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Commentary | 22 June 2022

The impact of Russia’s war against Ukraine on multilateral nuclear diplomacy

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has created one of the worst political environments in which international treaty review conferences could be taking place. And yet, both the first Meeting of States Parties of the TPNW (1MSP) and the NPT Review Conference (RevCon) are taking place in June and August 2022 respectively. This comes after several years of crises and challenges to the arms control, non-proliferation, and disarmament regime.

The NPT RevCon has been postponed four times between its original meeting date in April-May 2020 and the currently anticipated scheduled date of August 2022. The TPNW entered into force in January 2021 and has had its first Meeting of States Parties (1MSP) postponed once due to the COVID-19 pandemic as well.

This is not to say that the 10th NPT RevCon was set to go swimmingly before COVID: a broad range of challenges have plagued the system from the start. Due to the previous RevCon in 2015 failing to produce a consensus-based final outcome document, the 10th review cycle has been under a great deal of pressure to deliver a successful outcome. However, each NPT RevCon postponement has coincided with additional difficulties in the political environment. These challenges include, among others, the COVID pandemic interrupting international travel which made diplomacy much more difficult and precluded civil society from being able to participate in meetings. Additionally, the collaboration announced between Australia, the UK, and the US (AUKUS) under which the UK and the US will help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines, has been met with opposition and discontent from France and China. Russia and China’s force modernisations have also contributed to divisions between NWS and NNWS, as well as among the P5.

The war in Ukraine highlights and exacerbates the polarisation in the international system which has become a core blockage in multilateral diplomacy. As such, it poses several risks to both the NPT RevCon and the 1MSP of the TPNW. Both conferences are important; the last several years have shown the fragility of our international legal system. Being able to prove that the treaties work is important and our existing treaty regime needs to be safeguarded. In addition, both conferences are important milestones and the conferences potentially proceeding poorly would therefore have a particularly negative impact. The NPT RevCon still marks the 50th anniversary of the NPT, and concerns remain over the legacy of the failed 2015 RevCon. The 1MSP is the first meeting since the TPNW went into force. It is also the meeting at which states hoped to make some key decisions about aspects of the treaty which require further progress, such as the verification provision. Both RevCon success and 1MSP decision-making may be hampered by heightened tensions. While it may be reasonable to believe that TPNW signatories are now more united than ever over the need to eliminate nuclear weapons, some TPNW signatories who are Russian allies may find it difficult to condemn the war in Ukraine, which may become a point of disagreement within the TPNW membership.

The high levels of hostility in the international system could show up at the two conferences in a range of ways. At the NPT RevCon, it could lead to another fractured conference with a tense atmosphere. The January 2022 P5 statement which affirmed that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and should not be fought’ has now been called into question due to Russia’s nuclear threats. NNWs will look for some sort of reaffirmation by the P5, but not all will find it credible in light of Russian aggressions. Additionally, several NPT member-states have strongly condemned the Russian aggressions in Ukraine, which they may decide to do again at the RevCon. It is nearly inconceivable that Russia would not respond should it be called out in such a fashion. It will be far harder to reach agreement in an even more polarised security environment. If states abuse rights of reply or obstruct the process in other ways, the result could be that there is not just no consensus outcome, but that the whole conference becomes bogged down and hostile. Many states and civil society actors have invested a great deal of time and money into defining and preparing various proposals to ensure that the RevCon is going to be a success. This includes extensive work on risk reduction steps, the launch of the Stockholm Initiative, investment in the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) and many others over the past seven years. Due to the increased tensions in the system, some of these options may be even more difficult to agree on.

The TPNW so far has been characterised by strong consensus between signatories. Political disagreements over the relationship with Russia could damage this consensus at a time at which states are coming together to make some difficult decisions about certain details of the treaty, such as verification or figuring out the details of victim assistance and environmental remediation programmes and its provisions.

How could we address this risk proactively? There is a precedent of siloing issues at other RevCons – namely, the Russian invasion of Crimea preceding RevCon in 2015. However, it is not clear that attempting to silo the meetings from the war in Ukraine is the best course of action. The war has already taken a large human toll which should not be minimised by keeping any discussion of the war out of other fora such as the upcoming review conferences. In addition, it may simply not be possible for some states to stay silent on the war. Our non-proliferation and disarmament treaty regime is vitally important and must be safeguarded. Opinion polls from the Republic of Korea show that 75% of ROK citizens now support the country acquiring nuclear weapons, in light of DPRK missile tests and Russian aggressions in Ukraine. It will be important for all participating states to be constructive, whether or not they raise concerns over the war in Ukraine. Treaty signatories and civil society have been waiting and preparing for these two meetings for a long time. While the environment is difficult, non-proliferation and progress on disarmament remain crucial, especially at a time when the salience of nuclear weapons and the risk of escalation have increased. We will need to find a way to talk with one another honestly, while holding on to shared goals and interests – such as preventing further proliferation and arms racing.

Though it is difficult to imagine in the current environment, an ideal outcome to the 1MSP and the RevCon would be states working together despite their difficulties to safeguard international treaty regimes and find areas of agreement wherever possible. This might include for the 1MSP a work plan to improve verification provisions as well as observer states extending an olive branch to TPNW signatories in their statements. For the RevCon, this could mean a work plan to implement further nuclear risk reduction measures and ensure that cooperation on peaceful nuclear uses is strengthened despite the tense environment. If we see even some of these outcomes, then we can consider these meetings a success despite the difficult environment they take place in.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image: Flickr, Number 10.