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Commentary | 25 March 2013

US-Russian Reset Four Years Later: State and Challenges

Image of Alexey Arbatov

Alexey Arbatov |Head of the Center for International Security at Institute of World Economy and International Relations

Arms Control CSBMs Deterrence Nuclear Weapons Russia Russia-West Relations Security United States Global Security

In 2013 the state of, and prospects, for US-Russian cooperation in arms control and security look more dubious than at any point since the end of the Cold War a quarter century ago. The main reasons are not only the complexity of particular problems that have to addressed, but rather the general political background of the relationship – and foremost within this,domestic issues in both countries.

In the United States the liberal administration of President Barack Obama is faced with a uniquely conservative republican opposition on most important domestic financial, economic and foreign policy issues. Relations with Russia, in particular on arms control, are among the main targets of the opposition attacks. After having suffered a narrow defeat in its attempts to kill the New START during ratification debates, republicans are determined to take revenge by preventing any further compromise with Russia on the START follow-on, ballistic missile defense and other arms control issues.

Still, this situation of a strong conservative opposition’s effect on US foreign policy is not something unheard of. What is entirely new – is the influence of Russian domestic politics on its foreign policy, including Russian-US relations. Never before in the history of these relations did Russian internal politics have such a profound effect.
When Putin came back to the Kremlin for the third time he met quite a cold reception from the West, which was certainly expected in Moscow. What came as a great surprise, however, was a mass movement of protest inside Russia. This movement consists of liberal, nationalist and leftist groups. Although liberals are not the largest element, it is with them that Putin has the deepest split, and it is these groups that are receiving strong political and moral support from the West.

Hence, the conclusion in the Kremlin is that the West is actively sponsoring mass opposition, considers Putin an “illegitimate” head of state, and is aiming at a “colored revolution” to dismiss the regime – along the paradigm of Ukraine and Georgia in the middle of the last decade and the “Arab Spring” of recent years.
The Russian government and its partisans in parliament, the mass media, and strategic community are counterattack-ing with a package of legislative measures and legal proceedings against the opposition activists. In tight logical linkage to that, the West is portrayed as the source of the main foreign threat, keen on overthrowing Putin’s political regime and depriving Russia of its sovereignty and natural resources.
Robust nuclear deterrence is proclaimed the central pole of Russian defense and security, while the US and its allies’ BMD program and strategic conventional precision guided systems, including Prompt Global Strike (PGS) projects, are presented as an instrument for undercutting Russian nuclear deterrence and security. A huge military armament program is being implemented to modernize Russian nuclear and conventional, offensive and defensive arms and capabilities (as a whole its aggregate cost will be $710 billion between 2011-2020).

Obviously, this is not a conducive political environment for further talks and agreements with the US/NATO on arms control and international security.

Internationally there are disagreements between Russia and the West on Libya, Syria, the Iranian nuclear program, post-soviet space, energy cooperation and a number of smaller issues. Nonetheless, cooperation on Afghanistan and “Afghan transit” is functioning, and the great powers voted unanimously on Mali and the North Korean nuclear test.

International disagreements were often overcome in the past to achieve arms control agreements, but unfavorable domestic political environments never before happened simultaneously in the United States and Russia (USSR). This is presently the main obstacle to the disarmament process, in which Moscow and Washington retain the key role.

On top of all this, the issues of further arms reduction and limitation per se are more complex than in the past. For the first time in history the main problems are not within the context of strategic offensive arms limitation, but rather outside – in adjacent areas: BMD, sub-strategic nuclear weapons (SSNW) and conventional strategic arms. Apparently the New START is the last strategic arms control treaty, which was achieved based on the traditional paradigm of parity/stability, stringent actual (if not legal) limits on BMD capabilities and putting aside all other nuclear and conventional weapons and programs.

Washington claims that its superior BMD program and long range conventional weapons (in particular, thousands of sea-launched cruise missiles and PGS projects) are assigned missions against rogue states and terrorists. But Russia perceives them as undercutting strategic stability and Russia’s security. In Moscow any START follow-on is linked to resolving BMD and conventional (space) arms controversies.

Moscow claims that its superior tactical nuclear arms are supposed to offset NATO (and tacitly China’s) superiority in conventional forces and deter third nuclear weapons states, all of which are within range of Russian territory. In Washington any START follow-on is linked to tactical nukes limitation (since all of them are in storage they are proposed to be limited together with stored strategic weapons).

This controversial double linkage outside of the scope of offensive nuclear arms has never happened before and there is no understanding between the parties about further steps or priorities. In the past after each new SALT or START/SORT treaty there was always an agreed agenda for the follow-on negotiations. Under the present situation not only the next START is in doubt, but even preserving the existing treaties (the New START and INF Treaty of 1987) is not assured.

Untangling this knot of contradictions would imply, first of all, positive changes in Russian domestic politics and moods, as well as some enhancement of Obama’s domestic positions. The prospects and prerequisites for both are a complex and intriguing matter, but ultimately are outside the scope of this article.

Second, the existing double linkage is a recipe for a continuous deadlock. START, BMD, SSNW, conventional strategic arms (including space systems) should be delinked and negotiated at separate forums, although they all will be connected politically.

Third, the US and its allies’ BMD program and Russian massive air-space defense program (20% of aforementioned armament program till 2020) require a new vision of strategic stability, different from the one formulated by Robert McNamara forty five years ago in his 1967 San-Francisco speech. The new vision should integrate broad defensive systems of the territories while still excluding strategic incentives for a first strike or an arms race. This should be the subject of new talks of the parties. On this basis some reciprocal confidence-building measures and cooperative technical projects (like interfacing early warning systems) may be negotiated.

Fourth, follow-on to the New START should be negoti-ated in a bilateral US-Russian format, aiming at reducing warheads ceilings down to1000-1200.

Fifth, strategic conventional arms should be covered by confidence-building measures and hopefully by some limitations. This may be done either through capitalizing on the New START precedent (including nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles under the same ceilings), or be a subject of separate talks. This would be yet another change to theold paradigm, which consisted in careful separation of nuclear and conventional systems.

Sixth, sub-strategic nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future should be addressed not through counting and reducing them in storage, but by expanding transparency measures and relocating them from forward bases to central storage sites in national territories. This would avoid mind-boggling verification challenges and take care of concerns about unauthorized use, terrorist access or fast escalation in case of conflict.
Seventh, the CFE regime should be revived in amended and updated form, postponing the problems of the South Caucasus and Transdniestria for some future time. Incidentally this would tangibly facilitate agreement on tactical nukes.

Eighth, Britain and France might facilitate nuclear arms control by accepting some transparency and notification provisions from the New START and applying them to their nuclear forces and programs, making their declared commitments for further reductions legally binding. This step might be conditioned on reciprocal Russian measures and conclusion of next START treaty.

Ninth, the British and French example might provide political pressure on China to start opening its secret nuclear posture and programs, since China does not like to be isolated on any issue in the G-5 or NPT (Article VI) context. More transparency would substantiate China’s claims of having minimal nuclear deterrence and purely second-strike posture. This would be a more practical movement to multilateral nuclear arms control, than fascinating but general and open-ended discussions within the G-5 format.

Tenth, it is high time for the G-5 to start preparing their joint position and agreed priorities for the next NPT Review Conference in 2015 in order to ensure the conference makes a real contribution to enhancing the non-proliferation regime, rather than being a mere social event like the Conference of 2010.


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.