Time for a different kind of US-Russian arms control

By Adam Mount | October 28, 2015

Strategic arms control is not a popular topic these days. Since the United States and Russia signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in 2010, bilateral efforts have stalled. Though both countries continue to implement the treaty, Russia has refused to accept the Obama administration’s request to negotiate a successor agreement unless it agrees to the participation of smaller nuclear-armed states, legally-binding limits on US missile defenses, or a host of other unrealistic demands. The impasse has caused Carnegie Moscow Center scholar Alexei Arbatov to worry that we have reached “the end of history for nuclear arms control.” He writes that “the current period of disintegration is unprecedented, with literally every channel of negotiation deadlocked and the entire system of existing arms control agreements under threat.”

The outlook isn’t good. New START, which entered into force in 2011, remains the sole bright spot in bilateral arms control: It calls for each country to reduce its arsenal of deployed strategic warheads to no more than 1,550 by February, 2018, a goal the United States met this month and that Russia is on track to achieve. Unless the parties agree to extend its limits for another five years, the treaty will remain in force until 2021. However, this timeline interacts with the US electoral cycle in an unfortunate way: A year after the next president assumes office, the United States and Russia will be under no further bilateral obligation to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons. In fact, the next president could legally halt the gradual decline that has continued uninterrupted since the first bilateral arms limitation treaties were concluded in the 1980s.

Rather than acquiesce to the end of arms control and what former White House counselor Frank Miller calls “the new Cold War,” President Obama should press the Russians to begin negotiations on a new kind of arms control treaty. The relatively modest goals of New START might have been intellectually and politically easier to meet, but the treaty did little to solve the strategic problems that both countries face. A more ambitious treaty could limit not only existing nuclear systems but also US and Russian modernization plans, and help stabilize the strategic balance for decades to come.

Two impediments to further progress on bilateral arms control remain, though: domestic politics in both countries, and the apparent absence of any framework for a deal that would benefit both countries equally.

Poor relations. Recent events have frayed the political consensus that supported successive rounds of bilateral arms control negotiations at the height of the Cold War. Neither the bilateral relationship nor the domestic political conditions in either country is likely to support a resumption of talks until well into the 2020s. With Russia threatening Western interests in Ukraine and Syria, and dangerously using its strategic arsenal to intimidate and coerce, there is more discussion in Washington about withdrawing from existing arms control treaties than there is about forging new ones.

The different US and Russian modernization schedules are exacerbating the problem. While both countries have to replace aging systems, Moscow’s bill came due first. At the same time, the United States has made prudent delays in starting its cycle. This asymmetry, combined with genuinely reckless talk from Russian leaders about nuclear weapons, has contributed to a sense of alarm in Washington that in some quarters seems to border on hysteria, and has caused many conservatives to sour on arms control. A year ago, Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, argued that while President Obama was engaged in starry-eyed idealism about disarmament, “Russia used the [New START] process to reduce the threat posed by US strategic nuclear forces, while simultaneously pursuing alternative nuclear capabilities—such as cruise missiles—in support of its military strategy and national security.”And this month, a Washington Times op-ed by former senior Defense Department officials Keith B. Payne and Mark B. Schneider warned that remaining in New START would “be viewed by Mr. Putin only as a sign of weakness and encourage him to even greater provocations.” All this talk has boiled over into attempts at action, with Republican Congressmen, for example, trying to insert provisions into the annual National Defense Authorization Act bills that would suspend US compliance with New START and deploy new missile defense systems as a sort of punishment for Russia’s actions.

In short, poor relations with Russia have created a situation in Washington where there is more enthusiasm for defecting from existing arms control agreements than negotiating new ones. This thinking reflects a deeply mistaken understanding of arms control. Arms control is not a reward for a safer world; it is a means for building one. Defecting from a mutually-beneficial and strategically stabilizing agreement is neither a rational nor an effective means of punishing Russia. Freeing Russia from the material constraints and reporting requirements of existing arms control treaties will only allow it to expand its arsenal.

There have always been some in the United States who insist that Moscow is getting the better of Washington, but it’s not clear when the purpose of arms control shifted in the national imagination from something you do in bad times to something that requires good times. It seems that many have forgotten the original point.

Arms controls serves several purposes. Practically, negotiation is the only means that a country has of influencing the size, structure, and posture of another nuclear arsenal short of war. When coupled with strong verification provisions, arms control also serves to achieve limited transparency in the nuclear domain, providing a valuable source of information about opposing forces. (Since New START entered into force in 2011, the United States and Russia have exchanged nearly 10,000 notifications containing information about their respective arsenals.)

But perhaps more important, arms control agreements help to ensure parity, or strategic equivalence, between the two arsenals. They not only ratify a condition of parity that exists between two countries; they can also create it in three ways. First, an agreement can help to moderate destabilizing imbalances or advantages, as when the START I and II treaties moved to eliminate heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Second, an agreement can create parity by establishing how to weigh or count dissimilar systems. Because the United States and Russia maintain different types and quantities of nuclear arms, it is never possible in practice to simply compare arsenals warhead for warhead. Does the Russian advantage in throw-weight exceed the US advantage in stealth? Which systems are destabilizing? It would be impossible to settle these questions without bilateral arms control negotiations. Arms control agreements  create parity by setting the price of an apple in oranges and making sure both countries come out whole. Third, an agreement can create parity as a political or social fact. Once an agreement has been signed by the president and approved by Congress, it sets a standard for an acceptable level of risk. Even if little has changed materially, the strategic condition feels more comfortable. The practical effect is to moderate hysterical calls for new nuclear capabilities and the unproductive impulse to demonize the other side, thus helping to stabilize the relationship.

Today, Russia and the United States have very poor relations and still maintain very large and very different nuclear arsenals—but because they are bound by arms control treaties, we know that neither one has a meaningful advantage.

US politicians who are resistant to arms control forget that it gets more important as relations worsen, not less. But even if resistance were to disappear tomorrow, it wouldn’t make a difference if there wasn’t a deal to be done. And changing the political context is almost impossible if you can’t point to a deal that could serve the interests of both countries.

Outlines of a deal. There is little agreement between the United States and Russia about the shape of their next arms control treaty. The Obama administration has suggested a further one-third cut to its deployed strategic arsenal, which New START has already limited to 1,550 warheads. Because the Pentagon has determined that these warheads are in excess of its requirements, and because the parties had negotiated and were implementing a similar agreement, this proposal was thought to be relatively uncontroversial. However, a further one-third cut would not satisfy either country’s hopes for an agreement. In fact, both countries have an interest in significantly expanding the scope of arms control. The trouble is that each hopes to do so in a very different way.

Russia has been explicit about its interests for more than a decade. Though its concern is largely unjustified, Moscow has repeatedly pressed the United States to accept legal limits on its missile defense systems, in particular on the radars and interceptors stationed in Eastern Europe. Furthermore, Russia remains sensitive to the presence of roughly 200 US nuclear gravity bombs stationed in Europe. In September, Russia threatened to deploy Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad if the United States proceeds with a planned upgrade of its weapons in Germany. And though the subject is rarely discussed, Russia also has an interest in limiting the US hedge of non-deployed warheads that could be uploaded to existing launchers in a crisis, quickly increasing the size of the US strategic arsenal far beyond Russia’s.

By contrast, the United States has a distinct interest in limiting the scope of the Russian arsenal. At the top of the list is Russia’s extensive inventory of tactical nuclear weapons, which are not covered by New START. Though little is known about these forces, recent estimates put the figure near 4,000 total warheads, with half that number actively assigned to specific delivery vehicles, including short-range missiles, torpedoes, naval mines, air-defense interceptors, and bombs. In addition, some US analysts are concerned about upcoming Russian modernization programs, including plans for the RS-28 Sarmat heavy ICBM. Though it has yet to be flight-tested, the Sarmat is reported to possess advanced countermeasures that could confound US missile defense systems.

Given this disparity, it is difficult to see how the parties could conclude a new arms control agreement. There is no obvious bargain that would work to the advantage of both countries. Neither is willing to modify its arsenal or limit military operations in ways that would elicit a desirable concession from the other side. The task is further complicated by the fact that both countries are undergoing extensive modernization programs to renovate their nuclear forces; an agreement that brings about strategic stability in the near term might still result in an imbalance a decade later.

Yet, the complications posed by modernization also suggest a way forward. In search of a fair and feasible arms control agreement, the United States and Russia should consider an agreement that limits not only their existing nuclear arsenals but also their modernization programs. Including future weapons systems can ensure that the agreement not only creates stability in the near term, but also does so far into the future. Meanwhile, including future systems increases the number of bargaining chips each side has, making it more likely that they can find a deal. It has the further benefit of paring back each country’s expensive modernization program, which neither can afford to complete anyway

The primary difficulty with this model is the asymmetry between the US and Russian modernization schedules. While the United States is only just beginning its cycle, the Russian effort is nearing its conclusion. Consider for example both countries’ single-warhead ICBMs. While Russia is well underway  with its effort to replace its Soviet-era SS-19 and SS-25 single-warhead missiles with SS-27s, the United States is only now issuing calls for proposals to replace its single-warhead Minuteman ICBMs. As a result, there is little prospect of an agreement to limit current ICBMs: Russia would demand a high price in other areas to get rid of its brand new SS-27s in exchange for eliminating Minutemans that will be retired around 2030 anyway. A deal like this would save dollars but cost rubles.

Because the modernization schedules are asymmetrical, it may be difficult to find a bargain that trades like system for like. Instead, negotiations should embrace this asymmetry and cobble together an agreement that trades off dissimilar systems. The agreement could include limits to both existing and planned systems, as well as restrictions on when and where certain systems are deployed. In this way, each country would have a better chance of limiting the opposing systems that it finds most threatening, and creating a condition of parity that could stabilize what might otherwise be an unstable decade.

It is impossible to predict the precise shape of such a treaty, but we can specify certain systems that would present attractive targets under such a scheme. The United States would have a strong interest in limiting deployment of Russia’s SS-18 Sarmat heavy ICBMs and its extensive inventory of tactical nuclear weapons (including SS-21 and SS-26 short-range ballistic missiles, as well as sea- and ground-launched cruise missiles and their warheads). On the other side, Russia should be interested in limiting US plans to upgrade and deploy the tactical B61-12 gravity bomb, new Long Range Standoff air-launched cruise missile, and various submarines, as well as the warhead hedge. With some of these efforts well underway, the sooner an agreement can be reached, the more money it can save.

Such a scheme lends itself to one final intriguing possibility. A treaty that limits nuclear modernization might also be a way to satisfy Russia’s (otherwise ridiculous) demand that China participate in the next round of nuclear arms control talks. Because China’s arsenal is so much smaller than that of either the United States or Russia, there is little reason for it to participate in arms control until the latter two shrink their arsenals further. However, with more chips on the bargaining table, it may be possible to encourage China to accept very modest limits on certain of its modernization plans in exchange for limits from the other two parties plus access to some data exchanges. For example, Russia and China might have an interest in limiting their intermediate-range nuclear forces. Including China as a junior partner in the negotiations could help convey the benefits of transparency and the norms of arms control.

The conventional wisdom on arms control has it backwards. Contrary to popular opinion, now is exactly the right time to seek an arms control agreement. Now is the time when it is important to reduce tensions and promote transparency and stability. And now, before Russia completes its modernization plans, is when diplomats can strike an ambitious bargain that serves both countries’ interest.

Political opposition to arms control is a serious impediment to continued progress, but it is also a reason to press forward. Though there will always be political resistance in both countries, each country’s leadership may find that it is easier to overcome with a treaty that resolves real strategic concerns. Where a modest and reciprocal treaty like New START presents an easy target for hardliners who doubt the benefits of arms control, real and verifiable limits on threatening systems might be harder to dispute. The easy answer is to wait for the political context to change in a way that allows arms control talks to begin, but this is backwards. In seeking a more ambitious deal that makes both countries safer, President Obama could undercut the skeptics and forge a more favorable political context. As was the case decades ago, using arms control as a means of reforming the political situation, lowering tensions, and creating strategic parity would be a crucial step toward averting a new Cold War.

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