Russian and foreign experts share their thoughts about the 70th anniversary meeting of the UN and the challenges still facing the world on nuclear nonproliferation.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks during a ceremony in the Japanese Garden of U.N. headquarters, Monday, September 21, 2015. The Secretary-General was participating in the ceremony to mark the International Day of Peace. Photo: AP

With the 70th session of the UN General Assembly now in full swing, Russia Direct interviewed both Russian and foreign experts to find out what they expect from this year’s meeting.

The hope, shared by disarmament groups around the world, is that the gathering, which opened on Sept. 15 in New York, will strengthen international commitment to the global elimination of nuclear arms. But with big international players such as Russia and the United States showing reluctance to embrace the cause, those in the disarmament camp may face steep challenges.

What holds back UN attempts at tackling nonproliferation?

Over the course of its existence, the UN has visibly embraced the notion of a world made free of nuclear arms, even going so far as to establish an International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, now observed each year on Sept. 26. The Conference on Disarmament, a forum set up in 1979, regularly convenes to discuss issues of arms control and reduction. The five-point proposal put forward by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2008, which calls for effective measures to complete the disarmament process, remains a guiding light for peace campaigners.

This year, the General Assembly’s agenda is packed with sections devoted to the topic, including items on accelerating the implementation of nuclear-related commitments and the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East.

So, at least on the surface, the disarmament front has good reasons to hope for progress. The Iran nuclear deal has demonstrated that Russia and the United States can still find ground for cooperation on nuclear issues, despite growing tension over the crisis in Ukraine. But this year’s UN session risks showing another yet far less salutary meeting point between the two nuclear states: their tepid response to disarmament plans, which could easily dilute the efforts of initiatives like Unfold Zero.

One of the disarmament leaders, Alyn Ware, has high expectations for the 70th session of the UN General Assembly. As a founder of the nuclear disarmament group Unfold Zero, he is devoted to publicizing UN-focused initiatives for the achievement of a nuclear weapons-free world.

Ware noted the leverage each country has, especially given their chairs on the UN Security Council.

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“Sometimes it’s very difficult to get nuclear disarmament discussed in the UN Security Council,” he told Russia Direct, “because the most powerful countries, the P5 [the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Editor’s note], all have veto power and are all nuclear arms states. They are not generally open to talk about nuclear disarmament.”

Among the items that will be debated is the proposal to establish a UN Open Ended Working Group to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations. Russia and the United States have already expressed their opposition to it during the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, when it was first presented. The proposal, which would allow the UN to establish a forum to encourage dialogue over nuclear issues, is on the General Assembly’s agenda and can count on the support of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.

In all fairness, there was a point when U.S. President Barack Obama showed warm support for nuclear disarmament. That was in 2009. The then newly appointed head of state articulated his vision for a nuclear-free world in a speech delivered during a state visit to Prague.

“Some argue that the spread of these weapons cannot be stopped,” he said at that time. “Such fatalism is a deadly adversary.”

Jeffrey Knopf, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said that domestic and international constraints inhibit the President’s ability to take action.

“His heart is in the right place, he just can’t do anything about it,” Knopf told Russia Direct.

Internally, the president has to deal with a Republican majority in Congress that opposes the reduction of the country’s nuclear arsenal. Internationally, worsening relations with Russia complicate any attempt to establish a fruitful dialogue with the Kremlin.

Ware concurs, noting that the tension over Ukraine might be reinforcing reliance on nuclear weapons both in Russia and the United States.

“From the Russian side, Putin has been waving the nuclear threat around,” he said. “From the other side, you have some voices in NATO countries, including the United States, claiming that maybe they should have more nuclear weapons.”

Hopes for a comprehensive nuclear test ban

Still, this has not led not to a complete breakdown in cooperation. Anton Klopkhov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Energy and Security Studies, regards the Iran nuclear deal as a success story.

“Russia and the United States were working closely in spite of many speculations that probably in the current political environment it might not be possible,” he told Russia Direct.

As to the benefit of U.S.-Russian cooperation over opposition to the Iranian nuclear stockpile, it may not bode well for disarmament. Knopf noted that this push towards non-proliferation could encourage both countries to maintain the status quo, to preserve their arsenals.

“The relationship between nonproliferation and disarmament is really complicated,” Knopf explained. “Sometimes they support each other, sometimes they work across purposes and get in the way of each other.”   

Public Policy Research Center Director Vladimir Evseev is the former director of the nuclear non-proliferation program of the Moscow Carnegie Center. In his view Russia does not see the issue of disarmament as a priority.

“It is more important to solve regional problems in nuclear non-proliferation,” he told Russia Direct.

Evseev concedes that Russian President Vladimir Putin might touch on the issue during his much anticipated speech, provisionally scheduled for Sept. 28, at the General Assembly meeting, but remains skeptical.

“Now it is a bad time for multilateral nuclear disarmament,” he said. “We do not believe in each other. So, I am pessimistic in this area.”

Klopkhov, who is also an adviser to Russia’s Security Council, expressed a different opinion. In recent months Russian officials have repeatedly expressed their satisfaction with the new START treaty, under which Russia and the United States are obliged to reduce their nuclear assets. And to the expert, this is a sign that some cooperation on nuclear disarmament exists, and that a nuclear-free world is possible.

But he warned against setting unrealistic timeframes, equating ambitious deadlines for the total elimination of nuclear weapons to empty rhetoric.

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“It should be a step-by-step approach,” he said. “First, hostilities should be reduced in some regions; we should put more effort into using UN as a platform to solve international crises and not take unilateral steps.”

In Klopkhov’s view, the introduction of a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty could be a step in the right direction. Such a treaty would prevent nuclear states from increasing their arsenals.

“Not a single military will approve a weapon to be in its arsenal if it has not been tested,” he explained.

It is unclear what will happen after the full implementation of the new START treaty in 2018.

“The United States has already begun modernizing its tactical nuclear weapons in Europe,” Evseev said.

In the meantime, Moscow looks at its nuclear arms as a deterrent against NATO and is ready to deploy its weapons in Crimea and the region of Kaliningrad.

“Countries still see security benefits to holding on to nuclear weapons,” Knopf said, “and as long as they think that nuclear weapons make contributions to helping them defend national security they will be very reluctant to give them up.”

Still, humanity has achieved seemingly utopian goals before. As Knopf noted, the abolition of slavery was once said to be impossible. Worldwide anti-nuclear protests in the 1970s and 1980s pushed politicians to adopt early steps towards a nuclear-free world.

Maybe this is why Ware remains optimistic. Even though Russia and the United States might be reluctant to embrace the cause of disarmament, his tone is upbeat. In fact, he argues that engaging the countries that rely on nuclear weapons is essential to accomplish significant moves.

“Diplomacy,” he said, “can produce wonderful results sometimes.”