State Parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) finally met in New York at the Tenth Review Conference (RevCon) — and at a moment when the international strategic environment is more unsettled than usual. This RevCon’s goal is similar to others, where NPT signatories are tasked with producing a consensus document that reviews implementation and compliance, and establishes updated commitments, recommendations, and follow-up steps for actions to advance the goals and objectives of the treaty in the future.
But this is no ordinary RevCon. Russia’s unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine has undoubtedly cast an all-encompassing shadow on the conference, and has amplified divisions between State Parties. Furthermore, developments surrounding the war continue to sow new divisions.
Under the treaty, nuclear weapon states consisting of China, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, agreed to pursue good faith negotiations about effective measures to prevent an arms race and nuclear disarmament while non-nuclear weapon states agreed to forgo the pursuit and/or acquisition of nuclear weapons. On top of this, nuclear weapon states agreed to share the benefits of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
After State Parties delivered opening statements, discussions took place under three groups, otherwise known as Main Committees, where each committee is dedicated to a pillar of the Treaty. Main Committee I discusses issues relating to disarmament, Main Committee 2 focuses on nonproliferation, and Main Committee 3 centers on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
THE SHADOW OF RUSSIA’S INVASION
The RevCon finds itself in uncharted territory as a new security environment emerges following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. During discussions on disarmament, State Parties denounced Russia’s actions and their implications for the NPT. As pointed out by Ukrainian analysts, Ukraine transferred the nuclear weapons that found themselves in its territory to Russia after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In exchange, Ukraine received security assurances that the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom would respect its sovereign territory under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Since invading Ukraine, Russia has waived its nuclear deterrent to prevent other states (namely the United States and its allies) from getting involved in the conflict.
Despite the implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the RevCon is still an opportunity to strengthen nonproliferation norms and make real progress. Yet, it is up to State Parties to seize that opportunity.
Additionally, President Vladimir Putin has issued nuclear threats in the name of nuclear deterrence to prevent other states from getting involved in the conflict as the war rages on. In their opening statements, representatives from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, along with their NATO allies, condemned Putin’s nuclear threats against any state that might interfere in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and deemed them “irresponsible nuclear threats” in an attempt to distinguish between the nuclear practices of nuclear weapon states. Meanwhile, non-nuclear weapons states such as Ireland, New Zealand, Azerbaijan, Costa Rica, Austria, and Mexico continue to push that nuclear weapon states have not done enough to reduce their reliance on nuclear weapons. However, the emerging security environment can also serve to affirm the importance of the NPT and the urgency of its implementation.
“The RevCon is an opportunity for states to give the US and Russia, the possessors of over 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, a not-so-gentle push towards disarmament by calling upon them to commence negotiations on a follow-up agreement to New START, the last remaining agreement limiting the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals by capping its deployed long-range warheads to 1,550, which will expire by early 2026,” Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, said during a side event on “Strengthening the Three Pillars of the NPT” at the Embassy of Kazakhstan in New York on Aug. 18. To be more effective, the final recommendations by Main Committee 1 need to establish a specific timeframe to fulfill these recommendations. In the same side event, a Representative of Malaysia noted that there is no custodian for the disarmament pillar of the NPT.
The Russo-Ukrainian war has also colored the debate in discussions on nonproliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy with the occupation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine. On Aug. 8 and 9, Ukraine informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has long served as the verifier of compliance with the NPT, that bombardments had damaged the plant’s external power supply system, and caused damage to the dry spent fuel storage facility. The preliminary assessment of the IAEA indicates that “there is no immediate threat to nuclear safety” although the developments surrounding Europe’s nuclear power plant are alarming. In sum, shelling at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant created a risk of a nuclear disaster in an active combat zone.
The developments surrounding the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant have only widened divisions between NPT signatories. Now, State Parties must grapple with new contentious issues as a result of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on top of the old divisions between nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states. The delegations of Russia and Ukraine exchanged accusations while voicing support for an IAEA visit to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Western states such as the United States and its allies, and Ukraine have rightfully called on Russia to end its occupation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Yet, Russia has neither shown nor voiced any intentions of ending its occupation of the nuclear power plant and continues to accuse Ukraine of shelling the plant. Furthermore, Russia continues to question the wording related to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in the draft reports at RevCon but did note that it was a step away from a consensus.
Overall, Russia’s position on statements about the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is driven by the conventional strategic considerations behind the occupation of the plant and attempts to legitimize its occupation of Ukraine. In other words, Russia wants to shift blame for the dangers facing the power plant, and so Russia’s reluctance to endorse a possible demilitarized zone around the plant likely center on its desire to cement control of it.
Russia may be concerned about the dangers posed by the situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, but its actions show time and time again that Russia is willing to play on the risks and costs of the situation to legitimize its occupation. Yes, Russia’s occupation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant should be discussed at the RevCon. However, even if State Parties can agree on language about the direct references to the restoration of control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant by the Russian authorities to the “competent Ukrainian authorities,” the issue is unlikely to be resolved as the war is set to rage on.
IDEAS TO STRENGTHEN THE NPT PERSIST
Despite differences over the events surrounding Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and disarmament, experts believe much can still be done to strengthen the NPT. As Vivian Okeke, the lead IAEA Representative to the UN noted at a side event at the Embassy of Kazakhstan in New York, “peaceful uses of nuclear energy belong to both NPT states and non-NPT states.”
The Peaceful Uses Initiative of the IAEA is reliant on extra-budgetary funding, therefore, making the funding for this program mandatory would further help states enjoy the benefits of peaceful uses of nuclear energy. “Fostering scientists that can serve as scientific advisors for small countries” would also make a difference according to the Lead Representative of Kiribati to the NPT RevCon. Other initiatives to strengthen the landmark treaty can include “creating new opportunities for a younger generation to pursue disarmament,” Dr. William Porter, Director of the James Martin Center of Non-Proliferation Studies, said at the event.
We are days before the end of the RevCon. There is an abundance of ideas about how to strengthen the NPT. Despite the implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the RevCon is still an opportunity to strengthen nonproliferation norms and make real progress. Yet, it is up to State Parties to seize that opportunity.
Gabriela Iveliz Rosa-Hernandez is a Research Associate at the Arms Control Association. Her research focuses on conventional arms control in Europe.