Russia and Nuclear Arms Control: A Way Ahead


By Richard Weitz

U.S. officials say it is too early to begin formal negotiations with Moscow on the next step in nuclear arms control.

In the interim, they will concentrate on “doing their homework” on the complexities involved, both within the U.S. government, as a follow-on to the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which began last summer, and within NATO, which has been analyzing these issues under a separate deterrence and defense review that examines what nuclear, conventional, and strategic offense forces the alliance will require for the next decade.

There is also the possibility that a Republican administration will come to power next January and favor a different approach towards nuclear arms control.

Russian-US arms control is always an exercise in half full or half empty. But the key test is whether real problems are being dealt with. And the key one is nuclear materials proliferation. Credit Image: Bigstock

But there are sharp differences between Washington and Moscow regarding where to go next.

Russia’s main concerns focus on U.S. missile defense and U.S. conventional superiority. U.S. progress in both areas work against Russia’s willingness to cut its offensive nuclear forces even further, which is the U.S. priority, and extends to U.S. determination to reduce the large number of Russian tactical nuclear weapons, which are seen as more vulnerable to accident or diversion than strategic nuclear warheads.

Russian officials also cite concerns about U.S. space and cyber weapons as well as U.S. plans to place conventional warheads on strategic delivery systems to obtain a prompt global strike capacity. They claim that all these systems could negatively affect Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent.

Those Americans uneasy about reducing U.S. nuclear forces further, at least any time soon, point to worries about China’s nuclear forces (including recent claims that China is concealing many nuclear warheads in secret tunnel complexes) as well as the need to hedge against technical mishaps and strategic uncertainties.

Rapid reductions are unlikely in any case due to the need to conduct comprehensive environmental impact studies, specify deterrence requirements, and complete other analysis before eliminating a nuclear delivery system in a verifiable manner.

Strengthening the U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure to make it more responsive would reduce some of these concerns, but revitalizing the U.S. capacity to dismantle, and if necessary rebuild, nuclear weapons could take a couple of decades.

Beyond that, some formal agreements might prove possible.

For example, Russia has until now had little incentive to reduce their TNW, but, as in NATO, they will soon face the requirement to replace their aging non-strategic systems with a new generation of costly TNW. Russian military leaders might well prefer to use the money for other purposes—to modernize their strategic or conventional forces, which would give them an incentive to reach a bargain soon before they lose their numerical advantage. Later in the decade, moreover, both sides will need to decide how to extend the limitations and verification provisions contained in the New START accord even if they do not plan to make further reductions.

Given all the constraints outlined in previous articles, any meaningful progress on Russia-U.S. arms control until then is unlikely.

Russian-U.S. arms control efforts should best focus on achieving certain limited agreements in areas of common interest that would not require the ratification of new formal treaties or even legally binding agreements.

First, Russian-U.S. collaboration on regional proliferation challenges is important since both countries are veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council.

It is also possible since both sides do not want to see more nuclear weapons states. Of course, the two countries regularly differ in their proliferation threat perceptions, their preferred nonproliferation tactics, and the costs they are prepared to incur to avert further nuclear proliferation.

For example, Russian officials are unlikely to accept any more UN sanctions on Iran given their different assessments of Iranian motives, at least unless the evidence that Tehran is seeking a nuclear weapon becomes incontrovertible.

But cooperation regarding North Korea is possible since, unlike in the case of Iran, Russia and the United States share the same objective economic as well as strategic objectives. Russians are eager to settle differences between North Korea and its neighbors because they to build pipelines and railways to East Asia through North Korean territory

Second, there are a number of potential informal confidence and transparency-building measures that the two sides could pursue.

These would help both to lead toward a new strategic arms control treaty in a few years if the bilateral relationship improves but could serve a valuable stabilizing function in their own right even without one.

These measures could include:

  1. Verifying Russian and U.S. declarations that their tactical nuclear weapons have been removed from certain locations (meeting a U.S. concern about its lack of means to verify that the Russian government has implemented its half of the 1991-92 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives)
  2. Conducting a joint threat assessment of the threat posed to either sides ballistic missile silos by prompt conventional global strike and precision-guided conventionally armed cruise missiles (addressing a Russian fear)
  3. Renewing efforts to expand the application of restrictions in the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and other bilateral arms control agreements to other countries
  4. Pursuing measures to increase transparency regarding the capacity of each sides’ nuclear weapons production complexes to construct new nuclear forces in any attempt to rapidly break out of a strategic arms control agreement
  5. Proceeding slowly, and expand bilateral consultations, regarding the deployment of new capabilities the other side perceives as especially destabilizing (U.S. prompt global conventional strike and Russia’s planned heavy nuclear missiles)
  6. Increasing the transparency of the thousands of nuclear warheads both sides keep in storage pending their dismantlement by storing them separately from their active warheads and making periodic declarations of their number.
  7. Experimenting with cooperative means of verifying the status of any nuclear warheads, with the goal of generating confidence in the data without compromising design and other military secrets.
  8. The Russian and U.S. representatives to the Arms Control and International Security Working Group of the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission could float some of these measures for consideration. They also could be explored through various Track II and mixed public-NGO exchanges. It is likely that any concrete progress will need to await the outcome of the U.S. presidential elections.

Finally, although Russians and Americans may continue to disagree regarding the reasons for Islamist militancy and other forms of terrorism, they are eager to cooperate against nuclear or other WMD-empowered terrorism.

Such an effort could be facilitated by increasing the security of fissile materials through the mechanisms of the Nuclear Security Summits and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism.

These institutions have now helped transform the provider-recipient model of the original Nunn-Lugar Comprehensive Threat Reduction programs with a new framework in which both countries cooperate against mutual WMD threats.

In this regard, Russians are eager to pursue civilian nuclear energy cooperation with the United States.

The recently ratified 123 agreement allows Russian and U.S. firms to cooperate to produce new types of civilian power reactors that would be less proliferation-prone and perhaps more efficient and safe than existing models. Both countries want to revive the civilian use of nuclear power, but only if it will be safe and secure. Russians and Americans are eager to share their best security safety and security culture practices. Both want to make sure that those countries that are considering starting new nuclear energy programs think about how to avoid accidents and protect the nuclear material at their facilities.

Such civil nuclear energy collaboration could prove very useful in helping develop new commercial stakeholders in both countries that have an interest in maintaining good Russian-U.S. relations.

The economic relationship between Russia and the United States is pitifully small since Americans do not buy Russian oil, gas, or weapons, the main Russian exports, and various impediments hobble mutual investments. At present, the constituencies favoring strong bilateral ties in both countries are small, consisting mainly of arms controllers and foreign policy experts.

These conditions have meant that the Russian-U.S. agenda is still dominated by Cold War-type issues, including nuclear arms control that positions the two parties in an adversary relationship.

Only by moving away from this orientation can both sides begin to overcome the mutual confidence gap that underlines many of their other differences.