The independent resource on global security

11. Nuclear disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation


Overview, Tytti Erästö, Titaly Fedchenko and Lora Saalman

I. Bilateral and multilateral nuclear arms control involving China, Russia and the United States, Lora Saalman

II. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear programme, Tytti Erästö

III. Multilateral nuclear arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation treaties and initiatives, Tytti Erästö and Titaly Fedchenko

It was another difficult year for nuclear arms control and non-proliferation efforts. There was some positive news at the start of 2021, when Russia and the United States agreed to extend the 2010 Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START) for another five years. However, questions remained as to whether the five-year extension of New START would yield a replacement agreement before 2026, and the extent to which both old and new weapon systems would be covered in a follow-on treaty.


Strategic security dialogues

Following a meeting between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, a joint statement proclaimed that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’. This repeated a 1985 declaration by then leaders Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, and preceded a similar joint statement by China and Russia. After the US–Russian declaration, a bilateral strategic stability dialogue held in July and September came to play a central role in maintaining communication channels between the two countries.


While Russia and the USA agreed to discuss future arms control options as part of that dialogue, the bipartisan view in the USA is that, for nuclear arms control to be effective, China must be engaged. Follow-ing a November 2021 meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Biden, the US national security advisor stated that China is willing to carry forward discussions on strategic stability. However, China’s official statements have been more muted, reflect-ing some of the challenges to China’s participation in bilateral talks with the USA, much less trilateral talks with the USA and Russia.


North Korea

The breakdown of the short-lived bilateral nuclear diplomacy between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) and the USA since 2019 continued into 2021. Despite having announced in January 2020 that it would no longer observe its unilateral moratoriums on nuclear test explosions and test flights of long-range ballistic missiles that it had declared in 2018, North Korea con-ducted no such tests during 2021. How-ever, it continued development of its shorter-range ballistic missiles.


Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

The previously slow unravelling of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear programme sped up in 2021. US sanctions remained in place and Iran stepped up its nuclear activities, notably by increasing the enrichment of uranium up to 60 per cent of the isotope uranium-235. Iran also began restricting International Atomic Energy Agency inspections authorized under the JCPOA for the first time. Despite the stated intent of both the USA and Iran to restore the JCPOA, the parties failed to reach an agreement in the seven rounds of negotiations that were held in 2021. Whether the JCPOA could still be revived remained an open question at the end of 2021.


Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons enters into force

The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) entered into force on 22 January 2021. It was described by the United Nations secretary-general as ‘an important step towards a world free of nuclear weapons’. The TPNW is the first treaty to establish a comprehensive ban on nuclear weapons, including their development, deployment, possession, use and threat of use. This prohibition has brought to the fore the tension between nuclear disarmament and nuclear deterrence: while civil society and many non-nuclear weapon states have welcomed the treaty, the nuclear weapon states and their allies view it as undermining the existing nuclear order based on the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPT) and have not joined it.


The 10th Review Conference of the NPT was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic for a second year. The review conference, which is now scheduled to take place in August 2022, would have marked the 50th anniversary of the NPT’s entry into force and a quarter of a century since the treaty was indefinitely extended. The annual UN Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction held its second annual session in November–December 2021, albeit without the participation of Israel.


The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty

Another milestone in 2021 was the 25th anniversary of the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT)—the international treaty that would ban all nuclear test explosions in all environments. While it has not yet entered into force, over the past quarter of a century the CTBT has established an international norm against nuclear testing, helped to slow down the development of nuclear weapon capabilities, and curbed significant radioactive contamination. Its unique international global monitoring network of stations and laboratories for treaty verification has strengthened the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime and become an unmatched source of data and technical expertise. •

Vitaly Fedchenko, Dr Lora Saalman and Dr Tytti Erästö