Russia Negotiations: A Window of Opportunity for a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in Eastern Europe 

Proponents of nuclear weapons disarmament should use the Russian negotiations to further the humanitarian push for arms control, leading to a nuclear weapon free zone (NWFZ) in eastern Europe.

As part of President Putin’s security demands, Moscow is continuing to push the West to negotiate arms control and reciprocal limits on missiles[1] and reviving parts of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in Europe.[2]

Following Monday and Wednesday’s talks in Geneva and Brussels, both Washington and NATO have signalled their willingness to engage with this proposal.[3][4] The Economist’s Defence Editor, Shashank Joshi, described this thinking as “pragmatic cooperation.”

The INF Treaty – abandoned by former President Trump in 2019 – seeks to eliminate nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. 

The logic of the 1987 INF Treaty is that both sides would not position medium range missiles in Europe. These nuclear capable missiles could reach their intended targets within minutes, causing mass destruction and significant human and environmental loss.

One of President Putin’s 17 December[5] proposals was that the NATO alliance shouldn’t “deploy military forces and weaponry on the territory of any of the other States in Europe” that were not already in place before May 1997[6]  – when the first eastern European countries were invited to join the alliance.

Most of Putin’s 17 December proposals are “impossible to accept”[7], but some form of arms control in eastern Europe should not be considered unreasonable.

It should be considered a negotiation and humanitarian success if the U.S. and NATO agreed to remove any missiles it has from the former Warsaw Pact countries. This would signal to Moscow, in particular the Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov – who insinuated U.S. obstinance in Monday’s Geneva talks[8] – that the U.S. and NATO are willing to negotiate. Humanitarians should applaud  steps taken towards disarmament. Ukraine and Europe should commend and encourage the cooperation.

Proponents of nuclear weapon disarmament,  in particular ICAN, the Ban Monitor and the UK’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament should also use this rare window of opportunity to lobby all parties to find common ground and agree to nuclear weapon disarmament – albeit limited to the geographical confines of eastern Europe.

Nuclear Weapons in Eastern Europe

22 January marks the one year anniversary of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

The TPNW seeks the total elimination of nuclear weapons to ensure they are never used again. The TPNW is the legal instrument that represents the next incremental leap from the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The TPNW seeks to implement the NPT’s overall strategy of nuclear disarmament, and can be seen as putting the NPT’s Article VI, the obligation to pursue nuclear disarmament “into practice.”[9] It has been described as “filling a legal gap”[10] left by the NPT; the explicit prohibition of nuclear weapons.

There are now 58 member states to the TPNW, with Mongolia and Guinea-Bissau acceding in December 2021.[11]

No states in eastern Europe have signed or ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), mainly because of NATO.

NATO’s nuclear umbrella protection, which extends to most of the SEE states renders accession to the TPNW incompatible. The TPNW is clear; nuclear umbrella protection states or “client states”,[12] cannot accede to the TPNW. NATO is clear too; it organisationally opposes the TPNW, believing its nuclear capability is at the heart of its strategic defence alliance.[13]

Despite this, influential NATO Allies: Belgium, Germany and Italy have all indicated dissatisfaction with their tacit endorsement of nuclear weapon deterrence.[14]

As early as 2010 NATO itself began to signal that it will “seek to create the conditions for further reductions in the future”,[15] albeit linking such steps, as David Yost has pointed out, to a more forthcoming attitude from Russia on this matter.[16]

That year, President Obama cancelled the deployment of equipment previously scheduled to be introduced in Poland and the Czech Republic.[17]

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Trump’s administration in 2017 however forced the alliance to “adapt its posture to a constant deterioration of the strategic landscape.”[18]

Bulgaria, Croatia, then Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2015 expressed concern about new weapons being produced by nuclear weapon states.[19]

Former foreign ministers, presidents and prime ministers of Croatia, Albania, Greece, Slovakia, Hungary and Czechia all signed an open letter in 2020 imploring current leaders to “show courage and boldness” and join the TPNW.[20] The New York Times described the letter as “one of the highest-profile endorsements of the treaty since it was completed more than three years ago.”[21]

Other eastern European countries of Moldova[22], Serbia[23], Greece[24], North Macedonia[25], Bosnia and Herzegovina[26] have all signalled dissatisfaction with the risk that nuclear weapons will be present.

Ukraine, the state at the heart of these negotiations, has also been clear about its position on nuclear weapons. Ukraine has previously called for the cessation of modernisation programmes.[27] Ukraine went even further, reiterating “the importance of nuclear weapon free zones, which should be established on the basis of arrangements among the States of the region concerned.”[28]

Ukraine’s final point should be hugely poignant and significant for proponents of nuclear weapon disarmament.

The removal of any NATO and U.S. weapons in eastern Europe may not only serve strategic advantage, but it will also support humanitarian initiatives, toppling the dominos towards a nuclear weapon free zone in eastern Europe.


Luke James has worked at the International Criminal Court, the OSCE, the Center for the Study of Democracy, the British Red Cross and is currently coordinating the South East Europe and Black Sea region series of The Peace and Security Monitor project at the Platform for Peace and Humanity. He has several publications, including two on nuclear weapons, very recently here and here and is also a content writer for a United Nations Volunteers affiliated NGO in Bosnia. Luke has owned a small international business for nine years and a first class Public International Law Master’s degree with specialization in weapons law from the University of Amsterdam. He is an army reservist, teaching transitional justice as part of a human security package.


[1] Jennifer Rankinin, Luke Hardingin and Julian Borger, (12/1/2022) NATO chief warns of ‘real risk of conflict’ as talks with Russia over Ukraine end, The Guardian, accessed 12/01/2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jan/12/nato-chief-warns-of-real-risk-of-conflict-as-talks-with-russia-over-ukraine-end.

[2] Economist, (11/1/2022), Talking out his asks: Putin’s NATO demands, at 5:21, accessed 12/01/2022, https://open.spotify.com/episode/7eP1wG0OsjUuhcUzoCkJY3?si=J8SqigcISWS3N10jpuWLTw.

[3] Dmitry Antonov and Tom Balmforth, (11/1/2022), Russia holds tank drills near Ukraine, sounds downbeat on talks, Reuters, accessed 12/01/2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/us/kremlin-says-its-not-optimistic-us-talks-wont-let-them-drag-2022-01-11/.

[4] Jennifer Rankinin, Luke Hardingin and Julian Borger, (12/1/2022) NATO chief warns of ‘real risk of conflict’ as talks with Russia over Ukraine end, The Guardian, accessed 12/01/2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jan/12/nato-chief-warns-of-real-risk-of-conflict-as-talks-with-russia-over-ukraine-end.

[5] Steven Pifer, (21/12/2021) Russia’s draft agreements with NATO and the United States: Intended for rejection? Brookings Institute, accessed 12/1/2022, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/12/21/russias-draft-agreements-with-nato-and-the-united-states-intended-for-rejection/.

[6] Henry Meyer and Ilya Arkhipov, (17/12/2021), Russia Demands NATO Pullback in Security Talks With U.S., accessed 12/1/2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-12-17/russia-demands-nato-return-to-1997-in-security-treaty-proposals.

[7] RFERL, (19/12/2021) Top U.S. Senator Accuses Russia Of Trying To Create ‘Pretext For War’, accessed 12/1/2022, https://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-russia-us-risch-troop-buildup/31616014.html.

[8] Dmitry Antonov and Tom Balmforth, (11/1/2022), Russia holds tank drills near Ukraine, sounds downbeat on talks, Reuters, accessed 12/01/2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/us/kremlin-says-its-not-optimistic-us-talks-wont-let-them-drag-2022-01-11/.

[9] Erasto, (2019), The NPT and the TPNW: Compatible or conflicting nuclear weapons treaties?, accessed 31/12/2021, https://www.sipri.org/commentary/blog/2019/npt-and-tpnw- compatible-or-conflicting-nuclear-weapons-treaties.

[10] Kimball, (2020) A Turning Point in the Struggle Against the Bomb: The Nuclear Ban Treaty Ready to Go Into Effect, accessed 26/12/2021, https://www.justsecurity.org/73050/a-turning-point-in-the-struggle-against-the-bomb-the-nuclear-ban-treaty-ready- to-go-into-effect/.

[11] UNODA, (2021) Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, accessed 27/12/2021, https://treaties.unoda.org/t/tpnw.

[12] Nick Ritchie & Ambassador Alexander Kmentt, (2021) Universalising the TPNW: Challenges and Opportunities, Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, 4:1, 70-93, DOI: 10.1080/25751654.2021.1935673.

[13] NATO, (2020), North Atlantic Council Statement as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons Enters Into Force, accessed 28/12/2021, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_180087.htm.

[14] Luke James, (31/12/2021), The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: Towards a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in South East Europe? In Platform for Peace and Humanity, accessed 12/1/2022, https://peacehumanity.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/SEE-BSR-Issue-1.pdf.

[15] NATO, (2010) Active Engagement, Modern Defence. Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, accessed 28/12/2021, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_82705.htm.

[16] Hans Kristensen, (2011) “10 NATO Countries Want More Transparency for Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons”, in FAS Strategic Security Blog, accessed 28/12/2021, https://fas.org/blogs/security/2011/04/natoproposal.

[17] Leopoldo Nuti, (2021) NATO’s Role in Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Arms Control: A (Critical) History in Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), accessed 20/12/2021, https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep28795.

[18] Leopoldo Nuti, (2021) NATO’s Role in Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Arms Control: A (Critical) History in Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), accessed 20/12/2021, https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep28795.

[19] Australian Mission to the United Nations (2015), Statement on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons, accessed 29/12/2021, https://www.un.org/en/conf/npt/2015/statements/pdf/HCG_en.pdf.

[20] ICAN, (2021), NATO: A Non-Nuclear Alliance, accessed 29/12/2021, https://www.icanw.org/report_nato_tpnw.

[21] Rick Gladstone, (2020) Former Leaders Urge Ratification of Treaty Barring Nuclear Weapons, accessed 29/12/2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/20/world/treaty-nuclear-arms-united-nations.html.

[22] Moldova mission to the UN, (2019), Statement on the NPT, accessed 29/12/2021, https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament- fora/npt/prepcom19/statements/30April_Moldova.pdf.

[23] Republic of Serbia, (2018), Statement, accessed 29/12/2021 https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament- fora/1com/1com18/statements/17Oct_Serbia.pdf.

[24] Permanent Mission of Greece to the UN, (2021), Statement, accessed 29/12/2021, https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament- fora/1com/1com21/statements/7Oct_Greece.pdf.

[25] ICAN, (2021), North Macedonia, accessed 30/12/2021, https://www.icanw.org/north_macedonia.

[26] Bosnia and Herzegovina mission to the UN, (2016), Statement, accessed 29/12/2021, https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament- fora/1com/1com16/statements/5Oct_BH.pdf.

[27] Nuclear Information Service (2021), Nuclear Weapon Modernisation: Attitudes of Non-Nuclear Weapon States, accessed 29/12/2021, https://www.nuclearinfo.org/wp- content/uploads/2021/08/Attitudes-to-Nuclear-Weapons- Modernisation.pdf.

[28] Ukraine Delegation to UN General Assembly, (2021) Statement by the Delegation of Ukraine at the General Debate of the First Committee of the 76th session of the UN General Assembly, accessed 29/12/2021, https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament- fora/1com/1com21/statements/5Oct_Ukraine.pdf.

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