Stability before disarmament

By Matthew Kroenig, February 13, 2015

This roundtable has revealed certain broad areas of agreement among Lu Yin, Eugene Miasnikov, and me. All the authors believe that states should pursue disarmament as stipulated in Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—but that nuclear modernization will be necessary as long as nuclear forces exist. Where my colleagues and I differ is primarily on questions of timing and sequencing.

Lu and Miasnikov appear to believe that there is a magical formula for the pace and scope of nuclear modernization efforts that will allow simultaneous deterrence and disarmament. I am skeptical that this is possible, or even that it represents the right way to think about the problem. I believe instead that the United States should field the nuclear arsenal that is necessary to deter present threats to international peace and security. At the same time, all states should work to reduce international tensions so that disarmament might be achieved in the future. If and when these conditions are met, nuclear drawdowns will easily follow.

More to lose. Both my colleagues accuse me of advocating absolute security for the United States. I am confused as to the origins of this charge, as I do not believe that absolute security has ever been possible for any state. Indeed, security is a scarce commodity, even in the 21st century—as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown.

In his most recent essay, Miaskniov wondered if I believed that "Russia’s nuclear arsenal [was] qualitatively superior to that of the United States." No, I don’t believe it is—but Russia has recently invaded a sovereign nation, engaged in nuclear saber rattling, discussed lowering its threshold for using nuclear weapons, and tested new nuclear capabilities. President Vladimir Putin has made thinly veiled nuclear threats. All this provides much reason for concern about Russia’s nuclear capabilities and its commitment to international security.

Miasnikov has argued that Washington and Moscow must save the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) if at all possible—and I fully agree. (Beijing has a strong interest in this matter as well, as China would be vulnerable to intermediate-range nuclear forces in Russia.) I am skeptical, however, of Russia’s intentions regarding the INF Treaty. For years, Putin has made no secret of his desire to break free from the treaty’s constraints. But if Russia does not return to treaty compliance, other nations will be forced to respond. The treaty is a "two-way street," to borrow the words of incoming US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter—who also said during his Senate confirmation hearings on February 4 that "If you don’t want to have that treaty, why then, you’re absolved from your restrictions under that treaty, and we are too." In the same vein, a ranking Pentagon official testified at a congressional hearing on December 10 that "We don’t have ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe now, obviously, because they’re prohibited by the treaty … but that would obviously be one option to explore." Europe is safer without these missiles, of course. But Moscow (and Beijing) have much more than Washington to lose if Russia’s actions unleash an unconstrained intermediate-range nuclear arms race in Eurasia.

Ground-launched cruise missiles are not the only Russian nuclear capability that must be re-evaluated in light of recent events. Russia’s entire arsenal of 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, which gives Moscow an overwhelming battlefield advantage against its neighbors (including NATO’s easternmost members), seems much less benign than it did one year ago. If Russia continues to make nuclear threats, and stubbornly refuses to reduce its nuclear forces through arms control negotiations, the West may need to take steps to ensure that it has credible options to deter and, if necessary, defeat Russian nuclear aggression in its near abroad.

Miasnikov rightly points out that decisions taken today about nuclear posture will have long-lasting consequences. The death of the INF Treaty could be a very severe consequence of ill-considered decisions. An even graver mistake would be NATO’s failing to maintain a nuclear posture sufficient to deter further Russian belligerence in Eastern Europe.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons