№ 5, 2024. Strategic stability in Russia-US relations at the current stage

March 18, 2024

The words “strategic stability” are once again heard both in Moscow and in Washington, although with different connotations. Other nuclear weapon states’ capitals also weigh in with assorted “stabilizing” initiatives — from Beijing’s universal “No First Use” idea to, presumably, deterrent signals by Paris toying with possibility of direct military confrontation with Russia. In this short essay the author would like to provide perspective on what strategic stability is and what it is not, and how to survive the current turmoil.

First, “strategic stability” does not equal “international security”, and it fits adversarial relationship well. However, “strategic defeat” narratives do not help to preserve any of those. Main “task” of strategic stability is to remove incentives for a first nuclear strike. As we have limited understanding of what can explicitly lead to a nuclear use by a nuclear power, and the escalation dynamics can’t be fully managed, we should speak about, basically, preventing any direct armed conflict between nuclear superpowers. This is to some extent a shared understanding per January 3, 2022, N5 (P5) Statement.

Possible “incentives for a first nuclear strike” are based on threats that can be put in three provisional baskets: Offensive, Defensive, Combined. First relates to the possible offensive action by the adversary that will make you own arsenal non-usable (this might include attacks, kinetic and non-kinetic, against NC3), second — to the enhanced defensive capabilities of the adversary that are being developed in a way that can undermine your retaliatory strike capability. The “combined” basket takes the best (or the worst) of the previous ones, and, well, this is what we have at our table these days. However, we also can have a smaller basket, or a bag, near the baskets mentioned: that is, a symbolic, messaging role for a first nuclear strike, likely a very limited one. Overall, it seems, all the incentives do not seem to be a “bolt from the blue” kind of thing, as they will require several technological and operational steps, and very probably an ongoing military conflict. However, reversing escalatory trends would also demand very real steps.

Strategic stability relates to strategic (or integrated) deterrence. Through the “full spectrum cross domain” activities meant to enhance strategic deterrence one tries to prevent a course of actions by the adversary that might lead to a conflict. However, the very same activities might be seen as destabilizing by the adversary, and, in turn, force him to pursue steps that, meant as a deterrence messaging, will in fact be seen as threatening. Thus, despite the intention to deter destabilizing actions we might see an even more rapidly and dramatically destabilizing dynamics. This means that strategic deterrence operations should include a very robust messaging (or even “interpreting”) element, and extra steps must be taken to ensure that the message is received and understood. Also, the idea that nuclear deterrence can be restored through nuclear use, is a very dangerous one.

The logic of the previous sections suggest that there is a relationship between strategic stability and arms race (and “arms race stability” remains a thing). Indeed, both the idea to remove incentives for a first strike through enhancing your own offensive and defensive capabilities, as well as engaging in deterrence messaging through actual actions (e.g. statements, deployments, patrols, tests) provides a fertile soil for several rounds of action-reaction dynamics. Every round of these actions and reactions will make the situation less stable and harder to reverse.

Now, here comes the solution: strategic stability and arms control (in the broadest terms). To prevent an indefinite action-reaction spiral transparency and, in due time, limits might be the only possible tool. Of course, it is possible to think of a “strategically stable” situation base on extreme ambiguity and huge arsenals, but such stabilization will hardly survive for a prolonged period, especially in a situation with numerous actors involved. It is worth noting that disarmament is a somewhat different domain. However, the lower the levels of arsenals (including but not limited to nuclear) that provide for a stable situation, that better it is for the international security. 

Finally, what can be done about a “three body problem”? Well, current strategic friendship between Russia and China has some arms control at its foundation, this means that the value is well understood. Moreover, we have a common understanding, although an extremely broad one, on the global strategic stability. Now it is up to the US to find some sort of useful measures that can be embraced by China eventually. 

Coming back to the first section, under current environment it seems that no arms control-ish measures, and no strategic stability-specific discussions can be expected between Russia and the US if there is no visible interest in Washington to address and resolve the broader security issues. At the same time, some guardrails for the strategic domain remain in place. Hopefully, we will survive long enough to see another era of ambitious hard arms control being embraced by the great powers as a measure to keep the ongoing competition from spiralling into an actual confrontation and war. 

Key words: Russia-USA; Strategic Stability; Arms Control; Nuclear Nonproliferation


E16/MIN – 24/03/18