A new era in U.S.-Russia strategic stability?

Analysis and Commentary, Featured, Nuclear Weapons, Ploughshares Monitor

By Claire Wählen

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 42 Issue 3 Autumn 2021

During the Trump administration, relations between the United States and Russia deteriorated significantly, leading to the death of major arms control treaties, escalating cyberattacks, and retaliatory measures.

On June 16 in Geneva, Switzerland, as part of his first foreign trip as U.S. President, Joe Biden met privately with Russian President Vladimir Putin to revive strategic stability talks. The meeting, which concluded with a joint presidential statement that calls for “ensuring predictability in the strategic sphere, reducing the risk of armed conflicts and the threat of nuclear war,” could mark the beginning of a new era of arms control diplomacy.

The goal

Key to any new efforts is the critical Reagan-Gorbachev principle established in Geneva in 1985 that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” This is a far cry from the international commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons newly enshrined in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which entered into force in January 2021. As neither the United States nor Russia, which jointly control about 90 per cent of nuclear weapons stockpiles, has joined the TPNW, their renewed recognition of this principle is essential to maintaining the norm of non-use of such weapons at a time when the risk of nuclear confrontation is high, and provides a basis for continued weapons reduction efforts.

Controlling or restraining the use of cyber weapons will be extremely challenging. Unlike nuclear arms, cyber capabilities are easy to hide, difficult to detect and verify, and largely free of public-facing accountability measures.

Still, rebuilding this strategic relationship is daunting. Speaking at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference on June 22, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov indicated that Moscow has proposed “as a first step a joint review of each other’s security concerns.” The review would be “holistic” and include the “entire spectrum of both nuclear and non-nuclear offensive and defensive arms that have a strategic capability.”

Complicating an already huge task are the asymmetric interests of the two nuclear weapons powers. While the United States has aired concerns about Russia’s nonstrategic nuclear weapons, Russia is focused on U.S. ballistic missile defence and high-precision conventional munitions that could threaten Russia’s nuclear forces and second-strike capability.

Recovering lost ground

In June, Ryabkov indicated that any resolution of “the issue of land-based intermediate and shorter range missiles, whether nuclear or conventional,” must be based on reciprocal verification and confidence-building measures, as well as a moratorium on deployment of intermediate-range nuclear ground-based missiles. Some of this work will involve recovering lost ground.

Following concerns that Russia had repeatedly violated the terms of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which eliminated both nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles up to a range of 5,500 km, the United States under President Trump withdrew from that treaty. The New START treaty—the last nuclear arms reduction treaty between Russia and the United States—came close to lapsing, when the Trump administration argued for a shorter extension than what was wanted by the Russians.

The Trump administration also withdrew from the international Open Skies treaty, which allowed unarmed aerial surveillance flights over the territory of other member states. (Russia also later withdrew when President Biden announced that his administration would not move to rejoin the treaty.)

While President Trump made some attempts at strategic stability talks with Russia, they ultimately did nothing to address arms control or nuclear issues, or contemporary U.S. concerns, including Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the ongoing Syrian war.

The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review is perhaps its most significant strategic legacy. For the first time, the United States allowed for U.S. use of nuclear weapons in retaliation for non-nuclear attacks, including cyber, on domestic infrastructure. An updated National Defence Strategy is now under way but is unlikely to fully walk back conditional first-use of nuclear weapons.

What to watch for

In Geneva in June, President Biden said that, going forward, the United States and Russia would “work on a mechanism that can lead to control of new and dangerous and sophisticated weapons that are coming on the scene now that reduce the times of response, that raise the prospects of accidental war.” He didn’t describe either the mechanism or the weapons.

But in an address to the Carnegie conference, Dr. Colin Kahl, U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, related conversations with Russia about “how to fold” nuclear elements of strategic stability into “conversations on other technologies, both existing and emerging, that could have implications for strategic stability.” He declined to comment on an upcoming Nuclear Posture Review, other than to say that it will be integrated into the analysis of the National Defence Strategy. The NDS is mandated to be released to Congress no later than 2022, but could be released later this year.

Cyber capabilities could be important as both threat multipliers for nuclear arms and key tools in developing safety protocols for nuclear weapons. Cyber could be used to monitor and evaluate stockpiles; it could also be used to disable the arsenal of an adversary. Much depends on how nuclear and cyber technologies develop and interact.

It is entirely reasonable to worry that cyber interference with nuclear command-and-control systems could spark dangerous if unintentional escalation in a crisis. For example, the systems that control U.S. nuclear arms are not dedicated to that task alone, but are responsible for both nuclear and non-nuclear operations. Accessing or attempting to access these controls could escalate tensions very quickly and provoke nuclear attacks. Even the illusion of a successful cyber breach could escalate tensions severely.

Controlling or restraining the use of cyber weapons will be extremely challenging. Unlike nuclear arms, cyber capabilities are easy to hide, difficult to detect and verify, and largely free of public-facing accountability measures. The possible use of cyber weapons is also contentious and likely to remain so. The United States has accused Russia of numerous high-profile cyber-attacks, including the use of ransomware, which Russia has repeatedly denied.

Is it possible to re-establish mutual trust in a relationship that has suffered numerous setbacks linked to supposed treaty violations and subsequent withdrawals? As Biden noted in Geneva, “We’ll find out within the next six months to a year whether or not we actually have a strategic dialogue that matters.”

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