Director of the Foreign Ministry Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Mikhail Ulyanov’s interview with the newspaper Kommersant
Question: A nuclear weapons ban seems like a good and moral idea. Why is Russia against a nuclear ban treaty?
Mikhail Ulyanov: It is at variance with Russia’s national interests and our vision of movement towards nuclear disarmament. We have always reaffirmed our support for the idea of a nuclear-free world and joined many politically binding declarations to this effect. At the same time, we pointed out that this is a strategic goal and that any movement towards it must proceed in stages, that it must be accompanied by the strengthening of strategic stability as well as it must respect the national security interests of all countries, including Russia, of course.
In fact, the key questions concern the timeframe and the methods of destroying nuclear arsenals plus the timeframe and methods of banning nuclear weapons. This prohibition will likely become more expedient at some stage, but it will be one of the last stages of the nuclear disarmament process when we will need to ensure its irreversibility. Raising the topic of a nuclear weapons ban today would be untimely.
However, it should be said that when a decision was taken at the UN General Assembly last year to hold talks on this matter, it sounded as if the idea was to ban nuclear weapons on a global scale. However, the final draft of the proposed treaty has shown that this is not what it aims for. The negotiating parties have tamed their ambitions and the prohibitions they have coordinated include exclusively the signatories to the new treaty. Russia is not bound by this treaty in any way.
Question: Not even when it comes into force?
Mikhail Ulyanov: No, not even then. The obligations will only concern those who sign and ratify this treaty. This does not concern us.
Political pressure will be most likely put on nuclear powers to join the treaty, but as I have already said, none of its provisions will bind Russia to anything. The treaty does not outlaw nuclear weapons on a global scale.
Question: In other words, it is believed in Russia that the treaty is not as bad as it first seemed?
Mikhail Ulyanov: Yes, possibly. However, you cannot describe it as something good either, if only because it will deepen and cement the divide between the nuclear and the so-called nuclear umbrella countries on the one hand, and the rest of the signatories to the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Russia joined, on the other hand. This can have extremely negative consequences for the integrity of the non-proliferation regime.
Furthermore, if Russia or any other nuclear power decides to get rid of its nuclear arsenals and join the nuclear ban treaty, it will have to take a specified set of actions as per this treaty, such as disclose the composition of its nuclear arsenals, remove its nuclear weapons from duty and sign an agreement on an action plan for their destruction with a competent international agency, which has not been created as of yet. This provides for regular reporting on the work done, almost inevitable complaints about missed deadlines, and the like.
Do you like this? I don’t. Assuming that at some stage Moscow may consider it expedient to reduce its nuclear arsenals over and above the limits stipulated in the Russian-US New START treaty, this should be done, in practical terms, through national decisions or, better still, through an agreement with other nuclear powers. As for accepting strict control from an unidentified competent international authority, this does not seem reasonable to me.
Question: Those who were behind the initiative to adopt a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons say that the leading nuclear powers are doing too little to bring about disarmament, and some nuclear states, including unofficial ones, are expanding their arsenals. Under the NPT countries are expected to reduce and liquidate their nuclear stockpiles. Maybe the proponents of more radical measures are right, and actually NPT fails to deliver?
Mikhail Ulyanov: The notion that too little is being done regarding disarmament is totally misleading, at least in the case of Russia and the US, our key partner in reducing nuclear arsenals. In fact, a lot has been done in this area.
Over the last 30 years, since 1987 when the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) was signed, Russia and the US got rid of about 85 percent of their nuclear stockpiles, or reduced them more than four times. In addition to this, Russia eliminated three thirds of its stockpiles of non-strategic nuclear weapons unilaterally under the initiatives undertaken by the president in the early 1990s.
Finally, let me refer to two numbers. At the NPT Review Conferences, nuclear states usually report on their disarmament efforts. At the 2010 Review Conference we reported that Russia had 3,900 deployed nuclear warheads, and by the next conference in 2015 this figure went down to 1,582. In just five years we reduced our arsenals two and a half times. Can this be referred as “too slow” or “not enough”? After all, efforts of this kind take a lot of work and are very costly.
For this reason, when someone says that Russia is seeking to just derail the implementation of Article 6 of the NPT, this is very discouraging, and seems unfair and insolent, to say the least. There is no way we can agree with this point of view. After all, Russia is fulfilling its commitments.
Understanding what obligations we are talking about is essential. Our opponents are trying to spread the message that NPT’s Article 6 is about pursuing complete and general nuclear disarmament as part of a propaganda campaign to stoke anti-nuclear sentiment across the world. However, this is misleading. If you take a look at Article 6 it says, and I quote: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
Let us see. Not only the nuclear arms race has ceased, as per Article 6, but has even been reversed. Nuclear arsenals maintained by Russia and the US are at the level of 1950s and early 1960s, which was the level before the non-proliferation treaty was signed. So this provision from Article 6 has been fulfilled.
As for pursuing negotiations in good faith, there were a number of talks of this kind with the US that brought about the INF Treaty and the START. In fact, a lot has been done in a true spirit of good faith, and the measures that were undertaken were effective. These are not just declarations of intent, but binding agreements that have been or are about to be fulfilled.
That said, Article 6 does not say a word about scrapping nuclear arsenals completely. This is pure fantasy and a frivolous interpretation. By the way, it runs counter to the penultimate clause in the preamble to the NPT which clearly stipulates that doing away with all their existing stockpiles should take place pursuant to a treaty on general and complete disarmament. However, this is something that advocates of the immediate advent of a world free from nuclear weapons do not like to recall, and the same goes for their commitment to engage in negotiations on general and complete disarmament. As a matter of fact, the second part of Article 6 has fallen into oblivion.
Question: Are you referring to a treaty on general and complete disarmament?
Mikhail Ulyanov: Yes, this is exactly how the task is formulated alongside nuclear disarmament in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Before criticising nuclear powers for infringing on their treaty obligations, even though this accusation contradicts the facts, our opponents should consider implementing their own commitments. Instead, we see an increase of conventional weapons around the world as well as modernisation of them.
Furthermore, the reduction of nuclear arsenals is not proceeding in a vacuum but in conditions of a world that is far from perfect. The world is becoming increasingly turbulent, conflict-prone and unpredictable. This is why we urge a more sensible and realistic approach to nuclear disarmament. No country will disarm to its own detriment. Proposing complete liquidation of nuclear arsenals in modern conditions is not something serious and it’s even irresponsible. Nuclear weapons are an objective bond of international security. Some may dislike this, but this is a fact of life. There were two world wars in the first half of the 20th century but none after 1945. All the conflicts, even the bloodiest ones, were local, not global wars. I believe there are many reasons for this, including the establishment of the UN, which is playing a crucial part in the maintenance of international peace and security, even though it is harshly criticised sometimes. Another factor that has prevented a new world war is nuclear weapons. If we destroy this bond overnight, the entire structure of international security will be shattered, if not worse, with unpredictable consequences.
Question: Do nuclear weapons remain a deterrent force if North Korea and other countries are trying to acquire them and there is also the risk of accidents and terrorist attacks [involving nuclear weapons]? Wouldn’t it be better not to have these weapons at all?
Mikhail Ulyanov: I have already answered this question to a certain point. To complete the picture, I can add that, by and large, nuclear weapons are not designed for use but for deterrence, and they have played this role quite well over a period of the past decades.
Regarding accidents and terrorist attacks, these are separate subjects and must be addressed apart. This pattern is being applied in practice. Suffice it to recall the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, which Russia and the United States have co-chaired for over 11 years, or the large-scale IAEA efforts in the area of physical nuclear safety.
As for the latter part of your question, I can tell you that no, it is not better to give up nuclear weapons now. This goes not only for Russia and the other four official nuclear countries, but also, as we can see, for the de factor nuclear weapons states. A case in point is North Korea.
We firmly condemn Pyongyang’s policy, but it should be remembered that North Korea has opted for creating nuclear missiles, which it regards primarily as a deterrence force, because there are no other fully reliable international legal safeguards of its national security. Many Western countries do not understand or refuse to understand this. Likewise, they do not understand that the problems the international community is facing in North Korea were largely created by their policy regarding Libya before the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, a policy that has seriously damaged the efforts to strengthen the global regime of the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
I am not saying this to justify Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, but so as to demonstrate the complex nature of the current situation. This problem can be only resolved if North Korea accepts denuclearisation in return for reliable and effective guarantees of its security.
Question: Some experts suggest that North Korea should be recognised as a nuclear power since it has acquired such weapons. Is Russia ready to do this?
Mikhail Ulyanov: No. We stand for making universal the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) by involving in it three countries that have not yet signed it - namely, Israel, India and Pakistan. I would like to emphasise they should join it as non-nuclear countries. The NPT makes it clear that the only nuclear powers are those that produced and exploded nuclear weapons or other nuclear devices before January 1, 1967. This applies to five official nuclear powers which are Russia, the United States, France, Britain, and China. An increase in their number would contradict the NTP and seriously undermine the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Many NPT participants reluctantly recognise the nuclear status of the five, speaking of discrimination. I am afraid the NPT will not survive if exceptions are made for some other country. So, taking into account all these circumstances, we are certainly not going to recognise the DPRK as a nuclear power.
Question: But doesn’t this mean that the NPT is discriminative?
Mikhail Ulyanov: Nobody compelled any country to join the NPT. This was a conscious choice of almost 190 countries that ratified this treaty, who were fully aware of what its contents were. Let me repeat that this was their voluntary and responsible decision. So it is improper to speak retrospectively about its discriminatory character.
Question: What is North Korea’s status in the NPT? It is unclear whether it quit it or not.
Mikhail Ulyanov: We continue regarding North Korea as a participant in the NPT because in announcing its withdrawal, Pyongyang violated the procedures which are stipulated in the treaty.
Question: Some allies of the Russian Federation, for instance Kazakhstan, supported the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). So it appears that unlike the United States, Russia did not pressure its partners into refusing to join the treaty?
Well, in principle persuasion rather than pressure is more typical when it comes to Russian foreign policy. We have many good friends, not just Kazakhstan but also South Africa, Brazil, Cuba and Egypt, among the states that initiated the elaboration of this treaty. They are our close partners with whom we maintain close relations. Moreover, these countries were pacesetters of the talks rather than simply participants. Such is the reality.
As for Kazakhstan, it has long been positioning itself as a global leader of nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament. This is Astana’s principle position. We have disagreements on nuclear matters and they are obvious if you compare how our countries vote on UN General Assembly resolutions, but this does not prevent us from remaining allies and friends. We maintain regular dialogue on this subject with our colleagues from Kazakhstan.
Question: I would like to clarify something. Replying to the question about efficient and inefficient disarmament, you mentioned two key agreements, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Experts are warning that the first one is falling to pieces and the extension of the second one is questionable. Is Russia preparing any initiatives to rescue INF and prolong START?
Mikhail Ulyanov: What is happening with the INF is unpleasant and, I would say, abnormal. We stand for overcoming this predicament. This can be done through dialogue but there is no such thing for the time being.
We had several meetings during the Barack Obama Administration, in particular, a session of the special monitoring commission on the INF with its other participants (Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine) took place last November. There was no substantive discussion after that.
However, US diplomats continue hurling groundless accusations at us. However, this is not the way to settle problems. It is as useless as the sanctions that Capitol Hill discusses. It is necessary to sit down at the negotiating table and come to terms. We also have serious grievances concerning the Americans and they have not replied to them seriously. They are dissatisfied with our position as well but once again the only way out is to sit down at the negotiating table and go over together what can be done. We stand for this. We proceed from the point of view that this is indeed an important treaty that meets our interests.
Regrettably, there is nobody in the Department of State to discuss this matter. Almost all former high-ranking people have been dismissed and new ones have not yet been appointed. Nevertheless, when the Department of State begins to function again we will do this and, I hope, we will find a common language with our American colleagues.
As for START, by February 5, 2018 we should reach target figures in carriers and warheads, and this requires a lot of work. In principle, the treaty that is valid until 2021 may be extended for five years. We have not made an unequivocal decision on this but we are ready to consider this opportunity, or at least to discuss it with the Americans. As the Americans say, “it takes two to tango.” To begin the conversation, it is important to know that Washington also considers it possible to extend the treaty for five years. We do not see this so far but there is still time because the treaty will be in force for more than three years.