Not a brief pause, but a turning point

Not a brief pause, but a turning point

Consequences of the Russian aggression against Ukraine on disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control

This comment was written on the 20th day of the renewed Russian attack against Ukraine. The ferocity of the attack and the level of brutality of the aggressor seem to have no bounds, as cities and civilians have been increasingly and deliberately targeted by Russian bombs and missiles. According to UN data, 3 million Ukrainians have fled the country, most of them heading to Poland and other EU countries. It is therefore difficult to maintain a purely analytical approach towards the war and its many aspects.

Still, a number of comments and predictions have been made – including by APLN Members and experts – about the likelihood of nuclear escalation, as well as the impact of the war on the disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control agendas. Let me offer a perspective from Poland, an EU and NATO member bordering Ukraine and Russia.

It may be useful to distinguish between immediate effects and longer-term consequences.

As regards immediate consequences, for as long as Russian aggression continues, there is a risk that the conflict could suddenly and dramatically escalate beyond the area of immediate fighting. We have witnessed Russia using nuclear signalling to warn other states not to “interfere” in its so-called “special operation” in Ukraine. This signalling has so far mostly consisted of words and an increase of staff at its nuclear command and control centres. But it could extend to changes in the posture of Russian nuclear forces or the issuing of more direct nuclear threats. We have also seen the fighting endangering the safety and security of operations of Ukrainian nuclear power plants, storage sites and other installations. Finally, Russian propaganda has been trumping up bogus claims regarding chemical and biological weapons research in Ukraine, which might be used to justify a false flag operation.  The latter might involve Russians falsely claiming to have uncovered Ukrainian preparations for a chemical attack, followed by Russian use of its own chemical weapons. The international community must be ready to react adequately to any developments involving WMDs, which would fundamentally change the nature of this war.

As for longer-term consequences, it seems unrealistic to assume that we can return to the pre-war arms control and non-proliferation agenda, as well as to various dialogues involving Russia. This is not a pause, but a turning point in many aspects. As we have witnessed recently in the negotiations over the future of the JCPOA, where Russia reportedly issued last-minute demands, no area can be shielded from the blowback, even when the five permanent members of the UN Security Council face common proliferation challenges. The war will also most likely limit the practical agenda of the P5 to the bare minimum of risk reduction (e.g. pre-notification of nuclear exercises and tests, crisis communication).

In the nuclear non-proliferation domain, I expect – unfortunately – a growing polarization between the group of countries that reject nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence, supported by a part of the global civil society (an approach epitomized by the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons) on the one hand, and nuclear-armed states and countries covered by extended nuclear deterrence guarantees on the other. For countries that reject nuclear weapons, the war is proof of the folly of nuclear weapons possession and evidence of unacceptable dangers posed by nuclear deterrence. For the latter, it has been seen as a confirmation of the crucial role of nuclear weapons as an ultimate security guarantee. Based on the outcome of the war, the lessons learned can fuel the debate and potentially decisions in countries contemplating either a nuclear option and or ways of strengthening their extended nuclear deterrence relationship, including in the Asia-Pacific region. There will be calls to uphold or even broaden nuclear modernization plans in the nuclear weapon states.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will likely survive –its central nuclear non-proliferation norm is still supported by the overwhelming majority of its signatories – but a productive outcome of the Review Conference, which has just been confirmed to take place in August, is very much in doubt. Problems will be exacerbated further  if Russia decides to repeat its lies about Ukraine and its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons or Belarus repeats its invitations to place Russian nuclear weapons on its soil. Here it is worth noting that despite Russian propaganda claims to the contrary, Poland has made no requests and NATO has made no decisions regarding the deployment of US nuclear weapons on Polish soil.

As regards to the bilateral US-Russia arms control agenda, the talks on strategic stability and a potential successor to New START have been put on hold. It is difficult to see talks restarted without the prior cessation of Russian aggression. The same goes for any NATO-Russia or pan-European arms control talks. At the same time, some basic contacts should be maintained to assure the implementation of New START and to keep political and military lines of communication open. But few in Europe and the United States would believe in any Russian peace offensives or potential arms control offers, – for example concerning land-based missiles – if those are offered at the same time as Russian troops are killing Ukrainian civilians.

Finally, the Europeans have often taken pride in the experience of developing a cooperative security system the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian space, with the OSCE praised as the most inclusive regional organisation. This model has been suggested as a template for other regions, including the Asia-Pacific. Studying the European experience of the rise and fall of inclusive security can still be useful for other regions, and some specific solutions e.g., in the area of confidence-building measures, may be replicated elsewhere. But the reflection must now include the question of why so many elements of the system have failed.

The recent anti-war APLN statement, signed by over 60 Members, rightly warns against the dangers of nuclear escalation, and calls for an immediate end to hostilities. In parallel, we should however honestly examine the effectiveness of past approaches to security, arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation. We must re-think their utility in the emerging, much grimmer international reality.

About the Author

Łukasz Kulesa is the deputy manager of the Research and Analysis Office at the Polish Institute of International Affairs. He deals with the issues of deterrence, arms control, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, NATO-Russia relations, and transatlantic relations. He graduated with a master’s degree from the Faculty of Law of the Jagiellonian University and with a Master of Arts degree from the Faculty of International Relations of the Central European University in Budapest. He speaks English and Russian. In 2014-2019 he worked as a research director in the European Leadership Network. In 2010-2012, he worked in the National Security Bureau as deputy director of the Department of Strategic Analyzes.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members.

Image: Public Domain via The BBC

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