"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
US-Russia Nuclear Arms Control

Fifty Years Ago, the First Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Began

Fifty years ago, on Nov. 17, 1969, the United States and the Soviet Union launched the first-ever Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in Helsinki, Finland. The chief American negotiator was Gerard Smith, who had been appointed the director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency by then-president Richard Nixon. Smith’s opening message that day: “The limitation of strategic arms is in the mutual interests of our country and the Soviet Union.” Negotiated in the midst of severe tensions, the SALT agreement and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty were the first restrictions on the...

Select Statements of Support for New START

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ( New START ), which entered into force in 2011, will expire on February 5, 2021, unless the U.S. and Russian presidents decide to extend the treaty by up to five years. New START is the latest in a series of agreements negotiated by Republican and Democratic presidents that verifiably limit and reduce the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals. Under the treaty’s terms, the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals are limited to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads; 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-...

A New Nuclear Deal Begins With New START

November 2019
By Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director

Since 2017, the Trump administration has sought to expand the role and capability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal while withdrawing the United States from key agreements designed to reduce nuclear dangers.

At the same time, President Donald Trump claims he wants to negotiate a nuclear arms control deal with Russia and with China, which has never been part of a nuclear arms limitation treaty.

In an interview Oct. 21, Trump said, “I believe that we’re going to get together with Russia and with China, and we’re going to work out our nuclear pact so that we don’t all continue with this craziness. It’s very costly and very dangerous. It’s very, very dangerous. We should all get together and work out something—a cap, have a cap."

Nuclear weapons are certainly very costly and dangerous, and there are no winners in a nuclear arms race. But contrary to what the president may believe, Washington is not actively engaging with Moscow or Beijing on a nuclear disarmament deal and does not appear to have a viable plan for doing so.

Worse yet, Trump’s advisers have spurned Russian offers thus far to talk about extending the only existing treaty that does cap the deadly strategic arsenals of the world’s two largest nuclear actors: the 2010 U.S.-Russian New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which is due to expire in February 2021.

In remarks at the United Nations last month, Thomas DiNanno, deputy assistant secretary of state for defense policy, emerging threats, and outreach, asserted that “we need a new era of arms control, one in which Russia and China are at the negotiating table and willing to reduce nuclear risks rather than heighten them.”

“The Cold War approach, with its bilateral treaties that covered limited types of nuclear weapons or only certain ranges of missiles, is no longer sufficient,” he said.

Talks with other nuclear-armed states aimed at reducing and eventually eliminating all types of nuclear weapons are necessary and overdue. But given the Trump administration’s lack of preparation and the complexity of such an endeavor, there is no possibility a new trilateral deal with Russia and China could be concluded before New START expires.

Contrary to DiNanno’s claims, New START, if extended, would provide the only near-term path to limit Russia’s ill-advised plans for new strategic delivery systems, including a new intercontinental ballistic missile, a long-range torpedo, an “unlimited range” nuclear-powered cruise missile, and hypersonic glide vehicles.

If Trump actually wants to avoid an arms race, the first step is to promptly agree with Russia to extend New START by five years.

New START is working. Allowing the treaty to expire without a viable substitute would be foreign policy malpractice. The treaty verifiably limits the number of deployed strategic warheads for each side to 1,550 and caps the number of deployed delivery vehicles at 700, far more than is necessary to deter a nuclear attack.

Military and intelligence officials greatly value New START inspections and its prohibition on interference with national technical means of verification, which provide predictability and transparency and promote a stable nuclear deterrence posture vis-à-vis Russia.

U.S. allies strongly support a New START extension. There is bipartisan support in Congress and among the American public for the treaty’s extension. Extending the treaty would represent a significant policy win for Trump and would restore some of the United States’ lost standing in the world.

An extension of New START would provide a foundation for a more ambitious follow-on agreement with Russia limiting other types of nuclear weapons, including short- and intermediate-range nuclear weapons systems, as well as for talks with China to curb future nuclear and missile competition.

China, however, which has an estimated 300 nuclear weapons, has made it clear it is not going to join New START or reduce the size of its nuclear force unless Washington and Moscow pursue far deeper cuts of their nuclear arsenals, numbering some 6,500 weapons each.

A more realistic approach would be for the United States and Russia agree to negotiate a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with limits well below those of New START by one-third or more if China agrees not to increase the size of its stockpile and adopts some transparency measures.

For instance, all three countries might agree to jointly declare their total warhead numbers, including type of warheads and delivery systems. The three countries also could engage in regular talks on strategic stability, including the interrelationship between strategic ballistic missiles and missile defense, limits on hypersonic weapons, and a joint understanding that cyber capabilities should not be used interfere with nuclear command and control.

These types of multilateral efforts will be difficult and will take time. In the meantime, without New START, the risk of unconstrained nuclear arms competition and conflict with Russia would grow and the task of bringing other states in the nuclear disarmament enterprise would become even more challenging. Extending New START is Trump’s best chance for a deal to reduce the nuclear weapons danger.


Since 2017, the Trump administration has sought to expand the role and capability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal while withdrawing the United States from key agreements designed to reduce nuclear dangers.

The Demise of the ABM Treaty: An Insider Recounts the Final Days

November 2019
By Edward Ifft

Arms control is going through a very difficult period. The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is gone, the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty is basically dead, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran is in tatters, the future of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is in doubt, it appears possible the United States will withdraw from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, and there are concerns over whether damage will be done to the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty at its review conference next year.

A Homing Overlay Experiment test vehicle is displayed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The prototypical hit-to-kill missile defense weapon was a potential component of the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative, a 1980s plan that began to unravel the 1972 ABM Treaty. (Photo: Kelly Michals/flickr)It is useful to consider the events surrounding what seems to have started this unhealthy trend: the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002. This was the first major defection from a modern arms control agreement.

The ABM Treaty, which strictly constrained the ballistic missile defense systems of the U.S. and Soviet Union, was negotiated as part of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) process, was approved by the Senate in an 88-2 vote, and entered into force in 1972. Further constraints were imposed in a 1974 protocol. Although a relatively small but influential group of U.S. advocates never reconciled to the idea that the United States would remain vulnerable to a large ballistic missile attack, most attention during the next decade was focused on constraining offensive forces.

President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 speech advocating a large ballistic missile defense system to protect the entire country changed that. Although the Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as “Star Wars,” proved to be neither wise nor feasible, its goal was never actually renounced by U.S. leaders. Against this background, the Defense and Space Negotiating Group labored throughout the late 1980s to persuade the Soviet Union to loosen or reinterpret the ABM Treaty. It grappled with the concepts of research, development, and testing and what was allowed under the treaty. It failed in this effort, leaving hard feelings on both sides. The other two components of the Nuclear and Space Talks in Geneva successfully negotiated the INF Treaty and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

Against this contentious background, the treaty’s Standing Consultative Commission (SCC), which was formed to implement the ABM Treaty, became the forum for U.S.-Soviet discussions. It had taken on the difficult task of trying to formulate technical criteria that could separate air defense interceptors from ballistic missile defense interceptors. It seemed obvious that this would be desirable in order to establish a clear boundary between legal and illegal activities, but the very idea was opposed by some in the Bush administration and Congress. Although U.S. and Soviet officials did manage to formulate some such technical criteria in the SCC, they were not accepted in Washington.

Stanley Riveles retired as U.S. SCC commissioner, and I was appointed acting commissioner in the summer of 2000. About the only enjoyable part of this assignment was a trip in August 2000 to the U.S. base in Thule, Greenland, for consultations with Denmark on upgrading the U.S. early-warning radars based there. A routine SCC session was held in the fall of 2000, and the fateful final session was scheduled for November-December 2001. The administration insisted that the session be limited to two weeks, not nearly enough time to deal properly with the complicated issues in play, but higher official levels may have already decided on the outcome.

Strongly influenced by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, as well as the perceived future ballistic missile threat from Iran and North Korea, President George W. Bush’s administration sought to loosen or eliminate the ABM Treaty to gain greater freedom to conduct testing of more exotic ballistic missile defense systems and deploy limited defenses against accidental or unauthorized attacks, and those by what they called rogue states. The former Soviet states sought to block all this by preserving the ABM Treaty as written and interpreted. The administration had put forward the idea that the United States and Russia should withdraw from the treaty together. There was about as much chance of that as of the United States acquiring Greenland today. The rest of the world strongly supported the treaty, which had repeatedly been called “the cornerstone of international security.” One of the “13 practical steps” unanimously agreed at the 2000 NPT Review Conference called for “the preservation and strengthening” of the ABM Treaty.

Flanked by his top national security advisers on December 13, 2001, President George W. Bush announces the U.S. intention to withdraw from the ABM Treaty.  Treaty-related talks were underway in Geneva at the time, and U.S. representatives received word of the decision only hours before the announcement. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)The question of who should be at the table in the SCC was somewhat awkward. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, 15 independent countries instantly appeared, and the question arose of what to do about the international arms control obligations the Soviet Union had undertaken. International law on this subject had not been tested often. The successor states to START were the four that inherited nuclear weapons on their territory and would accept inspections: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine. Successor states for the INF Treaty included all 15 former Soviet states, except for the three Baltic states, which had a special status. The CFE Treaty had eight successor states, and so on. It appeared obvious that the four START states would be successors for the ABM Treaty, and they showed up at the SCC. Some in the Bush administration claimed that only the Russian Federation should be there because all legal ballistic missile defense systems were deployed in Russia. In addition, it would be easier to get rid of a treaty with only one other party rather than four. The U.S. SCC delegation had no clear instructions on the matter, but were certainly aware of the controversy in Washington. Ukraine in particular felt strongly about this and told me the United States had no right to pick and choose for which treaties Ukraine would be allowed to be a successor state. There was also the inconvenient fact that the United States had taken the strong early position that the former Soviet republics must accept all the arms control obligations of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian commissioner put me on the spot in a plenary meeting by asking how I viewed Ukrainian participation. Avoiding the legal issue, I replied that I viewed him as a “valued participant.” That seemed to put the issue to rest. In any case, there were always four countries on the other side of the table; we treated them as equals, and they hosted meetings and participated fully. The new countries naturally found themselves with a shortage of diplomats to behave as sovereign countries. The Kazakhstani commissioner was actually a gynecologist, but made a good diplomat and represented his country well. The Russian commissioner was Colonel Viktor Koltunov, a respected arms control expert and friend from the START negotiations.

Working Hard in Geneva

The first SCC session began November 3, 2001, with meetings of commissioners only at the U.S. mission in Geneva. The next day, the opening plenary was held at the Russian mission and went well. On Wednesday, I hosted Koltunov for lunch at Roberto’s, probably the best Italian restaurant in Switzerland. The conversation was pleasant but without any noticeable progress. On the way back to the U.S. mission, I expressed my disappointment to my interpreter. He replied, “Russians don’t really get the concept of pasta.” This gave me the feeling that I had been not only unable to produce any substantive progress, but had bungled the menu as well. On November 6, I took the Ukrainian commissioner to lunch, where he showed a good understanding of U.S. concerns but could offer no solutions. He seemed comfortable with my made-up concept of valued participant.

During the next day’s plenary meeting hosted by Ukraine, we enlisted the help of the Cumaen Sybil. In Roman mythology, the Cumaen Sybil was a mysterious prophetess who offered King Tarquin nine books of prophecy but at a high price. The king refused, and the sybil burned three of the books and repeated the offer. He again refused, and the sequence was repeated. The king finally ended up buying three books for a price that could have brought him all nine. The analogy was clear: time for saving the treaty was running out, and the United States was not going to lower the price for preserving it.

The other side of the table was not impressed. I had hoped it at least might awaken memories on the Russian side of how Soviet ambassador Vladimir Semenov, a gentleman of high culture, often referred to classical mythology during the original SALT. The most memorable of these was his reference to the “Procrustean bed.” This sent the U.S. delegation in Vienna, in the days before Google, scrambling to figure out what he was talking about.


According to some reports, by this time, Bush had already called Russian President Vladimir Putin to inform him of the U.S. intent to withdraw from the treaty. If so, our hard work was irrelevant and in line with a long tradition of keeping U.S. delegations in the field in the dark about what is happening at higher levels.

On December 10, we gave an important presentation on the U.S. view of the ballistic missile threat from Iran. This received polite interest from the other side but little more. There were no meetings the next day, but we held a very pleasant reception for the other delegations at the government’s apartment overlooking Lake Geneva. Although the delegation sent in prompt and comprehensive written reports to Washington, I was required to make regular secure phone calls from the U.S. mission to the National Security Council staff to report on developments. During the December 11 evening call, my contact informed me that he would be out of town the next day. I expressed the hope there would be no surprises while he was gone. After a pregnant pause, he said, “Not tomorrow.” This was certainly ominous but hardly actionable. The following day, I was instructed to call that evening for an urgent message. After dinner in France with some delegation members, I stopped by the mission and called around midnight and was informed that the United States would give formal notice of its intention to withdraw in all four capitals the next morning.

That day, December 13, saw all the delegations assembled at the Russian mission for a planned plenary. Russia, as the host, was scheduled to speak before the United States; but while entering the meeting hall, I asked Koltunov to speak first so I could make an important statement. He granted the request, and I made a brief formal diplomatic statement announcing what had happened about two hours earlier in the four capitals.

This clearly shocked everyone on the other side of the table. Koltunov called a timeout to consult with his colleagues. After a few minutes, he returned and announced there was no point in having the four countries deliver their planned statements. As luck would have it, the Russians had planned for a reception following the plenary, in part in response to the U.S. reception two days earlier. Mercifully, the doors opened, and there was spread out in the next room a typically generous Russian buffet.

This was a rather awkward event. Koltunov at first avoided me, and I chatted with other Russians, who were principally interested in when I had heard the news. The U.S. reception had been moved up a couple of days, so it happened before the withdrawal notice. This could have appeared to the Russians as some rather sneaky choreography, which it was not. Eventually, Koltunov came over to chat. Searching for a way to smooth things over and minimize the damage to U.S.-Russian relations, I remarked that when we held our 10-year reunion, we would wonder why people had thought this was such a big deal. He instantly responded that we would wonder “how people could have been so stupid.” Of course, there was no 10-year reunion, and history can judge which of these two predictions was closer to the mark.

I have met Koltunov, (now I believe a retired General) several times at conferences in Moscow, where he is associated with a leading think tank. We are still friends and understand each of us was doing his best to represent his country. The final plenary was a brief and rather sad affair at the U.S. Mission the next day.


The formal U.S. withdrawal from the treaty took effect six months after these events, on June 13, 2002. Putin’s response was surprisingly restrained. He called it a “mistake” but one that did not damage Russia’s security. For his part, Bush was conciliatory, expressing his hopes for continued cooperation.

In retrospect, all the SCC hard work and drama was probably a sideshow, with no chance of success and little impact on capitals. On the other hand, having a forum where the five countries could hold in-depth confidential talks on this difficult subject, along with developing some measure of personal trust and understanding, was surely of some value. One might even speculate that the relatively restrained aftermath was influenced by that work.

No delegation showed a willingness to compromise on the ballistic missile defense question. Russia showed no flexibility whatsoever in all SCC discussions. The United States, in addition to being vague on how the treaty could be preserved, had sent out signals that even if Russia met its demands for loosening the treaty, more demands would be forthcoming later.

Seventeen years after these events, the United States has undertaken fewer ballistic missile defense tests and deployments than would have been expected. The changes to the treaty needed to legalize what has happened so far would certainly have been substantive but not monumental. One wonders whether Moscow has ever had second thoughts about its hard-line stance in 2001.

A U.S. ground-based missile interceptor is lowered into its silo at Fort Greely, Alaska in 2006. Today, unconstrained by the ABM Treaty, the United States has deployed 44 such interceptors in the United States. (Photo: U.S. Army)U.S.-Russian relations, of which arms control is a crucial component, have been spiraling downward in a way in which everyone loses. Russia itself bears much of the blame for this, especially for its actions in Georgia and Ukraine, along with attacks on Western electoral processes and its actions with respect to the INF Treaty. This has all been well documented and analyzed. Less well understood is the Russian perception that it is the West, principally the United States, that broke the agreements and understandings that formed the foundations for a new world order built up by Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Boris Yeltsin. This list includes NATO expansion, the war in Iraq, the bombing and dismemberment of Serbia, the destruction of Libya, the disdain of the George W. Bush administration toward Russia, perceived involvement in the Color Revolutions in the near abroad and in unrest in Russia itself, and so on. In the view of many in Moscow, this all began with the shock of U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty.

In the military sphere, Russia’s massive expansion of its capabilities is partly a normal catching up from its decade of troubles following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, along with the normal replacement of aging systems. Yet, Russia has been quite open in saying that some of this, especially new, more exotic systems, is a response to unconstrained U.S. ballistic missile defense programs. Although the relatively restrained U.S. programs to date would hardly justify this, the fact that the United States refuses to provide any assurances about future programs or to even consider constraints on kill mechanisms in orbit, allows worst-case scenarios to run wild in Moscow (and Beijing). The preamble to New START sensibly addresses the relationship between current and future offensive and defensive systems, but this has not led to any useful negotiations on how to deal with this relationship.

People of goodwill, including Russian leaders right up to Putin in his early period as president, welcomed the “new world order,” “Europe whole and free,” “Europe to the Urals,” “Vancouver to Vladivostok,” and so on. Fulfillment of all these brave slogans was strongly dependent on cooperative and respectful if not friendly relationships between Russia and the West. Neither side has worked hard enough to make this happen, and one could make a strong case that the ABM Treaty saga was the point at which things began to fall apart.

In June 2002, U.S. State Department official David Nickels and I returned to Geneva for a week to close out the SCC. We went through voluminous files, organized them, boxed them up, and shipped them to the State Department archives in accordance with regulations. There is an understanding that SCC records will not be made public without the permission of both sides, but they remain there to this day, awaiting the attention of some future historian, who could seek declassification and access under the Freedom of Information Act.


Edward Ifft participated in negotiating and implementing many key arms control agreements of the past 45 years at the U.S. State Department, and at details to the Defense Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He served as the last U.S. commissioner for the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty until the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty in 2002.

The 2002 U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty began today’s fraying of arms control.

U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Watch, Oct. 17, 2019

Trump Poised to Withdraw from Open Skies Treaty The Trump administration is reportedly on the verge of withdrawing from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty , according to lawmakers and media reports. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, first sounded the public alarm in an Oct. 7 letter to National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien. “I am deeply concerned by reports that the Trump Administration is considering withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty and strongly urge you against such a reckless action,” Rep. Engel wrote. “American withdrawal would only benefit...

Abandonment of Open Skies Treaty Would Undermine U.S. and European Security



For Immediate Release: October 9, 2019

Media ContactsKingston Reif, director for disarmament policy, 202-463-8270 ext. 104; Tony Fleming, director for communications, 202-463-8270 ext 110.

(WASHINGTON, D.C.)—The Trump administration is reportedly on the verge of withdrawing from yet another key arms control treaty: the 1992 Open Skies Treaty. If President Trump decides to unilaterally withdraw from the treaty, it would undermine the security of the United States and European allies, including Ukraine, say leading arms control and national security experts.

The Open Skies Treaty entered into force in 2002 and currently has 34 states-parties, including the United States and Russia. The treaty allows for information-sharing that increases transparency about military forces among members, thereby contributing to stability and improving each participating state’s national security.

The treaty allows aerial imaging through short-notice, unarmed observation flights over each other's entire territory. The flights allow observing parties to identify significant military equipment, such as artillery, fighter aircraft, and armored combat vehicles. Open Skies aircraft can only be equipped with cameras verifiably limited to a resolution below state-of-the-art technology, and the treaty disallows the collection of any other electromagnetic signals. The 34 states-parties have yearly quotas on overflights and must make the collected information available to all treaty parties.

Since entering into force, the United States has conducted almost 200 flights over Russian territory. Russia has carried out more than 70 flights over U.S. territory. U.S. allies continue to value and rely on the Open Skies Treaty for imagery collection.

National security officials, members of Congress, and arms control experts are warning the Trump administration that withdrawal would be "reckless" and would reduce the ability of the United States and European allies to monitor and counter Russian aggression against Ukraine.


"The Open Skies Treaty provides information about Russian military activities for the U.S. and our allies and provides the Russians with insight on our capabilities. Such transparency reduces uncertainty and the risk of conflict and miscalculations due to worst-case assumptions."
Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association

"U.S. flights over Ukraine and western Russia have yielded valuable data, easily shared between allies. The flights strengthen ties between the United States and its allies and reassure non-NATO members on Russia’s periphery. Withdrawing from the treaty would be another step in the collapse of U.S. leadership and further alienate U.S. allies and partners."
Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy



To schedule an interview with or appearance by an expert on U.S-Russian arms control agreements, please contact Tony Fleming, director for communications, (202) 463-8270 ext 110.

  • Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, [email protected], (202) 463-8270 ext. 104

  • Amb. Bonnie Jenkins, former Coordinator for Threat Reduction Programs, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, Department of State, and member of the Board of Directors of the Arms Control Association, [email protected], (571) 264-7053

  • Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, [email protected], 202-277-3478

The treaty provides transparency about Russian military activities for the U.S. and our allies. Withdrawing from the treaty would be another step in the collapse of U.S. leadership and further alienate U.S. allies and partners, note arms control experts.

Country Resources:

Members Briefing on the Future of New START



October 1, 2019
3:00pm Eastern U.S. time

The New START agreement between the United States and Russia—now the only agreement limiting the world’s two largest nuclear weapons arsenals following termination of the INF Treaty—is scheduled to expire in February 2021 unless Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin mutually agree to extend it by five years.

Former National Security Advisor John Bolton was a harsh critic of extending New START. What does Bolton's departure from the administration in September mean for the future of the treaty?

Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction, and Thomas Countryman, board chair and former acting undersecretary of state for arms control, briefed members on what could be the most important national security decision in a generation.

These calls are open to members of the Arms Control Association. Audio recordings of the call may be made available for nonmembers at some point following the call. Join or renew your membership today to receive details on how to join us for our next members call and be part of the conversation. 

AUDIO RECORDING: The Future of New START, October 1 Members Call


Join Kingston Reif and Thomas Countryman for a members-only briefing on the future of the New START agreement between the United States and Russia.

Country Resources:

U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Watch, Sept 13, 2019

U.S. Tests Ground-Launched Cruise Missile On Aug. 18, less than two weeks after the official collapse of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the United States tested a ground-launched variant of the Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile that would have been prohibited by the treaty. The test was a clear signal that the United States can and will pursue such systems in the absence of the INF Treaty. In a statement, the Defense Department said the “test missile exited its ground mobile launcher and accurately impacted its target after more than 500 kilometers of flight. Data...

If Trump Ends Another Nuclear Treaty, it Will Be the Height of Folly

During his first two and a half years in office, President Donald Trump and his administration have laid waste to numerous international agreements originally designed to strengthen US security, bolster US alliances, and constrain US adversaries. The toll has been particularly high with respect to deals concerning nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. Over the past 14 months, the administration has withdrawn from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and abandoned the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty . Both of these valuable agreements have been discarded without a viable plan to...

Risky Business: Four Ways to Ease U.S.-Russian Nuclear Tension

September 2019
By Sarah Bidgood

The era of traditional U.S.-Russian arms control appears to be ending.1 The latest casualty of the crisis in relations between the two nuclear powers, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, was suspended in February when Washington declared it would withdraw from the pact because of alleged Russian noncompliance. Moscow made no great effort to resist U.S. intentions, and with surprisingly little fanfare, the treaty expired in early August.

From left to right, Andrea Thompson of the United States, Fu Cong of China, and Nicolas Roche of France attend a Jan. 31 panel discussion following a P5 nuclear powers meeting in Beijing. P5 representatives could not agree to reaffirm the Reagan-Gorbachev Cold War motto: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” (Photo: Thomas Peter/AFP/Getty Images)This leaves just one bilateral arms control agreement in place, the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which is itself due to expire in 2021. The treaty could be easily extended for up to five years, thus ensuring a vital degree of transparency and stability in U.S.-Russian relations, but the Trump administration has shown little outward enthusiasm for this step. If the clock is allowed to run out on this crucial element of strategic stability, it will mark the first time that the United States and Russia have not had an arms control treaty in place or under negotiation in nearly five decades.

The potential lack of treaty constraints on nuclear arms increases the need for other tools to minimize misunderstandings, avoid accidents, and build confidence between the United States and Russia. Such risk reduction measures have contributed to maintaining stability in the past, and they are needed now more than ever as U.S.-Russian arms control falters.

Arms Control in Trouble

The depth of the demise was illustrated in January 2019 when the P5—the five nuclear powers recognized under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)—convened in Beijing for the eighth meeting of the P5 process.2 China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States identified three measures to strengthen their coordination and safeguard the NPT, but they could not agree to endorse the simple motto established in 1985 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”3 What should have been a relatively easy lift, delivering a joint statement capturing this sentiment, was torpedoed when only China was prepared to endorse it. In a climate where agreeing to this most basic principle is no longer tenable, it is not surprising that more ambitious actions required to sustain bilateral arms control now appear to be out of reach.

These circumstances make a return to nuclear arms racing more likely not only by established nuclear powers, but also by nations that have forsworn such weapons. Although Moscow and Washington worked closely to prevent new parties from acquiring a nuclear capability during the darkest days of the Cold War, these joint efforts have all but halted.4 Their disengagement has contributed to the turmoil within the nonproliferation regime, where past commitments are left unfulfilled and the way forward is far from clear.5

U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev shake hands after signing the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in Prague on April 8, 2010. If the treaty expires in 2021, there will be no negotiated limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons. (Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images)The degree to which the United States and Russia are now at odds in this domain has been impossible to ignore during the run-up to next year’s NPT review conference. Russia has accused the United States of violating the NPT through its NATO nuclear-sharing arrangement, while the United States has lambasted Russia for undermining the norm against the non-use of weapons of mass destruction and allegedly violating the INF Treaty. The two sides certainly have not seen eye to eye on all nonproliferation issues in the past, but they placed such a premium on presenting a united front to the other NPT states that they were often accused of “superpower collusion.”6 Today, however, there seems to be little interest in maintaining even the pretense of alignment on key issues. This development is revealing of the state of the bilateral relationship today, and it does not portend well for global security.

A less visible consequence of the collapse of U.S.-Russian nuclear engagement is the precipitous decline in opportunities for routine interaction between diplomats and policymakers from the two countries. The result is an erosion of trust that could make accidents, miscommunications, or misinterpretations more likely to escalate into nuclear use because there is no assumption of benign intent on either side. This development is especially problematic when reviewing the litany of close nuclear calls in U.S. and Soviet/Russian history.

That these have not culminated in nuclear use in the past is, in many cases, thanks to human decision-makers who determined, for example, that automatic missile warning systems were giving false alerts. This past January marked 25 years since one such scenario, in which Russia’s early-warning system misidentified a research rocket launched off the coast of Norway as a U.S. Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile. Russian nuclear attack response procedures were reportedly triggered, but Russian President Boris Yeltsin ruled out the likelihood of a surprise U.S. nuclear strike and decided not to retaliate.7 Were there to be a replay of this incident today, is it realistic to assume that decision-makers on either side would act in a similar fashion? It is only a matter of time before this hypothetical is put to the test.

In the absence of cooperation on arms control and nonproliferation and faced with urgent crises that require U.S.-Russian efforts, the challenge for the nuclear policymaking community today is twofold. It must find and support feasible opportunities for U.S.-Russian engagement on nuclear issues so that more ambitious efforts to shore up strategic stability and the nonproliferation regime are possible in the future. It must also actively pursue steps to prevent a nuclear catastrophe while the two sides get their relationship in this domain back on track. Fortunately, these two goals are mutually reinforcing and served by a renewed focus on nuclear risk reduction.

Practical Steps to Reduce Nuclear Risk

The United States and Russia could pursue at least four meaningful risk reduction measures that would contribute to these efforts. Even more significant steps than these are needed, but this menu comprises points of entry that may be feasible under the current circumstances.

A Parallel Risk Assessment
U.S. and Russian officials could engage in a parallel risk assessment, where both sides would identify independently the technologies, behaviors, and past and future scenarios they believe are most likely to lead to nuclear use and then compare their answers.8 This exercise would lay the groundwork for determining what types of risk reduction efforts are most needed. It could also serve as an opportunity to clear up misconceptions about the other’s capabilities or practices, including with respect to the alleged Russian policy of “escalate to deescalate.” The 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review report states that Russia might conduct a limited nuclear first strike to end a conventional conflict on its terms, but this strategy is not described in any official Russian documents pertaining to its nuclear doctrine. Determining conclusively that this policy is not part of Russian strategy would free up both sides to focus on mitigating actual, rather than assumed, nuclear risks.

The P5 process presents a useful forum to operationalize this recommendation, at least initially. Not only is it already in place, but conducting a parallel risk assessment in this setting would contribute to the nuclear-weapon states’ attempts to better understand each other’s nuclear doctrines. The fact that all five delegations committed to making the “utmost efforts” to prevent nuclear risks at their 2019 Beijing meeting suggests that this recommendation might be welcomed as a concrete first step.9 Furthermore, this exercise could appeal to states with different perceptions of risk because its focus would be on identifying similarities and differences in their views, rather than on a preordained list of concerns with which all states might not agree.

Revive Consultations on Nuclear Risk Reduction
While many channels for U.S.-Russian nuclear engagement have now shut down, recent strategic security meetings held by Russian and U.S. officials raise the prospect of renewed high-level dialogue on arms control, nonproliferation, and related topics.10 Washington and Moscow should capitalize on this opening to initiate regular consultations on nuclear risk reduction. The United States and Russia are destined to cooperate on this issue by virtue of their vast nuclear arsenals. Their shared responsibilities are even greater under the present circumstances, in which mutual suspicion, acrimony, and instability in their bilateral relationship increase the likelihood of nuclear use, intentionally or by mistake.

Bilateral dialogue has always been recognized as a key component of risk reduction. It is mandated in the 1971 USSR-U.S. Agreements to Reduce Risk of Nuclear War, which obliges the two sides to “hold consultations, as mutually agreed, to consider questions relating to implementation of the provisions of this agreement, as well as to discuss possible amendments thereto aimed at further implementation of the purposes of this agreement.”11

Reviving these consultations would contribute to international security while paving the way for more routinized and wide-ranging dialogue in the future. Not only would they provide a forum for officials to interact, which could itself reduce the likelihood of nuclear use, but they would also facilitate discussions on risks associated with emerging technologies, which have significant implications for the future of strategic stability. Given this orientation, these consultations would benefit from the involvement of scientific and technical experts, as well as policymakers and government officials. Cooperation on technical issues can flourish even during difficult moments in the bilateral relationship. Emphasizing this dimension of these consultations could increase the likelihood that they would generate meaningful results.12

The initial agenda for these consultations could focus on reviewing Cold War-era nuclear risk reduction measures and identifying ways to update and multilateralize them. Aside from the 1971 USSR-U.S. Agreements to Reduce Risk of Nuclear War, other relevant agreements include the 1972 U.S.-USSR Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents on the High Seas,13 the 1973 U.S.-USSR Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War, and the 1987 Agreement Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Establishment of Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers. They could also meaningfully include risk reduction measures that were considered in the past but never formalized or adopted, such as this recommendation itself, which was borrowed from a similar proposal put forward by the Soviet delegation to the UN General Assembly in October 1977.14

Updating and multilateralizing U.S.-Soviet risk reduction agreements could open the door to engaging other nuclear-armed states in these efforts, particularly China. Doing so could introduce greater stability and predictability into the trilateral relationship while reducing the likelihood that nuclear entanglement in the three countries will escalate into nuclear exchange.15 Although Beijing has established its own crisis hotlines with Moscow and Washington, a host of other risk reduction measures are part of past agreements and could be meaningfully implemented today.16 Exploring opportunities to do so would represent a more realistic way to deliver President Donald Trump’s desire to include Beijing in a future arms control agreement with Moscow, which is unlikely to come to fruition anytime soon.

Despite these advantages, revisiting U.S.-Soviet proposals carries risks of its own, which include the potential for past points of contention to resurface with detrimental outcomes. For example, Russia could reprise failed Soviet calls for the United States to remove forward-deployed nuclear weapons from Europe in the name of preventing their accidental or unauthorized use.17 Although U.S. experts have made similar proposals in recent years, Washington may suspect Moscow of using risk reduction to advance its national interests, which could cause talks to fail. Similarly, efforts to multilateralize past agreements could falter if Russia and China press for limits on U.S. ballistic missile defense as a step toward reducing the risk of nuclear use.18 Avoiding these pitfalls will require thoughtful compartmentalization, where participants find ways to work around larger strategic stability concerns without dismissing them as illegitimate in the process.

Ban on Cyberattacks on C3 Systems
The United States and Russia could conclude an agreement that cyberattacks on nuclear command, control, and communications (C3) systems are off-limits.19 Such an agreement would be consistent with recent Russian and U.S.-sponsored UN General Assembly resolutions that emphasize the need for rules to govern state behavior in cyberspace. Although Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential elections has made cooperation in the cyber domain exceptionally difficult in recent years, the potential risks posed by the cyber vulnerabilities of nuclear systems are significant enough to warrant treatment in a separate category. An agreement not to exploit these vulnerabilities would contribute significantly to reducing nuclear risk while complementing ongoing efforts to articulate and codify cyber norms in other areas of international security.20

Concluding such an agreement could be complicated by the reliance of many C3 systems on at least some dual-use assets. Because early-warning satellites are used to detect nuclear and non-nuclear missile launches, for instance, a cyberattack intended to limit an adversary’s ability to defend against a conventional strike would also constitute an attack on its nuclear C3 system.21 The United States and Russia would need to determine how to disentangle these assets in a way that still addressed their potential to precipitate nuclear escalation. In this process, the two sides should consider how best to make use of the cyber hotline, which was installed in the U.S. and Russian Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers in 2013. The hotline was designed to allow both sides to “make inquiries about cybersecurity incidents of national concern.”22 It could provide invaluable crisis stability during a cyberattack without requiring significant changes to existing infrastructure.

Joint Statement at the 2020 NPT Review Conference on Risk Reduction
The United States, Russia, and potentially the other nuclear-weapon states should issue a joint statement at the 2020 NPT Review Conference reaffirming the importance of nuclear risk reduction and reporting on any concrete measures they have adopted during the review cycle. Considering that the five countries will likely have little progress to report on nuclear disarmament, doing so would demonstrate some progress toward fulfilling the commitments they made at the 2010 NPT Review Conference.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cuts the ceremonial ribbon at the opening of the updated U.S. Nuclear Risk Reduction Center at the State Department on Oct. 24, 2012. The center and its Russian counterpart are operational at all times and intended to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict. (Photo: State Department)A particular selling point of this recommendation is the importance of nuclear risk reduction in avoiding the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from nuclear use. From this vantage, nuclear risk reduction may constitute one of only a small handful of issues on which nuclear-weapon states, proponents of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and supporters of the humanitarian initiative could agree. The nuclear-weapon states would need to be careful not to frame risk reduction as a substitute for nuclear disarmament in the NPT setting, but if they succeed, this issue could represent an opportunity to find common ground at a time when few others exist. A focus on risk reduction would also align with the NPT preambular language, which recognizes the “devastation that would be visited upon all mankind by a nuclear war and the consequent need to make every effort to avert the danger of such a war.” Reaffirming the shared assumptions that underpin the NPT would be appropriate at the 50th anniversary of its entry into force.

Little Risk in Risk Reduction

These recommendations represent four steps that the United States and Russia could take to reduce nuclear risks today. They appear to align with both countries’ national security interests, which should increase their appeal among policymakers and may make it possible to implement them in spite of the current crisis in relations. In Washington, at least, these proposals may benefit from the lack of constraints they would place on U.S. military flexibility. Their narrow scope could help them gain traction with the current U.S. administration when more far-reaching and effective measures such as the defunct INF Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and New START have not.

If these recommendations nevertheless prove too ambitious, the United States and Russia could take a host of other, more modest steps to reduce the risk of nuclear use. Indeed, because bilateral relations are in such a deep state of crisis, virtually any activity that fosters dialogue or lends predictability to the two countries’ interactions would likely hit this mark. Moreover, risk reduction, unlike arms control, can take many different forms, from treaties to confidence-building measures to the installation of dedicated crisis-management infrastructure.23 This flexibility provides scalable options that may appeal to decisionmakers in both Moscow and Washington.

The latitude afforded by nuclear risk reduction may help explain why some U.S.-Russian engagement in this domain continues, albeit on an insufficient scale. The National Risk Reduction Centers in Washington and Moscow still operate 24 hours a day, providing an uninterrupted channel for crisis communication as they have for the last three decades. Likewise, the United States and Russia continue to co-chair the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, where they have overseen efforts to prevent unauthorized nuclear use for more than 15 years. These operational channels reinforce the notion that, if expanded, risk reduction measures could preserve what is left of the bilateral relationship while laying the groundwork for closer cooperation. In a quickly deteriorating environment with few other alternatives, this argument is as good as any for seeing where these efforts could lead.



1. See Steven Pifer, “Nuclear Security, Arms Control, and the U.S.-Russia Relationship,” American Ambassadors Review, Spring 2019, https://www.americanambassadorslive.org/post/nuclear-security-arms-control-and-the-u-s-russia-relationship.

2. The P5 process was established in 2009 with the goal of identifying transparency and confidence-building measures leading toward progress on nuclear disarmament. See Andrea Berger and Malcolm Chalmers, “The Art of the Possible: The Future of the P5 Process on Nuclear Weapons,” Arms Control Today, October 2014.

3. Li Song, “Briefing on P5 Beijing Conference,” February 5, 2019, https://www.unog.ch/80256EDD006B8954/(httpAssets)/2A29BA6AFFA30F6CC125839B0051305C/$file/China_for+website.pdf (presented to the Conference on Disarmament); Jerry Brown and William Potter, “Open Forum: Time for a reality check on nuclear diplomacy,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 24, 2019 <https://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/openforum/article/Open-Forum-Time-for-a-reality-check-on-nuclear-13793344.php?psid=ftMG0>

4. For examples of cooperation, see William C. Potter and Sarah Bidgood, eds., Once and Future Partners: The United States, Russia, and Nuclear Non-Proliferation (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies [IISS], 2018).

5. Paul Meyer, “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament: Striding Forward or Stepping Back?” Arms Control Today, April 2019.

6. William Potter and Sarah Bidgood, “The Good Old Days of the Cold War: U.S.-Soviet Cooperation on Nonproliferation,” War on the Rocks, August 7, 2018, https://warontherocks.com/2018/08/the-good-old-days-of-the-cold-war-u-s-soviet-cooperation-on-nonproliferation/.

7. Patricia Lewis et al., “Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy,” Chatham House Report, April 2014, p. 17, https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/field/field_document/20140428TooCloseforComfortNuclearUseLewisWilliamsPelopidasAghlani.pdf.

8. For more, see William C. Potter and Sarah Bidgood, “Chapter 8: Lessons for the Future” in Once and Future Partners: The United States, Russia, and Nuclear Non-Proliferation, ed. William C. Potter and Sarah Bidgood (London: IISS, 2018).

9. Song, “Briefing on P5 Beijing Conference.”

10. “Deputy Secretary Sullivan’s Participation in Strategic Security Dialogue With Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov,” U.S. Department of State, July 17, 2019 < https://www.state.gov/deputy-secretary-sullivans-participation-in-strategic-security-dialogue-with-russian-deputy-foreign-minister-sergey-ryabkov/>

11. “Agreement on Measures to Reduce the Outbreak of Nuclear War Between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” September 30, 1971.

12. For examples, see Siegfried S. Hecker, ed., Doomed to Cooperate (Los Alamos, NM: Bathtub Row Press, 2016).

13. The continuing relevance of this agreement was underscored by the near collision of U.S. and Russian warships in the Pacific Ocean in June 2019. See “U.S. Navy: Russian Warship’s ‘Unsafe’ Move Nearly Caused Collision With Cruiser,” National Public Radio, June 7, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/06/07/730593184/u-s-navy-russian-warships-unsafe-move-nearly-caused-collision-with-cruiser.

14. “32 UNGA: New Soviet Initiative,” October 18, 1977, https://aad.archives.gov/aad/create
(cable from secretary of state to U.S. Mission to NATO).

15. For a definition of entanglement and an explanation of how it could precipitate nuclear use, see James Acton, Tong Zhao, and Li Bin, “Reducing the Risks of Nuclear Entanglement,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 12, 2018, https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/09/12/reducing-risks-of-nuclear-entanglement-pub-77236.

16. Avery Goldstein, “First Things First: The Pressing Danger of Crisis Instability in U.S.-China Relations,” International Security, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Spring 2013): 49–89.

17. Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Semenov issued this call in an October 1974 meeting on SALT II. “Deputy Minister Semenov’s Statement of October 4, 1974,” October 4, 1974, https://aad.archives.gov/aad/createpdf?rid=221079&dt=2474&dl=1345 (cable from U.S. delegation to SALT II to the secretary of state).

18. Laura Grego lays out arguments both countries could reasonably make. See Laura Grego, “The Faulty and Dangerous Logic of Missile Defense,” Scientific American, April 24, 2018, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-faulty-and-dangerous-logic-of-missile-defense/?redirect=1.

19. Wilfred Wan also makes this proposal in Nuclear Risk Reduction: A Framework for Analysis (Geneva, Switzerland: UNIDIR, 2019), p. 29, < http://unidir.org/files/publications/pdfs/nuclear-risk-reduction-a-framework-for-analysis-en-809.pdf>

20. See Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace, “Norm Package Singapore,” November 2018, https://cyberstability.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/GCSC-Singapore-Norm-Package-3MB.pdf.

21. For an overview of the challenges that dual-use command-and-control assets create for risk reduction, see James M. Acton, “Inadvertent Escalation and the Entanglement of Nuclear Command-and-Control Capabilities,” International Security Policy Brief, October 29, 2018, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/inadvertent-escalation-and-entanglement-nuclear-command-and-control-capabilities.

22. The White House, “Fact Sheet: US-Russian Cooperation on Information and Communications Technology Security.” June 17, 2013 < https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/17/fact-sheet-us-russian-cooperation-information-and-communications-technol>

23. Joseph Nye made a similar point in 1984. See Joseph S. Nye Jr., “U.S.-Soviet Relations and Nuclear-Risk Reduction,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 99, No. 3 (Autumn 1984), p. 404.

Sarah Bidgood is director of the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) in Monterey, California. She also leads the Young Women in Nonproliferation Initiative at CNS.

Risk reduction measures are needed more than ever as just one U.S.-Russian treaty limits the size of the two nations’ strategic nuclear arsenals.


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