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Russia-Ukraine Conflict: Ramifications for Arms Control and Nuclear Disarmament

Jun 16, 2022
  • Wu Chunsi

    Senior Fellow and Director, Institute for International Strategic Studies at SIIS

Ramifications for Arms Control and Nuclear Disarmament*

The raging Russia-Ukraine conflict is a stark reminder of the urgency of effective management of weapons of mass destruction. The international community must come together to restart the long-stalled international negotiations over arms control and nuclear disarmament by fully utilizing the existing mechanisms and platforms and generating greater consensus and impetus among all stakeholders. A staunch supporter of the international arms control and nuclear disarmament regime, China adheres to its longstanding nuclear policy of maximum restraint and remains committed to the pursuit of a new path leading to a world of enduring peace and stability.

Growing Nuclear Risks

No use of weapons of mass destruction has been reported by far in the Russia-Ukraine war, but the dynamics on the battleground and the Kremlin’s nuclear signaling have highlighted five gloomy—some even apocalyptic—nuclear scenarios.

The first involves the use of nuclear weapons by a nuclear-armed state.[1] The long-held belief that the use of nuclear weapons has become unthinkable in today’s world seemed to have been reinforced by the Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapon States on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races released in early January 2022, until President Putin’s ordered Russia’s nuclear forces into “special combat readiness” only four days into the current conflict. The looming specter of nuclear conflagration makes it imperative for the world to reaffirm the commitment that nuclear weapons must never be used.

The second grim scenario involves sabotage of nuclear facilities in non-nuclear weapon states. For example, Ukrainian nuclear power plants caught in the crossfire have become a cause of growing concern. Military attacks on nuclear facilities may cause leaks that have disastrous consequences. Non-nuclear weapon states may choose to use their nuclear facilities as a deterrent against potential assault. A far worse case could involve a terrorist group or other malicious organizations sabotaging civilian nuclear facilities to create chaos. Even though global bodies like the United Nations and International Atomic Energy Agency stay vigilant about these nuclear risks, they are incapable of responding swiftly in the event of an accident or deliberate attack, let alone providing sufficient safeguards for civilian nuclear facilities. 

Third, the growing risk of more countries choosing to cross the nuclear threshold. Ukrainians have now come to regret their decision to give up the nuclear weapons on their soil—then the world’s third-largest arsenal—in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The pervasive sense of betrayal in Ukraine is prompting a defense policy rethink in many non-nuclear weapon states. Of special note is the fact that the latest list of nuclear aspirants now includes America’s leading allies in East Asia, Japan and South Korea, which are seriously contemplating the deployment of nuclear weapons on their soil.[2] It reminds the world that the risk of nuclear proliferation is not confined to Washington’s sworn enemies like Iran and North Korea. In retrospect, during the Cold War the United States either acquiesced to allies’ nuclear ambitions or simply rolled over when a country it wanted to court crossed the nuclear threshold. Nuclear proliferation among U.S. allies and partners will send a shock wave through the global arms control architecture.

Fourth, the Russo-Ukrainian conflict may derail global arms control talks and undermine strategic stability among nuclear superpowers. Roughly in nuclear parity, Russia and the United States possess 90 percent of the world’s total warheads.[3] The withdrawal by either party from arms control and nuclear disarmament talks will have grave repercussions for global security. If strategic stability talks between Washington and Moscow cannot be resumed soon and if the West keeps ramping up sanctions against Russia, what role the Kremlin is going to play and how it’s going to do it in terms of arms control and nuclear disarmament deserve closer attention.[4]

Fifth, the rising risk of nuclear powers’ rearmament. The ongoing conflict is not moving European security in a more balanced and inclusive direction. The United States is pushing for NATO to increase its military presence in Eastern Europe, raise national defense budgets, and move closer to deploying missile defense systems—actions deemed hostile by President Putin, who is determined to push back against the West’s further advances.[5] Moreover, even as it is stepping up security presence in Europe, Washington is also strengthening its alliance system in the Asia-Pacific, making future interactions between Russia, the United States, and China on such issues as nuclear weapons development, missile defense system deployment, arms control, and disarmament matters of growing concern for the whole world.

Major Obstacles to Nuclear Risk Management

Even though the current war has not spilled across Ukraine’s borders and not involved any use of weapons of mass destruction, it does make the unthinkable a little more thinkable and raise some broader issues of fundamental importance for global nuclear security, such as nuclear powers’ strategic policy and posture, effectiveness of global arms control and disarmament regimes, the role of non-nuclear weapon states, and relations between nuclear powers.

First, leading nuclear states’ policy and posture. In the seventy-odd years since the advent of nuclear weapons, only China has adopted and adhered to a “no first use” policy and pledged not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states. Refusal by other great powers to make similar pledges citing the need for nuclear deterrence and extended deterrence has placed the world near the brink of a nuclear war. Worse still, many factors that helped stabilize superpower relations during the Cold War do not apply any more in today’s world, making re-assurance of strategic intention and re-commitment to preventing a nuclear war among nuclear weapon states all the more important. 

Second, effectiveness of the arms control regime. The number of self-proclaimed nuclear weapons states have increased since the end of the Cold War. U.S. withdrawal from arms control and disarmament treaties and agreements under the George W. Bush and Donald Trump administrations had further undermined the authority and potency of the arms control and nonproliferation regimes. The nuclear specter raised in the Russo-Ukrainian has reminded us that the world has to revamp and revive these regimes to provide robust safeguards against possible nuclear apocalypse.

Third, the uncertain role of non-nuclear weapon states. The current conflict has exposed an overlooked aspect of the risk posed by non-nuclear states. Even without nuclear warheads, these countries could use civilian nuclear facilities within their borders as a potent deterrent against a more powerful adversary. Worse still, civilian nuclear facilities could fall into the hands of terror groups or other malicious organizations and be used for blackmail. While great powers must shoulder chief responsibilities for global nuclear security, non-nuclear states should also commit to better securing their nuclear facilities and keeping them out of the wrong hands.

Fourth, interactions among nuclear powers. Multiple challenges now threaten to further jeopardize major power relations. Direct talks between Washington and Moscow on strategic stability are now unrealistic. The Biden administration’s focus on ideological rivalry in its dealings with adversaries stands in stark contrast with the historical periods when U.S. presidents initiated and approached arms control talks in a more pragmatic manner. Besides, the return of geostrategic competition has also made compromises and concessions far more difficult. Mutual restraint and tacit understanding that had kept the Cold War from escalating into a hot one over the past seven decades are hard to find in today’s world.

The Path Forward

In the face of a multitude of rising nuclear risks underscored by the current Russia-Ukraine conflict and their potential repercussions for arms control, nuclear disarmament, and global security, the international community must act now to renovate the global nuclear governance architecture with a  view to preventing further proliferation, strengthening safeguards, and forestalling nuclear conflagration.

First, the world must reaffirm the goal of nuclear nonproliferation and arms control in the upcoming Tenth NPT Review Conference. This conference, repeatedly delayed due to the global pandemic, provides a rare opportunity to revive great power cooperation in an increasingly uncertain international landscape. Proactive actions by all stakeholders are needed to explore all possible avenues for a constructive agenda at the conference and push nuclear powers to contribute more to arms control and disarmament.

Second, reviving nuclear security cooperation by strengthening the role and authority of the International Atomic Energy Agency in managing civilian nuclear risks. Apart from the IAEA, other platforms for nuclear security cooperation should also be strengthened. For example, the Center of Excellence on Nuclear Security in Beijing’s suburb is an important product of the four nuclear security summits, serving as a forum for exchanging technical information, sharing best practices, and developing training to enhance nuclear security in China and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Third, nuclear superpowers, the United States in particular, must shoulder greater responsibilities for arms control and disarmament. The international community should urge nuclear superpowers to substantially shrink their respective arsenals, reduce the role of nuclear weapons in foreign and defense policy, and restrain their allies and partners from crossing the nuclear threshold.

Fourth, restoring strategic mutual trust among nuclear weapon states. Strategic intentions must be ascertained to reduce miscalculation. Strategic stability must remain the top priority in great power relations, but talks should be broadened to reflect new geopolitical realities like the diffusion of power and the emergence of new domains and technologies like cyberspace, outer space, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing. Major powers should increase consultations on risk management and prevention on issues like accidental launch of nuclear weapons.

In the face of multiple challenges in arms control and nuclear disarmament, China should join hands with the rest of the world to find a new path leading toward a world of lasting peace and stability.

*This is a summary of a longer essay published in the May/June 2022 issue of Global Review.

[1] Nuclear weapon states refer to the five acknowledged by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which had built and tested a nuclear explosive device before January 1, 1967.

[2] While Japan and South Korea contemplate their nuclear options, Iran has not changed its nuclear policy though international negotiations to restore the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) have not yielded significant progress.

[3] According to the statistics released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in January 2021, the United States possesses 5,550 warheads and Russia has 6,255. The institute’s database also calculates the number of nuclear warheads in the possession of Israel, India, and Pakistan. For more detailed information, see

[4] For the impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict on Moscow’s role in arms control and disarmament, see Rose Gottemoeller, “How to Stop a New Nuclear Arms Race,” Foreign Affairs, March 9, 2022,

[5] The Biden administration’s first national defense strategy will incorporate both the Nuclear Posture Review and Missile Defense Review, an expected move as the defense establishment elevates the role of missile defense systems in U.S. defense and security policy. U.S. Department of Defense, “Fact Sheet: 2022 National Defense Strategy,” March 28, 2022,


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