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The World's Superpowers Aren't About to Give Up Their Nukes

In April 2009, President Barack Obama went before a crowd in Prague and delivered the first major foreign-policy address of his then-young presidency. He made an astonishing proclamation: "Today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly -- perhaps not in my lifetime."

Regardless of his commitment, Obama was right about one thing: That goal would not be reached in his lifetime. New data released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Monday, June 16, shows that the world's superpowers, including the United States, are in no hurry to scrap their nukes. Although there are fewer nuclear weapons overall, the globe's nuclear powers are modernizing their arsenals and pursuing technological innovations even as their arsenals dwindle.

Since the Cold War's end, the number of nuclear weapons in the world has steadily declined, the last four years seeing a pickup in pace. Between 2010 and 2014, globally the number of nuclear warheads dropped from 22,600 to 16,300; a 28 percent decrease:

But don't declare the world a nuke-free zone yet.

"Once again this year, the nuclear weapon-possessing states took little action to indicate a genuine willingness to work toward complete dismantlement of their nuclear arsenals," SIPRI researchers Shannon Kile and Phillip Patton Schell said Monday.

Nuclear arms-race inventors Russia and the United States possess 93 percent of all nuclear weapons. Reductions of their respective nuclear arsenals account for most of the precipitous drop of the last four years. But even as the total number of nuclear weapons is decreasing, all five legally recognized nuclear weapons states are developing or deploying new nuclear weapons delivery systems, according to SIPRI:

The United States is plowing $350 billion into modernizing its nuclear forces. Those upgrades include a new class of missiles for its nuclear submarines and a new land-based intercontinental missile. Russia, meanwhile, is retiring all Soviet-era intercontinental ballistic missiles and hopes to finish in the next decade. However, it is also building a new class of ballistic-missile submarine.

The smaller players are following suit. China is expanding and modernizing its arsenal, with plans to outfit its submarines with nuclear weapons. Last year, India successfully tested for the second time its road-mobile intercontinental missile, which is capable of hitting targets everywhere in China. Meanwhile, Pakistan, India's historical rival, is boosting its capacity to produce fissile materials.

Not legally recognized as a nuclear power but plowing ahead nonetheless, North Korea is developing its stock of deadly weapons. Last year it started trying to improve plutonium production.

Indeed, Obama's goal looks far off.

Graphics: Catherine Traywick, Tony Papousek / FP

Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

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NATO Claims to Have Solved the Curious Case of the Ukrainian Mystery Tanks

Last week three tanks appeared on the roadways of Ukraine, but no one quite knew where they came from. Ukraine's beleaguered government in Kiev claimed they were Russian. American diplomats agreed but Moscow fervently denied that they gave Ukrainian separatists three main tanks. Now NATO has weighed in, releasing a set of satellite images seemingly confirming that the tanks came from Russian territory.

The images show an area near Rostov-on-Don where Russian forces had staged prior to a recent withdrawal. The area is about 55 miles from the Ukrainian border by road. The far left image, taken May 30, shows a portion of Russia's military buildup along the Ukrainian border. The image does not include any main battle tanks. The middle image, taken June 6, shows those forces departing as part of a purported effort to de-escalate the crisis. Although the bulk of the Russian forces present in the first image have departed, eight main battle tanks have since arrived. They are highlighted at the bottom of the panel. By June 11, the number of tanks has grown to 10: Three remain at the bottom of the panel; seven are highlighted just off the image (more on the latter seven in a moment). (Click on the image for a larger view.)

The next image takes the third panel above and offers a detailed look at four sections. The four on the right are in training areas, according to NATO. The top left box shows the tanks in the parking area. Immediately below , three tanks are allegedly loaded onto heavy-equipment transporters that NATO says are "the primary method of moving Main Battle Tanks over road networks."

So what do these images actually show? According to NATO, the placement of three tanks on transporters is key, suggesting their "imminent movement by road." The photograph showing the three tanks aboard transporters was taken on June 11. A day later the Ukrainian government claimed three tanks crossed from Russia into eastern Ukraine.

Shortly thereafter, three tanks were spotted moving across eastern Ukrainian roadways. Video footage of the tanks was posted on YouTube, which I wrote about earlier. In screenshots from those videos, NATO identifies the tanks as T-64s (contrary to my claim that they were likely T-72s):

Lastly, NATO points out that the tanks spotted in eastern Ukraine do not bear the markings of Ukrainian T-64s. Some observers speculated that the tanks were stolen from Ukrainian armed forces. Although the alliance does not say so explicitly, pointing out the tanks' markings is likely an effort to rebut that claim.

The NATO images are no smoking gun but compelling circumstantial evidence of Russian involvement; circumstantial being the key word.

NATO/DigitalGlobe