Status: Open

In Search of Stability Under the Current State of Russia-U.S. Arms Control

October 27, 2022

Evgeny Buzhinsky

Some time ago the U.S. administration, including their former President Barack Obama, has voiced more and more often the idea that it would be desirable to continue strategic offensive reductions. There are several reasons why the United States are so interested in intensifying nuclear arms reduction, and one of these reasons is purely military: their superiority in traditional weapons and precision-guided munitions, which they expect to retain both in the mid and long term. At the same time, they stress that Russia, unfortunately, demonstrates no interest towards further steps to a nuclear-weapons-free world, but, vice versa, more and more relies on nuclear weapons.

I am sure that the accusations against Russia of being unwilling to continue the nuclear arms reduction process will only intensify.

Here it is worth making a short reference to history.

Late in the 1960-s, the United States tightly linked the possibility of signing the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT 1) with signing the ABM Treaty, which was done in 1972. The argumentation of the U.S. administration in support of their position was as follows. No missile defense system can provide a reliable protection from the first nuclear strike with thousands of warheads. A missile defense system is designed to give the attacking party a relative protection from a retaliatory strike, i.e. mitigate damage. Therefore, as the Americans insisted, a missile defense system is a destabilizing factor and an indispensable part of strategic nuclear equilibrium, as it increases the threat of hostilities with the use of strategic nuclear forces.

When ten years ago I drew the attention of Pentagon’s senior representatives to those arguments of the United States, I heard almost indignation in response: how can one compare the Cold War times with the current period of strategic partnership? It turns out that such comparison is really possible nowadays.

Although a cold war between Russia and NATO has not broken out yet, the Alliance with its actions and bellicose rhetoric has considerably approached the probability of its outbreak. So I believe it’s high time to make Russia’s readiness to further reduce strategic offensive arms conditional upon the drafting and conclusion of a new comprehensive ABM treaty, adapted to the existing realities.

THE INF Treaty Issue: Positions of Sides

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was once characterized by NATO members as crucial to Euro-Atlantic security. And under the Obama administration they called on Russia to preserve the viability of the INF Treaty through ensuring full and verifiable compliance.

Russia’s official position was and remains exactly to preserve the viability of the Treaty, not to destroy it. I think an explanation for this lies on the surface. Russia’s previous claims against the United States regarding strict compliance with the letter and spirit of the Treaty (in particular, against the U.S. use of target missiles imitating intermediate-range missiles, as well as of combat drones) could be opposed by the United States, given that target missiles are not officially prohibited by the Treaty and that no combat drones existed at the time of the Treaty conclusion. However, it’s more difficult to dispute the deployment of Mk-41 universal launching systems in Romania and, in the near future, also in Poland, as an obvious violation of the Treaty. The thing is that these systems can launch both sea based and land based cruise missiles. There is little difference between the sea based cruise missile Tomahawk and its ground based analogue destroyed in pursuance of the Treaty provisions. To be fair, during the United States congressional hearings a representative of Barack Obama’s administration argued that the launching systems to be deployed in Romania were different from Mk-41, however no relevant evidence of that was provided. 

Indeed, there is a group of influential policymakers in Russia who from time to time raise the question of expediency of further existence of the INF Treaty. Their main argument is that Russia finds itself in a clearly disadvantageous position compared to a whole range of neighboring countries that, unlike Moscow, have intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles. Irrespective of the current situation with Russian relations with Western countries, Russian politicians don’t think that there is any immediate threat of attack from the West. But unlike the United States, which do not need such kind of missiles for the defense on its national territory, Russia does needs them in the Eastern part of the country. There is quite a number of countries which either have or are on the verge of having such kind of missiles and nuclear weapons. The United States, by contrast, do not need such missiles in their possession to protect their national territory. 

Let us recall that early in the 2000-s Russia and the United States came up with a joint initiative to make the INF Treaty multilateral, calling the countries having intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles to join the Treaty. It was clear from the beginning that the initiative had little chances to succeed. It was difficult to imagine that such countries as China, India, Pakistan, Iran and Israel would abandon the possession of such missiles. 

In this connection, it would have been expedient for Russia to come up with an initiative regarding a new treaty on intermediate-range and shorter-ranger missiles, since continued reciprocal accusations objectively only discredited the Treaty. A new approach to intermediate- and shorter-range missiles could have been in drafting and concluding a multilateral treaty based not on the destruction of missiles of this class, but on the limitation of their number, similarly to the U.S.-Russia Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. As the proposed treaty would have been multilateral, the element of discrimination towards both Russia and the United States could disappear, and a considerable contribution could have been made to missile non-proliferation.

Of course, there is little possibility that United States will immediately start deploying such kind of missiles in Germany, or Netherlands once the INF Treaty is abandoned. The public opinion of those countries will not allow the United States to deploy nuclear intermediate-range missiles. But still countries like Poland, Baltic states, Romania might immediately start pressing United States for deployment of such kind of missiles. And of course, that would reduce flying time till Russian territories to pure minutes. And that would be very troublesome and dangerous, because Russian military will start thinking of some sort of retaliation. At the end, this situation will contribute to the further deterioration of our relations.

We have only two arms control treaties left – INF and START – and I hope that the New START will be extended for another five-year period. What would an arms control regime look like after the New START expires? It is necessary to impose limitations upon the missile defense system because, following the American logic during the 60s, ABM turns to be a weapon of a potential aggressor. It is useless and impossible to include everything in one treaty, but the restrictions on offensive and defensive arms, including space-based ones will have to be the key elements of a future arms control architecture. 

Everything points to the fact that the New START will follow the fate of the INF Treaty, and the whole system of arms control will cease to exist. But I think it is not going to be like that for long. Sooner or later, the United States will come to the same conclusion they reached in the late 60s: when it comes to nuclear weapons, predictability is even more important than arms reductions. Considering that the United States and Russia already have experience in providing predictability in this area, it will be necessary to return to it.

Missile defense

There is some evidence, that 10 or 15 years ago nobody from Russian politicians and militarymen thought about creating or deploying Russian anti-missile defense system since it turned out to be too expensive. Moreover, such systems cannot cover the whole territory of the Russian Federation, even the European part of it. But the U.S. policy in missile defense actually made Russian presidents, governments and MOD in particular, to stop thinking about deployment, at least some sort of limited missile defense. If it’s not, we do have the system around the Moscow area of the so-called Central Industrial Area. And now the Russian government is thinking about deploying some non-strategic missile defense covering the most important objects on the territory of the Russian Federation. 

Of course, the issue of missile defense includes space as well. In the view of the Russian military it’s the three empirical components of the possible future agreement on nuclear or strategic stability: offensive weapons, missile defense, and space. It is quite possible that if United States agreed to talk about missile defense and space, Russia can include into discussion questions on non-strategic nuclear weapons.