September 20, 2017 was marked by a historic event that took place at the UN General Assembly: the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was opened for signing. Like the rest of the official and unofficial nuclear powers (as well as a number of their allies), Russia announced in advance that it would not support this international agreement as it does not correspond with national security interests.
122 UN member states (135 countries took part in the preparation of the document officially and 14 others, informally) supported the treaty. The process is led by Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa. Vatican and Kazakhstan are actively participating as well. However, India and China, two nuclear powers, abstained from supporting the start of negotiations on the Treaty in December, 2016. Japan’s stance is of particular interest as well: this country generally supports a nuclear-free world and is the only country that has suffered from the combat use of nuclear weapons (NW), but for reasons of national security (and, possibly, due to US pressure), there is no plan to sign the treaty.
Russia has repeatedly voiced its posture on the TPNW, once again commenting directly on the eve of the opening of the UN General Assembly. In general, Russia’s opinion boils down to the fact that there is a contradiction between the task of achieving international peace, indivisible security for all states without exception and the ban on nuclear weapons that still serve as a means of preventing global conflict.
In the course of adjusting the TPNW text, its authors were able to evade the characterization of nuclear weapons as illegal within the international law, and undertook serious work to clarify formal procedures for future signatory states, including cooperation with the IAEA. Thus, the previously existing threat of contradictions between the "future" of the TPNW and the current Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was minimized.
There are notable differences in the approaches of the leading nuclear powers – Russia and the United States – to interacting with their formal and informal allies. The clearest example of "discipline" in the Western community is the American pressure on Sweden, which planned to sign the Nuclear Weapons Convention/ However, later there were leaks of “negative forecast” for the Swedish defense industry in case these plans materialized. All NATO members (either possessing nuclear weapons or deploying them on their territory in accordance with the nuclear sharing program), as well as most states bound to the US by security agreements, do not support the Treaty.
This approach sharply contrasts with support for the TPNW shown by Kazakhstan, one of Russia's key allies in the CSTO and the EEA. One should note that two of the main adversaries in the Middle East – Iran and Saudi Arabia – demonstrated readiness to sign the TPNW, while Israel, the "third top" of the Middle East triangle opposes the Treaty.
One can assume with a high degree of certainty that the TPNW will not influence the global nuclear landscape in the medium term. However, signing the Treaty will likely contribute to the "nuclear stratification", the differences between the nuclear and non-nuclear powers will increase, and that will have a negative impact on other spheres of international relations in the future.
In order to avoid such a threat, it seems useful to activate the forward movement within the existing formats:
- The implementation of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which has not been signed or ratified by a number of nuclear and threshold powers;
- Preservation and extension of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and other agreements between Russia and the United States;
- Confidence-building measures and transparency in the nuclear arsenals of the "official" nuclear five (the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China), for example, through unilateral publication of uniform information on their nuclear arsenals at an agreed level of detail, as well as the formalization of nuclear doctrines;
- The search for ways to "legitimize" or otherwise introduce the "unofficial" nuclear weapons countries into the system of international military-political relations with regard to their arsenals, since the denuclearization of South Asia, Israel, and the Korean peninsula does not seem to be a doable task.
For the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it would be a gesture of good will to begin publishing information on the progress of the implementation of New START in the same manner as their colleagues from US State Department have done, especially on the eve of reaching the "ceiling" values.
Russia and the United States have already done more than any other country to reduce the nuclear threat. The relative growth of this threat during the Cold War eventually prevented a full-scale military clash. The creation of communication hot lines, negotiations in the field of nuclear weapons, the progressive reduction of nuclear arsenals are the minimal set of proved measures, which if extended to all nuclear powers will allow to carefully move the world away from the brink of a nuclear apocalypse. In particular, the statements on the "usefulness" of the TPNW to address the problem of North Korean nuclear weapons appear to be at least ill-considered given the experience of the Korean War of 1950-1953, during which nuclear weapons were not used (although all the necessary preparations were made by the US). Sharp steps towards the prohibition of nuclear weapons and unilateral disarmament can lead to a final imbalance of the world system, and people are perfectly able to destroy their own kind without nuclear weapons.
The comparison of nuclear weapons to a "gun on the wall" certainly has its grounds, but practice shows that the world is not a stage and people in executive positions are not merely players. In the end, up until now numerous cases of various incidents of “near-use” of nuclear weapons have not led to a global catastrophe, primarily due to the human factor. Here we should gratefully remember the Soviet officer S. Petrov, who passed away in May 2017. In 1983, he correctly interpreted the highly convincing, yet erroneous information of the early warning system thus preventing nuclear strikes.