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Commentary | 4 September 2013

US-Russian Arms Control in the Absence of a Summit

Image of Steven Pifer

Steven Pifer |Former Special Assistant to the President, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Director of the Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative

Arms Control Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Weapons Russia Russia-West Relations United States Euro-Atlantic Security

On August 7, the White House announced cancellation of the planned bilateral summit in early September between Presidents Obama and Putin. U.S. officials publicly and privately attributed the decision to a lack of prospects for significant progress, including on further nuclear arms reductions and missile defense. They said the Kremlin had not engaged on Obama’s June proposal for further cuts in strategic nuclear forces or responded seriously to U.S. overtures on missile defense. While leaving the door open, Washington now sees the ball in Moscow’s court on these questions.

Following the brief—and evidently cool—meeting between Obama and Putin on the margins of the June G8 summit in Northern Ireland, the White House turned its attention to preparing for the September summit. Administration officials indicated that, on the arms control front, they hoped the summit might produce agreed principles to guide negotiations of further nuclear arms cuts and a settlement on missile defense. U.S. officials met with their Russian counterparts in June and July to discuss these possibilities.

In a mid-June speech in Berlin, Obama outlined his thinking on next steps regarding nuclear arms reductions. He called for reducing New START’s limit of 1550 deployed strategic warheads by one-third and for “bold” reductions in tactical (non-strategic) nuclear weapons.

The president did not specify what relationship there might be between limits on strategic and non-strategic nuclear arms. In 2011, when his administration first began considering what might follow New START, U.S. officials expressed interest in a single limit covering all U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons, perhaps with a sublimit on deployed strategic nuclear warheads.

Administration officials have shown less interest in that approach recently, in part because such an all-encompassing agreement could be difficult to complete before Obama’s departure from office in January 2017. Officials have talked of different approaches to different classes of nuclear weapons. While the administration has in mind a specific reduction of deployed strategic forces, NATO continues to discuss what transparency and confidence-building measures would provide a basis for engaging Moscow on non-strategic nuclear weapons.

According to U.S. officials, however, the Russians have not engaged on Obama’s Berlin proposals. Moreover, the Kremlin has offered no new ideas of its own for reducing nuclear arms—either strategic or non-strategic.

Administration officials also express frustration on missile defense. Although they attribute the March decision to cancel phase 4 of the European phased adaptive missile defense plan to factors other than Russia, they note that cancellation of phase 4 ended that part of the European missile defense plan over which Moscow had expressed the greatest concern.

In April, U.S. officials proposed an agreement on transparency that would entail exchanges of information regarding the planned number of key missile defense elements. That would permit Washington and Moscow each to have a fairly detailed forecast of the other’s missile defense programs. Those forecasts in turn would allow each side to calculate whether or not there was a serious threat to its strategic offensive ballistic missile capabilities.

This would be a more practical agreement than Moscow’s proposal for a legal guarantee that U.S. missile defenses not be directed against Russian strategic missiles. At some future point, a legal treaty limiting missile defenses might be appropriate. But the gap between offense and defense today and for the foreseeable future is so large that it is difficult to understand why a treaty would be necessary now. In 2018, the United States and Russia will each be allowed 1550 deployed strategic warheads. By that time, the U.S. military plans to have only 44 interceptors capable of engaging a strategic ballistic missile warhead; the Russian military has a slightly larger number of interceptors currently deployed around Moscow. These numbers of missile interceptors pose no serious threat to the other side’s strategic ballistic missile force.

The Russians responded to the April offer by expressing interest but continued to demand a legal guarantee that U.S. missile defenses not be directed against Russian missiles. Although Moscow said it would have a counterproposal, Security Council Secretary Patrushev brought nothing when he came to Washington in May, nor did Ministers Lavrov and Shoigu have anything new on missile defense when they met with Secretaries Kerry and Hagel in the early August “two plus two” meeting.

Already in July, U.S. officials had begun hinting that, absent indications of serious Russian engagement on these or other issues, such as trade and investment relations, the bilateral summit would be in jeopardy, particularly as the backdrop deteriorated. Putin’s campaign of domestic political repression has raised concern in Washington. Moreover, Edward Snowden’s stay in Moscow provoked a mini-crisis in bilateral relations all out of proportion given how the sides normally handle spy and defector cases.

It was a bit odd that the White House made its decision to pull the plug on the Moscow summit two days before the “two plus two” meeting on August 9. In any case, that meeting yielded nothing to suggest major progress could have been achieved in Moscow, though both sides cited it as demonstrating that, despite the summit’s cancellation, U.S.-Russia engagement continues.

Looking forward, the near-term prospects for progress on arms control—whether on further strategic nuclear reductions, confidence and transparency measures regarding non-strategic weapons or missile defense—are uncertain. The White House has left the door open, and U.S. officials continue to engage their Russian counterparts in hopes that Moscow might decide to take a more forthcoming approach. But there is also a risk that Obama will draw the conclusion that Putin cannot—or will not—engage seriously on issues key to his White House agenda. If so, the U.S.-Russia relationship could see a further degree of presidential disengagement.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.