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Friday, December 9, 2016
- Despite a seemingly entrenched resistance to change on its nuclear disarmament policy, the Kremlin’s recent initiative to get Syria to destroy its chemical weapons provides hope that Russia could play a more positive role in reducing the world’s global nuclear stockpiles, experts say.
The recent high-level meeting of the U.N. general assembly on nuclear disarmament – the first of its kind – ended with Russia confirming its stance of no new nuclear arms reduction initiatives.
It said it wants issues it sees as pressing, such as U.S. strategic defence systems, effective implementation of existing weapons reduction treaties, and concerns over other states’ weapons programmes, addressed first.
But the meeting in New York at the end of last month saw almost as much discussion about chemical weapons in the wake of Syria’s agreement to destroy its chemical weapons stockpiles as about nuclear arms.
Experts believe that the deal with Syria, originally proposed by Moscow, shows that if one state can be persuaded to rethink its WMD programmes, others can too, including nuclear weapons.
Petr Topychkanov, an expert on non-proliferation at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, told IPS: “There was no reason to really expect anything new from Russia on nuclear disarmament at the U.N. conference, but there is some hope of change following the Syrian chemical weapons deal.
“What that did is that it set a good example of cooperation between Russia and other countries on getting rid of weapons of mass destruction. It sends a signal that Russia can stimulate discussion with other countries on disarmament, even though in this case it was not nuclear weapons.
“Syria was not one of the countries signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention, whose signatories agree to destroy their chemical weapons, but was persuaded to do so and get rid of their weapons. So, if that can be done with Syria, why can it not be done with other countries on other WMDs, such as nuclear weapons?”
While Russia and the U.S. hold 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, the Kremlin has been vocal on what it sees as the need for nuclear disarmament to be addressed not just by it and Washington, but by all nuclear states.
President Vladimir Putin has openly questioned calls for countries to cut their nuclear arsenals when neighbouring and near-neighbouring states are seen to be expanding their own nuclear capabilities.
And at the U.N. conference Russia stressed that it saw no real future in nuclear disarmament until all countries with nuclear weapons, and other forms of WMDs, take steps towards disarmament.
Topychkanov said: “Russia does not see nuclear disarmament just through the prism of U.S.-Russia disarmament alone. Moscow wants to engage other countries in disarmament agreements.
“These are not necessarily about multilateral agreements, such as between the P5 permanent U.N. Security Council nations, to all disarm, as that would be impossible. But they are looking to promote many bilateral agreements.”
Indeed, Russia-U.S. nuclear disarmament efforts have stalled in recent years. Since the end of the Cold War there have been various agreements on reducing the number of warheads on both sides.
Calls earlier this year by U.S. President Barack Obama for both Washington and Moscow to reduce their arsenals by a third have been de facto rebuffed by the Kremlin. It has been reluctant to agree to drastic cuts due to the differences in weapons delivery capabilities between the two countries, fearing that it would be left at a military disadvantage by dramatic blanket cuts.
It has also been wary of U.S. missile defence plans, and without assurances that they would not be used against Russia, the Kremlin will not agree to concessions on nuclear weapons.
“The Russian position [on nuclear disarmament] is set quite hard. They do not see a compelling reason to change it,” Nikolai Sokov, a fellow at the Vienna Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, told IPS.
“Domestically, the public is not particularly friendly to nuclear disarmament and internationally, they would like to see at least some movement from others. The argument that I hear quite often that we, usually the U.S., cannot change our position because of domestic politics, is met with the argument that ‘why should we bear the burden? Everybody needs to pitch in’.”
Russian officials are happy to also point out that while it has slashed its nuclear weapons arsenal to meet requirements of the new START treaty signed with Washington in 2010, the U.S. is dragging its heels on the same commitments.
The latest official data, released earlier this year, shows that while both countries have until 2018 to reach missile targets under the treaty, the U.S. remains well above the limit for deployed strategic warheads and launchers while Russia is already below them.
It also defends increased spending on its nuclear arsenal – only this month it was reported in Russian media that government spending on its nuclear arsenal would increase 50 percent per year for the next three years – by the need to maintain and update weapons and technology which, for the most part, were created under the Soviet regime.
“Russia has a commitment to disarm but the country’s nuclear arsenal is old and expensive to maintain and needs to be modernised. Moscow is committed to the START treaty and its limits, but within those limits it is also committed to updating and developing its nuclear weapons,” explained Topychkanov.
However, despite any agenda the Kremlin may have of promoting bilateral agreements with other countries on nuclear disarmament or on engaging other countries in negotiations on giving up weapons of WMD, a go-slow on further nuclear weapons cuts in both Russia and the U.S. is far from unwelcome in Moscow.
Sokov told IPS: “Leaders in Moscow actually quite like the stalemate. It gives them an opportunity to continue modernisation programmes without hindrance. Whatever the U.S. is doing – in missile defence, for example – is years away and even more years when a completed research and development programme is translated into production at a scale that might affect Russian security.
“All parties are using the slowdown in arms control to continue programmes they feel they need. In the absence of a threat of major conflict, they can afford to do so, and the only thing that can interfere with their plans is pressure from the international community. But that is not strong enough.”