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The ELN: The 2020 developments that will shape the year to come


Dear Colleague,

The ELN: The 2020 developments that will shape the year to come

Go Big 

The word unprecedented is overused, but entirely appropriate for 2020. The most global pandemic we have ever known has killed almost two million people, damaged economies and political systems, and upended many of the expectations and assumptions that prevailed this time last year.

Even as scientists have co-operated around the world to create vaccines, the multilateral system has been further strained as world leaders have looked inward and focused on national responses. Vital work on nuclear non-proliferation has been delayed and disrupted.

In this changed context, the ELN’s “Go Big” initiative deployed its Network to achieve security policy outcomes that could improve the atmosphere for international pandemic response. We convened our members in three intergenerational, pan-European action groups. Each action group has had the objective of generating and refining practical, actionable policy recommendations to address rising risks in three key areas – each using different methods and constellations of participants.

Our Action Group on New START extension, chaired by Lord Hannay and Bernard Norlain, has been the most prominent European voice calling for the extension of the last remaining arms control treaty between the US and Russia. In a letter organized by the ELN in October, over 75 European parliamentarians from more than 20 European capitals, the European Parliament, and NATO Parliamentary Assembly wrote to their US counterparts to urge them to support a New START extension. This was widely covered in the US media and welcomed by the Chairman of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.

Our Action Group on NATO-Russia, chaired by Madeleine MoonAndrey Kortunov and Stefano Stefanini developed  a realistic path towards de-confliction between NATO and Russia to reduce the risks of military incidents and unintended escalation. It helped to generate a set of proposals by a wider group of senior figures, practitioners and experts from the US, Russia and the rest of Europe led by ELN members Sergey Rogov and Alexey Gromyko on the need – and the way – to prevent a NATO-Russia confrontation in Europe. In 2021 the group will build on this to develop and test out specific proposals for military-to-military dialogue.

Our Action Group on P5 risk reduction, co-chaired by Goran Svilanović and Ahmet Üzümcü, has convened officials and experts with diverse and sometimes opposing viewpoints, to find common ground on concrete proposals for the P5, building on our extensive research. In December 141 experts, including former foreign and defence ministers from across Europe, signed its proposals for a P5 working group to address strategic risk reduction. Shaped and discussed in dozens of conversations with officials from every P5 state and the non-nuclear weapons community as well as leading experts, the proposals put forward a balanced package of measures that can be implemented now, and which will help prepare the ground for next year’s NPT RevCon.

The US election

The US election has set a new tone for transatlantic co-operation on security. It has sparked a debate across Europe over whether to prioritise renewed transatlanticism or European strategic autonomy, likely to continue into next year.

The ELN’s Sahil Shah co-authored a report on renewing transatlantic strategy on Iran, launched at the Atlantic Council with remarks by ELN senior network and executive board member Federica Mogherini, who argued that the US and European priority must be to restore the JCPOA before putting other issues on the table with Iran. ELN outreach, briefings and convening have emphasised the importance of the European role in preserving the JCPOA, and in 2021 will turn to some of the longer-term needs to sustain regional and international buy-in to the agreement.

In a commentary in November, ELN Go Big Officers Nikita Gryazin and Daniel Shapiro argued that a Biden presidency could see a return to a more active US foreign policy and pro-democracy position in the post-Soviet region, with implications for Russia-West relations.

COVID-19 and security

In April, Senior Associate Fellow Stefanie Babst looked at five potential implications of the coronavirus pandemic on NATO. In May, Senior Associate Fellow Ilana Bet-El’s policy brief on the future of security and defence in a post-COVID world argued that greater convergence between security and defence is needed to deal with threats and risks to both people and states. Senior Network member Carlo Trezza argued that COVID-19 is a reminder of why the Biological Weapons Convention must be strengthened and Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova looked at what the COVID-19 prompted postponement could mean for the 10th NPT Review Conference.

Also in April, the ELN in collaboration with The Iran Project, issued a group statement signed by 24 American and European national security leaders urging the US government to ease humanitarian trade with Iran in light of the pandemic. This was followed by an ELN policy brief by Esfandyar Batmanghelidj arguing that Europe must preserve and strengthen its role as a healthcare superpower.

Black Lives Matter

In May, the killing of George Floyd in the US prompted a global anti-racism movement. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, the ELN staff produced a statement of solidarity recognising that “the lack of black and minority ethnic voices in our field damages our scholarship, our discourse, and ultimately, our security”. We have begun to identify areas where we need to improve racial diversity and will be introducing measures to help us reach this goal.

Instability in the shared neighbourhood

2020 has seen multiple crises erupt in the post-Soviet region. In August, Alexander Lukashenko claimed a sixth term as president of Belarus in a widely disputed election. The mass protests that followed have led to harsh police crackdowns and generated new tensions between the West and Russia. Prior to the elections, the ELN’s Ben Challis identified the risks and warned that there is an urgent need to avoid a dangerous competition for influence in Belarus between Russia and the West. We responded to the crisis by convening a private, confidential dialogue from August onwards between experts, our members and current officials from 12 countries.

In September, the “frozen conflict” between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh entered a new phase of escalation, leading to military clashes and heavy losses on both sides. Hovhannes Nikoghosyan, a member of the ELN’s Younger Generation Leaders Network,  offered his views to the ELN on what is happening on the groundand ELN Research Director Andreas Persbo argued that now is the time to firm up international presence in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Emerging technologies and nuclear risks

Rapid advances in emerging technologies will have a profound effect on the future of nuclear risk and arms control. This month, ELN Senior Policy Fellow Katarzyna Kubiak explored how quantum technology – set to become a game changer in defence and security – might affect the hitherto near invulnerability of nuclear weapon-capable submarines (SSBNs).

In commentaries for the ELN, Madeline Zutt and Michal Onderco argued that AI and hypersonic weapons compound the risks of close calls, mishaps, and misunderstandings in the nuclear domainand Jennifer Spindel stressed the need for dialogue to offset the risks posed by AI in the nuclear realm. Anuradha Damale and Marina Favaro wrote for the ELN about spacepolicyand Andrew Futter explored what cyber arms control could look like.

The nuclearisation of the Russian Arctic also presents emerging nuclear risks. In a June policy brief, Sherri Goodman and the ELN’s Katarina Kertysova explored the growing risks of nuclear incidents in the Russian Arctic and proposed concrete transparency and confidence-building measures to limit them.

In 2021 we look forward to mobilising the European Leadership Network for further action-oriented collaborations to help the world address the challenges and risks that nuclear weapons and great-power tensions pose to Euro-Atlantic security.

In the meantime, I and the team wish you all the best for the holiday season and the New Year.

Best wishes,


Sir Adam Thomson KCMG
European Leadership Network (ELN)




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