The Uncertain State of the U.S.-Russian Nuclear Restraint Regime

Tasneem Jamal

Anatoli Diakov

Anatoli Diakov is Director, Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology

Each of the panelists at the Consultation on NATO Nuclear Policy, National Missile Defence & Alternative Security Arrangement, held in Ottawa on September 28-31, 2001, was asked to submit a short paper relating to the topic of their presentation. The other Consultation participants were asked to submit brief papers responding to one or more of the following questions:

1. What changes to its nuclear policies should NATO be realistically asked to make, in the context of the current review, to move it towards fuller compliance with global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation obligations and imperatives?

2. Are there realistic and credible alternative means of addressing the security concerns that underlie current U.S. interest in missile defense?

3. What are the most realistic short-term or interim measures that should be taken by nuclear weapon states and nuclear alliances to demonstrate a commitment to significantly reducing the political legitimacy and value of nuclear weapons in order to contribute to the goal of elimination?

The end of the Cold War brought with it the hope, and even the expectation, that the dreaded nuclear sword of Damocles would no longer hang over the heads of Russians, Americans, and, indeed, over all the world’s people. That hope, ten years after the Berlin Wall was torn down, has not been realized. The U.S. Senate’s rejection of the nuclear test ban treaty and the Russian State Duma’s long delay to approve the START II treaty are only two among several events that point to one conclusion: the nuclear restraint regime created during the Cold War is very nearly defunct. The ABM treaty signed by Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev in 1972, which from that day to this has limited the deployment of defenses against ballistic missiles, is in serious trouble. Altering the framework of the treaty against “rogue states” to permit a national territorial defense for the United States is not a trivial matter. The effort could drive a stake through the heart of the whole system of nuclear restraints if it led to the abrogation of the treaty by the United States. It is likely that even START I could not completely escape the general crumbling of the nuclear restraint structure. Whether that system of treaties and tacit understandings can be brought back from this near-death experience is a question to which there is no clear answer.

Meanwhile, the strategic nuclear forces of the two countries remain on hair-trigger alert, as if the Cold War were still in full swing. This would all be bad enough in a world otherwise free of problems; but in the world as it is, age-old differences arising from geopolitical position, economic stakes, and clashing values are bound to reassert themselves sooner or later.

The effect of these Russian-American failures to strengthen the nuclear restraint regime during the past seven years, unless corrected in the next year or two, must necessarily be a weakening of global norms against proliferation of weapons of indiscriminate destruction at a time when regional pressures to build powerful, modern armed forces are rising.

Does it matter?

Outside of the small community of arms control experts there has been no public outcry about all of this. And at one level of analysis this is the right reaction. Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries. But today, paradoxically, it is difficult to sense that a real understanding exists between Moscow and Washington about their respective international security concerns and motivations; sensitivities were more acute during the Cold War confrontation.

The end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union brought to the United States relief from the insecurities of four decades of confrontation with the Soviet Union. Her old adversary no longer existed and the threat posed by the probability of a cataclysmic nuclear war had diminished to the vanishing point. Today, a top security priority for the United States has become the nonproliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and the control of missile and missile technology exports.

The situation for Russia is quite different. Russian leaders made a decisive and successful effort to end the Cold War but the reward was that Russia became much more vulnerable, as compared to other great powers. Now Russia sees herself faced by strategic threats on both the global and regional levels. Problems of nonproliferation are not among her top priorities.

What validity is there to the argument that arms control is the wrong paradigm for contemporary U.S.-Russian transactions? It is true that classical arms control tended to highlight adversarial relationships. It was probably in that spirit that U.S. Secretary of State Albright has said that worries about the current U.S. ballistic missile defense program amounted to “reviving old problems.” On the other hand, other methods and institutions which could promote the functional equivalent of strategic nuclear arms control have not been put in place. And relations between Russia and the United States do not yet correspond to relations between friendly states: the transition to a stable peace between the two nations is still a work in progress, and could even be reversed. Until the Cold War vestiges of suspicions and fears finally disappear, it cannot be assumed that defense activities taken by one party, even for reasons completely independent of the other party’s force posture, will be interpreted by that other party as irrelevant and non-threatening. The “security dilemma” ( the legacy of the Cold War) is still with us: it cannot be taken off the board simply by asserting that times have changed. And thus the Western rationale for expanding NATO and for overriding the Russian position on NATO military operations against Yugoslavia are not taken at face value.

The weakness of the Russian economy has deprived Russia of its ability to play a decisive role in global policy, another disappointment. In fact, Russia’s conventional military forces are thought to be hard-pressed to guarantee even her own territorial integrity. Consequently, nuclear weapons have gained more prominence in Russian defense thinking. The START II treaty, concluded in a period of euphoria in Russia with respect to relations with the West, is now seen by many Russian arms control experts to have several shortcomings which could damage Russia’s national interests. And thus, nuclear weapons plans and deployments still infect U.S.-Russian relations like a virus for which there is no known cure. Nuclear deterrence, oriented toward the United States, has become again one of the most significant elements of Russia’s state policy.

Similarly nuclear weapons continue to play a key role in U.S. security thinking, even though the United States has the most powerful conventional forces in the world and would find her security much enhanced if, somehow, nuclear weapons could be removed from the world’s arsenals. Accordingly, the Pentagon’s last nuclear posture review recommended that the United States should maintain a “hedge” of several thousand nuclear warheads which could be deployed in the event of a failure of U.S.-Russian strategic arms agreements. Naturally, under present conditions, this policy provides Russian military analysts the basis for a suspicion that the United States is aiming at an overwhelming strategic nuclear superiority. Russia’s apparent preponderance in short-range (tactical) nuclear weapons creates similar suspicions in the United States.

This combination of circumstances means that in Russia there is not one policymaker who considers American-Russian relations a true partnership and there are certainly very few Americans who think in terms of a U.S.-Russian partnership of equals. Beyond all doubt, the current deadlock in nuclear arms control does matter despite many improvements in the U.S.-Russian relationship; it inevitably affects adversely all other aspects of the relationship.

Can the deadlock be broken?

The next few years are likely to be a watershed time in human history. Either the world will move on to deeper reductions in nuclear weapons or the downward trend in these weapons seen in recent years will be halted and perhaps reversed. A global nuclear arms race cannot be excluded, if the major powers take the wrong road, as they seem to be doing.

Let put a question – how can nations be partners within a security community and, simultaneously, rivals in nuclear weaponry? It is a dangerous illusion to think that there is any way of resolving that dilemma short of scrapping one or the other of those mutually exclusive goals. All the ingredients for a catastrophe are still out there. The two governments, Russian and American, must now consider urgently how the several issues before them can be resolved. Delay will make these problems even more intractable.

Strategic offensive arms

The security interests of both countries demand the maintaining of stability in their nuclear relationships and this could be assisted by formal parity in their nuclear arsenals. Parity will promote Russian internal stability, too, which should provide a natural interest for the U.S. to continue the START process. There also is a need for a legal basis for intrusive monitoring in some cases and because of the obligatory nature of actions to be taken. Despite the current crisis in the process of nuclear arms reductions, therefore, both countries should still have a strong interest in a continuation of the START treaty process. Both countries have thousands of warheads in their operational arsenals—many more than they need to sustain their security.

Given long delay in entering Start II into force, the wisest course would be to intensify the present U.S.-Russian diplomatic exchanges and to produce a new treaty, drawing on elements of Start I and Start II and aiming at a ceiling of 1500 deployed nuclear warheads. The level of 3000-3500 nuclear strategic warheads, established by the START II Treaty is too high for Russia not only because it faces severe financial difficulties. More importantly, this level, as well as the level of 2000-2500 warheads agreed to by Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton in 1997 in Helsinki, is more than Russia and the United States need to support security and nuclear deterrence.

Many Russian arms control experts believe that to sustain its own security Russia needs to have a nuclear arsenal at the level of about 1500 warheads and that Russia has an ability to support this level. The United States is capable of maintaining its own nuclear arsenal at the level of 6000 warheads without difficulties, and consequently its economic motivation for the deeper cuts in the two sides’ strategic nuclear arsenals is not so clear as for Russia. But possession of a larger nuclear arsenal adds nothing to the United States’ security. Even with 1500 nuclear warheads the United States has the ability to destroy Russia as a nation and vice versa.

Two examples of subjects that are appropriate to negotiate and codify in a legally binding and verifiable agreement are as follows:

Aggregate ceilings on nuclear warheads. Yeltsin and Clinton agreed to try for a treaty—START III—that would bring deployed warheads down to 2000-2500 apiece but, as noted above, 1500 warheads would be a reasonable target. Below that, the problem of non-deployed, possibly concealed warheads, must be addressed; very intrusive monitoring would be required to deal with this issue.

Dismantling of strategic nuclear warheads to promote the irreversibility of deep reductions, including prevention of a rapid increase in the number of warheads—the “breakout” problem. This measure would require a formula for mandatory dismantlement, plus rigorous methods of accountability plus, at the least, jointly monitored storage of dismantled nuclear components to ensure irreversibility.

Ballistic missile defense

Since Russian-U.S. relations have not yet crossed the threshold that separates a conditional peace from a stable peace it would be reckless to proceed on the assumption that actions by one side that seem to impinge on the security of the other will not be met by some kind of response. In this context, it seems the deadlock over ballistic missile defense cannot be broken in the near term. But the two sides can discuss the issue in more rational terms than now seems to be the case. Russia sees a U.S. threat to abrogate a treaty that both Russian and American presidents very recently described as a “cornerstone” of arms control and suspect another U.S. attempt to gain unilateral advantage. The United States sees a threat from “rogue states” which could be defended against with minor changes in a nearly 30-year old treaty. Each side thinks the other is being unreasonable. This is hardly a climate in which serious exchanges can be encouraged. Talk of abrogation should be replaced by an objective analysis of the “rogue state” threat as Washington perceives it and Russian doubts about American purposes should be addressed in a sober investigation by experts from both sides of the impact of ballistic missile defenses on U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces.

An alternative course would be to re-orient the current U.S. ballistic missile defense program toward a system that would be less threatening to Russia and China. This could be a system in which ballistic missiles were intercepted shortly after launch, that is, a boost-phase intercept system. This would be more likely to be successful than an exo-atmospheric or terminal phase defense: the target is larger and its precise location cannot be concealed, as could be the case with warheads. There are formidable political difficulties: the warning time is very short; interceptors might have to be placed on Russian territory. But such a system is self-limiting so that it would not be seen as a threat to Russian or Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Theater ballistic missile defenses are another matter. The United States and Japan have agreed to cooperate in developing a system for Northeast Asia. South Korea has declined an American invitation, citing its proximity to North Korea. But Russia and China each should be invited to consider the system architecture and its purposes since theater missile defenses in Northeast Asia will have some impact on their security, too.

Key issues could be addressed through cooperation and parallel actions

U.S.-Russian cooperation is lagging or is nonexistent in a variety of areas that need not, and probably should not, be the subjects of formal U.S.-Russian arms control negotiations. The lack of a properly constituted, high-level forum for addressing possibilities for cooperation is one of the reasons that a more rapid transition to a post-Cold War relationship in the strategic nuclear field has not occurred.

Some of the initiatives would help to transform U.S.-Russian nuclear relations and may not require treaties in order to be implemented. The following is a list of these initiatives for which treaties may not be required:

Early warning of ballistic missile flights. This is in an area of vital importance to the command control of strategic nuclear forces. It is also connected to reduction and deactivation of deployed nuclear warheads and with the issue of ballistic missile defense.

Cooperative programs in theater missile defense and national missile defense, as discussed above.

Less reliance on prompt launch procedures. A mutual stand-down would relieve stress on the Russian command and control system. From a Russian point of view, stopping or diminishing the scale of Trident submarine operations in the North Pacific and North Atlantic would reduce concerns regarding Trident first-strike capabilities and encourage greater interest in de-alerting.

Transparency in warhead dismantlement to enhance confidence. The purpose in this case would be to provide increasing levels of confidence that dismantling is taking place; to increase mutual understanding concerning the size and nature of each other’s stocks of weapons and fissile material; to enhance security of fissile materials against theft. This should involve data exchanges, some level of confidence that what is in a container is likely to be a warhead and that what goes into secure storage is likely to have come from the same warhead. It requires something beyond joint material protection, control, and accounting – probably spot checks at storage facilities.

Deployment of operational warheads for short-range systems only on the territory of the owner state and transparency in their holdings. The former would affect U.S. deployments in NATO Europe and thus is of interest to Russia. The latter is of interest to the United States in light of what is believed to be significant Russian superiority in holdings of such weapons. The general purpose here would be to build confidence that tactical warheads are in safe and secure storage; to enhance transparency regarding numbers and locations of tactical nuclear weapons; to provide assurance that they cannot be used for achieving strategic purposes. Data exchange would be required; almost certainly necessary would be an understanding that all tactical warheads would be placed in storage facilities. A method of spot checks would be desirable to confirm numbers of operational tactical warheads in storage.

Can the United States and Russia offer leadership at the global level?

Important agreements that established global norms for all nations were created through U.S.-Soviet or U.S.-Russian cooperation. These included the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty and the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Discussions about a global treaty that would cut off production of fissile material for use in weapons also have taken place but progress has been blocked in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Although all of these agreements or potential agreements are in trouble, the requirement for cooperation on a global scale is more important than ever: nuclear and missile technology is now very wide-spread and more accessible than ever.

A potential area for U.S.-Russian cooperation lies in the promotion of regional efforts to prevent or limit nuclear arms races including Northeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. This type of cooperation has not been realized to date, mainly because of differing perceptions of national interests in those regions.. For example, a major dispute between Russia and the United States has boiled up over Russian support for Iran’s civil nuclear power program.

Probably a special regionally-based multilateral mechanism will be required in each case. To offer one example, just as Russia and the United States need to discuss as dispassionately as they can the technical and military considerations inherent in a national defense, so do the nations in Northeast Asia need to discuss the impact and implications of theater missile defense in that region, as mentioned above. This could require China, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States to organize a working group or commission to conduct an analysis of theater ballistic missile defense.

Russia and the United States share a special responsibility. They are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, possessors of advanced technologies and powerful military forces, and supporters of global arms control and technology supplier regimes. They are not the only countries responsible for meeting the nuclear security challenge, but leadership exercised jointly by the United States and Russia could mobilize a global response to this apocalyptic threat to civilization. U.S.-Russian cooperation, or lack of it, on such global issues is the ultimate test of the thesis that U.S.-Russian partnership is a key element in the building of a stable peace and of an international system based on accepted norms and rules.


* This statement is based on the article “Mending Nuclear Fences” by Anatoli Diakov and James E. Goodby, published in the IEEE Spectrum, March 2000, pp 54-58

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