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Dmitri Trenin

RIAC Member

It is clear that global hegemony of the United States has passed its peak and entered a period of decline. In the medium term, however, the way the struggle for a new world order will be unfolding is not predetermined. The American hegemony is defending itself. It is not only dying, it fires back. Strategic successes of Russia, China, and other countries in promoting a non-hegemonic model of the world order will not immediately put an end to the US hegemony. In the context of the hybrid war against Russia and China, Washington has managed to rally its allies and partners, i.e., about 50 countries, behind itself. Geographically, this area will probably shrink over time, but this process portends to be long and uneven. There is the so-called Anglosphere. In addition to the United States, it includes the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, which historically, since the World War II, have been the core of the collective West, and today they form the inner circle of Washington. Most likely, these countries will remain together and will be one of the cornerstones of the future world order.

Elena Karnaukhova: In the context of Russian Special Military Operation in Ukraine, there are many discussions about the decline of the US-centered world order. But they have already taken place before over the past 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. What stands behind the US-centered world order, and when was it established? Does it include the entire UN system and current international law, or it is all about global economic governance and military and political alliances of the US? Despite all its twists and turns nothing of this has passed away especially American military alliances.

Dmitry Trenin: There has always been some confusion about that. Americans trace the beginning of the existing world order back to 1941-1945, when a modern system of international institutions was created, and international law was modernized. The main pillars of this world order are the 1941 Atlantic Charter, decisions of the Great Three (US, USSR and Great Britain) of 1943-1945, the 1944 Bretton Woods Accord, the 1945 UN Charter, Nuremberg Trial (1945-1946) and the Tokyo War Crimes Trials (1946-1948), and some other agreements. Americans strongly believed that they were the founding fathers of this system. Indeed, many of the initiatives were proposed by American leaders and personally by the US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945). Ideologically, this system has reflected the ideas of Pax Americana, i.e., a world order based on the global hegemony of the United States, or on a specifically American form of leadership.

Elena Karnaukhova: But the Soviet Union was also engaged in the process of post-war peace settlement. Soviet diplomats were taking part in developing the foundations of the global political and even global economic regulatory framework after the World War II (WWII) (1939-1945). The British were also involved in this process, and the French and the Chinese at different stages as well. I cannot believe that they, especially the USSR, could dance to American tune. Besides, you interpret the phenomenon of bipolarity in the second half of the 20th century in a different way.

Dmitry Trenin: Make no mistake, the system of global institutions is not the same as the world order. Shortly after the end of WWII, the confrontation of the two ideological and military and political camps, particularly the United States and the USSR, started. This order was maintained by their mutual nuclear deterrence in a politically and ideologically divided world. As a result of the efforts of the Soviet Union, in East European countries, China and several other states Communist parties came to power, and global socialist system emerged. In the rest of the world, under political, ideological, military and economic leadership of the United States  market relations were being developed, military alliances were being created, norms and rules were being worked out. Thus, in the context of the Cold War a US-centered system was formed, which covered most of the world. At the same time, the United Nations was set up not as a real instrument of global governance, but as a platform for public controversy but not always for public contacts between the two camps. Other global or regional (in Europe, for example) international organizations functioned mainly on a parity basis. International law continued to be based on the principle of state sovereignty and represented a system of agreements from which each of the high contracting parties could withdraw at any time. With the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the USSR, the collapse of the world socialist system and China’s transition to a policy of reform and openness, the United States became only global leader for the first time in human history. Pax Americana system, which had united under its umbrella Western states and the developing countries for previous 45 years, became global.

The countries of Eastern Europe got integrated into it, Russia actively tried to become a part of the West, China turned into the world’s factory that attracted so many Western, especially American, investments. The US hegemony during this period (from the beginning of 1990s to 2010s) was undeniable. Firstly, China was focused on internal development. Secondly, Russia sought to get a foot in the Western door. Thirdly, the entire world became unipolar in all respects – economic, political, military, and ideological.

Elena Karnaukhova: It is indeed peculiar, that Russia wanted to get a foot in the Western door, or to be integrated in the Western world. Now it looks a bit controversial. We criticized a lot this unipolar US-centered world order, but why did we really want to be a part of it earlier? Is it fair to consider Russia as a revisionist power now?

Dmitry Trenin: This unique situation [of American global hegemony] could not be long-term. Russia, which had failed to get integrated into the system of Western institutions on the conditions that could be appropriate for Moscow (i.e., the status of a great power, a decisive voice in making major decisions), was no longer within the orbit of the West already in the first half of the 2000s. President Vladimir Putin’s Munich Speech in 2007 was a kind of declaration of Russia’s geopolitical independence and a public challenge to the US hegemony. This defiance of Russia was geopolitical, normative, and partly military. At the same time, China’s rapid economic and technological growth and Beijing’s refusal to accept the American offer to become a junior partner of the United States subjected American hegemony to economic challenges. Since the mid-1990s, two major powers, namely Russia and China, have regularly declared multipolarity as the desired configuration of the world order. For a long time, these statements were mostly declarations, but global financial crisis of 2008-2009 and geopolitical earthquake in Ukraine in 2014 marked the beginning of the Pax Americana crisis.

“…However, what is a unipolar world? However, one might embellish this term, at the end of the day it refers to one type of situation, namely one centre of authority, one centre of force, one centre of decision-making. It is world in which there is one master, one sovereign. …And this certainly has nothing in common with democracy. Because, as you know, democracy is the power of the majority in light of the interests and opinions of the minority… I consider that the unipolar model is not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world. And this is not only because if there was individual leadership in today’s – and precisely in today’s – world, then the military, political and economic resources would not suffice. What is even more important is that the model itself is flawed because at its basis there is and can be no moral foundations for modern civilization…”.  

President Vladimir Putin’s Speech and the Following Discussion
at the Munich Conference on Security Policy
February 10, 2007
Source: Official Website of the Russian President

Another milestone in the development of this crisis is the start of a trade and economic, and then a technological war and a fierce ideological and geopolitical confrontation between the US and China in the second half of the 2010s, as well as the transition in 2022 of Russian American relations from confrontation to sharp rivalry between the two states, including the proxy war in Ukraine. Realizing the shipwreck of its hopes  for  internal political transformation of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China, as well as the scope of challenges to its global hegemony, during the presidency of Donald Trump (2017-2021) the United States officially adopted the concept of great power rivalry, and accepted the notion – already under the Joe Biden administration in 2021 – that China and Russia were the main competitors of the United States. Washington’s current strategy, officially pursuing the goal of protecting the rules-based order, is actually aimed at addressing the challenges of global American hegemony.

“…America possesses unmatched political, economic, military, and technological advantages. But to maintain these advantages, build upon our strengths, and unleash the talents of the American people, we must protect four vital national interests in this competitive world… Three main sets of challengers – the revisionist powers of China and Russia, the rogue states of Iran and North Korea, and transnational threat organizations, particularly jihadist terrorist groups – are actively competing against the United States and our allies and partners. Although differing in nature and magnitude, these rivals compete across political, economic, and military arenas, and use technology and information to accelerate these contests in order to shift regional balances of power in their favor. These are fundamentally political contests between those who favor repressive systems and those who favor free societies…”. 

2017 US National Security Strategy
December 18, 2017
Source: National Archives (  

Elena Karnaukhova: On March 31, 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a new Foreign Policy Concept. It states that “Humanity is currently going through revolutionary changes. The formation of a more equitable multipolar world order is underway”[2]. According to the document, this multiple world order will be characterized by “rejection of hegemony in international affairs”, and Russia itself will “eliminate the vestiges of domination by the US and other unfriendly states in global affairs, create conditions to enable any state to renounce neocolonial or hegemonic ambitions”[3]. These are indeed challenging tasks. What prospects do we have in this struggle for a fair world where there is no place for American hegemony?

Dmitry Trenin: It is clear that global hegemony of the United States has passed its peak and entered a period of decline. In the medium term, however, the way the struggle for a new world order will be unfolding is not predetermined. The American hegemony is defending itself. It is not only dying, it fires back. Strategic successes of Russia, China, and other countries in promoting a non-hegemonic model of the world order will not immediately put an end to the US hegemony. In the context of the hybrid war against Russia and China, Washington has managed to rally its allies and partners, i.e., about 50 countries, behind itself. Geographically, this area will probably shrink over time, but this process portends to be long and uneven. There is the so-called Anglosphere. In addition to the United States, it includes the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, which historically, since the World War II, have been the core of the collective West, and today they form the inner circle of Washington. Most likely, these countries will remain together and will be one of the cornerstones of the future world order.

“…Russia does not consider itself to be an enemy of the West, is not isolating itself from the West and has no hostile intentions with regard to it; Russia hopes that in future the states belonging to the Western community will realize that their policy of confrontation and hegemonic ambitions lack prospects, will take into account the complex realities of a multipolar world and will resume pragmatic cooperation with Russia being guided by the principles of sovereign equality and respect for each other’s interests. The Russian Federation is ready for dialogue and cooperation on such a basis”.

 2023 Russian Foreign Policy Concept
Source: Russian Foreign Ministry 

Elena Karnaukhova: In Russia in recent years, there have been observed two contradictory trends. On the one hand, the campaign the UN Charter is our rules has been spreading at the Russian Foreign Ministry level. On the other hand, many ideas at expert levels have floated that the UN has been in crisis for a long time, it does not do anything good, it only dances to American tune. Which point of view is closer to you? Today we say that the UN has no sense, and tomorrow we will leave it, if suddenly the opinion that the UN is a bulwark of American hegemony wins. But in this case, we will lose the right of veto. That all plays in the hands of Americans, right?

Dmitry Trenin: The permanent membership in the UN Security Council is of particular value for the foreign policy of the Russian Federation as the successor-state of the USSR. According to the UN Charter, the Security Council has exclusive powers in dealing with the issues of international security, and permanent members of the Security Council bear a special responsibility in this regard. Along with the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia enjoys the right to veto any decision of the UN Security Council. This gives Moscow the opportunity to consider legitimate only those decisions with which it agrees or at least does not object to. And vice versa, it lets Moscow consider any actions taken in circumvention of the UN Security Council, i.e., bypassing the Russian veto, illegitimate. The refusal from such an exceptional position in the international system is madness. As for other UN agencies, for example, the UN General Assembly, the United States, and its allies have recently managed to make up an anti-Russian majority (in particular, in relation to the situation in Ukraine). The resolutions of the UN General Assembly, however, do not have the same supreme legal force as the decisions of the UN Security Council. For many years, the United States itself has been constantly criticized within the UN General Assembly, which led Washington to refuse to pay its contribution to the Organization’s budget.

Elena Karnaukhova: How can you describe the crisis of the UN system? Is it really there? It is very much common to speak about the crisis of established global organizations like the UN both in Russia, and in the West. It seems to me that a crisis is everywhere, regardless of which aspect of international relations we are discussing. Sometimes it looks more like the result of our intellectual construction of reality than the real state of affairs. But we could also say that the UN and the international law have been in crisis since the 1940s.

Dmitry Trenin: It is necessary to understand role and powers of the UN and its bodies. The UN Security Council is not a global government, and the UN General Assembly is not a world parliament, and they have never had such status. There is no need to talk about the crisis of the UN because the Organization has never played the role that is formulated in its Charter. In reality, the UN is a universal meeting place for almost all states of the modern world, this is its uniqueness. This meeting place can be a kind of theatrical stage where a polemical drama is played out, but it can also be a global backstage in the literal sense of the word, where numerous and often non-public contacts take place. What is more, it is a huge international bureaucratic apparatus, very well paid, but at the same time clumsy and not very effective due to the intricate process of personnel recruitment and interstate contradictions. So, the bottom line should be the following: you can scold the UN as much as you like, leave it – in no case, reform it – only under the condition of preserving the current privileges of the Russian Federation.

Elena Karnaukhova: Well, many articles and publications have been written and many words have been said about the consequences of the decline of the US-centered world order. It is believed that one of them may be the weakening of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. It is interesting that in the 1990s, when this unipolar world was supposedly flourishing, the situation in the field of nonproliferation was also far from being perfect. There is another interesting question: if our world has become truly hegemonic since the 1990s, how can we explain, for example, the introduction of a moratorium on nuclear tests by China and France in 1995? Donot you think that the interconnection between the two phenomena is overestimated?

Dmitry Trenin: In fact, the weakening of the nuclear nonproliferation regime was the result of the collapse of the USSR and the inability of the Russian Federation (or some another power) to maintain military and political balance in the world. Thus, nuclear weapons appeared in India, Pakistan, and the DPRK; Iran relaunched its nuclear program; Iraq and Libya carried out some activities in the same direction. In other words, the establishment of the US-centered world order forced the countries that had serious ambitions (India, Pakistan) or political regimes that the Americans intended to overthrow (Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya) to think about creating or acquiring nuclear weapons as an instrument of deterring the United States. Sure, during the same period, the withdrawal of nuclear weapons of the former USSR from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to the territory of Russia took place, but this was possible due to proactive cooperation between Moscow and Washington in the area of nuclear nonproliferation. American global hegemony is the form of leadership, within which the United States undertakes obligations to protect its allies, including through an extended deterrence, or a nuclear umbrella. In fact, this obligation, which is considered to be absolutely reliable (suffice it to mention the mythology around Article V of the 1949 Washington Treaty), is not automatic at all. On the contrary, there are serious reasons to believe that the United States has never thought of exposing its national territory to the danger of nuclear strikes reciprocated by other powers in response to Washington’s defense of its ally. Understanding this reality – for example, in the political circles of South Korea – may push certain American allies to create their own nuclear capability. Israel embarked on this path a long time ago and has acquired an appropriate own nuclear arsenal. 

From the world order perspective, it should be noted that political multipolarity is based on nuclear polycentrism. The bipolar system of the Cold War period was based on mutual deterrence and the threat of mutually assured destruction. The split between the USSR and the People’s Republic of China in the late 1950s logically led to the emergence of China’s own nuclear weapons. The claims of Great Britain and France to the status of great powers in the post-WWII world also found its expression in their nuclear programs. India’s rise as a great power also has a nuclear dimension. With the exception of the two European powers that have lost both their real great power status and geopolitical sovereignty, the main centers of global politics are represented today by nuclear-weapon states. It can be assumed that the rising of new global or regional centers in the future will also be accompanied by the creation of their nuclear deterrence capabilities. As this process keeps going, the demand for American security guarantees – increasingly dubious – will decrease, and in this regard, the sphere of the US political influence will shrink.

Elena Karnaukhova: We expect that as a result of the US-centered world order crisis, the system of American alliances will collapse and the American nuclear umbrella, which you mentioned, will cease to exist. But what if it really happens, then the former US allies may decide to build their own nuclear weapons to ensure their national security. Will not it get any worse? Let’s imagine that some extremely Russophobic European country neighboring Russia acquires nuclear weapons. How to deal with these new challenges to our national security in this case?

Dmitry Trenin: You are asking whether a polycentric nuclear world will be less secure than the current one. Of course, there is no definite answer to this question. We live in conditions of high uncertainty. We are observing the escalation of a proxy armed conflict between two leading nuclear powers, and in the most sensitive to one of them geopolitical region. Until now, I have considered such a dangerous development of the situation extremely unlikely, but today it is a reality fraught with a direct military clash between Russia and NATO. But the main thing is that the scenario you are asking about is not a matter of choice. The inability of the United States to inflict Russia’s defeat in Ukraine may create an incentive for one of the American allies to acquire nuclear weapons. At the same time, we have entered a period of a sharp increase in tension not only between Moscow and Washington, but also between Washington and Beijing. The stakes on both sides are exceptionally high, and I consider a strategic compromise – at least in Russian-American relations – as practically impossible.

Elena Karnaukhova: With the crisis of the US-centered world order and the world becoming multipolar, how can this affect the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the entire nuclear nonproliferation regime?

Dmitry Trenin: On the one hand, destabilization of NPT is an important factor undermining American hegemony. On the other hand, most of the existing and possible new nuclear powers are geographically neighbors of Russia on the Eurasian continent. Besides, the states on which the United States is exerting pressure of nuclear nonproliferation, I mean DPRK and Iran, are political opponents of the United States and at the same time increasingly close partners of Russia. It is unthinkable to cooperate with Washington, which is waging a war with Russia by the hands of Ukrainians, against Iran and DPRK, which somehow helps us in this war. This does not mean direct support for relevant nuclear and missile programs of Tehran and Pyongyang, but Moscow’s refusal to participate in the Washington-led policy of international pressure exerted on them is more than logical.

Elena Karnaukhova: In this context, I would like us to touch upon the concept of escalate to de-escalate. When and where did it appear: is it the legacy of the Kennedy (1961-1963) administration with its idea of lowering the nuclear threshold and the strategy of a flexible response? Or perhaps it was generated by Russian military strategists of the 1990s trying to figure out how to ensure the security of the country when there were continuous armed conflicts unfolding along the Russian borders, with the United States’ blatant armed interference in the internal affairs of other states?

Dmitry Trenin: Today, when the Ukrainian crisis has reached its peak, but even before its culmination, this issue is acquiring greater historical significance. I remember well that during the Cold War, NATO’s strategy provided for nuclear strikes against the forces of Warsaw Pact Organization in order to stop their rapid attack in the direction of the English Channel and to create conditions for negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union. The post-Soviet Russian strategy in this part has always been somewhat less clear to me, but despite periodic bursts of tension between Moscow and Washington (over the Balkans, Iraq, etc.), until very recently, the scenario of a military clash between Russia and NATO has been considered unlikely. The corresponding ideas of using nuclear weapons during local or regional conflicts with the United States were not articulated, at least publicly. Today, as it seems to me, the situation offers various scenarios for the possible use of nuclear weapons, but they have little in common with both the clear NATO strategy of the 1960s-1970s and rather vague ideas of Russian strategists of the 1990s.

Elena Karnaukhova: Now there are many discussions about the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine in the context of the escalate to de-escalate concept. Is it just mere rhetoric, falsehood based on the intelligence data allegedly received by Western countries, or real plans of the Russian military? Would the use of tactical nuclear weapons by Russia in the Ukrainian crisis be justified, at least from the point of view of military-strategic planning?

Dmitry Trenin: I do not see any military or other sense in the use of nuclear weapons by Russia in Ukraine. The rhetoric in this regard that we heard at the beginning of the armed conflict in Ukraine came from the West. On the Russian side, at an expert and unofficial political level, there were talks about the possibility of nuclear weapons strikes against the targets on the territory of NATO countries, not Ukraine. Such strikes, as it was discussed, could be launched against the airfields based on modern Western aircraft transferred to Ukraine and against logistics hubs and military facilities.

Elena Karnaukhova: The USSR and the People’s Republic of China had a border armed conflict on Damansky Island in 1969. Of course, it is difficult to draw an analogy with the situation in Ukraine. But these were two nuclear powers, both hostile to each other. Was a nuclear exchange expected by anyone at that time?

Dmitry Trenin: I remember this conflict. There were bloody clashes on the Ussuri River in March and on the Kazakh part of the Soviet border with China in July of that year. The possibility of a war with China was considered quite high in Moscow. The use of nuclear weapons in this case was regarded almost inevitable, while a global nuclear war was not expected as the nuclear potential of China was small at that time. Everyone in the Soviet Union breathed a sigh of relief when, in September 1969, the chairman of the Council of Ministers Alexey Kosygin on his way to Vietnam made a stop in Beijing for talks with Zhou Enlai, first premier of the People’s Republic of China. This meeting of the heads of government of the two countries defused the dangerous crisis.

Elena Karnaukhova: Russia is going to deploy its tactical nuclear weapons on the Belarusian territory. Which consequences will it have – political or military? How will it change the balance of power and what countermeasures can we expect from the US side?

Dmitry Trenin: Today, in the context of a proxy war between Russia and the West, it is difficult to separate political aspects from military ones. The escalation of the Ukrainian conflict continues. We cannot rule out the possibility of a direct clash with NATO. The political implication of this step is to strengthen the deterrence potential of the enemy as missiles and aircraft from the territory of Belarus are capable of striking to a greater depth of the territory of NATO countries than those deployed or based on the main part of the territory of the Russian Federation. Unlike the Kaliningrad exclave geographically separated from the main Russian land, these weapons are stationed on the territory of a neighboring state allied with Russia. Regarding military implications, I do not think that this decision will change the balance of power with the United States. The main thing is to change the deployment of Russian forces, bringing them forward, and such a measure sends a strong signal to the enemy that Moscow is ready for an active and decisive action.

“As for our talks with Alexander Lukashenko, this decision was motivated by the statement of the British Deputy Defense Minister that Great Britain is going to supply depleted uranium munition to Ukraine, this is somehow connected with nuclear technologies”. “We do not transfer [nuclear weapons]. And the United States does not transfer them to its allies. We are basically doing the same things that the US has been doing for decades. They have allies in certain countries, the US prepare their means of delivery and their crews. We are going to do the same. This is exactly what Alexander Grigoryevich [Lukashenko] asked us for”. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin
in an interview for TV-program Moscow. Kremlin. Putin
(unofficial translation)
Source: RG.RU ( 

Elena Karnaukhova: Russian Special Military Operation in Ukraine invited a lively discussion about whether the world has stopped fearing nuclear weapons. On the one hand, this fear still exists. Do not you think that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) proves the case? On the other hand, TPNW makes you think that there is a glimmer of hope. The Treaty contains provisions on rendering assistance to the victims of a nuclear conflict. But where will it come from if all of humanity dies? The Treaty implies that some people may survive. So, if someone stays alive, that will mean that the devil is not as black as he is painted, right? It is also interesting that to military and political elites of major global powers belong those who were born and brought up in the Cold War times. But back then, everyone was afraid of a nuclear war. So, do we really fear nuclear weapons now?

Dmitry Trenin: The fear of nuclear weapons has greatly dulled over the past three decades. This has happened almost everywhere. There are several reasons. Firstly, in the West, where this fear last peaked in the first half and mid-1980s, new generations have grown up who perceive the Cold War and the Soviet-American confrontation fraught with nuclear conflict as a distant history. It is believed that in the modern globalized world there are simply no states whose leadership would be ready to commit suicide. Secondly, over the decades of its global hegemony, the United States has ceased to reckon with other major powers. Currently, for American politicians, speaking metaphorically according to the worlds of Senator John McCain, Russia is “a gas station pretending to be a state”, and not “the only country capable of completely destroying the United States”, it much differs from what they said during the Cold War and for some time after its end. Thus, Russia’s nuclear potential has been dismissed out based on the assumption that it cannot and will not be used in modern conditions. Thirdly, the international (especially Western) agenda in the context of globalization has largely factored out the problems of war and peace. Now for Western societies the main concerns are concentrated on climate, gender, and something of that kind. Nuclear topics in this regard are perceived as archaic.

Elena Karnaukhova: Well, let’s imagine the Americans are not afraid of anything in general and of our nuclear capability in particular. But, firstly, why did this happen, for Russia continues to retain a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the United States? Moreover, nuclear threshold has been significantly lowered in both countries. Secondly, okay, Americans are not afraid of Russia now, but they are afraid of the DPRK, whose nuclear arsenal is incomparably smaller than ours. Does it have any rational explanation?

Dmitry Trenin: Fears of the DPRK’s nuclear missile program have significantly subsided today. There are two reasons. Firstly, the regime in Pyongyang and its head are seen as more rational actors than their caricatures, which were propagated in the United States in the years preceding the beginning of the era of great power rivalry. Secondly, these fears themselves were a convenient veil behind which the United States strengthened its military potential aimed at China. The main thing is that now Washington has much more powerful and serious opponents than North Korea. Finally, there is a factor of mass media. Both glossing over Russia’s strategic capabilities and promoting hysteria about the growing arsenal of DPRK result from the work of the media, whose primary goal in the United States is not to provide trustworthy information to the public but to act as a political player with own interests and agenda. 

When we say that someone has lost fear we mean public opinion. It is shaped largely by mass media. In most Western countries, which have completely delegated their security to Washington, both political circles and governments have lost their fear. Having shifted all responsibility to the senior ally, they themselves became irresponsible. Washington is another story. In the US we still see the elements of realism at the level of the government and the military elite. Yes, US officials have stated the goal of inflicting a strategic defeat on Russia in Ukraine. This goal implies an extremely risky strategy. At the same time, the United States is obviously afraid of two things. The first one is the direct involvement of its troops and forces in the war in Ukraine, and the second one is the escalation of the conflict to the level of strikes with the use of strategic nuclear forces. Hence, the US resorts to the tactics of small steps, with constant testing of how far one can go on the path of involvement in the war but without exposing oneself to unacceptable risks. So far, the conflict continues to escalate, and the growing likelihood of attacks by Russian armed forces on NATO countries puts the United States before a very difficult choice whether to ensure its own security at the cost of refusing from the assistance, which the allies count on, or to be fully involved in the conflict, but that will lead to death of the most of humanity, including the United States itself.

Elena Karnaukhova: I would like to touch upon TPNW again. Would it be right to consider this Treaty has come as a result of frustration of non-nuclear weapons states with little progress in nuclear disarmament, or as an initiative promoted by the US in order to achieve disarmament of other states on a global scale? It seems rather odd that the US officially rejects TPNW, but many American nongovernmental organizations or foundations actively support this Treaty. When you go to their websites, you can see that they heavily finance the projects related to stigmatization of nuclear weapons.

Dmitry Trenin: The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was largely generated by the frustrations of non-nuclear weapons countries due to the fact that the nuclear powers, who have committed themselves in accordance with the NPT to eventually abandoning nuclear weapons, are not in a hurry to do so. This disappointment is understandable. But it is unclear for me what can replace nuclear deterrence, i.e., the threat of mutually assured destruction, as a factor that dramatically reduces the likelihood of a direct military clash between the states with the largest nuclear arsenals. However, from the point of view of some American experts, a nuclear-free world (which the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev actively promoted in 1986) is a world of the military dominance of the United States, whose military budget exceeds aggregate military expenditures of a dozen of the world’s leading military powers. The American administration, however, is cautious: after all, it cannot be completely ruled out that someone somewhere will hide nuclear weapons and will be able to blackmail the rest of the world with them, including the United States themselves.

Elena Karnaukhova: Can we make the US fear Russian nuclear weapons again by resuming nuclear tests?

Dmitry Trenin: I do not think it is necessary to deliberately increase this fear. It is very dangerous to allow your counterpart to feel that you are bluffing. Then the situation can become uncontrollable, and a catastrophe is inevitable. There is a certain set of signals that is designed to warn the enemy about the impending danger. There are emergency hotlines. The main thing is to convince the enemy that you are not scaring him but are really determined to defend certain positions with all the means at your disposal. But you cannot deceive yourself: if the enemy does not believe you, you will have to hit.

Elena Karnaukhova: It is a widespread opinion in Western academic literature that we risk facing the erosion of a nuclear taboo, or the taboo on the use of nuclear weapons. But after all, military and political establishments of nuclear countries, the US and the Soviet Union and then Russia for sure, in the very first days of the atomic bomb stipulated the terms of nuclear weapons use. Why was a nuclear taboo established and is it really being eroded now?

Dmitry Trenin: In case of the United States, nuclear weapons were actually used, and even twice[4]! However, the evolution of nuclear technologies and the means of delivery of nuclear weapons, the build-up of nuclear arsenals over a few years made the leaders of the Soviet Union and the United States understand that a nuclear war would lead to the destruction of their countries. In the Soviet Union, the chairman of the Council of Ministers Georgy Malenkov was the first to say this, notably soon after the death of Joseph Stalin. In 1951, the US president Harry Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of his commands partially because MacArthur persistently sought permission to use tactical nuclear weapons against Sino-North Korean forces during the Korean War (1950-1953). In 1954, president Dwight Eisenhower, who succeeded Truman, rejected Paris’ request to strike at the Vietnamese guerrilla army that had besieged French colonial troops near Dien Bien Phu, who were defeated and were forced to leave Indochina.

Elena Karnaukhova: Sure, but still, in case of France, the United States had been seeking to dismantle colonial empires since the Wilsonian moment, if not earlier.

Dmitry Trenin: We should also take into account that during the Cold War, the most important region of the world of that time, namely Europe, was clearly divided into spheres of influence and buffer zones. Both the US and the USSR cared primarily about the stability of control over their parts of the continent. The peripheral regions, i.e., Asia, Africa, Latin America, were, of course, an open field for rivalry, but the stakes in these regions were not so high as to justify the use of nuclear weapons. Finally, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 forced the USSR and the USA to take steps to settle the confrontation, to begin the negotiation process which gave rise to the phenomenon of arms control.

Elena Karnaukhova: Once I heard that scientists have learned how to make such nuclear warheads that do not lead to radiation contamination of the area. In one of the interviews, you personally mentioned the process of miniaturization of nuclear weapons, which, as you said then, can now be used on a different scale[5]. Do we understand correctly that the world is objectively moving towards the use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield? And whether it is Ukraine where it will happen for the first time after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or somewhere else, is not important at all…Dmitry Trenin: All questions concerning political and psychological consequences of the use of nuclear weapons can be discussed only hypothetically. May God grant that it remains so. There is a point of view that low-yield nuclear weapons are quite capable of solving tasks on the battlefield without jeopardizing the survival of mankind. There is also an opposite opinion that a nuclear war will inevitably escalate to the highest level of intensity, thus, it will lead, as they say, to universal guaranteed destruction. The war in Ukraine, in which both major nuclear powers are being involved, has already forced many ideas about the scope of deterrence and its reliability to be reviewed. We should understand that Ukraine is the first, but not the last conflict between the advocates of hegemony and the coalition of states supporting multipolarity. The third decade of the 21st century promises to be very turbulent.

[1] First published as: Dmitry Trenin. On a New Global Order and Its Nuclear Dimension. An Interview / Ed. Elena Karnaukhova, Leonid Tsukanov. M.: PIR Press, 2023. – 20 p. – (Security Index Occasional Paper Series). URL:

[2] The Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation, 2023 // Russian Foreign Ministry, March 31, 2023. URL:

[3] Ibid.

[4] This refers to the bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in August 1945. – Editor’s Note.

[5] «Реальный страх перед ядерным оружием действительно появился». Интервью для передачи «Международное обозрение» (РОССИЯ 24) // Россия в глобальной политике, 5 мая 2022 г. URL: 


Source: PIR Center

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