Modern Diplomacy
The Nuclear Five: State of Affairs and Prospects for the Russian Chairmanship

The Russian chairmanship in P5 can be used to maintain this format and ensure the mutual communication of important signals while confirming the readiness of all those involved to look for ways to reduce strategic risks, as well as de-escalate and reduce tensions in relations between nuclear powers without trying to score fleeting political points, writes Dmitry Stefanovich.

In August 2023, the chairmanship in the informal group of nuclear states (according to the NPT), known as the “Nuclear Five” (P5), passes from the United States to Russia. The PrepCom of the NPT Review Conference, held in Vienna, has become a conditional symbol of this transition; it has demonstrated serious contradictions both within the P5 and between nuclear and non-nuclear countries.

It seems appropriate to assess the achievements of this format, as well as the prospects for its development, especially given that, by happy coincidence, its composition completely coincides with the composition of the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Looking ahead, we note that the key achievement of the P5 has been the preservation in itself of the efficiency of this format, given the current crisis in international military-political relations, primarily between Russia and the West.

In addition to the very creation of such a format over the past years, the P5 have managed to achieve several notable “material“ results.

Perhaps the most important achievement of the nuclear five was the Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapon States on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races of January 3, 2022. 

Reaffirming the common understanding that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” remains an important factor in demonstrating the responsible attitude of these countries regarding nuclear issues. The statement also contains positive signals in terms of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, as well as the non-targeting of nuclear weapons of the five countries at one another, or at other countries. 

The key point of the statement is the emphasis on “the avoidance of war between Nuclear-Weapon States” as a key task. At the same time, specific tools for such a prevention, as well as “strategic risk reduction” require additional elaboration, which, as far as one can judge, the “nuclear five” is actively engaged in.

At the same time, the parties are determined to conduct a constructive dialogue based on mutual respect and the recognition of each other’s interests and concerns in the field of security – perhaps, it is in terms of recognising concerns that the most significant gaps are currently observed.

Another large-scale project, although it sounds a little strange, was the P5 Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms, the first versions and the addition of which were published in 2015 and 2022, respectively.

Of course, this project did not force the P5 to speak the same language on all issues, however, it seems to make it possible to resolve differences in practice. Moreover, the existence of such a glossary seriously helps the academic and expert community of the countries of the world, allowing them to more effectively formulate and convey their thoughts to an international audience.

Another interesting initiative is the so-called “P5 Young Professionals Network”, which brings together three representatives of non-governmental organisations and academic structures from each country of the P5. Unfortunately, due to epidemiological and, later, political factors, “live” (and virtual) communication between young professionals during the chairmanships of France and the United States was very limited. The first face-to-face meeting in this format took place on the side-lines of PrepCom in Vienna in August 2023 and demonstrated the potential for the preliminary study of certain areas of the P5s’ activities on this specialised “second track”. The project is planned to be developed in the future, which theoretically should again allow the representatives of the five countries to increase the level of mutual understanding on strategic issues.

Current P5 process 

As far as can be judged from official statements and publications in the media currently, within the P5, the dialogue continues at the level of experts in two main areas: nuclear doctrines and the strategic risk reduction. Obviously, there is not enough public information about the details of the relevant consultations, however, for example, in a keynote speech Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor to the President of the United States, noted a whole range of possible areas for work within the P5. 

In particular, Washington proposes cooperation in the following areas:

  • transparency in terms of nuclear policy, doctrines and budgets;
  • formation of a five-sided regime for notification of launches of ICBMs and SLBMs;
  • preservation of human-in-the-loop control in the automated combat control systems of nuclear forces (NC3) in the context of the development of artificial intelligence technologies
  • creation of a "five-way" network of emergency communications between capitals during crises;
  • increasing manageability in terms of interconnection and the delimitation of strategic non-nuclear potentials and nuclear deterrence.

Apparently, these areas are the most interesting for the United States. To date, it is difficult to imagine an operational coordination of approaches between the five countries in these areas, both due to the general crisis in international military-political relations, and due to the presence of specific obstacles to the implementation of relevant initiatives.

So, for example, the availability of communication channels does not guarantee their fair use in the event of a threat to the vital interests of the state; the issue of artificial intelligence being used in the automated control systems of nuclear forces will require a fairly deep dive into this extremely sensitive area; the relationship between nuclear and strategic non-nuclear weapons, on the contrary, is evolving towards greater integration, including the involvement of non-nuclear allied countries.
Modern Diplomacy
Nuclear Deterrence-2022
Dmitry Stefanovich
Nuclear deterrence will remain a very uncomfortable but key factor in international military-political relations. This state of affairs can hardly be called ideal, but the idealistic concepts of global peace do not pass the test of harsh reality, writes Valdai Club expert Dmitry Stefanovich.

Problems of the P5

For the P5, there is a general problem related to the self-identification of this conditional structure. What is the P5 “mission”, and what specific tasks does it solve? Today we can assume that the priority is to reduce strategic risks – the problem, however, is to agree on common approaches to work out in this area and the corresponding priorities, which we will discuss below.

At the same time, it is unlikely that any of the representatives of the participating countries is ready to admit the decline in the role of the disarmament, non-proliferation or peaceful use of atomic energy in the context of the NPT review process. Here, in turn, the question arises of the readiness of the members of the P5 to overcome the existing (and increasingly cementing) political restrictions that impede constructive dialogue in these (as well as many other) areas against the backdrop of an acute Russia-West conflict along with rapidly growing tensions between China and the “collective West”.

At the same time, the formation of a “P3” of the United States, Britain and France within this informal forum becomes a serious problem for the nuclear five. Of course, no one can prohibit countries, especially those so close to make joint statements on near-nuclear issues, but it cannot be ruled out that inside “nuclear five” there could be a division between the specified P3 on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other.

Multidirectional trends in the development of nuclear forces, combined with fierce confrontation between individual countries in various fields (including the aforementioned “peaceful atom”) are also a serious obstacle to reaching specific agreements within the P5 in the interests to reduce strategic risks and even arms control (let’s not be afraid of this phrase).

At the same time, there is a very serious contradiction in terms of strategic risks. As far as one can judge, the key task for the United States is to prevent escalation while maintaining manageable military-technical and military-political pressure on opponents, including the deployment and patrolling of carriers with long-range precision weapons and other weapons capable of performing strategic tasks in the immediate vicinity of the borders of Russia and China. At the same time, it is much more important for Russia and China to remove this American pressure as the primary source of strategic risks. The practice of “extended nuclear deterrence” does not make the situation easier either, theoretically contributing to the escalation of a regional conflict to a direct military clash between states possessing nuclear weapons.

Possible priorities for the Russian chairmanship

Based on the public statements of Russian officials, two main assumptions can be made about the fate of Russia’s chairmanship of the nuclear five. First, of course, there are plans to retain the format, albeit with reservations due to its modest effectiveness and limited agenda

Second, any initiatives in terms of arms control in general and within the framework of the P5 in particular are possible only in the context of a conditional “comprehensive settlement”, that is, not only political will is required, but also “the acceptance by all parties of new multipolar realities, as well as concrete practical steps towards a general de-escalation and, in particular, a post-conflict settlement along the Russia-West line,” using the language of Deputy Foreign Minister  Sergey Ryabkov (which, apparently, can be perceived as a response to the initiatives of J. Sullivan). 

At the same time, despite these limitations, a pragmatic approach to the activities of the nuclear five is expected to be maintained. This platform provides an opportunity for a substantive discussion of extremely sensitive topics in the field of strategic security, including, if necessary and expedient, with the involvement of representatives of the defence departments.
As far as one can judge, despite the quite logical negative attitude of the Russian side to the selective formation of an agenda for conversation on arms control and the strategic risk reduction, demonstrated by the United States, such a conversation can be allowed in the future in order to prepare separate mutually acceptable decisions within the framework of an integrated approach.

Moreover, the nuclear five can contribute to the “test run” of certain decisions that allow them to take into account the strategic arsenals of France and Britain, that is, the combined strike potential of NATO.  Let’s note that these decisions do not have to be legally binding; so-called parallel unilateral steps are also acceptable, similar to those currently being implemented in the context of the suspension of the New START Treaty

It would be useful to continue a detailed discussion on the doctrinal guidelines of the P5 countries, including such controversial phenomena as “left-of-launch” concept as an element of missile defence, “pre-strategic” nuclear weapons on “strategic” carriers (for example, low-yield warheads for Trident-2 SLBMs in the US and British arsenals), the concept of “last warning”, “strike and demonstration actions”, and the limited use of nuclear weapons in general.

The deepening of Russian-Chinese coordination in this area may be of particular importance during the Russian chairmanship. In particular, it seems expedient to prepare uniform formulations regarding the provocative military activities of the United States and its allies, as well as proposed measures to curb such escalation threats. It would probably be worth considering the possibility of publishing statistical data on activities in accordance with the Agreement on Ballistic Missile and Space Launch Vehicle Launch Notifications in order to demonstrate constructive interaction in the sphere of arms control. It is possible that it could be useful to continue studying the Russian experience in the creation and operation of the National Nuclear Risk Reduction Center by the Chinese side, and in the future, the creation of its analogue.

In general, the nuclear five has proved its viability in the current conditions, amid a particularly severe confrontation between its individual members, which is taking place under the “nuclear shadow”. The Russian chairmanship can be used to maintain this format and ensure the mutual communication of important signals while confirming the readiness of all those involved to look for ways to reduce strategic risks, as well as de-escalate and reduce tensions in relations between nuclear powers without trying to score fleeting political points.


Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.