Russian-U.S. nuclear arms control malaise

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This week, while all eyes are on the Olympic games in Russia, there may be brewing a quandary for the Obama Administration over how to address an alleged breach of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the two countries. Although the Administration has not formally confirmed its view on whether a violation occurred, several U.S. Congressmen are putting pressure on the Administration to take action (GSN/Feb. 7) against Russia. Acting Under Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller informed NATO allies on January 17th about Russian tests of a ground-launched cruise missile (NYT/Jan. 29) that may have violated the treaty.

The Administration has been pursuing the matter, while Russia is denying that it has committed any violation of the bilateral agreement. The alleged violation appears to be different from previous allegations of cheating, which have been shown to be irrelevant (see Arms Control Today/ July 2013, and Steven Pifer’s clear explanations and dire warning here in FP). European allies will also watch closely to see what action Washington takes.

The challenge of reassuring allies will be on the agenda of the BASIC panel: “Extended Deterrence and Reassurance”, to be held on Wednesday as part of the sixth annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit (Feb. 11-14). The discussion coincides with a number of diplomatic challenges with Russia. Some of the Eastern European allies that need U.S. security reassurance still see Russia as a primary threat. U.S. nuclear weapons came to symbolize the security relationship between the United States and allies in the Cold War, and are still seen as a cornerstone of the U.S. contribution to allied deterrence in support of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.

Since the end of the Cold War, nuclear arsenals have declined partly as a result of arms control agreements between Moscow and Washington, and the INF Treaty is often cited as a successful example of such cooperation between the two powers. Still, nuclear warheads remain in the thousands on both sides, and the role of nuclear weapons remains a touchy subject when considering U.S. ties to allies in Europe. For example, the idea of removing the remaining U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe has caused nervousness in some Eastern European countries that see the weapons as representative of the U.S. commitment to their security; this despite the clear and growing economic burden that continuing the mission will have on NATO, and doubts about their military utility compared to other more relevant capabilities that are also competing for scarce funds. NATO has said that any further reductions in the weapons will not happen until agreements can be reached with Russia on addressing its tactical arsenal, which is said to be much larger - with at least 2,000 warheads. Negative developments around the INF treaty will make it even more difficult to achieve progress on tactical nuclear weapons or other arms control issues.

Going forward, it will be important to avoid two tempting options: 1.) Letting the alleged INF violation go without any satisfactory resolution; or 2.) Agitating for simple punitive action and fomenting a larger narrative of animosity toward Russia.

Arms control treaties should be upheld for their security benefits, and for maintaining the integrity and credibility of international law. To be sure, arms control agreements are only one part of managing insecurity. If a violation occurred, which may be difficult to determine, then the United States needs to get at the bottom of why Russia did what it did, and explore whether adjustments to the treaty would be appropriate or what security issues need to be addressed going forward, as Russia has suggested in the past that it might want to leave the Treaty.

Just as bad would be to give up on arms control at this time, and to feed the trend toward further distancing the relationship with Russia. This option is tempting amidst mounting frustration, and on the surface, would appear to show strength in the face of Russian challenges and seem like a straightforward way of reassuring Eastern European allies that the United States remains serious when it comes to their security. Going too far could actually backfire, however, making current cooperation on issues such as Iran and Syria more difficult, squandering future opportunities for cooperation in other important areas of mutual interest, and leaving Eastern Europe with one less influential partner to regularly and productively engage with Russia on its behalf.

Russia-U.S. relations expert Dmitri Trenin wrote recently, “The Russian and U.S. governments are less focused on each other’s country than at any time in the last seventy-five years. In part, this is because the Cold War has ended. However, it is also the result of the failure to balance inevitable U.S.-Russian competition with productive cooperation.” He suggests that promoting mutual economic investment could help, calls for more civil rhetoric among media and politicians in both countries, and concludes by appealing to others who care about the relationship to take a more active role in supporting their governments to find ways to constructively engage.

Following that spirit, these rising challenges to nuclear arms control should be used as motivation for more concerted action. Although new treaties may not be on the horizon, trying to find creative approaches to nuclear arms control with allies and with Russia should also be seen as part of the package of the United States’s commitment to European security, and as a form of reassurance that the United States will engage even when times are tough.

As a reminder, the Second Conference on Humanitarian Consequences will be held in Nayarit, Mexico, on February 13th and 14th of this week, and BASIC Senior Fellow Ward Wilson will be there. See the article BASIC’s Rebecca Cousins wrote on the subject for OpenDemocracy: Rethinking Nuclear Catastrophe.

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