"...the Arms Control Association [does] so much to keep the focus on the issues so important to everyone here, to hold our leaders accountable to inspire creative thinking and to press for change. So we are grateful for your leadership and for the unyielding dedication to global nuclear security."

– Lord Des Browne
Vice Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
October 20, 2014
Shannon Bugos

Russia Tests ASAT Weapon, U.S. Says

September 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The U.S. Space Command alleged that “Russia conducted a non-destructive test of a space-based anti-satellite weapon” on July 15, ahead of lengthy but inconclusive talks between Washington and Moscow in Vienna on space security. Moscow disputed the claim that it conducted such a test.

A Russian rocket topped with the Cosmos 2543 satellite is erected in November 2019. Successfully launched in December, the satellite flew "in abnormally close proximity" of A U.S. satellite in July, according to U.S. officials. (Photo: Russian Defense Ministry)In a July 23 statement, Gen. John Raymond, commander of U.S. Space Command, said that the test “is further evidence of Russia’s continuing efforts to develop and test space-based systems, and consistent with the Kremlin’s published military doctrine to employ weapons that hold U.S. and allied space assets at risk.”

Space Command said a Russian satellite, Cosmos 2543, “operated in abnormally close proximity to a U.S. government satellite in low-earth orbit before it maneuvered away and over to another Russian satellite, where it released another object in proximity to the Russia target satellite. This test is inconsistent with the intended purpose of the satellite as an inspector system, as described by Russia.”

The United States has previously suggested that such an object can be used as a weapon to target other satellites.

Air Vice-Marshal Harvey Smyth, head of the United Kingdom’s Space Directorate, also expressed concern of the launching of “a projectile with the characteristics of a weapon.”

“Actions of this kind threaten the peaceful use of space and risk causing debris that could pose a threat to satellites and the space systems on which the world depends,” he said on July 23.

The Russian Foreign Ministry criticized the statements by the United States and UK and said that the test had “not endangered any other space object” or “infringed on any norms and principles of international law.”

“The inspector satellite was launched to inspect a Russian satellite at close range, using special equipment for this purpose,” said the ministry on July 24. “This mission has collected valuable information about the technical maintenance status of the inspected spacecraft and transmitted it to the ground-based command system.”

This latest test comes after Space Command alleged that Russia tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile in April and two Russian satellites, Cosmos 2542 and 2543, made maneuvers near U.S. government satellites in February. (See ACT, May 2020.)

Delegations from the United States and Russia met in Vienna on July 27 for a dialogue on space security. Officials from the State, Defense, and Energy departments and the National Security Council made up the U.S. delegation.

“While our efforts are aimed at finding constructive paths forward for space security, we will certainly emphasize our great concern with ongoing Russian as well as Chinese efforts to weaponize the space domain,” said Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation and international security, ahead of the talks.

Ford said that “our hope is that this meeting will allow us to explore ways to increase stability and security in outer space, as well as to advance the cause of developing norms of responsible behavior in that vital domain.” He later mentioned applying “the usual international humanitarian law or Law of Armed Conflict rules” to space and establishing “operator-to-operator engagement” as specific potential goals.

That same day, Ford also released a paper on arms control in outer space in which he urged Russia and China to “abandon [their] dreams of counterspace warfighting, and [their] unverifiable, ineffective, and disingenuous arms control proposals, and join with the United States in a new space security initiative.”

In June, the Defense Department released the Defense Space Strategy, outlining its goals for desired conditions in space over the next 10 years, which said that “China and Russia each have weaponized space as a means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness and challenge our freedom of operation in space.”

The State Department issued a statement at the conclusion of the space dialogue, which lasted for more than 13 hours. “The two sides exchanged views on current and future space threats, policies, strategies, and doctrine, and discussed a forward-looking agenda to promote safe, professional, and sustainable activities in space,” said the department. Statements from the State Department and the Russian Foreign Ministry said that the countries will aim to continue discussions on space security.

Russia maneuvered a satellite in July to within “abnormally close proximity” of a U.S. satellite, according to the U.S. Space Command.

House, Senate Differ on Nuclear Testing

September 2020
By Shannon Bugos

The House of Representatives voted on July 21 to prohibit funding to conduct or prepare to conduct a nuclear test explosion in its version of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The vote sets up a likely clash with the Senate, which voted earlier to set aside funding to conduct such a test, if wanted by the Trump administration, in its version of the NDAA.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) speaks to the media in July. He introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to fund a resumption of nuclear test explosions if the Trump administration found such a step necessary. (Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)By a 227–179 vote, the House adopted an amendment to the bill offered by Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah) to prohibit any fiscal year 2021 or prior-year funding “to conduct or make preparations for any explosive nuclear weapons test that produces any yield.”

The Senate version of the NDAA, passed July 23, included an amendment by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) that makes $10 million available for the United States to carry out a nuclear test “if necessary.” (See ACT, July/August 2020.)

Negotiators from the two chambers will next meet in conference to resolve differences in their respective legislation, but neither the negotiators nor a date for the conference have been set. Reports indicate that the talks, once started, will continue past the election in November.

Reps. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) and Susie Lee (D-Nev.) also introduced an NDAA amendment modeled on legislation by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) that would require a joint resolution of approval for any proposal to resume nuclear test explosions, the passage of which would require a supermajority of 67 senators. But the House Rules Committee did not rule the amendment to be in order, so it did not reach the floor for consideration.

Meanwhile, the House passed a package of fiscal year 2021 appropriations bills on July 31, including the defense and energy bills. Both bills also prohibit any funding for preparing or conducting a nuclear weapons test. The Senate has not yet taken action on those appropriations bills.

The amendments regarding a possible resumption of U.S. nuclear testing emerged after The Washington Post reported on May 22 that the Trump administration weighed whether to conduct a nuclear test explosion during a May 15 meeting with national security agencies. (See ACT, May 2020.)

Former National Security Advisor John Bolton told The Guardian on July 22 that, during his time in the Trump administration, “[w]e had general discussions about it on a number of occasions, but there wasn’t a decision point.”

Nuclear testing, Bolton said, “is something we need for the credibility of the deterrent.”

Marshall Billingslea, U.S. special envoy for arms control, said that he was “unaware of any reason to engage in nuclear testing at this stage,” during his confirmation hearing for the State Department’s top arms control job on July 21.

He added, however, that he thinks “it’s important that we make clear to the Russians and the Chinese that it’s not okay to tell the world that you’re not engaged in testing with yield, when in fact you are.”

His comment reflected recent State Department compliance reports that Russia and China have engaged in activities that are inconsistent with the “zero yield” standard regarding nuclear testing. (See ACT, May 2020.)


Trump administration interest in nuclear testing has spurred lawmakers to address the issue in a major military spending bill and policy.

CBO Report Strengthens Case for New START Extension

A new report published Aug. 25 by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) further strengthens the already no-brainer of a case for extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and eviscerates the irresponsible claim by the Trump administration’s top arms control official that the United States can spend Russia and China “into oblivion” in a new arms race. The report demonstrates that the already excessive, surging, and unsustainable financial costs to maintain and modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal could soar even higher if the treaty expires in five months and the...

U.S.-Russian Arms Control Working Groups Meet

U.S.-Russian Arms Control Working Groups Meet Delegations representing the United States and Russia met in Vienna from July 27-30 for four days of talks on space security and nuclear arms control amid the Trump administration’s continued push for an unprecedented new trilateral arms control deal and uncertainty about the fate of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ( New START ). The four days of meetings marked the most sustained period of dialogue on arms control issues between professional experts from the two sides since the Trump administration took office. But few details have...

No Progress Toward Extending New START

July/August 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The United States and Russia concluded the latest round of their strategic security dialogue on June 22 without agreeing to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the last remaining arms control agreement limiting their nuclear arsenals.

U.S. arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea speaks to the media in Vienna on June 23 after holding talks the day before with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. (Photo: Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images)The United States is “leaving all options available” on the future of the treaty, said Marshall Billingslea, U.S. special envoy for arms control, who led the U.S. delegation at the talks in Vienna, during a June 24 briefing in Brussels.

“We are willing to contemplate an extension of that agreement but only under select circumstances,” he said. Those circumstances include making progress toward a new trilateral arms control agreement that has strong verification measures, covers all nuclear warheads, and involves China, according to Billingslea.

New START will expire in February 2021 unless U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agree to extend it by up to five years. Russia has repeatedly stated that it is ready to extend the treaty without any preconditions and warned that there is not enough time to negotiate a new agreement to replace it before next February. U.S. allies have also urged the Trump administration to extend the treaty.

Trump administration officials, however, have argued that New START is outdated and are instead prioritizing the pursuit of a broader agreement. (See ACT, May 2019.)

Billingslea characterized the talks with Russia in Vienna as “positive” and said the two sides had agreed to form technical working groups to discuss key issues.

The special envoy said he was hopeful that the working groups would make “sufficient progress” to allow for a second round of talks “at the end of July or maybe beginning of August,” when “China again will be called upon to attend.”

The Wall Street Journal on June 23 quoted an unnamed U.S. official who said that the topics for the working groups would be nuclear warheads, especially Russia’s unconstrained stockpile of nonstrategic nuclear weapons, and doctrine; verification; and space systems. But a June 24 report in Kommersant cited Russian officials saying Moscow did not necessarily agree to discuss nuclear warheads.

Asked about the discrepancy, Billingslea replied that he would have “to circle back” on this issue with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, who had led the Russia delegation in Vienna.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said at the conclusion of the talks that “the delegations continued discussing the future of arms control, including extending [New START] and maintaining stability and predictability in the context of the termination of the [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty, as well as a comprehensive dialogue on resolving international security problems.”

Prior to the start of the June 22 talks, Billingslea tweeted a picture of the table, with some empty seats reserved with Chinese flags. “Vienna talks about to start,” Billingslea said. “China is a no-show…We will proceed with Russia, notwithstanding.”

Fu Cong, director-general of the Department of Arms Control in the Chinese Foreign Ministry, replied, “What an odd scene… Good luck on the extension of the New START! Wonder how LOW you can go?” The United States and Russia are currently believed to possess about 6,000 total nuclear weapons apiece, while China has roughly 300.

Following the Vienna talks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on June 23 that the U.S. placement of Chinese flags at empty seats “is unserious, unprofessional, and unappealing for the U.S. to try getting people’s eyes in this way.”

Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea tweeted this photo of empty seats designated for China at nuclear talks on June 22 in Vienna. Earlier in the month, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said, “China has repeatedly reiterated that it has no intention of participating in the so-called trilateral arms control negotiations with the United States and Russia.” (Photo: @USArmsControl/Twitter)He also noted the incorrect design of the flags that the United States set on the table. “We hope certain people in the U.S. can do their homework and improve their general knowledge to avoid becoming a laughing stock,” he said.

The Trump administration claims that China is engaged in a secret, crash program to build up its nuclear forces and that future arms control efforts must include Beijing.

China has repeatedly refused to join trilateral talks with the United States and Russia and bilateral talks with the United States. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

Billingslea on June 8 invited Beijing to join the talks in Vienna, but the following day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying declined the invitation. “China has repeatedly reiterated that it has no intention of participating in the so-called trilateral arms control negotiations with the United States and Russia,” she said. “This position is very clear.”

Billingslea urged China to reconsider. “Achieving Great Power status requires behaving with Great Power responsibility,” he tweeted on June 9. “No more Great Wall of Secrecy on its nuclear build-up.”

Russia has refused to pressure China to change its position and join the talks. “China should itself decide whether these talks are beneficial for the country,” said Anatoly Antonov, Russian ambassador to the United States, on June 20. “We will not force our Chinese friends.”

Antonov also repeated a longtime Russian stance that if China joins arms control talks, then U.S. allies France and the United Kingdom should as well.

Billingslea acknowledged that the U.S. “definition of multilateral might be different, but the principle remains the same.” He claimed that China’s nuclear buildup poses a much greater threat than the French and UK nuclear arsenals.

The Trump administration has yet to put forward a concrete proposal for what it wants arms control with China to achieve or detail what the United States would be willing to put forward as concessions in trilateral talks with Russia and China.

Prior to and following the talks in Vienna, Billingslea touted the support of U.S. allies for the Trump administration’s approach to arms control.

Allies have praised the administration for resuming talks with Russia and seeking to bring China into the arms control process, but they also continue to urge the Trump administration to extend New START by five years.

During the Brussels Forum on June 23, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that he welcomes “Russia and the United States sitting down and talking to each other on arms control” and agrees “that China should be involved.”

Still, he added, “in the absence of any agreement that includes China, I think the right thing will be to extend the existing New START agreement.”

“We should not end up in a situation where we have no agreement whatsoever regulating the number of nuclear weapons in the world,” he said.

New START caps U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each.

Under its monitoring and verification regime, the treaty allows for short notice, on-site inspections.

As the Trump administration continues to assess whether to extend New START, inspections under the accord have been suspended since March due to the coronavirus pandemic. It is not clear when such inspections might resume.


Prospects remain dim for extending New START or engaging China in nuclear arms control efforts.

U.S. Testing Interest Triggers Backlash

July/August 2020
By Shannon Bugos

The Trump administration faces widespread opposition, including from members of Congress and nuclear weapons scientists, to the potential restarting of U.S. nuclear weapons testing.

Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, visited the Nevada Test Site in 2015, where structures remain from a planned, but never conducted nuclear test, in 1992. In May, Zerbo urged all countries to refrain from restarting any nuclear testing. (Photo: Lassina Zerbo Twitter)The Washington Post reported on May 22 that the Trump administration weighed whether to conduct a nuclear test explosion during a May 15 meeting with national security agencies. (See ACT, May 2020.) The administration reportedly believes that a nuclear test would help prod Russia and China into negotiating a new trilateral arms control deal.

During a June 24 press briefing in Brussels, Marshall Billingslea, U.S. special envoy for arms control, said, “[W]e maintain and will maintain the ability to conduct nuclear tests if we see reason to do so,” but that he is “not aware of any reason to test at this stage.” Nevertheless, “I won’t shut the door on it because why would we?”

The United States conducted a total of 1,030 nuclear tests, with more than 900 of them performed at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, now known as the Nevada National Security Site, until President George H.W. Bush declared a moratorium on U.S. nuclear testing in 1992. According to U.S. nuclear test readiness guidelines, a “simple test” with limited instrumentation could be conducted at the former site within six to 10 months if the president decides to resume nuclear testing.

“With no stated justification to resume testing, we unequivocally oppose any administration’s efforts to resume explosive nuclear testing in Nevada,” said Nevada Democratic Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen on June 12. They were joined by the state’s Democratic Reps. Dina Titus, Steven Horsford, and Susie Lee.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) introduced an amendment to the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) calling for $10 million for the administration to execute a nuclear weapons test “if necessary.” The Senate Armed Services Committee passed the amendment June 10 along a party-line vote, but whether it will be included in the final bill remains unclear.

On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) joined the Nevada delegation in criticizing any resumption of nuclear testing and introduced legislation that would deny the administration any funds to conduct a nuclear test.

“A return to U.S. nuclear testing would dishonor the lessons from the Cold War and expose a whole new generation of Americans to the horrors of radiation sickness,” said Markey when introducing the Preserving Leadership Against Nuclear Explosives Testing (PLANET) Act on June 4. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and 13 other senators co-sponsored the legislation.

Titus and Horsford introduced a companion bill to the PLANET Act in the House on June 8.

“Resuming nuclear testing would open a door to allow other nations to openly conduct nuclear test explosions while imposing immense financial and health costs on the American people,” said Horsford.

On July 1, Cortez Masto introduced legislation and an NDAA amendment, along with five other senators, to require a joint resolution of approval for the United States to conduct an explosive nuclear weapons test. The passage of the joint resolution would need a two-thirds affirmative vote in the Senate. “The decision to conduct an explosive nuclear test should not be made without congressional approval, and should never be made by a president hoping to gain political points,” said Cortez Masto.

Condemnations also came from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.). “It is unfathomable that the administration is considering something so short-sighted and dangerous,” they wrote in a June 8 letter to Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette and Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) spearheaded a bicameral letter of 80 members of Congress to President Donald Trump warning against the resumption of U.S. nuclear weapons testing.

“A return to nuclear testing is not only scientifically and technically unnecessary but also dangerously provocative.... It would needlessly antagonize important allies, cause other countries to develop or acquire nuclear weapons, and prompt adversaries to respond in kind—risking a new nuclear arms race and further undermining the global nonproliferation regime,” they wrote on June 8.

Meanwhile, a group of 12 former scientists with nuclear weapons expertise signed a June 16 letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), saying, “We strongly oppose the resumption of explosive testing of U.S. nuclear weapons. There is no technical need for a nuclear test.”

The Trump administration has faced international condemnation as well, with Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo saying on May 28 that “any actions or activities by any country that violate the international norm against nuclear testing would constitute a grave challenge to the nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament regime, as well as to global peace and security more broadly.”

The Russian and Chinese foreign ministries also condemned the Trump administration for contemplating a resumption of nuclear testing.

“This bombshell,” said a Russian statement, demonstrates “a U.S. campaign against international law.” Russia ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 2000.


U.S. lawmakers and international officials have criticized the Trump administration’s consideration of restarting nuclear testing.

Critics Question U.S. Open Skies Complaints

July/August 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

In the wake of the Trump administration’s decision in May to abandon the Open Skies Treaty, and amid uncertainty about the future of the 34-nation accord, critics are disputing the administration’s rationale for withdrawal.

Swedish soldiers guard a Russian aircraft preparing to conduct an Open Skies Treaty observation flight over Sweden in 2000. (Photo: OSCE)U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a May 21 statement that “Russia’s implementation and violation of Open Skies” has negated the “central confidence-building function of the treaty—and has, in fact, fueled distrust and threats to our national security—making continued U.S. participation untenable.”

Specifically, Pompeo cited Russian restrictions on observation flights over Russian territory and alleged that Moscow “appears” to use treaty flights “in support of an aggressive new Russian doctrine of targeting critical infrastructure in the United States and Europe with precision-guided conventional munitions.”

Members of Congress, former government officials, U.S. allies, and Russia have said that these arguments are based on tendentious reasoning, beset by contradictions, and ignore positive benefits the treaty continues to provide. (See ACT, May 2020.)

Meanwhile, the fate of the treaty is in limbo. Several European treaty parties have said they plan to continue implementing the agreement, while Russia has not specified how it plans to proceed.

To further complicate matters, flights under the treaty have been suspended since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, and it is unclear when they will resume.

Signed in 1992, the Open Skies Treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities.

The Trump administration alleges that Russian limitations on flights over the Kaliningrad enclave and territory bordering Abkhazia and South Ossetia violate the treaty. Critics argue that the breaches do not defeat the object and purpose of the agreement and are resolvable through diplomacy.

The Kaliningrad issue focuses on Moscow’s demand to limit Open Skies missions over the enclave to less than 500 kilometers in total flight distance. The requirement followed a 2014 overflight by Poland that, according to a May 26 Russian Foreign Ministry paper, crossed “back and forth, thereby creating problems for the use of the region’s limited airspace and for the operation of the region’s only international airport” and “entailed serious financial costs.” Russia maintains that the 500-kilometer limit was “established in line with [Open Skies Treaty] provisions.”

In 2016, the United States responded to the sublimit by restricting flights over the Pacific Fleet in Hawaii and the missile defense interceptor fields in Fort Greely, Alaska.

The Russian Foreign Ministry claims that whereas Western countries can still capture “from 77 to 98 percent of the territory” of Kaliningrad in an observation flight, Russia can observe “just 2.7 percent in Alaska.”

In February 2020, Russia allowed a flight over Kaliningrad by the United States, Estonia, and Lithuania that exceeded the 500-kilometer limit. On March 2, U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe James Gilmore described the flight as “very cooperative.”

Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, acknowledged in a May 21 briefing that Russia permitted “a very slightly longer flight” over Kaliningrad but argued that the flight “doesn’t undermine the basic point that Russia clearly regards its Open Skies legal obligations as something akin more to guidelines or options for them.”

United States additionally asserts that Moscow not only violates a crucial clause of the treaty but also uses the clause to make a political claim with respect to Georgia.

Under the Open Skies Treaty, states-parties must open all of their territory to overflights, although Article VI prohibits flights within 10 kilometers of borders with countries that are not states-parties.

Russia is one of only a handful of countries that recognizes Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent from Georgia. As a result, Moscow has prohibited treaty flights within 10-kilometers of its border with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as they are not states-parties to the Open Skies Treaty.

The Russian Foreign Ministry argues that “it is possible to reliably obtain images of these zones without flying over them” and that Georgia, a treaty party, is in violation of the accord by prohibiting Russian flights over Georgia.

In a June 22 letter to Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper criticizing the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the treaty, Senators Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), and Mark Warner (D-Va.) write that “instead of withdrawing from the treaty, the United States should diplomatically engage Russia to resolve these issues as it has done successfully in the past, for example when Russian imposed limitations on flights over Chechnya.”

As for the allegation that Russia is misusing treaty flights over the United States to collect military-relevant intelligence, Ford said that he was “not at liberty to go into some of the details of why we think that this is a concern.”

“[W]hile not a violation per se,” he added, “it’s clearly something that is deeply corrosive to the cause of building confidence and trust.”

There appears to be disagreement among military officials about how useful Russian flights are for intelligence gathering.

Vice Admiral Terry Benedict, the former head of the Navy’s Strategic Systems Program, told a Congressional hearing in 2016 that “the information Russia gleans from Open Skies is of only incremental value in addition to Russia’s other means of intelligence gathering.”

The treaty includes provisions that dictate the standards for equipment, including cameras and planes, used during a flight. No equipment is used that is not previously authorized by the states-parties.

Under the treaty, states-parties seeking to conduct an overflight must supply their flight plan at least 24 hours in advance to the host country. The host country then reviews the plan and can raise any concerns about safety or weather. When the flight does take off, there are also representatives of the host country on the plane alongside the observing states-parties to ensure all goes according to plan. All images taken on the flight must then be shared with the other parties to the agreement.

In addition to arguing that Russia is using the treaty to gather intelligence, the Trump administration and other opponents of the agreement also maintain that the treaty has outlived its usefulness and is based on outdated technology.

“[T]echnology has passed by the world of wet film and antiquated aircraft,” Marshall Billingslea, the president’s special envoy for arms control said on May 21. “You can download commercial imagery today in a matter of seconds that really meets the original intent of confidence-building measures in Europe.”

Critics argue that the administration cannot have it both ways. If the treaty is antiquated and replaceable by higher-resolution commercial satellite images, how is Russia using it to capture irreplaceable images of critical U.S. infrastructure?

Russia has responded to the U.S. allegation that it is misusing the treaty by stating that the United States, when flying over Russia, “film[s] not only parks and beaches.” Since the treaty entered into force, the United States has flown over Russia about three times more frequently than Russia has flown over the United States.

A former senior official told Arms Control Today that the United States and its allies have made use of treaty flights “to track infrastructure that it’s otherwise hard to photograph in a single satellite pass.” This includes imagery of Russian rail lines, “which has helped us to understand more about military transport potential, including for nuclear warheads.” The official said the United States has also used the treaty “to help preview inspection sites for…nuclear treaties,” such as the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and to photograph Russia’s nuclear test site at Novaya Zemlya.

The Trump administration has told allies that it is exploring options to provide more imagery products to them to address any gaps that might result from the U.S. withdrawal. Many treaty members, including the Baltic states, do not have their own aircraft with which to conduct flights.

But sharing such sensitive imagery may be easier said than done.

Pranay Vaddi, a fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department official, tweeted on May 28 that it takes time to downgrade sensitive images and then coordinate with allies that might have different domestic procedures for handling such information.

He added that “commercial imagery will be contested as if it's [intelligence] information” and “be called unofficial, doctored, biased, etc.”

Pompeo noted in his May 21 statement that the administration might reconsider the treaty withdrawal decision “if Russia demonstrates a return to full compliance with this confidence-building treaty.” Most observers believe, however, that there is little hope the United States will return to the treaty given the wide-ranging reasons the administration has given for its decision to leave.

According to Article XV of the treaty, no more than two months after a state-party decides to withdraw, a conference of the states-parties must take place so as “to consider the effect of the withdrawal on this Treaty.” Canada and Hungary, the depositaries of the treaty, have scheduled this meeting, to be conducted by remote communication, for July 6.

Many allies have expressed regret about the U.S. decision and indicated that they will continue to implement the accord as they still view it as “functioning and useful.” (See ACT, May 2020.)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on June 23 that “we will see the reaction of our Western colleagues during this conference, what Europe thinks about it.”

“We don’t rule out any options of our actions,” he added.

Trump administration justifications for withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty are being challenged from many sides.

Russia Releases Nuclear Deterrence Policy

July/August 2020
By Shannon Bugos

Russia publicly expanded on the circumstances under which it might employ nuclear weapons in a policy document on nuclear deterrence signed by President Vladimir Putin on June 2.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (left) attend a June 24 Victory Day parade in Moscow to mark the 75th anniversary of defeating Germany in World War II. Three weeks earlier, Putin signed a new document outlining Russia's nuclear deterrence policies. (Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)The 2020 document, called “Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence,” marks the first time Russia has consolidated and publicly released its nuclear deterrence policy, which previously was classified.

The document presents four scenarios that might warrant nuclear use, two of which did not appear in the 2014, 2010, and 2000 versions of Russia’s military doctrine. (See ACT, March 2010; January/February 2000.)

As stated in the two most recent versions of the military doctrine, two of the scenarios in which Russia “reserves the right to use nuclear weapons” include when Moscow is acting “in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” The 2000 military doctrine differed slightly in its description of the latter scenario, as it instead allowed nuclear use in response to conventional attacks in “situations critical to the national security of the Russian Federation.”

The two additional scenarios contained in the 2020 document include an “arrival [of] reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies” or an “attack by [an] adversary against critical governmental or military sites of the Russian Federation, disruption of which would undermine nuclear forces response actions.”

The two new scenarios had not yet been included in formal policy, but other documents or statements by government officials, including Putin, have hinted at their inclusion, said Olga Oliker, program director for Europe and Central Asia at International Crisis Group, in a June 4 analysis.

Divided into four sections, the document leads with how Russia defines its state policy on nuclear deterrence, which it calls “defensive by nature.” The goal of deterrence is “to prevent aggression against the Russian Federation and/or its allies.”

The document does not explicitly name Russia’s allies and adversaries, but the second section does broadly define adversaries, stating that Russia implements its deterrence “with regard to individual states and military coalitions (blocs, alliances) that consider the Russian Federation as a potential adversary and that possess nuclear weapons and/or other types of weapons of mass destruction, or significant combat potential of general purpose forces.” This definition would include the United States and alliances such as NATO.

The second section of the document further defines Russia’s definition of nuclear deterrence as signaling to adversaries “the inevitability of retaliation in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation and/or its allies.” It also describes military risks presented by adversaries that deterrence is designed to “neutralize,” such as the deployments of medium- and shorter-range cruise and ballistic missiles, hypersonic weapons, and missile defense systems. The document does not say how Russia would move to neutralize any of these risks should they elevate to “threats of aggression.”

This section additionally details what Moscow views as “the principles of nuclear deterrence,” to include compliance with arms control agreements, unpredictability for an adversary as to Russian employment of its means of deterrence, and readiness of its forces for use.

The third section covers the four scenarios in which Russia might use nuclear weapons.

The fourth and final section notes the roles of the government and related agencies, including the Security Council and Defense Ministry, in implementing Russia’s nuclear deterrence policy. The document maintains that the Russian president makes the decision to use nuclear weapons.

The document does not explicitly address Russia’s purported willingness to use or threaten to use its much larger arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons to stave off defeat in a conventional conflict or crisis initiated by Russia, a strategy known as “escalate to deescalate.” (See ACT, March 2018.) But, as Oliker points out, “hard[-]core believers” in this strategy may point to the document’s statement that Moscow’s nuclear deterrence policy “provides for the prevention of an escalation of military actions and their termination on conditions that are acceptable for the Russian Federation and/or its allies.”

Oliker instead suggests an interpretation that Russia will not use nuclear weapons “for simple battlefield advantage.” But if Russia decides to use nuclear weapons, it “will do so intending to prevent further escalation and end the conflict as favorably (or acceptably) as possible for itself.”

Nikolai Sokov, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and former Russian Foreign Ministry official, said in a June 3 analysis of the deterrence policy that the document has a deescalation strategy but emphasizes deterrence and views deescalation more as a means of preventing rather than waging war.

Following the publication of the signed document, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on June 3 that “Russia can never and will never initiate” the use of nuclear weapons.

Marshall Billingslea, U.S. special envoy for arms control, responded to Peskov on June 11, tweeting, “Where is this reflected in the new doctrine?”

Russia publicly releases its nuclear deterrence policy for the first time.


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