By Valeriia Hesse, management and research consultant at Atomic Reporters and non-resident fellow at the Odesa Centre for Nonproliferation
Russia’s war against Ukraine, with its explicit and implicit nuclear threats, has exposed the vulnerabilities of existing security instruments and raised further concerns about the future of the global non-proliferation norm. Paradoxically, in 1994, Ukraine voluntarily agreed to transfer what would have been the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal to Russia. In return, it received a promise from the three NPT depositary states Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, that its territorial integrity would remain inviolable. Regrettably, the events of 2022 served as a powerful yet dangerous message: international security instruments failed, security assurances failed, while nuclear deterrence works. To strengthen the nuclear order, and especially its non-proliferation norm, the international community should address several issues of high importance: reform veto power, condemn nuclear threats, adopt a convention on protecting nuclear installations against nuclear attacks, hold nuclear weapons states (NWS) accountable for non-compliance with security assurance obligations, and negotiate disarmament in good faith.
The failure of international instruments
The invasion of Ukraine has laid bare the limitations of international security instruments in countering aggression. The UN Security Council, hindered by Russia’s veto power, struggled to mount an effective response. Veto holders also happen to be the five official NWS. In this sense, the association between the possession of nuclear weapons and actors who have them being allowed to promote their own agenda, even if it is offensive, seems clear. Addressing this issue requires reforms that detach nuclear weapons from the UN power structure and reduce the disproportionate influence of nuclear-armed states within the Security Council.
Additionally, the Russian occupation of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) has created unprecedented nuclear risks. In 2022, Russia obstructed agreement on key global documents at events like the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference and IAEA General Conference (GC) to avoid references to its actions against Ukraine, even though these are not legally binding. The GC was not able to adopt a standalone resolution on armed attacks against nuclear installations (as was the case before), and its safety and security resolutions became vague under Russian pressure. As Ukraine is a country with a well-established nuclear industry that faced military aggression, the lack of comprehensive, legally-binding international documents addressing attacks on nuclear facilities has become evident. Substantive discussions and actions at platforms like the Conference on Disarmament (CD) are necessary to negotiate a legally binding document, strengthen the framework surrounding nuclear installations, and ensure preparedness for similar challenges in the future.
The failure of security assurances
The invasion of Ukraine, despite the Budapest Memorandum, has also brought to the fore the failure of security assurances and their future credibility. This is a dangerous trend, provoking thoughts about the necessity of nuclear deterrence in nations facing powerful nuclear-capable adversaries. To address these proliferation risks resulting from Russia’s violation of previously given negative security assurances, mechanisms must be established within the NPT to hold nuclear-armed states accountable for non-compliance with their security assurance obligations. Currently, the only recourse available is referencing the UN Charter and the Security Council through the general principle of non-use of force. Unfortunately, this approach proves ineffective, primarily because of the veto power in the Security Council: it is evident that none of the NWS would willingly subject themselves to punishment.
The dooming success of deterrence
Moreover, the efficacy of nuclear deterrence has become evident during this war. In line with its nuclear doctrine, Russia’s nuclear threats discouraged direct military involvement by powerful allies in support of Ukraine and paved the way to termination on terms favourable to Russia through compellence. Using nuclear weapons on the frontline lacks tactical military utility: Russia would not gain any advantage on the battlefield, and it would have dramatic consequences for Moscow. While it is difficult to prove that NATO powers refrained from direct military involvement solely due to Russian nuclear threats, it must be assumed that Russian nuclear threats significantly increased the potential costs of intervention. The most obvious effects of such threats are the lagging pace of weapons supplies to Ukraine and the limitations on their types.
The troubling implication is that nuclear deterrence can effectively cover unjustified aggression, potentially making nuclear weapons more appealing. To counter this dangerous message, there must be a resolute response assuring against any and all nuclear threats by nuclear-armed states that want to coerce non-nuclear actors, thereby constraining similar future attempts.
Risks of proliferation and the case for disarmament
Before January 1, 1967, Ukraine actively participated in the creation of Soviet nuclear weapons, including nuclear tests, making its subsequent disarmament in accordance with the NPT a noteworthy commitment. However, the war highlighted the influential role of nuclear weapons and the erosion of trust in security assurances, emphasising the delicate balance in preventing proliferation. The enduring strength of non-proliferation as a norm is primarily due to the consensus upheld by the international community. At the same time, in light of the deteriorating international security environment, NWS have increasingly underscored reliance on nuclear weapons, thereby contributing to the erosion of the non-proliferation norm. Given the re-emphasised association between power/security and nuclear weapons, it is not unthinkable that the consensus might disappear and the norm with it. The international community must be vigilant to potential proliferation risks, and nuclear-armed states must prioritise genuine disarmament efforts and negotiations in good faith to restore the credibility of the non-proliferation regime and prevent proliferation.
To prevent the total erosion of the non-proliferation norm, curb proliferation, and avert invasive conflicts driven by nuclear threats, the international community must pursue a realistic and pragmatic approach towards gradual nuclear arms reductions. Unilateral disarmament is not an immediate solution, as it may lead to vulnerability. Instead, reciprocal and gradual disarmament efforts, along with practical steps towards disarmament and arms control, are essential. Recognising the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) as complementary to the NPT will help enhance global security and curb proliferation. Therefore, disarmament is pragmatic, even if it seems to belong to a purely liberal institutionalist agenda at first glance. I would call it pragmatic internationalism: a system based on the deep understanding (and proper reasoning) that enhancing security and prosperity anywhere in the world is not just a noble goal but a security, economic, and environmental necessity.
Recommendations: Towards pragmatic internationalism
To avert the erosion of the non-proliferation norm and prevent nuclear proliferation, the international community should take the following steps:
- Reform veto power: Reform the Security Council to detach nuclear weapons from the UN power structure, reducing the disproportionate influence of nuclear-armed states. This reform will ensure that decisions are made with the broader interest of global security in mind, rather than being held hostage by the interests of a nuclear-armed nation.
- Condemn nuclear threats: This resolute condemnation, coupled with robust consequences for such actions, will reinforce the commitment to global peace and security, preventing potential aggressors from resorting to nuclear intimidation.
- Adopt a convention on protecting nuclear installations against nuclear attacks: Facilitate substantive discussions at the Conference on Disarmament to establish comprehensive, legally-binding international documents addressing attacks on nuclear facilities.
- Hold NWS accountable for non-compliance with security assurance obligations: Develop mechanisms within the NPT to hold nuclear-armed states accountable for non-compliance with their security assurance obligations. By creating a transparent and enforceable system, non-nuclear weapons states can have confidence in the commitments made by nuclear-armed nations, reducing the incentives for nuclear proliferation.
- Negotiate disarmament in good faith: Encourage disarmament negotiations in good faith and recognise the TPNW as complementary to the NPT while implementing gradual steps to achieve disarmament through arms control. This approach acknowledges the concerns of nuclear-armed states while moving towards a world with reduced nuclear arsenals and increased global security.
Conclusion: Strengthening the nuclear order in the face of Russia’s war against Ukraine
Russia’s war against Ukraine has exposed critical flaws in the international nuclear realm, necessitating pragmatic and decisive actions. By reforming the veto power, condemning nuclear threats, strengthening the framework against attacks on nuclear installations, and promoting accountability for security assurance violations, the international community can build a stronger and more resilient nuclear order. Embracing pragmatic disarmament efforts, recognising the TPNW as complementary, and taking reciprocal steps towards disarmament will curb proliferation incentives. This path to pragmatic internationalism ensures that enhancing security and prosperity worldwide becomes a shared necessity, paving the way for a safer and more stable future.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author. See the original post on the European Leadership Network’s website here.