Covid-19 is affecting nuclear disarmament

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Covid-19 is affecting nuclear disarmament

The Covid-19 pandemic is having a significant impact on all areas of international politics, disarmament being one of them.

Disarmament is undoubtedly a multifaceted field. While on one side some of its aspects have to do with advocacy and information sharing, on the other side a key part is strictly related to policy-making and treaty negotiation.

In the year 2010, the new strategic arms reduction treaty or 'New Start' was created. In this bilateral agreement, the US and Russia had agreed to reduce their strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems significantly. Both parties would “only” be allowed to possess 1550 long-range nuclear warheads and 700 deployed delivery systems.

To verify each state is abiding by the agreed-upon terms, a series of on-site inspections would occur each year, 18 to be precise. The treaty makes a distinction between two types of inspection. A Type 1 inspection entails the inspection of military sites with deployed and non-deployed strategic systems. A Type 2 inspection only entails the inspection of those sites with non-deployed strategic systems.

The inspections provide both parties with insight into the amount of strategic nuclear weapons and the missiles capable of delivering them. Every year each side can conduct ten type 1 inspections and eight type 2 inspections.

So far, both sides have performed all inspections for each year. However, in 2020 the US has only conducted two Type 1 inspections and Russia has only conducted two Type 2 inspections.

Posponed inspections and future scenarios

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the inspections have been postponed and it is unclear if the remaining 32 inspections will be conducted or not. It is in the interest of both parties to conduct at least one more inspection of both types before the end of the year.

As the treaty expires on the 5th of February 2021, both the US and Russia will likely want a final assessment of the other party’s adherence to the treaty. This is the last remaining bilateral nuclear arms control treaty between the US and Russia, its existence is an important part of global disarmament.

When the treaty expires in February, three things can happen. The first option is that the treaty is extended until 2026.

A second option is that the US and Russia replace the 'New Start' with a different disarmament treaty. From an international security point of view, both of these options are desirable yet unlikely.

The third and most likely option is that both parties cannot come to an agreement and abandon the treaty, which would mean that for the first time in almost 50 years, there would be no disarmament treaty between the US and Russia regarding their nuclear arsenals.

No less evident are the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic on the review conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which is regarded as the cornerstone of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime. The quasi-universal scope of the Treaty - 191 States have joined it - explains the fundamental role of the NPT in the global pursuit of nuclear disarmament.

After the success of the 2010 Review Conference, the 2015 Review Conference ended without reaching consensus on a substantive outcome document. The 2020 Review Conference, which has now been postponed to 2021 due to the ongoing pandemic, may turn into a great occasion for the international community to reaffirm the multilateral commitment to preserve and strengthen the global non-proliferation regime.

Unfortunately, the path towards the 2021 Conference has plenty of hurdles. As it clearly emerged from the past Review Conferences, one of the most problematic issues relates to the recurrent dissatisfactions among many of its parties. As the former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Sergio Duarte recently explained, “An exacerbation of this pattern could lead to any or some of them to exercise the right ensured by article X.1 and leave the Treaty. This would create a major crisis and must be prevented.”

Indeed, while the asymmetry of the parties’ rights and duties initially found its justification in the logic of bargain  - non-proliferation was bargained for the progressive disarmament of the major nuclear powers - frustration has increased over time as nuclear weapon States have consistently modernized their arsenals despite their disarmament commitment under Article VI.

The dynamic negotiating processes behind the scenes of the 2021 NPT Review Conferences are not isolated from the other aspects of nuclear disarmament. As Ambassador Duarte pointed out “early agreement on the extension of the 'New Start' beyond its expiration in February next year – that is, before the Review Conference – would be a welcome signal of the will of the two largest possessors of nuclear weapons to further reduce existing arsenals,” thus helping prevent a failure of the conference.

Aside from the political dynamics closely underpinning NPT negotiations, it is worth recalling that the frustration of a significant portion of States parties has already emerged. Such irritation contributed to the conclusion of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), signed in New York in 2017.

Some States and many civil society organizations, including the Nobel prize-winner ICAN, are striving to increase the number of ratifications. Having Ireland, Niue, Nigeria, Saint Kitts and Nevis deposit their instruments of ratification on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings, the number of States parties has now increased to 44.

In this way, only six ratifications are missing to the TPNW’s entry into force.

There is never an ideal time for a global health crisis but when it comes to nuclear disarmament it could not have come at a worse time. Hopefully, inspections can be resumed so that transparency can be restored between the US and Russia before the expiration of the 'New Start'.

Perhaps even more important is that dialogue on the matter can be resumed as well. Zoom calls and other kinds of digital solutions might be effective tools for small groups, but when it comes to discussions where delegates from all around the world need to participate, a zoom call will never have the same impact as the practice of in-person diplomacy.

One thing is for sure, the coming months will be crucial for the future of nuclear disarmament.

Maxim Schoofs and Francesco Pezzarossi

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