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Commentary | 27 February 2024

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine continues to threaten the nuclear order’s grand bargain

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Olamide Samuel |Special Envoy of the Executive Secretary of the African Commission on Nuclear Energy (AFCONE)

NPT NPT NPTProject Nuclear Security Nuclear Weapons Russia Ukraine Global Security Multilateral arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation

Eroding the grand bargain

For two years, Russia has persisted with its reckless and unjustified invasion of Ukraine. Although the conflict is still unfolding, it has lasted long enough that we draw some preliminary lessons for its implications for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the nuclear order erected around this cornerstone treaty.

The NPT’s grand bargain is a delicate balance of obligations undertaken by nuclear weapons states (NWS) and non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) to ensure the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and the spread of nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes, even as all states parties are obliged to strive towards the elimination of nuclear weapons as per Article VI of the treaty.

Many NNWS, frustrated by the glacial pace of progress towards disarmament, rightfully demand that NWS do more to fulfil their end of the bargain. As a result, reducing the salience of nuclear weapons has become an essential element of this fragile bargain. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has increased the salience of nuclear weapons in ways that threaten to jeopardise the NPT’s grand bargain.

Prior to the invasion, the five NWS (The United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom) have sought to downplay their reliance on nuclear weapons and the numerous ramifications of their continued possession of these weapons. To downplay the risks of intentional nuclear weapons use, NWS insist that their nuclear arsenals serve ‘purely defensive’ purposes. To downplay risks of inadvertent, unauthorised or accidental nuclear weapons use, NWS place emphasis on their attempts to manage the identified pathways to potential nuclear use. Finally, to downplay ramifications, NWS disturbingly appear to distance themselves from considerations of the humanitarian and environmental impacts of nuclear weapons possession, testing, and use.

When these avoidance strategies fail to alleviate NNWS anxieties about these weapons, NWS occasionally accept additional undertakings to ‘further diminish the role of nuclear weapons’ in their doctrines and policies, as they did in the NPT RevCon’s outcome document of 2010. In all, these NWS strategies are meant to partially alleviate the security anxieties of many NNWS who view the very existence of these weapons as threatening to international security. These NWS strategies are also intended to paint nuclear weapons as burdensome relics of a bygone era, thereby discouraging other NNWS from perceiving nuclear weapons as desirable and valuable and alleviating the security anxieties of those NNWS allies that might wish to acquire nuclear weapons.

In the meantime, the many NNWS that see nuclear weapons as threatening to international security demand negative security assurances from NWS. This is to ensure that NWS limit the use conditions of nuclear weapons by pledging not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against states that don’t possess nuclear weapons. NWS have been partially forthcoming in this regard, providing conditional unilateral pledges, and some NWS conditionally recognise treaty-based security assurances embedded in various Nuclear Weapons Free Zones (NWFZs). Other NNWS that see nuclear weapons as desirable, useful or necessary have entered into security alliances with NWS. These alliances are underscored by extended deterrence commitments, nuclear sharing arrangements, or security assistance pacts.

Increasing proliferation pressures

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine spotlights the uncomfortable reality that nuclear deterrence (however defensive in nature) remains reliant on a continuum of implicit and explicit nuclear threats. President ​​Vladimir Putin’s issuing of overt nuclear threats to shield his expansionist agenda in Ukraine sparked serious consideration about whether some NWS could begin to see a coercive role for nuclear weapons. This pushed many NPT states to specifically condemn overt nuclear threats in the NPT’s 2022 RevCon, and inspired the June 2022 condemnation of nuclear threats by states parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). By the TPNW’s second meeting of states parties in December 2023, states parties had gone further, condemning any and all nuclear threats, and the conference’s declaration called for nuclear deterrence to be delegitimised. Putin’s nuclear sabre rattling also demonstrated that the nuclear risk reduction measures NWS routinely point to (such as de-targeting or maintaining crisis communication channels) as evidence of their Article VI adherence remain insufficient to manage intentional escalation and risk-taking by a NWS.

Most crucially, not only did the Russian invasion violate the negative security assurances pledged to most NPT NNWS in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 984(1995), it specifically violated the security assurances made to Ukraine in the Budapest Memorandum. Assurances in the Budapest Memorandum were designed to encourage Ukraine to relinquish possession of nuclear weapons in its territory and its accession to the NPT as a NNWS in 1994.

Russia’s invasion has upset the fragile balance of obligations in the NPT’s bargain by dramatically increasing the perceived salience of nuclear weapons and reigniting latent motivations for horizontal proliferation as a consequence. Olamide Samuel

Russia’s invasion has upset the fragile balance of obligations in the NPT’s bargain by dramatically increasing the perceived salience of nuclear weapons and reigniting latent motivations for horizontal proliferation as a consequence. As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken remarked, Russia’s invasion sent the “worst possible message” about the value of nuclear weapons. Some NNWS, unnerved by Russia’s actions, expressed a resurgent interest in increasing their reliance on nuclear weapons. These included President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea, who initially called for South Korean nuclear weapons, and Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland, who called for nuclear sharing arrangements.

One can argue that Russia’s invasion goes against the spirit of Article I of the NPT, which calls on NWS to not directly or indirectly encourage or induce any NNWS to otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or control over such weapons or explosive devices. If a majority of states parties follow the logic espoused by NWS that nuclear weapons “serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war”, they can reasonably argue that they are being induced to seek such defensive capabilities, given the increase in extraordinary events which could jeopardise their supreme interests.

Fortunately, the Russian invasion has not yet become the ‘proliferation trigger’ many had anticipated at the start of the conflict. However, holstering the proliferation trigger has been largely attributed to the US’s doubling down on reassuring its allies of the reliability of its security commitments. But, US reassurance is only a temporary solution, especially as anxieties rise concerning the possible return of an ‘America first’ policy.  Equally important is that an overwhelming majority of NPT states parties choose to continue forswearing nuclear weapons, and view nuclear disarmament as the ultimate security guarantee.

Nonetheless, we should not confuse the US’s ability to lower proliferation pressures by revalidating its existing alliance commitments as actions intended to reduce the perceived salience of nuclear weapons. In fact, the US’s attempts to lower proliferation and prevent others from acquiring nuclear weapons by reassuring its allies actually increase the salience of nuclear weapons, as these alliance commitments are reinforced by threats of nuclear retaliation. Some allies even demand that the credibility of extended deterrence be beefed up by additional nuclear weapons such as Sea-Launched Cruise Missiles (SLCMs). In contrast there has been no comparable reaffirmation of existing negative security assurances by any of the nuclear weapons states, even as NNWS continue to demand such reaffirmation.

In an era where security guarantees such as the Budapest memorandum appear to be not worth the paper they are written on, NWS choosing instead to reinforce their extended deterrence commitments inadvertently devalues the wider framework of security assurances granted to NNWS outside of nuclear ‘umbrellas’. This framework of security assurances remains an important element of the delicate balance of commitments and security anxieties inherent in the NPT’s bargain. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, NWS revalidation and expansion of security assurances have taken on increased importance. It is incumbent on NWS to reaffirm their commitments to negative security assurances and demonstrate a willingness to reinforce them, just as some have reaffirmed their commitments to nuclear-backed security alliances.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image: Wikimedia commons, Kremlin