14.07.23 Review

Reversing Nuclear Disarmament: The war in Ukraine has provoked a new nuclear arms race and eroded trust and communication among nuclear powers

In February 2023, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was suspending its participation in START, the Russian-American agreement on the reduction and limitation of strategic offensive weapons. However, in recent years, the pace of its implementation had already been rapidly declining. Last year, around 200 warheads were decommissioned worldwide, compared with about 400 in 2021. The war in Ukraine and, in particular, the rhetoric of nuclear blackmail regularly employed by Moscow have pushed the world to upgrade its nuclear arsenals. Secondary nuclear powers such as China, Pakistan, India, and North Korea have increased their stockpiles of nuclear warheads in 2022. While the war in Ukraine is provoking a new nuclear race, experts argue that the more pressing issue lies in the decline of trust and the reduction of communication channels between major nuclear powers, which could potentially lead to the accidental or misguided use of nuclear weapons.

In 2021, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) conducted 10,000 computer simulations of a nuclear war to assess the potential damage from a Russian nuclear strike against the United States. In the worst-case scenario, where Russia launches the maximum number of nuclear warheads simultaneously, the US would lose 75% of its own nuclear facilities. However, a quarter of the entire US nuclear arsenal would remain operational. In addition, the US would retain around a thousand nuclear warheads deployed on submarine-launched missiles, as well as hundreds of warheads for bombers.

However, the 'launch-on-warning' system assumes that the facilities would respond to the approaching Russian missiles by launching their own before the silos are destroyed by Russian warheads. Experts believe that the 'launch-on-warning' system is a crucial element of nuclear deterrence as determining the necessary means for a guaranteed strike is impossible. However, some specialists have pointed out that such a system increases the risks of uncontrolled nuclear escalation due to the risks of mistakes. These dangers intensify when relations between superpowers become more tense, mutual suspicion grows, and measures of mutual control and communication channels diminish.

It is precisely the analysis of first-strike scenarios that fuels the nuclear arms race. In a situation where mutual control is weakened, the absence of reliable information about the plans and actions of the other side exacerbates the situation. The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine and the consistent use of nuclear blackmail rhetoric by Russia to deter Western military aid to Ukraine have prompted politicians and experts to once again focus on the quality and condition of nuclear arsenals. The long cycle of nuclear arms reduction may soon be replaced by a cycle of rearmament. In any case, it is already evident that the pace of disarmament has sharply declined.

As of the beginning of 2023, nine countries (the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel) collectively possessed 12,500 nuclear warheads, of which 9,500 were in a state of operational readiness. This represents an increase of 86 warheads on the previous year. Of the 9,500 warheads, one-third (3,800 warheads) were deployed on ballistic missiles and bombers. At the start of 2023, approximately 2,000 warheads were in a state of high operational readiness, capable of being used instantly, with the majority of these belonging to Russia and the United States. These figures are presented in an annual report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), based on officially available data on nuclear weapons, the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, and observation of the missile forces of the nine countries.

Although the total number of nuclear warheads in the world continues to decrease, this is mainly due to the dismantlement of retired warheads in the United States and Russia, which together possess around 90% of all nuclear warheads globally. In 2022, there was a decrease of 198 nuclear warheads worldwide, but the pace of disarmament has slowed down by half compared to the previous year when 391 warheads were decommissioned, twice as many. Moreover, both nuclear powers have costly programmes to modernise their nuclear weapons and delivery systems (although Russia's efforts in this area faces regular challenges), as well as to expand their nuclear weapons production capacity.

China has been striving to expand its nuclear arsenal in recent years. According to SIPRI, the number of Chinese nuclear warheads remained unchanged in 2021 but increased by 60 in 2022. The authors of the report believe that the growth rate announced last year indicates that China will continue to increase its nuclear stockpiles over the next decade, although it is unlikely that its arsenal will reach the levels of Russia and the United States. At the same time, China will have sufficient resources to deploy as many, or even more, intercontinental ballistic missiles as Russia or the United States.

North Korea, for which nuclear weapons remain a central element of its national military strategy, increased its nuclear stockpile by five warheads in 2022. According to estimates made by SIPRI experts, North Korea possesses enough material to produce an additional 20-40 warheads in the near future. India and Pakistan are also continuing to increase their stockpiles. SIPRI data shows that, in 2022, India's arsenal grew by four warheads (reaching 164), while Pakistan's increased by five warheads (reaching 170). However, if Pakistan’s developments are focused on targeting Indian territory, India itself has put more effort into the production of long-range weapons in recent years.

The UK and France’s nuclear weapons arsenals remained unchanged in 2022, but both countries are likely to increase their stockpiles in the future. In 2021, the British government raised the legislative limit of its nuclear arsenal from 225 to 260 warheads and prohibited the publication of information about the actual quantity of warheads (as well as the number of missile carriers). France, on the other hand, has been developing a third-generation ballistic missile-equipped nuclear-powered submarine and an air-launched cruise missile while continuously modernising and upgrading its existing nuclear weapon delivery systems.

The rate of nuclear armament worldwide, 2021-2023, number of nuclear warheads

France has always insisted that its nuclear weapons are designed to protect vital European Union interests. However, everything has changed since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. In March 2022, reports emerged that France had increased the number of nuclear-powered submarines on continuous patrol for the first time since the 1980s. In October 2022, Macron stated that, in the event of nuclear weapons being used against Ukraine, France would consider the possibility of employing its nuclear arsenal against the aggressor, despite the fact that Ukraine is not yet a member of the EU.

'With communication channels between nuclear-armed rivals closed or barely functioning, the risks of miscalculation, misunderstanding or accident are unacceptably high,' warns Dan Smith, Director of SIPRI. He calls on the parties to restore diplomatic efforts within the framework of the nuclear disarmament programme and to strengthen international nuclear arms control.