Sharp differences of opinion between Russian and U.S. negotiators are making any future progress on nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation and peaceful use of nuclear energy difficult.

A rally against the proliferation of nuclear weapons in New York. Photo: AP

Every five years member states of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) gather together to review how adherence to the treaty goals have progressed. The recently concluded Ninth Review Conference (RevCon), which ran from April 27 to May 22, proved much more contentious than the previous one held in 2010.

The Conference failed to overcome divisions regarding the three so-called “NPT pillars” of nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy, as well as divisions related to the proposed establishment of a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East.

The poor relations between Moscow and Washington contributed to the conference’s failure. As in previous meetings, the delegations of both governments again professed strong support for the NPT, most clearly in strong statements made at the opening session of this year’s conference.

The acting head of the Russian delegation, Mikhail Ulyanov, declared that, “We are convinced that the equilibrium between the three main pillars of the NPT - nuclear non-proliferation, disarmament, and peaceful use of nuclear energy - remains a pledge of its viability in the future.”

On behalf of the United States, Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed President Obama’s call in his 2009 Prague speech, and reiterated in Berlin in 2013, that the United States wanted a world without nuclear weapons: “The vast majority of the world has… united around the belief that nuclear weapons should one day be eliminated [and] that… moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon.”

But the differences between Russia and the United States were evident even on the first day of the RevCon, when Kerry criticized Russia’s rejection of Obama’s proposal in Berlin to reduce the Russian and U.S. nuclear weapons stockpiles by another third below the levels of their New START.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov later responded that Russia had consistently implemented all NPT provisions and had cut its nuclear weapons to a “minimal level,” while he alleged that the United States was violating strategic stability by constructing a network of strategic missile defenses and deploying nuclear weapons in Europe, contrasting that with the Russian policy of keeping all its nuclear weapons on Russian territory.

A rally against the proliferation of nuclear weapons in New York. Photo: AP

However, despite committing at the 2010 NPT Review Conference to reduce the prominence of nuclear weapons for deterrence and defense missions, which was subsequently reflected in Russia’s most recent military doctrine, Russian officials have made many references to their capacity and willingness to use nuclear weapons over the past year, especially in their disputes with NATO over Ukraine, missile defense, and other issues.

On June 1, for instance, Ulyanov, who is Director of the Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms control at the Russian Foreign Ministry, insisted that, “Russia obviously retains the right if needed to deploy its nuclear weapons anywhere on its national territory, including on the Crimean Peninsula.”

During the last days of the RevCon, the Russian delegation sided against the United States rather than join Washington in insisting that any conference on establishing a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East operate by consensus to induce Israel's participation. At the 2010 Review Conference, the participating states agreed to hold such a conference, but the Arab Spring and other obstacles have prevented its occurrence.

At the RevCon, the Russian delegation stressed the importance of holding the meeting but then blamed the United States and its allies for the failure to agree on its terms. Russian officials must reverse course and join their U.S., British, and Canadian colleagues in pressing the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, which introduced the poison pill with conditions that made the proposed meeting unacceptable to Israel, to abandon unrealistic demands.

An even more effective approach would involve bypassing the Ministry, which has dogmatically stuck to its position for decades, and directly addressing Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who may have a more open mind on the issue. Achieving universal nuclear disarmament would require fundamental world order changes and improbable conditions. However, Russia and the United States can achieve more credible progress in making their nuclear forces more predictable and stable.

For example, Russia can agree to cease testing, and not to deploy, any INF-prohibited cruise missiles, and the two countries can begin formal discussions on what reductions and other steps they hope to pursue after their 2010 New START accord expires.

The Russian government no longer allows U.S. threat reduction projects to support security enhancements within the Russian Ministry of Energy’s civilian nuclear energy complex, strengthen Russian border interdiction capabilities though the U.S. Second-Line-of-Defense programs, or continue the Materials Consolidation and Conversion projects with the Department of Energy.

However, Russia and the United States can continue some technical exchanges, some joint regulatory activities, and their cooperative “global cleanout” of highly enriched uranium from former Soviet bloc countries.

Fortunately, despite their differences over regional proliferation and other issues, Russia has not broken with the United States and its allies in demanding that Iran and North Korea not possess nuclear weapons. If the nuclear aspirations of Iran and North Korea can be checked pending fundamental changes in their regimes or at least their foreign policies, then no other country beyond the existing nuclear weapon states will likely have the intent and the capability to acquire nuclear weapons in the next few years. 

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.