(votes: 3, rating: 5)
Doctor of Political Science, Chief research fellow, Center of International Security, Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences (IMEMO), RIAC Expert
Given the current state of the nuclear arms control regime, it is quite possible that Russia and the United States will enter the next decade without any active bilateral nuclear disarmament treaties. The indefinite Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) effectively expires in August 2019. The 2010 New START Treaty may be discontinued in February 2021, since the chances of its extension are slim. Under these circumstances, and in light of the current political and military tensions, there is nothing standing in the way of the new nuclear and conventional arms race that very well may begin (or may have already started) between Russia and the United States.
The leaders of both countries have stated they are trying to avoid such a development. However, judging from the absence of a dialogue on nuclear limitation and reduction, and from the current and planned programmes to upgrade nuclear forces, a new arms race may well follow – if it has not already started, that is.
We can expect to see an erosion of the nuclear threshold on the one hand, and the practical impossibility of reaching any kind of agreement on control over nuclear and other types of weapons on the other. Nothing will limit the military programmes of the two sides in the foreseeable future, and the size and pace of these programmes will depend solely on how the leaders of perceive the security and technological and economic capabilities of their countries. Such a development may still be avoided, but this would require active scientific research and the joint efforts of politicians, militaries and scientists in all the nuclear states.
Following the withdrawal of the United States, and then Russia, from the INF Treaty, the fate of the 2010 New START Treaty, which expires on February 5, 2021, has been placed high on the international agenda. However, Article 14 of the document reads that the treaty may be extended “for a period of no more than five years” if either party raises the issue, and that its possible extension should be jointly considered by the parties. Many experts express justifiable fears that in the current atmosphere of soured U.S.–Russia relations, the issue of extending the treaty will not be raised, and that in less than two years from now there will be nothing standing in the way of a new nuclear and conventional arms race. They are thus urging the leaders of the two countries to prevent the complete destruction of the arms control system that was built over decades and extend the 2010 Treaty at least for another five years. They also call for the preservation of the INF Treaty, even though the chances of this happening are minute.
It appears that the 2020s will be marked by the absence of any controls over, or agreed limitations on, the development of nuclear weapons. In other words, the responsibility for making decisions in this area will fall entirely on the leaders of the nuclear states, and whatever practical steps are made will be felt far into the future. If the consequences of these decisions are negative, then their mitigation will become a priority objective for future leaders of Russia, the United States and possibly other nuclear states, as was the case when Leonid Brezhnev and Richard Nixon had to tackle the consequences of the nuclear arms race unleashed by their predecessors. It can be argued that these two leaders only managed to solve the problem in part, and only Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan were able to stop and reverse the ongoing build-up of their respective countries’ nuclear arsenals, which had exceeded all reasonable “overkill” limits by that time.
In this sense, much will depend on the general vision that future leaders will have of national security and how to improve it and, ultimately, on their chosen political course in this area. It is possible that the two parties will eventually re-embrace the arms control concept in one form or another. Therefore, it appears very relevant to analyse the advantages and disadvantages of the current arms control system, which has been central to international security over the past decades and which, quite possibly, will become a thing of the past in the next few years. It is also important to analyse the approaches to strengthening international security that are currently being proposed, including the issue of strategic stability, which is a focus of many specialists in military and political affairs, as well as of the leadership of Russia and the United States.
Advantages and disadvantages of the traditional nuclear arms control system
End of Nuclear Arms Control: Do Not Beware the Ides of March
The decades-long experience of nuclear treaties between the Soviet Union / Russia and the United States has revealed both serious advantages and obvious shortcomings of this approach to ensuring national and international security. One clear key advantage was the very signing of nuclear arms limitation treaties, which would be normally followed by a general improvement of bilateral relations, both with regard to security and to many other aspects. Suffice it to recall the detente period of the mid-to-late 1970s, which was preceded by the signing of SALT I and the significant improvement in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and the 1990s after the signing of the INF Treaty and a number of other strategic offensive arms limitation and reduction agreements .
That said, the arms control regime has also historically targeted more specific objectives. For SALT I, it was to stop the uncontrolled build-up of strategic nuclear missiles – more specifically, of land- and sea-based ballistic missiles. In 1972, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to limit the deployment of such missiles, thus achieving a certain level of predictability in the arms race, which was being largely stimulated by mutual assessments of the potential adversary’s plans and actions. This partially simplified the planning of strategic nuclear development, and also helped save significant budget funds.
The first arms control successes facilitated the achievement of more serious objectives moving forward. Restrictions were put in place on the number of strategic missiles, as well as the number of nuclear warheads, that each of them could carry. The scope of controlled strategic systems was expanded to cover heavy bombers and nuclear-tipped long-range cruise missiles. Eventually, the parties move from simple restrictions on the size of strategic nuclear arsenals to an actual reduction of nuclear stockpiles. Moreover, over the past 25 years, the parties have managed to reduce these arsenals by approximately eight times, from 11,000–12,000 strategic warheads to some 1500 each. Finally, the INF Treaty, which may be considered the most radical agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States, enabled the two countries to completely eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons, namely, land-based medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles. Even though such systems were not viewed as strategic weapons according to the accepted classification (although they were effectively strategic weapons for the Soviet Union and remain so for Russia), this positive example could have been replicated with other nuclear arms.
For the most part, when assessing the nuclear arms control treaties, experts and officials primarily highlighted their advantages . Whenever any faults were found with such agreements (and no treaty is completely free of shortcomings), the proposal would be made to rectify these drawbacks in subsequent accords. Sometimes this was actually the case, sometimes not. On the whole, however, most experts always hailed the nuclear disarmament process and, in the past few decades, tended to view it as a continuous trend that could eventually involve all the nuclear states.
At the same time, in parallel with external “prosperity” and the steady progress towards expanding and deepening nuclear arms control both between and within the countries that were a part of this process, serious internal and bilateral discrepancies were accumulating. By the mid-2010s, these contradictions came to a head, threatening to ruin the entire system of international treaties, or at least that of treaties between Russia and the United States.
The “external discrepancies” – that is, the contradictions between the parties to the arms control treaties – were most clearly manifested in the course of negotiations. And this is only natural. A party to negotiations chooses its own approach to the future agreement, and this approach is reflected in its initial position. Very often (if not always), this position allows for a certain leeway, without which it would simply be impossible to reach any agreement. In the course of talks, as compromises are sought, this leeway is gradually expended in exchange for reciprocal concessions from the opposite side. Any such compromise is viewed by either party as a serious step towards reaching a final agreement.
However, in practice, such conflict-free negotiations are rare. Oftentimes, a party needs to considerably revise its original position and cede more than it had originally deemed permissible in order to reach an agreement. It is at such moments that external discrepancies turn into internal ones, and this requires all the agencies involved in the decision-making process to revise the previously agreed position.
A little history
We should bear in mind that initial internal contradictions may surface even before negotiations start. When the Soviet Union was faced with this question in the late 1960s, the Ministry of Defence was categorically against negotiating with the United States on strategic nuclear offensive weapons. The reasoning was that Washington would only agree to a deal if it could gain some strategic military benefits from it, something that would not be beneficial for the Soviet Union. The Soviet military did not believe that a balance of interests could be achieved, nor did it support the idea of resolving security issues through negotiations with a “probable adversary.”
Even though the Soviet military was eventually talked into okaying the negotiations, its approach to nuclear arms control was always characterized by suspicion and doubt. It saw virtually any proposed compromise (however justified and obvious) as a concession, and invariably met such compromises with resistance. This was an additional factor that significantly complicated and slowed down the decision-making processes, which is why negotiations on the SALT I and START I treaties, for example, dragged on for several years.
Is This the End of Nuclear Arms Control?
During the Brezhnev era, the Soviet leadership managed to maintain a balance between the interests of its various agencies in formulating and revising the country’s position during negotiations on nuclear limitation and reduction. Back then, the Soviet position and, consequently, any instructions for the Soviet delegation at arms control talks, could only be approved after consultations between the heads of the five key departments – the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Military-Industrial Commission and the KGB. Such decisions always required unanimous agreement. Whenever opinions differed, every effort was made to reach a consensus, including by way of appointing special commissions to resolve the differences. Only in very rare cases would the Secretary General of the Central Committee make a decision on his own .
This changed during the tenure of Gorbachev, when the new political leadership set the objective of negotiating a profound reduction in nuclear stockpiles with the United States and achieving the elimination of all nuclear weapons around the world by 2000. Significant pressure was exerted on the Soviet military to accelerate talks with the United States on the provisions of the INF and START I treaties, and propose new disarmament initiatives. In some instances, the military would be left out of the loop altogether, with Minister of Foreign Affairs Eduard Shevardnadze attempting to talk directly to Gorbachev. All this caused understandable dissatisfaction in the Ministry of Defence, and even led to protests.
The military was particularly displeased with Gorbachev’s unilateral decision (under Shevardnadze’s influence) to put the OTR-23 Oka theatre ballistic missile system (NATO reporting name SS-23 Spider) on the list of weapons to be eliminated as part of the INF Treaty. The military and the Military-Industrial Commission argued that this system, which was advanced for its time, did not fall into the category of shorter-range missiles (with a range of over 500 km), so needed to remain in service. The United States insisted that a missile of Oka’s dimensions should have a range exceeding the established limitation . The Soviet Union continued to defend its position until Gorbachev made his decision, after which the military could only comply. However, the hard feelings caused by this concession, and by the INF Treaty in general, persisted with the military throughout the duration of the accord. Many representatives of the Ministry of Defence believed (and believe to this day) that the treaty was “unfair,” not least because it forced the Soviet Union get rid of over twice as many missiles as the United States (1846 compared to 846).
The collapse of the Soviet Union was followed by massive changes in the nuclear disarmament domain. For Russia at the turn of the century, resolving this problem became not just an important priority, but an urgent need. The difficult economic situation in which the country found itself, combined with its ageing nuclear missile arsenals, necessitated further profound arms reductions, and this process was virtually inevitable.
The United States similarly believed that, now that the Cold War was over, there was no point in maintaining the huge potential of “active” strategic nuclear weapons. In late 2001, the Bush administration decided to unilaterally bring the number of strategic warheads down to between 1700 and 2200 over the next 10 years . The extra 500 warheads were caused by the failure to reach a compromise between the Department of State and the Department of Defense, which categorically disagreed with the proposal to decrease the number of deployed strategic warheads below 2000 units. The decision was eventually made to set a range of planned unilateral reductions that could be revised depending on the military and political situation. The plan also provided for the possibility of increasing the arsenal by tapping into the so-called active reserve (decommissioned warheads would not be destroyed, but rather stored in “reserve”) in the event that the situation should change dramatically .
The Russian leadership decided to maintain its treaty-based relations with the United States with regard to nuclear weapons, especially because the arms control system could suffer due to the botched introduction of START II and Washington’s announcement in late 2001 that it was withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty). The only accord that remained intact was the INF Treaty which, as mentioned above, continued to cause discontent within the Russian military. In addition, START I, which was to remain in force until December 5, 2009, called for restricting the number of deployed strategic warheads to 6000, which was unattainable for Russia. In this regard, Russia managed to talk the United States into staying within the legal framework of strategic arms control and sign, in 2002, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, whose parameters fully coincided with the unilateral reduction limits announced by George W. Bush, complete with the “adjustable bracket” on the permitted number of warheads, which was somewhat strange for this type of agreement.
It only took few months for the treaty to be drafted, which, among other things, indicated the absence of serious disagreements between the parties and within the Russian political and military leadership. The 2010 negotiations of New START also proceeded fairly smoothly, resulting in the number of strategic nuclear warheads that either country could deploy (with the exception of cruise missiles) being capped at 1550 units, and the number of deployed carriers being capped at 700 units. This was the last time to date that Russia and the United States would negotiate on further reductions of strategic (and any other types of) nuclear weapons .
Problems enforcing agreements
The Global Hypersonic Race
Over the decades of the development of the arms control system, the most dramatic changes have occurred in the mechanisms that are involved in verifying compliance with the treaties signed. In the early days, such verifications would be carried out by “national technical means,” that is, reconnaissance satellites, and the parties agreed to not interfere in such inspections in any way, including by way of using camouflage.
This situation continued for 15 years, until the signing of the INF Treaty in 1987 and Start I in 1991. Moreover, while the SALT I and SALT II treaties only devoted a couple of lines to the compliance of the parties with the verification regime, the INF Treaty, and especially START I, formalized these provisions in lengthy protocols detailing all the control stages and procedures, including on-site inspections. This was a real breakthrough in terms of openness and greater mutual confidence in the rigorous fulfilment by the parties of their obligations.
At the same time, it seems to me that the parties got somewhat “carried away” in their efforts to predict and then detect using technical means even the most minute violations. This resulted in numerous mutual accusations over extremely minor “violations” that had virtually no effect on the balance of powers of the two countries. However, the more presence of these accusations impeded the enforcement of particular agreements. The number of alleged breaches accumulated over time and, even though most of them were settled without a great deal of fuss, all this contributed to an atmosphere of mutual distrust and doubt.
We can thus state that there is a distinct divergence of opinions when it comes to verifying compliance with arms control treaties. On the one hand, any such treaty is viewed as an absolutely positive development indicating the further strengthening of trust between the two states. On the other hand, attaching provisions regarding the verification and monitoring of obligations under such agreements indicates a sheer absence of such trust. It is hard to say whether this discrepancy can be easily resolved, but it appears that the parties to any future agreements should recognize its existence at the very least.
It would, of course, be wrong to say that the INF Treaty fell victim to this particular discrepancy. However, this factor certainly played a negative role in the decision of the United States to withdraw from the agreement announced by President Trump on February 2, 2019, and in the subsequent statement by President Putin that Russia was also suspending the implementation of its obligations under the treaty.
Causes and consequences of the demise of the INF Treaty
It can be said without any exaggeration whatsoever that Russia’s loss of interest in the INF Treaty can be explained by the actions of the United States to deploy components of its missile defence system in Europe. Furthermore, if we follow the logic of the Russian political and military leadership, the INF Treaty is weakening Russia’s defensive capacity by hindering the deployment of Russian weapons that are capable of engaging this missile defence system. There are, in fact, a number of other reasons why Russia is no longer satisfied with the INF Treaty, and these have been voiced for years by senior government officials, including the President himself. Therefore, the fact that the United States was the first to withdraw from the treaty does not change the essence of the problem, which is this: the Russian political and military leadership is no longer interested in the treaty .
It seems that the logic of the Russian leadership in this matter is based on the idea of creating a military threat in response to the defensive actions of the United States and NATO in Europe. Moscow alleges that these defensive non-nuclear systems “threaten” Russia’s offensive nuclear weapons and can be used for offensive purposes. We have to admit that this “logic” has actually managed to outweigh the approach to security embodied in the INF Treaty, which was aimed at reducing the nuclear threat by banning dangerous offensive nuclear weapons that could destroy important strategic facilities in the European part of Russia in a short amount of time. It now looks like the Russian leadership is prepared for the re-emergence of American ballistic missiles in Europe, while at the same time remaining rather confident that the situation which arose in the early 1980s will not repeat itself.
The reasons for the United States’ withdrawal from the treaty are less obvious. While the development, testing and production of new medium-range systems is unlikely to present a serious technical problem, the deployment of such land-based nuclear weapons remains open to discussion. Of course, the official reason for the United States’ withdrawal was the “breach” by Russia of the treaty’s provisions in connection with the testing and deployment of the 9M729 cruise missile. Washington demanded the destruction of these missiles, complete with their launchers and related equipment. However, even if we concede that a test missile slightly exceeded the range permitted by the treaty, this would certainly not warrant such a response from the United States. Most likely, all this was just an excuse for the United States to withdraw from the agreement which, in our opinion, does not run counter to the interests of the Russian leadership.
The statement made by the President of the United States (which is similar to the one made by Putin) to the effect that the INF Treaty is unfair because a number of countries are armed with medium-range missiles is dubious . For some reason, the two politicians tend to forget that the countries they are referring to (Israel, Iran, China, North Korea, etc.) either do not have intercontinental ballistic missiles at all or possess very small numbers of such weapons. Under such conditions, it is impossible to imagine that these countries would agree to eliminate their medium-range missile arsenals while Russia and the United States retain hundreds of land- and sea-based ballistic missiles. In this case, the only possible solution would be radical: to negotiate the elimination of all (or at least land-based) ballistic missiles with a range of over 500 km . Neither the United States nor Russia is prepared for this, but neither party has proposed another solution with specific parameters that may be extended to a possible multilateral agreement.
It is difficult to predict how the United States will use the “freedom” it has obtained by withdrawing from the INF Treaty. If Washington begins talks on the deployment of the relevant weapons in a given country, then this will give us an indication of whom the missiles will be eventually aimed at. In actual fact, the United States is quite constrained in terms of where it can deploy a missile. If it chooses Europe as the deployment location, then the target will be Russia. If it chooses the Asia-Pacific, then the target will be China. There are simply no other “worthy" targets for U.S. medium-range land-based nuclear systems. In any case, it is Russia and China that will be monitoring the actions and intentions of the United States in this area and take the appropriate actions to ensure their own security.
On a “New Vision” of strategic stability
Immediately after the signing of New START in 2010, many military and political scholars flagged the importance of continuing with the nuclear disarmament process. They proposed various options for future agreements , which basically boiled down to reducing the agreed number of strategic carriers and nuclear warheads by approximately another third . Moreover, the point of view was frequently expressed that such reductions would not hamper strategic stability and, on the contrary, would only serve to strengthen it .
As regards strategic stability itself, in recent years many experts have arrived at the conclusion that the concept had taken on a “new meaning” due to the development of new weapons . Strategic stability is increasingly being influenced above all by conventional weapons. In addition to missile defence, these weapons include strategic non-nuclear ICBMs and cruise missiles, anti-satellite weapons and space-based weapons in general, cyber weapons, and the nuclear arsenals of third countries, among others . Many scientific articles have been published on this topic .
To begin with, one result of this “new vision” was that, at least in Russia, those experts who had traditionally called for continuing the dialogue on nuclear disarmament came to terms with those who were sceptical about the prospects for resolving security issues through such negotiations. In any case, both sides believe that “strategic stability” is currently about many more things than it was during the Cold War, and that “new factors” need to be taken into account or met with an “asymmetric” response.
In our opinion, there is a clear contradiction in the logic of those who advocate new agreements to reduce nuclear weapons while simultaneously promoting a “new vision” of strategic stability. Indeed, according to this logic, treaties such as the INF and START cease to meet the security interests of Russia, since they do not take into account the emergence of the above-mentioned “new factors” which give the United States an advantage. According to this logic, further reductions in Russian and U.S. strategic offensive armaments will further undermine strategic stability. To prevent this, the introduction of a new agreement should be accompanied by successful negotiations on missile defence, space-based weapons, strategic conventional weapons, etc. Obviously, such a scenario is completely unrealistic. Therefore, according to the same logic, new agreements on the further reduction of nuclear weapons are not needed, and the security problem should be solved unilaterally, that is, through an arms race. I should emphasize here that this is not my proposal, but merely a “projection” of the logic professed by supporters of the “new vision” of strategic stability in its final, practical manifestation. Incidentally, following the statements by the leaders of Russia and the United States that they were withdrawing from the INF Treaty, the two countries have started to move down this particular path. The only thing that remains is to cancel the extension of the New START Treaty, which is something that is likely to happen.
Is There Life After Arms Control Death?
Now let us talk about strategic stability in and of itself. This concept is closely linked to that of nuclear deterrence. It is, in a way, a continuation of the nuclear deterrence concept and is based on an assessment of the effectiveness of a first nuclear strike and the potential of a retaliatory strike. At the same time, many believe that, if the side that has been attacked is capable of completely obliterating the enemy or at least causing unacceptable damage to the attacker, even in the most adverse of situations, then its nuclear deterrence is reliable and its strategic stability is sustainable. Preserving and strengthening this ability under different scenarios for the modernization, build-up or reduction of strategic offensive weapons by one or both parties is the essence of the art of maintaining strategic stability.
Unlike most military-strategic concepts, strategic stability has a clearly articulated “numerical” expression, and in this way it somewhat resembles an exact science. Special computer programmes allow, within a certain margin of error, the possible results of a hypothetical exchange of nuclear strikes between the parties to a conflict to be determined. These programmes take a great number of indicators and characteristics of strategic weapons systems into account, including the number of warheads, their yield power, the degree of combat readiness, the accuracy of missiles, the degree of enemy target protection, the platforms used, and so on. Performing these calculations makes it possible to predict how many launchers will survive the first strike and which may thus be used in a second strike. When calculating the effectiveness of a retaliatory strike, the programme takes the availability of an enemy missile defence system and its parameters into account. The result, expressed in the number of warheads capable of reaching the aggressor territory in a retaliatory strike, answers the question of whether the desired damage will be caused to the enemy. In other words, it will determine whether strategic stability can be violated in a given configuration, including after the parties have met the terms of the planned agreement or implemented strategic nuclear modernization programmes.
Of course, this method of assessing the consequences of a nuclear exchange is rather approximate in nature. Nevertheless, it makes it possible to at least assess the degree to which the strategic situation will improve or worsen under certain conditions. The “improvement” or “deterioration” can be expressed in specific numbers. In this sense, strategic stability can be considered a real instrument that allows decision-makers who are involved in negotiations on whether or not conclude an arms reduction agreement, how to respond to the opponent’s strategic nuclear modernization efforts and what kind of reaction to expect from the opponent in response to one’s own modernization efforts to make informed decisions on the basis of specific calculations.
Now let us return to the “new vision” of strategic stability. It appears that the term itself is so successful and attractive that people are beginning to interpret it quite broadly, giving it meanings that it never had before. In fact, supporters of the “new vision” talk about the security problem in the light of the next “revolution in military affairs,” rather than about the results of a hypothetical exchange of nuclear strikes and the reliability of nuclear deterrence using (without justification, in my opinion) an established and quite specific expression.
Proponents of this “vision” are effectively proposing that we abandon the existing instrument for calculating the results of a nuclear exchange and replace it with general discussions about security problems. Indeed, if we “introduce” new uncertain elements into the stability equation, then confidence in this approach will decrease sharply. We can assume that strategic factors can be influenced by unnamed factors. But this requires evidence. For example, how do “space weapons” affect (or possibly affect) the effectiveness of a first strike and the potential of a retaliatory strike? In what specific quantities can this be expressed? The same goes for non-nuclear strategic weapons, cyber weapons and other “factors.” All these issues can and should be discussed separately, but this requires additional serious research.
In the meantime, whether voluntarily or not, the proponents of this approach to strategic stability are effectively questioning the usefulness of the existing nuclear limitation and reduction treaties, which are based on the traditional understanding of the term. This, however, is half the problem. The real problem is that allegations to the effect that the aforementioned “new factors” of strategic stability actually exist only push military and political leaders to counteract these threats in an “asymmetric” manner, namely, by boosting the nuclear arms race. In this sense, supporters of nuclear disarmament in Russia, the United States and other countries have suffered a serious defeat. The scene was taken over by “hawks,” who managed to instil a fear of “American superiority” in the Russian leadership in terms of missile defence and high-precision, space-based and other weapons, as well as of “U.S. plans” to win the nuclear war. Supporters of the “new vision” of strategic stability played along. After all, it is absolutely clear that, as far as the “new vision” doctrine is concerned, are obviously doomed to fail due to the reasons mentioned above. And this means that strategic relations between the two countries can only be aggravated in the event of such a “programmed” failure to reach a comprehensive agreement on the basis of this “new vision.” This leads to the very disappointing conclusion that not only does the “new vision” of strategic stability not stimulate nuclear arms control, but it also hinders the achievement of new agreements in this area.
There is actually more to this. The “new vision” of strategic stability involves taking an holistic view of the security problem, with nuclear and non-nuclear weapons, offensive and defensive systems, normal and “exotic” warfare methods bundled together in a single package . I believe that this is a serious mistake. This is how the military and political leaders of countries become indoctrinated into believing that the use of certain types of conventional arms virtually does not differ from the use of nuclear arms. And this means that, when planning responsive actions, the possibility of a conventional conflict growing into a nuclear is more realistic than under an enforced “nuclear threshold.” The leaders of the nuclear states and the people down the chain of command must be fully aware of the fact that it is a war crime to use nuclear weapons first in an armed conflict, whatever “rationale” for such actions is given and regardless of the objectives that are cited as the reason for taking such a decision. These barbaric weapons should never be used, and may only serve as a deterrent. If all the nuclear powers undertook to never be first to use nuclear weapons, this would be a serious step towards eliminating the threat of the total annihilation of our civilization if a conflict escalates to the nuclear level. This is why nuclear weapons should be separated from other types of weapons, and the question of their reduction and eventual elimination should be addressed independently of any other factors, including with regard to the provisions of the “classical” theory of strategic stability.
Will there be a new round of the arms race?
The Collapse of the INF Treaty as a Motivation?
Now, at the end of the 2010s, we can see that there has been a serious devaluation in the values of bilateral (U.S.–Russia) nuclear limitation and reduction treaties. The parties were clearly critical of the usefulness of such agreements, increasingly insisting that the problem requires a multilateral approach. This has been openly stated by the presidents of both countries. At the same time, the parties did not receive any specific proposals on what the new system of multilateral nuclear disarmament might look like, who should participate in it, and which nuclear weapons should be subject to such control. There is an obvious crisis in the field of nuclear arms control. The consequences of this crisis are not yet clear. In particular, the question of whether or not a new round of the arms race will follow remains open.
The Russian and U.S. leaders have been saying recently that they want to avoid such a development. Nevertheless, nuclear modernization programmes are ongoing. In addition to extending the life cycle of individual weapons systems, the United States is planning to gradually replace existing weapons with new, more effective ones, including ICBMs, SLBMs, SSBNs and heavy bombers. This programme will be very expensive, and could drag out for decades, until 2040. On the other hand, the United States is not planning to increase the number of its strategic nuclear warheads. It would appear that the United States considered the limit of 1550 warheads established by the New START Treaty as sufficient reliable deterrence against any potential enemy. Nevertheless, this programme will almost certainly become an “annoying factor” for Russia, entailing another round of “responsive actions.” The continuing build-up of the U.S. missile defence potential, which Russia clearly perceives as a threat to its security, will only add to this. In this sense, many Russian programmes aimed at creating and improving the country’s strategic nuclear potential appear to be a “response” to the actions of the United States. Russia also has a list of “annoying factors” for the United States that are related to the development of cutting-edge nuclear weapons systems . Of special mention here are underwater drones that can be equipped with powerful thermonuclear charges. We are, in fact, talking here about the creation of a new type of strategic weaponry, which is not covered by the current START Treaty. The emergence of such weapons runs against the idea of extending the validity of this agreement.
In the absence of international agreements that would restrict the arms race, both parties will make (and are already making) independent decisions on whether or not to react to the emergence of new weapons systems in the hands of the adversary. If the situation calls for some kind of reaction, then, aside from the technical and financial constraints, nothing will prevent either party from working unilaterally to improve and build up its nuclear arsenal. Thus, the likelihood of a new round of the nuclear and conventional arms race between Russia and the United States is quite high. In this situation, one possible solution that would allow tensions to be reduced somewhat could be unilateral statements by the Russian and U.S. leaders to the effect that they would continue to comply with the main provisions of the New START Treaty after its termination in the event that neither party chooses to extend it.
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Given the current state of the nuclear arms control regime, it is quite possible that Russia and the United States will enter the next decade without any active bilateral nuclear disarmament treaties. The indefinite Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) effectively expires in August 2019. The 2010 New START Treaty may be discontinued in February 2021, since the chances of its extension are slim. Under these circumstances, and in light of the current political and military tensions, there is nothing standing in the way of the new nuclear and conventional arms race that very well may begin (or may have already started) between Russia and the United States. The leaders of both countries have stated they are trying to avoid such a development. However, judging from the absence of a dialogue on nuclear limitation and reduction, and from the current and planned programmes to upgrade nuclear forces, a new arms race may well follow if it has not already started, that is. To make the situation even worse, neither Russia nor the United States have proposed any constructive ideas on the prospects of nuclear disarmament. Both parties say that other nuclear states need to be involved in the process, but there have so far been no actual moves in this respect. The possible foundation for future agreements is equally unclear. In the previous accords, the parties proceeded from the idea of strengthening strategic stability, while actively promoting the idea of a “new vision,” which casts even greater doubt over the possibility of new agreements being achieved. This “new vision,” which has been readily embraced by the Kremlin, may have the gravest consequences for the arms control regime. In actual fact, the idea claims that the security problem can only be resolved in a holistic way, and that all the factors affecting strategic stability should be taken into account. Moreover, the authors of the concept effectively equate nuclear weapons to conventional weapons, and defensive systems to offensive systems. We can expect to see an erosion of the nuclear threshold on the one hand, and the practical impossibility of reaching any kind of agreement on control over nuclear and other types of weapons on the other. Nothing will limit the military programmes of the two sides in the foreseeable future, and the size and pace of these programmes will depend solely on how the leaders of perceive the security and technological and economic capabilities of their countries. Such a development may still be avoided, but this would require active scientific research and the joint efforts of politicians, militaries and scientists in all the nuclear states.
1. Reykjavik Revisited. Steps Toward a World Free of Nuclear Weapons / Complete Report of Hoover Institution Conference // Edited by George P. Shultz, Stepen P. Andreasen, Sidney D. Drell, and James E. Goodby. Hoover Institution Press Publication No 565. 2008. P. 510.
2. Anatoly Antonov. Arms Control: History, Current Status, Perspectives // PIR Centre. Moscow: Russian Political Encyclopaedia (ROSSPEN). 2012, p. 245.
3. Alexander Savelyev, Nikolay Detinov. The Big Five. Arms Control Decision-Making in the Soviet Union // Praeger Publishers. 1995, p. 229.
4. The United States has used the same “dimensions-based” approach in accusing Russia of breaching the INF Treaty since the mid-2010s. Washington was unhappy with the Russian 9M729 cruise missile, which has a range of approximately one fifth of that of a U.S. Tomahawk, despite it being roughly the same size. The United States alleges that the only thing needed to make the Russian missile fly significantly farther is to increase the volume of its fuel tank, something that the missile’s dimensions allow for.
5. Stephen Young and Lisbeth Gronlund. A Review of the 2002 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review // Union of Concerned Scientists. Working Paper. May 14, 2002.
6. Nuclear Transformation. The New U.S. Nuclear Doctrine. // Edited by James J. Wirtz and Jeffery A. Larsen. Palgrave Macmillan. 2005, p. 288.
7. Deterrence. Its Past and Future // Edited by George P. Shultz, Sidney D. Drell and James E. Goodby. Hoover Institution Press. 2011, p. 432.
8. Alexander Savelyev. INF Treaty and Strategic Stability. / Security and Arms Control 2017–2018. Overcoming the Imbalance of the International Stability // Moscow: ROSSPEN. 2018, pp. 32–40.
9. Yuri Baluyevsky. Strategic Stability in an Era of Globalization // Russia in Global Affairs. 2003. No 4. // Russia in Global Affairs. 2003. No 4.
10. Alexander Savelyev. A Multilateral Approach to Nuclear Disarmament // Russian International Affairs Council. Working Paper IX. Moscow: Spetskniga. 2013, pp. 4–15.
11. Zenko Micach. Toward Deeper Reductions in U.S. and Russian Nuclear Weapons // Council on Foreign Relations. Center for Preventive Action. Council Special Report No 57. November 2010, p. 35.
12. Vladimir Dvorkin. Nuclear Arms Reduction / A Polycentric Nuclear World: Challenges and New Possibilities. // Edited by Alexey Arbatov and Vladimir Dvorkin. Carnegie Moscow Centre. Moscow: ROSSPEN. 2017, pp. 54–74.
13. Alexey Arbatov, Vladimir Dvorkin and Sergey Oznobishchev. Russia and the Dilemmas of Nuclear Disarmament // IMEMO RAN, Moscow. 2012 p. 290.
14. Mikhail Tsypkin and Diana Wueger. 21st Century Strategic Stability: A U.S.–Russia Track II Dialogue // Center on Contemporary Conflict. Naval Postgraduate School. October 2014. Report No. 2014–010, p. 34.
15. Weapons of Terror. Freeing the World of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Arms // The Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission. Stockholm, Sweden. 2006, p. 227.
16. The Impact of Technological Factors on the Parameters of National and International Security, Military Conflicts and Strategic Stability. // Edited by Andrei Kokoshin. Moscow: Moscow University Press. 2017, p. 480.
17. Gregory D. [Strategic Stability in the Second Nuclear Age // Council on Foreign Relations. Council Special Report No. 71. November 2014, p. 65.
18. Robert Legvold. The Challenges of a New Nuclear Age in the Conditions of the World (Dis)Order of the 21st Century / A Polycentric Nuclear World: Challenges and New Possibilities // Edited by Alexey Arbatov and Vladimir Dvorkin. Carnegie Moscow Centre. Moscow: ROSSPEN. 2017, p. 32.
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