Jump to: Russia’s Nuclear Relationship ~ Russia and Ukraine ~ Nuclear Disarmament as Confidence Building ~ Global Cooperation

Nuclear Relationship

Jump to: Security ~ Historical Positions ~ OSCE ~ a New NATO

Russia’s sense of security

The United States has not yet learned the important lesson that no country can be secure unless its potential adversaries are also secure. As long as the US – and many other countries – insist on building their own sense of security by creating a sense of insecurity in other countries, they cannot themselves be secure. Russia needs to feel secure from possible attack or invasion from the US or NATO just as much as NATO countries and the US need to feel secure from possible attack or invasion from Russia.

This is not about being “pro-Russian” or “soft” on President Putin. This is just the reality of the world we live in. Russia is a country of 150 million people. In terms of land mass, it is by far the largest country in the world, stretching from the Pacific to the Baltic across 11 time zones. There are 26 official languages spoken in Russia and another 100 or more so-called  “minority” languages.[1]

And however much we may disagree with, disapprove of, or even loathe Vladimir Putin, what he does, or what he stands for, the reality is that he is hugely popular in his own country. He’s far more popular than previous Russian leaders, and by all accounts, more popular in Russia than Presidents Biden or Trump have been in the United States.[2] And although many in the West have criticized Russian elections as undemocratic and a sham, numerous opinion polls, including those conducted by skeptical western academics, show that Putin’s electoral victories are closely aligned with his polling popularity.[3]

What would it take for Russia to feel secure without its nuclear weapons? Nothing less than a new security architecture that protects them from the US/NATO.

 Historical positions

During the Cold War, the Soviets seemed far more in favor of abolishing nuclear weapons than Russia is now. At the time, many in the West just took that to be Soviet propaganda, a way to divide the West over the issue of nuclear weapons. However, it is now clear from the archives and history books that the Soviet Union developed nuclear weapons to keep up with the US and to prove they were a “superpower.”[4] It was hugely expensive to the Soviet economy and some believe that the pressure to keep up in the nuclear arms race led to the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, which was unable to pay the price of nuclear expansion at the same time as giving their people a rising standard of living.[5]

Until the 1980s, the US also had a massive superiority in nuclear weaponry, which meant the Soviets were still vulnerable to US nuclear weapons, even with their own growing arsenal. At such a disadvantage, it had every reason at that time to prefer the elimination of these weapons.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was twice the size and strength of the Russian Federation today.[6] Together with its Warsaw Pact allies, it had a considerable non-nuclear military advantage over NATO, including over US conventional forces, with twice the number of military divisions, three times the number of tanks, and four times the amount of artillery.[7] The fear that NATO could easily be overwhelmed in a surprise Soviet attack with conventional weapons served as the main justification for stationing US nuclear weapons in Europe.

Now the tables have turned. Russia is half the size it once was, and the Warsaw Pact has dissolved. NATO is greatly enlarged and now has vastly more conventional forces than Russia does. NATO now has three times the military forces of Russia, three times the number of ships, five times the number of military aircraft, and six times the number of armored vehicles.[8] Now it is Russia that feels that without its nuclear weapons, it could be easily overwhelmed by a surprise attack from NATO.

What about the OSCE?

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) grew out of the Helsinki Final Act, which officially ended World War II.[9] It is recognized by the UN as a “regional arrangement” for collective security under Article VIII of the UN Charter. Unlike NATO, the OSCE includes all the countries of Europe and North America, including Russia and many neutral countries that are not part of NATO (including Ireland, Austria, Switzerland, etc.). Unlike NATO, the OSCE is not primarily a military organization, although it has access to military personnel of its member states for some of its peacekeeping operations. And unlike NATO, the OSCE’s primary goal is to ensure the security of Europe by all available means—not just military means.

The OSCE is therefore involved in election monitoring to ensure free and fair elections in all its member states. It is involved in human rights monitoring to ensure human rights are respected in all its member states. It is involved in ceasefire monitoring to ensure ceasefires and peace agreements are upheld by all the parties.

The OSCE had been effectively monitoring the situation in eastern Ukraine for 8 years until the Russian invasion meant they had to evacuate. The OSCE had similarly been very effectively monitoring the situation in Kosovo prior to the US bombing and NATO military intervention there which forced them to evacuate back in 1999. So, the OSCE is accustomed to being pushed out in favor of military intervention. This time, however, it has led to a deep crisis within the OSCE, as many of its members are now actively supporting Ukraine in its war against the Russian invaders.

It’s in doubt, therefore, whether the OSCE can play a constructive role in ending the war in Ukraine at this point, but it’s not impossible. The real question is whether the OSCE can again play a collective security role for the whole of Europe. Clearly it was not effective enough to prevent the Russian invasion of Ukraine nor to prevent the NATO intervention in Kosovo. Something much stronger than the OSCE as presently constituted seems to be needed to keep the peace in Europe.

A new NATO including Russia?

The entire UN system enshrines the concept of “collective security,” meaning that the whole world is collectively responsible for maintaining peace and security of all countries, and for restoring it should any breach of the peace occur.

By contrast, NATO is defined as a “collective defense” organization, meaning that its members agree to come to the defense of another country in the alliance if it is attacked. In UN parlance, collective defense is an extension of the national right to self-defense, which is itself strictly limited under the UN charter.[10]

Here is one alternative that could form the basis for a new security architecture for Europe: a NATO that incorporates Russia rather than being a defensive alliance against Russia.

The deep-seated suspicion and hostility by existing NATO members toward Russia would make such a transformation difficult, but not impossible. After all, it was only ten years after the Second World War that the US, UK, France, and others who had fought not one but two world wars against Germany invited their former enemy to be part of NATO in 1955.

It would require NATO becoming a true collective security organization as opposed to a collective defense organization. That could mean taking on many if not all of the many important roles played by the OSCE up to now. It could also mean re-defining NATO’s concept of security as well as its concept of self-defense, which in any case is not in line with the UN’s concept as defined in Article 51 of the UN Charter.[11]

Whatever the future security architecture of Europe becomes, what it cannot be is a large military alliance lined up against a single country, no matter how big that country is. That has been a recipe for trouble that many identified long before 2022.[12] However the war in Ukraine ends, that problem will remain as long as Russia feels threatened by NATO.

[1] Wikipedia contributors. (2019, May 22). Languages of Russia. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia; Wikimedia Foundation.

[2] Frye, T., et al. (2015). Is Putin’s popularity real? Post-Soviet Affairs33(1), 1–15.

[3] Frye, T., et al. (2015). Is Putin’s popularity real? Post-Soviet Affairs33(1), 8.

[4] Holloway, D. (1981). Entering the Nuclear Arms Race: The Soviet Decision to Build the Atomic Bomb, 1939-45. Social Studies of Science11(2), 159–197.

[5] See Jeannerot, A. (2014). The Quiet Collapse of the Soviet Union. E-International Relations, 1–6.

[6] See Véron, N. (2022, April 8). Putin’s Russia is a minnow compared to the Cold War Soviet Bloc. Bruegel

[7] NATO Information Service. (1984). NATO and the Warsaw Pact: Force Comparisons.

[8] Statista. (2023). NATO Russia military comparison 2023. Statista.

[9] See OSCE. (n.d.). History.

[10] Article 51 of the UN Charter only allows for self-defense only “if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”

[11]  See ongoing discussion, for instance, in Delahunty, Robert (2007), “Paper Charter: Self-Defense and the Failure of the UN Collective Security System,” Catholic University Law Review, 56:3:

[12] See McCogwire, M. (1998). NATO Expansion: “A Policy Error of Historic Importance.” Review of International Studies, 24(1), 23–42.

Russia and Ukraine

As things stand right now, near the end of 2023, there can be no doubt that the war in Ukraine makes progress on both climate and nuclear disarmament very much more difficult. The US government and those of its NATO allies in Europe now see Russia as an implacable enemy who cannot be negotiated with but must be defeated on the battlefields of Ukraine.

This was of course also the case during decades of the Cold War, when Soviet Russia was the number one “enemy” of the US, even when the US was fighting in Korea or Vietnam, or supporting guerrilla fighters in Mozambique, Angola, Nicaragua, El Salvador or Cuba.

And yet, even at the height of the Cold War, the US was willing to sit down with the Soviets and negotiate at a time when a misunderstanding or miscommunication could have otherwise led to World War III. President Kennedy negotiated his way out of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, with the help of Bobby Kennedy.[1] Then he successfully negotiated an end to above-ground nuclear testing with Premier Khrushchev himself.

President Johnson negotiated the Non-Proliferation Treaty together with the Soviets. President Nixon negotiated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) with General Secretary Brezhnev. President Reagan famously negotiated with President Gorbachev, almost to the point of eliminating all nuclear weapons.[2] All of this took place at a time when Soviet Russia was the self-declared enemy #1 of the United States, and there were the hot wars raging that both the US and the Soviets were fighting by proxy.

In 1968, just a few weeks after the US and the USSR signed the NPT, Russia and the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia. They quickly withdrew, but the invasion put an end to the liberal reforms that were underway in Czechoslovakia and created a major jolt to the peace-loving world of the 1960s. 

Mapping the War in Ukraine[3]

Ukraine War: Nov 13, 2022 Russian troops invaded Ukraine from the north, south and east on Feb 24, 2022. Western military analysts assumed Russia was initially seeking to invade and occupy the capital city, Kiev. But within days, Russian troops had pulled back from the north of the country and focused on the northeast around Karkiv and southeast around Kerson. By summer of 2022, Russia had established a land bridge between previously occupied Crimea and the Donbass region. In September, Russian troops withdrew from the Karkiv region in the northeast and in November from the west side of the Dnipro River in the southwest.

Ukraine War: March 30, 2023 After a grueling winter, Ukrainian armed forces prepared for a spring offensive to regain lost territory. By this time, the US and other NATO allies had contributed nearly $50 billion in military aid to Ukraine and promised advanced battle tanks, fighter jets, artillery and missiles to support the war. But the battle lines drawn in November 2022 have remained more or less the same.

Ukraine War: September 29, 2023 Apart from conquering a few isolated villages, Ukraine’s spring offensive and 6 more months of fighting did not change the map in any recognizable way.  Battle lines are more or less as they were almost one year ago on November 13, 2022.

Possible outcomes to the Ukraine War

There are three possible outcomes to the Ukraine War:

(1) A military stalemate, like the one that existed between Ukraine and Ukraine separatists in the Donbass region from 2014-2022. This is not so much an outcome as a non-outcome. In other words, the war just drags on indefinitely with no clear winner or loser, but also no agreement to stop fighting. There are many on-going, “low-level” wars[4] in the world today that fit into this category, including wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh,[5] between Georgia and South Ossetia, the war in the Western Sahara, and so on.

(2) A military stalemate that leads to some kind of a ceasefire agreement. With a ceasefire, at least the fighting officially stops even though there is no peace agreement to settle the issues being fought over. For a ceasefire to stick, there would almost certainly have to be a peacekeeping force put in place between the two armies. This could be an OSCE operation, since both Russia and Ukraine are members of the OSCE.[6] However, almost all member states of the OSCE are siding with Ukraine over this war, so it would be difficult for Russia to accept such a force as being neutral.

Instead, it could be a UN operation involving peacekeeping troops from neutral countries in, say, Africa and Latin America. This would have the advantage of being perceived by all sides as truly neutral and fair, but might be too much for the Ukrainians or the Russians to swallow.

 (3) One side prevails and the other capitulates. This is by far the least likely of the three options, because the US and NATO are too invested in Ukraine now to let it be defeated on the battlefield,[7] and Russia is too invested to withdraw. If Ukraine loses too many soldiers to be able to keep up the fight, neighboring countries could start sending personnel along with the tanks and fighter jets they are already sending.

Even with all the money and modern weaponry pouring into Ukraine from the US and other NATO countries, and even with additional boots on the ground, Ukraine is unlikely to be able to defeat a former superpower with three times the size of its army and with vastly greater resources.[8] The idea that Ukraine will ever push Russia back to its internationally recognized borders, including out of Crimea, is fanciful at best.

Option 3 would not mean the defeat for one side or the other, but defeat for the entire world in a nuclear conflagration. If Russia were to press ahead and try to conquer the whole of Ukraine or even to destroy Kiev and decapitate the regime, would the US and the rest of NATO stand idly by? And if Ukraine were to push Russia out of eastern Ukraine and try to take back the whole of Crimea, would Russia stand idly by?

These are the nightmare scenarios that are still possible with Ukraine unless people wake up and come to their senses. There are numerous other scenarios that could lead to a major disaster of unknown proportions, including a meltdown at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power complex or indeed at one of the many other nuclear power plants in Ukraine.[9] The involvement of neighboring countries, including Belarus, in this war is another extremely dangerous unknown.

And of course there are other possible scenarios, but in terms of Russia, the most important takeaways from the Ukraine war are that (1) Russia values its own nuclear weapons very highly, has used them to try to “deter” the US and other countries from intervening, and clearly sees how dangerously precarious its own conventional forces are in relation to NATO’s. On the other hand, (2) Russia has not been able to use its nuclear weapons to gain advantage on the battlefield. And despite all the talk about Russia’s possible use of “tactical” nuclear weapons, this situation is unlikely to change.[10]

This second point is important, because ultimately the best way to eliminate nuclear weapons is for the countries possessing them to realize they are actually useless as weapons. Nuclear weapons can destroy whole cities, but wars are not won by destroying whole cities. They are won by destroying enemy forces that are spread out in tanks and trenches and bunkers and encampments. Nuclear weapons cannot destroy those things effectively without also destroying one’s own forces in the process.

[1] See Wallis (2022), Op. Cit.

[2] Weisberg, J. (2016, January 1). Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and disarmament. The Atlantic

[3] Microsoft product screenshot(s) reprinted with permission from Microsoft Corporation. Map Powered by Bing. ãGeoNames, Microsoft, TomTom

[4] Still devastating to the people trying to survive through those wars.

[5] This one may have just ended in September 2023, but it’s too early to know for sure.

[6] See: OSCE. (n.d.). Participating States. OSCE.

[7] There are signs that this could change, however, especially with world attention shifting to the Middle East.

[8] Russia’s current military forces and capacity for military production vastly outweighs that of Ukraine. Statista Research Department. (2023, February 8). Russia vs Ukraine military comparison 2023. Statista.

[9] See Roth, C., & Abbany, Z. (2023, June 6). Zaporizhzhia: What would happen if there was an accident? dw.com

[10] There has been a huge amount of unsubstantiated speculation about the possibility of Russia using so-called tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. The reality is that, apart from missiles designated for air defenses, the smallest nuclear warheads in the Russian arsenal are believed to be in the 10 Kt range, which is just slightly less than the destructive power of the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. See inventory: Kristensen, H. M., Korda, M., & Reynolds, E. (2023). Russian nuclear weapons, 2023. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists79(3), 175. If used in Ukraine, the civilian casualties would be extremely large and the radiation would almost certainly affect civilians in Russia as well in other countries across Europe.

Nuclear disarmament as confidence building

One of the most important roles played by the OSCE for the past several decades has been all that comes under the name of “confidence building measures,” or CBM.[1] These have been efforts to reduce tensions, open lines of communication and build trust between countries in Europe. They include notifying each other in advance of troop movements, missile tests and military exercises, so that no one is suddenly surprised and worried to see them happening. They include regular phone calls between military staff from different countries, meetings to discuss common issues, and inspections of each other’s military bases and command posts. They include exchanging sensitive information, reporting on new developments, and even personnel swaps to allow officials to witness how another country conducts its business.

Clearly there are limitations to how far some countries are willing to go in relation to others, and the currently high level of distrust between Russia and most other European countries makes CBM difficult.

However, as discussed in Chapter 10, numerous unilateral initiatives have proved extremely important in breaking through the logjam on nuclear weapons issues in the past. From a confidence-building perspective, the US signing the TPNW could conceivably motivate those within Russia who would want to reciprocate. It is not a sure thing that they would, but it would put Russia under a spotlight, and it would be bad for their international standing if they did not.

This is where the rest of the world comes into play. No country is an island unto itself, not even Russia. In fact, Russia has many allies, as we have seen with the US-imposed sanctions. Even US next-door neighbor Mexico does not go along with sanctions against Russia. NATO members Turkey and Hungary do not go along with the sanctions. And the majority of countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia have remained “neutral” regarding the Ukraine war. So there are plenty of countries who do not consider Russia an enemy, and yet could be influential when it comes to playing to world public opinion.

Many of those countries, including at least some states of the former Soviet Union,[2] are now, or soon will be, parties to the TPNW, and committed to working for the universalization of the treaty. These countries can play an important role in encouraging Russia to join the treaty, especially if the US were to do so.

[1] CSIS. (n.d.). Confidence-Building.

[2] Kazakhstan is the most important of these. Kazakhstan was a site of former Soviet nuclear testing and has many victims of those tests.

Global Cooperation

Most US-Americans are appalled that Russia invaded Ukraine, a sovereign nation and member of the United Nations, in direct violation of the UN Charter. President Putin has threatened the use of nuclear weapons. He has built his argument for war on lies and euphemistically called it merely a “military operation.” The Russian Army has undoubtedly committed atrocities and war crimes. Large numbers of civilians have been killed. Civilian infrastructure has been targeted. Russia unilaterally recognized Donbass provinces as independent states, and then, by popular plebiscite, incorporated them into the Russian Federation.

But let’s not forget that just 20 years ago the US invaded Iraq, a sovereign nation and member of the United Nations, also in direct violation of the UN Charter.[1] And on numerous occasions a US President has threatened the use of nuclear weapons, most recently against North Korea in 2018.[2] President George W. Bush built his argument for war with Iraq on lies, and also euphemistically called it a “military operation.”[3] The US Army committed atrocities and war crimes in Iraq as well as in numerous other wars in which it has been involved.[4] Large numbers of civilians have been killed in all these wars. Civilian infrastructure has been targeted.[5] The US unilaterally recognized Kosovo as an independent country when it was still claimed as part of Serbia.[6] Not as recently, but certainly with greater frequency, the US has used popular plebiscites to incorporate territories into the United States, including Hawaii,[7] and more recently with votes to determine the status of Puerto Rico.

Two wrongs don’t make a right, and nothing that the US has done in Iraq or elsewhere justifies or excuses what Russia did and is doing in Ukraine. Nevertheless, it’s a breath-taking double standard. President Putin is, if anything, a copycat. He may well be autocratic and extremely socially conservative, but he is immensely popular in his own country, and he has been elected again and again in what observers have generally considered to be democratic elections.[8]

[1] Bush claimed the invasion of Iraq was justified as “pre-emptive self-defense” but this is not a legal justification for war. Officially it was claimed that the invasion was “allowed” under UN Security Council resolution 678, but the UN Security Council itself refused to accept that interpretation. See

[2] President Trump’s threat to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea if it conducted any more nuclear tests was an unambiguous reference to the use of nuclear weapons by the United States. See

[3] The Iraq War was officially called “Operation Iraqi Freedom”

[4] In Iraq, these include torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, torture at Guantanamo Bay, the Haditha massacre of 24 women and children and other incidents.

[5] In the Kosovo War, US forces bombed bridges, factories, power stations, telecommunications facilities and the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. See Shue, Henry (2016), Fighting Hurt: Rule and Exception in Torture and War, pp.277-294.

[6] Kosovo is still not recognized as an independent country by Russia and some other states, and it is not a member of the UN. 

[7] See history of Hawaii becoming a US state in 1959 at

[8] Russian Federation, Presidential Election, 18 March 2018: Final Report. (2018, June 6). Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.