Panelists at the session “Nuclear Weapons and the Law: The Ukraine War and Beyond,” presented at the 32nd Annual Review of the Field of National Security Law Conference, discussed Russia’s potential use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine and the advancing nuclear weapons programs in China, North Korea and Iran.
The U.S. and Russia possess more than 80% of the nuclear warheads in the world, said panelist Madelyn Creedon, president of the Green Marble Group and former deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration within the U.S. Department of Energy. Those countries’ nuclear arsenals are capped under the new START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Russia that expires in February 2026. While Russia has more nuclear weapons overall than the U.S., Creedon said it’s not just about numbers of warheads.
“It’s your nuclear forces in the context of your other forces, in context of your conventional forces … and your other tools of government,” such as economic sanctions. “So (numbers are) important but they’re not definitive,” she said, adding that China has fewer nuclear weapons in its arsenal, but is on an “upward tick.”
Though the U.S. and Russia are considered peers at the strategic level, Russia’s accelerated development of nonstrategic nuclear weapons is especially concerning in light of its threats against Ukraine. “This is what (Russian President Vladimir) Putin has used to coerce … NATO to stay out of this fight, because they do have many more nonstrategic weapons,” Creedon said.
While both the U.S. and Russia have programs to modernize their aging nuclear systems, Russia has made faster progress, said panelist Leonor Tomero, a member of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense at the U.S. Department of Defense. “(Russia) is paranoid about our nuclear missile defense, which is really aimed at North Korea and Iran.”
Putin has been warned by U.S. officials, both privately and publicly, that the use of a nuclear weapon would fundamentally change the conflict.
“One of the key takeaways for Putin … is that he severely miscalculated in attacking Ukraine,” Tomero said. “There’s been a world reaction. NATO has come together, you’ve got Finland and Sweden joining NATO, and China now is warning Russia not to use a nuclear weapon. There’s been a really clear message, and hopefully an effective message, to Russia that they better not miscalculate again.”
- “Keynote Address for the Commencement of the 50th Anniversary of the Arms Control Association” by Mallory Stewart, assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance
- National Security Law Today podcast: “In Ukraine, There Are No Quick Fixes”
- ABA Standing Committee on Law and National Security
- ABA Journal: “How and why Kazakhstan gave up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons”