Washington and Moscow must revive the arms control process

Despite efforts to improve US-Russia relations, the two countries remain at loggerheads in a number of areas.

It has been particularly difficult to achieve a breakthrough in arms control owing to its direct impact on national security. Several agreements are in the works – in fact, some of them have been for decades – yet few tangible results have been achieved to date. In recent years, the failure to make any real headway over arms control has been most evident in ballistic missile defense (BMD). This technologically rapidly evolving field, which is rooted in President Ronald Reagan’s visionary “Star Wars” program, has the potential to minimize, if not completely eliminate, the risk of a nuclear missile attack against the United States. Moscow accepts the need for such a strategy and is developing its own missile defense “roof”.

Some people may therefore wonder why Russia would oppose Washington’s deployment of BMD, currently pursued under President Obama’s “European Phased Adaptive Approach” (EPAA). Why should Moscow worry about the deployment of an inherently defensive system? The problem is that when viewed from Russia’s perspective, the American BMD looks like a weapon that can undercut Russia’s own nuclear deterrent and hence increase that country’s vulnerability to a first (that is, offensive) nuclear strike by the US.

For this reason, it is not surprising that Russia is skeptical about the BMD restructuring announced in mid-March by US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, which, it says, has fallen well below its expectations. Given the deployment in Europe (and very close to the Russian territory to boot) of US strategic  and tactical nuclear arms as well as conventional weapons, America and NATO’s BMD “defense umbrella” is for all intents and purposes a “forward-based weapon”.

At the same time, Russian strategic planners point out that Moscow has no intention to develop and position its BMD systems on the American continents. Therefore, the obvious question to ask is how would the US respond if roles were reversed – that is, if Russia (or China) were deploying BMD systems around the coast of the US? Would Washington not have the same concerns about US security, and would it not insist on its right to respond to the perceived potential threat as it deemed appropriate? Would it not be incumbent upon it at least to seek explanations of Moscow’s intentions?

In response to America’s BMD deployment plans, Moscow has threatened to withdraw from the latest strategic offensive arms (SOA) agreement as well as from the Prague Treaty signed in 2010 (labeled in the US as a New START and in Russia as START-3). The treaty permitted the two sides to have 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads each by 2017 – a formidable force outweighing nuclear capabilities of the rest of the world combined.

Since 1945, when the nuclear era began, the US and Russia have held no talks on downsizing their tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) that can be delivered from a distance of up to 500 km by aircraft or short-range missiles. Given the ramifications in Europe of Washington’s global BMD program, to be implemented in addition to the US weapons already stationed there, Moscow is reluctant to address the TNW issue. It also refuses to launch any confidence-building measures related to such weapons, such as inspections at the Russian TNW sites.

Furthermore, there is no agreement between Moscow and Washington on preventing the militarization of outer space or on issues such as the prevention of collisions of nuclear-powered submarines. A new treaty on Conventional  Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), which is required by changes in military balances since 1990, has yet to be negotiated. In Moscow’s view, the treaty should entail no flank limitations or any linkage with potential conflicts.

The main cause of this failure has not changed for decades: there simply is not enough trust between the two countries to make tangible progress on all these fronts.

It is high time that we move on. The vision of a nuclear weapons free world may well be unattainable, but that is no excuse for failing to take at least limited steps in that direction. And here both the US and Russia carry special responsibility. In order that all states are involved in a nuclear arms reduction process, the following steps must be taken:

1. Russia and the US must reach a deal on downsizing their nuclear capabilities to an aggregate level equal to the number of nuclear weapons at the disposal of all other states (such a deal could be reached during START-5, START-6 and START-7).

2. All nuclear weapon “haves” – both de jure and de facto – must set up an approximate deadline for the creation of a nuclear-free world (for example, 2045 or later). Such a Rubicon is needed as an incentive to make more solid calculations as regards the production and elimination of nuclear weapons.

3. All nuclear-weapon states must declare a no-first use of nuclear weapons against one another – no later than 2015.

Russia and the US could go one step further, such as pushing for even lower limits for their SOA. This would necessitate the full cancellation of the EPAA, the signing of reciprocal legally-binding guarantees not to use BMD against each other and the withdrawal of all American TNW to the continental United States, which would remove the “the legacy of the Cold War in Europe”.

Presidents Obama and Putin have an historic opportunity to rise to the challenge. They should meet this year to begin tackling the bilateral and multilateral arms control agenda – other important issues should be debated at separate talks. Their goal should be to restore mutual trust and to revitalize the inexorably flaging arms control process between their  countries.

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