Russia`s views on strategic stability: is dialogue with the US feasible?

December 3, 2019

The debate on strategic stability and its prospects has been gaining momentum within the Russian academic and expert communities for the last couple of years, which is not surprising given the fact that the whole of the international security architecture is under extensive pressure. Traditional arms control treaties previously regarded as a critical instrument of ensuring strategic stability are on the verge of collapse. The system is under double blow. First, rapid technological progress blurs the distinction line between nuclear and conventional weapons, thus increasing the risk of escalation. Secondly, the global security landscape is becoming increasingly multilateral, thus making the traditional bilateral track less relevant – at least, for the United States.

This situation allows the warmongering hawks in the two capitals to make a case for more assertive policies and against any restrictions, including arms control.[1] Even within the academia there are experts arguing that with strategic landscape becoming multilateral rather than bilateral and new technologies emerging traditional arms control is now impossible.[2][3] In their view, the utmost measure we can count on is confidence building measure and maybe moratoria rather than rigid traditional arms control. Fortunately, there are still scholars investing their expertise in upholding the case of arms control.[4] In their view, nothing has changed for strategic stability and current challenges are possible to overcome should there be political will in Washington DC and Moscow.

The Russian stance on the issue is binary and somewhat vague. On the one hand, Russia has been emphasizing the continued importance of the bilateral strategic stability, signaling its commitment to the INF Treaty, the New START and others. The approach is based on the 1990 Joint Statement on strategic stability by the presidents of the Soviet Union and the US[5] and envisages that each of the parties is no position to achieve superiority needed for a disarming counterforce strike.

On the other hand, Russia together with China has put forward a broader understanding of strategic stability envisaged in the Joint Russian-Chinese statement. According to the document, is such a state of international affairs under which:

1. In the political sphere:

  • strict observance by all States and associations of States of the principles and norms of international law and provisions of the UN Charter governing the use of force and the adoption of coercive measures;
  • respect for the legitimate interests of all States and peoples in addressing current international and regional issues, and inadmissibility of interference in the political life of other States;

2. In the military sphere:

  • retention by all States of their military capabilities at the minimum level necessary for national security needs;
  • deliberate restraint from taking steps in the field of military construction, forming and enlarging military-political alliances that could be perceived by other members of the international community as a threat to their national security and would force them to take retaliatory measures aimed at restoring the balance;
  • resolution of differences through a positive and constructive dialogue and strengthening of mutual trust and cooperation.[6]

The political part of this definition has little to do with arms control, and if we were to use such a broad definition of stability, then stability itself would become almost unachievable. To enable further progress in arms control, specialists will have to develop a narrow yet up-to-date definition of strategic stability based on technical parameters.

How we got here?

Before analyzing the prospects for dialogue between Russia and the US on the issues pertaining to the field of strategic stability, it is not pointless to explore the brief history of the current crisis.

In 2002 the US withdrew from the ABM Treaty citing the perceived threat from rogue regimes as well as from non-state actors. Moscow, interpreted the U.S. program of developing its missile defence cababilities as an attempt to achieve strategic superiority. These concerns were fueled by the US decision to deploy its AMB facilities in Europe, which might undermine Russian strategic deterrence potential. The use of standardized Mk.41[7] vertical launch containers, capable of using “Tomahawk” cruise missiles exacerbated the tensions even more. As a response, Russia started implementing a modernization program and launched production of new strategic weapons presented on March 1, 2018[8] It is worth noting that although the new armaments are designed to render null all the advantages US achieved having abandoned the ABM Treaty, they serve defensive purposes and enhance strategic stability rather that weaken it.

However, Washington perceived it as a challenge to its national security and a starting point for a resumption of a greatpower competition. Its decision to terminate the INF Treaty, which is regarded as erroneous by many experts both in Russia and the US, dealt a great blow to the mechanism stabilizing the great power competition. An unending cycle of mutual distrust and complaints is even more heated, now involving public disputes in the mass media outlets. The past strategic relationship in contrast included sustained, high-level efforts by Washington and Moscow to assure each other of their continued commitment to strategic stability and to demonstrate that their capabilities were in line with their stated intentions. Now the situation is worse than ever before. Official contacts are reduced to minimum levels, the whole tissue of bilateral relations is plagued with distrust and mutual suspicions.[9]

Is Dialogue Feasible? What measures can be taken?

Such a pessimistic state of affairs does not mean that dialogue is not plausible. The risks are too high to give up and hope that some sort of “multilateral strategic stability” will emerge by its own as Suslov and Karaganov imply. Russia and the US remain the only countries which have the technical capability to destroy each other as well as the rest of the world. The two countries still possess 92% of the global nuclear stockpile. That means that the dialogue is desperately called for.

To begin a substantive dialogue Russia and the US need to address the conceptual issues. Existing obligations regarding strategic stability should be reconfirmed, thus laying the ground for the elaboration of an updated conceptual framework for strategic stability, which should rest on four principles – those are rooted in Cold War legacies but need to be adapted, revisited, and broadened in the light of the changing strategic capabilities and threats:

  1. Mutual assurance that neither country can dramatically degrade the other country’s strategic capabilities – now to include not just nuclear capabilities as in the Cold War but also space and cyber assets – we can call this “deterrence stability”;
  2. A mutual commitment to prevent a future U.S.-Russian military crisis, and in the event of such a crisis, a commitment to avoid political-military actions that would heighten the risk of an escalation to open military (and, possibly, nuclear) conflict – we call this “crisis stability”;
  3. A shared assessment of nuclear dangers, including (most importantly) a reaffirmation of the 1985 U.S.-Soviet statement that a nuclear war – any nuclear war – cannot be won and must never be fought;[6]
  4. A mutual readiness to take advantage of opportunities to renew habits of cooperation between Washington and Moscow, not least in cooperating to protect the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

The development of such a concept is impossible on working level – it should be the maximum level commitment made by the two presidents, which – at least as of today – is almost “mission impossible”. Since any contacts with Russia are now considered toxic, it is highly unlikely that the current administration will suddenly decide to conclude a grand deal with Moscow. The only way it might happen is related to the electoral considerations of Trump. If he sees an opportunity to “sell” a possible deal to his electorate. This means that at least seemingly Russia will have to make bigger concessions that it can – without reciprocity. Another plausibility – though somewhat remote – is that Trump starts losing his political ground on the domestic front. With stalemate in negotiations on the Democratic People`s Republic of Korea nuclear and missile programs, increasing tensions with China he might need something to prove that the foreign policy of his administration was not a complete failure damaging the core national interests of the country. In this case, with due assertiveness on the Russian part – some progress might be achievable.

In practical terms, to enhance strategic stability Russia and the US should focus on extending the New START Treaty and addressing the issues impeding its full implementation. In this context, the two parties might start negotiations on how the scope of strategic arms reduction talks might be broadened. Proceeding from the aforementioned principles, it would be in mutual interest to explore how hypersonic boost vehicles together with non-conventional means of delivery and other destabilizing factors such as cyber warfare, non-strategic nuclear weaponry and conventional military capabilities in order to lay the foundations for a robust parity, which will be unable to preclude competition but – yes – to avoid devastating ramifications of a plausible nuclear escalation.

[1] Pursuing Enhanced Strategic Stability Through Russia-U.S. Dialogue. PIR Center URL: (date of entry 11.11.2019).

[2] Сергей Караганов, Дмитрий Суслов Сдерживание в новую эпоху Россия в глобальной политике. URL: (дата обращения 4.11.2019).

[3] А.В.Кортунов Есть ли жизнь после смерти контроля над вооружениями? Российский совет по международным делам. URL: (date of entry 11.11.2019).

[4] Alexey Arbatov. Erosion of Strategic Stability//Russia: arms control, disarmament and international security / IMEMO supplement to the Russian edition of the SIPRI Yearbook 2017. Edited by A. Arbatov, S. Oznobishchev. – Moscow: IMEMO, 2018.

[5] “Soviet-United States Joint Statement on Future Negotiations on Nuclear and Space Arms and Further Enhancing Strategic Stability,” June 1, 1990 URL:

[6] Совместное заявление Президента Российской Федерации и Председателя Китайской Народной Республики об укреплении глобальной стратегической стабильности от 23 июля 2016 г. URL: (date of entry 11.11.2019).

[7] Вступительное слово заместителя Министра иностранных дел России С.А.Рябкова на брифинге в связи с прекращением действия Договора о РСМД, Москва, 5 августа 2019 года URL:

[8] Послание Президента Федеральному Собранию. 1 марта 2018 г. URL: (дата обращения 11.11.2019).

[9] В. Мизин Новые контуры стратегической стабильности и перспективы контроля над стратегическими вооружениями// Пути к миру и безопасности. 2019. № 1(56). С. 96-121.