Nuclear arms control: What happens when US and Russia let it lapse?

Why We Wrote This

In less than a year, the world could enter a period free of nuclear arms control treaties for the first time in more than a half-century. Is such a state of affairs sustainable?

Chris Machian/Omaha World-Herald/AP/File
A Russian Air Force Tu-214 flies over Offutt Air Force Base on April 26, 2019, in Omaha, Nebraska. The flight was allowed as part of the Open Skies Treaty, which the Trump White House announced in May 2020 that it would be withdrawing from.

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In May, President Donald Trump announced the United States will be leaving the Open Skies Treaty, which supports arms control by allowing countries to overfly each other’s territory on demand. Next, New START, which made sweeping reductions to strategic nuclear arsenals, will expire in February, with the Trump White House showing little desire to extend it.

That leaves the world’s biggest nuclear powers set to plunge back into the strategic chaos that prevailed in the early 1960s, before the Cuban missile crisis.

The Trump administration says that alleged Russian violations have made the old agreements unworkable. And many Russian experts admit that Russia has been less than fully transparent. But there is strong evidence that the Russians never wanted to wreck the process.

“One of the goals of Russian foreign policy is to restart talks about these treaties, not to let them die,” says Alexander Golts, an independent Russian analyst. “[Mr. Trump] and his people see no need to tie the U.S. down to any obligations at all. He is absolutely sure of U.S. superiority in any situation. It’s a false perception, but that seems to be where we are today.”

Editor's note: The original version misstated the historical scope of New START's reductions to nuclear arsenals.

The world is sleepwalking toward a period free of nuclear arms control, as New START, the last remaining nuclear weapons treaty, is set to expire next February.

This dark horizon has been approaching for quite a while, but the political will to avert it has collapsed. The Trump White House has spent its term withdrawing from arms control treaties – the latest being the Open Skies Treaty last month – and shows little interest in extending New START. And Russia has not been able to woo the U.S. back to the negotiating table, despite a desire to keep the process going.

Now the biggest nuclear powers appear ready to plunge back into the strategic chaos that prevailed in the early 1960s, before the Cuban missile crisis focused the minds of terrified U.S. and Soviet leaders and led them to initiate a multigenerational effort to construct what became a comprehensive system of nuclear arms control.

In the early 1960s “we walked up to the edge of the nuclear abyss with the Cuban missile crisis. Then we walked back and started negotiating,” says Alexandra Bell, senior policy director for the Washington-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “In retrospect, we were lucky to make it out of there alive the first time. Arms control gave us guard rails against chaos. It will be really bad if, for the first time in 50 years, we don’t have any on-the-ground insight into each other’s military forces.”

Arms control waning

The wake of the Cuban missile crisis brought not only restraints on the once-burgeoning numbers and types of new weapons, but also reduced tensions with trust-building measures, channels of regular communication, and reliable verification mechanisms. That structure survived the end of the Cold War, as did the massive, global-life-threatening nuclear forces of the U.S. and Russia.

Several U.S. presidents added their own contributions to the network of accords. As recently as a decade ago Barack Obama inked New START, the deal that made sweeping reductions to strategic nuclear arsenals, with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev.

But the edifice erected by Cold War-era leaders has been gradually unraveling since George W. Bush unilaterally pulled the U.S. out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which had served as a keystone for the whole system by placing tough caps on defensive systems. That had ensured absolute mutual deterrence in the form of mutual assured destruction (MAD), thus making the very idea of nuclear war unthinkable.

Things have been shaky ever since, though arms control experts on both sides have insisted until recently that the system might be revived if leaders wanted it. But the Trump administration, which seems averse to any limitations on U.S. power, has buried the whole idea by tearing up quite a few international treaties. Specifically, it recently pulled out of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, which had banned an entire class of nuclear missiles and was dubbed “the treaty that ended the Cold War.”

In May, Mr. Trump announced the U.S. will be leaving the Open Skies Treaty, a 2002 agreement signed by 34 nations, which supports arms control by allowing countries to overfly each other’s territory on demand. Most U.S. allies have complained that leaving it will be a destabilizing act. Next, Mr. Obama’s New START, which had allowed for 18 on-site inspections per year, will expire in February without earnest efforts – of which there is little sign – on both sides to extend it.

Divided intentions

The Trump administration says that alleged Russian violations have made the old agreements unworkable, and that new players such as China have become full-fledged strategic nuclear powers that would need to be included in any fresh arms control regime.

U.S. arms control experts agree with the White House that Russia has sometimes violated agreements around the edges. And many Russian experts admit that Russia has been less than fully transparent, and has often tried to play technical issues to its advantage. But there is strong evidence that the Russians never wanted to wreck the process. As the U.S. was pulling out of the INF Treaty, for example, the Kremlin rushed to propose new talks, and offered to let U.S. inspectors examine the missile that was the alleged source of the “violation” claim. The Trump administration pulled out anyway.

The Kremlin has always valued the arms control process because it was the only arena where they face the U.S. across the table as equals. Alexander Golts, an independent Russian analyst who is presently at Uppsala University in Sweden, says that the Kremlin uses arms control to stave off global isolation over other issues.

“One of the goals of Russian foreign policy is to restart talks about these treaties, not to let them die,” he says. “At least the Russian approach creates the opportunity to talk. Trump’s way is much more primitive. He and his people see no need to tie the U.S. down to any obligations at all. He is absolutely sure of U.S. superiority in any situation. It’s a false perception, but that seems to be where we are today.”

Mr. Trump’s own chief arms control negotiator, Marshall Billingslea, explicitly expressed that view recently, saying that the U.S. doesn’t want a new arms race with Russia or China, but is fully prepared to defeat them the same way the U.S. won the old Cold War. “We know how to win these races, and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion,” he said.

No choice but to come back to the table

Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, which is affiliated with the Foreign Ministry, says new forms of arms control will undoubtedly be needed in the future. The most dangerous thing about the present moment is that the old tried-and-true framework is being destroyed before any new controls have been even envisioned. The dangers of miscalculation or misunderstanding will multiply amid that vacuum, he says.

“Over the past 50 years we have developed a common strategic culture with our American counterparts. We were talking the same language, and everyone knew what the terms meant.”

If that common culture, all the mechanisms of dialogue, trust-building, and verification are lost, Russia will probably not try to match the U.S. missile for missile as the USSR did in the past, he adds.

“In the absence of any arms control, it will become almost impossible for the U.S. to know what we really have or what we may be able to do. Russia is likely to follow a policy of ‘strategic ambiguity,’ to keep them guessing as a means of deterrence. That would be a very dangerous state of affairs, one that nobody would wish for,” Mr. Kortunov says.

Ms. Bell says the U.S. and Russia will eventually come back to the table. “Between us, Russia and the U.S. have more than 90% of all existing nuclear weapons, and we are the only two countries capable of posing an existential threat on that scale,” she says. “So, asking if Russia is a good partner is the wrong question. We basically have no choice but to start a sustained new conversation with them.”

Mr. Kortunov agrees. “Eventually we’ll have to devise new forms of arms control to ensure strategic stability. Probably it will be different, encompassing 21st century realities like space, cyber, and artificial intelligence. And it will have to be multilateral. Let’s hope we won’t have to go through some new Cuban missile crisis before we get to that point.”

Editor's note: The original version misstated the historical scope of New START's reductions to nuclear arsenals.

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