What strategic stability? How to fix the concept for US-Russia relations

By Mikhail Troitskiy | October 21, 2021

“Humanity remains unacceptably close to nuclear annihilation. Now is the time to […] eliminate nuclear weapons from our world.” This recent post by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres supports the large group of states looking to advance the cause of prohibition of nuclear weapons. It should also be taken seriously by the two nuclear superpowers—the United States and Russia—who are coming under increased pressure to deemphasize nuclear weapons in their military postures and show progress towards an agreement on further cuts in their nuclear arsenals.

To demonstrate commitment to implementing Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—pursuit of nuclear disarmament in good faith—Washington and Moscow have long had a verbal attachment to what they call “strategic stability.” This catchphrase employed in US-Russia negotiations is generally understood as a promise not to engage in nuclear brinksmanship. Officials from both countries portray strategic stability as a key shared objective that could form the basis for a constructive dialogue. However, as a concept, strategic stability has not aged well.

A clear-cut and globally attractive concept at the end of the Cold War, strategic stability has since become overextended and virtually meaningless because of controversy over its interpretation. While the United States and Russia resumed strategic stability talks after their June 2021 summit, there is still only limited agreement on how to proceed. This undermines the status of two nations as champions of nuclear minimization and is likely to pose new threats to the nonproliferation regime. To get out of the strategic-stability impasse and regain initiative in nuclear matters, Washington and Moscow may be advised to revert and renew commitment to the original consensual definition of the term. At the same time, they could develop a novel stability-related term to characterize the lack of intentions to launch surprise adversarial maneuvers or engage in brinkmanship behavior in their bilateral relations.

Stability as security. The idea of strategic stability emerged in the 1980s as the international community came to realize that a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union would not only be unwinnable but would also jeopardize the survival of humankind. As the Cold War came to an end, the two nuclear superpowers looked for ways to provide mutual reassurance and prove to other countries that they no longer needed to worry about an outbreak of hostilities between Washington and Moscow. Towards this end, both sides declared a commitment to what they called “strategic stability.”

The initial purpose of the concept was to describe the conditions under which the threat of a major globally destructive conflict between the two nuclear superpowers would be reduced. In their June 1990 Joint Statement on Future Negotiations on Nuclear and Space Arms and Further Enhancing Strategic Stability, the sides defined strategic stability as the lack of incentives to conduct a nuclear strike. They promised to seek agreements that would “improve survivability, remove incentives for a nuclear first strike and implement an appropriate relationship between strategic offenses and defenses.”

At the time, there existed a number of alternative concepts of strategic stability. The one that Moscow and Washington put forward as they geared up for the final stage of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I (START I) and then Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II (START II) negotiations met the basic criteria of clarity and rigor. The definition did not commit the sides to avoiding all conflicts under any circumstances. It did however imply that in peacetime, the sides will do what it takes to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons use in a conflict between them, making the world much more secure.

The absence of incentives for a first nuclear strike was a particularly useful definition of the desired state of relations between Russia and the United States because it provided very clear guidance for arms control. Having committed to arms control in good faith, the sides had the moral right to ask that “other States should also make their contribution toward the attainment of [strategic stability], in particular in the field of nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.”

Even more importantly, the two sides signaled their promise to work together to minimize the risks of a nuclear confrontation, despite risks and costs of such signaling. For the United States, pursuing strategic stability meant constraining missile defense projects, while Russia under START II agreed to a ban on installing multiple nuclear warheads on its missiles—a measure that would have reduced Russia’s ability to retaliate against a potentially superior US force. Such costly signals are necessary if the sides are to build trust and consider cooperation on matters of mutual interest. Three decades of post-Cold War interactions between the United States and Russia provide few examples of other costly signaling, aside perhaps from Moscow helping Washington to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The sides have always been hedging their bets and have found it difficult to agree upon and sustain a cooperative agenda beyond “strategic stability” in the early 1990s and “fight terrorism” in the early 2000s.

Evolution of the term. Unfortunately, the simple and powerful definition of strategic stability—reducing incentives to conduct the first strike—fell out of grace soon after it was coined. As a consequence, arms control negotiations based on that rationale collapsed. Signed in January 1993, the START II treaty, which would have banned multiple warheads on ballistic missiles thereby reducing the likelihood of a surprise nuclear strike, never came into force.

Over the subsequent decades, three groups of arguments against the classical definition of strategic stability were put forward by one or both main stakeholders. First, military planners and policymakers in the United States and Russia have complained about the emergence of advanced non-nuclear weapon systems and means of statecraft. These included high-precision conventional and space weapons, cyber warfare, assisted regime change, and more. These systems could help attain the strategic goal of defeating and subjugating the enemy as effectively as nuclear weapons. This implies a need to factor the new systems in to the concept of strategic stability.

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Second, new geopolitical contradictions among major nuclear-armed states supposedly disadvantage those who sign up to the classical definition of strategic stability—that is, refraining from nuclear brinkmanship. And finally, the emergence and self-assertion of smaller nuclear-armed powers might make any bilateral US-Russian definition of strategic stability outdated and useless. According to this line of argument, strategic stability will in any case have to be redefined in multilateral terms.

The above claims have been widely used to justify the dumping of the original consensual, clear-cut, and politically effective definition of strategic stability. Three decades after it was adopted, the two nuclear superpowers only proved capable of agreeing, at their June 2021 summit, on a declaration demanding that nuclear war “must never be fought.” This differed significantly from the seminal 1990 definition of strategic stability in that the signatories of the 2021 declaration refused to rule out the possibility of one or both of them being left with no other choice but to employ nuclear weapons. The recent declaration stopped short of asserting the no-first-use principle, to which the United States reportedly came close in the early years of the first Obama administration. It also stopped short of concrete action, apart from continued negotiations, that the sides promise to undertake in order to reduce the likelihood of a nuclear war.

While arms control is an effort contributing to strategic stability, including by helping to avoid destabilizing arms races, the simple 1990 definition of strategic stability did not predetermine any arms control policies or agreements. It only required that the relevant parties commit to measures—technical and political—that would reduce the incentive to use nuclear weapons first. The challenges of arms control in an increasingly complex technological landscape are not reasons to forgo political commitment to strategic stability. Promising not to engage in nuclear brinkmanship is a noble goal from all perspectives. Stakeholders should not compromise that goal in the name of preserving the balance of power.

The justifications for refuting the classical definition of strategic stability and removing it from the basis of arms control negotiations are disingenuous. This is the case from the perspective of non-nuclear armed states and the global community which has been interested in minimizing the risks of purposeful nuclear detonations. For example, why not keep aiming to reduce the risk of a first use of nuclear weapons, even if nuclear-armed states (aside from China and India) are unwilling formally to commit to no first use? If states cannot rule out the possibility of going to war with another state, why not promise that they will do their best to use only conventional weapons, in line with the classical concept of strategic stability? What is new about the current geopolitical differences and those that existed when the classical definition of strategic stability was in vogue? Finally, what is the problem with extrapolating the bilateral concept of strategic stability to a multilateral setting? Why not prevent as many nuclear-weapon states as possible from nuclear brinkmanship that threatens the survival of humankind?

Ever since the United States and Russia began to question the original concept of strategic stability, a paradox transpired. While vocalizing a commitment to strategic stability, the sides eagerly engaged in activities that would be considered destabilizing under almost any definition of the term. Such activities included developing new weapons, exploring and testing new conflict domains, or ruthlessly competing for allies. While doing that, the sides kept demanding that the concept of strategic stability be revised to accommodate the new reality that purportedly came into being irrespective of their will. Desired revision would commonly imply broadening the scope of strategic stability by factoring in new weapons (that have been intentionally developed and deployed), strategies, tactics, and even geopolitical balances of power. Eventually that rendered the originally neat concept of strategic stability barely meaningful. It also resulted in its dilution beyond credibility for almost any audience, including the two nuclear superpowers themselves.

Tinkering with the classical understanding of strategic stability has not assuaged the fears of actors, including most of the signatories of the Treaty of Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, that feel hostage to nuclear standoffs among major powers. The evolution of the concept kicked nuclear arms control negotiations off course. It also undermined faith among benign international actors in the commitment of nuclear superpowers to the global survival of humankind—the core inspirational slogan of the late 1980s. Strategic stability may have turned into a figure of speech at best and a smokescreen at worst—one designed to embellish the actual approach of the two nuclear superpowers to the possibility of resorting to nuclear weapons in a conflict.

Regime fears and strategic stability. In the 1990s, the US-Russian consensus around strategic stability began to erode because of the diverging perspectives on missile defenses. Eventually, Washington brushed aside Moscow’s concerns with the negative impact of strategic missile defense on strategic stability. Those concerns looked fair given the explicit requirement for an “appropriate relationship between strategic offenses and defenses” stipulated in the 1990 statement. Throughout the 1990s, the difference in perspectives on missile defense appeared to be negotiable had the sides decided to look for a solution in good faith.

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However, things got worse over the next two decades. Most recently, in the 2010s, Russia and the United States completely disavowed the original concept of strategic stability understood as avoidance of nuclear sabre rattling. This trend was caused by fears related to the workings of domestic political regimes.

Russian policymakers thought that adhering to the original definition of strategic stability would deny Russia a powerful equalizer in relations with the West. Focusing strategic stability only on refraining from nuclear strikes was thought of as an attempt to “declaw the Russian bear.” The Kremlin was concerned with maintaining the stability of Russia’s political institutions that were believed to have come under assault in multiple domains, including direct attempts at regime change orchestrated by the United States and some of its allies. Not unreasonably, nuclear weapons and brinkmanship were considered as an important deterrent against attempts to destabilize political regimes. External guarantees of domestic regime security including, for example, non-inteference in electoral processes, would render the concept of strategic stability too complicated for conclusive negotiation.

Before too long, the United States also began having second thoughts about elevating the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. The main reason for its divergence from the classical understanding of strategic stability was concern with the irrationality of authoritarian or theocratic regimes in possession of or in quest for weapons of mass destruction. In the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR)—the first such document published in its entirety—Washington reserved the right to use nuclear weapons against such regimes that did not comply with the letter of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The underlying rationale apparently was that if anything could deter those states and regimes from using or threatening the use of nuclear weapons, it would be the likelihood of coming under a nuclear attack in preemption or retaliation. Everything short of such scenarios was not enough to stop them from resorting to doomsday weapons when push came to shove, according to the thinking of at least two recent US (Republican) administrations—those of George W. Bush and Donald Trump.

The 2018 NPR also issued a thinly veiled warning to Russia that American nuclear strategists interpreted as lowering the nuclear threshold and harboring plans for a limited nuclear strike as part of an “escalate to de-escalate” tactic. Under Trump, the United States deployed a low-yield warhead on a submarine-based ballistic missile. The measure was blasted by influential arms control experts as conducive to a further lowering of the nuclear threshold and being in direct opposition to the seminal 1990 meaning of strategic stability.

Back to the future? The United States and Russia may be unable to reach agreement on a new definition—or at least a description—of strategic stability in the near term. In such a case, it would make good sense for them to revert to its original meaning while continuing to work on a different concept of stability for their bilateral relationship. A joint public pledge by Moscow and Washington to observe the classical strategic imperative understood as minimizing the risk of a nuclear conflict could help the two sides regain their credentials as champions of nuclear restraint and guarantors of non-proliferation. If the United States and Russia are looking for one small, relatively easy step with immediate, vastly positive implications for their global standing, that would be it. The sides’ conventional arsenals as well as all other non-WMD-related innovative means of statecraft should now be sufficient to achieve all thinkable security objectives.

That said, the US-Russia relationship is unique for many reasons and therefore warrants a separate stability concept commitment to alleviate mutual fears between Moscow and Washington. The bilateral concept can focus on providing two-way reassurance of the absence of plans for a surprise turn-of-tables maneuver—economic, military, cyber, cross-domain, regime-change, or any other. The sides would be recommended to develop a clear definition of a bilateral stability concept. Yet, unlike strategic stability, they can afford to make it reasonably sophisticated, as long as it focuses on stabilizing the bilateral relationship rather than messaging the international community. A consensual understanding of bilateral stability may include or gloss over any type of weapon or cross-domain operation, depending on their destabilizing effects and peculiarities of verification. Such approach to stability discussions seems to be in line with US-China negotiations in which the sides explore opportunities for a concept of stability that would be tailored to their specific mutual security concerns.

The story of the rise and fall of strategic stability has a silver lining. That is, the concept continues to serve as a litmus test for great power intentions in the nuclear domain. While Washington and Moscow have for a long time avoided commitment to strategic stability defined as the lack of incentives to conduct the first nuclear strike, they at the very least continue to express interest in discussing stability. Such interest may signal their basic trust in the absence of mutual plans for a surprise destructive attack. To turn it into a major coup for both sides, they need to clarify that they fully respect the global concerns with a potential slide into using nuclear weapons. They also need to show that they can separate those concerns from the current, specific, mutual security fears Moscow and Washington may have. The term strategic stability should be reserved for the promise of all relevant parties not to engage in nuclear brinkmanship and to do what it takes to minimize the chances of an outbreak of nuclear war.

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