Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine –
Can the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Survive?
By Dr. Oscar L. Ware
The world woke up on February 24, 2022, to the news of Russian military forces moving into Ukraine under the guise of protecting dual Russian-Ukrainian nationalist interest. This left the rest of the world, most notably former nuclear weapons states (NWS) and those that fall under the security umbrella of an NWS wondering - how might this invasion affect them. The Russian military’s early strategy has perplexed many experts and observers, and in smaller circles - was predicted. Unfortunately, the more protracted this war, the more barbaric and political it has become. This military action was preceded by Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in March 2014.
The annexation of Crimea garnered global condemnation; however, there appeared to be a lack luster response from Western nations to include the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) states. And many view NATO’s response as Kabuki Theater as it continues to pretend a negotiated peace which will restore Ukrainian borders to pre-invasion is possible. Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, after the country’s Kremlin-friendly president was driven from power by mass protests and subsequently threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency that broke out in Ukraine’s east, and those borders have yet to be restored.1
The notion of national sovereignty is well established in international law, and the reality that international relations are built around power and self-interest is not new. Critically examining this phenomenon might be vital to understanding the sequence of events and finding a peaceful resolution to this conflict. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 90’s, Russian leaders watched with mounting resentment as the NATO alliance nearly doubled its membership as several former Soviet states sought political self-determination and the reorientation of the region’s security structure. Moscow was relegated to spectator as it witnessed the Czech Republic, Hungry, and Poland in 1999, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia in 2004, Albania and Croatia in 2009, and Montenegro in 2017, and North Macedonia in 2020,all seek and be granted membership into NATO.2
Since becoming President in 1999, Vladimir Putin has consistently voiced concern over this eastward expansion and informed the international community he was drawing a red line in Ukraine - which voiced aspirations of joining NATO. Also, in the context of the current crisis, Moscow watched as NATO carried out an aerial bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999 during the Kosovo war.3 Serbia was a Russian ally.
No matter how nuanced the discussion, Russia’s sensitivities over NATO’s expansion eastward were well known internationally. In 2021, Putin indicated that he viewed NATO's eastward expansion as a threat to Russia’s core security interests. He expressed concern that NATO could eventually use the Ukrainian territory to deploy missiles capable of reaching Moscow in just five minutes; however, it appears this warning fell on deaf ears.
Only one country has used nuclear weapons in armed conflict; the United States, which dropped two nuclear bombs (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) during WWII against Japanese interest. Although, these events led to the cessation of war, it did give rise to a nuclear arms race and served as the catalyst for the signing of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968. This arms race led to 10 states developing and possessing nuclear weapons: the United States, China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom the original five-nuclear weapons states as outlined in the NPT, and Pakistan, India, Israel, North Korea, and South Africa.
Today, eight of these states acknowledge that nuclear weapons play a role in their national defense policies. Each of these states, China, France, India, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, has conveyed through official statements and documents a certain declaratory nuclear policy, detailing the conditions under which they might use these weapons. And Israel has not publicly acknowledged that it possesses nuclear weapons but is widely considered a nuclear state.
Before the anticipated changeover to a majority-elected African National Congress–led government in the 1990s, the South African government dismantled all of its nuclear weapons, becoming the first state in the world which voluntarily gave up all its nuclear arms developed by itself. In February 2019, South Africa ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, becoming the first country to have had nuclear weapons, disarmed them and gone on to sign the treaty. As of 2019, South Africa still possessed most of the weapons grade uranium extracted from its nuclear weapons, and has used some of it to produce medical grade isotopes.4
Of these states, two maintain a fragile cease-fire today - Pakistan and India. However, Pakistan refuses to adopt a "no-first-use" (NFU) doctrine, indicating that it would strike India with nuclear weapons even if India did not use such weapons first. China and India have developed a no first use doctrine; however, India maintains a declared NFU posture, with exceptions for chemical and biological weapons attacks.5
According to the United Kingdom Ministry of Defense’s 2010–2015 policy paper on the country’s nuclear deterrent, the United Kingdom maintains an ambiguous nuclear posture that does “not rule in or out the first use of nuclear weapons,”.6 Russia specifies two conditions under which it would use nuclear weapons. The first is unsurprising: “The Russian Federation retains the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear weapons and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies.7
France has maintained a first-use nuclear posture since it first developed and tested nuclear weapons during the Cold War. France’s posture emerged from its Cold War era fears of abandonment by the United States, which led to the country’s withdrawal from NATO in 1966, and subsequently rejoining in 2009.8
North Korea has not ruled out a nuclear first use to deter a preemptive strike or invasion by the United States and its allies. If the country were to detect an imminent U.S. or allied attack, it would use nuclear weapons on military installations in East Asia and in Guam. Then there’s Israel which has made no authoritative declarations on how it would use nuclear weapons. In the late 1960s, Prime Minister Golda Meir and President Richard Nixon came to an understanding, with the assurances that Israel would “not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East” but that it would also “not be the second to introduce this weapon.”9
Other countries who have had the capability to develop nuclear weapons have chosen to abstain based on assurances from nuclear weapons states which include, access to nuclear technology for energy, medical development and research, security protections should they be attacked, and that all nuclear weapons states (NWS) would limit the access of violent extremist organizations to nuclear materials and technologies. These assurances are being challenged as recent events in Ukraine have raised concerns amongst non-nuclear states concerning their security guarantees.
This cautionary tale is viewed from the events surrounding NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya, which helped tip the civil war against now - deceased Colonel Muammar Gaddafi who gave up his country’s nuclear weapons program. And following the breakup of the Soviet Union, thousands of nuclear arms were left on Ukrainian soil by Moscow; however, in the years that followed, the Ukrainian government made the decision to completely denuclearize, and subsequently were invaded twice by Russia (2014 & 2022). Surely the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum especially but also the international community more broadly, has made Ukrainian President Zalinski doubt in the rightness of his government’s decision.
No doubt these events are guiding North Korea’s Kim Jong-un’s calculated thinking, who in April 2022, warned he could preemptively use nuclear weapons if threatened. According to North Korea’s official Central News Agency, Kim Jong-un intimated that he has a “firm will” to continue developing his nuclear arsenal so that it could “preemptively and thoroughly contain and frustrate all dangerous attempts and threatening moves, including ever-escalating nuclear threats from hostile forces if necessary”.10
Taiwan pursued several weapons of mass destruction programs from 1949 to the late 1980s. Their final secret nuclear weapons program was shut down in the late 1980s under U.S. pressure after completing all stages of weapons development besides final assembly and testing; they lacked an effective delivery mechanism. Chinese President Xi Jinping claims that there is only one China, and that Taiwan is a rogue province.11 This leads to a falsifiable hypothesis, framed through the lens of Taiwan having maintained its nuclear weapons program, would China seek such an aggressive approach, or would it be measured as history demonstrates that no NWS has ever been attacked by another NWS. This seems like a classic David and Goliath story and reminds us of a not-so-distant past “Cold War”.
Since the mid-1990s, media reports have periodically alleged that Saudi Arabia is attempting to acquire nuclear weapons. Such rumors have spread in recent years amidst speculation that the Saudis would seek such armaments in reaction to Iran developing a nuclear arsenal.12 Many in the West tend to refer to security considerations as the primary motivators which drive Saudi Arabia's interest in procuring nuclear weapons. In recent months, Saudi officials have hinted at the desirability of possessing nuclear weapons to counter the nuclear ambitions of regional rival Iran. No doubt, if Saudi Arabia gets nuclear weapons, countries like Turkey, Egypt and Iran will see the need to avert a first strike scenario.
This does not tell the complete story of why the international community finds it necessary to debate the “What if scenario” of Russia’s use of Chemical, Biological and/or nuclear weapons. But it does raise concerns as to how smaller states view the protections nuclear weapons provide and might seek them after viewing the hesitancy of Western intervention in Ukraine. China’s quest to surpass the U.S. globally could be one of the largest shifts in geopolitical power the world has ever seen. Unfortunately, China has shown they are willing to exploit the social global contracts built around human rights. China, Russia, and North Korea all give the international community much to worry about these days as other notable hostile nations (Yemen, Libya, Algeria, and Syria) evaluate their risks based on Western responses to the situation in Ukraine. Military build-ups, the proliferation and use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), human rights abuses, intellectual espionage, the stifling of Hong Kong’s democracy movement and recent threats against the sovereignty of Taiwan all provide for similar cautionary tales to arise.
A war with either Russia or China over human rights is not likely; however, the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces places U.S. credibility and security concerns in the fore front as allies grappled with a need to do something substantial to curtail hostilities for the second time, as sanctions appear to be ineffective in charting a new path. The inability of the international community to effectively end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provides other despot leader encouragement and confidence of their survivability if they were to be seen as a nuclear weapons state. Which for all intense-and-purpose is the predominate reason Western nations and NATO has not responded with direct force – in not wanting to provoke a nuclear war in Europe. This calls into question the effectiveness of the NPT, whose objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament.13 More countries have ratified the NPT than any other arms limitation and disarmament agreement, a testament to the Treaty’s significance.
The collapse of the NPT could have a tsunami affect for U.S. and Russian relations, European security, and nonproliferation efforts around the globe to include space. The treaty’s collapse will diminish European security and raises the prospect of the region returning to the hair-trigger instability of the 1980s, and the possibility that Violent Extremist Organizations (VEO) and despots would seek to exploit security shortfalls in their quest to obtain fissionable material.
With the hesitancy and space Russia has been afforded in its invasion of Ukraine, how do you convince others of the utility of the NPT and its safeguards? Unfortunately, a new round of nuclear weapons competition is already well underway, driven by the fast-paced technology revolution, rising U.S.-Russia tensions over Ukraine, and China’s military modernization and North Korea’s saber rattling. A successful attempt by terrorists to purchase or hijack nuclear material or weapons is the ultimate nightmare of nuclear proliferation.
The United States should vigilantly pursue bilateral discussions with both Russia and China to decrease the probability of a miscalculation over Ukraine. These talks should also address the destabilizing impact of advanced technologies, North Korea, and emerging despots that may seek the protections nuclear weapons appears to provide.
- Isachenkov, V. (2022) The Story behind Ukraine’s separatist regions. Associated Press. Ukraine separatist regions: The story behind the rebel-controlled areas | AP News
- NATO, (2020). NATO on the Map. NATO - Member countries
- Glucroft, W.N, (2022). NATO: Why Russia has a problem with its eastward expansion. Europe | News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 23.
- Birch, D. (2015). U.S. unease about nuclear weapons fuel takes aim at a South Africa vault. The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/us-unease-about-nuclear-weapons-fuel-takes-aim-at-a-south-african-vault/2015/03/13/b17389f6-2bc1-4515-962d-03c655d0e62d_story.html
- Pant, H. (2020). Is India Overturning Decades of Nuclear Doctrine? Foreign Policy. India Has Good Reason to Give Up Its No-First-Strike Nuclear Doctrine. But the State of Its Arsenal Suggests That It Won’t. (foreignpolicy.com)
- Minister of Defense, (2015). Policy Paper: 2010 to 2015 government policy: UK nuclear deterrent. 2010 to 2015 government policy: UK nuclear deterrent - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
- Holloway, D. (2022). Read the fine print: Russia’s nuclear weapon use policy. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist. (thebulletin.org)
- Norlain, B & Finaud, M. (2022). Why France still Rejects No-First Use. No first use global. NoFhttps://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/us-unease-about-nuclear-weapons-fuel-takes-aim-at-a-south-african-vault/2015/03/13/b17389f6-2bc1-4515-962d-03c655d0e62d_
- Panda, A. (2018). No First Use’ and Nuclear Weapons. Council on Foreign Relations. ‘No First Use’ and Nuclear Weapons. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/us-unease-about-nuclear-weapons-fuel-takes-aim-at-a-south-african-vault/2015/03/13/b17389f6-2bc1-4515-962d-03c655d0e62d_story.htmlapons |
- Vincent, I. (2022). North Korean leader vows to use nuclear weapons if threatened. New York Post. North Korean leader vows to use nuclear weapons if threatened (nypost.com)
- Legg, M. (2021). Why does China want to invade Taiwan? Denison Forum News. Why does China want to invade Taiwan? (denisonforum.org)
- Amlin, K. (2008). Will Saudi Arabia Acquire Nuclear Weapons. The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/us-unease-about-nuclear-weapons-fuel-takes-aim-at-a-south-african-vault/2015/03/13/b17389f6-2bc1-4515-962d-03c655d0e62d_story.htmlapons? Studies.
- United Nations. Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/us-unease-about-nuclear-weapons-fuel-takes-aim-at-a-south-african-vault/2015/03/13/b17389f6-2bc1-4515-962d-03c655d0e62d_story.htmlons (NPT).