In the aftermath of the Russian accession of Crimea in March 2014, the G8 has receded back into the G7 with the suspension of Russia from the club of industrialized economies. Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian territory violates a number of international laws, including Article 2(4) of the Charter of the United Nations (UN) and the Helsinki Final Act, a Soviet-era declaration ensuring the territorial integrity of states applied to Ukraine through the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. In return for its sovereign territorial security, Ukraine voluntarily surrendered its arsenal of nuclear weapons, which were inherited from the Soviet Union. This is only one of many nonproliferation agreements that Russia is a party to, and the integrity of those accords is now in question. Moreover, what does the nuclear weapons state’s suspension from the G8 mean for international nonproliferation efforts in general?

Russia and Nonproliferation

As the possessor of the largest nuclear weapons stockpile, Russia’s role in nonproliferation has always been essential. Even before the fall of the Soviet Union, the need to stifle the spread of weapons of mass destruction was well understood, with the ratification of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968. This was followed by the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) between the United States and Soviet Union, which then resulted in the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 1972. Most recently, the United States and Russia agreed upon the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in 2011, which mandates the reduction of strategic missile launchers by both parties. These multilateral and bilateral treaties have proven to be successful in promoting nuclear arms reductions; however, neither the United States nor Russia has any interest in being the first to unilaterally dismantle their entire nuclear weapons stockpiles, especially given the growing stockpiles of China, India, and Pakistan.

Since the Russian annexation of Crimea, bilateral relations between the United States and Russia have faltered on both sides. This includes proposals by Russia to suspend New START obligations and by the U.S. Congress to suspend nuclear nonproliferation cooperation. Despite this, aid for nuclear security cooperation has continued and will for the foreseeable future; the threat of nuclear terrorism is too great to do otherwise.

Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances

One of the greatest concerns regarding Russia today is the blatant disregard for the Budapest Memorandum. Since Ukraine voluntarily gave up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons in 1994, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom committed to respect Kiev’s independence and sovereign territory (and provide international aid as compensation). In addition to infringing upon the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Russia has threatened to use nuclear weapons in order to keep its hold on Crimea, which is yet another violation of the Memorandum. Although it is unlikely that Russia would actually engage in a nuclear strike against Ukraine, the marked increase in nuclear exercises by Moscow is a serious demonstration of both capabilities and will.

As a result of Russia’s actions, there has been increased discussion within Ukraine about the re-acquisition of nuclear weapons, amidst a rising belief that surrendering the weapons in the first place was a mistake. Hindsight is 20/20, but who knows if a nuclear deterrent would have actually prevented this Russian aggression. Discussions aside, it is unlikely that Ukraine will develop nuclear weapons in the near future because of its commitments to the nuclear nonproliferation regime and threat reduction efforts with the United States.

The G8 and Nonproliferation

Beyond bilateral and regional relations, nonproliferation is also a prevalent multilateral issue addressed in a variety of international venues. In addition to the UN, which has numerous committees and institutions devoted to nonproliferation and disarmament affairs, the G8 has consistently acted as a forum for these discussions.

Annually, the G7/G8 facilitates the meeting of heads of government through a Summit process to address a variety of global issues, including economic, energy, and international security concerns. Russia was invited to join the G7 in 1998 in an effort to bolster relations between the former Soviet hegemon and the West. Ironically, Russia held the presidency of the G8 in 2014, and meetings were scheduled to be hosted by Moscow (with the Summit planned for Sochi in June). In the aftermath of Russia’s suspension, the G7 attended the 2014 Summit in Brussels on June 4-5 instead.

One of the major topics of discussion at the Summits is nonproliferation and disarmament, including a yearly declaration. In 2002 at the Kananaskis Summit, the G8 formed the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction (GP). Created in response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the GP funds targeted nonproliferation projects to prevent terrorists from acquiring weapons or materials of mass destruction. The program initially focused on funding security implementations for Russia’s weapons stockpiles and infrastructure, but has since grown to support a variety of projects across the globe. Membership of the group, too, has grown to 27 countries and to include coordination with a number of international organizations.

Although not necessarily within the G8 framework, Global Partnership work has continued since the suspension of Russia. The expansion of the program membership and its beneficiaries allows for this. Furthermore, on June 5, the G7 issued its annual Declaration on Non-Proliferation and Disarmament for 2014 reiterating general commitments to preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and support for the NPT while also condemning Russia’s actions regarding Ukraine. For the G7, it is business as usual.

The Rise of the G20?

Even without the suspension of Russia from the G8, there has been considerable discussion calling for a new world order by incorporating more of the developing states into high-profile international dialogues. One avenue for such action would be the promotion of the G20 instead of the G7/G8; the G20 includes Brazil, China, India, and South Africa (with Russia, known as the BRICS). A potential issue? The BRICS supported Russia’s action in Crimea, despite the flagrant breaches of international law. And while the G20 has risen in prominence over the past decade, it is still primarily an economic forum and not necessarily equipped to appropriately address the range of security concerns that the G7/G8 has traditionally been tasked with.

In 2009, Ambassador Gregory Schulte, former U.S. Permanent Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and current Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, expertly analyzed how nonproliferation could be addressed at the G20 level. Among his points: the addition of India, Argentina, Brazil, China, Turkey, Indonesia, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia would make presenting a common front on nonproliferation difficult at best. On the other hand, engaging the G20 could improve naval interdiction efforts and the backing of nuclear fuel banks.

At this time, and given the continued current fiscal climate, the G20 is likely to remain as a purely economic forum, but it remains a viable option for addressing other security issues moving forward. (Note: Putin may also be prohibited from attending the G20 Summit in Brisbane this November.)

So, Does It Matter?

Nuclear nonproliferation has become such an ingrained aspect of international security that the suspension of Russia from the G8 has little implication on ongoing international efforts. The G7 has moved ahead with the Summit process without Moscow’s participation, and has issued its annual declaration on nonproliferation and disarmament. Global Partnership activities are proceeding as usual, and the broadening of projects and funding away from Russia has enabled this to occur without issue.

Thus, the greatest concern lies with Russia itself, and its commitment to bilateral cooperation with the United States. Undoubtedly, the most alarming aspect is Russia’s breaking of the Budapest Memorandum and pronounced nuclear posturing. The United States, along with its international partners, should seek to reaffirm Russia’s commitments to the nonproliferation nuclear security regimes, while continuing to support global and regional efforts to prevent the spread of weapons and materials of mass destruction.