"I actually have a pretty good collection of Arms Control Today, which I have read throughout my career. It's one of the few really serious publications on arms control issues."
– Gary Samore
Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism

Russia Relies on “Satan” to Keep New START Data Exchange Numbers Up

The eleventh U.S.-Russian biannual data exchange under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) shows a mixed measure of progress toward keeping under the treaty’s February 2018 ceilings. Five of the six numbers are below or trending toward those ceilings. But Russia moved upward above the ceiling in operationally deployed warheads for the second consecutive time as the U.S. warhead count continued to fall. While disappointing in the signals it sends, the bump-up in Russia’s current warhead aggregate is neither militarily significant, nor necessarily indicative of an intent to...

Russia’s Absence Should Not Be Focal Point of Summit

Russia’s decision to boycott the fourth and final nuclear security summit in Washington this week is concerning, but it should not distract from the important work of the summit process. Even with Russia absent from the table, progress can—and must—be made on enhancing nuclear security worldwide and preventing nuclear terrorism. While Moscow has not been an innovator for enhancing global nuclear security, as the largest possessor of weapons-usable materials its participation in the 2010 , 2012 , and 2014 summits was important. And as part of the process Russia has taken steps to enhance...

Back to the Nuclear Brink?

March 2016

By Daryl G. Kimball

Three decades ago, President Ronald Reagan declared that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” In the years after, Russia and the United States began to wind down Cold War tensions and slash their nuclear arsenals. But today, the risks of nuclear brinkmanship and unbridled nuclear competition are on the rise once again.

Although the number of nuclear weapons is down from its Cold War peak, Russian and U.S. nuclear forces and postures still allow each country to launch more than 1,000 nuclear bombs within minutes if attacked. Each side depends on the restraint and good judgment of the other to avoid mutual annihilation.

Obama listens to Putin after their bilateral meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico on June 18, 2012, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit.

Distrust is deep, and the list of grievances is growing. Although Russian and U.S. forces still far exceed nuclear deterrence requirements, progress on further nuclear cuts is on hold. Russian President Vladimir Putin, citing concerns about U.S. regional missile interceptors and third-country arsenals, has rebuffed U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2013 proposal for a further one-third reduction in each side’s nuclear forces without so much as a counterproposal.

Complicating matters, Russia also has tested ground-based cruise missiles in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and stiff-armed U.S. efforts to resolve the issue. Both countries continue to pursue fiscally unsustainable, multibillion-dollar schemes to replace and upgrade each major component of their strategic nuclear forces.

Worse still, Putin’s illegal annexation and destabilization of parts of Ukraine in violation of its 1994 pledge to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for Ukraine giving up nuclear weapons has put NATO members bordering Russia on edge. Unfortunately, the Ukraine crisis has halted most military-to-military contacts between East and West, making the increasingly frequent Russia-NATO close air encounters an even more dangerous potential flashpoint.

To date, the United States and Europe have responded to Putin’s meddling in Ukraine with targeted economic sanctions against Russia, plus additional conventional military training and support for allies and partners.

As Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO supreme allied commander, told a Senate committee last year, “The security situation in Europe is less stable, but it’s not based on the nuclear piece” of the equation.

Over the past year, however, Russian officials have begun to highlight their nuclear forces as a deterrent against what they see as increasingly threatening U.S. and NATO conventional military capabilities. Late last year, Russia “leaked” plans for a new nuclear-armed underwater torpedo, implying it is eyeing new types of nuclear weapons.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg cautioned, “No one should think it is possible to use nuclear weapons in a limited way as part of a conventional conflict.” He is right.

Now, in a troubling shift of rhetoric, the Defense Department has unwisely begun to frame its unaffordable, all-of-the-above plan for replacing and upgrading U.S. strategic bombers, nuclear-armed cruise missiles, and land- and sea-based strategic nuclear forces as part of its strategy to “counter Russia’s aggressive policies in Eastern Europe,” according its latest budget request.

In reality, U.S. nuclear weapons do nothing to address Russia’s actions in Ukraine or protect nervous NATO allies in the Baltics. This new Pentagon talking point only provides the Kremlin with a cynical excuse to accelerate its plans to improve Russia’s nuclear forces.

It makes no sense for either side to pursue a multidecade nuclear weapons spending binge that would perpetuate excessive force levels and Cold War-era nuclear war-fighting capabilities for generations to come.               

Obama and his successor, along with Putin, have a responsibility to pull back from a nuclear action-reaction cycle that puts both countries at greater risk.

To start, the two presidents should issue a joint statement reaffirming their understanding that there can be no winners in a nuclear war and that as long as each side has nuclear weapons, strategic stability will remain central to their bilateral relations.

They should immediately resume active discussions on new, creative proposals to reduce the size and enormous cost of their excess strategic and tactical nuclear stockpiles and to resolve disagreements about missile defenses and INF Treaty compliance.

For instance, Obama could order a halt of the program to develop a new air-launched, nuclear-armed cruise missile, phase out the missile it is replacing, and pursue with Russia and other states a ban on nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Such systems are for nuclear war-fighting, not deterrence. As former Defense Secretary William Perry has argued, “[T]he old Cold War requirement for such a capability no longer exists.”

To avoid miscalculation in a crisis, U.S. and NATO officials should resume regular communications with their military and intelligence counterparts in Russia, including through the NATO-Russia Council. Dialogue is essential for security and should not be denied to show displeasure with Russian behavior.

Leaders in Moscow and Washington need to walk back from a new era of nuclear one-upmanship, or else the world will face even greater dangers in the months and years ahead. 

Three decades ago, President Ronald Reagan declared that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” In the years after...

INF Treaty Impasse: Time for Russian Action

January/February 2016

By Richard W. Fieldhouse

Eileen Malloy, head of the arms control implementation unit at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, attends a ceremony marking the destruction of Soviet missiles under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty at the Saryozek site in Kazakhstan on May 11, 1990. (Photo credit: American Foreign Service Association)The U.S. government has determined that Russia has violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by testing a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM). So far, the Russian government has simply denied any violation and refused to engage the United States in constructive discussions on the issue.

Moscow has made counteraccusations that the United States insists are intended to divert or deflect attention from Russia’s own violation.1 Despite repeated U.S. efforts to discuss and resolve its concerns with senior Russian officials, there are no signs of progress.

The Obama administration has been developing a response to the violation over the last year, but Congress is pressing for stronger action. With the upcoming presidential election and the pressure from Congress for a forceful, near-term response, the political circumstances in the United States could push the dispute in a direction that makes it more dangerous for both sides, as well as for U.S. allies in Europe and Asia. To avoid such a mutually undesirable outcome, Russia should use the remaining period of the Obama administration to work toward a constructive resolution of this serious problem.

Without visible progress toward a resolution, it seems likely that any future U.S. president, particularly a Republican president, will feel a need to take additional steps to respond to Russia’s INF Treaty violation. Such moves could increase the risk of a nuclear confrontation of a type that has not been seen since the Cold War ended.

Fortunately, there is nothing inevitable about a deterioration in nuclear security and stability. These are matters that will be decided by the governments.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States each deployed hundreds of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe that the other side saw as an unacceptable security threat. Eventually, that confrontation led the two governments to conclude the INF Treaty.

The potential consequences of the current standoff could include the termination of the INF Treaty or an action-reaction cycle of military deployments that increases the threat of nuclear confrontation and instability. Given these possibilities, it is important to examine the key elements of this dispute to understand why it would likely grow worse over time and to begin considering how both sides might approach resolution to avoid a return to increased nuclear confrontation and insecurity.

The INF Treaty Violation

The July 2014 arms control compliance report by the Department of State contained the first public exposition of the U.S. assessment of Russia’s actions. The report stated that “[t]he United States has determined that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations under the INF Treaty not to possess, produce, or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 km [kilometers] to 5,500 km, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.”2 In its compliance analysis section, the report enumerates each provision of the INF Treaty relevant to the determination of the violation.

The June 2015 compliance report, which reaffirmed the previous determination, included an additional detail: “The United States determined the cruise missile developed by the Russian Federation meets the INF Treaty definition of a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km, and as such, all missiles of that type, and all launchers of the type used to launch such a missile, are prohibited under the provisions of the INF Treaty.”3 To avoid any ambiguity or disputes about potential differences such as range, capability, or purpose within a prohibited type of missile or its launcher, the INF Treaty says that if any type of missile or launcher meets the definition of a prohibited item, then all such items, regardless of any potential variations or differences, “shall be considered to be” that type of prohibited item, even if they have not been demonstrated or tested for that purpose, and thus must be eliminated.4

The report also stated that “[t]he United States noted concerns about the Russian Federation’s compliance with the INF Treaty in earlier, classified versions” of the compliance report.

Since the details of the violation remain classified, there has been some public uncertainty and speculation about which of several conceivable missile systems constitutes the violation. Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, has commented publicly to dispel some of the confusion and clarify the nature of the violation. In an interview in June 2015, she said, “At issue is a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 500-5,500 kilometers. We are confident that the Russian government is aware of the missile to which we are referring.”5 In a September 2015 interview, she elaborated that she was “talking about a missile that has been flight-tested as a ground-launched cruise-missile system to these ranges that are banned under this treaty.”6 Around the same time, Anita Friedt, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for nuclear and strategic policy, said Russia had tested the “state-of-the-art” missile “at ranges capable of threatening most of [the] European continent and our allies in Northeast Asia.”7

On December 1, 2015, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces and the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade held a joint hearing on the violation and the administration’s response. The two Obama administration witnesses, Gottemoeller and Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, provided the most definitive description to date of the violation and of the U.S. response.

According to McKeon’s testimony, there “has been some speculation about what missile the United States is referring to and whether we have mistaken its testing for a treaty-compliant sea-based cruise missile.” The INF Treaty prohibits intermediate-range GLCMs but does not limit intermediate-range sea-launched cruise missiles or air-launched cruise missiles, which Russia and the United States each possess.

According to McKeon, “The evidence is conclusive. Russia has tested this ground-based system well into the ranges covered by the INF Treaty. We are talking about a real system and not a potential capability.”8

At the same hearing, Gottemoeller testified that, in discussions with Russian officials, the United States “made very clear that this is not a technicality, a one-off event, or a case of mistaken identity, but a serious Russian violation of one of the most basic obligations under the INF Treaty.”

Administration Response

The Obama administration’s planned response to the Russian violation of the INF Treaty has evolved over the last year. This is most clearly seen in the differences between congressional testimony of administration witnesses in 2014, the first year the administration made public its determination of Russia’s violation, and their testimony a year later at the hearing described above.

Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, shown above in an April 2015 photo, said at a congressional hearing on December 1, 2015, that Russia is committing “a serious…violation of one of the most basic obligations under the INF Treaty.” (Photo credit: CTBTO)At the December 10, 2014, hearing, which was a joint hearing of the same House Foreign Affairs and House Armed Services subcommittees, the administration witnesses stated they had two objectives: first, to bring Russia back into compliance with the treaty and keep the treaty in force, and second, to ensure that Russia does not gain any significant military advantage from its violation. Gottemoeller testified that because Russia “has been unwilling to acknowledge its violation or address our concerns,” the administration was “reviewing a series of diplomatic, economic, and military measures” to pursue these objectives.9

At the same hearing, McKeon said the United States has been having discussions with Russia on the subject since early 2013. He said he and his colleagues “have conveyed to Russian officials we expect the Russian Federation to cease any further development, testing, production, and deployment of this noncompliant system and to eliminate the missiles and launchers in a verifiable manner.” He reported that Russia has not provided any information or acknowledged “the existence of such a noncompliant cruise missile.”

He went on to explain that the U.S. Joint Staff had conducted a military assessment of the threat “if Russia were to deploy an INF Treaty-range ground-launched cruise missile in Europe or the Asia-Pacific region.” That assessment also led the administration “to review a broad range of military response options and consider the effect each option could have on convincing Russian leadership to return to compliance with the INF Treaty, as well as countering the capability of a Russian INF Treaty-prohibited system.”

Later in the hearing, McKeon explained that the military response options “fall into three broad categories: Active defenses to counter intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles; counterforce capabilities to prevent intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missile attacks; and countervailing strike capabilities to enhance U.S. or allied forces.” He acknowledged that the administration was looking at “a broad range of options, some of which would be compliant with the INF Treaty, some of which would not be.”

It is noteworthy that the administration is reviewing some options that would not comply with the INF Treaty. Because the administration’s policy is to comply strictly with the INF Treaty and preserve the pact’s viability by bringing Russia back into compliance, the noncompliant options are presumably part of a contingency planning process in the event that Russia does not return to compliance or the treaty is no longer in force and the United States seeks to counter the Russian violation.

Although McKeon’s list of possible responses was focused on Russia’s INF Treaty violation, he indicated that the administration was seeking to develop a comprehensive policy toward Russia regarding the numerous security concerns posed by Russian actions in areas beyond that violation, including Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.

At the December 2015 hearing, Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said of the alleged Russian violation, “We are talking about a real system and not a potential capability.” (Photo credit: U.S. House Armed Services Committee Webcast)One year later, in his statement for the recent hearing, McKeon explained that the administration had broadened its response beyond the concerns about the INF Treaty violation: “Russia is not violating the INF Treaty in isolation from its overall aggressive behavior; therefore we concluded that our responses cannot focus solely on the INF Treaty.… Accordingly, we are developing a comprehensive response to Russian military actions and are committing to investments that we will make irrespective of Russia’s decision to return to compliance with the INF Treaty due to the broader strategic environment we face.”10 It is worth noting that Gottemoeller testified at the same hearing that Russia had begun testing the cruise missile in 2008, but the United States did not determine until late 2011 that it was a GLCM and thus prohibited by the INF Treaty. That indicates that Russia began its noncompliant behavior years before the current challenges McKeon discussed.

McKeon said the substantially broader response, current and planned, includes a number of features to improve the defense of Europe. Such a response, he testified, could serve the purpose of denying Russia a significant military advantage from its violation. He added, “[W]e are factoring Russia’s increased cruise missile capabilities, including its INF [Treaty] violation, into our planning.” In terms of the effect of the broader response on changing Russia’s behavior, including returning to compliance with the treaty, he said that Moscow “will see these activities and they will see them in our budget, and they will start to understand, we believe, that this response is not making them any more secure.”

At the same hearing, Gottemoeller summarized the security risk to Russia if it fails to come back into compliance: “We continue to remind Russia why it signed this treaty in the first place, and why Russia’s continued violation would only lead to a needless and costly action-reaction cycle to the detriment of Russia’s security.”

The significantly expanded Obama administration response will likely become the baseline U.S. response. If a future president wants to indicate increased frustration or resolve, he or she probably will feel a need to take action that goes beyond this baseline, such as developing one or more of the three categories of systems to counter the Russian INF Treaty violation. If there has been no progress toward resolution at that time, such stronger action will likely appear to be politically necessary, particularly if the president is a Republican. In the shorter term, Congress is likely to continue pushing for stronger action on the INF Treaty during the upcoming campaign year.

Congressional Action

As the two joint House hearings indicate, Congress has been heavily involved in this issue. At the December 2015 hearing, Gottemoeller said there had been some 60 briefings, hearings, and meetings with Congress on the subject.

Of course, the most important measure of the input of Congress on any issue is the legislation it enacts. In 2014, the year the United States made public its determination of Russia’s INF Treaty violation, Congress enacted two provisions on that subject in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2015.

Section 1651 of that act requires the secretary of defense to report to Congress on the “steps being taken or planned to be taken” to respond to Russia’s INF Treaty violation, including “research, development, testing, or deployment” of future U.S. military capabilities “to deter or defend against the threat of intermediate-range nuclear force systems of Russia if Russia deploys such systems.”11

Section 1244 of the act requires a comprehensive report on Russian noncompliance with the INF Treaty, including a description of the president’s plan to resolve noncompliance issues, and requires prompt notification to Congress if the president determines Russia “has deployed or intends to deploy systems that violate the INF Treaty,” including “any plans to respond to such deployments.”

In November 2015, Congress approved the defense authorization act for fiscal year 2016, which contains a far-reaching provision responding to Russia’s continuing noncompliance with the INF Treaty. The more forward-leaning language in part reflects the increased influence of congressional Republicans, who gained control of the Senate in the November 2014 elections. (They have held the majority in the House of Representatives since 2010.)

Section 1243 of the act requires the defense secretary to submit to Congress a plan to develop “[c]ounterforce capabilities to prevent” attacks from intermediate-range missiles covered by the INF Treaty “whether or not such [counterforce] capabilities are in compliance with the INF Treaty”; “[c]ountervailing strike capabilities to enhance the forces of the United States or allies,” again “whether or not such capabilities are in compliance”; and “[a]ctive defenses” to defend against intermediate-range GLCM attacks.

Although these are the same three categories of potential military responses that McKeon described as being under review in his testimony at the December 2014 hearing, the Obama administration has not pursued a plan to develop these capabilities, let alone begun to develop them.

Section 1243 also directs the defense secretary, if Russia has not begun to return to compliance, to develop any of those specified capabilities if they are recommended by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with priority on those “capabilities that the Chairman determines could be fielded in two years.” (It is possible that the chairman would not make any such recommendation, in which case development would not be required.) Finally, the provision requires the administration to report to Congress on “potential deployment locations” of the military capabilities “in East Asia and Eastern Europe, including any basing agreements that may be required to facilitate such deployments.”

This provision of law pushes well beyond what the Obama administration is planning, even with its expanded response strategy. As the joint House hearings indicated, if there is no sign of progress on this issue when Congress prepares its legislation next year, it is likely that lawmakers will press for even stronger action. The provisions on the INF Treaty will inform the policies of the next president and could form the basis for additional future U.S. actions.

Russia’s Reaction

According to senior Obama administration officials, Russia’s reaction to the INF Treaty dispute has essentially been twofold. First, it has denied violating the treaty. As Gottemoeller said at the December 2015 hearing, Russia “claims that it is in full compliance with the treaty,” and it “asserts its commitment to continue, for the present time, to stay in the INF Treaty.”

Second, the Russian government has accused the United States of violating the INF Treaty with respect to three types of military systems: ballistic missile defense target missiles, armed unmanned aerial vehicles, and the Mk-41 launcher planned for the Aegis Ashore missile defense system in Europe, which Russia claims is capable of launching Tomahawk cruise missiles. The INF Treaty prohibits such a capability.

At the December 2014 hearing, McKeon said, “All of Russia’s claims, past and present, are categorically unfounded. The United States has been and remains in compliance with all of its obligations under the INF Treaty. These Russian claims are meant to divert attention from its own violation. We fully addressed each of Russia’s concerns during the September 11[, 2014,] meetings in Moscow, and provided the Russian side with detailed explanations and Treaty-based explanations as to how U.S. actions are compliant with our obligations under the Treaty.”

At the same hearing, McKeon explained why these U.S. systems are in compliance with the treaty. The first two systems—missile defense target missiles and armed unmanned aerial vehicles—are clearly permitted by the terms and definitions of the INF Treaty. The one issue that is not so obvious is the Mk-41 Aegis Ashore launcher because it appears similar to the ship-based Mk-41 launcher, which can launch Tomahawk cruise missiles. If the Aegis Ashore launcher had the same capability as the ship-based version, it would be capable of launching intermediate-range Tomahawk cruise missiles from land, which is prohibited by the INF Treaty. According to McKeon, “The Aegis Ashore Vertical Launching System is not the same launcher as the sea-based Mk-41 Vertical Launching System, although it utilizes some of the same structural components as the sea-based system. Equally important, the Aegis Ashore system is only capable of launching defensive interceptor missiles, such as the [Standard Missile]-3. It is incapable of launching cruise missiles.”

Any Chance for Resolution?

The Aegis Ashore weapons system launches an SM-3 Block IB guided missile from the land-based Vertical Launching System during a U.S. Missile Defense Agency and Navy test from Kauai, Hawaii, on May 20, 2014. (Photo credit: U.S. Missile Defense Agency)So far, there has been no progress toward resolving any of the U.S. concerns about Russia’s noncompliance with the INF Treaty and, according to Gottemoeller, no sign of willingness by Russia to try.12 Under the current circumstances, with so many areas of disagreement between Russia and the United States, it is difficult to imagine a constructive way forward. Yet if this controversy is to be resolved, it is important to begin considering what a mutually agreeable resolution might look like.

To start, Russia would have to be willing to have discussions with the United States to acknowledge and address the U.S. concerns. To resolve those concerns, it would likely have to acknowledge in some way that it has taken actions inconsistent with treaty and must be willing to take the significant steps to convince the United States it has come back into compliance.

The INF Treaty created a Special Verification Commission as a forum to discuss and resolve implementation and compliance issues and to consider additional steps to improve the viability and effectiveness of the treaty, which it did successfully. Although the commission is now a multilateral body that includes the former Soviet states that are parties to the INF Treaty, it is the logical forum for Russia and the United States to confidentially discuss and resolve the U.S. compliance concerns.

It is not clear what specific steps would be necessary to resolve this case. In an earlier compliance case, the United States accused the Soviet Union of violating the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty by building a noncompliant radar at Krasnoyarsk. As McKeon noted at the December 2015 hearing, resolution took some seven years. The Soviet Union eventually acknowledged that the radar was noncompliant and dismantled it. Because Russia has not acknowledged any action in violation of the INF Treaty, resolution would presumably take a different path.

Although it is not possible to “untest” the cruise missile system or eliminate the testing knowledge, it would be essential to preclude its deployment, which is a threshold issue, and meet the U.S. standard enunciated by McKeon, namely to “cease any further development, testing, production, and deployment of this noncompliant system and to eliminate the missiles and launchers in a verifiable manner.” Doing so would require significant transparency and confidence-building steps, including on-site inspections. That was the standard created under the INF Treaty and enshrined in the current New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Given Russian assertions that the Mk-41 Aegis Ashore launcher system would violate the treaty and Russia’s long-standing and often-stated anxiety about the Aegis Ashore missile defense system as a threat to Russian strategic deterrent capabilities, it is likely that Russia would seek some degree of transparency and confidence that the system cannot launch cruise missiles.

Although this idea may currently appear politically implausible to the United States and NATO, it is important to remember that the George W. Bush administration proposed to Russia a number of robust transparency measures on European missile defense to assure the Russians that it posed no threat to them. These steps included confidence- and security-building measures such as the presence of Russian military officials at NATO missile defense facilities and cooperation on joint missile defense centers. If it were a necessary step to help bring Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty, NATO might agree to a transparency process by which the United States demonstrated that the Mk-41 Aegis Ashore system cannot launch cruise missiles and is compliant with the INF Treaty. Such a process might include provision of information about how the Aegis Ashore system differs from the ship-based launcher and tours of the facilities to demonstrate its compliance. An arrangement of this type would require the consent of Poland and Romania, the countries on whose territory the planned Aegis Ashore sites would be located.

In light of the seemingly intractable INF Treaty impasse, the obvious question is how Russia would react to such a resolution idea. The answer depends, at least in part, on whether it sees the INF Treaty as remaining in its continuing security interest, as it says it does, and if it perceives that the U.S. response would diminish its security. If so, then it should be willing to resolve U.S. concerns. If not, Russia may hope the United States will withdraw from the treaty, as the United States did from the ABM Treaty, or take some step that is explicitly inconsistent with the treaty, thus giving Russia an opportunity to free itself of INF Treaty constraints without admitting to a violation. Some Russian officials have raised doubts about the continuing value of the treaty, noting that it limits only Russia and the United States. They have suggested that the treaty should be made multilateral to place similar limits on other countries with intermediate-range missiles. Because those countries are not interested in giving up their missiles, this idea seemed intended to undermine the treaty.

For its part, the United States should pursue actions that will increase the likelihood of Russia returning to compliance with the treaty. In the first instance, that means that Washington should remain in strict compliance with its obligations to the INF Treaty. Additionally, the United States, including Congress, should not take actions that would effectively preclude the option of Russia coming back into compliance, including moving toward withdrawal from the treaty, as long as there is a possibility for resolution. Finally, the United States should continue pressing its case with Russia for resolution.

If Russia does not engage in serious discussions with the United States to resolve its INF Treaty concerns, the results could look like a replay of scenes from the Cold War. McKeon acknowledged this at the December 2014 hearing: “We do not want to find ourselves engaged in an escalatory action/reaction cycle as a result of Russia’s decision to possess INF Treaty-prohibited weapons. However, Russia’s lack of meaningful engagement on this issue, if it persists, will ultimately require the United States to take actions to protect its interests and security along with those of its allies and partners. Those actions will make Russia less secure.” At the same hearing, Gottemoeller said she had told her Russian counterparts, “[W]e do not want to go down the road of putting in place the kind of countermeasures that would…raise the kinds of threats that existed in Europe back at the time that [the] INF [Treaty] was first agreed.” After decades of Cold War nuclear confrontation and danger, the Soviet Union and the United States finally learned how to reverse the process and improve mutual stability and security. The INF Treaty was a central accomplishment in that effort.

It would be a historic failure if Russia and the United States forgot those lessons and could not preserve the security benefits of the INF Treaty. To avoid such an outcome, Russia should begin immediately to work constructively with the United States to resolve the U.S. concerns. Waiting will only make matters worse.


1.  This article assumes that Russia has taken the actions cited by the U.S. government in violation of Russia’s obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The U.S. government process for assessing and reporting noncompliance with arms control treaties is a comprehensive and exhaustive one, and determinations of violations are made only after a thorough review of the evidence provides high confidence in the assessment. As required by Section 403 of the Arms Control and Disarmament Act, the process involves the coordinated input of all relevant executive branch agencies and components. For the requirements for the annual compliance review and report, see http://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?req=granuleid:USC-prelim-title22-section2593a&num=0&edition=prelim.

2.  U.S. Department of State, “Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” July 2014, p. 8, http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/230108.pdf.

3.  U.S. Department of State, “Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” June 5, 2015, http://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/rpt/2015/243224.htm.

4.   INF Treaty, art. VII.

5.  “Rose Gottemoeller: We Don’t Want to See Action-Reaction Cycle Like We Saw During the Cold War,” Interfax, June 23, 2015, http://www.interfax.com/interview.asp?id=600960.

6.  Mike Eckel, “Impasse Over U.S.-Russia Nuclear Treaty Hardens As Washington Threatens ‘Countermeasures,’” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, September 16, 2015, http://www.rferl.org/content/russia-nuclear-treaty-us-threatens-countermeasures/27250064.html.

7.  Anita Friedt, “A Full Spectrum Approach to Achieving the Peace and Security of a World Without Nuclear Weapons” (remarks at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Tiergarten Conference, Berlin, September 10, 2015), http://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/2015/246943.htm.

8.  C-SPAN, “U.S.-Russia Arms Treaty,” December 1, 2015, http://www.c-span.org/video/?401252-1/hearing-russian-arms-control.

9.  Russian Arms Control Cheating and the Administration’s Responses: Joint Hearing Before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade and the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, 113th Cong. (2014).

10.  Brian P. McKeon, Statement Before the Joint Hearing of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces and the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, December 1, 2015, p. 2, http://docs.house.gov/meetings/FA/FA18/20151201/104226/HHRG-114-FA18-Wstate-McKeonB-20151201.pdf.

11.  Carl Levin and Howard “Buck” McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015, Pub. L. No. 113-291, 128 Stat. 3292 (2014), sec. 1244, 1651, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-113publ291/pdf/PLAW-113publ291.pdf.

12.  At the December 2015 hearing, Gottemoeller said that if the United States had “some inkling” that Russia were willing to acknowledge and try to resolve U.S. concerns, the United States would convene a meeting to do so. She and McKeon repeatedly said there is no such interest from Moscow.

Richard W. Fieldhouse is president of Insight Strategies, LLC, an independent consulting company. From 1996 to 2015, he served as a professional staff member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. He was on the personal staff of Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) from 1991 until 1996.

If Russia does nothing to address U.S. concerns about Moscow’s compliance with the [INF] Treaty, the current dispute over the treaty could lead to a dangerous action-reaction cycle. 

Russia Still Needs Arms Control

January/February 2016

By Heather Williams

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right), accompanied by his adviser Sergey Ivanov (center) and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, walks after delivering his annual state-of-the-nation address at the Kremlin on December 3, 2015. (Photo credit: Dmitry Astakhov/AFP/Getty Images)These are dark days for strategic arms control. Events in Ukraine have brought U.S.-Russian relations to a post-Cold War low point, and Russia increasingly relies on its nuclear arsenal for signaling and prestige. Yet, if Russia hopes to achieve its aim of being a great power or at least being perceived and treated as one, arms control is a status symbol and cost savings mechanism that it cannot afford to waste.

Perhaps Leon Trotsky would direct one of his vitriolic outbursts at today’s supporters of arms control: “You are pitiful, isolated individuals! You are bankrupts. Your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on – into the dustbin of history!”1 Russia appears to be on the verge of sending arms control to the dustbin of history given its reliance on nuclear weapons. After years of modernization and investment, there now appears to be little incentive for Russia to limit its arsenal.

Russia’s “nuclear sabre-rattling”2 certainly suggests it is no longer interested in engagement with the West. It insists further arms control is not possible unless any future agreement incorporates missile defense and long-range precision conventional weapons or is expanded to include other nuclear possessor states. In a June 21, 2015, interview with the Financial Times, Sergey Ivanov, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, observed, “To be frank, there are practically no channels for interaction left” with the United States.3 Russia went so far as to threaten suspending verification of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in response to Western sanctions,4 and talks on a New START follow-on agreement and on missile defense collapsed in 2012.5

From the U.S. perspective, alleged Russian violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty undermine trust between the two countries. From the Russian perspective, there is no political expediency to arms control at present. Moscow’s interests lie elsewhere, and any overtures at dialogue would undermine its desired impression of standing up to the West and promoting a more multipolar world. Arms control is dead and no longer a priority for Russia. At least, that is the dominant narrative.

There is an alternative story line, namely that Russia needs arms control more than the United States. Verification under New START expires in 2021, with a possible five-year extension. At that time, Russia will face the prospect of losing insight into the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the symbolic value of a treaty legally binding it to parity with the United States, and a venue for it to showcase its nuclear weapons and portray itself as a great power. This narrative is far less prominent, but leads to a more useful approach of examining the arms control landscape two, five, and 10 years from now. From this perspective, it is not only conceivable but actually quite likely that well before New START verification expires, Russia will be more open to further arms control.

Stutter Steps in Arms Control

Arms control has never been easy, but today, many claim it truly is on its last legs. In his classic 1961 treatise on the subject, international relations scholar Hedley Bull defined arms control as “restraint internationally exercised upon armaments policy, whether in respect of the level of armaments, their character, or deployment of use.”6 Above all, arms control is a management and confidence-building tool. It does not always seek to reduce the size of arsenals but rather to reduce risks by promoting transparency and dialogue about existing weapons.

Past instances of U.S.-Russian arms control were inspired by various factors that changed the strategic balance. In the case of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, technological developments in delivery vehicles and defensive measures, namely missile defense, brought Americans and Soviets to the negotiating table. Oversized arsenals and costly excesses in defense procurement were among the shifts that inspired the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). A change in bilateral relations and the geopolitical climate resulted in the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty. Other examples include the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which had intrusive inspections that laid the groundwork for the 1991 START, and the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, which were at first unilateral steps taken by Washington and shortly thereafter reciprocated by Moscow with no formal verification measures.

The most recent example of U.S.-Russian arms control is New START, which requires Russia and the United States each to reduce their forces to 1,550 operationally deployed strategic weapons, 700 delivery vehicles, and 800 launchers by 2018. Yet, New START was a harbinger of challenges to come. Negotiations nearly broke down on numerous occasions over Russian insistence that meaningful limits on missile defense be included. The eventual compromise included vague language in the treaty’s preamble recognizing the interrelationship between strategic offense and defense. An additional challenge came from the U.S. Senate, where some Republicans expressed skepticism about arms control and its post-Cold War utility. In some cases, the skepticism appeared to be genuine, but in others, it appeared to be part of an attempt to make arms control a political football in the bitter partisan wars of 2010.

Russian behavior also suggests the beginnings of an arms control death spiral. First, Russian hardliners are questioning their country’s participation in New START, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).7 Second, defense was the only sector excluded from recent, across-the-board 10 percent cuts in the Russian federal budget. Finally, Russian nuclear saber-rattling, such as threats to deploy nuclear weapons to Kaliningrad and Crimea, demonstrates Russia’s continued reliance on nuclear weapons as part of a hybrid warfare strategy that draws on conventional and nonconventional capabilities.8 Within its hybrid strategy, nuclear weapons also serve a symbolic function. As Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution recently observed, “The Kremlin seeks to project the image of a Russian superpower; its oversized nuclear arsenal provides the sole basis for its claim to such status.”9

From the Russian perspective, any decline in arms control is primarily the fault of the United States. In a presentation at the 2015 NPT Review Conference, the PIR Center, an independent Russian think tank, outlined and analyzed this perspective: missile defense remains the most sensitive issue in further bilateral strategic arms control, and the United States has consistently insisted that its plans for missile defense in Europe are directed at threats from the southeast, namely Iran, rather than at Russia. Despite the recent nuclear agreement with Iran, however, the United States has shown no inclination to roll back these plans. Missile defense is not the only factor jeopardizing strategic stability as the United States also continues to develop advanced conventional weapons. Russia is following suit in modernizing its nuclear and conventional arsenals but purely to catch up. Moreover, although Russia may be questioning its participation in some arms control agreements, the United States unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002, has not ratified the CTBT, and remains opposed to the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat of Force Against Outer Space Objects.10

Russian reliance on nuclear weapons and current skepticism of arms control, by this logic, are based on decisions made in Washington rather than in Moscow. According to Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s senior arms control negotiator, “While the U.S. continues to strengthen its national security methods, which reduce the level of Russia’s national security, to speak of future nuclear disarmament is hardly possible.”11 So why does Russia need arms control?

The Need for Arms Control

Russia needs arms control over the long term to promote strategic stability, thereby decreasing its need for more weapons, and to reduce military investments. More importantly, Russia needs arms control in the short term to feed its great-power narrative, which is a crucial domestic political tool and a foundation of Putin’s leadership. As paradoxical as it may seem, reducing weapons has the potential to increase Russia’s credibility as an international leader and make it more secure in at least three ways.

Prestige. Putin’s great-power message relies on parity with other great powers and a sense of continuity from previous Russian and Soviet empires. This message is directed at domestic and international audiences. At the domestic level, according to a recent poll by the Levada Center, Putin’s greatest overall achievement was “strengthening Russia’s position in the international arena.”12 Putin’s narrative consists of re-establishing Russia’s sphere of influence in its region—for example, by reunifying Crimea with the Russian state—and overcoming the shame associated with the loss of the Soviet empire and the subsequent economic and military collapse of the 1990s.

Arms control, like the weapons it manages, is a status symbol for Russia. To be sure, for many Russians, arms control and the reduced size of the nuclear arsenal contribute to a sense of shame. Arguably, this shame in arms control is largely associated with the 1997 START II, which banned the use of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles and would eventually have limited each side to 3,000 to 3,500 operational deployed strategic weapons over the course of two phases. From the Russian perspective, the treaty took advantage of Moscow’s weakness following the collapse of the Soviet Union and was imbalanced in favor of the United States because Russia would have to “make significant financial expenditures” for destruction of its weapons and would actually have to build up its forces in order to reach the treaty’s limits.13 Nevertheless, neither distrust of U.S. intentions as a result of START II nor U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty prevented Russia from participating in arms control negotiations and agreements. Negotiations for New START, for example, began in 2009 with the Obama administration’s “reset” of U.S. relations with Russia.

Arms control continues to be closely linked to Russia’s great-power narrative. Equality as an international player is essential to Russian prestige, and arms control enshrines strategic parity with the United States, at least numerically in nuclear weapons.14 Putin also relies on a sense of history and continuity in portraying himself as the guardian of the Russian state as it has evolved through imperial and Soviet eras. For Putin, Russian history flows as a continuous thread rather than in fits and starts. Therefore, just as arms control was prominent at the height of the Soviet military era in securing parity with the United States—the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) treaty is a prime example—it can hold an important place in the revamped Russia of the 2010s.

Beyond bilateral strategic agreements with the United States, arms control has also been a source of prestige for Russia in managing Syrian chemical weapons and the recent Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the product of negotiations in which Russia joined with five other world powers to reach agreement with Iran on rolling back that country’s nuclear program. In these cases, Russia was expected to demonstrate preference for its allies in Syria and Iran. Yet, the final agreements proved Russia to be a credible and fair broker. These agreements showcased Russia as a diplomatic power, not just a military one.

Russia’s interest in arms control is enshrined in its national policy. A great deal has been written about the bellicose nature of Russia’s 2014 statement of its military doctrine, but an often overlooked component of the document commits Russia to “compliance with international treaties of the Russian Federation for the reduction and limitation of nuclear missile weapons.”15 Its 2013 “Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation” goes even further in portraying Russia as an advocate for further arms control and nonproliferation efforts, whereby Russia will encourage “elaborating and concluding new agreements in [arms control] that meet its national interests and take into account each and every factor influencing strategic stability, building on the principles of equality and indivisibility of security.”16 Russian interest in arms control and nonproliferation is not purely a matter of prestige, but also contributes to strategic stability and the reduction of military risks.

Strategic stability. In a 1961 treatise, nuclear strategists Thomas Schelling and Morton Halperin said the objective of arms control was to establish strategic stability.17 Arms control is intended to avoid arms races and establish a balance of military power between peers, adversaries, or both. This was the primary role of arms control during the Cold War, particularly with the SALT Interim Agreement when the Soviet Union and the United States attempted to slow the arms race and pursuit of superiority, reconciling themselves to parity. In Henry Kissinger’s famous 1974 rhetorical question, “What in God’s name is strategic superiority?”18

Strategic stability affords Russia breathing room to focus on domestic stability rather than becoming embroiled in a costly arms race. Strategic stability reduces uncertainty in dealing with peers, such as the United States and China.19 In a 2014 op-ed in The New York Times, Sergey Rogov, head of the prestigious Institute for the U.S. and Canadian Studies in Moscow, wrote, “If the Russian-American arms control collapses, it will be difficult to develop strategic stability in a polycentric world. The new unrestricted arms race will be multilateral and include not only nuclear but also conventional weapons.”20

Russia cannot afford an arms race at this time or in the foreseeable future. Its 2013 foreign policy concept document explicitly speaks to the contribution of arms control in establishing stability “through bilateral and multilateral cooperation,” particularly with regard to nuclear weapons, “for the purpose of ensuring common security in the spirit of strategic openness.”21 Arms control has the potential to place limits on U.S. capabilities, obviously in exchange for some concession on the part of Russia. At present, Russia’s primary bargaining chips are its warheads and delivery vehicles, tactical and strategic, which are reaching the end of their lifespans faster than they can be replaced. Arms control is Russia’s best hope for engaging the United States in a dialogue about missile defense and advanced conventional weapons. Whether or not this dialogue results in reductions or changes in U.S. posture will depend on context and what Russia has to offer, but it is the first step.

Military investment. Perhaps one of the strongest signals of waning Russian interest in arms control is its increased investment in nuclear forces, despite the resurgence of its conventional forces as demonstrated in Ukraine. Russia is projected to spend $88.3 billion on defense in 2015, with research and development as the main area of investment in order to continue boosting the share of modern weaponry across the services to reach 70 percent by 2020, with the bigger projects yet to come. Its 2016 national budget has been described as a “stagnation budget” of “militarism and inaction.” Defense remains one of the only sectors with increased spending, particularly in new technologies, and the government is waiting for oil and gas prices to rise again in order to make further investments in defense.22

This suggests a major commitment to improving conventional forces, but nuclear modernization has seemingly accelerated at the same time. Putin recently announced Russia would be introducing 30 new missiles to its arsenal of strategic delivery vehicles, and it recently deployed the new Borei-class submarine armed with the Bulava missile. Modernization elsewhere in the strategic forces includes updating cruise missiles23 and replacing the 59-year-old Tu-95 Bear bomber.24 In the 1990s, Russia claimed to rely on nuclear weapons while it rebuilt conventional forces. If Russia has now achieved a sufficiently strong conventional force, why is it more reliant on nuclear weapons than ever since the end of the Cold War?

There are three possible explanations for this continued reliance on nuclear forces, all of which suggest Russia will need arms control for financial reasons to lower defense costs in the coming years. First, Russia’s conventional forces remain weak. The swift and effective military operations carried out in Crimea were by Russia’s elite Southern Military District, the best equipped and trained of the Russian forces.25 They are not indicative of the overall Russian military, in which investment is largely going toward technology rather than training and people.26 Most of the newer capabilities and investments have yet to be introduced, so in real terms, Russia’s conventional military is not yet as tough as it seems and will continue to receive attention and investment while it is rebuilt. One risk is that Russia will pursue a conventional arms race, which may already have started, according to Russian nuclear expert Alexey Arbatov: Russian research on long-range, high-precision weapon systems is absorbing a disproportionate amount of defense spending.27

Second, improvements in nuclear delivery vehicles in particular have been in the works for decades and are only now becoming operational. Although Russia has increased the rate at which it introduces new missiles, it has slowed the pace of retirement so as to give the impression of a growing force. According to Eugene Miasnikov, director of the Russian Center for Arms Control, Energy, and Environmental Studies, the service life of Russian missiles have been “extended by factors of two to three,” and any further extensions are “impossible.”28 As a result, Russia’s arsenal is growing quantitatively but not necessarily qualitatively. In reality, much of this force may be inactive and slated for retirement. For example, early in the New START talks, Russia was amenable to deeper reductions on its delivery vehicles that were reaching the end of their service lives.

Third, military modernization is a domestic political issue. Military investment is particularly complicated because of its links to bureaucratic politics in Moscow, similar to the Cold War days of the Soviet Military-Industrial Commission. Many of Russia’s most powerful politicians and those advising Putin, the siloviki, have personal investments in the military-industrial complex. Any Russian defense investments should not immediately be viewed as posturing vis-à-vis the West or as symbolizing a more aggressive Russia, as they often are part of a domestic political narrative.29 This may present a challenge to further cuts, as is currently being demonstrated. On the other hand, Moscow is having debates similar to those in Washington and London as to whether investments in conventional forces are preferable to those in nuclear forces. With currency reserves running low, oil prices staying down, and defense spending demands on the rise, Russian investment in its nuclear forces is one obvious area for cuts. Rather than unilaterally reducing its arsenal, Russia can explore the possibility of reciprocation from the United States through an arms control agreement.

Preparing for Optimism

A man stands near a trainload of modified T-72 Russian tanks after their arrival in Gvardeyskoye railway station near the Crimean capital of Simferopol on March 31, 2014. (Photo credit: Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images)Russia may still need arms control, but one of the biggest remaining questions is whether Washington still has an appetite for it. To skeptics, nuclear arms control is a Cold War legacy and places undue limits on U.S. capabilities. Moreover, the skeptics argue, no verification system can guarantee compliance, as was most recently argued in congressional debates about the Iran nuclear deal. It is difficult to discern how much these objections are sincere and how much they are politically motivated, but Obama administration policy statements have affirmed that arms control is in the national interest. For example, in 2013 the administration declared, “The U.S. intent is to seek negotiated cuts with Russia so that we can continue to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures.”30 From the U.S. perspective, arms control provides transparency into Russia’s arsenal and reduces excessive weapons and their associated costs on both sides, which in turn reduces nuclear risks.

Arms control is arguably more complicated for the United States than for Russia because of the United States’ role as a security provider to its allies in Europe and Asia. Further arms control with Russia will entail difficult discussions about missile defense and tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. For the United States, these discussions will have to incorporate the security concerns of U.S. allies in NATO, some of which are reluctant to see any change in the U.S. strategic posture in Europe given Russian aggression in Ukraine. What the United States wants to see in further arms control, therefore, is a reduction in the numbers of Russian tactical nuclear weapons and compliance with all existing agreements, along with a deeper reduction of strategic weapons and delivery vehicles.

Russia claims to want some combination of a reduction in U.S. missile defense in Europe, a reduction in conventional forces, and an expansion of the arms control process to include other nuclear possessors, such as China. From this perspective, Russian and U.S. demands of arms control are incompatible: any reduction in U.S. tactical nuclear weapons or missile defenses would be unacceptable to a large number of U.S. allies, and tactical nuclear weapons are Russia’s only bargaining chip to obtain the reductions that Moscow wants. Other nuclear possessor states have said they will not engage in multilateral arms control until Russian and U.S. arsenals come down further.

A Russian Tu-95 long-range bomber flies above the Kremlin on May 7, 2015, during a rehearsal for Russia’s annual May 9 Victory Day commemoration. (Photo credit: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)As discussed above, however, Russia’s goals are broader: great-power status, strategic stability on its borders, and cost savings. By the time New START verification expires in 2021 or 2026 (depending on whether or not the United States and Russia decide to extend the treaty), arms control may be a readily available option for pursuing these interests. Ultimately, whether in two, five, or 10 years, Russia may return to arms control.

There are at least three steps the United States can take now to lay the groundwork for these discussions. First, if it is willing to work toward resolution of Crimea’s status in parallel with, rather than prior to, arms control talks, one possible starting point is to set a goal of returning to 2012. That would mean returning to discussions about missile defense transparency measures and re-establishing NATO-Russian dialogue as they existed before the Ukraine crisis. That would be a nonbinding first step back to the negotiating table and would give attention to Russia’s primary issue of missile defense. At the same time, however, the United States would have to offer some means of reassurance to its allies that it is not indicating acceptance of Russian aggression. This could include continuing to deploy U.S. nuclear weapons in NATO member states, refusing to acknowledge Crimea as part of Russia, or increasing the size of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force.

Second, despite the Ukraine crisis and claims of INF Treaty violations, New START continues to be implemented. Its Bilateral Consultative Commission continues to meet, most recently on October 20, 2015. The priority should remain on implementing New START and, as 2018 approaches, using the commission as a forum for exploring follow-on options and taking advantage of the five-year extension on verification.

Finally, the credibility of the INF Treaty must be restored. Russia and the United States can work toward that goal now so as to prevent it from poisoning the waters of a New START follow-on agreement when the time comes. Russian withdrawal from the INF Treaty under Article XV31 would complicate further arms control talks by undermining trust and providing fodder, in different ways, to arms control skeptics in the Duma and Congress. Restoring full compliance with the INF Treaty must be a priority and can potentially be achieved by playing to Russia’s desired role as a leader in arms control and its stated policy commitment to “compliance with international treaties.”

U.S. policy states that arms control is in the country’s continued interest, but further opportunities for arms control successes may test the limits of what the United States is willing to compromise to achieve them. For example, if Russia and the United States did negotiate further arms control agreements, the United States would likely take measures to reassure its NATO allies that by no means is it accepting of Russian aggression. Yet, these means of reassurance, particularly an increased U.S. military presence in Europe, could backfire and cause Russia to question the U.S. commitment to any agreement. Moscow may perceive it as trading one form of strategic imbalance for another.

Arms control pessimists are not short on evidence these days, particularly when it comes to the INF Treaty. Nevertheless, there is cause for optimism that Russia and the United States can continue to make reciprocal reductions in their strategic arsenals while applying transparency and confidence-building measures. Russia, in particular, has an interest in further arms control as an element of the great-power narrative that continues to drive Putin’s policies at home and abroad. As the deadline for New START reductions approaches in 2018, followed by the expiration of verification in 2021, followed by the conclusion of a possible five-year extension of verification in 2026, there will be numerous opportunities to take further steps in strategic arms control. Indeed, before analysts relegate arms control to the dustbin of history, Russia might be the one to revive it.


1.  William Safire, “Dust Heaps of History,” The New York Times Magazine, October 16, 1983.

2.  Tom Parfitt and David Blair, “Vladimir Putin Accused of ‘Nuclear Sabre-Rattling’ as He Promises 40 New Russian Missiles,” Telegraph, June 16, 2015 (quoting Jens Stoltenberg).

3.  “Transcript: Interview With Sergei Ivanov,” Financial Times, June 21, 2015.

4.  Dániel Bartha and Anna Péczeli, “Nuclear Arms Control: Implications From the Crisis in Ukraine,” NATO Defense College Research Paper, No. 108 (February 2015).

5.  Steven Pifer, “Obama’s Faltering Nuclear Legacy: The 3 R’s,” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 2 (2015): 101-118.

6.  Hedley Bull, The Control of the Arms Race (London: Institute for Strategic Studies, 1961).

7.  Alexey Arbatov, Presentation at the 2014 EU Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Conference, Brussels, September 5, 2014, http://www.iiss.org/en/events/eu%20conference/sections/eu-conference-2014-4706/special-sessions-6020/special-session-10-7a22 (session on deterrence, nonproliferation, and disarmament) (hereinafter Arbatov presentation).

8.  See, for example, Samuel Charap, “The Ghost of Hybrid War,” Survival, Vol. 57, No. 6 (December 2015-January 2016): 51-58.

9.  Pifer, “Obama’s Faltering Nuclear Legacy,” p. 107.

10.  PIR Center, “From Words to Actions: Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament From 2010 to 2015 and Beyond” (presentation at the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference, New York, May 20, 2015), http://www.pircenter.org/media/content/files/13/14317274020.pdf.

11 .  Matthew Bodner, “Fight Over Ukraine Darkens Future of Russia-U.S. Nuclear Arms Control,” Moscow Times, April 7, 2015.

12.  Levada Center, “Vladimir Putin: Successes and Failures, His Strengths,” September 15, 2014, http://www.levada.ru/eng/vladimir-putin-successes-and-failures-his-strengths.

13.  Eugene Miasnikov, “Problems of START-2 Treaty Ratification for Russia. Is START-3 Possible?” INESAP Information Bulletin, No. 10 (August 1996), pp. 15-17.

14.  Matthew Moran and Heather Williams, “Keeping Up Appearances: National Narratives and Nuclear Policy in France and Russia,” Defence Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2 (2013): 192-215.

15.  “Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation,” No. Pr.-2976, December 25, 2014, http://www.rusemb.org.uk/press/2029.

16.  Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation,” February 12, 2013, http://archive.mid.ru//brp_4.nsf/0/76389FEC168189ED44257B2E0039B16D.

17.  Thomas C. Schelling and Morton H. Halperin, Strategy and Arms Control (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1961).

18.  Barry M. Blechman and Robert Powell, “What in the Name of God Is Strategic Superiority?” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 97, No. 4 (Winter 1982-1983): 589-602.

19.  Andrei Kokoshin, “Ensuring Strategic Stability in the Past and Present: Theoretical and Applied Questions,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, June 2011, p. 5.

20.  Sergey Rogov, “Reinvent Arms Control for the Present Day,” The New York Times, November 15, 2014.

21.  Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation.”

22.  Andrey Movchan, “What Can We Learn From Russia’s 2016 Budget Proposal?” Carnegie Moscow Center, November 19, 2015, http://carnegie.ru/commentary/2015/11/19/what-can-we-learn-from-russia-s-2016-budget-proposal/im3h.

23.  Jeffrey Lewis, “Russian Cruise Missiles Revisited,” Arms Control Wonk, October 27, 2015,  http://lewis.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/7816/russian-cruise-missiles-revisited.

24.  Paul Richard Huard, “Russia’s Blast From the Past: Beware the Tu-95 Bear Strategic Bomber,” The National Interest, August 22, 2015, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/russias-blast-the-past-beware-the-tu-95-bear-strategic-13669.  

25.  International Institute for Strategic Studies, “The Military Balance 2015,” 2015, ch. 5.

26.  The Russian Air Force, in particular, remains a Soviet legacy with extremely poor performance. For example, in 2015 between June and mid-August, it had eight crashes as a result of technical failure or pilot error. Matthew Bodner, “Russia’s Military Is a Paper Tiger in the Baltic,” Institute of Modern Russia, August 26, 2015, http://imrussia.org/en/analysis/world/2389-russias-military-is-a-paper-tiger-in-the-baltic.

27.  Arbatov presentation.

28.  Eugene Miasnikov, “How to Approach Nuclear Modernization? A Russian Response,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 71, No. 3 (2015): 12-15.

29.  Heather Williams, “Two Russian Tales, Same Ending: Doubling Down on Defense,” Aspenia Online, May 25, 2015, https://www.aspeninstitute.it/aspenia-online/article/two-russian-tales-same-ending-doubling-down-defense.

30.  U.S. Department of Defense, “Report on Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States,” June 12, 2013.

31.  The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is of unlimited duration, but section 2 of Article XV states that “[e]ach Party shall, in exercising its national sovereignty, have the right to withdraw from this Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events related to the subject matter of this Treaty have jeopardized its supreme interests. It shall give notice of its decision to withdraw to the other Party six months prior to withdrawal from this Treaty. Such notice shall include a statement of the extraordinary events the notifying Party regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests.”

Heather Williams has been a MacArthur Postdoctoral Fellow since January 2015 in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, where she received her Ph.D. in 2014. Her research focuses on U.S. and Russian nuclear policies, deterrence theory, and trust building in international relations. Previously, she was a research fellow at Chatham House and at the Institute for Defense Analyses.

Prospects for U.S.-Russian arms control currently seem bleak. But if Russia hopes to achieve its aim of being a great power or at least being perceived...

New Russian Nuclear Design Shown

December 2015

By Kingston Reif

A broadcast on Russian state television of a Nov. 10 meeting in Sochi between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military officers revealed a document showing the design of a purported new underwater nuclear-armed drone that could rain radioactive fallout on enemy coastal areas.

In a Nov. 10 post on his blog Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, Pavel Podvig, a researcher with the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, said the Russian name of the system shown in the document translates to English as “Ocean Multipurpose System ‘Status-6.’”

According to Podvig, a short summary included in the document described the mission of the proposed weapon as “[d]amaging the important components of the adversary’s economy in a coastal area and inflicting unacceptable damage to a country’s territory by creating areas of wide radioactive contamination that would be unsuitable for military, economic, or other activity for long periods of time.”

At the meeting where the underwater drone design was revealed, Putin, reiterating a long-standing Russian complaint, criticized U.S. missile defense plans, claiming they are intended to “neutralize” Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent.

Putin said Russia would respond by developing “strike systems capable of penetrating any missile defenses.”

The United States says its missile defenses are not aimed at Russia but instead at smaller adversaries such as Iran and North Korea.

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, in a Nov. 12 statement to the Russia news agency Interfax, said that “some secret data fell into the field of view of these cameras.”

“We hope such a thing will never be repeated,” he added.

According to Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and current director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution, the airing of the document was no accident.

“The picture was aired because the Kremlin wanted it aired and wanted the world to believe that Russia has plans for a large nuclear torpedo,” Pifer said in a Nov. 18 blog post.

“That fits with Moscow’s pattern of nuclear saber-rattling over the past two years,” he added. 

A broadcast on Russian state television of a Nov. 10 meeting in Sochi between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military officers revealed...

BOOK REVIEW: Nuclear Weapons and Nixon’s Madman Theory

December 2015

Reviewed by Michael Krepon

Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War
By William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball
University Press of Kansas, 2015, 448 pp.

One debating point in academic circles about nuclear weapons is whether they confer leverage in crises and in war.1 For those confused by or skeptical of the methodologies employed in these arguments, the best way to reach a conclusion is by delving deeply into case studies.

There will be no better book-length case study on coercive nuclear diplomacy than the one just written by William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War. Burr is one of the keepers of the National Security Archive, an essential resource for researchers, writers, and diplomatic practitioners who wish to be informed by history. Kimball is a professor emeritus at Miami University in Ohio and the author of Nixon’s Vietnam War. (He also is the father of Arms Control Today’s publisher.) Burr and Kimball document in significant detail the story of how, in 1969, President Richard Nixon and national security adviser Henry Kissinger sought to avoid a “long game” in Vietnam. In October 1969, they authorized coercive nuclear feints designed to incline North Vietnam to be more receptive to U.S. offers and the Kremlin to be more helpful in arranging an early settlement.

The modus operandi of Nixon and Kissinger for Vietnam was similar to the one they used for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) with the Soviet Union. They set in motion bureaucratic inquiries into policy options that they did not intend to pursue, operated through irregular channels, and tried to keep some key individuals out of the loop.

Burr and Kimball were not granted access to the Kissinger papers at the Library of Congress, which will remain closed to all but a privileged few until five years after his death—a constraint that the authors declare to be “the last standing abuse of power of the Nixon era.” They also did not gain access to archives in China, Russia, or Vietnam to offer greater insight into how these countries assessed the motives and intentions behind Nixon’s nuclear messaging.

They still managed to gather enough material to provide great detail on the veiled nuclear alert and to conclude that it was directed primarily against Moscow. They also provide compelling arguments for why these feints failed in their intended purpose. This book should put an end to academic debates over the diplomatic utility of nuclear weapons to leverage outcomes, but it probably will not.

During the Vietnam War, the United States possessed the largest and most capable nuclear arsenal in the world. It was bogged down in a brutal, extended war with a state that did not possess nuclear weapons. North Vietnam was helpless to stop U.S. aerial bombardment and could not be sure that its patron, the Soviet Union, would respond militarily to U.S. nuclear strikes on North Vietnam. Even under these circumstances, the Nixon administration’s attempts at coercive nuclear diplomacy failed miserably.

The Soviet Union failed to react in hoped-for ways, nor did it overreact. Evidence of the failure of veiled nuclear threats in the fall of 1969 can be found in the war’s prolongation until the armistice agreement signed in January 1973 and ultimately in the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975, after what Nixon and Kissinger termed a “decent interval” of two years.

A case can be made that more conventional military means of suasion—for example, the stepped-up U.S. bombing and mining campaigns in 1972—had more influence on the North’s leadership than the veiled nuclear threats. Burr and Kimball argue otherwise. They conclude with reasonable evidence that these endgame measures were directed more at President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam, who was balking at the terms that Kissinger was negotiating, rather than the North Vietnamese leadership.

Most of this book is about Vietnam. The portrayals of Nixon and Kissinger are by now familiar, with new flourishes recently added by Bob Woodward’s book The Last of the President’s Men, based on a trove of documents and the recollections of Alexander Butterfield, Nixon’s deputy chief of staff. In the Burr-Kimball book, Nixon and Kissinger sometimes egg each other on. Kissinger flatters Nixon while occasionally evading Nixon’s exasperated instructions. The tide of the Vietnam War and anti-war sentiment are working against them; escalation measures succeed more in inflaming domestic opposition than in bringing the war to a satisfactory conclusion.

Those interested in whether nuclear weapons provide political utility can profit from reading the first chapter of Burr and Kimball’s book, which summarizes nuclear threats made prior to the Nixon administration, as well as the chapter providing particulars about the 1969 nuclear alert, which was characterized as a “readiness test” to avoid raising domestic and diplomatic hackles.

The record of senior U.S. officials believing that nuclear weapons could provide diplomatic leverage begins with President Harry Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson after World War II, when they initially considered the atomic bomb to be a “master card,” and Secretary of State James Byrnes, who believed that nuclear weapons would make the Soviet Union “more manageable.” Yet, Truman declined to use nuclear weapons during the Korean War, and Stimson soon had second thoughts and sought to eliminate these weapons.

President Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles spoke repeatedly about the utility of nuclear weapons, but they too backed away from use in Korea and Vietnam. Military figures argued for restraint because of the absence of suitable targets and the requirements for a large troop presence after using these weapons. Diplomats warned about the likelihood that such use would horrify U.S. allies in Europe and the prospective alienation and outrage in Asia. Other concerns related to the uncertainties of Soviet and Chinese responses. These arguments were persuasive.

The Eisenhower administration faced more crises with nuclear dimensions than any of its predecessors or successors. In September 1954, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) went on alert after the shelling of Quemoy and Matsu, two islands held by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government off the coast of mainland China. In January 1955, the Eisenhower administration ostentatiously moved nuclear-capable aircraft closer to the Taiwan Strait. SAC readiness levels were raised again in July 1958 during a crisis in Lebanon and yet again in response to heightened threat levels in the Middle East and along the Taiwan Strait in early 1959. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev also used nuclear threats during the October 1956 crises sparked by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal.

The absence of battlefield use during the Eisenhower administration was pivotal in establishing what international relations scholar Nina Tannenwald calls a taboo against using nuclear weapons.2 After two presidents, a Democrat and a Republican, managed to avoid using nuclear weapons during the Korean War and in multiple flash points in the Middle East and Asia, the bar was set extremely high for Nixon and Kissinger. The administration of Lyndon Johnson did not seriously consider using nuclear weapons in Vietnam.

Nixon brought to the White House the conviction that his predecessors acted wisely in making nuclear threats, and he was determined to use coercive nuclear diplomacy to shorten the Vietnam War. Kissinger was on Nixon’s wavelength, heartily endorsing the use of conventional force and nuclear threats to bring the excruciating and costly war to a close. The two men considered both tracks in 1969 and settled initially on nuclear feints. Left with the prospect of a long war when this failed, they then chose to raise the ante by conventional means.

Burr and Kimball present no evidence that Nixon and Kissinger were serious about nuclear weapons use but ample evidence that they were intent on nuclear coercion to help persuade Moscow to use its good offices in Hanoi to shorten the war. Both men were convinced that nuclear threats could be translated into leverage even though the track record of previous threats was ambiguous at best. It was as if the absence of horrific consequences when threats were conveyed equaled a successful application of influence even when, as in the cases cited above, outcomes were either indifferent to or immune from nuclear threat-making.

Nixon’s distinctive stamp on coercive nuclear diplomacy was to leave the impression that he might just be off his rocker, thereby lending credence to threats that seemed implausible to Hanoi and Moscow. Nixon apparently remained convinced of the utility of nuclear threat-making long after his resignation from the presidency. He told an interviewer at Time in 1985 that he considered Khrushchev to be a master of this art “because he scared the hell out of people.”

Nixon described this approach as the “Madman Theory,” a phrase he coined during his presidential campaign in 1968 when he spoke with his prospective chief of staff, H.R. (Bob) Haldeman, whose notes of the conversation appeared in Haldeman’s book The Ends of Power: “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button.’”3

Burr and Kimball define the Madman Theory as “[t]hreatening an adversary with the use of extreme or excessive force—force that normal people would consider disproportionate to the issues in dispute and, beyond that, senselessly dangerous because it risked a larger conflict that would also imperil the vital interests and security of the threatener. Adversaries would or might assume that the threatener was genuinely crazy—even though he was not—and therefore capable of irrational, imprudent, unpredictable acts.”

The alert, carried out between October 13 and 30, 1969, was termed the “JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] Readiness Test,” or “Increased Readiness Posture.” The American public was not told about the alert, but some journalists and congressional staffers got wind of it. NATO allies were kept in the dark. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and his military assistant, Colonel Robert Pursley, were apprised of the plan. Secretary of State William Rogers was not directly informed of the reasons behind it, and even the JCS chairman, General Earle Wheeler, might not have been, although both men quickly learned the reasons for these feints. (Nixon and Kissinger executed similar maneuvers bypassing Rogers prior to and during negotiations on the SALT I treaty.)

Commanders in the field who received orders to increase readiness for the employment of nuclear weapons, such as raising the number of bombers and tankers on ground alert, were kept in the dark about the geostrategic game plan behind these moves. They raised objections to actions that would degrade pilot training and proficiency while worrying allies. Other particulars of the readiness test included radio silence, increased surveillance of Soviet shipping, higher alert rates for SAC aircraft, the dispersal of bombers, and increased U.S. reconnaissance flights.

These readiness measures were intended to get the Kremlin’s attention but not so much as to bring the superpowers to the precipice. The Pentagon’s orders to commanders in the field sought to draw a fine line between avoiding steps that might be deemed threatening and provocative while taking “unusual and significant” measures. The DEFCON—a formalized sequence of alert levels for crises with nuclear consequences—was not raised during the readiness test, as it was subsequently during the 1973 crisis in the Middle East.

The readiness test ended amid much puzzlement and ineffectuality less than three weeks after it began. It failed to mobilize the Kremlin to do the Nixon administration’s bidding with North Vietnam for several reasons. The means Nixon and Kissinger employed for coercive nuclear diplomacy were undercut by their concern over domestic and allied blowback. It proved impossible to scare the Kremlin sufficiently without scaring the U.S. public and European and Pacific allies. When Nixon met with Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, during the readiness test to underscore U.S. messaging, the wily envoy, having been through the crucible of the Cuban missile crisis, correctly interpreted the mixed messages he received as bluff.

Confusion and constraints were compounded because of Nixon and Kissinger’s habit of circumventing regular chains of command and cutting out those presumed to be skeptics of the White House’s methods. Burr and Kimball provide considerable evidence that these maneuvers were amateurish and would have been risky if the Kremlin had taken them more seriously. The Soviet Union noticed what the Nixon White House was trying to do and responded in a low-key way. The Kremlin liked its hand and was not persuaded to do Washington’s bidding. The coercive nuclear gambit ended with a whimper, after which Nixon and Kissinger ramped up bombing and mining campaigns. Despite being a nuclear superpower fighting a non-nuclear-weapon state, the United States was unable to restrain North Vietnam from seeking achievable and embarrassing gains.

U.S. leaders eventually figured out the limits of coercive nuclear diplomacy, but other states continue to ascribe enormous persuasive powers to weapons that have not been used in battle for seven decades. President Vladimir Putin reminds the world of Russia’s nuclear arsenal while engaging in military expeditions in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and Syria. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seems quite confident that he can keep adversaries at bay with nuclear threats. When breakdowns in deterrence do not lead to catastrophe in South Asia or when crises are successfully managed, national leaders in Pakistan give significant credit to their nuclear deterrent. Burr and Kimball have written a fine book that challenges these assumptions and tactics.


1.  For an argument that they do confer leverage, see Matthew Kroenig, “Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve: Explaining Nuclear Crisis Outcomes,” International Organization, Vol. 67, No. 1 (January 2013): 141­171. For the opposite argument, see Todd Secher and Matthew Fuhrmann, “Crisis Bargaining and Nuclear Blackmail,” International Organization, Vol. 67, No. 1 (January 2013): 173-195.

2.  Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

3.  H.R. Haldeman with Joseph DiMona, The Ends of Power (New York: Times Books, 1978), pp. 82-83.

Michael Krepon is the co-founder of the Stimson Center. He is the author or editor of 21 books, including Better Safe than Sorry: The Ironies of Living with the Bomb. This year, he received the Thérèse Delpech Memorial Award from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for lifetime achievement in nongovernmental work to reduce nuclear dangers.

William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball’s new book on President Richard Nixon’s use of coercive nuclear feints during the Vietnam War should put an end to academic debates...

Avoiding War in Europe: The Risks From NATO-Russian Close Military Encounters

November 2015

By Ian Kearns

A Russian warship moves through the waters near the Ukrainian port city of Sevastopol on March 7, 2014, as part of a blockade of Ukrainian ships. [Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images]On March 3, 2014, a Russian warplane with its transponders switched off came within seconds of colliding with a Danish civilian airliner carrying 132 passengers from Copenhagen to Rome. SAS flight 737 averted a collision that day only because of evasive action taken by its pilot.1

An almost identical incident occurred nine months later, on December 12, again involving a Russian warplane and a civilian airliner that had just left Copenhagen.

Barely a year after the first incident, in March of this year, Russian Su-30 multirole fighter jets used two NATO warships in the Black Sea as targets in high-intensity training exercises.2 The purpose of the exercise appears to have been to provoke the NATO ships into taking defensive action so that the pilots of the Russian aircraft could observe that action and practice countermaneuvers.

Over the last 18 months, the European Leadership Network has logged more than 60 such dangerous incidents in the Euro-Atlantic area.3 The wider catalogue of events includes mock Russian cruise missile attack runs on targets in North America and Denmark, instances of Russian and Western fighter aircraft coming within meters of each other while on maneuvers, a series of submarine hunts off the coasts of Scotland and Sweden, and the abduction by Russian agents in September 2014 of an Estonian security service operative on Estonian, and therefore NATO, territory. In recent weeks, as Russian air operations have commenced in Syria and instances of Russian violations of Turkish airspace have come to light, the theater of these close and dangerous military encounters and incidents appears to have broadened from the Baltic Sea, Black Sea, and Atlantic Ocean to the Middle East.

There is a wider military and political context to these events that makes them all the more worrying. In addition to the close NATO-Russian military encounters now occurring, a general deterioration in the relationship between Russia and the West has become visible in an action-reaction cycle of military exercises being conducted in Europe. Russia is conducting more exercises than NATO, and the two sets of exercises are dissimilar in scale. A Russian “snap” exercise conducted in March, for example, brought together 80,000 military personnel in operations focused on the Arctic and the Baltic Sea regions whereas NATO’s largest exercise in many years, Trident Juncture, which started last month, drew about 36,000 military personnel. Moreover, while NATO exercises are aimed at reassuring allies in the eastern part of the alliance in the context of Russian support for separatists in Ukraine, Russia is using its exercises at least partly to intimidate and unsettle its neighbors.

Despite these important differences, however, there are similarities in the exercises of the two sides. These similarities say something important about what is occurring.

Both sides are using their exercises to practice a rapid mobilization and redeployment of forces over long distances to strengthen what they perceive to be their most strategically exposed areas. NATO is conducting exercises with a view to being able to protect the Baltic states and Poland. Russia is focusing on its border areas with Latvia and Estonia; Kaliningrad, the Russian territory between Lithuania and Poland; the Arctic; and occupied Crimea. The exercises of both involve ground, air, and naval forces in joint operations and include high-intensity combined arms training, the conducting and repelling of amphibious assaults, and engagements with low-level irregular forces.

Most importantly, despite protestations by both sides that the exercises are aimed at no particular adversary, it is clear that each side is exercising with the most likely war plans of the other in mind. The Russian military is preparing for a confrontation with NATO, and NATO is preparing for a confrontation with Russia. This does not mean either side has the political intent to start a war, but it does mean that both believe a war is no longer unthinkable. Many in NATO believe that the demonstration of resolve that the NATO exercises and additional force deployments in eastern Europe represent is essential to deterring Russian aggression and therefore to keeping the peace in Europe. In NATO’s view, the exercises are not a problem, but a virtue. Whether this view is justified—given Russia’s recent behavior, it may well be—the total effect of the developments described here is to generate a growing sense of insecurity on both sides. Russian exercises are seen as a provocation and a threat in the West, and NATO exercises and new deployments are seen as threatening in Moscow.

The developing situation also has a nuclear dimension. In a documentary made for a domestic Russian audience in March 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated that he had considered putting Russian nuclear forces on alert during the operation to annex Crimea. Just a few weeks later, the Russian ambassador to Denmark appeared to tell that country that if it took part in NATO’s emerging missile defense shield, it could expect to go on the target list for Russian nuclear weapons in the event of a conflict. These instances of what are seen as nuclear intimidation and nuclear saber rattling are creating pressure for a NATO response.

Last month, in response to Russia’s recent behavior, Adam Thomson, the UK ambassador to NATO, said that since the end of the Cold War, NATO has conducted exercises with conventional weapons and nuclear weapons but not “the transition from one to the other.” Now, however, “[t]hat is a recommendation that is being looked at. It is safe to say the UK does see merit in making sure we know how, as an Alliance, to transition up the escalatory ladder in order to strengthen our deterrence.”4

Meanwhile, Crimea and Ukraine have become flash points of a much more fundamental political disagreement. Not only are there significant policy differences between Russia and the West, but on the Russian side, a growing number of military and national security officials appear to believe Western policy is aimed at overthrowing Putin and weakening the Russian state to the point where it can be effectively destroyed and dismembered. Claims that the removal of the Yanukovych government in Ukraine was a Western-backed unconstitutional coup and a trial run for a “color revolution” in Russia itself are dismissed as rhetoric in the West, but are more deep-rooted in Moscow than some Western policymakers appear willing to acknowledge.5 It therefore seems safe to assume that current Russian behavior is driven as much by a concern for regime survival as it is by a concern for geopolitical advantage or by disagreement with specific policies of the West.

Many in the West at the same time believe that Russia is seeking to change the post-Cold War settlement, or perhaps even the post-World War II settlement, in Europe in a number of ways, including by use of force if necessary. The charge sheet here concerns changes to the borders of the Georgian state since 2008 and events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine over the past two years. It also includes the provision of funding and support to nationalist political parties hostile to the European integration project in central and western Europe and the use of energy as an instrument to influence the domestic and foreign policy choices of a number of states in NATO and the European Union. For many, it is becoming apparent that Russia is a revisionist power in western as well as eastern Europe.

Whether or not the current situation amounts to a new Cold War, the upshot is a confrontation in which both sides now perceive their fundamental interests to be at stake.

At the Mercy of Events

Too few appear to recognize that the current cocktail of incidents, mistrust, changed military posture, and nuclear signaling is creating the conditions in which a single event or combination of events could result in a NATO-Russian war, even if neither side intends it. To understand why this is not an exaggerated concern, one might consider the sequence of events that easily could have transpired if the aforementioned SAS civilian airliner en route from Copenhagen to Rome had collided with the Russian warplane.

The outrage and uproar in Western capitals at what would certainly have been a very serious loss of life would have been understandably huge. Media and public pressure to act quickly against Russia would have been irresistible. A demand for an immediate cessation of Russian military flights with transponders switched off, especially in civilian air corridors, would have been issued. If that demand did not elicit an immediate positive response from Moscow, a move that might imply acceptance of guilt, previously routine civil aviation flights in European airspace would have been declared at risk. In that situation, those flights would have to have been suspended, which would have been politically unacceptable and economically very damaging, or NATO would have needed to begin military interdiction of Russian aircraft. Any European government not willing to support such interdiction would have been taking its future in its hands, exposing itself to claims that it was weak in the face of unacceptable Russian behavior or risking a further incident while doing little or nothing to prevent it.

Amid this kind of uproar in the West, Putin would be highly likely to exhibit sadness at the loss of life and to offer full Russian assistance in any inquiry to get to the bottom of what happened. At the same time, he almost certainly would point out that Western military aircraft themselves fly with transponders switched off and that the Russian military aircraft involved in this particular incident was operating in full compliance with international law and was in international airspace. Although not ruling out talks to manage the situation, his domestic political persona would constrain his options. He has invested a lot of time and effort in portraying himself to his own people as a strong leader, capable of standing up to the West while making Russia respected again on the international stage. Capitulating to Western pressure outright would be politically damaging.

Diplomacy might save the day, but that could not be assumed. The scene would be set for the planes, naval vessels, and land forces of a nuclear-armed state and a nuclear-armed alliance to continue coming up against each other. This time, however, the close encounters would not be part of planned exercises or a game of brinkmanship, which is dangerous enough, but would come amid a real standoff over who had the right to fly where and under what circumstances, with everyone’s fundamental interests and full political prestige at stake.

Little or nothing is being done to avert this kind of crisis, which could be triggered by any one of the other dangerous incidents and encounters that have taken place over the last 18 months. This absence of action is shocking. If such a crisis resulted in military hostilities, there would be no telling where those hostilities might lead and, given the nuclear arsenals on both sides, what the end result could be.

Agreements on Avoiding Incidents

The Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents on and Over the High Seas, usually known as the Incidents at Sea Agreement, was signed by U.S. President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev at their summit in Moscow in May 1972. It is a technical military-to-military agreement rather than a statement of political principle. It requires each side to avoid dangerous maneuvers, refrain from mock attacks that might simulate weapons use against aircraft or ships, and avoid dropping objects close to ships to hinder their navigation. It also requires the surveillance ships and aircraft of one side to communicate with the other.

The agreement was a response to a dangerous pattern of military activities, including instances of each side’s warships maneuvering very close to those of the other, and a pattern of dangerous maritime air surveillance involving close overflights of warships. The latter was often perceived as harassment by the ships’ commanders. The agreement proved its worth when, during the Arab-Israeli war in October 1973, it helped ensure there were no serious incidents while 150 U.S. and Soviet warships shared the crowded waters of the eastern Mediterranean.

The Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities was signed on June 12, 1989, and entered into force on January 1, 1990. Like the Incidents at Sea Agreement, it governs the activities and personnel of each side when operating in close proximity to the other in peacetime. It focuses on four categories of military activity: military operations by one side near the territory of the other; the use of lasers, particularly those directed at aircraft cockpits, which could be harmful to personnel; operations in areas of high tension, which either party could designate as a “special caution area”; and interference with command-and-control networks. In each of these areas, the agreement requires caution, communication to avoid dangerous incidents and misunderstandings, and action to terminate injurious activity if a problem is identified by the other side. Unlike the Incidents at Sea Agreement, it incorporates certain operations on land as well as those at sea and in the air. It also sets out agreed communications signals and frequencies to be used by the aircraft, ships, and ground vehicles of each side. A joint military commission was set up to issue an annual assessment of compliance and consider how the agreement could be enhanced.—IAN KEARNs

    Negotiating a New Instrument

    The risk of a serious crisis and the absence of action to prevent one led to a recent paper from the Task Force on Cooperation in Greater Europe, made up of senior figures from Russia and the rest of Europe. This group called for the NATO-Russia Council to be convened urgently to discuss a possible new memorandum of understanding (MOU) between NATO and Russia on rules of behavior in air and maritime encounters between the two sides. This proposal has been signed or endorsed by a total of 78 senior military, political, and diplomatic leaders drawn from across the European continent.

    The task force proposal draws explicitly on an agreement signed by China and the United States in late 2014. This U.S.-Chinese MOU sets out the principles and procedures for communication during encounters between military vessels and aircraft and requires each side to give timely hazard warnings if military exercises and live weapons firing are to take place in an area where the military vessels and aircraft of the other may be operational.6 It also sets out a series of rules for establishing mutual trust. These include a commitment, when conducting operations, to communicate in a timely fashion about the planned maneuvers of military vessels and military aircraft. They also include a list of actions that should be avoided, such as simulation of attacks by aiming guns, missiles, fire control radar, torpedo tubes, or other weapons in the direction of military vessels and military aircraft encountered.

    The agreement specifies the radio frequencies to be used for communication and the signals vocabulary to be used if pilots, commanding officers, or masters of vessels experience language difficulties as they communicate with one another. It also contains a provision for each party to conduct an annual meeting, led by senior military officers, to assess application of the agreement in the previous year and to deal with any problems or issues that have arisen during that time.

    With regard to the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship, the 1972 Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents on and Over the High Seas, usually known as the Incidents at Sea Agreement, and the 1989 Agreement on Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities (see box) operate in a similar way. These two agreements could serve as the basis for a more multilateralized arrangement involving all NATO members and Russia and even NATO partners such as Sweden and Finland. Russian and NATO officials should pursue this objective with urgency.

    Some apparently still think such a deal is not necessary. In off-the-record conversations, some military commanders stress that close military encounters of the kind now under way in Europe were a fact of life during the Cold War and that well-trained, professional military personnel are more than up to the task of handling them without incident.7

    Furthermore, some diplomats and politicians, particularly in eastern Europe, see the proposal as dangerously corrosive to Western unity with regard to Russia. This latter group sees any attempt to negotiate a mechanism for reducing the risks of close military encounters with Russia as a reward for aggressive Russian behavior and as an unwelcome opportunity for some Western countries, suspected of wishing to return their relations with Russia to “business as usual,” to advance their case. According to this view, a move to negotiate a new instrument would encourage further aggressive Russian behavior and dissipate the message of resolve, deterrence, and a commitment to collective defense that NATO has been trying to construct and maintain since the annexation of Crimea.8

    On the Russian side, there also are some voices arguing against this proposal, seeing in it a Western tactic aimed at distracting attention from matters of greater significance, such as the eastward enlargement of NATO, the failure of the West to engage in dialogue on future arrangements for European security as a whole, and a lack of willingness to address wider Russian security concerns from missile defense to developments in conventional prompt global-strike systems.

    The arguments on all sides are understandable in the context of what is now a total breakdown of trust between NATO and Russia and a lack of confidence among some allies within NATO. Ultimately, however, they are not persuasive.

    The very existence of the recent U.S.-Chinese MOU validates a concern over the risks that are run when the military forces of states that are not allies come into close proximity with one another. That agreement makes clear the importance of having protocols and military procedures in place to manage events in real time rather than relying on agreements to refrain from certain kinds of activity in the first place. Although some military commanders seem less worried about such incidents, many more believe leaving the outcome of close military encounters to chance or the split-second decisions of individual pilots and other military personnel is unnecessarily dangerous.

    The more recent dialogue between Russia and the United States on the subject of “deconflicting” the roles of the U.S.-led coalition and Russian military forces deployed in and around Syria is another timely recognition of the need for and logic of a new multilateral instrument to manage the risks.

    Although there has been some concern about the ultimate diplomatic consequence of negotiating such an instrument in Europe, the necessity of having the conversation with regard to Syria was realized almost immediately once it became clear that the Russian military presence in Syria was being increased and was changing in character and capability. To put it bluntly, it became evident to everyone that U.S. warplanes operating over Syria could be accidentally shot down by Russian air defense systems being deployed there, embedded U.S. special forces on the ground could be the victim of Russian air attacks, and Russian and U.S. military aircraft could be operating in an uncoordinated way in the same airspace. This overall situation and several instances of Russian warplanes entering Turkish airspace from Syria prompted NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to tell a press conference on October 6 that “Russia must deconflict its military activities in Syria” and that “it’s unacceptable to violate the airspace of another country, and this is exactly what we were afraid of, that incidents, accidents may create dangerous situations.”9

    It is difficult to see why dialogue and the negotiation of more-formal arrangements makes strategic sense between China and the United States in the East and South China seas and why deconflicting makes sense in Syria, but neither apparently makes sense between NATO and Russia in Europe.

    Deterrence Is Not Enough

    NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on October 6.  [Photo credit: Thierry Charlier/AFP/Getty Images]The argument that an attempt to negotiate a new instrument between NATO and Russia in Europe could weaken deterrence also is not persuasive. It is a reasonable concern, echoing debates on whether to engage in détente and associated steps toward superpower conflict prevention and crisis management during the Cold War. Yet, it is important to recall that the underlying rationale of détente was a lowering of tension with the Soviet Union to avoid the possibility of an accidental conflict and the potential for catastrophic nuclear war. Détente emphatically was not nor was it intended to be the end of superpower competition or of differences between the Soviet Union and the United States.

    The impetus for dialogue in that period, as manifested in the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, to cite two examples, was an acceptance of the need for mutual restraint and the adoption of measures to avoid accidental war. This approach was seen as the only basis for mutual survival. The nuclear shadow was ever present, and the fear of nuclear war was the driving force. In essence, what followed the near catastrophe of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 was a developing belief that the task of avoiding war between nuclear-armed states could not be left to deterrence alone. Other mechanisms were needed to keep the peace and, no matter what disagreements and confrontations existed, these mechanisms needed to be negotiated and implemented.                 

    Looking at the current absence of dialogue between NATO and Russia and at arguments against negotiating a new instrument to manage close military encounters, one is struck by what appears to be nuclear amnesia, nuclear complacency, or both. If a military confrontation between Russia and NATO were to develop today, for whatever reason, the risks and the potential consequences would be the same as they were during the Cold War.

    For these reasons, the case for a new instrument to help manage the risks in the Euro-Atlantic area, and in particular to manage the risks between NATO members and Russia, is strong. The call for negotiation of such an instrument chimes with the times and with approaches being used in other theaters. Above all, it reflects the lessons of history. To pretend the status quo is safe or acceptable is to abdicate the responsibility of leadership and to leave the security of Europe and potentially of the world at the mercy of events.

    Ian Kearns is co-founder and director of the European Leadership Network. He previously was acting director and deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research in the United Kingdom and deputy chair of the institute’s independent All-Party Commission on National Security in the 21st Century.


    1.  “SAS Flight in Russian Spy Plane Near Miss,” The Local, May 8, 2014, http://www.thelocal.se/20140508/sas-plane-in-russian-spy-plane-near-miss.

    2.  Government-owned Russian media even bragged about this incident. See Sputnik International, “Russian Jets Penetrate NATO Ships’ Air Defenses in Black Sea,” March 19, 2015, http://sputniknews.com/russia/20150304/1019036875.html.

    3.  Thomas Frear, Łukasz Kulesa, and Ian Kearns, “Dangerous Brinkmanship: Close Military Encounters Between Russia and the West in 2014,” European Leadership Network (ELN), November 2014, http://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/medialibrary/2014/11/09/6375e3da/Dangerous%20Brinkmanship.pdf. For a further update on incidents, see Ian Kearns, Łukasz Kulesa, and Thomas Frear, “Russia-West Dangerous Brinkmanship Continues,” ELN, March 12, 2015, http://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/russia--west-dangerous-brinkmanship-continues-_2529.html.

    4.  “Britain Backs Return of Cold War Nuclear Drills as NATO Hardens Against Russia,” The Telegraph, October 8, 2015.

    5.  The term “color revolution” is a reference to labels used by the world’s media to describe previous waves of revolutionary change in a number of countries. Examples include the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004.

    6.  “Memorandum of Understanding Between the Department of Defense of the United States of America and the Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China Regarding the Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters,” November 9, 2014, sec. 1, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/141112_MemorandumOfUnderstandingRegarding

    7.  Between March 2014 and October 2015, the author conducted face-to-face, telephone, and e-mail interviews on background with a number of senior military figures from NATO countries and Russia. The statement made in this paragraph reflects the view of a minority of those interviewed.

    8.  Since the publication of the position paper by the Task Force on Greater Europe calling for a new memorandum of understanding, this view has been expressed in August 2015 to the author directly by a former Baltic state defense minister and by several ambassador-level diplomats from the same region.

    9.  “Pre-Ministerial Press Conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg,” NATO, October 6, 2015, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_123471.htm. NATO defense ministers met in Brussels on October 8.

    With NATO-Russian relations in their current state, a single event or combination of events could result in a war, even if neither side intends it...

    Latest New START Data Shows Nuclear Posture—and Nuclear Posturing

    Charting the data exchanged under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between Russia and the United States from February 2011 to September 2015 shows that Russia reversed course two years ago and began increasing the number of warheads deployed on long-range ballistic missiles. Russia has now exceeded the treaty limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads in each of the last three data exchanges, which occur twice per year. The treaty requires that the ceilings be met by February 2018. The U.S. trajectory for New START-accountable deployed strategic warheads, meanwhile,...

    Latest New START Data Shows Nuclear Posture—and Nuclear Posturing

    Charting the data exchanged under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between Russia and the United States from February 2011 to September 2015 shows that Russia reversed course two years ago and began increasing the number of warheads deployed on long-range ballistic missiles. Russia has now exceeded the treaty limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads in each of the last three data exchanges, which occur twice per year. The treaty requires that the ceilings be met by February 2018. The U.S. trajectory for New START-accountable deployed strategic warheads, meanwhile,...


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