Truth or Dare - Transparency and Ambiguity in the Nuclear Realm

| Working paper

Both transparency, the provision of detailed, accurate, and verifiable information about arsenals and strategies, and ambiguity, the intentional obfuscation of such information to keep others guessing, play roles in deterrence strategies for pretty much all states, nuclear-capable or not. States also practice transparency because of various international obligations.


In this paper, we examine the logic for and against nuclear weapons transparency and how it manifests itself in the attitudes and behaviors of countries which believe they benefit from nuclear deterrence. We show how states that possess or are otherwise protected by nuclear weapons, including the two countries that hold the lion’s share of the global arsenal, the Russian Federation and the United States, choose transparency and ambiguity situationally, mainly in service of deterrence goals and arms control and disarmament commitments. But the specifics of what this means, already in flux in anticipation of a new period of great power competition, are now shifting further as large-scale conflict continues in Ukraine.

Policy recommendations

  • One option, likely out of reach at present but worth considering if states are looking to reduce escalation risks and increase stability, would be to extend the robust system of monitoring and data exchanges Russia and the United States agreed through years of arms control to other nuclear powers.
  • Britain, France, and China could undertake voluntarily what the United States and Russia have bound themselves to do under legally binding treaties, as the latter two commit to maintaining their own contributions even if treaties expire. Under a step-by-step approach, the other three states could first disclose aggregate numbers of deployed strategic delivery vehicles, deployed warheads, and the total number of deployed and non-deployed launchers in the format specified by New START. At a later stage, they could exchange details on, inter alia, deployed and non-deployed strategic systems; missiles, submarines, and air bases. China, certainly, would balk at such a proposal, at least in the near term. But agreement by the United Kingdom and France to participate in such an arrangement could begin to move the needle and establish new norms and expectations.
  • The P5 could also consider expanding the Nuclear Risk Reduction Center (NRRC) system, with its direct communication links, beyond the United States and Russia. While there is no evidence that the NRRCs were used by either side to clarify nuclear signaling since February 24, 2022, they could be used for such communications in the future. If expanded to the other nuclear powers, moreover, they could facilitate a more systematic approach to transparency, including, perhaps, about the role of NRRCs themselves.
  • At a minimum, the nuclear weapon states could more seriously and consistently implement NPT reporting guidelines. The Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) repeated in a 2019 Working Paper its call for all NPT states parties to use a standardized reporting form (such as the ones they suggested in 2017 and 2018) to explain their fulfillment of the 2010 NPT Action Plan.
  • Non-nuclear weapon states and civil society should continue and coordinate pressure campaigns on the nuclear weapon states to incentivize better compliance. Similar pressure should be applied to improve transparency regarding fissile material stockpiles. Experts have emphasized the need for annual updates on both, holdings of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, and the portions of stockpiles that consist of weapons-usable material available for monitoring by the IAEA


  • Olga Oliker

    Olga Oliker is Program Director for Europe and Central Asia at International Crisis Group. Prior to joining the Crisis Group, she directed the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and held various research and management roles at the RAND Corporation, including as Director of the Center for Russia and Eurasia.

  • Franziska Stärk

    Franziska Stärk is a Phd-Candidate at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH) where she works in the research and transfer project Arms Control and Emerging Technologies project. Seh was a coordinator of the Young Deep Cuts Commission until 2022.

  • Maren Vieluf

    Maren Vieluf previously worked was a researcher at IFSH in the DeepCuts project. She currently is a PhD candidate at the Foreign Policy Lab at the Department of Political Science of the University of Innsbruck.

    Maren holds a Master’s degree in Political Science from the University of Bremen and one in Peace and Security Studies from the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (ISFH). Previously, she was a policy consultant with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a researcher with the Challenges to Deep Cuts Project at the IFSH, and research assistant in the International Security Research Division of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP).

  • Dmitry Stefanovich

    Dmitry Stefanovich is a Research fellow at the Center for International Security, Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations and a Russian International Affairs Council Expert. His main research interests are disruptive technologies challenging strategic stability and the logic behind the development and deployment of new strategic weapons.

    He has written articles on global security, strategic stability, nuclear weapons and military applications of emerging technologies. He has contributed to events hosted by the Federation Council of the Russian Federation, King’s College London, RUSI, UNODA, SIPRI, UNIDIR, IISS and Pugwash.