US, European and Russian security experts urge review of nuclear weapons safeguards

Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File
FILE – In image from video released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Oct. 26, 2022, a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile is test-fired as part of Russia’s nuclear drills from a launch site in Plesetsk, northwestern Russia. The Biden administration is faulting Russia for failing to allow on-the-ground nuclear inspections, accusing Moscow of endangering arms control efforts. The administration delivered its assessment Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, in a report to Congress.

A group of American, European and Russian national security professionals are urging nuclear weapons states to strengthen safeguards surrounding deployment procedures of the weapons, warning that Russia’s war in Ukraine is raising the risk of an unintended nuclear confrontation.

In a letter published Friday, 38 current and former political and security leaders from across the Euro-Atlantic region, including Russia and the U.S., called for renewed efforts among nuclear-armed states, in particular Moscow and Washington, to strengthen procedures that guard against the “unauthorized, inadvertent or accidental” use of nuclear weapons.

The letter’s signatories call for “dialogue on these issues between nuclear-weapons states must be restored irrespective of current circumstances,” but avoid calling Russia out for canceling two scheduled meetings with U.S. officials related to an expiring nuclear arms treaty.

The organizers of the letter include former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who is now president of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Russian think tank established in 2010 to be an interlocutor between civil society, academia and business and the Russian state. 

Other signatories include former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), now the co-chair of the Nuclear Threat Initiative who helped lead efforts to dispose of nuclear and chemical weapons following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and former British Foreign Secretary Des Browne, the vice chair of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

The signatories call specifically for nuclear-weapons states to conduct internal reviews of their nuclear command-and-control systems, including “fail-safe” steps to strengthen safeguards against cyber threats and “unauthorized, inadvertent, or accidental use of a nuclear weapon.”

The signatories highlight the U.S. as having recently started undertaking such a review. 

“The need for urgent action is clear: Each nation with nuclear arms has a responsibility to reduce the risk of nuclear blunder, and nations must work together to eliminate nuclear risks and threats, and avoid any military clash of nuclear powers,” the signatories wrote.

“For too long, the risk of an accident, mistake, or miscalculation leading to broader conflict, including nuclear use, has loomed over all of us. Nuclear-weapons states and their allies must give themselves every feasible tool to prevent a mistake or blunder from turning into a catastrophe beyond imagination.”

Russian officials have called off two opportunities to meet U.S. officials — called the Bilateral Consultative Commission — that are required as part of the New START nuclear arms treaty that is set to expire in 2026. 

Nuclear nonproliferation and security experts have warned that time is running out to negotiate a follow to New START, which established a framework to reduce and limit the number of strategic offensive arms each country possesses and will place the world in a dangerous security environment without a framework for managing weapons of mass destruction.

Russian officials have rattled the nuclear saber by warning that Moscow could deploy such weapons as part of its war in Ukraine, although Western officials have noted that push back on such rhetoric from the U.S. and warnings from leaders like Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have helped reduce the threat of a nuclear attack.


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