How global nuclear weapons landscape has changed over 2023

Anti-nuclear weapons activists demonstrate outside of the the Kluczynski Federal Building on October 14, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. Picture: Scott Olson/Getty Images via AFP

Anti-nuclear weapons activists demonstrate outside of the the Kluczynski Federal Building on October 14, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. Picture: Scott Olson/Getty Images via AFP

Published Dec 31, 2023


From the collapse of landmark nuclear arms control treaties to renewed fears that the world may edge closer to using nuclear weapons in light of the Ukraine conflict, 2023 has been one of the most critical years for the global nuclear weapons landscape.

Crumbling nuclear arms control regime

In 2023, the world saw a significant erosion of the nuclear arms control architecture, involving the two major nuclear powers — Russia and the United States. In February, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced during his address to the Federal Assembly that Moscow was putting the brakes on its participation in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the last remaining nuclear arms control agreement between Russia and the US. Putin said Washington was pressing Moscow to respect its commitments under the pact while not doing so itself. He also made it clear Russia was only suspending, not terminating, its participation in the agreement.

Since then, the risks related to a possible nuclear conflict were exacerbated going into spring and summer amid Kiev's looming counteroffensive repeatedly announced by Ukrainian officials, Nikolai Sokov, a senior fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Nonproliferation, told Sputnik.

"The threat of nuclear use was highest since 1962 (higher than in 1983, for example). Hardly accidentally, public debate in Russia about limited nuclear use began – the first time in the nuclear era this was discussed so openly and bluntly, so it was significant. The failure of the Ukrainian offensive stabilized the nuclear situation. Worth noting that never, ever use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine has been discussed in Russia – if nuclear weapons are used, this will be against NATO, directly or indirectly," Sokov explained.

Another blow to the global nuclear arms control framework came later in the year as Russia revoked the ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), citing Washington's refusal to ratify the agreement. Despite numerous assurances from Russian officials that Moscow would continue to observe the moratorium on nuclear tests, some Western countries have criticized the move, urging Russia to reconsider its stance.

Commenting on all the developments in nuclear arms control in 2023, M. V. Ramana, the director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia, told Sputnik that risks of a direct military confrontation between Moscow and Washington remained quite high.

"There has always been a risk of nuclear war between the US and Russia and that continues to be the case," the expert stressed.

Nuclear sharing gains new dimension

The outgoing year also saw Russia place its nuclear weapons outside the country, which many officials say mirrors the US nuclear sharing arrangements with its allies in Europe. In late March, the Russian president announced that Moscow and Minsk had agreed to place Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, without breaching Russia's non-proliferation commitments. The deal also covers the construction of storage facilities and training. The decision was partially made in response to the expanding presence of US nuclear weapons across NATO, Russian officials said.

Russia's nuclear sharing with Belarus was one of the key changes in the global nuclear arms landscape in 2023, Sokov said, adding that the agreement between Moscow and Minsk was "underappreciated."

"Any change in nuclear posture is a major, very tangible signal. In short, the profile of nuclear weapons has increased and, furthermore, the focus is on Eastern Europe. Given rising tensions in that area, including the adjacent Baltic Sea, I'd pay very close attention," the expert continued.

Meanwhile, media reported in fall, citing US Air Force budget documents for fiscal year 2024, that the US could be planning to build a dormitory at the US-rented Lakenheath base in the United Kingdom for a possible deployment of US nuclear weapons in the UK. The potential plans, decried by Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, would mean the return of US nuclear arms to British soil for the first time since their withdrawal 15 years ago.

Arsenals increasingly upgraded

As tensions have been ratcheted up between key global powers, they grew heavily involved in modernization of their military capabilities, including the nuclear ones. Washington made several steps in this direction. In March, US President Joe Biden issued $37.7 billion for nuclear enterprise modernization in the fiscal year 2024 defense budget. Months later, the Pentagon said the US would pursue the development of a modern variant of B61 nuclear gravity bomb. Washington will continue efforts to modernize its nuclear capabilities, Sokov believes.

"The US has started on the new modernization track, which will continue for a long time, of course. These things are not done quickly. We are looking at serious qualitative upgrade there," the expert said.

Russia has also made significant efforts to upgrade the combat capabilities of its strategic nuclear forces. In September, the country put the Sarmat strategic missile system on combat duty, with the nuclear-capable weapon expected to considerably strengthen Russia's strategic missile forces, according to Russian state space corporation Roscosmos.

Dark horse in looming arms race

China was another key player in 2023, the experts said. The US, in particular, has expressed mounting concern over China's nuclear weapons, accusing Beijing of a "lack of transparency" as regards its alleged rapid buildup of nuclear arms. Washington has warned that China remains a major actor in this area going forward. The Pentagon said in its October report to Congress that China already possessed 500 nuclear warheads in 2023 and was projected to have more than 1,000 operational nuclear warheads by 2030.

"One can only speculate about China's reasons to expand its nuclear arsenal. One possible reason is concern about the US missile defense program. The growing arsenal means that China will not be susceptible to military threats from the United States or NATO, and its capacity to project threats in the region, for example at Taiwan, will increase," Ramana argued.

Sokov echoed the view on the lack of clarity of China's motives, claiming, however, that the country might seek a "more survivable nuclear posture" in the light of a worsening geopolitical situation.

"Although it will hardly reach the same level as Russia or the US, we are talking about a 'true' nuclear triangle, which is vastly more difficult to formalize than the dyadic US-Soviet/Russian balance. Hence, there will be more uncertainty, more motives for an arms race," the expert said.

Is Iran already capable of developing own nuclear bomb?

Iran and its controversial nuclear program have continued to be in the spotlight ever since former US President Donald Trump announced his country’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018. The issue drew even more attention in 2023 amid the stalled talks on the deal’s renewal and Tehran's alleged progress in enriching uranium to high levels. In October, the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a report that Iran had enriched enough uranium up to 60% purity, which is close to weapons-grade, for three nuclear bombs.

"There is no doubt Iran can acquire nuclear weapons — it has everything for that except a political decision. Although it is difficult to predict with high certainty, it does not seem that Iran will make such a decision in the foreseeable future," Sokov stated.

The expert also opined that restarting the JCPOA could be possible in "a few years" if it is reshaped.

"Effectively, what is needed to complement Iran's political decision to remain non-nuclear is assurances ... that it remains non-nuclear. The main stumbling block is economic sanctions, of course, but even that may be solvable with enough urgency and political will," he explained.