The way back to the US-Russia negotiating table

By Lawrence J. Korb, April 21, 2016

Since coming into office, President Obama has made reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the United States and the world a high priority. In fact, in his April 2009 speech in Prague, he pledged to seek a world without nuclear weapons. His initial efforts produced an arms control agreement with Russia in 2010, New START; it requires both sides to reduce the number of their deployed nuclear weapons to no more than 1,550 by 2018. 

Since then, however, his efforts to control the world’s most dangerous weapons have not just stalled; Obama and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, appear ready to embark on a Cold War-style nuclear arms race. To prevent both countries from taking such a dangerous and costly course, the president should try to bring the Russians back to the negotiating table before he leaves office. The prospects for getting the Russians to the table do not appear promising at this time. But Obama can take a number of steps that would be good for the United States and put pressure on the Russians to resume negotiations. These steps can be placed in five categories.

Push for the test ban. The president should submit the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to the Senate for ratification, something he promised to do in his first month in office. This treaty, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1996, has been signed by 183 countries, including the United States and Russia. In October 1999, however, the Senate refused to ratify the treaty; the Russians ratified it in June 2000. Unless the United States and several other countries—including China, India, Iran, and North Korea—ratify the treaty, it will not enter into force. 

Rejoin the ABM Treaty. The president should take steps to have the United States rejoin the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In 2002, President George W. Bush announced that the United States would opt out of this treaty, negotiated by President Nixon in 1972 and modified by President Ford in 1974, so his administration could deploy missile defenses in Eastern Europe, ostensibly to combat Iran’s nuclear weapons. But because of the deal that six major world powers signed with Iran last year, that country will not have nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future. Because there is no need to deploy missile defense systems in Europe to protect against nonexistent Iranian nuclear weapons, the president could cancel this program and rejoin the ABM Treaty, steps that Putin has called for—and steps that would also undermine Putin’s rationale for his country's deployment of ground-launched cruise missiles, which the United States considers a violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Scale back nuclear modernization. The president can safely delay or eliminate funding for at least three parts of his proposed nuclear modernization program: buying a new air-launched cruise missile, the long-range standoff weapon, or LRSO; refurbishing 180 tactical nuclear bombs stationed in Europe and known as B61s; and building and deploying a new mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

The $30 billion LRSO is not only unneeded—the new B-21 bomber will be able to penetrate even the most sophisticated air defenses—but also destabilizing, because other countries could not be sure if the cruise missile carried by a US bomber were nuclear or conventional. Cancelling the LRSO is a step supported by former Defense Secretary William Perry, who was the Director of Research and Engineering in the Pentagon when the air-launched cruise missile was developed, and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water, which oversees funding for the nation’s nuclear programs. 

The 180 B61 tactical nuclear bombs stationed in Europe—scheduled to be upgraded into precision-guided, variable-yield weapons, at a cost of billions of dollars—are no longer needed. Originally, such tactical weapons were meant to counterbalance the superiority of the conventional forces the Soviet Union had amassed in that theater; now, however, US and NATO conventional forces are superior to Russia's. Moreover, these weapons cannot be deployed quickly; they have to be taken out of storage, and nuclear-capable aircraft are not stationed at every base that has nuclear weapons. And finally, these weapons are vulnerable: More than 100 of them are deployed in Belgium, at bases which have been repeatedly broken into, and in Turkey, some 60 miles from the Syrian border. The bombs in Turkey are stored at a base so dangerous that all US families have been evacuated from it. Because there is a possibility that these tactical weapons will fall into the wrong hands, they should not be modernized. Instead, they should be withdrawn from Europe. 

The United States discarded its program to build a mobile ICBM at the height of the Cold War. Now, there are questions about the utility of land-based ballistic missiles of any type. As Perry has noted, a duad of ballistic missile submarines and nuclear-capable bombers is more than enough to deter Russia and other nuclear powers. Pending a new arms control agreement with Russia, the president should scrap plans for an inordinately expensive new mobile missile and instead seek to refurbish the existing Minuteman missiles and silos to last for another 60 years. 

Right-size the deterrent. The president should announce a reduction in the number of deployed nuclear weapons from the New START level of 1,550 to 1,000 and take US ICBMs off of high alert. The Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and its report on nuclear employment strategies demonstrate that the US can achieve effective deterrence with 1,000 nuclear weapons. For example, calculations by the Pentagon and the Air War College have shown that 400 nuclear weapons detonated on Russian targets would destroy Russia’s military and economy.

Keeping ICBMs on high alert is not only unnecessary in this day and age—while the United States has differences with Russia, neither country still embraces the Cold War doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD)—but increases the chances of an accidental launch. And reducing the number of deployed nuclear weapons to 1,000 would significantly benefit the United States and the world. The Pentagon would not have to follow through on a trillion-dollar nuclear modernization plan—a plan that cannot be implemented without crippling our conventional capabilities or busting our budget ceilings. And these changes in nuclear posture would enhance the credibility of the United States as it rallies the international community to seek the denuclearization of North Korea and to slow nuclear weapons modernization programs in Russia and China. It is a simple fact: Both the North Koreans and the Chinese have referred to the current US nuclear modernization while rationalizing their own nuclear programs. 

Stop the saber-rattling in Europe. The president should cancel the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI.) The idea that this program—which will rotate an additional 5,000 US troops to Eastern Europe a year, at an annual cost of $3.4 billion—will somehow deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from taking further steps in Ukraine or other parts of Eastern Europe, when the existing 50,000 American troops in Europe would not, makes no sense. In fact, the additional troops will help confirm the Putin narrative that the West is continuing its relentless eastward expansion of NATO, an expansion that George Kennan, the architect of the West's containment policy for the Soviet Union, warned against some 20 years ago.

These five steps make sense for the United States, even if they do not bring President Putin back to the bargaining table. Ratifying the CTBT and rejoining the ABM Treaty will enhance our moral authority in attempting to get the international community to implement the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Reigning in nuclear modernization and right-sizing the US nuclear arsenal will save substantial sums that this country needs to invest in defense personnel and readiness and in repairing crumbling infrastructure here at home. Finally, and most important, these five steps will demonstrate that the United States is strong and secure enough to take risks for peace. 

In addition to enhancing US power, these moves will put Putin in a tough political position. No longer will he be able to rationalize his provocative actions and wasteful spending to domestic audiences by blaming the United States. And given the poor state of the Russian economy, he is no doubt looking for a face saving way to reduce his military budget. 

But even if these steps do not bring the Russians to the negotiating table immediately, they will be good for the United States and the global community—not to mention Obama’s legacy, which has become so tarnished in the nuclear arena that Barry Blechman, the founder of the Stimson Center, has actually called for the president to return his Nobel Peace Prize.


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