The ‘Silver Thread’ is Torn Apart: Will Nuclear Superpowers Reestablish Nuclear Dialogue?

Russian-American relations are hitting another bottom, and now there is another NPT Review conference. With the departure of the founding fathers of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, the need for dialogue between the nuclear superpowers is more acute than during the Cold War, writes Adlan Margoev, Research Fellow, Institute of International Studies, MGIMO.

“We warned in advance that such wording would not work!” — the ninth (2015) and tenth (2022) NPT Review conferences ended with an identical message from the United States and Russia. The last time, Moscow, following the lead of the Middle Eastern countries, supported the deadline for organising a conference on the creation of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, prompting accusations from Washington. In response, the Russian delegation blamed the American delegation for shielding Israel, as it was in the interests of the latter to thwart any progress on this issue.

Seven years later, “all the dogs were let loose” on Russia, which was condemned for attacks on the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant. The mission of the International Atomic Energy Agency was sent to the site with a delay, after the end of the conference. It refrained from identifying those responsible, unlike the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which blamed the Syrian government for the 2017 attacks despite the fact that the organisation had no such mandate. In the West, everyone remained of the opinion that the nuclear power plant in Ukraine was attacked by Russia, although no one conducted an investigation. And it won’t. The expected refusal of the Russian delegation to admit responsibility for the incident was called a stumbling block — it turned out to be more advantageous to deem the conference a failure than to agree with Moscow conduvting military hostilities in Ukraine.

Bombing outside brackets

The topic of an attack on civilian nuclear infrastructure threatened to derail the final document in 1985 as well. At the time, Iraq demanded a condemnation of the 1981 Israeli air strike on the Osirak reactor, and Iran demanded a condemnation of the 1984-1985 Iraqi attacks on the Bushehr nuclear power plant under construction. Iraqi delegates called the NPT Review conference an inappropriate place to discuss the war, and the Iranian delegates threatened to undermine the consensus on the entire final document if it did not include a clause on attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities.

The members of the treaty condemned the attack on Osirak, but instead of developing an acceptable wording regarding the Bushehr nuclear power plant, they attached the texts of the statements of Iran and Iraq on this issue to the declaration agreed upon by everyone — the final document was saved.

They won’t go anywhere

The negligently and deliberately poisoned seven-year cycle of the NPT review process seems to confirm that the viability of the nuclear non-proliferation regime does not worry its guarantors as much as at the stage of its formation. The topic of the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant will leave the news agenda when hostilities cease around it. And in the next NPT review cycle, the permanently growing dissatisfaction of non-nuclear countries with the regression in the field of nuclear disarmament will continue to gain a critical anti-nuclear mass: as of September 2022, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has been ratified by 66 states.

Still, the threat of non-nuclear states flowing from the NPT to the TPNW looks unlikely and irrational — even the voiced recommendations of the delegate from Kiribati to their government to get out of the useless agreement were not frightening. A legally correct withdrawal from the NPT is possible only if the participant decides that “exceptional circumstances related to the content of the treaty have jeopardized the supreme interests of the country,” and will notify not only all parties to the treaty, but also the UN Security Council, three months in advance. If the latter decides that withdrawing from the indefinitely extended treaty in 1995 poses a threat to peace and security, such an act is fraught with sanctions.

Not every country is ready to live like the DPRK. Even if the economic damage from the withdrawal from the NPT is mitigated, the country that leaves the treaty will lose access to the international market for nuclear technology and to the negotiating platform where it has the right to demand that nuclear powers fulfil their disarmament obligations.

NPT in the 21st Century: Is the World on the Eve of a Nuclear War?

To negotiate or to speak out

The patriarch of nuclear non-proliferation and one of the “authors” of the NPT Roland Timerbaev taught that nuclear non-proliferation was in the interests of all mankind and that the USSR and the United States approached the negotiations with a common mission to stop the spread of military nuclear technology. Was this awareness an act of selflessness? Not at all. Concessions are part of the diplomatic process, but national interests were at the root of the foreign policy of the architects of the nuclear world order in 1968 and are in 2022.

The difference is that the memory of the Cuban missile crisis was not in the history books, but in the minds of decision makers, and their ability to agree behind the scenes was more important than their ability to speak out publicly to each other. By 1963, Moscow and Washington had consented to The Partial Test Ban Treaty — in a short time thanks to the personal intervention of Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy.

The 1966-1968 negotiations on the NPT went on against the background of the fierce war that the United States was waging in Vietnam. Realizing the impossibility of defending multilateral nuclear forces with the participation of European allies in the negotiations, American diplomats held confidential consultations with Soviet negotiators, keeping secret from the Europeans the fact that some of the “Soviet” drafts of the treaty presented were developed with the participation of the Americans.

Later, the USSR Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko confided to his son that “after the signing of the UN Charter in San Francisco, this was his second most significant signature under a historical document. Leonid Brezhnev was very happy with the achievement of this agreement, and indeed the entire Soviet leadership.” Against the background of the confrontation between the capitalist and socialist blocs in the early 1980s, Gromyko supported the idea of consultations on nuclear non-proliferation between the USSR and the USA, which were held every six months — the minister called such a dialogue the “only silk thread” that connected the two superpowers.

Some more important things

The NPT Review Conference is a ritually significant, partly theatrical performance that reflects the temperature of the mood in the creative team and the ability of its participants to agree on at least something. However, for the future agreement, it is important not only to successfully perform at the reporting concerts, but also to justify the expectations of the public between them.

The idea, blocked by the Americans in 2015, to convene a conference on the creation of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, was implemented at the UN platform — the first two sessions were held in 2019 and 2021.

Also in 2015, the six international negotiators signed a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the nuclear programme with Iran. And although the Trump administration left the plan three years later, the remaining parties to the agreement waited for the change of administration and are negotiating a restoration of the nuclear deal.

In 2020, the IAEA members contributed €128 million to the Technical Cooperation Fund, a 3.5-fold increase in extra-budgetary contributions. The funds were used for dealing with the consequences of the pandemic, as well as equipment purchases for medical and agricultural purposes and personnel training, including in the least developed countries. Despite the pandemic, the work of the agency continued uninterrupted in the main direction: in 2021, IAEA inspectors conducted inspections “in the field” for 14,649 days, monitoring 1,334 objects.

In 2021, the last Russian-American treaty on the reduction of strategic offensive arms was extended for five years. Due to hostilities in Ukraine and suspended air traffic between Russia and the United States, inspections under this agreement have not resumed since their suspension during the pandemic. At least the exchange of notifications about the state of strategic nuclear forces works smoothly.

Russian-American relations are hitting another bottom, and now there is another NPT Review conference. With the departure of the founding fathers of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, the need for dialogue between the nuclear superpowers is more acute than during the Cold War. Diplomats are being expelled before they start to agree on something, but NGO specialists continue to work on the “second track”. Such expert contacts will not lead to a breakthrough — and should not. Their role, like the role of monasteries in the Middle Ages, is to preserve the institutional memory and the culture of dialogue – for those who will one day have to resurrect such a dialogue at the state level.

Modern Diplomacy
NPT’s Midlife Crisis
Rakesh Sood
If the NPT has to retain political relevance, it has to adapt to the changed political realities of the 21st century and acknowledge the advances made in nuclear science and technology. Merely repeating the tired clichés of the past is clearly not enough. A new political convergence of interests has to be built if the NPT has to successfully overcome its midlife crisis.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.