Russia blocks adoption of UN nuclear agreement over mention of Ukraine

Four-week review of Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty ends without final document

A serviceman with a Russian flag on his uniform stands guard near Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant outside the Russian-controlled city of Enerhodar.  Reuters
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Russia on Friday blocked agreement on the final document of a four-week review of a UN nuclear disarmament treaty because of criticism of its military takeover of Europe’s largest nuclear plant in Ukraine, an act that has raised fears of a nuclear disaster.

Igor Vishnevetsky, deputy director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Department, told the delayed final meeting of the conference reviewing the 50-year-old Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty that “unfortunately there is no consensus on this document”.

He insisted that many countries — not just Russia — did not agree with “a whole host of issues” in the 36-page final draft.

The document needed approval of all countries that are party to the treaty aimed at curbing the spread of nuclear weapons and ultimately achieving a world without them.

Argentine Ambassador Gustavo Zlauvinen, president of the conference, said the final draft represented his best efforts to address divergent views and the expectations of the parties “for a progressive outcome” at a moment in history when “our world is increasingly wracked by conflicts, and, most alarmingly, the ever growing prospect of the unthinkable nuclear war.”

But after Mr Vishnevetsky spoke, Mr Zlauvinen told delegates: “I see that at this point, the conference is not in a position to achieve agreement on its substantive work.”

The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty review conference was supposed to be held every five years but was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

This marked the second failure of its 191 state parties to produce an outcome document. The last review conference, in 2015, ended without an agreement because of differences over establishing a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction.

Those differences have not gone away but are being discussed, and the draft outcome documents obtained by the Associated Press would have reaffirmed the importance of establishing a nuclear-free Midd East zone. So, this was not viewed as a major stumbling block this year.

The issue that changed the dynamics of the conference was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia was a “potent” nuclear power and that any attempt to interfere would lead to “consequences you have never seen”.

He also put Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert.

Mr Putin has since stepped back, saying that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”, a message reiterated by a senior Russian official on the opening day of the conference on August 2.

A composite of satellite images shows smoke rising from fires at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in south-eastern Ukraine on August  24, 2022. Planet Labs PBC via AP

But the Russian leader’s initial threat and the occupation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in south-eastern Ukraine as well as the takeover of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986, renewed fears of a nuclear emergency.

The four references in the draft final document to the Zaporizhzhia plant, where Russia and Ukraine accuse each other of shelling, would have had the parties to the treaty express “grave concern for the military activities” at or near the facility and other nuclear plants.

It also would have recognised Ukraine’s loss of control and the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inability to ensure the plant’s nuclear material is safeguarded. It supported IAEA efforts to visit Zaporizhzhia to ensure there is no diversion of its nuclear materials, a trip the agency’s director is hoping to organise in the coming days.

The draft also expressed “grave concern” at the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities, in particular Zaporizhzhia, and stressed “the paramount importance of ensuring control by Ukraine’s competent authorities”.

After the conference’s failure to adopt the document, dozens of countries took the floor to express their views.

Indonesia, speaking on behalf of the Nonaligned Movement comprising 120 developing countries, expressed disappointment at the failure, calling the final document “of utmost importance”.

Yann Hwang, France’s ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, read a statement on behalf of 56 countries and the European Union reaffirming unwavering support to Ukraine and deploring Russia’s “dangerous nuclear rhetoric, actions and provocative statements about raising its nuclear alert level”.

The countries expressed deep concern that Russia is undermining international peace and the objectives of the treaty “by waging its illegal war of aggression against Ukraine”.

Andrei Belousov, Russia’s deputy delegation head, said the conference had become “a political hostage” to countries that were “poisoning discussions” with political language on Ukraine and were determined “to settle scores with Russia by raising issues that are not directly related to the treaty”.

These states, namely Ukraine and the backers of the Kyiv regime, bear full responsibility for the absence of a final positive result
Andrei Belousov, deputy head of Russia’s delegation

“These states, namely Ukraine and the backers of the Kyiv regime, bear full responsibility for the absence of a final positive result,” he said.

Adam Scheinman, the US special representative for nuclear non-proliferation, said the final draft did not name Russia.

He said it understated the situation at the Zaporizhzhia plant “and failed to acknowledge what we all know to be true — that the risk of radiological disaster only exists because of Russia’s war of choice”.

“Russia is the reason we do not have consensus today,” Mr Scheinman said. “The last-minute changes that Russia sought were not of a minor character. They were intended to shield Russia’s obvious intent to wipe Ukraine off the map.”

Under the treaty's provisions, the five original nuclear powers — the US, China, Russia (then the Soviet Union), Britain and France — agreed to negotiate towards eliminating their arsenals someday and nations without nuclear weapons promised not to acquire them in exchange for a guarantee to be able to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

The draft final document would have expressed deep concern “that the threat of nuclear weapons use today is higher than at any time since the heights of the Cold War and at the deteriorated international security environment”. It would also have committed parties to the treaty “to making every effort to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again”.

Rebecca Johnson, a British nuclear analyst and co-founder of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, said that “after weeks of negotiations at a time of war, unprecedented global risks and heightened nuclear threats, it is clearer than ever now that nuclear abolition is urgent and necessary”.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, said: “This conference represents a missed opportunity to strengthen the treaty and global security by agreeing to a specific action plan with benchmarks and time frames that is essential to effectively address the growing dangers of nuclear arms racing and nuclear weapons use.”

Updated: August 27, 2022, 12:39 PM