Russia and nuclear disarmament

By Pavel Podvig | October 16, 2007

U.S. political leaders such as Barack Obama might be willing to discuss making a nuclear-weapon-free world a reality, but in Moscow, the tone is decidedly different.

The vision of a nuclear-weapon-free world is as old as nuclear weapons themselves. One way or
another, the idea of complete nuclear disarmament has always been a part of the international
political debate, which, of course, includes the United States. Only recently, however, has this
idea entered the U.S. political discourse in a way that it is safe for “mainstream” U.S.
presidential candidates such as Barack Obama to openly call for nuclear abolition–if only as a
distant goal. This is partially a result of a call for a nuclear-weapon-free world in a January
Wall Street Journal op-ed published by four former high-ranking U.S. officials (Henry
Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn, and William Perry). Their call has already been endorsed by a
number of their former colleagues, and we should expect new interesting, high-profile endorsements
in the near future.

Some of my colleagues who have been advocating nuclear abolition for a long time argue that the
motives of these U.S. politicians are self-serving and even imperialistic. The United States, they
say, has finally figured out that a world where other countries have nuclear weapons is getting
increasingly difficult to manage. I don’t think this is the true motivation of those who signed the
op-ed or have since endorsed its vision; indeed, nuclear weapons are obsolete, and the realization
of this fact is simply finding its way into mainstream politics.

But getting support for the idea of a nuclear-weapon-free world from U.S. political leaders
might be the easiest part of the effort. Regardless of whether U.S. politicians are motivated by
idealism or cold calculation, the rest of the world will certainly look at their statements with
suspicion. Take, for example, Russia, a country crucial to any serious attempt to move nuclear
disarmament forward.

Largely due to the economic recovery of the last few years, Russia has busily modernized its
strategic forces and invested a lot of effort and resources into upgrading the support
infrastructure for these forces. It’s building new land-based and sea-based ballistic missiles,
strategic submarines, and early warning radars and satellites. In itself, this modernization is not
entirely incompatible with the idea of disarmament–one can even argue that it might be easier for
Russian leadership to agree to dramatic cuts in its nuclear forces now that it’s demonstrated that
it can sustain strategic parity with Washington. The real problem in Russia is that the idea of
nuclear disarmament is completely absent from the public and professional discussion. Even
President Vladimir Putin’s opponents are more likely to criticize him for not doing enough to
enhance strategic forces rather than question the growing reliance on nuclear weapons.

In this environment, a U.S. call for complete nuclear disarmament will certainly revive old
worries about U.S. military capabilities that have existed in Russia for a long time. One of them
is that U.S. conventional forces, with their high-precision weapons, could be used in a preemptive
attack to destroy most of Russia’s strategic launchers. Another is that U.S. missile defense could
further help neutralize whatever retaliatory potential Moscow might have left. Neither of these
claims would withstand serious scrutiny, but unfortunately, this doesn’t matter much; there are
enough people in Russia who will make these arguments, and Russian politicians will be happy to
pretend to take them seriously.

In reality, from a national security viewpoint, Russia, similar to the United States or any
other country, would be much better off without nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons may have played a
role in the past, but they cannot possibly deal with the kind of security threats countries face
today. But it will take time for Russia to start a serious (or any, for that matter) discussion of
whether it really needs nuclear weapons. Having U.S. politicians endorse the vision of a
nuclear-weapon-free world helps enormously, but it’s only a start. Eventually, Washington will need
to deal with Russia’s perceptions of U.S. policies and do a better job of dispelling the notion
that the U.S. security posture (whether backed by nuclear or conventional weapons) threatens
Moscow, a deeply held belief among the Russian public.

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