Michael KreponA Wobbly Nuclear Order

Five years ago, President Barack Obama was preparing to deliver a speech in Prague calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Nongovernmental organizations, including the Stimson Center, helped with blueprints for getting to zero, and distinguished “formers” were lending their names to the cause. Now these initiatives seem like headlines from a bygone era. The pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons remains an essential complement to nuclear non-proliferation, but this quest cannot be divorced from international relations. President Obama continues to try to reduce nuclear dangers at Nuclear Security Summits and in negotiations with Iran, but progress comes grudgingly. The need of the hour is to prevent further backsliding, not to promote sweeping plans.

Aspirations matter, but nuclear arms reduction will occur only as quickly as conditions permit. The numerical top line of force deployments set in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty are in excess of the Pentagon’s needs. They are also in excess of Russian needs, but Vladimir Putin is building up to treaty limits and remains wedded to weapons that have symbolic significance instead of military utility. In all likelihood, US-Russian relations have yet to hit bottom, and it will take time before stabilization occurs and another treaty might be pursued.

The second tier of nuclear-armed states isn’t facilitating a global process of arms reductions. What remains of the nuclear forces of Great Britain and France seem divorced from contemporary international relations and immune from the deep cuts that have decimated their conventional power projection capabilities. China and India have been extraordinarily relaxed about strategic modernization programs. (Think of the ramifications if they acted otherwise.) But Beijing and New Delhi are standoffish toward multilateral accords to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons and in no hurry to improve bilateral relations. Their relatively lethargic pace of strategic modernization could be shaken by events in Pakistan, the East China Sea, or elsewhere.

The nuclear enclave within Pakistan has competed successfully with India and shows no evidence of reconsidering this pursuit. Its growing stockpiles of nuclear weapons and fissile material provide no help against extremist groups that reject the writ of the state. If Pakistan’s “foolproof” nuclear security breaks down in a crisis or limited war with India, or during a long-promised but frequently delayed counter-terrorism campaign, religious zealots could hold the state up for ransom. Then, with the benefit of hindsight, Pakistanis will view their nation’s embrace of easily portable, tactical nuclear warheads and their seven year-long opposition to a treaty cutting off fissile material production as the height of folly.

There are bottom-up impediments to nuclear arms reductions, as well. States are hedging their bets against outliers like North Korea and Iran, a Russian Federation that flexes its muscles and a rising China. The usual precincts on Capitol Hill will call for hurrying up strategic modernization programs, inviting repeat performances like the B-1 and the Ground-Based Interceptor. Instead, Washington is now obliged to counter concerns about retrenchment by sloughing off its obsession with deficit reduction and spending more money for defense programs that have actual military and diplomatic utility. Retarding onward proliferation also means reaffirming the nuclear umbrella held above friends and allies, as well as proceeding with sensibly configured, forward-based missile defense programs.

After the first US war against Saddam Hussein, the architect of India’s nuclear deterrent, General K. Sundarji, famously remarked that nuclear weapons offered the best defense against the designs of a major power. This observation gained credence in the air campaign against Muammar Qaddafi and now with Moscow’s annexation of Crimea after repossessing the nuclear weapons it left behind when the Soviet Union dissolved. Moscow’s pledge to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity lasted all of two decades.

Putin’s land grab is the latest beating that the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty has taken after it was indefinitely extended in 1995. Since then, the United States opted out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and waged a preemptive war against Iraq to prevent it from using weapons of mass destruction it did not possess. India, Pakistan and North Korea tested nuclear weapons, and Iran has flaunted a series of Security Council resolutions over its nuclear program. The Nuclear Suppliers Group has not recovered after Washington made an exception to global rules of nuclear commerce for India’s benefit, with Russia and China then opting to do their own deals. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has not entered into force. Negotiations on a treaty banning fissile material production for nuclear weapons have yet to begin. The George W. Bush administration figures prominently in this litany.

Three of the load-bearing walls of nuclear order – the NPT, a treaty-based process of strategic arms reduction, and the pursuit of abolition – are in need of repair. Nuclear Security Summits to set global norms for the responsible handling of dangerous material have been essential: If these stocks are not battened down, there is no basis for nuclear security. But larger gains are needed, and hard to envision anytime soon. Five short years after the Prague speech, the nuclear order has become wobbly.


  1. Tobias piechowiak (History)

    Do you think that a nuclear Ukraine could have
    avoided the land-grab of Putin?
    If this has to be answered with Yes then I find it hard to deny
    nuclear weapons to countries like Taiwan or Nepal who face a similar

    • krepon (History)


      I agree with the analysis of our ACW founder on this. See

      It’s not just a question of whether Ukraine could have deterred Putin if it had held on to the nukes and their delivery vehicles. Maintaining and replacing/modernizing these capabilities was well beyond Kiev’s capabilities.

      But let’s, for the sake of argument, assume that Kiev had held on to, properly maintained, and somehow found the money to replace/modernize these capabilities. Would Ukraine have been able to mount sufficient forces to prevent a fait accompli while ostensibly signaling resolve by moving nuclear-capable systems? Put me in the doubtful column. Would Ukraine’s leaders have been willing to aim and deliver a nuclear-armed missile to Red Square? Again, I have my doubts. How about a warning shot, maybe aimed at a spot in the Black Sea? Possibly. But would this have prevented a fait accompli?

      Jeffrey offers other reasons.

      Having said all this, these facts are incontestable: Ukraine gave back the nukes. Moscow pledged to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. And Russia annexed Crimea.

      This is a very big blow to the NPT regime.


    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      This is a paradox of nuclear “deterrence”: Nuclear weapons may reduce the chances of enemy conventional attack, but they substantially increase the odds of nuclear attack. Ukraine without nukes has near-zero (i.e., remote) chance of being nuclear attacked by an over-bearing Russia. Ukraine with nukes has significant above-zero chance of being nuclear attacked by an over-bearing Russia.

      A conventional invasion by Russia might provoke nuclear first use by Ukraine, but such nuclear escalation by Ukraine would be irrational. It is better to suffer a land theft, or even a total conquest of one’s country, than to start a nuclear war and suffer complete destruction. This is another paradox of nuclear “deterrence”: It may appear “rational” to threaten nuclear use, but it is irrational to carry out the threat. Moreover, the very threat may provoke Russia to nuclear pre-empt Ukraine during a crisis.

      The decision to arm oneself with nukes has both costs and benefits. If one only looks at the benefit side and neglects the cost side, nukes look like a great bargain. If one looks carefully at the cost side and looks squarely at the tremendous risk one is taking, nuke possession is a bad bargain. The supposition that Ukraine would have better off to retain its nuclear weapons is only an illusion. The expected costs (risk of nuclear destruction) outweigh the expected benefits (maybe deterring a land grab).

    • Cthippo (History)

      Unfortunately, I can’t see Jeffrey’s piece behind the paywall, but I’m a firm believer in minimum deterrence.

      If the Ukraine had kept behind even one functional device, or had maintained the appearance of being able to come up with one on short notice, then I think it would have gone a long ways in deterring Russia.

      Effective deterrence relies on two things, possession of the weapons and credibility of use. Whether Ukrainian first use in the case of a Russian occupation of the Crimea would have been credible or not is debatable, but without possession the question is moot. The Russians certainly would have thought long and hard about the credibility of the threat before deciding to move.

      What’s funny is that we are living in the New World Order, but it’s not what those who raged about it for so long feared. Gone is the enforced stability of the binary superpowers and in it’s place nations find themselves on their own without the promise of international aid if they are threatened or invaded. Russia has their de facto sphere of influence, and the US is too overextended and beset by internal bickering to be effective. NATO has better things to spend their money on than preserving democracy around the world and everyone else is just on their own.

      On the whole, it’s a good news / bad news situation though. On the one hand the barriers to proliferation are probably reduced and it’s not unreasonable to expect other nations who feel themselves threatened to start down the nuclear path. We may well be entering the golden age of proliferation. The flip side of the coin is that minimum deterrence is not in vogue. Rather than the massive buildups you saw during the cold war, the Chinese model of having an arsenal just large enough to be credible seems to be dominant. If anything, the US and Russia (wow I almost typed USSR) are moving towards a minimal deterrence model. The only outliers seem to be Pakistan and possibly North Korea, and in the latter case their “balls out” efforts to grow their arsenal are still pretty picayune.

      I agree, this is a bad time for disarmament, but in the end it may be a good time for peace under the shadow of the bomb.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Jeffrey’s article is also available at http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/03/24/ukes_and_their_nukes_deterrent_ukraine_russia
      Registered users may be entitled to 10 free articles a month.

      Jeffrey compares the Russian attack on Crimea with 1) the 1973 attack by Egypt on Israel and 2) the Argentinian attack on the British Falkland Islands. In both cases, nukes did not deter the attack, but the attack was not existential and the nuclear-armed victim did not respond with nuclear weapons.

      Lewis also adds, “India’s nuclear weapons simply don’t deter low-level conventional aggression” by Pakistan. (He does not discuss Pakistan’s contrary belief that nukes will deter Indian conventional attack.)

      Lewis also explains why Ukraine gave up those nukes in the first place. “Eschewing the NPT and building nuclear weapons might have provided some small measure of security to Kiev in the most extreme instances, but it would have undermined the country’s claim that it belonged in the West.” Kiev very much wanted to be part of the West.

  2. Carey Sublette (History)

    “… and Iran has flaunted a series of Security Council resolutions”

    “… and Iran has FLOUTED a series of Security Council resolutions” perhaps?

    • krepon (History)


      Well taken. How ’bout a little of both?


  3. Dennis Wingo (History)

    …a preemptive war against Iraq to prevent it from using weapons of mass destruction it did not possess……

    Does any serious nuclear disarmament writer think that with Iran going full bore toward nuclear weapons that an Iraq free of the no fly zones (which France and Russia were pushing because of the Bribes paid to them and Kofi Annan’s son) would not have gone ahead with their nuclear ambitions with that 500 tons of 5% yellowcake that they owned?

  4. Bradley Laing (History)

    —I had the impression, that with the passage of time, the ability, and the cost (adjusted for inflation) of going nuclear has gone down, because of computerization.

    computing power goes up = cost of making nuclear weapon goes down.

    And since improved civilian computers are *not* treated like uranium and plutonium, their availability is not restrained by international treaties.

    Okay, am I right? Wrong? third category?

    • P (History)

      Computing power is not a factor in the cost of building crude A-bombs, it’s only useful for advanced designs.

    • Cthippo (History)

      Going off on a bit of a tangent here, I’m kind of surprised that an open source program for computing radar cross section based on the original Soviet paper hasn’t come out. The reason the F-117 was shaped the way it was is that the computers of the day couldn’t handle anything more complex. Given the advances in technology since then, a modern desktop should be able to run the computations involved with ease.

      Seems like a good project for a bright young computer science student out there somewhere.

    • John Schilling (History)

      For at least the past forty years, the process of making first-generation fission warheads has been essentially:

      1. Develop and build a large-scale production capability for weapons-grade uranium and/or plutonium.

      2. Have a few clever geeks turn turn the stuff into atom bombs in a local machine shop on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

      Obviously, that’s an oversimplification, but really not by much. Step 1 requires far more effort and far more specialized infrastructure than all the others combined, and there’s nothing in any of the other steps that is really a secret any more. And nothing that requires computers of any sort.

      We pay attention to some of the “Step 2” stuff in nonproliferation circles mainly because it can be used to distinguish between “We insist on producing our own HEU for our nuclear power plants” and “We’re building bombs”. Not because we could ever realistically stop someone from building atomic bombs at that stage.

      Computing power is helpful if someone is trying to build very advanced nuclear weapons, or if someone is trying to build moderately advanced nuclear weapons (e.g. hydrogen bombs) without extensive test data from their early fission devices. But in either of those cases, they need not just computing power, but validated codes – and it’s a very tricky business validating nuclear-weapon design codes without producing seismic events and/or mushroom clouds.

  5. AEL (History)

    The dissolution of the Soviet Union would have gone down a different (and much darker) path had the breakaway regions tried to hold onto nuclear weapons.

  6. krepon (History)

    For those keeping score, here is the list of states that voted with Russia on the UNGA resolution regarding Moscow’s annexation of Crimea:

    North Korea

    And here is the list of those countries that abstained from voting:

    Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Antigua-Barbuda, Argentina, Bangladesh, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, China, Comoros, Djibouti, Dominica, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Fiji, Gabon, Gambia, Guyana, India, Iraq, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Lesotho, Mali, Mauritania, Mongolia, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nauru, Nepal, Pakistan, Paraguay, Rwanda, St Kitts-Nevis, St. Lucia, St Vincent-Grenadines, Sao Tome-Principe, Senegal, South Africa, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Swaziland, Uganda, Tanzania, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Zambia

  7. Bradley Laing (History)


    The nuclear fuel carrier Pacific Egret slipped into the harbour at Charleston, South Carolina, on March 19 and unloaded a top-secret cargo at the port’s Naval Weapons Station…

    As the vessel entered the North Atlantic that day, its tracking image vanished from an online marine traffic monitoring system. The ship the size of a football field became all but invisible to unauthorized eyes.

    Questions are now being raised about whether the sensitive cargo included recycled plutonium that originated here in Canada.