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Aleksey Arbatov

Head of the Center for International Security of IMEMO, RAS Full Member, RIAC member

Point Four of President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech proposing the principles of a new world order, which was delivered to Congress on January 8, 1918, reads as follows: “Adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.”[1] The idea was quite logical: the future war-free world would have no need for large armed forces, and the resources that would be saved could be used for peaceful purposes.

Point Four of President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech proposing the principles of a new world order, which was delivered to Congress on January 8, 1918, reads as follows: “Adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.”[1] The idea was quite logical: the future war-free world would have no need for large armed forces, and the resources that would be saved could be used for peaceful purposes.

The Embryonic Period

The first attempts at disarmament were made out of fear of a new war, and in the spirit of Wilson’s fourth point. The memories of the horrific gas attacks that took place during the First World War resulted in the signing of the 1925 Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare. Despite certain violations, the document was largely observed even during and after the Second World War. In the 1920s and 1930s, short-lived treaties on restricting the size of the leading maritime powers’ navies were concluded in Washington and London. The Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits, which still regulates the passage of naval ships through the Black Sea straits, was signed in 1936.

But all this was just pale reflection of Wilson’s global idea. The arms race gained momentum in the 1930s: Germany was seeking revenge for its defeat in Europe; Japan had embarked upon a military expansion in the Pacific; and the Soviet Union was building socialism in a hostile capitalist environment and preparing for a major war that was to be won “with only small losses, and on foreign soil.”

Then the Second World War broke out, claiming 70 million lives in six years and turning Europe and the Far East into ruins in the process. The unprecedented horrors of that war reignited the hopes for a lasting peace and disarmament that had first been voiced by Wilson. Unfortunately, those hopes proved futile: the international community split into two opposing camps, led by the USSR and the United States, respectively. And nuclear weapons, which remain the most destructive weapons in the history of humankind, were created and first used. The Cold War ensued, accompanied by an unprecedented nuclear and conventional arms race.

At the same time, however, the idea of disarmament captured the imagination of the humankind as a symbol and tangible guarantee of the rejection the idea of a third world war. It is true that, before the early 1960s, disarmament would only be addressed in the form of rhetorical battles within the framework of the United Nations and other forums, and that the USSR and the West both claimed primacy in promoting this good cause. In reality, the world would periodically find itself on the brink of a nuclear standoff; the fragility of this balance culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

In response to Khrushchev’s major bluff about the Soviet Union’s supposed missile superiority following the launch of the first artificial satellite in 1957, the United States stepped up its efforts to build up nuclear weapons and delivery systems. In 1967, the U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces (SNF) increased their missile arsenal by a factor of 40 (!)[2]. Realizing where these processes were leading, Khrushchev authorized the deployment of medium-range missiles in Cuba in an attempt to address the rapidly growing disparity with the United States. What happened next is well known.

This is how nuclear deterrence nearly resulted in nuclear war. The unlimited destructive power as well as the unprecedented complexity of new weapons and plans of their use created a fundamentally new situation in which warfare was no longer an instrument but rather a determinant of politics. For this reason, disarmament turned from the symbol and ultimate guarantee of peace, as Wilson had envisioned it, into one of the primary areas of maintaining and strengthening peace.

The Birth of the System

The 1963 signing of the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water signified the beginning of a five-decade period during which an extensive nuclear arms limitation and non-proliferation system would be created. The last Cold War crisis took place in autumn 1983, and was similarly caused by the dynamics of nuclear deterrence: namely, by the failure of the nuclear arms talks, the deployment of new medium-range missiles by the USSR, and the reciprocal steps taken by the United States.

The conclusion is obvious: against the background of an unrestrained nuclear arms race, international conflicts periodically bring the world to the brink of a nuclear Armageddon, whereas with arms control processes and regimes in place, this can be avoided.

In the years that followed, three fundamental treaties were signed: the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) in 1972 and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks treaties (SALT I and SALT II) in 1972 and 1979. A number of other agreements were also signed: the cornerstone 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT); the 1972 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction (BWC); the 1967 Outer Space Treaty; the 1971 Seabed Arms Control Treaty; and the 1976 Treaty on the Limitation of Underground Nuclear Weapon Tests.

The Cold War and the arms race both came to an end with the Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF), which resulted in the destruction of 860 U.S. and 1840 Soviet missiles (the Soviet Union had twice as many missiles in its arsenal). The 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) also had a major role to play. Under the treaty, the Warsaw Treaty Organization abandoned the idea of military superiority and agreed to parity by reducing its arsenals by 34,700 units, four times the number reduced by NATO (8,700 units)[3]. Under the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I Treaty), the USSR and the United States reduced their strategic nuclear arsenals, cutting around 25% of their delivery platforms and 50% of their warheads. Furthermore, political commitments by Moscow and Washington allowed for an approximately tenfold reduction of the two countries’ arsenals of tactical nuclear weapons (with a range of up to 500 kilometres).

Disarmament became an integral part of the relations between the world’s leading military powers and one of central pillars of international security. Eventually, disarmament measures and agreements on controversial aspects of international politics led to the end of the Cold War and the arms race by the early 1990s.

The Golden Age

In two decades following the end of the Cold War, it seemed that Wilson’s dream was finally coming true. In accordance with the four fundamental treaties on strategic arms as well as unilateral measures, global nuclear arsenals (including those covered by the START I and the tactical nuclear weapons initiatives) were reduced by 80% in terms of the overall warhead count (from around 50,000 to 10,000)[4]. The Chemical Weapons Convention was signed in 1993, followed by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996. The NPT was extended indefinitely in 1995, and was signed by more than 40 countries, including two nuclear powers (France and China). Seven countries (Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, Iran, Kazakhstan, South Africa and Ukraine) surrendered their nuclear arsenals or closed their military nuclear programs, either voluntarily or by coercion. The NPT turned into one of the most universal international documents, besides the UN Charter, and only three countries in the world (India, Israel and Pakistan) remained outside of it.

The 1992 Treaty on Open Skies and the 2011 Vienna Document (first version adopted in 1990) established regimes of unprecedented transparency with regard to the operation of the Russian and NATO armed forces. The list of nuclear-weapon-free zones was expanded: in addition to Antarctica (1959) and Latin America (1967), it now includes the South Pacific (1985), Southeast Asia (1995), Africa (1996) and Central Asia (2006). A number of agreements involved banning and eliminating stockpiles of conventional arms (anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions), the physical security of nuclear materials, cooperation on the safe elimination and disposal of nuclear and chemical weapons, and the peaceful use of materials extracted from nuclear weapons (the 1991 Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and the 1993 Megatons to Megawatts Program)[5].

A New Crisis

However, Wilson’s dreams were once again doomed to fail. The signing of the New START in Prague in 2010 was followed first by a certain degree of stagnation in the disarmament process, and then by the disintegration of the disarmament system. Now, for the first time in five decades of talks and agreements on nuclear weapons (since the 1963 Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water), the world is facing the prospect of losing, in the near future, treaty-based and legal control over the most destructive category of weapons in the history of humankind.

The weakest link in the nuclear control system is the 1987 INF Treaty between the USSR and the United States. For several years now, the sides have been accusing each other of violating the treaty. With the current presidential administration in power in Washington, the INF Treaty may well be denounced in the foreseeable future. Another manifestation of the crisis in nuclear arms control is that it has been six years since Russia and the United States last held talks on the next START Treaty. This is the longest pause in the 47-year history of these negotiations. The current START expires in 2021, after which a vacuum will form in the field of strategic arms control. Time is running out for the signing of a new treaty, given the massive disagreements over the missile defense systems (after the United States pulled out from the ABM Treaty in 2002) and over long-range precision-guided conventional weapons. Meanwhile the new U.S. administration has not demonstrated any particular interest in either concluding a new START Treaty or in prolonging the existing one until 2026.

The United States and Russia are on the verge of a new large-scale arms race. Unlike during the Cold War period, however, this nuclear arms race will be complemented by a competition in building up non-nuclear offensive and defensive strategic weapons as well as further development of space-based weaponry and cyber warfare. In addition, the new arms race will become multilateral and involve (in addition to Russia and the United States) China, NATO member states, India and Pakistan, North Korea and South Korea, Japan and other nations. Russia’s geopolitical position renders it particularly vulnerable in this situation.

All attempts to involve other nuclear weapon states in the nuclear limitation process have so far failed. India and Pakistan are engaged in a bilateral nuclear arms race of their own, while Israel is holding on to its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent against its Islamic neighbors. The United Kingdom, France and China argue that some 90% of the world’s nuclear arsenals is still controlled by Russia and the United States, and demand more substantial arms reductions from the two countries as a prerequisite for their own efforts to embrace nuclear disarmament.

Due to the negative position adopted by the United States the CTBT has still not come into force two decades after it was signed. It was also Washington’s fault that resulted in the recent suspension of the agreement with Russia on eliminating excessive amounts of plutonium. Talks on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) and on non-deployment of arms in outer space have been stuck in a dead end for years at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Over the past three years, Russia has disengaged from cooperation with the United States on the safe disposal, physical security and protection of nuclear weapons, materials and facilities. In 2015, Russia pulled out of the CFE Joint Consultative Group. Talks on tactical nuclear weapons never began.

The 2015 conference on the NPT resulted in failure. North Korea, which withdrew from the NPT back in 2003, continues to test nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The new U.S. administration and Congress are against the 2015 multilateral agreement on limiting the Iranian nuclear program, which might strike a decisive blow to the NPT. Further proliferation of nuclear weapons would mostly occur along Russia’s borders: in Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Japan. Ultimately, this will result in nuclear arms inevitably ending up with terrorists, meaning a catastrophe for civilization as we know it.

There are multiple reasons for the emergence of this dangerous situation. The traditional concept of nuclear arms control was based on the pronounced bipolarity of the world order, the approximate balance of the adversaries’ forces, and a rather simple delimitation and approval of classes and types of weapons as a subject of negotiations. Today the world order has become multipolar, the balance of forces is asymmetric, and the advent of new technologies is blurring the erstwhile lines between nuclear and conventional systems, offensive and defensive weapons, and regional and global arms.

The unprecedented improvement in the relations between the USSR/Russia and the West following the end of the Cold War made it possible to take major steps toward disarmament. However, the positive breakthroughs of 1987-1997 were followed by a period during which the nuclear reduction process has been shifting to the margins of the international security agenda as new global and regional power centers emerged in the international arena and alternative issues and threats took precedence. Nuclear arms reduction has played a much smaller role in U.S.-Russia relations since the early 2000s than it did before.

The final blow to the nuclear arms control system was dealt by a sharp about-turn of global politics after Russia, in 2012, said it would no longer put up with the unequal model of relations with the West and the United States’ dominance. As Russia’s GDP did not exceed 2% of the gross world product at the time, Moscow focused on other factors of its international status. In particular, the role of nuclear weapons was strongly emphasized. In his 2012 article during the presidential campaign, incumbent President Vladimir Putin stressed: “We will not give up our strategic deterrence potential under any circumstances; on the contrary, we will strengthen it.”[6] Russia launched a massive nuclear rearmament program (which included the deployment of 400 ballistic missiles)[7]. After 2010, arms control was becoming an increasingly unpopular topic in Russia, with the existing international treaties more and more often labelled as nothing short of acts betraying the nation[8]. Then the Ukrainian crisis hit in 2013. In 2014 Russia incorporated Crimea, and the war in Donbass erupted. In 2015, Moscow launched a large-scale military operation in Syria.

The United States and its allies imposed economic sanctions against Russia and revived the strategy of isolation and containment aimed against Moscow. A fierce propaganda fight broke out, augmented by hacker sabotage operations. We have witnessed a return of intensive military confrontation between Russia on the one hand and the United States and NATO on the in Eastern Europe, the Baltic and Black Sea regions, the Arctic and the Asia-Pacific region. The possibility of an armed conflict between Russia and NATO, including with the use of nuclear weapons, is once again threatening Europe and the rest of the world.

What is to Be Done?

Overcoming these dangerous trends will only be possible if decisive steps are taken to de-escalate tensions between Russia and the West, including measures to preserve the nuclear arms control regimes. Following the arrival of the new U.S. administration in 2016, the only country capable of doing this is Russia, and then only if it really wishes to do so, which remains unclear. It should be noted, however, that neither the United States, nor China, nor NATO/EU can be expected to be forthcoming. As things stand, Moscow should be the most interested actor here in terms of national security. Seeing as the United States is expected to leap forward in the arms race, it would be in Russia’s best interests to lower the ceiling for strategic weapons, including limits for hypersonic platforms, and return to talks on the parameters and confidence-building measures regarding missile defense systems. Another reason is that Russia is in a more vulnerable geostrategic position than the United States and NATO; it has no nuclear allies and does not have many trusted political and military allies overall. The coming military competition would require enormous costs at a time when the Russian economy is not up to the task.

The most important task is to rescue the INF Treaty. Rather than exchanging accusations in vain, the sides should work together to devise additional verification measures to eliminate suspicions on both sides. This should be followed by the signing of the next START Treaty that would cover the period after 2021. Based on these achievements the sides should reach agreement on measures related to missile defense systems and new conventional strategic weapons. After that, Russia, the United States and other countries should resume cooperation on the nuclear security of facilities and materials. In parallel, the NPT and the missile technology control regime should be strengthened. This could be followed by gradual and selective measures toward multilateral nuclear disarmament.

Thus, disarmament, above all nuclear disarmament, is not a utopian dream but rather an imperative of the present day — provided that our civilization as we know it wants to survive. Wilson’s dream was in large part made a reality by a number of historic breakthroughs made in the period from 1963 to 1991, with even more breakthroughs coming in 1991-2010. But little has changed in international politics. If anything, in the 2010s it has tumbled all the way back to the Cold War era, perhaps even further. Coupled with the rapid military-technical development, this has resulted in the current crisis and disintegration of the long-established disarmament system.

A nuclear-free world is not the present world minus nuclear weapons, but rather a world that has a different security system, the one that rests upon the strict legal basis for the use of force, that strictly limits conventional armed forces and armaments on new physical principles. It is for the next generation of politicians and experts to build such a world.

1 Systemic History of International Relations in 14 Volumes, 1918–2003. Vol. 2. Documents of the 1910s through the 1940s. M. 2000, pp. 27–28.
2 Desmond Ball, The Strategic Missile Programme of the Kennedy Admin¬istration, Ph.D. diss. (Canberra: University of Australia, 1972), apps. 1–3.
3 See A. Antonov, R. Ayumov. Control over Conventional Arms in Europe: The End of a Regime or a Story to be Continued? PIR Center. Moscow. 1 (27) 2012, p. 12.
4 The START II (1993), START III (1997), Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT, 2002) and the New START (signed in Prague in 2010 and known in Russia as START III).
5 The treaty concerned turning HEU (high enriched uranium) to LEU (low enriched uranium).
6 Putin, V. V. Being Strong is the Guarantee of National Security for Russia // Rossiyskaya Gazeta. February 20, 2012. (
7 Putin, V. V. Ibid.
8 K. Sivkov. Disarmed and Extremely Dangerous. Voyenno-Promyshlenny Kurier. No.11, March 22–28, 2017, pp.1–4.

Source: Center for Strategic Research

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