By John LaForge
In June 2022, Nukewatch was privileged to attend the first United Nations meeting of state parties to the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Vienna. During a side event sponsored by ICAN, Prof. Moritz Kütt from the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, surprisingly said that nuclear sharing did not violate the 1970 Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), “because the U.S. hadn’t transferred control of nuclear weapons to foreign pilots.” Nukewatch’s John LaForge approached Prof. Kütt afterward and challenged him on the treaty’s precise language. Articles I and II prohibit any transfer of nuclear weapons among treaty governments, or the transfer of control over them — the ‘or’ being the crucial term.
The push-back may have been worthwhile. In the July 28 edition of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Prof. Kütt along with Pavel Podvig, and Zia Mian, reports in no uncertain terms that: “The NPT prohibits both the acquisition of nuclear weapons by non-weapon states and the transfer of nuclear weapons to such countries by the five nuclear weapon states who are parties (Russia, China, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France).”
Nukewatch was also lucky enough to participate in the ICAN Forum “Act on It,” which took place in the beautiful capital city of Oslo, Norway last March. The conference focused on promoting and strengthening the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
The issue of nuclear sharing was again raised in Oslo, when one ICAN presenter said to the gathering that the practice was “both legal and illegal.” This garbled statement prompted a discussion during a lunch meeting. Again Nukewatch suggested that ICAN formally shame nuclear sharing by declaring it to be unlawful. The same case was later made in writing to ICAN’s interim Executive Director Daniel Högsta. Nukewatch asked that ICAN further stigmatize the policy by officially declaring (then exclusively U.S., but now also Russian) nuclear sharing “a violation of the Nonproliferation Treaty.”
Again, the advocacy seems to have been valuable. In Vienna this past August 2, ICAN campaigner Elisabeth Saar from Germany delivered the organization’s formal statement to the United Nations Preparatory Committee for the 2026 NPT Review Conference. ICAN’s statement focused on nuclear sharing, and clearly condemned the practice, noting that it “runs counter to the fundamental tenets of the Treaty and is a threat to the entire regime.” ICAN’s repudiation declared emphatically, “Such deployments must be brought to an immediate end.”
Russia reverts to U.S. practice
In June 2023, President Vladimir Putin complicated the opposition to nuclear sharing by announcing that Russia had moved a number of its nuclear weapons to Belarus, its ally and neighbor, “with more nuclear weapons on the way,” and that “by the end of the summer, by the end of this year, we will complete this work,” The Guardian reported.
The destabilizing move came in the midst of the NATO proxy war in Ukraine, and was the first time in over 20 years that Russia has stationed nuclear weapons outside its borders.
The United States downplayed the Russian action. “We don’t see any indications that Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said June 17 after President Vladimir Putin’s announcement. Mr. Putin said earlier that the practice would not violate the non-proliferation treaty — just as the United States claims about its nuclear weapons stationed in five European NATO states.
“There is nothing unusual here either,” Putin said, according to the BBC. “Firstly, the United States has been doing this for decades. They have long deployed their tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of their allied countries.”
The July 28 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists provided some background on the June announcement that Russia had moved some of its nuclear weapons to neighboring Belarus.
The authors report that in the mid-‘60s Soviet nuclear weapons were sent to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Mongolia, Poland, East Germany, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine. After its 1991 collapse, the USSR had removed all its weapons from Eastern Europe by 1996.
The return of Russian nuclear bombs to Belarus is the first such transfer in 27 years while the U.S. weapons have been in Europe without pause since 1954.
Most NPT member states for almost three decades have raised their concerns over the practice, the Bulletin reports, particularly after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
China is the only NPT nuclear-weapon state now consistently opposed to nuclear sharing, and has recommended that the United Stares “refrain from deploying nuclear weapons in any other region.” The reference is to suggestions from leaders in Poland and South Korea that they too would welcome U.S. nuclear weapons in their territory.
In June, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki even said, “Due to the fact that Russia intends to site tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, we are all the more asking the whole of NATO about taking part in the nuclear sharing program,” according to Stars and Stripes.