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Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005

The Evolving Russian Concept of Strategic Deterrence: Risks and Responses

July/August 2017
By Anya Loukianova Fink

Over the last decade, Russia has been putting into operation its vision of strategic deterrence, a doctrinal approach built on a demonstrated spectrum of capabilities and a resolve to use military force. Russia’s strategic deterrence is conceptually different from its Western namesake in that it is not limited to nuclear weapons.

This article introduces Russia’s strategic deterrence, highlights its escalatory potential, and discusses challenges in mitigating its dangers.

Russian military analysts describe strategic deterrence as primarily a defensive strategy that seeks to prevent conflict and to control escalation if a conflict breaks out.1 If tested in a military conflict with the West, however, some of its elements could well fuel escalation dynamics. Most notably, Russia’s plans to control escalation by using conventional precision-strike missile systems on an opponent’s military and economic targets raise the risk of unintended escalation, especially when employed alongside cyber- and electronic warfare capabilities.

Russian President Vladimir Putin enters a hall in the Kremlin March 23 to meet with senior military officers promoted to higher positions. (Photo credit: Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)If a conflict involving Russian and U.S./NATO forces erupts, policymakers on both sides will find themselves unprepared to deal with numerous escalation-management challenges, which include understanding the nature of Russia’s deliberate escalation and mitigating the dangers of unintended escalation on both sides. The most urgent step to curbing the escalation potential of such a conflict is a shared commitment to avoid the unintended use of nuclear weapons. This foundation can help facilitate the management of escalation risks that will persist in the relationship between Russia and the West for the foreseeable future.

Russia’s Approach

Russia’s strategic deterrence approach is grounded in its understanding of internal and external threats and its sense of asymmetry toward the West. 2 Russian military doctrine describes perceived dangers from the United States and NATO readiness to use military force, instability and terrorism that could challenge Russia’s sovereignty, and a local conflict on its vast borders that could escalate, including to the use of nuclear weapons. 3 Russian officials also have concerns about their inability to counter Western military technological developments and the dangers posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction technologies to state and nonstate actors.

As part of strategic deterrence, Russia developed a spectrum of nonmilitary and non-nuclear and nuclear capabilities intended for continuous employment in peacetime and wartime. 4 On one end of this spectrum are nonmilitary means that Russian leaders see as tools to achieve Russia’s national interests without the direct use of military force. Russia’s political and “information war” activities have received a lot of attention in the West as a Russian innovation. Yet, Russian military officials and analysts have argued that Russia learned this approach from observing Western activities, notably in eastern Europe and the Middle East, since the end of the Cold War. 5 Furthermore, although nonmilitary means are important to Russia’s so-called theory of victory, strategic deterrence is fundamentally a strategy based on convincing an opponent of a credible threat of using military force.

At the other end of this spectrum, strategic nuclear forces remain at the heart of Russia’s strategic stability calculus, intended to prevent a regional or large-scale conflict by deterring the West. 6 Moscow is in the midst of a multiyear modernization of all three legs of its nuclear triad, although Russian experts suggest that some of the systems’ procurement is industry driven and excessive. 7 The doctrine and posture of Russia’s nonstrategic nuclear forces remains opaque, but it has long been linked to the perceived weakness of Russia’s general purpose forces and other conventional capabilities. 8 Some have noted that Russian nonstrategic nuclear forces may also intend to “offset the growing disparities” in regional ballistic missile defense. 9

A Russian Iskander ballistic missile launcher rolls by a soldier during a parade rehearsal near Moscow on April 20, 2010. Recently, Russia reportedly has deployed Iskander-M missiles, which can carry conventional or nuclear warheads, to its western enclave of Kaliningrad, which borders NATO members Poland and Lithuania. (Photo credit: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)In between, Moscow has heavily invested in development of conventional capabilities. Russia has extensively exercised its general purpose forces over the last five years, testing their command-and-control systems and improving their equipment, readiness, and mobility for a range of possible conflict scenarios. 10 Russia’s current force posture points primarily to a preoccupation with local contingencies on its borders with non-NATO neighbors. 11 Its concerns also extend to the potential vulnerability of Kaliningrad and Crimea. 12

As part of an effort to reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons at early stages of conflict, Russia has developed a range of non-nuclear deterrence capabilities, including conventional precision-strike systems (long-range cruise missiles and short-range ballistic missiles), air and missile defenses, and various capabilities intended to disrupt an adversary’s command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, what the military calls C4ISR. 13 It has sought to demonstrate these capabilities in Ukraine and Syria.

Tailored Escalation

Russia’s direct and indirect uses of force have fueled debate about the role of deliberate escalation in its strategic deterrence approach. Such escalation could be used to gain military advantage or to get an opponent to halt its actions—an important distinction in escalation management. 14 This distinction is not something that Russian analysts address.

Strategic deterrence is built on Russia’s view of conflicts as defensive, preventive, and just. 15 Russian military writings describe it as an approach with elements of deterrence, containment, and compellence that aims to “induce fear” in opponents. 16 To achieve this and other effects, Russian military theorists focus on the importance of tailoring nonmilitary means and the direct and indirect uses of military force. 17

Such tailoring has proven difficult in practice for Russia. During the Ukraine crisis, Russian leadership highlighted Russia’s nuclear status to signal that Russia’s stakes were higher than those of the West. In addition, Russian diplomats and former officials threatened nuclear use against NATO members and partners. 18 Russian aircraft “buzzed” vessels, risking accidents, and engaged in other hazardous activities. 19 Denials by officials of Russia’s support for separatists in Ukraine, as well as the July 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, also raised questions about Russia’s interest or ability to credibly signal limits or engage in restraint.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis talks with soldiers during a visit to NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup in Lithuania on May 10. The United States and its European allies have increased their military presence in response to perceived Russian threats to nearby NATO members, such as the Baltic states. (Photo credit: Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images)In the early phases of a conflict, Russian military writings suggest that Russia would first work to reduce escalation through nonmilitary means. 20 Yet, diplomacy and information activities could be viewed by the West as part and parcel of Russia’s “gray zone” strategies. On the Russian side, Western actions may be dismissed as “information war.” 21 To be sure, Russia’s restraint and bilateral diplomacy proved effective after Turkey downed its fighter-bomber in June 2015. Nevertheless, the absence of effective and credible crisis management mechanisms, including in the NATO-Russia Council, amplifies the danger that both sides will view nonmilitary means as propaganda that paves the way for military force.

Beginnings of a Conflict

Russian political-military analysts have discussed the dangers of unintended escalation given the proximity of NATO and Russian military forces. 22 As conventional postures and plans are adapted to meet perceived threats, the potential for a conflict outbreak due to inadvertent or accidental escalation increases. In turn, Russia’s practical ability to manage such escalation through strategic deterrence is limited.

In a nascent crisis, Russia is likely to engage in deterrence signaling and increase the readiness of selected conventional and perhaps nuclear capabilities. Russian military writings stress the importance of tight political control over and rules of engagement for military forces, especially as they signal intent to deny domains in a conflict and engage in reconnaissance. 23 Russian analysts also focus, however, on denying the opponent escalation dominance and achieving decisive effects in the initial period of war. 24 They further discuss mobilization activities, including of the public. 25 The challenge is that deterrence signaling activities may raise the risk of inadvertent escalation during a critical time, while mobilization activities could contribute to a perception that a conflict is unavoidable.

As the West’s military-political deterrence posture shifts in response to Russia’s deterrence signaling and mobilization, Russia may engage in a crisis response and rush forces to the theater. Military writings point to the likelihood of active use of cyber- and electronic warfare to disrupt Western C4ISR systems. 26 These actions are likely to be reciprocated, resulting in a significant degree of damage and other consequences to both sides that are not yet fully understood. These may further stress policymakers’ abilities to understand escalation dynamics and control the employment of military forces in the theater.

In addition, nuclear forces may be alerted, and warheads will begin to be moved from central storage facilities to bases. Instead of successfully halting the conflict, some Russian writings suggest that these actions may heighten concerns about the vulnerability of nonstrategic nuclear weapons. 27 Managing escalation of the conflict will depend on the mutual ability to maintain control of the use of force and understand critical thresholds.

Conventional Precision-Strike Weapons

As Russia embarked on a modernization of its conventional forces in the early 2000s, Russian military theorists advocated the creation of non-nuclear deterrence capabilities for the strategic deterrence spectrum. 28 Some noted that such capabilities along with a doctrinal foundation could be important due to the “widely accepted consequences of nuclear weapons use and, as a result, the low credibility of nuclear weapons as a deterrence measure at early stages of conflicts among states.” 29 Russia’s 2014 military doctrine introduced a new “forceful” strategic deterrence step that envisaged the use of precision strike weapons to coerce an opponent to halt its military actions. 30

The new Russian multipurpose MiG-35 jet fighter, due to begin entering service in 2019, is displayed on a podium during its presentation at the MiG plant in Lukhovitsy, 90 miles southeast of Moscow, on January 27. (Photo credit: Marina Lystseva/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia does not have sufficient conventional precision-strike capabilities to credibly threaten the full range of Western counterforce targets. Russian military analysts thus focus on limited strikes to inflict “deterrent damage” on “vitally” important military targets. 31 Targets include “weak spots” of military infrastructure such as C4ISR and transportation nodes. 32 As escalation progresses, they also discuss striking economic targets with, in theory, an aim to limit civilian losses. Such strikes would seek to damage electricity generation and distribution systems, dams, chemical production facilities, and other targets. 33 Russian military doctrine reflects a concern about Western strikes on similar targets. 34

Uncertainties exist as to whether this step will be able to effectively control escalation. As some Russian commentators note, Russian doctrine does not spell out the thresholds or criteria for these strikes or how Russia will attempt to communicate what this step means. 35 Presumably, cyberattacks will also be used to disable operations of some of the intended targets, which could contribute to confusion about the aims of conventional-weapon precision strikes. More practically, strikes on counterforce targets to inflict “deterrent damage” could result in only temporary disruptions. Strikes on economic assets may solidify an opponent’s resolve. Their consequences become even less predictable in an information-war environment.

As some Western analysts point out, Russia’s precision strike systems are dual capable, 36 but Russian writings do not focus on the potential of an opponent’s misperception of a Russian conventional signaling strike as a nuclear one. Presumably, Russia’s inclusion of a step with conventional precision-strike weapons could have been intended as a signal of a higher nuclear threshold. As Russia’s conventional precision-strike capabilities progress, watching doctrinal and employment evolution will be essential for understanding Russia’s critical thresholds. In the meantime, this issue could benefit from bilateral military-to-military contacts and efforts to privately clarify this new doctrinal element with Western counterparts.

Ambiguous Nuclear Thresholds

Russian military writings in the wake of the 1999 NATO bombing of Kosovo suggested that Russia could have engaged in a single, maybe low-yield nuclear detonation as part of a warning or to press the adversary to back down. This was Russia’s way of coping with a perceived conventional vulnerability at the time, especially regarding Western precision-strike capabilities. The standard line of thinking in Russian writings was that such nuclear reliance would be obviated once credible conventional precision-strike capabilities emerged. 37

Beyond a statement in Russian military doctrine about nuclear use when the “existence of state” is at stake, Russia’s actual threshold for nuclear use remains ambiguous. Russian military theorists view some of this ambiguity as beneficial, even though they extensively discuss what constitutes “unacceptable damage” to would-be opponents. 38 They also outline roles for nuclear weapons at later stages of large-scale conflict in strategic operations. 39 Some note, however, that “deterrence through use (or threat) of nuclear weapons even as limited strikes does not fully guarantee that the conflict would not take the path of escalation with the unlimited (mass) use of nuclear weapons.” 40

Russian political and military officials have expressed persistent concerns about an “aerospace attack” that could inflict damage on Russia’s strategic nuclear forces with conventional precision-strike weapons. 41 This and several related threat scenarios build on Russia’s suspicions about U.S. missile defenses, especially the capabilities of Aegis Ashore launchers that are part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach and prompt global-strike systems. 42 Russian military theorists also have concerns about inadvertent nuclear escalation that arises from the synergy of precision strike, cyber, and electronic means in combat. 43 As the development of these capabilities continues to progress and U.S. nuclear modernization begins, it will be important to take advantage of the possibility that Russia will wish to avoid nuclear escalation and look for ways to reduce nuclear risks in a potential conflict.

Reducing Escalation Dangers

If a conflict involving Russia and the West breaks out tomorrow, policymakers on both sides would find themselves unprepared to deal with numerous escalation dangers. In a conflict, managing escalation will be important for the West, but it will also be critical for Russia. Western policy efforts must find ways
to encourage Russia’s exercise of restraint regarding its deliberate escalation and contribute to mitigating the dangers of unintended escalation on its part.

General Stefan Danila (left), chief of the Romanian Army General Staff, shakes hands with General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia and first deputy defense minister, at the NATO-Russia Council meeting of defense chiefs on January 22, 2014. Shortly thereafter, NATO suspended the council in response to Russia’s military actions against Ukraine. (Photo credit: NATO)Ongoing U.S. and NATO efforts to adapt conventional deterrence postures and policies, as well as to improve resilience and strategic communication, are important ways to influence Russia’s deliberate escalation calculus. 44 Furthermore, with regard to Russia’s “forceful” non-nuclear deterrence step, NATO needs to consider cruise missile defense approaches and “point defenses of critical airfields and command-and-control facilities.” 45 Such steps need to be taken in tandem with clarifying thresholds and resolving mutual concerns around the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the European Phased Adaptive Approach approach. 46

In a nuclear crisis, effective U.S./NATO-Russian communication in an environment of cyber-, electronic, and information warfare will be key to credibly signaling limits, including the absence of a threat to the “existence of state” or nuclear forces. From this perspective, the de facto absence of a credible crisis management and communication mechanism poses a significant challenge to successful escalation management. Given the failure of the NATO-Russia Council in past crises, policy efforts need to identify or create such a mechanism.

Russia’s strategic deterrence exploits the attention and fear generated by indirect uses of military force, but Russian analysts have also argued that Moscow must seriously engage Western proposals on transparency of conventional forces. 47 There may be opportunities for the West to pursue efforts to gain further limits and notification requirements on military exercises under the 2011 Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures; enhanced military information exchanges, including on naval activities; and subregional risk reduction measures. 48

Managing the risks of accidental escalation that could result from force management errors is also essential. Western policy has allowed Russia to normalize coercive strategic deterrence activities, such as “buzzing” by military aircraft, that raise the risk of accidents involving military forces. Some in the West have advocated a plan of action on avoiding hazardous incidents in the Euro-Atlantic area. This plan provides an omnibus NATO-Russian approach to dated and piecemeal bilateral arrangements among numerous states-parties, including the 1972 Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas and the 1989 Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities. 49 Such a step may help to induce Russian restraint and accountability.

Finally, Western studies have suggested that when faced with a prospect of a nuclear conflict, both sides need to recognize that they share an interest in preventing nuclear use. 50 In line with this, some Russian analysts have called for a high-level statement that would reaffirm U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s declaration that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” 51 To be sure, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently sought to reassure a Western audience that Russia has no intentions of using its nuclear weapons for coercion because that could have escalatory consequences with global implications. 52 Pursuing such a joint U.S.-Russian statement could thus be a useful way ahead. 53


1.   Yu. A. Pechatnov, “Teoriya sderzhivaniya: genesis” [Deterrence theory: Beginnings], Vooruzheniye I Ekonomika, February 2016.

2.   Ibid.

3.   Embassy of the Russian Federation to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, “The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation,” June 29, 2015, http://rusemb.org.uk/press/2029 (hereinafter Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation).

4.   Kristin Ven Bruusgaard, “Russian Strategic Deterrence,” Survival, Vol. 58, No. 4 (August-September 2016): 7-26.

5.   Timothy Thomas, “Thinking Like a Russian Officer: Basic Factors and Contemporary Thinking on the Nature of War,” Foreign Military Studies Office, April 2016, http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/documents/Thinking%20Like%20A%20Russian%20Officer_monograph_Thomas%20(final).pdf.

6.   Andrei Kokoshin, “Ensuring Strategic Stability in the Past and Present: Theoretical and Applied Questions,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, June 2011, http://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/files/Ensuring%20Strategic%20Stability%20by%20A.%20Kokoshin.pdf.

7.   “Alexey Arbatov: Yesli tam budet krupnaya voina, to nam budet uzhe ne do tsen na chernoye zoloto” [If there is a large-scale war, we won’t care about black gold prices], Economy Times, February 16, 2016, http://economytimes.ru/kurs-rulya/aleksey-arbatov-esli-tam-budet-krupnaya-voyna-nam-budet-uzhe-ne-do-cen-na-chernoe-zoloto.

8.   Olga Oliker, “Russia’s Nuclear Doctrine: What We Know, What We Don’t, and What That Means,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), May 2016, https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/160504_Oliker_RussiasNuclearDoctrine_Web.pdf.

9.   Vladimir Kozin, “Russian Approach to Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons and Confidence Building Prospects,” n.d. (remarks at workshop in Warsaw held February 7-8, 2013).

10.   Gudrun Persson, ed., “Russian Military Capability in a Ten-Year Perspective - 2016,” FOI-R--4326--SE, December 2016, https://www.foi.se/report-search/pdf?fileName=D%3A%5CReportSearch%5CFiles%5C5fa9f89b-8136-4b15-9aaf-1d227aee90a0.pdf.

11.   Alexander Golts and Michael Kofman, “Russia’s Military: Assessment, Strategy, and Threat,” Center for Global Interests, June 2016, http://globalinterests.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Russias-Military-Center-on-Global-Interests-2016.pdf.

12.   Anton Lavrov, “Russia’s Geopolitical Fears,” Moscow Defense Brief, No. 5 (May 2016).

13.   V.M. Burenok and O.B Achasov, “Neyadernoye sderzhivaniye” [Non-nuclear deterrence], Voyennaya Mysl, December 2007.

14.   Forrest Morgan et al., “Confronting Emergent Nuclear-Armed Regional Adversaries,” RAND Corp., 2015, http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR900/RR974/RAND_RR974.pdf.

15.   For a discussion of Russia’s defensive logic, see Andrei Kolesnikov, “Do The Russians Want War?” Carnegie Moscow Center, June 2016, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/Article_Kolesnikov_2016_Eng-2.pdf.

16.   Pechatnov, “Teoriya sderzhivaniya: genesis.”

17.   A.A. Kokoshin, Yu. N. Balueyvskiy, V. Ya. Potapov, “Vliyaniye noveishikh tendentsii v razvitii tekhnologii i sredstv vooruzhennoi bor’by na voyennoye iskusstvo” [Impact of new tendencies in development of technologies and means of arms combat on military art], Vestnik Moskovskogo Universiteta, Vol. 25, No. 4 (2015).

18.   Persson, “Russian Military Capability in a Ten-Year Perspective - 2016.”

19.   Łukasz Kulesa, Thomas Frear, and Denitsa Raynova, “Managing Hazardous Incidents in the Euro-Atlantic Area: A New Plan of Action,” European Leadership Network Policy Brief, November 2016, http://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/medialibrary/2016/11/02/ab4a4c1d/ELN%20Managing%20Hazardous%20Incidents%20November%202016.pdf.

20.   Thomas, “Thinking Like a Russian Officer.”

21.   S.G. Chekinov and S.A. Bogdanov, “Evoliutsiya sushnosti I soderzhaniya ponyatiya ‘voina’ v XXI stoletii” [Evolution of the nature and meaning of the concept “war” in the 21st century], Voyennaya Mysl, January 2017.

22.   See “Velichaishaya ostorozhnost i blagorazumiye” [Greatest care and consideration], August 24, 2015, http://www.globalaffairs.ru/number/Velichaishaya-ostorozhnost-i-blagorazumie-17638.

23.   Kokoshin, Balueyvskiy, and Potapov, “Vliyaniye noveishikh tendentsii v razvitii tekhnologii i sredstv vooruzhennoi bor’by na voyennoye iskusstvo.”

24.   Ibid.; Thomas, “Thinking Like a Russian Officer.”

25.   See S.V. Goncharov and N.F. Artamonov, “Moralno-psikhologicheskoye obespecheniye mobilizatsionnoi raboty” [Moral-psychological support of mobilization work] Voyennaya Mysl, April 2014.

26.   Kokoshin, Balueyvskiy, and Potapov, “Vliyaniye noveishikh tendentsii v razvitii tekhnologii i sredstv vooruzhennoi bor’by na voyennoye iskusstvo”; Thomas, “Thinking Like a Russian Officer.”

27.   Kokoshin, “Ensuring Strategic Stability in the Past and Present.”

28.   A.A. Kokoshin, “Strategic Nuclear and Nonnuclear Deterrence: Modern Priorities,” Science and Society, Vol. 84, No. 3 (2014): 195-205.

29.   Yu. A. Pechatnov, “Metodicheskii podhod k opredelniuy sderzhivayushchego ushcherba s uchetom subyektivnykh osobennostei ego vospriyatiya veroyatnym protivnikom” [Methodological approach to determining deterrent damage considering subjective specialties of its perception by likely adversary], Vooruzheniye I Ekonomika, Vol. 3, No. 15 (2011).

30.   Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, no. 26.

31.   Burenok and Achasov, “Neyadernoye sderzhivaniye.”

32.   Kokoshin, “Strategic Nuclear and Nonnuclear Deterrence.”

33.   Ibid.; Burenok and Achasov, “Neyadernoye sderzhivaniye.”

34.   Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, no. 14b.

35.   Konstantin Sivkov, “Pravo na udar” [Right to strike], Voyenno-Promyshlennyi Kuryer, March 5, 2015, http://vpk-news.ru/articles/19370.

36.   Pavel Podvig and Javier Serrat, “Lock Them Up: Zero-Deployed Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons in Europe,” UN Institute for Disarmament Research, 2017, http://www.unidir.org/files/publications/pdfs/lock-them-up-zero-deployed-non-strategic-nuclear-weapons-in-europe-en-675.pdf.

37.   Andrei Zagorski, “Russia’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Posture, Politics, and Arms Control,” Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, 2011, http://www.unidir.org/files/medias/pdfs/executive-summary-a-zagorski-eng-0-325.pdf.

38.   Dave Johnson, “Nuclear Weapons in Russia’s Approach to Conflict,” Fondation Pour la Recherche Stratégique, No. 06/2016 (November 2016), https://www.frstrategie.org/publications/recherches-documents/web/documents/2016/201606.pdf.

39.   Ibid.

40.   Pechatnov, “Teoriya sderzhivaniya: genesis.”

41.   Alexey Arbatov, “Understanding the U.S.-Russia Nuclear Schism,” Survival, Vol. 59, No. 2 (April-May 2017).

42.   Vladimir Dvorkin, “Yadernyi psikhoz krepchayet” [Nuclear psychosis is getting stronger], Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, May 19, 2016; Greg Thielmann and Andrei Zagorski, “INF Treaty Compliance: A Challenge and an Opportunity,” Deep Cuts Working Paper, No. 9 (February 2017), http://www.deepcuts.org/images/PDF/DeepCuts_WP9_ThielmannZagorski.pdf.

43.   Kokoshin, Balueyvskiy, and Potapov, “Vliyaniye noveishikh tendentsii v razvitii tekhnologii i sredstv vooruzhennoi bor’by na voyennoye iskusstvo.”

44.   Lisa Sawyer Samp et al., “Recalibrating U.S. Strategy Toward Russia,” CSIS, March 2017, https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/170329_Hicks_USStrategyTowardRussia_Web.pdf.

45.   Dennis M. Gormley, “The Offense-Defense Problem,” Deep Cuts Working Paper, No. 6 (May 2016), http://deepcuts.org/images/PDF/DeepCuts_WP6_Gormley_UK.pdf.

46.   Thielmann and Zagorski, “INF Treaty Compliance.”

47.   Sergei Oznobishchev, “Russia and NATO: From the Ukrainian Crisis to the Renewed Interaction,” in Russia: Arms Control, Disarmament, and International Security, ed. Alexei Arbatov and Sergei Oznobishchev (Moscow: IMEMO, 2016), https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/SIPRI-Yearbook-Supplement-2015.pdf.

48.   For a good discussion of some of these approaches, see Kimberly Marten, “Reducing Tensions Between NATO and Russia,” Council Special Report No. 79, Council on Foreign Relations, March 2017, https://www.cfr.org/sites/default/files/pdf/2017/03/CSR_79_Marten_RussiaNATO.pdf.

49.   Kulesa, Frear, and Raynova, “Managing Hazardous Incidents in the Euro-Atlantic Area.”

50.   Morgan et al., “Confronting Emergent Nuclear-Armed Regional Adversaries.”

51.   Arbatov, “Understanding the U.S.-Russia Nuclear Schism.”

52.   President of Russia, “Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club,” video, October 27, 2016, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/53151.

53.   The author would like to thank Lynn Davis and several other reviewers for their feedback on earlier versions of this piece.

Anya Loukianova Fink is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the RAND Corporation. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the Stanton Foundation or the RAND Corporation.

The Evolving Russian Concept of Strategic Deterrence: Risks and Responses

U.S. May Act on Russian INF Violation

July/August 2017
By Maggie Tennis

The Trump administration is considering actions to take in response to Russia’s violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, according to senior national security officials.

Christopher Ford, senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counterproliferation on the National Security Council staff, and Robert Soofer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, signaled in recent comments that the White House may move beyond talks to military measures intended to pressure Russia to return to compliance with the INF Treaty.

Christopher Ford, senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counter­proliferation on the National Security Council staff, addresses the annual meeting of the Arms Control Association on June 2 in Washington. The White House is considering a “very broad” range of options in response to Russia’s violation, he said. (Photo credit Terry Atlas/Arms Control Association)Addressing the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting June 2, Ford said that the White House is considering a “very broad” range of options that go beyond just reconvening the Special Verification Committee, the body established by the treaty for dispute resolution. That group, convened most recently in November 2016, has failed to resolve the issue.

“You would be wrong to conclude that this is an administration likely to be content just with another round of finger waving,” Ford said.

U.S. countermoves could add new strains to the U.S.-Russian relationship, already taxed by Moscow’s military action against Ukraine, Russian involvement in the U.S. elections, and NATO’s buildup of defenses in allies closest to Russia, such as the Baltic states. Russia has disputed the U.S. claim that it has developed and deployed a missile banned under the INF Treaty and has countered with complaints of U.S. violations tied to missile defenses in Europe.

The United States will consult with allies in developing a response, according to Ford, who said a resolution of the issue is needed because of the importance of the INF Treaty to “the future of the arms control enterprise.”

Addressing Russia’s treaty violation is a “top priority” for the Trump administration, Soofer said in testimony June 7 to the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said the United States needs to understand the military capability that Russia gains from fielding the SSC-8 ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM), which the United States says violates the treaty ban on ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

“We came to the conclusion that there must be some military capability that outweighs the political repercussions of actually violating the INF Treaty,” he said. “So, for Russia, this has a meaningful military capability, and we need to assess what that is and how to address it.”

Soofer noted two reviews underway, one by the Pentagon as part of the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and the other by the National Security Council. The latter is examining “steps to place more meaningful pressure on Moscow, both in terms of diplomatic and military measures, to return them to compliance,” according to Soofer.

U.S. Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified at a congressional hearing in March about the NPR, at which time he publicly confirmed the U.S. view that Russia had deployed the SSC-8 missile. (See ACT, April 2017.)

The Obama administration considered a military response to the Russian violation in 2014, after the State Department initially assessed Russia as having de­veloped and tested a noncompliant GLCM.

In 2014, Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, described three possible categories of military action at a hearing held by the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees. These consisted of “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.” Only some of these options would comply with the treaty.

In February, Republican Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.), Ron Johnson (Wis.), and Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Republican Reps. Ted Poe (Texas) and Mike Rogers (Ala.), introduced legislation called the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) Preservation Act. It lists measures that the United States could take to pressure Russia to return to compliance, including funding counterforce, active-defense, and countervailing-strike activities; creating a program for and testing a dual-capable road-mobile GLCM within INF Treaty limits; expanding missile defense assets in the European theater; and coordinating the transfer of INF Treaty-range systems to U.S. allies.

But even if the Pentagon had the budget for these activities, it is not clear that NATO allies, Japan, or South Korea would cooperate with placing these systems on their territory.

Some experts and politicians support developing a long-range standoff cruise missile, capable of penetrating Russian air defense systems and being armed with nuclear or conventional warheads, to re­place the aging U.S. air-launched cruise missile.

In April, the State Department released its annual assessment of Russian compliance with arms control agreements, in which it repeated its accusation that Russia is violating the INF Treaty and stated that it had submitted “detailed information” to Moscow on the nature of the violation. The Russian Foreign Ministry refuted the allegation and maintained that the United States has not provided adequate evidence to back up the claim. (See ACT, June 2017.)

In remarks at the Arms Control Association meeting, Ford noted the administration’s intent to “re-engage on matters that relate to strategic stability” with Russia. He referred to recent talks on that topic between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

“On the positive side, in terms of the future of dialogue and engagement on these topics, I believe you probably have seen from the aftermath of the Tillerson-Lavrov meeting in Moscow that there is agreement in principle upon some kind of strategic stability dialogue between the United States and the Russian Federation,” said Ford.—MAGGIE TENNIS

U.S. May Act on Russian INF Violation

The Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs) on Tactical Nuclear Weapons at a Glance

July 2017

Contacts: Daryl Kimball, Executive Director, (202) 463-8270 x107; Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy, (202) 463-8270 x104

Updated: July 2017

Near the Cold War’s end, leaders in Washington and Moscow made reciprocal unilateral pledges to substantially limit and reduce their nuclear weaponry, most notably their tactical or “battlefield” nuclear weapons, such as nuclear artillery shells. President George H.W. Bush initiated these commitments, collectively known as the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs), in September 1991 in recognition of the break up of the Eastern bloc and out of concern for the Kremlin’s ability to maintain control of its vast nuclear arsenal as political changes swept the Soviet Union. By pledging to end foreign deployments of entire categories of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, Bush hoped that leaders in Moscow would follow suit; and they did, at least in part. All Soviet nuclear weapons were reportedly successfully consolidated on Russian soil. Still, Washington alleges Moscow has not yet fulfilled all of its PNI destruction commitments. Meanwhile, Russia opposes the continued stationing of U.S. tactical nuclear gravity bombs in Europe, which the PNIs did not cover. Despite lingering concerns about each other’s tactical nuclear weapons, the two sides have not negotiated further reductions or transparency measures for these arms since the early 1990s.

U.S. Presidential Nuclear Initiatives:

On Sept. 27, 1991, Bush announced a raft of unilateral initiatives to limit and reduce the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons arsenal. Specifically, he pledged to:

  • withdraw to the United States all ground-launched short-range weapons deployed overseas and destroy them along with existing U.S. stockpiles of the same weapons; and
  • cease deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on surface ships, attack submarines, and land-based naval aircraft during “normal circumstances.” Implicitly, the United States reserved the right to redeploy these arms in a crisis.

Soviet/Russian Presidential Nuclear Initiatives:

On Oct. 5, 1991, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev responded to Bush’s speech with reciprocal Soviet measures. Specifically, Gorbachev committed to:

  • eliminate all nuclear artillery munitions, nuclear warheads for tactical missiles, and nuclear mines;
  • remove all tactical nuclear weapons from surface ships and multipurpose submarines. These weapons would be stored in central storage sites along with all nuclear arms assigned to land-based naval aircraft; and
  • separate nuclear warheads from air defense missiles and put the warheads in central storage. A “portion” would be destroyed.

On Jan. 29, 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin reaffirmed Gorbachev’s commitments and expanded on them in response to a second round of unilateral U.S. nuclear weapons cutbacks focused on strategic forces. (Following the Soviet Union’s Dec. 25, 1991 collapse, Russia assumed responsibility for the Soviet Union’s nuclear complex and arms control commitments.) Yeltsin said Russia would:

  • eliminate a third of its sea-based tactical nuclear weapons and half of its ground-to-air nuclear missile warheads; and
  • halve its airborne tactical nuclear weapons stockpile. Pending reciprocal U.S. action, the other half of this stockpile would be taken out of service and placed in central storage depots.


A precise accounting of U.S. and Soviet/Russian fulfillment of their tactical nuclear weapons PNIs is difficult because of ambiguity, then and now, surrounding the composition, size, and location of these arms. By 1991, the United States had nearly 5,000 tactical nuclear weapons deployed overseas, most of which were assigned to NATO. Estimates on the size of the Soviet tactical nuclear arsenal at that same time ranged widely from 12,000 to nearly 21,700 weapons.

The United States completed its proposed reductions and withdrawals of deployed tactical nuclear weapons in 1992. The elimination process was finished in 2003.

As a result of the PNIs, the U.S. withdrew and destroyed around 2,000 ground-launched nuclear artillery shells and short-range ballistic missiles, all TNWs on navy surface ships and attack submarines, and on land-based naval aircraft, destroyed all nuclear depth bombs, de-alerted strategic bombers, and cancelled planned nuclear systems. By the mid-1990s, the stockpile of TNWs fell to below 1,000 warheads. Between 1990 and the end of 1994 (when the START Treaty entered into force), the U.S. nuclear stockpile of active and inactive warheads fell from 21,392 to 10,979, a 50 percent reduction.

At a Dec. 21, 1991 conference at Alma-Ata, the Soviet Republics of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine pledged to return all Soviet tactical nuclear weapons on their territories to Russia by July 1, 1992. All three states met their commitments despite the Soviet Union’s breakup four days after these pledges were made. Otherwise, Russia has released little information substantiating its PNI activities. At the May 2005 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference, Moscow announced that all Russian tactical nuclear weapons “are now deployed only within the national territory and are concentrated at central storage facilities of the Ministry of Defense.” In 2007, Colonel-General Vladimir Verkhovtsev remarked, “Russia particularly committed itself to removing tactical nuclear weapons from the ground forces completely. Those weapons were also cut by 50 percent in the Air Force, by 60 percent in missile defense troops and by 30 percent on nuclear submarines of the Russian Navy,” the general said.

 Still, the Department of State has publicly questioned Russia’s PNI record. Specifically, it noted in June 2005, “Russia has failed to state publicly the status of the elimination of its nuclear artillery munitions, nuclear warheads for air defense missiles, nuclear mines, or nuclear weapons on land-based naval aviation.” These concerns were not expressed in the 2017 State Department Compliance Report, however.

Current Status:

As of 2016, the United States possesses about 500 B61 gravity bombs, 150-200 of which deployed in five European countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey). As of 2017, Russia retains approximately 1850 nonstrategic weapons, all of which are stored on Russian territory.

Since the PNIs, the United States and Russia have not agreed on additional measures to share information on or limit their tactical nuclear weapons. The two countries agreed in March 1997 to explore measures relating to tactical nuclear weapons, but nothing came of this effort. In June 2005, Russia conditioned additional talks on tactical nuclear weapons to the U.S. withdrawal of its remaining nuclear weapons in Europe. The United States has said these weapons are deployed as part of NATO policy and that a decision to withdraw them would need to be taken by all alliance members. In 2005, Congress passed legislation calling on the Bush administration to investigate measures to help Russia account for and secure its tactical arms and assess whether tactical nuclear reductions with Russia should be pursued.

In 2010, the Barack Obama administration stated that it was the goal of the United States to seek further reductions in all types of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons—strategic and nonstrategic, deployed or nondeployed—following the conclusion of the 2010 New START talks. The 2010 NATO Strategic Concept states that the goal of the alliance is to "seek Russian agreement to increase transparency on its nuclear weapons in Europe and relocate these weapons away from the territory of NATO members." officials insist that the U.S. should first withdraw all of its tactical nuclear weapons to its national territory. In the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the Obama Administration announced a unilateral retirement of the Navy’s stockpile of nuclear-armed submarine launched cruise missiles (SLCMs). 

In April 2010, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the U.S. could remove nuclear weapons from Europe in exchange for a reduction in the size of Russia’s nonstrategic nuclear weapons arsenal. In 2013, Obama gave a speech advocating for the U.S. to work with European allies and Russia to negotiate future reductions in nonstrategic nuclear weapons.

However, to date the United States and Russia have not commenced talks regarding additional cuts on nonstrategic weapons, and a range of arms control disputes threatens to continue to obstruct progress on the matter. Russia is unlikely to discuss cuts to its nonstrategic nuclear weapons arsenal until the United States removes nonstrategic nuclear forces from Europe and agrees to limitations of its ballistic missile defense program. 

Strategic Arms Control and Policy

Country Resources:

Subject Resources:

Can the United States and Russia Bridge the Growing Gap on Arms Control?

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said May 14 on Meet the Press that the United States needs to “improve the relationship between the two greatest nuclear powers in the world.” “I think it’s largely viewed that it is not healthy for the world, it’s certainly not healthy for us… for this relationship to remain at this low level,” Tillerson told Chuck Todd. “But I think the President is committed, rightly so, and I am committed with him as well, to see if we cannot do something to put us on a better footing in our relationship with Russia.” If the Trump administration truly desires better...

INF Dispute Adds to U.S.-Russia Tensions

June 2017

By Maggie Tennis

Reacting with strong language to a U.S. report alleging arms control treaty violations, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused the United States of “creating dangerous conditions” that could trigger a nuclear arms race. Further, Russia warned that U.S. missile defense development may give “hot heads” in Washington the “pernicious illusion of invincibility and impunity” that could lead to misguided unilateral action, as it claims occurred when the United States launched a missile strike against a Syrian airbase on April 7.

The annual U.S. report on arms control compliance, which for the fourth consecutive year alleges Moscow’s noncompliance with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and the Russian Foreign Ministry’s response reflect contrasting views on arms control and nonproliferation issues and demonstrate the precarious condition of the U.S.-Russian bilateral arms control regime.

The State Department’s “Report on Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” dated April 2017, also raised “serious” concerns with Russia’s compliance with the 1992 Treaty on Open Skies and cites Moscow for suspending the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), an accord intended to reduce stockpiles of weapons-usable plutonium that had stood as an example of U.S.-Russian cooperation against nuclear proliferation risks.

Russian Complaints

The report asserts that the United States last year remained in compliance with all of its treaty obligations. The Russian Foreign Ministry disputed the alleged violations and countered with what it said are U.S. violations of the INF Treaty stemming from its missile defense and drone programs, as well as citing other actions it said hinder arms control efforts.

The United States contends that Russia has tested and deployed a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 to 5,000 kilometers, a class of weapons prohibited by the treaty. The State Department report details steps Washington took in 2016 to resolve the dispute, including convening a session of the Special Verification Commission, the technical dispute-resolution venue created by the treaty. (See ACT, December 2016.)

Specific Details

The State Department, which previously provided no details of those consultations, disclosed in the new report elements of its evidence. The United States presented information to the Russians that included Russia’s internal designator for the mobile launcher chassis and the names of the companies involved in developing and producing the missile and launcher, the report says. The United States detailed “the violating GLCM’s test history, including coordinates of the tests and Russia’s attempts to obfuscate the nature of the program,” according to the report.

Further, the report says the missile in dispute is distinct from two other Russian missile systems, the R-500/SSC-7 Iskander GLCM and the RS-26 ballistic missile. The R-500 has a Russian-declared range below the 500-kilometer INF Treaty cutoff, and Russia identifies the RS-26 as an intercontinental ballistic missile treated in accordance with the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The report also appears to suggest that the launcher for the allegedly noncompliant missile is different from the launcher for the Iskander.

Through the commission and other formats, the United States has provided “more than enough information for the Russian side to identify the missile in question and engage substantively on the issue of its obligations,” according to the report.

The Foreign Ministry, in its statement April 29, said Washington has failed to provide clear evidence to support its assertions. The United States has put forward only “odd bits and pieces of signals with no clarification of the unfounded concerns,” the ministry said.

The Foreign Ministry statement repeated Russian allegations that the United States is violating its INF Treaty obligations by positioning a missile defense system in Romania. “The system includes a vertical launching system, similar to the universal Mk-41 VLS, capable of launching Tomahawk medium-range missiles,” the ministry said. “This is undeniably a grave violation under the INF Treaty.” Yet, the U.S. Tomahawk intermediate-range cruise missiles are permitted under the agreement as a sea-based weapon. In addition, the Mk-41 has not fired GLCMs, and Washington says the launchers to be deployed in Romania and Poland are different than the ship-based version that has been used to fire Tomahawks.

Russia also cited the United States for testing ground-based ballistic missiles characteristic of intermediate- and shorter-range missiles and developing percussion drones that “fall under the definition of land-based cruise missiles contained in the INF Treaty.” It said Washington has been “simply ignoring Russia’s serious concerns.” The State Department report does not mention those disputes.

The Foreign Ministry statement identified the U.S. missile defense system as the No. 1 “unacceptable action” by the United States on a list of 11 areas of arms control concerns, which includes the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 and the U.S. failure to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

“It should be understood that the [U.S.] anti-missile facilities placed around the world are part of a very dangerous global project aimed at ensuring universal overwhelming U.S. superiority at the expense of the security interests of other countries,” according to the statement.

Plutonium Disposition

The State Department report found “no indication” that Russia had violated its PMDA obligations, but said that Moscow’s decision to “suspend” the accord “raises concerns regarding its future adherence to obligations” under the agreement. The Foreign Ministry said the report’s finding “does not correspond to reality” because Moscow only suspended the PMDA in response to Washington’s “hostile actions toward Russia” and a “radical change of circumstances” since the agreement was signed in 2000.

The Foreign Ministry said the Obama administration initiated plans to transition to a new method of plutonium disposition without obtaining proper consent from Russia. The statement reiterated Moscow’s position from October that Russia would resume the agreement if the United States adheres “to the agreed method of disposal,” which called for mixing the plutonium with uranium to create mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for power plant use, and reverses the other measures that prompted Russian suspension. Specifically, the ministry called for the U.S. to lift its sanctions against Russia enacted in response to Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, compensate Russia for the damage caused by the sanctions, and reduce the U.S. military presence on the territory of NATO member states that joined the alliance after 2000.”

INF Dispute Adds to U.S.-Russia Tensions 

Missile Defense Review Begins

May 2017
By Kingston Reif

The Trump administration is undertaking a congressionally mandated review of the U.S. approach toward missile defenses that could significantly alter long-standing policy and have far-reaching implications for the U.S. strategic relationship with Russia and China.

The review comes amid concerns about the growing North Korean ballistic missile threat, declining overall budgets for missile defense, pressure from congressional Republicans to expand the scope of U.S. national missile defenses beyond the currently limited goal of defending against Iran and North Korea, and continued Russian and Chinese objections to U.S. missile defense advances. President Donald Trump has provided few details about his vision for missile defense systems. A brief reference on the defense issues page of the White House website states, “We will…develop a state-of-the-art missile defense system to protect against missile-based attacks from states like Iran and North Korea.”

South Korean activists hold a rally July 11, 2016 in Seoul against the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. Under an agreement with the South Korean government, U.S. deployment of the system began in March. Credit: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty ImagesIn a Jan. 27 executive order titled “Rebuilding the U.S. Armed Forces,” Trump directed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to produce a national defense strategy, a new Ballistic Missile Defense Review, and a new Nuclear Posture Review. The directive language on the missile defense review, just one sentence long, states that the review should “identify ways of strengthening missile-defense capabilities, rebalancing homeland and theater defense priorities, and highlighting priority funding areas.”

Despite this limited initial direction, the review is likely to cast a wide net.

The fiscal year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law last December, requires the Defense Department to conduct a broad review of missile defense policy and strategy, including programs and capabilities to defeat ballistic missiles before and after launch, as well as to defeat cruise missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles. The bill mandates that a report describing the results of the review be completed by the end of January 2018.

Gen. John Hyten, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 4 that the Pentagon review will begin “soon” and take six months to complete.

Homeland Defense

For nearly two decades, U.S. ballistic missile defense policy has been guided by protection of the homeland against limited, long-range missile strikes from states such as Iran and North Korea and not from major nuclear powers Russia and China.

The missile defense system designed to provide this limited protection is known as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. It consists of ground-based interceptor sites in Alaska and California. The Obama administration announced in 2013 that it would increase the total number of interceptors from 30 to 44 by the end of fiscal year 2017.

There have been serious concerns about the viability of the GMD system since it was rushed into service in 2004 by the administration of President George W. Bush. Nevertheless, in a significant departure from long-standing U.S. policy, the Republican-led Congress voted in December to expand the declared role of U.S. national missile defenses by revising a 1999 law expressing the “limited” purpose of U.S. defenses. (See ACT, January/February 2017.)

It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will push on the door opened by Congress and seek to protect the U.S. homeland from missile attacks by Russia and China. In a sign that this policy change could be on the table, Trump has nominated David Trachtenberg, a former Pentagon official during the Bush administration, to be principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy.

Trachtenberg, who will play a major role in the missile defense review, wrote last year that “continued American vulnerability to Russian nuclear missiles is unacceptable.”

Air Force General John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, testifies during a hearing before House Armed Services Committee March 8. Credit: Alex Wong/Getty ImagesBut any decision to abandon the “limited” condition will likely encounter significant technical, financial, and geopolitical obstacles. Previous administrations have not depended on missile defenses for strategic deterrence of Russia “because it would simply be too hard and too expensive and too strategically destabilizing to even try,” Adm. James Winnefeld, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a May 2015 speech in Washington.

Even if the review opts not to take this far-reaching step, it could nonetheless call for expanding the GMD system to address the North Korean nuclear challenge. North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs have accelerated in recent years, and many experts anticipate that North Korea could test an operational intercontinental ballistic missile sometime this year. (See ACT, April 2017)

One option to expand the system is to build a third GMD site in the eastern United States. (See ACT, January/February 2017.) During the Obama administration, Pentagon officials repeatedly stated that there is no military requirement for a third site and that the estimated $3–4 billion price tag would be better spent to implement plans to upgrade the existing ground-based interceptors and long-range sensors designed to identify and track ballistic missiles. (See ACT, April 2016.)

Regional Missile Defenses

The Trump administration’s missile defense review will also evaluate what priority to place on missile defense programs to protect U.S. allies and forward-deployed troops. The Obama administration put in place a new defense architecture for Europe, known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach, designed to protect the continent against short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles launched from Iran.

The controversial third phase of the European missile defense plan is scheduled to become operational in 2018. (See ACT, June 2016.) This phase will consist of an Aegis Ashore site in Poland equipped with the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA interceptor.

Russia has strongly opposed the planned Polish site and claims that U.S. and NATO missile defense plans are aimed at undermining Moscow’s nuclear deterrent.

The Trump administration could choose to accelerate construction of the Polish site or deploy more interceptors at the site than the Obama administration had planned but it is unclear whether other NATO allies would support such a move. Such steps would also infuriate Russia, and Trump has said he hopes to improve Washington’s relationship with Moscow.

Alternatively, the administration could consider scaling back the plans for the Polish site as a result of the July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, which is intended to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon for at least the next 15 years if not indefinitely.

As for missile defenses in Northeast Asia, the administration could try to augment defenses against North Korea by deploying additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries in the region. It could also examine whether to increase the defense of U.S. allies against China’s growing regional missile capabilities.

Given the strong opposition China has registered against the Obama administration’s decision to deploy the THAAD system to South Korea, where its radar system could “see” into Chinese territory, Beijing would likely react even more harshly to further deployments, especially if they are directed explicitly at diminishing China’s missile potential.

Cruise Missile Defenses

In a departure from its direction to the Obama administration, Congress asked the Defense Department to assess options to enhance defense of the U.S. homeland against cruise missiles.

These efforts have lacked direction and funding relative to the ballistic missile defense mission.

Pentagon officials have warned in recent years about Russia’s development of long-range, air- and sea-launched cruise missiles, the difficulty of detecting cruise missile launches, and the inadequacy of current defenses against these missiles. The review could also consider measures to respond to Russia's alleged deployment of a ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

As it undertakes its review of missile defenses, the Trump administration inherits a number of advanced technology developmental efforts to ensure the system stays ahead of foreign missile threats. High-ranking military officials have expressed concern that the current U.S. strategy to defeat adversary ballistic missiles is “unsustainable.” (See ACT, April 2016.)

The new technologies include airborne lasers to zap missiles in the early stages of their flight and a new “multi-object kill vehicle” to allow a single missile defense interceptor to destroy multiple targets. In addition, the Pentagon has been working on technology, including electronic warfare tools, to defeat ballistic missile threats before they are launched, which some observers think has already been employed to disrupt North Korea’s ballistic missile tests.

The Trump administration is likely to continue if not accelerate these efforts. But while the United States is moving ahead on the development of multiple new missile defense capabilities, there appears to be very little analysis within the government and the scholarly community about how other nuclear-armed states might respond.

Missile Defense Review Begins

Russia Suggests Revived Arms Talks

May 2017
By Maggie Tennis

During talks April 12 with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed interest in resuming a “pragmatic” dialogue on strategic stability and arms control, although neither diplomat offered any public details about how that may proceed given strains from accumulating grievances.

Tillerson’s meeting with Lavrov in Moscow, his first as secretary of state, took place amid tensions over Russian actions in Syria and Ukraine, a U.S. airstrike against Syria government forces after their chemical weapons attack on civilians, and ongoing investigations into what role Russia covertly played in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Although it is unclear whether an arms control dialogue can proceed unhindered by the discord, Lavrov said that “we hope to resume our contacts on bilateral strategic stability and arms control and that they will take place in a business-like and pragmatic manner with a view to ensuring strict compliance with our agreements.”

Rex Tillerson, on his first visit to Moscow as U.S. Secretary of State, shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after a press conference April 12. Credit: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty ImagesNeither diplomat in public remarks mentioned U.S. allegations that Russia is violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty (see ACT, April 2017) or Russia’s objections to U.S. missile defense deployments in Europe. The two countries also appear to disagree on whether to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for five years beyond its current February 2021 expiration date, as provided for in the treaty. (See ACT, March 2017.) Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the prospect of the extension during a Jan. 28 phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump, who called the accord a bad deal for the United States, according to a Reuters report.

The two officials agreed that North Korea “has to be denuclearized” and discussed the “constructive role Russia can play in encouraging the regime in North Korea to change its course,” Tillerson said. “We have agreed to establish a working group to address smaller issues and make progress toward stabilizing the relationship so that we can then address the more serious problems,” he said.

Just how challenging cooperation will be was demonstrated by the recent behavior of both countries. On the eve of the meetings, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement condemning U.S. policies and actions in a number of global conflicts. Trump, in an interview that aired April 12, blamed the crisis in Syria on Russian support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

In a bit of diplomatic one-upmanship, Putin avoided committing in advance to meet with Tillerson, which also demonstrated a different relationship than when he awarded the Order of Friendship medal in 2013 to Tillerson when he was chief executive of Exxon Mobil. Tillerson described his almost two-hour meeting with the Russian leader as “productive.”

“I expressed the view that the current state of U.S.-Russia relations is at a low point and there is a low level of trust between our two countries,” Tillerson said. “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.”

In public remarks, Lavrov was more assertive about his government’s objectives and grievances than his counterpart. Lavrov cited many “irritants” in the bilateral relationship, in large part blaming Obama administration policies. “I think that if both sides apply a pragmatic approach, this will yield results and it will go to make our relations much more healthy,” he said. In contrast to Lavrov, a confident diplomat who has dealt with five U.S. secretaries of state since taking his post in 2004, Tillerson, just six weeks on the job, appeared cautious and kept his language mostly vague and generic. At one point, he cited a need for the two countries to clarify “areas of common objectives” and “sharp difference.”

The contrast may reflect more than just Tillerson’s diplomatic inexperience because Trump’s approach to Russia is unsettled. During the Tillerson-Lavrov meeting, Trump described relations as “at an all-time low,” but later tweeted that “things will work out fine between the U.S.A. and Russia.”

Russia Suggests Revived Arms Talks

Reducing the Risks of U.S.-Russia Nuclear Conflict

The violence in Ukraine and rising tension in the Baltics, combined with concern about Russian nuclear doctrine and posturing, has heightened the risk of nuclear conflict in Europe. As William Perry, former Secretary of Defense under President Bill Clinton, recently warned , “A new danger has been rising in the past three years and that is the possibility there might be a nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia.” A recent uptick in fighting in Ukraine, last week’s unrest in Belarus and Russia , and increasing concern in Washington and Brussels about the solidity of the NATO...

U.S. Cites Russia for Banned Missile

April 2017

By Maggie Tennis

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a meeting with the permanent members of the Russia Security Council in Moscow on March 31, 2017. (Photo credit: Aleksey Nikolskyi/AFP/Getty Images)Russia has violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by deploying ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs), a senior U.S. military official told Congress, escalating a dispute over the same type of missile that the Obama administration in 2014 accused Russia of illegally producing and flight testing.

Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly confirmed news reports, attributed to unnamed U.S. officials, that Russia had fielded the new missile, known as the SSC-8. “We believe that the Russians have deployed a land-based cruise missile that violates the spirit and intent” of the INF Treaty, he said at a March 8 hearing by the House Armed Services Committee. “And we believe that the Russians have deliberately deployed it in order to pose a threat to NATO and to facilities within the NATO area of responsibility.”

His testimony provided new ammunition to Russia critics in Congress seeking a strong U.S. countermove by the Trump administration, as Republican lawmakers pressed for action on their proposed legislation for further missile defenses in Europe and U.S. development of a nuclear-capable GLCM in what they present as an effort to pressure Russia to return to treaty compliance.

The dispute endangers a Cold War-era accord that laid the groundwork for major U.S.-Russian treaties limiting strategic nuclear weapons (see here). U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty in 1987, agreeing to eliminate permanently their entire arsenals of nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. The treaty prohibits such missiles based on land.

Responding to Selva’s testimony, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied any Russian violation. “Russia has been, remains, and will remain committed to all international obligations, including those arising from the INF Treaty,” he told reporters. “I want to remind you of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s words about the fact that Russia sticks to the international obligations, even if in situations where sometimes it doesn’t correspond to Russia’s interests. Russia still remains committed to its obligations, so we disagree and reject any accusations on this point.”

Russia previously has levied its own allegations of treaty violations against the United States, stemming from elements of the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system in Europe and from heavy-strike unmanned aerial vehicles that Russia says fit the treaty’s definition of GLCMs. In November 2016, the United States and Russia held a meeting—the first in 13 years—of the Special Verification Commission (SVC), a forum established by the INF Treaty for dispute resolution.

In 2014 the Obama administration launched a review of U.S. options after determining Russia had flight-tested a GLCM with a range prohibited by the treaty. At a December 2014 hearing held jointly by House Foreign Affairs and House Armed Services subcommittees, Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said that potential military response options cover “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.” The administration was reviewing “a broad range of options, some of which would be compliant with the INF Treaty, some of which would not be,” he testified.

At the March 8 hearing, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) asked, “What is the [new] administration’s plan to deal with what seems like a flagrant violation of a treaty?” Selva replied that the Pentagon has “been asked to incorporate a set of options” during the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). “So, it would be premature for me to comment on what the potential options might be for the administration,” he said.

In February, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced legislation that they said would allow the United States to “take steps to bring Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty” that include developing similar missile systems that the United States could deploy. Reps. Ted Poe (R-Tex.) and Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) introduced companion legislation in the House. The legislation “makes clear that Russia will face real consequences if it continues its dangerous and destabilizing behavior,” Rubio said in a statement.

Gary Samore, executive director for research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said Russia’s INF Treaty violation “frees us from any obligation” to abide by the accord. Still, U.S. responses, such as a decision to deploy systems now banned by the treaty, may limited due to opposition from European allies, he told the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee on March 8.

“It’s important to recognize that there would be some political cost to doing that, especially in Germany and the Netherlands and other countries,” he said. “This would be controversial, so we need to weigh the military benefits of deploying systems, if they’re necessary, against the potential political complications and figure out a strategy for overcoming those political complications.”


A keys arms control treaty is in jeopardy due to alleged Russian violations and potential U.S. countermoves.

REMARKS - Why New START Is a Treaty Worth Keeping

April 2017

By Hans M. Kristensen

There has been much conster-nation among some about Russia’s increase in deployed warheads counted under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The number has grown since 2013 and, at last count, stood at 1,796 warheads—246 warheads above the treaty limit and 429 warheads more than the United States at the time. However, the number does not reflect an increase of the Russia arsenal but rather a fluctuation of the warhead level during the transition from Soviet-era weapons to newer types.

Hans M. KristensenI don’t see that the numbers indicate that Russia intends to break away from New START. The fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin in his first phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly brought up the possibility of extending the treaty suggests that he is not interested in violating it but continuing it. The United States should welcome that.

Nor do I think the disparity in deployed strategic warheads matters strategically at this point. There is another New START number that is much more important in that context: the number of strategic launchers. And there, the United States is counted with a significant advantage of 173 launchers more than Russia. It is the structure of the posture that is important. Russia knows that the United States has an additional 2,000 warheads in storage it could upload onto launchers if it needed to. Russia does not have nearly that upload capacity.

It is on this basis that the U.S. Department of Defense and the director of national intelligence in 2012 informed Congress that Russia “would not be able to achieve a militarily significant advantage by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a cheating or breakout scenario under the New START.”

Even so, shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, some former U.S. defense officials began to question whether “the weapons limits imposed by New START [are] still consistent with our own and our allies’ national security requirements” and “whether our security can afford a strategic arsenal capped at limits which were based on an alternate reality.”

The United States should always assess whether its military forces are adequate and appropriate. But as far as I can see, there is no basis for questioning New START, which has equal limits for Russia and the United States and keeps a cap on what Russia could otherwise do.

Despite that, in his first telephone conversation with Putin, Trump reportedly brushed aside New START as a one-sided deal when Putin raised the issue of extending the treaty for five years beyond its 2021 expiration date. If the report is accurate, then that was an extraordinary bad decision.

If we do not safeguard and continue arms control, we’ll be removing the constraints that do exist on Russia’s modernization. In fact, it is precisely because of Russia’s modernization that we need to retain New START. 

Hans M. Kristensen is director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. This is adapted from remarks he made February 28 at the Nuclear Deterrence Summit, an industry conference held in Washington.

If we do not safeguard and continue arms control, we'll be removing the constraints that do exist on Russia's modernization, says Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.


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