The independent resource on global security

8. Nuclear disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation


Overview, Wilfred Wan, Vladislav Chernavskikh, Tytti Erästö and Vitaly Fedchenko

I. Nuclear arms control involving China, Russia and the United States, Wilfred Wan

II. Multilateral nuclear arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation treaties and initiatives, Vladislav Chernavskikh

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

IV. Attacks on nuclear installations in Ukraine and the response missions of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vitaly Fedchenko

The dynamics surrounding nuclear disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation are becoming more complex. There are currently few indicators that key stakeholders can agree to disentangle nuclear issues from the broader geopolitical context and stem the rising tide of nuclear risks.


The war in Ukraine continued to have a negative impact on bilateral and multilateral engagement on nuclear arms control in 2023. Although Russia reiterated the importance of arms control agreements and commitments during the year, it stepped back from existing ones, citing the strategic context—in particular the United States’ military support to Ukraine. While modest positive steps were made elsewhere, including in discussions between China and the USA, overall the war diminished opportunities to break the long-standing deadlock in nuclear arms control and reverse the worrisome trend of nuclear-armed states developing and deploying new weapon systems.


Attacks on Ukrainian nuclear sites

Russia’s continued targeting of critical infrastructure in Ukraine added to the nuclear safety, security and safeguards challenges in 2023. Frequent disturbances to the Ukrainian electricity grid caused by such attacks placed strain on Ukrainian nuclear power plants, while the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam in June threatened the supply of cooling water to Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) and required a stopgap solution. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) maintained a consistent presence in Ukraine throughout 2023. Building on its ‘seven indispensable pillars of nuclear safety and security’, the IAEA also formulated and began to apply ‘five concrete principles’ aimed specifically at protecting the ZNPP.


Worsening Russian–US strategic relations

Bilateral arms control between Russia and the USA took a significant turn for the worse in February 2023, when Russia suspended its membership of the 2010 Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START). This followed the USA’s conclusion in January that it could no longer certify Russia’s compliance with certain terms of the treaty, due mainly to Russia’s refusal to allow the resumption of on-site inspections of its nuclear weapon-related sites. Efforts to restart diplomacy—including on a post-New START arms control framework—stalled, with Russia reluctant to ‘compartmentalize’ nuclear discussions from wider issues. In November Russia withdrew its ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), citing ‘an imbalance’ with the USA, which has failed to ratify the treaty since it opened for signature in 1996. However, Russia confirmed that it would remain a signatory and would continue to participate in the work of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).


Iran and the JCPOA

Developments in Ukraine and elsewhere also cast a shadow over long-standing efforts to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear programme. Iran’s transfers of uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Russia continued to sour relations with the West. This led France, Germany and the United Kingdom to extend sanctions on Iran’s arms exports as part of their national policies, even after the expiry of the United Nations arms embargo on the country in October 2023. An informal bilateral agreement between Iran and the USA in June 2023 initially seemed to de-escalate tensions and reduce the risk of conflict. It contributed to greater cooperation by Iran with the IAEA and to the USA unfreezing Iranian assets. However, the start of the Israel–Hamas war in October upended the agreement, with proxy attacks by Iran-backed groups on US forces in Iraq and Syria apparently ending Iranian–US diplomatic efforts. The war also undermined attempts to engage Israel in the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction, which continues to be difficult given Israel’s long-standing policy of nuclear ambiguity.


The NPT review cycle

The abbreviated review cycle of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) commenced with a session in July 2023 of a working group on strengthening the review process, and the first session, in August, of the preparatory committee for the 2026 Review Conference. The working group failed to reach consensus, with suggestions to enhance transparency and accountability on nuclear disarmament dividing the non-nuclear weapon states and the five NPT-recognized nuclear weapon states—China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA. Meanwhile, discussions at the preparatory committee carried over many of the debates from the previous Review Conference, including the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament and the Russia–Ukraine war. Obstructive procedural manoeuvring in the conference room by a few states added another layer of uncertainty to an already fraught review cycle.


The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

The second Meeting of States Parties to the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) adopted two outcome documents—a package of practical decisions and a political declaration that highlighted the rise in nuclear risks and condemned nuclear-sharing arrangements. The meeting also established a new intersessional consultative process on security concerns of states under the TPNW, seeking to ‘challenge the security paradigm based on nuclear deterrence’. Despite these positive developments, none of the nuclear-armed states has yet sought to engage in the TPNW process. 

Dr Wilfred Wan, Vladislav Chernavskikh, Dr Tytti Erästö and Vitaly Fedchenko