Horizontal Proliferation: New Challenges

13 april 2004

Alexei Arbatov is Full Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Director of the International Security Center at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations; a member of the Russian delegation to the START I negotiations (1990); and Deputy Chairman of the Defense Committee of the State Duma (1994-2003).

Resume: The world is entering a fundamentally new stage in the proliferation of nuclear weapons – the most destructive and dangerous of WMD. But as distinct from the Cold War years, public opinion in the U.S., Western Europe and Russia has overcome its fear of nuclear weapons and no longer worries about nuclear disarmament prospects.

The proliferation of nuclear weapons (nuclear proliferation), which is defined as an increasing number of non-nuclear states and, possibly in the future, non-state organizations, gaining access to nuclear weapons, is in the focus of the international security agenda. It is a top priority issue in the official national security policies of the United States, Russia and many other leading countries in the world. Efforts to check nuclear proliferation involve the intensive work of secret services, the use of force against individual states and even large-scale military operations. The efficiency of these efforts is crucial for the world’s prospects and for global security in the foreseeable future.

The buildup of nuclear armaments by the largest states, concomitant with the desire of an increasing number of non-nuclear countries to obtain them, have remained closely interconnected phenomena. This is why any nuclear arms race is often described as nuclear proliferation: there exists ‘vertical’ proliferation (a nuclear buildup by the leading nuclear states) and ‘horizontal’ proliferation (an increase in the number of countries having nuclear armaments in their armies).


The world is entering a fundamentally new stage in the proliferation of nuclear weapons – the most destructive and dangerous of WMD.

Following the end of the Cold War, when the two superpowers ceased to be enemies and their ideological and geopolitical rivalry gave way to broad cooperation, the campaign against proliferation enjoyed several major achievements. Those years were marked by an unprecedented growth of the United Nations’ authority and the role of its Security Council, as well as by a huge expansion of UN peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. In the early 1990s, about 40 new member countries joined the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), among them France and China. In 1995, the Treaty was extended for an indefinite time, and only five countries have remained outside it – India, Pakistan, Israel, Cuba and the Cook Islands. Seven countries gave up their military nuclear programs and the nuclear armaments they had previously possessed, while others had them removed by force (Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, South Africa, and Iraq).

However, in the late 1990s, nuclear proliferation gained momentum after India and Pakistan carried out a series of nuclear tests in 1998. The tests sparked serious and well-grounded fears over the military nuclear programs being conducted by North Korea, Iran and several other countries. Suspicions with regard to Iraq’s nuclear program served as a pretext for, if not the cause of, the U.S. war against that country in 2003, although no nuclear weapons have been found in Iraq since the end of the military campaign. At the same time, North Korea declared its withdrawal from the NPT and its ability to quickly develop nuclear weapons. In Iran, facilities for enriching natural uranium were discovered which Teheran had been concealing from the International Atomic Energy Agency in violation of the NPT.

It also turned out that Pakistan (and, perhaps, some other countries as well) was engaged in an active secret trade in nuclear technologies and materials with Iran, Syria and North Korea. Furthermore, Libya was conducting a secret military nuclear program which it has now proposed to shut down in exchange for the termination of UN sanctions that have been imposed against it. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Syria, Egypt and several other countries keep a close watch on the conflicts involving North Korea and Iran and prefer to leave open the issue of their future nuclear status. International terrorist organizations display a keen interest in nuclear weapons and have already started blackmailing governments (in particular, by spreading rumors that they have bought portable nuclear explosive devices from Ukraine for subversive purposes).

There are many reasons for the growing proliferation process. Its new stage was caused, above all, by the transfer of international conflicts to the regional level, and by the superpowers’ decreased control over global developments, together with their decreased involvement in regional affairs. At first, this factor contributed to their interaction in various fields and enhanced the role of the United Nations, including the realm of nonproliferation. But as antagonisms between the superpowers increased in this area of international politics and technical cooperation, regional conflicts and the proliferation process went beyond their control.

The new stage is characterized by an information revolution, broader access to nuclear power specialists, technologies and materials, formation of a nuclear black market, technical progress and the proliferation of dual-use technologies and materials.

As distinct from the Cold War years, public opinion in the U.S., Western Europe and Russia has overcome its fear of nuclear weapons and no longer worries about nuclear disarmament prospects. The sign of the new era is Washington’s policy of dismantling the nuclear disarmament regime and process and placing more reliance on nuclear armaments in furthering its national interests. Russia, after numerous protests, has chosen to tolerate this policy, however reluctantly. The proliferation process has been aggravated by the unilateral use of force abroad by the U.S. and its allies. Those attacks prompt potential victims of the U.S. military to seek nuclear weapons in order to defend their security.



The Nonproliferation Treaty, the fundamental document in this field which was signed in 1968 and which entered into force in 1970, has clearly divided all nuclear and potentially nuclear powers into ‘legitimate’ (those possessing nuclear weapons by right) and ‘illegitimate’ (all the others that have no right to develop nuclear weapons of their own). The NPT says that “for the purposes of this Treaty, a nuclear-weapon State is one which has manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to January 1, 1967” (Article IX, Point 3). Therefore, all countries that “missed the deadline” for whatever reasons, are regarded as ‘illegitimate’ nuclear powers.

And although France and China joined the NPT only in the 1990s, the Treaty included them as legitimate nuclear-weapon states since they tested nuclear weapons before 1967 (France accomplished this in 1962, and China, in 1964). From the point of view of the NPT, nuclear proliferation was started by India, which became the first country to explode a nuclear device after January 1, 1967 (in May 1974, to be more precise). India declared at the time that it had tested a “peaceful nuclear device,” but the NPT makes no such distinction between nuclear devices. In May 1998, India, and later Pakistan, became the first non-signatories to the Treaty to openly test nuclear weapons. These countries can be considered the “legal” initiators of nuclear proliferation. However, they would hardly agree with such a claim, just as the other “illegitimate” actual or potential possessors of nuclear weapons – Israel, North Korea, Iran, and others – would not, and with good reason.

Indeed, the five ‘legitimate’ nuclear powers developed their nuclear weapons earlier than other states, and by 1968 three of them (the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain) had agreed to their positions on the NPT. As a result, the Treaty defined January 1, 1967 as the cut-off date, beyond which any new nuclear state would be considered illegitimate. However, such a position can be viewed as arbitrariness on the part of the great nations. From the point of view of “illegitimate” nuclear states, there were no grounds to make the legitimacy of their nuclear programs dependent on the time frame set down by the military programs of the ‘Big Five’ nuclear states, or on the rate of their negotiations on the NPT provisions.

This flaw of the Treaty, which has formalized the inequality of the different categories of signatories, is a permanent weak link in the entire structure of the nonproliferation regime, as well as a target of just criticism and speculative attacks by the non-nuclear states and/or non-signatories to the NPT.

There are also other shortcomings and contradictions in the foundation of the nonproliferation regime and its main elements: the NPT and related agreements, institutions and mechanisms for coordinating states’ interests and efforts (the IAEA, the Zangger Committee, the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, etc.).

One deficiency of the nonproliferation regime is based on the assumption that the development of nuclear weapons can be a natural derivative or by-product from the legal development of non-military nuclear power engineering and science. According to this assumption, strict control by the legitimate nuclear powers and international organizations over supplies of nuclear materials and technologies will make it possible to clearly distinguish between the peaceful employment of nuclear power from military purposes. However, the countries that had nuclear programs have always known what kind of nuclear energy employment – peaceful or military – they needed in the long run, with the possible exceptions of Brazil and Argentina whose nuclear programs did not have straightforward goals.

When a nation’s efforts at achieving nuclear capabilities were peaceful, acquiring the highest technological and industrial levels, together with the extensive freedom in processing and using nuclear materials, did not tempt it into developing nuclear weapons (West Germany, Italy, Sweden, Japan, South Korea, Canada, and others). If its goals were militarily related, it would seek its objective in a purposeful way, not “in addition to” peaceful nuclear engineering programs. The military motives do not derive from economic benefits; therefore promises of economic benefits in exchange for the renunciation of nuclear weapons (stipulated in the NPT) have proved to be a weak lever of influence on national policies.

Some of these countries (Israel, India and Pakistan) “honestly” chose not to join the NPT and conducted their own military nuclear programs. Others (Iraq, Iran and North Korea) apparently joined the Treaty to obtain political cover for their programs and easy access to information, specialists, technologies and materials for achieving their long-term military goals. The IAEA’s control was not enough to prevent military nuclear programs or the transfer of the technologies, materials and experts of peaceful programs into military-related projects. The 1997 Additional Protocol to the NPT, which gave the IAEA the authority to inspect any facility in a signatory non-nuclear country, could impede such violations but could not fully prevent them.

Countries seeking to obtain nuclear weapons may even declare their withdrawal from the NPT, having first taken avail of the material benefits provided by the Treaty for advancing their military programs. Pyongyang’s withdrawal from the Treaty showed that such a move may not necessarily entail international sanctions. Moreover, North Korea used it as a trump card in its bargaining with the world’s largest powers for economic and political concessions. It seems that Iran – which in late 2003 agreed to join the Protocol under pressure of West Europe – has begun a similar political game concerning Protocol’s requirements and even its NPT membership in order to receive more opportunities for developing its nuclear program.

Factors that prompt the leaderships of non-nuclear countries into developing nuclear weapons  include security considerations, the wish to bolster their international and domestic prestige (in particular, from pressure within their domestic circles), and receive foreign-policy concessions from other states. The NPT does not counterbalance either of these factors: it does not offer any tangible benefits for renouncing the acquisition of nuclear weapons, i.e. it does not provide for security guarantees that would outweigh losses incurred in such renunciation, nor does it envision serious punishment for military nuclear activities.

This particularly refers to the security factor as a motive for joining the nuclear club. For example, Israel reportedly proposed to abandon its nuclear weapons in exchange for U.S. security guarantees that would be equal to Washington’s NATO commitments – including nuclear guarantees. However, the conclusion of such a formal security agreement with Israel would damage Washington’s relations with the Arab world and its oil interests in the Middle East.

It would be even more politically awkward to offer effective security guarantees to authoritarian regimes, unstable domestically and outwardly aggressive. This would especially include those nations that are suspected of having connections to international terrorism and secretly developing nuclear weapons. However, it is such regimes that fear an external threat and seek nuclear status more than other countries. Sanctions and the threat or use of force by the great powers, especially when it is done without UN approval (as was the case with Iraq in 2003), produce undesirable results by multiplying the incentives for threshold countries to obtain nuclear weapons.

Another major deficiency of the NPT is that it failed to account for the correlation of interests of countries supplying and receiving materials and technologies for peaceful nuclear energy projects. It was assumed that the wish of recipient countries to engage in peaceful nuclear engineering would be so strong that they would assume verifiable obligations not to develop nuclear weapons. In practice, however, the world market for nuclear materials and technologies, which yields exorbitant profits, has become a scene of tough competition for the exporters, not the importers. This factor has had two grave consequences for nonproliferation.

First, in a bid to win more markets, supplier states were not very particular about buyers’ intentions and programs, about the observance of IAEA guarantees, the insufficiency of mechanisms for controlling exports and imports (with regard to Iraq, North Korea or Iran, for example), and even about the non-participation in the NPT of some importer countries (as was the case with Israel, India, Pakistan and, formerly, Brazil). Moreover, some of the main exporters remained outside the Treaty (France and China), while several still do so to this day (India and Pakistan). Furthermore, reports about the military nuclear programs being conducted by some recipient states (as well as their vast natural energy resources, which makes the development of nuclear engineering unnecessary), did not stop exporters from closing deals with importers, such as Iraq and Iran.

The other unfavorable consequence of the NPT is the lack of mutual understanding among the supplier states. It often happens that when pressure is applied to a particular supplier state by another, causing the latter to reduce its supplies to one or another country, this is often viewed as not genuine concern for nuclear nonproliferation, but rather an attempt to remove a rival from the market. In 1994, the U.S., South Korea and Japan secured the termination of Russia’s nuclear energy cooperation with North Korea under the pretext that Pyongyang might use Russia’s supplies to develop nuclear weapons of its own. However, soon thereafter a contract was concluded for the construction of a nuclear power plant of the same type under their control, with allegedly more effective IAEA guarantees. (Later, the project, named KEDO, was halted and North Korea openly resumed its military nuclear program; in January 2003 it withdrew from the NPT.)

Naturally, Moscow perceives Washington’s strong pressure against any further construction of Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant as a wish to oust Russia from the Iranian market in order to take its place. Despite evidence that Teheran is conducting a military nuclear program and developing missile technologies (with Pakistan’s and North Korea’s assistance), the Russian leadership strongly resists the U.S. pressure, even though this situation may damage Russian-U.S. relations in other fields.

The third deficiency of the NPT is that it proclaims nuclear nonproliferation to be the top priority of international security, along with nuclear disarmament. Ideally, this must be so, provided all exporter countries give up the double standards policy. In reality, nuclear nonproliferation is given a different priority in national security agendas of various countries. Its priority is higher in the United States than it is in Russia, China and certain West European suppliers, not to mention the new exporters (Pakistan, India and North Korea). Apart from the nonproliferation regime, countries may have other, often more ‘preferable,’ foreign-policy interests. In the United States, for example, support for Israel is more important than damage from its non-official nuclear status for the nonproliferation regime. For Russia, the economic and political benefits from cooperation with India and Iran matter more than nonproliferation. The same logic applies to the U.S. cooperation with Pakistan (at least until recently, when Islamabad’s secret nuclear exports became known to the public).

So the opinion that the NPT has little influence on nuclear proliferation is not groundless. The Treaty has been joined mostly by countries that have no intention of developing nuclear weapons. As for those countries that had such intentions, they simply chose not to join the NPT (which has not affected their nuclear imports from the supplier countries), or joined the NPT while simultaneously conducting military programs secretly from the IAEA. By choosing such a course, the latter reserved the possibility to denounce the Treaty and openly acquire nuclear status – without fearing serious sanctions.

Thus, the main shortcomings of the NPT are: the absence of reliable security guarantees for non-nuclear countries in exchange for their decision not to develop nuclear weapons; the vagueness and weakness of sanctions against nations that choose not to join the NPT, or those member-countries that violate its conditions or denounce it; the insufficient effectiveness and obligation of verification mechanisms; the possibility of obtaining full-cycle nuclear technology within the NPT framework, which facilitates the accumulation of weapon-grade materials (including the enrichment of natural uranium and the recycling of spent fuel for extracting plutonium).

And finally, the most important point: the “legitimate” nuclear powers, which built the NPT on the concept of inequality of the participating states, have not only failed to compensate the other nations’ damage with security and economic benefits, but have aggravated this segregation and instigated third countries to make the nuclear choice.


Since nuclear weapons possess virtually unlimited destructive might with horrible secondary effects, they are mostly viewed not as a weapon for use in war, but as an instrument of political pressure or deterrence. In this sense, the great powers consider nuclear weapons a very effective tool for ensuring their national security and interests. Naturally, under certain circumstances, non-nuclear countries may wish to obtain this kind of weapon as well. Nuclear deterrence always stimulates nuclear proliferation.

This relation also works in the opposite direction. Nuclear proliferation does not only broaden the ‘nuclear club,’ but it also regenerates nuclear deterrence as a model for military-political relations between countries. Even when political relations between certain countries change fundamentally and they cease to view each other as enemies (as Russia and the United States did after the end of the Cold War), their nuclear and other forces remain in a state of strategic deterrence. Eventually, they acquire new enemies and new targets as a result of the proliferation of nuclear armaments and their delivery vehicles. In turn, this factor may destabilize strategic relations between former enemies and cause them to place more emphasis on nuclear deterrence.

For example, in December 2001, the U.S. decided to build a National Missile Defense system in order to protect itself from states that may obtain nuclear missile armaments; Washington’s withdrawal from the 1972 ABM Treaty six months later forced Russia to increase its reliance on nuclear deterrence. Moscow extended the operational service life of its intercontinental ballistic missiles with multiple, independently targeted re-entry vehicles, and purchased several dozen such missiles from Ukraine’s stock as well. Furthermore, Russia was keenly sensitive about Washington’s program for developing small nuclear munitions, which, it claimed, were being developed to penetrate the underground bunkers of terrorists and ‘rogue nations.’ Russia perceived this program as a threat to its own strategic facilities, and one that would require that it restructure its command and control system and revise its approach to the deterrence of different types of threats.

 The vertical proliferation reached its peak in the late 1980s when the Soviet Union and the United States each possessed 10,000 to 12,000 nuclear warheads in their strategic forces. Coupled with their tactical nuclear arsenals, this figure reached 30,000 to 40,000 munitions in each of the states.

The horizontal proliferation has over the last 50 years covered nine countries (the U.S., the Soviet Union, Britain, France, China, Israel, South Africa, India and Pakistan). The collapse of the Soviet Union produced four new nuclear states (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan). Later, three of them turned their nuclear weapons over to Russia. Another four countries (South Africa, Brazil, Argentina and Iraq) made attempts to develop nuclear weapons of their own, but later gave up such attempts for one reason or another. Two countries (North Korea and Iran) are considered to be threshold states, i.e. those on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons. If they “cross the line” then it is possible – in a worst-case scenario – that many more countries may join the nuclear club in the subsequent 10 to 20 years (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia). Malaysia and Indonesia have also been displaying interest in the nuclear issue of late, while Iraq, Brazil, Argentina and some more countries may resume their nuclear programs.

Although nuclear deterrence and nuclear proliferation are closely interrelated, they are not equal factors in international security. In the Cold War years (since the late 1940s until the late 1980s) nuclear deterrence was in the center of the world’s attention. Everyone believed then that the most horrible hypothetical threat to the world was a global nuclear war between the two opposing blocs that would be set off by a deliberate attack from one of the belligerents (the late 1940s-early 1960s), or by an uncontrolled escalation of a regional crisis which would involve the great powers (since the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s).

After the end of the Cold War, the situation quickly changed. Nuclear deterrence, at least between Russia and the U.S., moved into the background. Although the two countries still preserved thousands of nuclear warheads, their nuclear stockpiles were decreasing and programs for their renovation were curtailed. Still more important was that Moscow and Washington ceased to be the main geopolitical rivals on the international scene and the probability of war erupting between them actually decreased to nil.

The threat of a nuclear showdown between the superpowers has given way to the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, as well as to the proliferation of missile technologies. Furthermore, an increasing number of non-nuclear states have since been developing nuclear and missile materials and technologies or are seeking to obtain them. The nuclear weapons of China, India and Pakistan (and the delivery vehicle capabilities of Britain and France) have been augmented in absolute figures and in relative proportions compared to the decreasing arsenals of the two largest nuclear powers.

The dialectics of nuclear deterrence and proliferation was reflected in the arms limitation and disarmament processes. The world’s major powers, fearing a nuclear war, sought to stabilize mutual deterrence; this striving created the prerequisites for agreements on nuclear arms limitation and reductions. Already at the initial stage of this process (after the conclusion of the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty), the great nations came to the conclusion that the main precondition for the limitation and reduction of their nuclear weapons was the termination of nuclear proliferation which, in turn, was made conditional in the NPT for nuclear disarmament.

The interrelation between ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ disarmament was legally sealed in the famous Article VI of the Treaty, according to which the nuclear states undertook to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race… and to nuclear disarmament.” Soon thereafter (in 1968) such negotiations really began. After the conclusion of the NPT in 1968, the great powers made headway in their dialog on nuclear weapons (the ABM Treaty, SALT-1 and SALT-2, the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles, START-1/2/3, etc.). However, during the same years, in the 1970s-80s, the two superpowers increased their nuclear arsenals five or six times over (even if we count only the number of warheads in their strategic forces). It was only in the 1990s that the nuclear arsenals began to be significantly reduced (by 50 percent under the START-1 Treaty). The limitation of nuclear armaments was viewed as a goal requiring much time and effort – figuratively speaking, as the central edifice of international security, while the NPT was regarded only as an extension onto this building. Right up to the early 1990s, the Treaty remained in the background of the great powers’ interaction on nuclear arms matters.

The end of the Cold War made the United States and eventually the other nuclear powers, including Russia, change their priorities. In the mid-1990s, the international security agenda focused on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles, the strengthening of the NPT regime, its institutions (IAEA) and additional agencies and mechanisms, the Missile Technology Control Regime, and export control measures. Despite great difficulties, the NPT signatories agreed in 1995 to extend the Treaty for an indefinite time. In 1996, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed, which was viewed not only as a measure of ‘vertical’ nuclear disarmament among the great powers but also as a parallel mechanism for strengthening the NPT regime, which would deny non-nuclear countries access, direct or indirect (for example, following India’s nuclear test in 1974), into the nuclear club. In 1997, the Additional Protocol to the NPT was signed, which has extended the IAEA’s right to inspect suspicious facilities in non-nuclear countries.

The horrible tragedies in New York and Washington on the morning of September 11, 2001, showed to the whole world a glimpse of the worst-possible proliferation scenario, in which nuclear weapons would fall into the hands of international terrorists who would use them to plunge the entire civilized world into shock and chaos. It seems unquestionable that further WMD proliferation and the danger of its merger with international terrorism (so called super terrorism or catastrophic terrorism) will continue to be a priority issue in Russian-U.S. relations, as well as in the cooperative efforts of the nuclear powers and nuclear suppliers, in UN activities, and in the practice of using force in international policies.

However, so far the policies of the great powers in these fields have been creating more problems than solutions, in other words, they are subscribing a ‘remedy’ that is worse than the disease itself. As has been mentioned above, the nuclear states’ policy was inconsistent and lacking coordination in their nuclear supplies and general political line toward ‘illegitimate’ nuclear and threshold countries. Equally problematic are Moscow’s and Washington’s positions on military nuclear programs and negotiations on the limitation and reduction of these weapons.

However, the point is not that the great powers do not formally fulfill their obligations stemming from Article VI of the NPT, which is devoted to nuclear disarmament. Contrary to popular belief, during the 1990s the U.S., Russia, Britain and France cut the number of nuclear warheads in their strategic nuclear forces by more than 50 percent, and considering reductions in their tactical nuclear forces, the nuclear arsenals of the four countries decreased by five times. The problem is that, although the great powers have been withdrawing outdated nuclear armaments from service en masse, they continue modernizing their nuclear weapons and have assigned a greater role to these weapons in their military doctrines, placing emphasis on weapon systems that are intended for real combat employment.

Despite Washington’s repeated official declarations that Russia and the United States are no longer enemies, its effective operational plans and targets on the Russian territory for nuclear attacks have actually remained unchanged, and it continues to add an increasing number of facilities to its list of targets in China and other countries. This factor sets clear boundaries on the prospects for the elimination of nuclear weapons. This is why Washington has declined to reduce its strategic nuclear forces further than 2,000 warheads (plus 1,500 warheads kept in storage). Moreover, the U.S. is developing new low-yield nuclear munitions, allegedly for destroying underground targets, storage facilities and bunkers of terrorists and ‘rogue nations.’ To this end, Washington is making preparations for a possible resumption of nuclear tests in Nevada.

Today, there is a distinct difference from the official Soviet propaganda of the Cold War times, which called for nuclear disarmament. Today, in democratic Russia, which is building a market economy according to the Western model and attracting large-scale foreign investment, the maintenance of nuclear weapons targeted, above all, on the West, enjoys the unanimous public support of the government, the political and strategic elites and the entire nation. Moreover, in contrast to the Soviet Union’s 1982 declaration that Moscow would never be the first to use nuclear weapons, the cornerstone of Russia’s present military doctrine is the principle of first use of nuclear weapons in extraordinary circumstances. Russia has adopted programs for the ‘balanced’ modernization of all the components of its strategic triad, and will not listen to proposals for negotiating on tactical nuclear armaments; it seems like Russia is planning their extended renovation.

Obviously, the U.S., Russia, Britain and France firmly intend to maintain powerful and effective nuclear forces for the foreseeable future, while China, which began from a lower level, has been steadily increasing its strategic potential.

Still more worrying is the state of the proliferation regime and the process of limitation and reduction of nuclear weapons. This structure, built with so much difficulty for almost 40 years, is now being quickly dismantled; on the other hand, the system of mutual nuclear deterrence is not only being perpetuated but will probably grow increasingly unstable and unpredictable in the future.

In May 2002, the United States officially withdrew from the 1972 ABM Treaty which had been the cornerstone of central nuclear disarmament for the past 30 years. Instead, Russia and the U.S. signed a general document for cooperation in building a strategic antimissile system, which has never been translated into life. The ABM Treaty died together with the START-2 Treaty and the framework agreement on START-3. These were replaced by the Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions, signed in Moscow in 2002, which binds the two countries to cut the number of their warheads to 1,700-2,200 within ten years (this was the number of warheads the parties had before the beginning of the SALT negotiations in the late 1960s). However, this treaty is rather an agreement of intent, since it does not stipulate any rules for counting warheads, nor a reduction schedule, arms elimination procedures or a verification mechanism.

The attitude to nuclear disarmament has changed dramatically. Formerly, nuclear nonproliferation was viewed only as a condition for central nuclear disarmament (along with transparency measures, a nuclear test ban, non-deployment of weapons in outer space, reductions in conventional armed forces, etc.). Now nuclear disarmament is often seen as ‘romanticism’ from the Cold War times. The U.S. has actually given up the idea of disarmament and refused to discuss further measures to cut strategic nuclear forces after the 2002 Moscow Treaty has been implemented. Washington has waived the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and claims its right to the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons, including the ‘clean’ sub-kiloton warheads it is developing for destroying fortified bunkers deep underground. The U.S. is speeding up its program for building a strategic and a tactical ABM system and is making much effort to develop space weapons. Russia is following suit – after loud protests – with reservations and serious disagreements at the official political and military levels.

In the eyes of some non-nuclear states this policy of the great powers only confirms the necessity and indispensability of nuclear weapons, thus boosting nuclear proliferation. Of course, contrary to the logic of Article VI of the NPT, the interrelation between vertical and horizontal proliferation is not a “two-way street,” and even active nuclear disarmament measures by the great powers do not guarantee the termination of proliferation. Central nuclear disarmament does not make unnecessary serious efforts in the field of nonproliferation. However, at the same time, it is absolutely obvious that an opposite military-nuclear policy of the great powers undermines the prospects for a nonproliferation regime.

Apart from reductions in nuclear weapons, this refers, above all, to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty which could become a mechanism for co-opting ‘illegitimate’ nuclear states – India, Pakistan and Israel – into the NPT regime. Then joint international pressure on other threshold countries would force them to join the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and thus deny them the most impressive and unambiguous way to obtain nuclear status.

In this context, the initiative to implement small nuclear munitions against ‘rogue nations’ and terrorists seems rather absurd. If an underground bunker has been located (which is a prerequisite for using small nuclear munitions), it can be destroyed with precision-guided or high-yield conventional weapons, or by a special task force – especially if the great powers cooperate and have approval of the UN Security Council. Furthermore, radioactive contamination of a given area can be avoided only if a nuclear munition (even if its yield does not exceed 0.2-0.5 kilotons) penetrates the earth to a depth of about 200 meters, which does not seem technically possible. Otherwise, the radioactive contamination from the employment of such nuclear weapons would far outweigh the dubious results of such an action, to say nothing of the political and humanitarian fallout. Suffice it to recall the scandals over the employment of uranium-core munitions in Yugoslavia and Iraq.

As the situation stands, further nuclear proliferation is highly probable. The danger of this process is not only an increased probability for the employment of nuclear weapons as the number of conflicting nuclear states grows. The problem is more serious: a majority of the new nuclear states will not have highly-survivable delivery vehicles, reliable attack warning systems and command and control systems; the political situation in these countries often is unstable; and there is a high probability of civil wars and coups in these regions. The risk of a first or pre-emptive strike and the employment of nuclear weapons by those states is much higher.

The chances that nuclear materials or munitions from these countries will voluntarily or involuntarily fall into the hands of terrorist organizations will rise dramatically due to the peculiarities of their foreign policies and political situations. There exists a high level of corruption in their civilian and military organizations, while the security services and facilities for guarding and controlling nuclear munitions and materials remain unreliable and unprofessional.

There are enough grounds to say that the next stage in the proliferation process will not simply entail an exponential growth in the threat of nuclear weapon employment, but will make this employment in the foreseeable future inevitable as many risk factors will overlap.


The dialectics of nuclear deterrence and proliferation is well in line with Hegel’s classical laws. Initially, nuclear deterrence (as a policy of indirect employment of nuclear weapons for political purposes) gave rise to proliferation, as more and more countries sought to use the fruits of deterrence for serving their own interests. However, as an increasing number of countries obtained nuclear weapons, deterrence grew vague, unstable and contradictory. This tendency was explained by the increased versatility and inherent paradoxical qualities of deterrence. These are the ambiguity with regard to the possibility of the first use of nuclear weapons, and the dubious rationality of some of the fundamental premises within the concept of deterrence.

The final stage of proliferation – access to nuclear weapons by non-state entities (terrorist organizations) – will put an end, once and for all, to nuclear deterrence as a doctrine for protecting one’s national security. Terrorists need nuclear weapons not for the purpose of deterrence, but for direct employment, as well as blackmailing states or the entire civilized world.

In turn, nuclear deterrence is futile against terrorists, as terrorists have no territory, industries, population or a regular army that might be targets for retaliation.

Deterrence (the threat of retaliation) in combating catastrophic terrorism can be effective only against countries supporting terrorism and providing terrorists with a safe harbor. However, few countries would openly support terrorists possessing nuclear weapons. Besides, a nuclear strike against any state, even a ‘rogue nation,’ would be too strong a “remedy,” considering its consequences and the political shock it would create around the world – if the corpus delicti is not absolutely obvious. Very indicative in this respect was the international community’s reaction to the poorly-grounded U.S. operation in Iraq in 2003, although it involved only conventional forces and caused minimum collateral and material damage.

Efforts to combat nuclear terrorism mostly require special operations and intelligence in order to hunt down and neutralize terrorist leaders, organizers and ideologists, as well as to destroy their material and financial infrastructures. Additionally, there is the need to protect the many nuclear power engineering facilities, as well as these facilities for storing nuclear munitions and materials. Finally, and most importantly, there is the need for strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime. The key role in these efforts must be the high level of cooperation between the great powers and regional countries participating in the antiterrorist efforts. But if the great powers resort to a nuclear threat, let alone employ nuclear weapons, that would be a disservice to this cooperation.

Attempts to defend oneself against proliferation and terrorism by taking unilateral military actions, like those taken by the U.S. which may be followed by other leading nations, undermine the foundations of the relations of stable mutual deterrence between the great powers, as well as the arms limitation and disarmament regimes. The destruction of these vital regimes will destroy the NPT – the pillar of the nonproliferation mechanisms.

In order to avoid such developments, the U.S., Russia and other great powers must correct the historical mistake of the last decade with regard to the limitation of nuclear armaments. It is not enough to cease to be enemies to abolish mutual nuclear deterrence as a basis for strategic mutual relations – these countries must become full-fledged military-political allies. If this is possible, they must quickly and in coordination reduce their nuclear armaments of all types to the lowest possible levels (several hundred warheads for each country) and build joint antimissile and air defense systems, command and control systems, informational support systems, rapid deployment forces, and so on.

If these measures are impossible for political reasons, then they should return to strong treaties which call for verifiable reductions and limitation of the strategic nuclear forces (initially to no more than 1,000 warheads) and tactical nuclear weapons (for example, they could be stored on their national territories); agree on new limitations on the development of antimissile defense systems (which would guarantee their employment against “illegitimate” nuclear states, rather than against each other); develop technical cooperation in developing theater antimissile systems and in harmonizing their monitoring and missile attack warning systems.

But the countries must not remain poised in midair: neither enemies nor allies; neither deterrence nor something substituting for it; neither treaty-based arms limitation nor an arms race. Apart from building mutual confidence and certainty, the strengthening of central strategic stability would facilitate cooperation between the great powers in other security fields, and, most importantly, in nonproliferation. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty must be put into effect immediately as it is the main point of intersection between central and horizontal nuclear disarmament.

Serious efforts should be made to strengthen the NPT regime. For example, non-nuclear parties to the Treaty and all nuclear importers, even those beyond the NPT framework, must be made bound to join the 1997 Protocol. Recipient countries must no longer be sold technologies for enriching uranium and recycling spent fuel for extracting plutonium. Simultaneously, they must be given guarantees for the supply of nuclear fuel and for the removal or safe storage of spent fuel from nuclear power plants. The existing elements of the nuclear cycle in the non-nuclear countries must be mothballed and later dismantled; it will be necessary for these countries to be paid adequate compensation for this. More rigid international control must be established over research nuclear reactors, the supply of nuclear materials for research purposes, their storage, and reports on available stocks and any shipment. In turn, the great powers must stop producing and building up reserves of weapon-grade plutonium and place respective production and storing facilities under IAEA control.

More effective efforts must be made to regulate the competition between the main supplier countries with regard to their export policies. These countries should pool efforts in new export projects in order to allay mutual mistrust and to turn the nuclear market into an exporters’ rather than consumers’ market. The activities of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and the Zangger Committee must be formalized in binding agreements which would provide for verification mechanisms and sanctions for violations (these agreements may borrow from, for example, the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons). Another important issue on the agenda is working out a legitimate common strategy, methods and means for counter-proliferation (including the interception of illegal nuclear supplies) and for combating international terrorism and regimes supporting it covertly or overtly.

Finally, the complex political problems and conflicts between the main nuclear exporters must be resolved. In particular, new guarantees must be worked out for the external security and economic encouragement of some countries in exchange for their giving up nuclear weapons, even if these countries are not attractive politically. It must be clearly understood that the nonproliferation strategy pursues the very specific goal of combating the nuclear threat, rather than planting democracy and prosperity everywhere. The latter goal requires an absolutely different amount of effort and time.

There is no denying that at present the above proposals look utopia, at best, or high-sounding nonsense, at worst. There are few grounds for optimism, since the actions of the great powers, nuclear exporters and importers often conflict. And still, there is yet hope that the strongest states, with the support of the entire international community, will adopt a new system for organizing nuclear security without being forced to do that by the shock of the first real employment of the ‘Judgement Day weapon’ since August 1945.

Last updated 13 april 2004, 19:25

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