1 November 2010

Unblocking the road to zero: US-Russian cooperation on missile defenses

Barry Blechman

Barry M. Blechman is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center and
co-editor of two recent books on how to surmount the political and technical


Jonas Vaicikonis

Jonas Vaicikonis is a graduate of the University of Illinois
– Urbana/Champagne, US and a 2010 intern at the Stimson Center, US.

Missile defenses have been a source of contention in US-Russian relations since the beginning of the strategic dialogue between the United States and the Soviet Union. Almost every nuclear arms reduction treaty has involved tough negotiations over the extent to which missile defenses would be permitted for each side and this year, the New START treaty ratification process made clear that missile defenses will remain a primary source of contention during future rounds of disarmament negotiations. The US Congress is not willing to accept constraints on missile defense capabilities and the Russians do not want any significant increase in US strategic missile defense capacity. The issue seems zero-sum, but there is a way to move beyond these positions—a way that has been much discussed but, so far, little pursued. The differences between the two positions can be reconciled through a series of gradual steps leading toward US-Russian cooperation on missile defenses. The brief history of missile defenses presented in this article highlights the urgent need for bilateral cooperation that could build trust that the two nations’ missile defense systems not only would not destabilize the strategic balance, but would serve common purposes. Such missile defense architectures would provide the insurance necessary for both sides to move to very low numbers of nuclear weapons and eventually to zero. In conclusion, the authors offer specific ideas about how tangible progress can be made toward cooperation within a few years.