№ 2, 2024. «Past treaties have fulfilled their purpose: they have established such strategic stability that even in the current almost direct confrontation, nobody worries about the threat of strategic weapons»: Interview with Dr. Alexey Arbatov by Anton Anufriev

May 7, 2024

Exclusive Interview

PIR Center conducted an interview with Dr. Alexey Arbatov, Head of the Center for International Security at IMEMO RAS, member of PIR Center’s Advisory Board. During the conversation, we discussed the concept and main principles of strategic stability; the difference between the launch under attack and the launch on warning concept; and the future of the Russian-American dialogue on arms control?

The interview was conducted by Anton Anufriev, PIR Center Information & Publications Program intern.

Anton Anufriev: You, along with numerous domestic and foreign authors, interpret the concept of strategic stabilityas relations that “eliminate incentives for a first strike,” as stated in the Joint Statement of the USSR and the USA in 1990[1]. Major General (retired) Viktor Koltunov, former Deputy Chief of the International Treaty Department of the General Staff, asserts that this document does not contain a definition of strategic stability and that such a task was not on the agenda at the time[2]. And if you examine the document, there is no definition of this concept as such. Why is this document then considered a source, and how did this concept become established?

Dr. Alexey Arbatov: I would like to note immediately that I have great respect for Viktor Koltunov — he is one of the leading domestic specialists in this field who made a significant personal contribution to the creation of the START I Treaty signed in 1991. Within the framework of those negotiations, the issue of strategic stability was also discussed, which was reflected in the Joint Statement a year earlier. Indeed, it does not provide a cohesive and logical definition of this crucial concept, which now only the lazy do not use. The document eventually turned out to be rather convoluted and not very clear, as it represented a diplomatic compromise between the differing views of the two states and, apparently, between the differing views within the decision-making apparatus of each of them.

This document was developed as a conceptual basis for further negotiations on START, but at the same time, it certainly reflected the prerequisites for negotiations on the START I Treaty. After all, the previous basis — the principle of equality and equal security, i.e., parity, which formed the foundation of the SALT I Treaty (1972) and the SALT II Treaty (1979), became insufficient. The extensive deployment of ballistic missiles with multiple warheads and long-range nuclear-armed cruise missiles of various basing modes in the 1970s and 1980s created the possibility, and thus the risk and fear, of a disarming first strike even with a quantitative parity of forces on both sides. Because each of them had many more nuclear warheads than the other side had delivery vehicles. Therefore, it was decided to adopt a new document (I was also involved in this work, being an advisor to the delegation in Geneva on START). Moreover, it became clear that some issues that could not be resolved immediately should be discussed and outlined as future paths to return to them in the future, as it is impossible to solve all issues instantaneously.

As a result, a long and rather disorganized text was produced. However, if you read it carefully (especially since it is a unique document — the first and last — agreed upon between our countries on this issue), you can see the definition of strategic stability in it, which is based on three principles aimed at strengthening strategic stability during further reductions of strategic arms. Otherwise, one might reduce strategic arms in such a way that a disarming first nuclear strike would become possible.

Anton Anufriev: Please explain how these provisions are reflected in the Joint Statement?

Dr. Alexey Arbatov: Alright, let’s reason logically. The document states: the aim of the negotiations will be “to reduce further the risk of outbreaks of war, particularly nuclear war, and to ensure strategic stability, transparency and predictability.” It further specifies that the parties “will, in the new negotiations, seek to reduce their strategic offensive arms in a way consistent with enhancing strategic stability.” What does it mean? From the next phrase, it is clear what the main task is and what the parties agree to focus on during these new negotiations — “removing incentives for a first strike.” Further, through a comma, the ways to accomplish this task are defined: “reducing the concentration of warheads on strategic delivery vehicles” and “giving priority to highly survivable systems,” which means reducing the potentials for a first counterforce (disarming) strike and relatively increasing the potentials for a retaliatory strike. The third path is organically tied to these two, although it is mentioned earlier in the text and separately from the two others: reaching agreements that “implement an appropriate relationship between strategic offenses and defenses.” All three principles prevent the disarming first strike and the interception of a retaliatory strike by the other side.

Thus, in the Joint Statement, one can identify the definition of the concept of strategic stability and ways to achieve it through negotiations, but it is not logical and direct, but rather indirect and somewhat masked for reasons that can only be speculated upon.

Anton Anufriev: This is all theory, but has it been implemented in practice as a criterion of truth?

Dr. Alexey Arbatov: Yes, and quite successfully. Let’s ask ourselves — why, from the conclusion of the START I Treaty in the next thirty years until the implementation of the New START Treaty (which is currently in limbo, but still in force), has the number of strategic warheads of the two states decreased by 7 times, and the number of delivery vehicles by 3 times? This fully implements one of the three principles laid out in the line for strengthening strategic stability.

The second principle is also being fulfilled — the preference for highly survivable systems. Look: for both states, up to 70% of their strategic force warheads are deployed on submarine-launched missiles (USA) or land-mobile and sea-launched ballistic missiles (Russia). This is because silo-based systems became vulnerable to a counterforce strike back in the 1980s when the parties deployed sea and land-based missiles with powerful and accurate warheads, sufficient to destroy hardened targets such as silo launchers and command centers. To be able to use silo-based missiles, one must rely only on a first strike or launch on warning (otvetno-vstrechnyy udar), meaning launching one’s missiles before the opponent’s warheads explode. The first method contradicts the fundamentals of our nuclear deterrence policy, while the second depends entirely on the flawless operation of the missile attack warning system and rapid decision-making by the military and political leadership (within minutes or, as President Putin once said, even seconds). However, missile warning systems sometimes issue false alarms and, moreover, can themselves become targets of nuclear, conventional, cyber, or directed energy weapons.

In other words, transitioning to systems with high survivability becomes an even more important principle of strategic stability and prevention of nuclear war.

Anton Anufriev: What happened to the third principle — the relationship between strategic offensive and defensive weapons?

Dr. Alexey Arbatov: In practice, this issue has been more contradictory, especially after the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, rejected joint development of missile defense with Russia, and began deploying ballistic missile defense systems in Europe. However, their strategic missile defense systems in Alaska and California still have a limited scope. Their number of interceptors is even smaller than allowed under the ABM Treaty. In any case, there is no doubt that Russian offensive capabilities can easily overcome any U.S. and allied missile defense systems now and in the foreseeable future. However, it would be better to maintain such a capability not just de-facto, but within the framework of mutual control and limitation measures. I hope this can be achieved with the full restoration of the New START Treaty and the resumption of negotiations on subsequent agreements.

Anton Anufriev: You mentioned the launch-on-warning concept. Senior Research Fellow at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research Pavel Podvig writes, referring to Gennady Khromov, who had worked with the Soviet military-industrial complex, that back in the USSR, the otvetno-vstrechnyy udar implied that some of the enemy’s warheads must reach Soviet territory before a Soviet retaliatory strike is launched[3]. In this context, satellite and ground elements of the missile attack warning system were supposed to buy some time for the Soviet leadership to bring their Strategic Missile Forces into full readiness. Therefore, it was called otvetno-vstrechnyy udar (which can be translated into English as launch under attack) — not vstrechnyy udar (launch on warning). Today, if we refer to President Vladimir Putin, otvetno-vstrechnyy udar is understood exactly as launch on warning. Am I correct in understanding that this concept has evolved?

Dr. Alexey Arbatov: Why have we adopted otvetno-vstrechnyy udar, and not just vstrechiy udar? Because theoretically, you may not have time to launch all the missiles before at least the first attacking waves of enemy warheads strike. If the enemy launches their missiles simultaneously, our northern bases will be hit earlier.

This means that we will carry out what is called launch under attack, or otvetno-vstrechnyy udar — simply due to geography and the different flight times of enemy missiles. And our highly survivable weapons: sea-launched ballistic and ground-mobile missiles, bombers quickly taken off from air bases — will then launch a purely retaliatory (otvetnyy) strike. Therefore, the concept is defined as an otvetno-vstrechnyy udar.

We invest vast sums in submarines, ground-mobile missiles, warning systems, and highly hardened command centers. Presumably, under different circumstances, the necessary scope of the retaliatory strike is evaluated and planned differently.

Anton Anufriev: Today’s Russian-American relations are marked by a curtailment of dialogue on several issues, including arms control. The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden suggests compartmentalizing strategic dialogue, but the Russian side opposes it. This approach from Russia is not new — for instance, as far back as December 1994, the speaker of the State Duma, Ivan P. Rybkin, during a meeting with U.S. Vice President Al Gore, linked the ratification of the START II Treaty to the “general context of relations between Russia and the U.S. and NATO”[4]. However, considering the fact that nuclear weapons have the potential to destroy all life on the planet, is it appropriate to link arms control to the overall context of the Moscow-Washington rivalry?

Dr. Alexey Arbatov: Let’s clarify that Ivan P. Rybkin simply demonstrated diplomatic flexibility. What else could have been said about the START II Treaty, other than acknowledging that the overall context is not appropriate? However, at that time, the context was perfectly aligned; it’s just that the START II Treaty faced strong opposition in the State Duma. I myself was in the State Duma at that time.

In this treaty, there was an article about the elimination of all ICBMs with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). Only ICBMs with single warheads were allowed. For us, this was a blow to the most sensitive area. This was the reason. But Rybkin couldn’t explain this to the Americans. We indeed had a problem because the Americans imposed this condition on us (Russia was in a very weak economic and political position at the time), diplomats resisted during negotiations, but President Yeltsin said: “Sign!”. Without understanding the essence of the matter either.

The START II Treaty ceilings were set at 3000-3500 warheads. In reality, if we were to eliminate all our missiles with MIRVs, to maintain our forces at the level of 3500, we would have to build many submarines — which is expensive and time-consuming, or increase the number of land-based missiles with single warheads – also expensive. Therefore, the treaty was not ratified for seven years, until 2000, when this agreement entered into force.

As for the linkage, it had taken place before Rybkin. The Americans linked the ratification of SALT II with the Afghan War. And how much effort, nerves and time were spent to sign this agreement! It did not reduce anything, but put a clear ceiling on all strategic forces of the two sides. And the verification system was very well developed, and restrictions were introduced on new types of ICBMs, and the numbers of warheads was indirectly limited by agreements on how many warheads could be installed on different types of missiles. Hence, the linkage happened in the past as well. 

Experience shows that when there are international conflicts and no arms control process, these armed conflicts become doubly dangerous. Such were the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and the Middle East Crisis in 1967. On the other hand, when there is progress in negotiations, even in acute conflicts, the parties moderate their fervor and try to resolve them. There was the Vietnam War. President Nixon came to Moscow to sign the ABM Treaty and SALT I. The Americans were bombing Hanoi and Haiphong harbor hitting our ships meanwhile. The question arose: “Should the visit be canceled?”. But it was decided then that the visit should not be canceled; it was an important first visit by the U.S. President, and Brezhnev always talked about peace. The Americans came, and the agreements were signed. This launched a process that over the next half-century led to the implementation of the New START Treaty. During this time, strategic stability significantly strengthened. The Americans finished the Vietnam War, withdrew from there, and the conflict was resolved — they did not escalate it further and sharply reduced their military presence in Asia and later in Europe. At that time, a reasonable policy of compartmentalizing arms control from conflicts had fully justified itself.

However, there was no such acute conflict with the Americans then as there is now. We are almost on the brink of direct confrontation. In the center of Europe, for the first time since 1945, an intense armed conflict has been going on for two years now. It would be strange if we calmly continued negotiations on a new treaty with the Americans that began in 2021, after the extension of the New START Treaty. In my opinion, new negotiations should be postponed. But maintaining the existing treaty for our security is no less necessary than for the other side.

As for strategic stability, note that despite the acuteness of the Ukrainian crisis and our confrontation with the West, nobody now worries about a strategic nuclear strike. This means that past treaties have fulfilled their purpose: they have established such strategic stability that even in the current almost direct confrontation with the US and NATO, nobody worries about the threat of strategic weapons. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, there was a fear that a massive nuclear strike would be launched any minute. 

Tactical nuclear weapons are now a concern — that they can be used (we even have militant patriots who openly call for their use). But there have never been any legally binding treaties on tactical nuclear weapons, the process has never touched it.

Anton Anufriev: In December 2023, a conference was held at the London School of Economics (LSE) — 1983 Remembered: The Most Dangerous Year of the Cold War? — commemorating the 40th anniversary of the 1983 crisis, which included the Able Archer NATO exercise. It is believed that at that time both blocs were on the brink of nuclear war. Interestingly, from the Western perspective, there are several studies on this crisis and on Operation RYAN conducted by the KGB and GRU, which sought evidence of the US and NATO preparation for a first nuclear strike. There are fewer such studies from the Russian side. Was the situation really so critical at that time? If so, is its repetition possible in the absence of a verification mechanism, or do today’s intelligence means (e.g., satellite) prevent this?

Dr. Alexey Arbatov: Then, in 1983, there was indeed a strong fear of the outbreak of war. But since everything is relative, it was not as acute and dangerous as during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then it was more dangerous; everything stood on the brink: the Americans planned air strikes and a landing of troops in Cuba. Then we were a day or two away from a nuclear disaster because the American strategy envisioned a massive attack — 1700 bombers, 5000 nuclear bombs on all targets at once.

Of course, by 1983, we had already come a long way — the ABM Treaty, SALT I; we had already signed, although not ratified, the SALT II Treaty. But we were afraid because there was Able Archer 83, and on top of that, there was a false missile alarm from a satellite — Lieutenant Colonel Petrov correctly reacted to it, realizing that it was a mistake. But the situation was tense enough — especially with the deployment of Pershing-II intermediate-range missiles in Europe, the short flight time of which frightened everyone.

In principle, such a situation could also arise now, but not at the level of strategic forces. Although our inspectors do not travel to the US and do not verify the number of warheads on missiles, there is confidence in maintaining strategic stability. We see that their submarines are functioning in a normal regime, and bombers are stationed at their bases.

Anton Anufriev: Debates are underway in the United States regarding the necessity of expanding the nuclear arsenal: in the fall, a report by the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture (which includes representatives from both parties) was published, whose authors advocated for the expansion of the US nuclear forces to be able to deal with two nuclear adversaries — Russia and China. On the other hand, a number of experts (particularly from the Federation of American Scientists) are opposed to this; some advocate abandoning the concept of a counterforce strike with the reliance only on a countervalue strike — this would be sufficient to deter both Moscow and Beijing with the existing nuclear forces. The Biden administration adheres to maintaining the current ceiling, but the behavior of a Republican administration in the event of victory in November is unknown. At the same time, according to Russian experts, “there will be no arms race in the next few years: the United States does not have enough forces for a sharp increase in arms”[5]. Is such a viewpoint justified?

Dr. Alexey Arbatov: It is justified in the sense that they cannot sharply increase the number of their main assets (such as strategic submarines, bombers, and ground-based missiles).

However, they have some very fast — and quite cheap — ways. All Trident missiles have 4-5 warheads (different missiles have different numbers). But they can carry 8-12. They can return them from storage within a few months. That’s already a doubling of the naval component. Each Minuteman ICBM has one warhead, but 200 of them can have 3 each. That means another 400 warheads can be added. It’s even easier with bombers. They currently have 6 cruise missiles (or bombs); but they can carry 12 or even 20 — they can also be moved from storage. Reconverting back those bombers that were converted for non-nuclear functions. So, by this inexpensive means, the US strategic forces, if they want, can increase the number from the current 1700 (taking into account the actual equipment of bombers) to three and a half thousand warheads.

Another question is, what does this give them? They cannot deliver a disarming strike against Russia. Against China, the US can maintain a counterforce capability for some time. But in 10 years, China will catch up with them anyway — and maybe even faster if it goes down that path and triples the number of its strategic nuclear forces. With their current forces and as their 20-year modernization program is implemented, the US will maintain sufficient nuclear deterrence potential against all other nuclear powers in the world. But it will not be able to achieve overall parity with the sum of them. Attempts to do so would only accelerate the multilateral arms race, but would not deprive Russia and China of parity with the USA and of the ability to deliver an assured retaliatory strike.

[1] Совместное заявление относительно будущих переговоров по ядерным и космическим вооружениям и дальнейшему укреплению стратегической стабильности. Государственный визит президента СССР М.С. Горбачева в Соединенные Штаты Америки, 30 мая – 4 июня 1990 года. Документы и материалы. М.: Политиздат, 1990. С. 335. ; Soviet-United States Joint Statement on Future Negotiations on Nuclear and Space Arms and Further Enhancing Strategic Stability // George H.W. Bush Presidential Library & Museum. URL:https://bush41library.tamu.edu/archives/public-papers/1938 (accessed 27.02.2024).

[2] Виктор Колтунов: о российско-американских переговорах, СНВ и режиме контроля над вооружениями // ПИР-Центр. 7 марта 2023. URL:https://pircenter.org/news/viktor-koltunov-o-rossijsko-amerikanskih-peregovorah-snv-i-rezhime-kontrolja-nad-vooruzhenijami/#_ftnref1 (дата обращения: 27.02.2024).

[3] Podvig P. Does Russia have a launch-on-warning posture? The Soviet Union didn’t // Russian strategic nuclear forces. April 22, 2019. URL: https://russianforces.org/blog/2019/04/does_russia_have_a_launch-on-w.shtml (accessed: 27.02.2024).

[4] Record of the Main Content of the Conversation between I.P. Rybkin and Vice President of the United States A. Gore // National Security Archive. December 14, 1994. URL: https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/16386-document-14-record-main-content (accessed: 27.02.2024).

[5] Buzhinskiy E., Orlov V., Semenov S. Against Compartmentalization // PIR Center. December 26, 2023. URL: https://pircenter.org/en/editions/against-compartmentalization/ (accessed: 27.02.2024).

Key words: Strategic Stability; Arms Control


E16/MIN – 24/05/07