Russia’s renewed and repeated threats to use nuclear weapons as it faces territorial setbacks in Ukraine are being taken extremely seriously by the US and the EU. Nor do they go unheard at the Conference on Disarmament—‘the CD, as the Conference is almost unanimously referred to here, both in English and in French.
Though the CD has been in a profound torpor for about a quarter of a century now, unable to negotiate anything or even adopt a working agenda since the negotiations on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT ) signed in 1996, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its threats of using nuclear weapons have made it once more the theater of severe tensions.
So far, hopes that the body could resolve them and pave the way to a solution have been completely dashed—and, we are told, it is unlikely that the situation will change anytime soon. Case in point: during a recent debate on possible options for the provision of ‘negative security assurances’, the discussions exploring the path to an eventual treaty foundered rapidly among bitter disagreements.
In disarmament doctrine, negative security assurance refers to the guarantee that states which possess nuclear weapons will not use or threaten to use them against countries without a nuclear arsenal. For Ukraine—which, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, agreed to surrender its nuclear arsenal in exchange for guarantees that its territorial integrity would be respected by Russia—the CD debate was seen as the perfect opportunity to assess the ability of the Conference and its sixty-five members to reach an agreement on negative security assurance.
With Russia threatening to use its nuclear arsenal against Ukraine, the discussion landed before the CD in August. It was, say diplomatic sources involved in the discussions, a tense and uneasy exchange, as Russia repeated that “all options are on the table.” Led by the EU, several governments took the floor to insist that “the guarantees currently provided by the nuclear states are not sufficient” and that a new treaty is more necessary than ever. The debate has obvious political overtones. One source told The G|O that both Russia and Ukraine are using the CD as part of their respective global diplomatic offensive. Nevertheless, there is a growing consensus among CD watchers that the situation might be bleaker than ever, with Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, having decided to wage war in complete violations of the UN Charter, and that it is now the very model of collective security which is now at stake. Russia and the United States remain by far the world’s biggest nuclear powers, with the two countries holding around 90% of the planet’s nuclear warheads. Russia has 5,977 warheads while the United States has 5,428, with China possessing 350, France 290, and the United Kingdom 225.
The US has included negative security assurances in its nuclear policy since 1978. In its latest iteration, it states that it “will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” Ukraine is a non-nuclear weapon state signatory of the NPT.
Russia, by contrast, in its declarations about the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, insists that the use of nuclear weapons can be justified according to its nuclear doctrine when “aggression against the Russian Federation with conventional weapons threatens the very existence of the state”—a wording used on Tuesday (September 27) by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, who said Russia “was not bluffing,” adding that NATO was too scared of “nuclear apocalypse” and would not enter the conflict.