Michael KreponArms Control Implications of the War in Ukraine (IV): Proliferation

Quote of the week:

“The one thing nuclear weapons do seem to be good for is deterring major attacks on those who have them. In this respect, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, like NATO’s 2011 campaign in Libya, will only confirm their value—not because the Russians will use them but because Ukraine didn’t have them. The war will provide yet another example of the dangers awaiting states that possess such weapons but choose to give them up.” – Gideon Rose

It’s too soon to conclude that Vladimir Putin has blown up “the entire nuclear order” by invading Ukraine. But it’s not too soon to presume that, of all the negative consequences for arms control resulting from Putin’s botched war of conquest, nonproliferation will probably take the greatest hit.

The global nuclear order has been far more stable than most observers have expected. It has been seriously shaken in the past – think of the advent of Soviet and Chinese “A” bombs and hydrogen weapons, ICBMs, MIRVs, accuracy improvements, etc. – but its contours and hierarchies have remained familiar. The global nuclear order accommodates change.

Until now, Moscow joined Washington in the top tier and Beijing settling for a minimal deterrent. Beijing’s deterrence requirements have clearly changed. If Xi Jinping seeks to join the top rung of the global nuclear order, that would be a big deal, but it’s too soon to tell.

The Nonproliferation Treaty and its many appurtenances is called a “regime,” a strange usage of the word. The NPT regime is more subject to change than the global nuclear order, but change has been incremental rather than systemic. Because change has been incremental, it has largely been accommodated. Previous predictions of the NPT regime’s demise have been proven wrong because as much as nuclear-armed states seek advantage and seek to avoid disadvantage, they do not want nuclear anarchy.

Significant change in the global nuclear order requires massive dislocation or effort. Even after the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact dissolved — and after Russia suffered through a great depression — the global nuclear order didn’t change. Instead, behaviors changed during this crucial period to help prevent nuclear anarchy.

The Nonproliferation Treaty regime was substantially strengthened after the collapse of the Soviet Union to prevent “loose nukes.” The United States and Russia agreed to deep cuts. Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan joined the Nonproliferation Treaty as non-nuclear weapon states. The NPT was extended indefinitely and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was negotiated. Cooperative threat reduction programs in the former Soviet Union were extraordinarily successful.

That was then. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is now. The dark potential for systemic change hovers over us again. Because current challenges to the NPT regime come from multiple fronts, the situation is worse than when Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea first crossed the nuclear threshold. Back then, there were no other obvious regional competitors or aspirants seeking to join them. If Iran crosses this threshold, other states may do so, as well.

In addition, North Korea has no way to project confidence other than by testing nuclear-related capabilities. We don’t know yet if more shoes will drop regarding China’s nuclear build up. Disputed borders between India and Pakistan and between China and India have heated up. Nuclear threat making by Putin and those around him are reminiscent of the 1950s. Back then, Moscow and Washington regularly threatened the use of nuclear weapons. Washington threatened Beijing on multiple occasions, as well.

So, yes, the Nonproliferation Treaty regime is being seriously tested. It would be tested far more if Russia’s war of conquest in Ukraine succeeds, if Putin’s nuclear threats work, or if he detonates a nuclear weapon. For the NPT regime to be reaffirmed — and for arms control more generally to have a future — Putin has to lose more than he gains, his threats have to be proven hollow, and the seventy-seven-year-long absence of battlefield use has to be extended.

I believe all of these outcomes are possible. Even so, the NPT regime will remain under multiple threats, especially from Iran and North Korea. This does not necessarily mean that collapse is imminent. Dire predictions have been wrong in the past. They can be wrong again if impulses to resist nuclear anarchy grow alongside threats of proliferation.

To be continued…