International Security // Analysis

06 december 2012

Steven Pifer: Transparency as a key factor in nuclear disarmament

Steven Pifer, Director of the Brookings Arms
Control Initiative


Cooperation between the United States and Russia over strategic arms limitation remains subject to changes in the political environment. It also faces structural challenges, particularly those related to a reliable exchange of information on the number of arms held. Steven Pifer, Director of the Brookings Arms Control Initiative and former U.S. ambassador, casts light upon the prospects for further bilateral Russia-U.S. nuclear negotiations.

What are the new challenges facing Russia-U.S. relations on nuclear disarmament and deterrence?

First of all, the good thing is that both sides are implementing the new START treaty, but I think there has been something of a pause for the past year. As I see it, the Russian side has waited because of the uncertainty about the outcome of the U.S. presidential elections. Now we have the results, I think there is an expectation that President Obama in his second term will prioritize proceeding down a course of further nuclear reductions. I think that there is an opportunity to build on a brand-new START in terms of negotiating further nuclear cuts.

Do you think that the results of the presidential election in the U.S. will have a significant impact on the bilateral dialogue?

It seems to me that, when it comes to arms control, there was a pretty significant difference between the approach that President Obama would take and that of a Mitt Romney government. But again President Obama is on the record, he said two years ago that he wants more negotiations with Russia and he would like not only to deploy strategic arms but also talk about reductions of non-deployed strategic arms and tactical nuclear weapons. Therefore, I suppose that it was hard to turn to it in the last year because both sides were watching each other's elections. Now, with the elections behind us, it's time to move on and start those negotiations. After all, President Obama's course tends to be successive. It goes back to the first joint statement that President Obama and then-president Medvedev made in April 2009. They talked about a step-by-step process of nuclear reductions. It's now time to negotiate that next step.

What would your forecast be for how these negotiations will develop?

One question is how the Russian side is prepared to respond to some of these challenges. For example, as far as missile defense is concerned, I don't think that a legal guarantee is possible. Even if President Obama’s administration wanted to do that, there is no chance that the American Senate would ratify it. Thus, the question is, whether you can move beyond that, whether the Russian side could accept something different, something more politically-binding nature, in which case I would think there is actually quite a large possibility for progress in a cooperative missile defense system. That would be good both for missile defense and in terms of defusing issue on the U.S.-Russia agenda, and would help ensure that the question does not become a roadblock to further nuclear reductions. Still, it will depend on the Russian side being contented with something less than legal guarantees.

At the end of the day, would you agree with the statement that there is no need for drastic changes to the general framework, but cooperation has to be deepened?

Yes, I think so, and the Americans also have to take certain steps. To my mind there are some things the United States could do in terms of enhancing the degree of transparency of missile defense - perhaps, a statement on missile defense regarding its degree of implementation. The sides can basically agree to start exchanging numbers, and if they do not want to do this publicly, they can do it privately. There are some easy ways of going about this, for instance exchanging data on the 1991 level as well as other historical data. This will give both sides confidence, it will give them something they can check against their own figures, to verify how close they are. If they match, that's a good thing. Otherwise, people are going to think more about alternative approaches to verification and it could be very positive for transparency. Naturally there is no foolproof means to prevent real and relevant information being concealed, or pushing this practice to its limit, through cheating. However, transparency remains key as a first step to facilitate shaping a new common policy on strategic arms limitation. I think this is what Russia and the United States can do, even while they are negotiating a new treaty, which could take longer. If only to enhance transparency, it really would help.

Interviewed by Roman Raynkhardt, RIAC program assistant

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“Steven Pifer: Transparency as a key factor in nuclear disarmament,” Russian International Affairs Council, 06 December 2012,

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