The current crisis in Ukraine highlights a need to update nuclear weapons treaties. But the military operation has made such updating, which requires Russian participation in multilateral talks, essentially impossible. At the same time, these developments also appear to question the nuclear taboo.
Nuclear arms control agreements are rooted in the Cold War era, though their role has waned over time. The only existing nuclear arms control agreement between Russia and the United States is the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The penultimate arms control agreement—the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty)—was terminated when the United States withdrew in 2019 after accusing Russia of a violation. When New START was due to expire in 2021, Russia was ready to extend it, but the Trump administration derailed talks by attempting to involve China. Later, at the beginning of 2021, the treaty was extended for five years. When US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a summit during in June 2021 they agreed to continue a dialogue focused on the future limits of the nuclear arsenals. But what seemed like a big success at the time is now, in light of Russia’s war in Ukraine, no longer unambiguously positive.
From today’s point of view, the Russian leadership may have misinterpreted the Biden-Putin summit extending New START. After Crimea joined Russia—or as the majority in the world sees this, Russia annexed Crimea—Russians in Eastern Ukraine supported the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic. That, together with insurmountable differences between Russia and the United States on the INF Treaty, may have made conducting business-as-usual nuclear arms control talks impossible.
After the start of Putin’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine last month, Russian authorities may have hoped to return to business-as-usual relations with the United States and, more broadly, the West. But the longer Russian troops stay in Ukraine and the more harm they inflict on Ukrainians, the more Russia will be ostracized. As a result, Russia’s opportunities to return to business-as-usual with the United States and its allies recedes, including in the field of nuclear arms control.
Also, Russia’s attack on Ukraine, together with President Putin’s warning of dire consequences if NATO intervenes, undermines trust in nuclear weapons agreements. Parties must trust each other to negotiate in good faith, sign agreements, and implement treaties. Often, the process—from negotiation to signing—works as a tool that builds trust among the parties. Yet the current crisis has not only obliterated trust from relations between the United States and its allies’ with Russia in the current moment but also in the future.
A mere three months ago, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (P5) issued a joint statement about the impossibility of winning a nuclear war. More recently, the Russian leadership has spoken openly about the possibility of resorting to extreme measures—nuclear weapons—if NATO intervenes in Russia’s armed conflict in Ukraine. This threat devalued not only Russia’s signature under the P5 document but the entire document.
Russian authorities have justified their military operation by citing an alleged risk of Ukrainian nuclear weapons, even though no one, including those in Russia, had previously spoken of such a risk. For this reason, Russia is no longer a credible guarantor of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Something similar happened when the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime under the alleged risk of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Unlike Russia today, however, the United States back then managed to avoid global isolation. Even Russia, then headed by Vladimir Putin, supported the US antiterrorist efforts, despite its opposition to military intervention in Iraq.
As evidenced by the UN General Assembly’s censure, Russia is now isolated as a result of its attack on Ukraine. In two weeks, the Russian leadership, of its own accord, migrated from the category of “partner” of the United States and Europe to the category of “regime with which contacts are minimized to avoid reputational risks in political and economic spheres.” If the parties are meant to restore a minimum trust level, they will need a considerable amount of time.
Finally, Russia’s questionable actions have forced nuclear security experts to reconsider how deterrence and arms control may work. From a Russian point of view, Ukraine’s virtually non-existent nuclear program was enough to provoke a military response. This opens Pandora’s box for false interpretations. That is, nuclear concerns may be used as a pretext for military interventions, which lowers the nuclear threshold. Russia has also targeted Ukraine’s civilian nuclear facilities, which carry radiation risks, while limiting the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) access to information necessary for safety. This action weakens the IAEA and negatively affects international nuclear safety and nonproliferation cooperation.
Finally, Russia introduced a nuclear dimension into a regional, conventionally armed conflict. That presents a risk of rapid escalation to a nuclear exchange. Given the crisis in Ukraine, is the taboo on nuclear weapons use intact? The answer is no longer clear. The nuclear and non-nuclear powers must adapt their nuclear arms control doctrines and forces to this new reality.
Ideally, Russia would engage in multilateral dialogues aimed at adapting nuclear arms agreements to this new reality. However, Russia’s actions in Ukraine have made such a dialogue impossible. Without multilateral efforts to adapt nuclear arms control agreements to the new normal, countries may act unilaterally with respect to doctrine and weapons. Broken ties and lack of trust raise the risk of errors. In the current moment, nuclear weapons have returned to the center of military rivalries between nuclear-armed states, and the nuclear threshold has been lowered.
 According to the most recent law and legal practice, it’s a criminal offense in Russia if one names this military operation as a war. Still, Russian officials use the “war” word to describe the military escalation in Ukraine, most recently foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, who said: “We want to end this war, including in the interests of the two republics…” (https://mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/news/1803752/).
The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent, nonprofit media organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.