According to a senior US arms control official, the Kremlin has violated its international obligations by escalating nuclear tensions amid the war in Ukraine and urging some countries to reconsider their reliance on Russia for nuclear fuel and technology.
Bonnie Jenkins, undersecretary for arms control and international security at the State Department, said the US stands ready to help allies in Eastern Europe overcome their dependence on Moscow.
“We have non-proliferation treaty obligations, and threatening non-nuclear-weapon states is not something a nuclear-weapon state should do,” Jenkins said in an interview with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. “This saber-rattling is certainly not good. There were no threats against Russia.”
Just two days after Vladimir Putin’s troops invaded Ukraine, he placed Russia’s nuclear forces in a “special regime of combat use” after warning that any nation interfering with the invasion “would suffer consequences that you have never experienced in your history”.
The unprecedented public alert forced security analysts to reconsider some long-held assumptions about the stability of the global security landscape.
American officials signaled growing concern that if his war in Ukraine falls short of his goals, Putin may escalate rather than retreat, raising the specter of carpet bombing of Ukrainian cities and the use of weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological weapons.
Washington said last week it was working with North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners to mitigate the risk of a possible nuclear incident linked to the Kremlin invasion. The presence of Russian troops at Ukraine’s nuclear facilities, along with the bombing of a US-backed nuclear laboratory and landfill sites, has increased that likelihood, according to American officials.
“People are currently concerned about what Russian troops are doing at Ukrainian facilities,” said Jenkins, who was attending an IAEA nuclear safety meeting in the Austrian capital. She called on the Kremlin to “de-escalate the language” it uses to make nuclear threats.
IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi traveled to Ukraine on Tuesday to hold consultations on the safety of the country’s 15 nuclear power plants. The war has “put radioactive material facilities in unprecedented danger,” the Argentine diplomat said in a statement.
Jenkins said changing Russia’s nuclear stance violated its responsibilities as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. The Kremlin’s aggression against civilian nuclear facilities in Ukraine has also exposed weaknesses in the catalog of international nuclear safety regulations, she said.
The aftermath of the war is already affecting neighboring countries that depend on Russian nuclear technology and fuel beyond Ukraine’s borders, Jenkins said. The state-controlled company Rosatom – the world’s largest supplier of nuclear fuel and reactors – is the subject of possible sanctions. It operates more than a dozen reactors in Central and Eastern Europe and is building new ones across Asia and the Middle East.
“They’re starting to think about that,” said Jenkins, who cautioned that the move from Rosatom “can’t happen overnight.”
In the years leading up to the war, the US allowed Ukraine to weaken Rosatom’s hold on its nuclear fuel market. The Department of Energy worked with Westinghouse Electric to replicate fuel assemblies and optimize Ukrainian reactors.
The partnership ended for decades when Ukrainian utilities became hostages to a single supplier. It will gain even more traction as countries from Bulgaria to Slovakia to the Czech Republic look for new sources of fuel.