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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Academic Director of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC Member

Speech at the 11th Beijing World Peace Forum

All of us should fully recognize the gravity of the situation. The fact that proliferation was relatively slow over last fifty years gives us no guarantees that the pace of proliferation is not going to accelerate in a radical way within next fifty years. Likewise, the fact that nuclear weapons were not used since 1945, creates no credible assurances that they will not be used in the foreseeable future. We should accept that there is no magic solution to all problems of nonproliferation. Proliferation is a comprehensive multidimensional challenge and it requires a comprehensive and multidimensional set of answers. A number of more or less evident points have to be mentioned here.

First, one has to resurrect strategic arms control from its grave. It will be exceptionally hard to do it under the current geopolitical circumstances. Even with the needed political will present, some technical challenges are truly formidable. Moreover, any new model of strategic arms control will have to be very different from what we saw over the last fifty years. Today, we need an entirely new arms control model capable of catching up with rapidly progressing nuclear technologies. Nuclear powers have to clearly and unambiguously reconfirm their remaining commitment to nuclear disarmament in order to avoid a full collapse of the NPT regime. An important contribution to nonproliferation would be further progress in entering into force the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which a number of important international players still have to ratify.  

Second, in view of multiple crises and conflicts involving nuclear powers, it is critically important to separate the nuclear agenda from all the other international problems, as it was the case during most of the Cold War period. Given the hybrid nature of many modern wars, such a separation is not easy to achieve. However, the nuclear agenda is too essential for all the humankind to turn it into a hostage of a specific conventional conflict of crisis. By keeping nuclear matters isolated from the rest of their foreign and defense policies nuclear powers would demonstrate that they do not claim any special rights or privileges within the international system compared to no-nuclear nations. This commitment would be an efficient demotivator for potential proliferators to go nuclear.

Third, one needs to upgrade the existing mechanisms and procedures that provide for international control over transfer of nuclear and ballistic technologies. It should be noted that these days such technologies can be appropriated not only by irresponsible rouge states, but also by numerous non-state actors engaged in international terrorism. IAEA, CTBTO have to be modernized and enhanced in order to be capable of detecting all possible breaches of the NPT regime including a new global system of probe collection. More emphasis should be made on preventing ballistic technologies proliferation. New formats of nonproliferation monitoring, including the format of private-public partnerships involving the private sector, civil society instructions, social networks and AI capable of processing large amounts of assorted data should be explored. Finally, we have to secure opportunities for promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy without creating new risks of proliferation.

Finally, though negative linkages that make nonproliferation dependable on other dimensions of great powers relations should be avoided to the extent possible, one should keep in mind that nonproliferation cannot be fully separated from other problems of international security. After all, countries proliferate because they feel unsecure, threatened, or excluded from the international system. Even if they have no realistic prospects for going nuclear, they might find other, no less destructive ways to cope with their problems and to demonstrate their advanced military capabilities. This means that the solution to both global and regional security problems is not only in nonproliferation or even in complete nuclear disarmament, but rather in moving toward a new international order that would be more fair, more democratic, more stable and more predictable than the one that we have today.                    


Speech at the 11th Beijing World Peace Forum

The Non-Proliferation Treaty was open for signature in 1968 and entered into force in 1970. The Treaty has been signed by the overwhelming majority of UN member states and should be considered as a very significant accomplishment of the international community. Despite many gloomy predictions, over the last half a century the proliferation process was quite slow: on top of the five recognized nuclear states only three other nations (India, Pakistan and North Korea) have openly tested nuclear weapons, and another one (Israel) has kept a deliberate ambiguity on its nuclear status.

However, this positive track record gives no reasons to be complacent about the future. The last NPT Review Conference (August 2022) revealed an evident lack of consensus on the future of non-proliferation. The ongoing cycle of geopolitical competition between great powers complicates the problem of nonproliferation immensely. Since the trust between major is so low now, it becomes increasingly difficult to preserve efficient multilateral mechanisms to deal with such critical nonproliferation issues as North Korean or Iranian nuclear programs. Conflicts and clashes among great powers create additional temptations and opportunities for potential proliferators, bring down efficiency of the UN Security Council, IAEA and other international bodies that should prevent proliferation.

On top of that, we observe a crisis of nuclear security guarantees’ credibility. For instance, it is not clear to many regional players whether the US nuclear umbrella is going to work in case of a large-scale conventional conflict in the Pacific. This uncertainty might become another factor incentivizing proliferation. South Korea in particular might consider going nuclear at some point in order to balance the nuclear arsenal of DPRK without relying completely on the US extended deterrence; today, about two thirds of South Koreans are ready to support the ROK’s nuclear armament. Some of the recent devastating conflicts in countries that used to have or planned to have nuclear weapons (Libya, Ukraine) lead to a reassessment of their earlier decisions to stay nonnuclear; many now argue that if these countries had developed (or retained) their nuclear weapons, the conflicts on their territories would have been avoided.

On the other hand, economic and technological progress of the last twenty or thirty years—like new, more cost-efficient uranium enrichment technologies - make nuclear weapons (and also such delivery means as ballistic missiles) in principle more accessible to a large number of nations than it was the case earlier. At the same time, reliable international control over nuclear technologies’ transfers becomes increasingly difficult, and potential sources of such technologies multiply. The time between the political decision to go ahead with nuclear programs and the actual acquisition of nuclear warheads and appropriate delivery means becomes shorter, which gives the international community fewer options in responding to proliferation challenges.

Another disturbing trend affecting nonproliferation today is a very clear intention of existing nuclear powers to abstain from any further radical reductions of their respective nuclear arsenals. On the contrary, all of them are pursuing ambitions modernization programs, and some even plan to increase numbers of nuclear warheads, which raises doubts about their commitment to Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and encourages potential proliferators to continue attempts to acquire nuclear weapons. Moreover, strategic arms control per se is in a deep crisis: the United States walked out of the ABM and INF agreements, while Russia suspended its participation to the New START that in any case expires in the beginning of 2026. It is not at all clear whether the strategic arms control as we know it since early 1970s survives the current confrontation between Moscow and the West.

What can be done under these pitiful circumstances? To start with, all of us should fully recognize the gravity of the situation. The fact that proliferation was relatively slow over last fifty years gives us no guarantees that the pace of proliferation is not going to accelerate in a radical way within next fifty years. Likewise, the fact that nuclear weapons were not used since 1945, creates no credible assurances that they will not be used in the foreseeable future. We should also accept that there is no magic solution to all abovementioned problems of nonproliferation. Proliferation is a comprehensive multidimensional challenge and it requires a comprehensive and multidimensional set of answers. A number of more or less evident points have to be mentioned here.

First, one has to resurrect strategic arms control from its grave. It will be exceptionally hard to do it under the current geopolitical circumstances. Even with the needed political will present, some technical challenges (e. g. verification) are truly formidable. Moreover, any new model of strategic arms control will have to be very different from what we saw over the last fifty years (e. g. it would be difficult to envisage new comprehensive legally binding US-Russian agreements ratified by the US Senate). Today, we need an entirely new (hopefully, multilateral) arms control model capable of catching up with rapidly progressing nuclear technologies. Nuclear powers have to clearly and unambiguously reconfirm their remaining commitment to nuclear disarmament in order to avoid a full collapse of the NPT regime. An important contribution to nonproliferation would be further progress in entering into force the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which a number of important international players still have to ratify.  

Second, in view of multiple crises and conflicts involving nuclear powers, it is critically important to separate the nuclear agenda from all the other international problems, as it was the case during most of the Cold War period. Given the hybrid nature of many modern wars, such a separation is not easy to achieve. However, the nuclear agenda is too essential for all the humankind to turn it into a hostage of a specific conventional conflict of crisis. By keeping nuclear matters isolated from the rest of their foreign and defense policies nuclear powers would demonstrate that they do not claim any special rights or privileges within the international system compared to no-nuclear nations. This commitment would be an efficient demotivator for potential proliferators to go nuclear.

Third, one needs to upgrade the existing mechanisms and procedures that provide for international control over transfer of nuclear and ballistic technologies. It should be noted that these days such technologies can be appropriated not only by irresponsible rouge states, but also by numerous non-state actors engaged in international terrorism. IAEA, CTBTO have to be modernized and enhanced in order to be capable of detecting all possible breaches of the NPT regime including a new global system of probe collection. More emphasis should be made on preventing ballistic technologies proliferation. New formats of nonproliferation monitoring, including the format of private-public partnerships involving the private sector, civil society instructions, social networks and AI capable of processing large amounts of assorted data should be explored. Finally, we have to secure opportunities for promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy without creating new risks of proliferation (the US “Golden Rule” principles could be applied more universally than they are now).

Finally, though negative linkages that make nonproliferation dependable on other dimensions of great powers relations should be avoided to the extent possible, one should keep in mind that nonproliferation cannot be fully separated from other problems of international security. After all, countries proliferate because they feel unsecure, threatened, or excluded from the international system. Even if they have no realistic prospects for going nuclear, they might find other, no less destructive ways to cope with their problems and to demonstrate their advanced military capabilities (e. g., chemical weapons, sophisticated drones or cyber weapons). This means that the solution to both global and regional security problems is not only in nonproliferation or even in complete nuclear disarmament, but rather in moving toward a new international order that would be more fair, more democratic, more stable and more predictable than the one that we have today.  

(votes: 4, rating: 5)
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  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
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    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
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