Coronavirus Will End, But Nuclear Arms Will Remain

Russian Academy of Sciences academician Alexey Arbatov on the crisis of the arms control system

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) came into force 50 years ago. Recently, Russian, the U.S., and the U.K. authorities announced a gift to mark the anniversary and declassified thousands of documents that the three countries had generated when preparing and adopting the treaty. Experts reacted to this grand gesture with restraint: knowledge of history is well and good, but the system forged half a century ago is under attack and may even be revised or discontinued. Russian Academy of Sciences academician Alexey Arbatov spoke with Ogoniok about the current problems and issues surrounding nuclear disarmament.

Interview by Svetlana Sukhova

- Mr. Arbatov, the world recently marked the 50th anniversary of the NPT. For you, as a specialist, is this “a holiday with tears in your eyes”?

- Not tears, but a fair amount of anxiety. It is clear that the pandemic is attracting general attention, pushing all other problems on the back burner. The consequences of this disregard may not always be obvious, but they have the potential to be extremely dangerous. For example, there is the fact that political leaders and the public are paying less attention than before to issues related to nuclear arms control. Eventually, the coronavirus will draw to a close, but the nuclear weapons will remain, and so will the danger of nuclear war. The current public health disaster is nothing more than a pinprick in comparison. The coronavirus has had a direct impact on the NPT: the regular and anniversary conference on the treaty, which was scheduled for this April-May, was postponed for a year.

- What are the potential consequences?

- Over the 50 years that this fundamental treaty on nuclear arms control has been in force, very serious problems and disagreements have arisen. These issues may lead to a collapse of the NPT if they are not resolved, consistently and substantially, in the near future. Otherwise, it will not be possible to prevent what we call horizontal nuclear proliferation, which is an expansion of the list of states possessing nuclear weapons.

- What disagreements are you talking about?

- There are plenty of examples. The first article of the treaty forbids nuclear states to transfer nuclear weapons or control over such weapons to other states that are parties to the NPT, and the second article obliges non-nuclear states not to accept such weapons and control over them. The United States has about 150 nuclear aerial bombs located in special warehouses in five NATO countries in Europe. They can be used by NATO allies in the event of a war on the continent. Both pilots of U.S. tactical aviation and pilots from non-nuclear NATO countries have been trained to use these weapons during joint exercises. Russia does not like this and claims that NATO is violating the first and second articles of the NPT, which prohibit the inclusion of non-nuclear states in any kind of control over nuclear weapons.

- That looks like a solid argument.

- Not for NATO, apparently. They say that they see no violations, since the weapons are physically controlled by the United States and the nuclear bombs themselves are never transferred to the allies. They also point to a similar practice by the member states of the Warsaw Treaty Organization (WTO) in the 1970-1980s. The NPT was already in force back then, but the training of non-nuclear WTO states to handle Soviet nuclear weapons was not considered a violation. This discussion has been going on for a long time and undermines confidence in the NPT, although it is not the most important divergence of opinion associated with the treaty at the moment.

- What else is unacceptable, and for whom?

- The most heated conflict concerns the treaty’s sixth article, which suggests that nuclear-weapon states that are parties to the Treaty (Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and China) are obliged to pursue negotiations in good faith on general and complete disarmament. Today, non-nuclear states are accusing the nuclear club of violating this article. They say that they joined the NPT and renounced nuclear weapons not in order to perpetuate segregation, when only five countries are allowed to have nuclear weapons. They expected to live in a world without any nuclear weapons in the future, with all parties to the treaty having equal rights. And there is an overwhelming majority of such dissatisfied countries: 191 members of the NPT, minus the five nuclear states and their closest allies. More than 150 countries are outraged that the nuclear disarmament process has stopped and that the existing treaties are being denounced. A new nuclear arms race between Russia and the United States and between China and the United States is starting, and this is considered a flagrant violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

- That seems true enough…

- But Moscow and Washington do not agree with this statement of the problem. They argue that the treaty does not provide for the liquidation of nuclear weapons at once, but only “negotiation in good faith.” These negotiations have been going on for 50 years, resulting in a reduction of the global nuclear arsenal by almost a factor of ten, mainly due to agreements between the USSR/Russia and the United States. In other words, the nuclear states have been fulfilling their obligations, and this is just a temporary pause in the dialogue.

- Are those the only points of contention around the NPT, or are the more?

- Another pressing issue is the decision to create a zone in the Middle East free of nuclear weapons (and other types of weapons of mass destruction — WMD). This decision was a condition for the indefinite extension of the NPT, which was agreed on in 1995. Since Pakistan is not a part of the Middle East, there is only one state with nuclear weapons in this region: Israel. It does not officially recognize its possession of nuclear weapons, but everyone knows that it has them: about 80 nuclear warheads and missile and aircraft carriers. This means that the implementation of the 1995 resolution would deprive only one country, Israel, of its WMD. It would never agree to this, because nuclear weapons guarantee its security in a hostile encirclement of Islamic countries, many of which do not recognize Israel’s right to exist and even openly call for its destruction. In addition, a number of these states are building up military power, including missile weapons. Many of them are unstable, beset by civil wars, and often fight with each other. Large terrorist organizations operate there. At various times, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Libya were suspected of trying to build nuclear weapons, and not without reason. Washington and many of its allies support Israel in abandoning the nuclear-free zone project with which the NPT has been linked. To begin the process of implementing this idea, it is necessary to get the relationships between the Islamic countries and Israel back on track, as well as the relationships between Islamic countries, move toward ending the wars and reducing the armed forces in the region, and destroy all terrorist organizations. Five years of Russian participation in the Syrian war showed how difficult that is. But the outstanding 1995 resolution related to the NPT continues to be a thorn in everyone’s side.

- Are these all of the problems?

- If only that were the case. Article IV of the NPT is also controversial. It says that nuclear states will cooperate with non-nuclear states to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes (construction of nuclear power plants, acquisition of appropriate fuel, and inspection). The interpretation of this article causes sharp international disagreements. Two examples immediately come to my mind: North Korea and Iran, which the United States and other countries have accused many times of developing nuclear weapon programs under the guise of developing peaceful nuclear technologies. North Korea really did it: first, it secretly created the potential of technologies and materials, then it left the NPT in 2003, and it conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. Iran is not there yet. The 2015 multilateral agreement sharply reduced and slowed down the suspicious activity in the Iranian nuclear program. But in 2018, the Trump administration withdrew from the agreement, and now Iran is restoring its previous program and even threatening to withdraw from the NPT. This became yet another hot spot of the treaty, as well as the protracted deadlock in North Korea’s nuclear disarmament and its return to the bosom of the treaty.

- Are recurrences of the Korean or Iranian type possible?

- They are not only possible, but unfortunately likely. U.S. willfulness is one factor, but there is also the obvious problem that the line between the peaceful and military use of nuclear energy is very unstable; the same materials and technologies can be used both for refueling nuclear power plants and for building nuclear weapons. The fact that the treaty does not make a clear distinction between military and civilian nuclear energy is a stumbling block today.

- How did that happen?

- In the late 1960s, there was an imperative to convince non-nuclear countries to abandon such weapons in exchange for the promise of help from the nuclear powers on peaceful atomic programs. At first, there were no problems — all the participants seemed to understand what they were talking about. But today, as global nuclear power develops and countries from Asia, Latin America and Africa are connected to it, the erosion of that line between peaceful and military nuclear energy has led to inconsistencies that have material consequences.

Now, more than 30 countries have 450 nuclear power reactors, including about 200 in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, and another 50 or more are under construction.

Neither the NPT nor the IAEA prohibit the construction of uranium enrichment plants for refueling nuclear power plants and for reprocessing irradiated fuel and extracting plutonium from it for recycling in special reactors. Uranium can easily be purchased on the world market, and anyone with an enrichment facility can secretly turn it into weapons-grade material, like plutonium. That is what North Korea did and what Iran was suspected of. Under certain circumstances, other states may follow their example and withdraw from the NPT, as permitted under its tenth article. Unfortunately, no arms limitation treaty can be executed “for the ages.” Who could have expected that countries that were colonies or semi-colonies at the time the NPT was signed would develop nuclear power?

- In that case, is it perhaps time to discontinue the NPT?

- Not at all! Today, the NPT is the most universal international legal instrument in the world, except, perhaps, the UN Charter. Only five states — India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, and South Sudan — are not covered by it. The NPT is an excellent treaty, but like any document of this kind, it needs to be developed and adapted to new conditions. Over the 50 years of its existence, the treaty has developed additional regimes, mechanisms, and norms. But they are not enough anymore. There is no need to amend its articles, but additional agreements could and should be added specifying certain provisions and strengthening the control mechanisms. This process is in a deadlock, especially since the nuclear states are setting bad examples for non-nuclear countries and have stopped the nuclear disarmament process.

- Why are the nuclear powers not setting a good example?

- Detente has now become a phase of high political tension, with the nuclear powers accusing each other of disrupting negotiations. The United States does not want to extend the New START and has denounced the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty). At the same time, Washington claims that Russia violated the INF Treaty and laid out a whole list of the latest nuclear weapons systems that are not covered by the New START. In addition, the current U.S. position is that the extension of the New START or the execution of new agreements on strategic offensive arms should include China, which is building up its nuclear weapons. Beijing has no intention of joining such treaties, since it currently has significantly fewer nuclear weapons than Moscow and Washington. As a condition of accession, it requires the reduction of the American and Russian nuclear arsenals to its level. And when they ask what that level might be, Beijing says it’s a secret.

- They want us to guess?

- But it is impossible to guess. It is impossible to include China in the extended New START because the treaty’s cap is designed for the levels and composition of the strategic forces of the two superpowers and no one else. The next possible START will be executed for ten or more years, but how can we estimate how many nuclear weapons China will produce during this time? Especially since estimates of its current arsenal diverge dramatically. And non-nuclear states are very angry because the nuclear powers are dragging their heels and attempting to put the blame on each other. In 2017, they decided to cut the Gordian knot and adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the session of the UN General Assembly. Here’s a radical solution, if you will: you don’t need any STARTs, INFs, or the like. Just ban and liquidate all nuclear weapons at once. The treaty, by the way, has already been signed by 80 states.

- Is that a way out of the deadlock?

- No, it’s rather the opposite. Although the treaty states that it enters into force after its ratification by 50 countries, nothing has happened and nothing will happen. And not because only 30 countries have ratified it so far, but because all the nuclear powers have made it clear that they do not recognize this treaty and do not intend to implement it. Therefore, there is a treaty that may come into force soon, but which will be directly associated with those states that have not signed it and are not going to implement it. Here is the “cataclysm and paradox”, like the Vysotsky song. By the way, all these states — both nuclear and non-nuclear — were supposed to take part in the NPT conference scheduled for this April-May, but it was postponed for a year due to the pandemic. If this time, unlike the previous conference, a final document had been adopted, it would at the very least have allowed us to smooth out some of the existing disagreements. However, since it was not possible to reach a compromise, many people must have been relieved by the forced delay due to the coronavirus. I believe this position is cowardly and irresponsible. All of us ought to have been persistent in seeking compromises, including nuclear disarmament, not simply pointing at the coronavirus. Especially since there are no chances of success at the conference next year, unless the pandemic forces people to pull up their socks…

- We often hear the opinion that the more nuclear powers there are, the better; that the existence of the weapons cools hotheads…

- Yes, there are great minds who believe that no restrictions are needed and it would be better if, 20 years from now, there were at least 30 nuclear states on the planet instead of the current nine. And everyone will start to live in peace thanks to nuclear deterrence. That’s the same as putting a bag of RDX in the trunk of every car in Moscow to make people drive more carefully. If you did it to a dozen cars, it might have a sobering effect on drivers for a while, but if we are talking about hundreds of cars, there would be a continuous cannonade of explosions. Not everyone can be equally and continuously law-abiding and reasonable. The same applies to nuclear weapons. However, aside from these frankly herostratic proposals, a craftier approach is gaining popularity today.

- And what is that?

- The approach I’m referring to involves abandoning supposedly outdated methods of stability strengthening by reducing and limiting arms, which have fully proved their value over the past 50 years. Supposedly, everything is different now: we live in a multipolar world instead of a bipolar world; other nuclear states are gaining strength, new technologies have arrived (hypersonic, space, cybernetic), and the old methods do not work anymore. Everything needs to be done in a new way: nuclear stability issues must be discussed at multilateral conferences, not during meetings. And these conferences won’t limit nuclear arsenals, but ensure their predictability and prevent conflicts between nuclear powers. In other words, the idea is to live in peace and friendship! By the way, I remember when this slogan was proclaimed in 1959 during Khrushchev’s visit to the United States. And the very next year, U.S. reconnaissance aircraft was shot down over the Urals, and the summit in Paris was canceled. In 1961, Soviet and American tanks faced each other in the Berlin crisis. And then there was the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year, when only a stroke of luck saved the world from a nuclear catastrophe. A similar slide into war is already underway and may accelerate.

“Peace to the world!” That is a good goal, but it cannot be achieved by slogans and general discussions. It requires substantive negotiations on specific weapons and settlement of specific conflicts.

Unfortunately, this approach is gaining more and more supporters in Russia and the United States. And it is especially dangerous because it can mislead the public and those political leaders who do not know all the difficulties, details, and history of the issue. After all, it is easier and more pleasant to conduct nuclear diplomacy by delivering speeches at various forums than by nailing down compromises at the meeting table and between different lobbies and groups within the country. I participated in such negotiations and I know what difficult, long, and exhausting work it is. But this is the only way that agreements on ending the arms race are reached. And discussions at conferences do not oblige anyone to anything. The result will be zero, and the arms race, along with the danger of war, will increase.

- And what should be done, for example, to impose restrictions on hypersound?

- Why do you ask? The hype around hypersonic weapons is overwhelming. It’s just another type of weapon carrier — nuclear or non-nuclear — with a speed five or more times faster than sound (330 meters per second). Until now, all ballistic missiles with a range of over several hundred kilometers have been hypersonic weapons. What’s different about the new systems is that, unlike ballistic missiles, they can glide at high speed in the upper atmosphere and maneuver, which requires the use of the latest technology. The Americans plan to use hypersound to deliver conventional arms. Russia is using it for the nuclear warhead of the new Avangard missile glide vehicle. The advantage of hypersonic glide vehicles is that they cannot be intercepted by current missile defense systems. But this advantage is conditional, since the existing ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, considering their numbers (Russia and the United States each have 1,500), can already overcome both powers’ existing or projected missile defense systems. The new hypersonic systems are also very expensive. We don’t know how accurate they are, and they are vulnerable at their starting positions. That said, it would not be difficult to impose legal control over them. Russia has already stated that its new Avangard hypersonic vehicle will be covered by the current New START if extended. Given good will on the part of the leading powers, especially the U.S., Russia, and China, it would be possible to agree on limitations on hypersonic arms and other innovative systems. Doing that, however, would require building on the foundation of the entire arms control system, which has been created over 50 years, and even strengthening and improving it.

- In your opinion, have there been changes in Trump's position on nuclear disarmament over the years of his presidency?

- It is not surprising that Trump had no position on the issue when he arrived in the White House, but he has yet to develop one. Some were afraid then, and some in the United States and abroad hoped that the new president would not actively implement nuclear arms control. And it turned out to be true. Even worse, Trump is destroying everything that was done before him: it was his decision to denounce the INF Treaty. And contrary to the Pentagon’s position, Trump does not want to extend the New START, demanding that China join it. But at the same time, he and his followers do not want the New START to include caps on carriers and warheads that would allow Beijing to increase its nuclear potential by factors of five and ten, respectively. Since the administration does not understand these problems at all and cannot decide whether they need the New START or not, they found a simple way out: let Russia convince China to join it if they want to extend the treaty. How Moscow is supposed to do that? Well, that’s Russia’s headache. I have been dealing with nuclear arms and control and U.S. policy on this issue for 50 years, and I cannot recall such an administration. No matter how some people in Russia like Trump, no matter how friendly he may seem in his statements, in the field of nuclear arms control (and not only here), he seems to destroy everything like a bull in a china shop.

- Can he withdraw from the NPT?

- I don't think so, but Trump’s policy is unpredictable, and nothing can be ruled out. Unlike some of our hotheads who argue for the export of nuclear weapons, no one in the United States has made such suggestions yet. One way or another, the policy of the current administration has already caused great damage to the NPT by rejecting the 2015 Iranian agreement, denouncing the INF Treaty, confusing the whole situation with the extension of the New START, and other steps.

- Are there not enough competent people on his team?

- That’s like the good old Russian fairytale: “the tsar is good, but the nobles are bad.” Each president chooses his or her own advisers and is responsible for them and for their advice or lack thereof. Trump is a pronounced nationalist and a great-power man. Although he is by no means young, he seems to remember nothing and does not know about the Cold War crises, the dangerous and wasteful arms race cycles, and the difficult half-century experience of nuclear arms control. He just lived in a different world and was engaged in the real estate business and reality shows. when he came to the White House, he seemed to be rediscovering the world around him. But with the inclinations he has shown in more than three years, he is unlikely to do it, especially with the coronavirus and upcoming elections. He is by no means alone, though. In all countries, including Russia, there are many politicians and experts today who demonstrate the same attitude toward the problem. They openly, or by default, consider that the more nuclear weapons a country has, the higher its national prestige and the stronger the deterrence potential, and all sorts of treaties only bind hands and confuse naive people. They vaguely imagine a world without nuclear arms control and do not believe that, without such control, a global catastrophe could erupt during any international crisis — due to a military incident, political miscalculation, or a technical failure. After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world has gone 75 years without a nuclear war, but it has approached the razor edge several times, escaping only by a fortuitous combination of circumstances. Rapid changes in the world order and the technosphere do not allow us to continue to count on such luck. Military and technical development cannot be stopped, but it is reasonable policy and controls – not new weapons – that will save the world.

Source: Ogoniok