Common Sense and Disarmament

16 october 2010

The Matter and Philosophy of Nuclear Weapons

Alexei Arbatov is Director of the International Security Center at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations; Full Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. 

Resume: The role of nuclear weapons in ensuring the status and security of the Russian Federation seems to be over-exaggerated. It was the over-reliance on the nuclear potential (and military might in general) that finally ruined the Soviet Union, as it deprived it of an incentive to carry out a profound political and economic modernization. Russia must not repeat that mistake of relying too much on nuclear weapons as a guarantee of security and international prestige.

The article by notable Russian political analyst and public figure Sergei Karaganov “Global Zero and Common Sense. Nuclear Weapons in the Modern World” (Russia in Global Affairs, 2/2010) has hardly left anyone indifferent. This is not surprising: the author raised a fundamental problem of contemporary history; he probed deep into the matter and expressed his thoughts in a gleaming and, at times, paradoxical way.
Some of Karaganov’s points are difficult to disagree with. But let us focus on disputable points.


The sensational publication in The Wall Street Journal (2007) by four authoritative U.S. figures (Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry and George Schultz), mentioned in the article, which called for eventual nuclear disarmament and the Global Zero campaign, are different things.

Dr. Karaganov confessed that he, like many other Russian figures, had subscribed to the “nuclear zero” initiative at “the request of many friends I respect” but later he “regretted” it. However, many people in Russia and the United States have not subscribed to this initiative, including myself. The reason for this is precisely their serious attitude to the need for and possibility of nuclear disarmament. Soviet-type populist campaigns setting an arbitrary date to achieving a nuclear-free world should not  be a substitute for a most difficult and long process of nuclear disarmament. This is why such reputable organizations as the Nuclear Threat Initiative (Sam Nunn and Ted Turner), the International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament (Gareth Evans and Yoriko Kawaguchi), the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe (Viatcheslav Kantor) and many others did not support Global Zero.

Now let’s get to the essence of the problem. Karaganov wrote: “The largest proliferation occurred when the Soviet Union (Russia) and the U.S. were cutting their armaments at a fast rate in the 1970s throughout the 1990s.” This statement is simply wrong.
According to published official figures, the overall nuclear arsenal of the United States reached a peak in 1967-1969 (31,300 warheads). Until 1990, it went up and down between 23,000 and 27,000 warheads. Then, it sharply decreased to the current 5,100 warheads. The evolution of the Soviet (Russian) nuclear arsenal is still a secret, but unofficial expert estimates suggest that the peak was reached in 1984-1985 (36,000 to 45,000 warheads).

Furthermore, there was no real disarmament under the SALT I Treaty (1972), the Vladivostok Agreement (1976) or SALT II (1979), unless one counts the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963). On the contrary, the parties quickly built up their nuclear arsenals. The reduction of nuclear weapons began only with the signing of the INF Treaty (1987) and START I (1991).

Contrary to popular belief, the expansion of the “Nuclear Club” went fastest not after the Cold War but precisely during it, if we approach the matter not formally, (in accordance with Article IX of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons which legalized the Nuclear Five), but from a military-technical perspective. Within forty years after the U.S. created nuclear weapons, seven countries followed suit: the Soviet Union in 1949, the United Kingdom in 1952, France in 1960, China in 1964, Israel in the early 1970s, India in 1974 under the guise of a “peaceful” explosion, and South Africa in 1982. After the Cold War, only two countries obtained nuclear weapons – Pakistan in 1998 and North Korea in 2006.

The relation between the build-up, reductions and proliferation of nuclear weapons over various periods of time is quite different from what Sergei Karaganov says. Therefore, the conclusions based on his observations can be called into question.


Karaganov upholds the following key military-political postulates:

  • Nuclear weapons saved mankind from a third world war and served as a “civilizing tool” for the elites of the leading countries, causing them to see “their main goal in averting a nuclear war.”
  • The proliferation of nuclear weapons does not depend on nuclear disarmament efforts by major powers but is spurred by a desire of potential nuclear contenders to “strengthen their security, ensure the survival of the regime […] and bolster their international status.”
  • Under the New START Treaty, Russia and the United States will eliminate “excessive stockpiles” of strategic armaments, but the reduction of nuclear weapons to minimal levels will be a destabilizing factor. It will increase Russia’s inferiority to the U.S. in general-purpose forces, undermine its current radical military reform, enhance “the usefulness of missile defense systems” and cause small nuclear countries to build up their potentials.
  • Nuclear proliferation cannot be stopped, so nations will have to “live in the world with an expanding club of nuclear states,” while the two great powers will “need a coordinated joint policy of deterrence with regard to new nuclear states.”
  • Moreover, in the conditions of Russia’s geopolitical vulnerability, slow economic modernization, corruption and the lack of “soft power,” “it would be a suicide to renounce the reliance on a powerful nuclear […] potential.”

First of all, I should say that Sergei Karaganov is not alone in his thinking. Arguments about a salutary role of nuclear deterrence and autonomy of the nuclear proliferation process have been widely discussed since the 1970s in the West and since the late 1980s in Russia. Now, the idea of an indispensable value of Russia’s nuclear potential is shared by a majority of the political and expert communities of the country, ranging from serious – including liberal – specialists, members of the military and the nuclear complex to reactionary graphomaniacs revering Stalin, Beria and Hitler.


As, fortunately, history has no subjunctive mood, we cannot categorically prove or disprove the argument that nuclear weapons saved the world. What we know for sure is that nuclear weapons were developed and used in 1945, after which they were piled up not for deterrence but for a total destruction of the enemy in case of war (the massive retaliation doctrine). The parties prepared for such a war quite seriously (drawing target lists for nuclear strikes, operational plans, building on a broad infrastructure of  bomb shelters in the Soviet Union, the U.S. and Western Europe, etc.). The idea of nuclear weapons’ role as a means of political deterrence became an integral element of U.S. and NATO strategy only in the 1960s and was implicitly recognized in the military doctrine of the Soviet Union only in the 1970s.

The great powers approached the brink of nuclear war at least four times (the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Berlin Crisis of 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the Middle East Crisis of 1973). In addition, they experienced dozens of false alarms from missile warning systems. As became known from recently declassified documents and new studies, this brink was nearly crossed during the Cuban Missile Crisis. If Nikita Khrushchev had delayed making concessions for another couple of days, the U.S. would have launched a (non-nuclear) air strike at missile sites in Cuba, planned for early November, in order to prevent the missiles’ mating with nuclear warheads, whereas Soviet missile specialists could quickly put warheads on the delivery vehicles brought into Cuba and launch them in the event of a U.S. attack. U.S. forward-based strike aircraft, deployed overseas, were loaded with nuclear bombs, and after takeoff the pilots were authorized to use them. Soviet submarines carried nuclear torpedoes and were also authorized to use them in case of an attack by the U.S. Navy, which had imposed a blockade on Cuba and intended to sink submarines if they refused to surface. The U.S. Strategic Air Command put bombers to air patrol to be ready to launch a massive strike against the Soviet Union in response to even a single nuclear explosion over an American city.

To all appearances, humankind was saved not only and not so much due to the caution displayed by the Kremlin and the White House as by sheer luck. Of course, deterrence did play a role: both parties were horrified at the prospect of a nuclear war. But they did not control the course of events and – most importantly – the crisis erupted just in the context of nuclear deterrence. By secretly deploying missiles in Cuba, Moscow wanted to stop the growing gap between Russia and the United States during the crash build-up of American missile forces in 1961-1962. So, one can speak of a “civilizing” role of nuclear weapons only in abstract terms. Even if deterrence worked in the past, there is no guarantee that it will be effective in the future as well. In any case, such a role is inseparably linked with negotiations on the limitation and reduction of nuclear armaments.

This process is like riding a bicycle: if you stop pedaling you fall down. In our case, “stopping” means the collapse of the entire system of arms control, non-proliferation and security. The New START Treaty gives a chance to catch up on years lost. However, to restore the non-proliferation system (as the NPT Review Conference in May 2010 showed), the reduction of nuclear weapons must be continued, although some people would like to put a full stop to this process with the New START Treaty.


Obviously, incentives for acquiring nuclear weapons are much more diverse and contradictory than simply a desire to follow great powers’ example. One can say, with a fair degree of certainty, that over the period of existence of the NPT since it came into force in 1970, Israel’ and South Africa’s decision to become nuclear was not linked with the concept embodied in Article VI (commitment to nuclear disarmament). In case of India, this interrelation is more pronounced: in addition to the status and internal political reasons, the decision to develop nuclear weapons was caused by the growing nuclear-missile might of China, whereas Pakistan followed suit in order to counter India.
As regards the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran, nuclear disarmament by the United States, Russia and other great powers in keeping with article VI of the NPT would hardly have had a serious impact on them. Yet the interrelation did take place and it still remains, although it is not direct but much more complex and subtle.

First, of crucial importance is the general atmosphere of the perception of international security in which states determine their attitude to nuclear weapons. It was hardly a coincidence that in the period from 1987 to 1998 intensive negotiations on nuclear disarmament and real reductions of nuclear weapons (the INF Treaty, START I and START II, the framework START III Treaty, the agreements on  delineation  between strategic and non-strategic missile defenses, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, and unilateral reductions of tactical nuclear weapons by the U.S. and the Soviet Union/Russia) took place simultaneously with the accession of about 40 new countries to the NPT, including two nuclear powers, France and China. In 1995, the Treaty was given an indefinite extension, and in 1997 the Additional Protocol to the IAEA Safeguards Agreement was adopted. Four states gave up their military nuclear programs and nuclear weapons or were deprived of them by an external use of force (Brazil, Argentina, South Africa and Iraq). Another three countries, which had nuclear weapons on their territory as a result of the Soviet Union’s break-up, joined the NPT as non-nuclear states (Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan). The NPT has become the most universal international instrument; it has been joined by 189 UN member states, and only three countries remain outside the treaty (Israel, India and Pakistan).

Most likely, if the great powers had been consistent in cutting their nuclear arsenals and reducing the role of nuclear weapons in national security, the value of nuclear weapons as a symbol of status, power and prestige in the world would have decreased. Simultaneously, the popularity of nuclear weapons in home policies of many countries would have gone down (as was the case with the PR-attractiveness of biological and chemical weapons).

It is also obvious that the opposite policies of the great powers and the three countries that did not join the NPT treaty provided, since the late 1990s, a most fertile ground for the growth of nuclear weapons’ attractiveness for governments and public opinion in a growing number of countries. The emphasis made now by many Russian politicians on the importance of the nuclear potential for security and on the damage its further reduction may inflict naturally adds to this trend.

Second, the situation of hostile confrontation in the form of nuclear deterrence, which has taken root in the strategic relations between Russia and the U.S., places rigid constraints on deeper interaction between the great powers. Although Karaganov argues that nuclear weapons have not been “of much concern to either party for a long time,” his call on the two nations to work out “a coordinated joint policy of deterrence with regard to new nuclear states” will continue running into an obstacle posed by the nuclear standoff, if the process of nuclear arms reduction stops (see more detail below).

Third, there are areas where nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation are directly interrelated. This refers, above all, to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty which was signed in 1996 but has never entered into force, and the negotiations on Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty which stalled in Geneva.

Interrelation between nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation does exist, but it is not automatic. The implementation of the commitments on nuclear disarmament under Article VI of the NPT per se does not guarantee against nuclear proliferation. Preventing it requires many more measures to strengthen and develop the NPT, its norms and mechanisms. However, non-fulfillment by the nuclear powers of their commitments under Article VI would guarantee further proliferation and prevent joint moves to strengthen the NPT, leaving only room for unilateral use of force which tends to backfire, as evidenced by the experience of the past twenty years.


According to Karaganov, the New START Treaty will eliminate “excessive stockpiles” of nuclear weapons, leaving only some optimal potentials. However, according to expert estimates, the total yield of the world’s nuclear arsenals after the planned cuts will stand at about 2,000 megatons, of which Russia and the United States will account for more than 80 percent. This is 60,000 (!) times more than the total yield of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which immediately killed 140,000 people. Defining what can be considered “excessive stockpiles” and optimal or minimal levels is a most difficult issue, over which armies of experts have been struggling for decades. But it is certain that there is still a long way from the ceilings of the new Treaty to any “rational” minimal levels of nuclear potentials (if this term can be applied here).

Of course, one cannot pass this way without solving numerous related problems: joint development of missile early warning, air defense and missile defense systems; dealing with conventional precision-guided strategic weapons; restriction of forces of third nuclear states; consolidation of tactical nuclear weapons – along with the restoration of the regime of conventional arms control; prevention of a potential space arms race; etc. Responsible advocates of nuclear disarmament are well aware of this. But opponents of nuclear disarmament must understand another thing: none of these problems will be solved without further progress in nuclear disarmament; they will only grow. This particularly refers to nuclear proliferation.


Nuclear deterrence in relations between the great powers does not prevent the threat of further nuclear proliferation; rather, it only exacerbates this danger, although this is a matter for discussion. But it is absolutely certain that the dynamics of mutual nuclear deterrence without agreements on phased disarmament stands in the way of effective cooperation among states in combating proliferation. This directly relates to the adoption by the UN of sanctions against third countries; to a common position on ways to strengthen the NPT; possible joint military operations (for example, within the framework of the Proliferation Security Initiative); and cooperation in developing a missile defense system (something which Russia and the U.S. have repeatedly failed to agree upon over the past 15 years).

It took the Soviet Union and the United States two decades of brinkmanship and the nightmare of the Cuban Missile Crisis to achieve stable mutual deterrence, which rested on a broad basis of treaties and agreements. Further nuclear proliferation is unlikely to reproduce the same model. The nuclear forces of new countries are vulnerable and will provoke preemptive strikes; their warning and command-control systems are ineffective or non-existent, just as their technologies for the prevention of   unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. Often, these countries suffer from internal instability and are prone to extremism, and it is unclear whether the threat of civilian casualties will keep them from taking dangerous reckless actions. Most likely, nuclear explosive devices will fall into the hands of terrorists through these regimes, and no deterrence or missile defense system will save Washington, Moscow, London or Paris from nuclear attacks.

The rehabilitation of nuclear disarmament as the ultimate, albeit a distant goal of the major powers’ policy will add purposefulness and consistency to rational treaties of the foreseeable future, such as the New START Treaty and subsequent, deeper reductions in nuclear weapons. It will open the way to the implementation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, and will make real the involvement of third nuclear powers and “outsiders” (India, Pakistan and Israel) in the process.

Finally, it will give a boost to the policy of strengthening the NPT, internationalizing the nuclear fuel cycle, and ensuring high international standards for nuclear materials safety.
Karaganov too easily proposes putting up with a nuclear-armed Iran. But Tehran will never and under no circumstances be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. Either it itself renounces these efforts under the pressure of tough UN Security Council sanctions, or the great powers stop it militarily under Article 42 of the UN Charter. If not, Israel will do it alone. I wonder how Moscow would react if a neighboring country, with a much larger population and economy, persistently sought to acquire nuclear weapons, while its top officials declared that Russia must be “wiped off the political map of the world”?
As regards North Korea, it will be “strangled” with sanctions until Pyongyang finally understands that the survival of its regime depends not on a few nuclear warheads that it seeks to keep, but on its renouncing them.


The role of nuclear weapons in ensuring the status and security of the Russian Federation seems to be over-exaggerated. One should not forget that the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union broke up when they had five to seven times more nuclear weapons than Russia has now. It was the over-reliance on the nuclear potential (and military might in general) that finally ruined the Soviet Union, as it deprived it of an incentive to carry out a profound political and economic modernization. However, it was impossible to live indefinitely in the conditions of pre-war mobilization, while at the same time nuclear weapons made a big war impossible – and the Soviet system eventually collapsed. Russia must not repeat that mistake of relying too much on nuclear weapons as a guarantee of security and international prestige. I do not want to believe that for the Russian people nuclear weapons are the only possible and attainable attribute of the status of a great world power.

Of course, the renunciation of nuclear weapons in no way means a green light for large, regional or local wars with the use of conventional weapons or systems based on new physical principles (laser, beam, seismic, etc.). In other words, a world without nuclear weapons is an international community organized on different principles, ensuring the security of responsible states, regardless of their size and economic or military might. There are also other global problems of the 21st century – which, by the way, Dr. Karaganov mentions as well – that force the world to take the path of cooperation and good global governance.

Such a world seems utopian now. Karaganov writes that the goal of nuclear disarmament “can and should be reached only if the man and humanity changes. Apparently, the ‘nuclear zero’ advocates believe that such a change is possible. But I still think otherwise.”

Well, faith is not a matter for argument. However the problem is just the opposite. It is precisely because human consciousness does not change or evolves slowly that the conservation of the present nuclear potentials will inevitably result in nuclear weapons falling into the hands of irresponsible regimes and terrorists, and this will certainly lead to a catastrophe.

Along with the solution of new huge problems of the new century, consistent and well-thought-out advance in nuclear disarmament and the toughening of the non-proliferation system inspires hope that this disaster will be prevented. And as a by-product this process may change the man and humanity for the better.

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