile proliferation or proxies head-on. If tensions between Russia and the West continue to rise, however, the prospects for concerted U.S.-Russian support for even the most modest and incremental regional security dialogue will dwindle from meager to naught. Instead, we will likely see an accelerated Russian-Chinese-Iranian convergence — already long underway, and recently put on display with joint naval drills in the Gulf of Oman. Against that backdrop, Moscow’s already low appetite for pressuring Tehran on its regional security posture, including its growing arsenal of ballistic and land-attack cruise missiles, will likely hit rock bottom.

The current crisis in U.S.-Russian relations may have a similar impact on another major regional nonproliferation challenge: North Korea’s expanding nuclear weapons program. Though hardly new, this issue took on renewed urgency in January 2022 when Pyongyang carried out a series of nine ballistic missile tests, culminating with the launch of its intermediate-range Hwasong-12. These tests were accompanied by threats to resume “all temporarily-suspended activities,” an apparent reference to the nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests from which it has refrained since 2017. Although North Korea has yet to make good on its promises, these recent escalations have prompted urgent debate within the U.N. Security Council about how to respond.

Although recent efforts to denuclearize the Korean peninsula have yielded no results to date, many experts contend that this is an area where the United States and Russia should share an interest given the risks that a nuclear North Korea poses for both countries. And yet, as Vassily Kashin observed in 2020, Moscow has chosen to maintain a largely independent North Korea policy in recent years, reluctant to pick sides in the “US-Chinese confrontation in Asia.” On Jan. 20, against the backdrop of rising tensions with the West, Russia sided with China to block U.S. efforts to impose new U.N. Security Council sanctions on North Korea following its recent missile tests. If the current crisis continues to drive Moscow closer to Beijing, it may make it even more difficult for the international community to respond effectively to Pyongyang’s provocations now and in the future.

A Fraught Forthcoming Conference

Another stress test for the global nonproliferation regime will be the upcoming 10th review conference of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Originally set to take place in the spring of 2020 but delayed by COVID-19, this meeting of states parties is now expected to be held later this year — leaving it vulnerable to the ripple effects of the standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine. A high degree of cooperation between the two largest nuclear weapon states on the strengthening and implementation of the treaty  did persist throughout many of the most challenging moments of the Cold War. The current review cycle, meanwhile, has already been plagued by public displays of animosity between the Russian and American delegations. Even if current East-West tensions do not escalate to military action, both Washington and Moscow will need to exert significant effort in order to shield the conference from this latest crisis in their bilateral relationship. It is not yet clear whether sufficient political will exists on either side to do so.

Although walling off cooperation on the treaty should be possible, doing so will be made more challenging because the prospect of a further invasion of Ukraine almost inevitably leads to discussions about the conditions under which it joined the treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state in 1994. Indeed, the Budapest Memorandum reaffirms the commitment of the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.” At the last review conference, held just one year after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, public discussion of the integrity of Ukraine’s security assurances was minimal and largely confined to the general debate, and the U.S. delegation’s pointed observation in its opening statement that Moscow’s “approach to the Budapest Memorandum — disregarding it — [was] extraordinary” elicited only a muted Russian response. Given that U.S.-Russian relations have only deteriorated in the intervening seven years, however, it seems unlikely that the question of Russian military escalation against Ukraine will remain a sideline issue this time around.

A related issue that could likewise complicate the conference agenda is Belarus’ pending constitutional changes, which would seemingly allow for the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons on its territory. As William Alberque has described, these changes include the elimination of language affirming Belarus’ neutrality and the goal of becoming a nuclear-free zone. This move is one he interprets as a step toward renouncing the Budapest Memorandum, which Minsk also signed. The proposed amendments appear to be aimed at operationalizing comments that President Alexander Lukashenko made in an interview in late November 2021, in which he indicated that he would “offer Putin to return nuclear weapons to Belarus” if the United States redeploys nuclear weapons currently stationed in Germany to Eastern Europe. Whether or not this comes to pass, Belarus’ constitutional changes — if adopted — may further inflame an already contentious debate between Russia and the United States over whether the forward deployment of nuclear weapons violates Articles I and II of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Even if Washington and Moscow are able to embrace a non-polemical approach to the conference, as they have at other challenging times in their bilateral relationship, tensions over Ukraine will surely make it more difficult for the two treaty depositories to make progress on their disarmament obligations behind closed doors. Although the last-minute extension of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) during the first days of the Biden administration ensures that current limits on U.S. and Russian strategic weapons will remain in place through 2026, negotiations on the next agreement should get underway as soon as possible given the many barriers that will stand in the way of its conclusion. These include, for instance, America’s insistence that the next phase of bilateral arms control address Russia’s large stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons, and Russia’s desire to negotiate a “new security equation” including ballistic missile defense and long-range precision-guided weapons — both of which have, traditionally, been non-starters. Although the current crisis has had the unexpected side effect of forcing a conversation about at least one of these issues — Russian concerns about U.S. Aegis Ashore systems deployed in Poland and Romania — prospects for real diplomacy seem very limited until tensions can be diffused.

The same is true of more ambitious efforts to take forward multilateral disarmament in line with Article VI of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, where prospects for a positive outcome were already slim in the current international environment. Although the Biden administration continues to urge Beijing to join it at the negotiating table, and Moscow has called for future arms control agreements that include all five nuclear weapon states recognized by the treaty, virtually no concrete progress has been made so far. A major challenge to advancing this goal has been figuring out how to bring parties with very different perceived threats and capabilities together under one agreement. Overcoming this barrier will take both long-term and innovative thinking on the part of the United States and Russia — as the states with the most arms control experience — and the urgency of the crisis near Ukraine means that both will be in even shorter supply.

The one area of the P5 agenda where progress may prove possible in the leadup to the next review conference (despite, or perhaps because of, the potential for escalation on Ukraine’s border) is strategic nuclear risk reduction. Indications of potential opportunities come through in the joint statement issued by the nuclear weapon states on Jan. 3, in which they endorsed Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev’s famous maxim that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” It is significant that the nuclear weapon states opted to embrace this principle after the buildup of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border was already underway, especially considering that earlier calls for them to do so had gone unheeded. If the P5 can continue to build upon this momentum by adopting concrete measures to reduce the risk of nuclear use in the next several months, this will constitute a worthwhile contribution to the review conference — albeit one that is insufficient to guarantee a positive outcome.

A Bumpy Road Ahead

Increasing tensions over Ukraine and the broader European security order will likely have a far-reaching impact on nuclear diplomacy, including in areas that appear largely unrelated to the immediate crisis. With respect to regional issues, nonproliferation-averse actors in both the Middle East and Korean peninsula may see expanding opportunities to play Moscow and Washington off against each other and will feel little incentive to advance arms control efforts on their own turf if the two largest nuclear weapon states are unable to do so themselves. Within the multilateral nonproliferation regime, meanwhile, deepening divisions between Washington and Moscow threaten to dominate deliberations at the upcoming review conference while putting progress on nuclear disarmament farther out of reach. While the precise nature and severity of these impacts will differ from one file to another, these mounting challenges all deserve greater attention from the expert community than they have yet received in the context of the current crisis.

Despite deep discord between the United States and Russia — which long precedes the standoff on Ukraine’s border — their interests continue to align on many items on the nonproliferation and disarmament agenda. Particularly as tensions rise, Moscow and Washington should prioritize those areas where walling off nuclear diplomacy seems to be most possible, such as the restoration of the Iranian nuclear deal, while pursuing nuclear risk reduction as a matter of urgency and ensuring that the upcoming review conference on the Treaty on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons is not hijacked by issues attendant to the current confrontation. Although it may be tempting to put these efforts on the back burner amidst the urgency to avert war, the threats posed by the spread of nuclear weapons and unchecked arms racing will outlive the present crisis. Policymakers on both sides are well advised to not lose sight of these large and long-term stakes.

 

 

Hanna Notte, Ph.D. is a senior research associate with the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, where she focuses on arms control and security issues involving Russia, the Middle East, their intersection, and implications for U.S. and European policy. She holds a doctorate and M.Phil. in International Relations from Oxford University and a BA in Social and Political Sciences from Cambridge University. Her contributions have appeared in The Nonproliferation ReviewForeign PolicyThe National Interest, and Carnegie, among others. 

Sarah Bidgood directs the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, where her research focuses on U.S.-Soviet and U.S.-Russian nonproliferation and arms control cooperation. She is the co-editor of Once and Future Partners: The United States, Russia, and Nuclear Non-proliferation (London, UK: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2018) and the 2021 volume End of an Era: The United States, Russia, and Nuclear Non-proliferation. Her work has appeared in publications such as International Security, Arms Control Today, The Nonproliferation Review, and Foreign Policy, among others.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Senior Airman Alexander Merchak)

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