"I want to tell you that your fact sheet on the [Missile Technology Control Regime] is very well done and useful for me when I have to speak on MTCR issues."

– Amb. Thomas Hajnoczi
Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
What If the New Strategic Framework Goes Bad?

Joseph Cirincione and Jon B. Wolfsthal

Events since the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington could fundamentally change the U.S.-Russian relationship. A sustained military and diplomatic campaign against terrorism will necessitate a broad international coalition and the close cooperation of nations bordering terrorist operational bases. Russian support and intelligence could prove vital to the success of allied air and ground operations against camps in Afghanistan. In return for such aid, Russia appears to expect that the United States will reciprocate in some fashion, perhaps by compromising on security issues that have recently stressed the relationship.

However, Russian expectations for this new relationship may outpace the willingness of the Bush administration to adapt its positions on key issues. For example, although Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgi Mamedov continues to maintain that Moscow’s strategic partnership with Washington “must be based on strengthening the architecture of treaties,” it is unclear whether President George W. Bush agrees.1 Bush argued during a October 11 press conference that deployment of missile defenses is an urgent issue but said, “We’re restricted from doing that because of an ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty that was signed during a totally different era.... The case is more strong today than it was on September 10th that the ABM is outmoded, outdated, reflects a different time.”

How the United States and Russia work out these delicate issues may well determine if the new warmth in U.S.-Russian relations is truly a sea change or merely a brief lull in ongoing tensions. If the relationship returns to a mixture of cooperation on some issues but antagonism on others, Russia might respond to U.S. deployment of missile defenses—or other provocative actions, such as NATO expansion—more confrontationally than it might have without the current increase in expectations. Even if an adverse reaction is not seen right away, it is important to recognize that Putin has already moved out ahead of Russian military and security thinking by aligning so closely with the anti-terrorism coalition. If his high expectations of the benefits of his new pro-Western policies are not met, there could be a backlash in Moscow over the next few years. For the United States to understand fully the risks of its policies, it is important to detail Russia’s options.

In the run-up to the Washington-Crawford summit meeting in November, the Bush administration will make tough decisions on a host of issues that will affect the future of the U.S.-Russian relationship, including the future of offensive arms reductions and missile defenses. It appears that top officials, including the president, are basing their decisions and their approach to the summit on a series of best-case assumptions on how Russia will react to ABM Treaty withdrawal and unilateral offensive reductions. However, the president would be well served to consider also some worst-case scenarios that, among other things, might result in Russia maintaining larger nuclear forces than would otherwise exist, keeping or expanding the use of multiple warheads on its missiles, operating these forces at a dangerous high-alert status, and perhaps curtailing cooperation in vital non-proliferation matters.

A New Strategic Framework?

Administration officials believe that U.S. nuclear security can be enhanced by adopting a new framework for U.S.-Russian relations that would replace formal, tedious arms control agreements with informal or political understandings. Negotiations would be replaced by consultations and buttressed by economic incentives. Obsolete treaties would be discarded and only vital treaties would remain intact. Not only would such steps enhance U.S. security in the near to midterm, they would also allow ties between Washington and Moscow to grow unfettered by Cold War-type interaction.

Condoleezza Rice, the president’s national security adviser, argues, “The arms control treaties of the 1970s and 1980s came out of a peculiar, abnormal relationship between the United States and Russia…. [Today] Russia is not a strategic adversary of the United States. We are not enemies. So the process can look different.”2 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explains, “You negotiate a treaty to try to control hostility between two parties…. We don’t have negotiations like that for treaties to not be hostile with Mexico or Canada or France or England”3 Or, more succinctly, “Arms control treaties are not for friends.”4

Pursuit of this less formal strategy, it is argued, would enable the administration to take steps on offenses and defenses that would bolster U.S. security in ways not allowed by the current web of agreements.

First, the administration could withdraw from the ABM Treaty and deploy missile defenses—ostensibly without provoking Russia. Not only would this permit the United States to develop a defense against rogue-state ballistic missiles, it would also cleanse the “balance of terror” from the U.S.-Russian relationship. The administration maintains that, by codifying a relationship of mutual assured destruction between the United States and Russia, the ABM Treaty perpetuates an enmity that hinders the improvement of relations.

Second, the administration believes that it no longer needs to size its offensive nuclear forces against Russia’s and that the formal START negotiation process is simply impeding further strategic reductions. The Bush administration would prefer to reduce dramatically the number of U.S. nuclear weapons to levels based on its own strategic assessments. Although no targets for these reductions have been announced, forces could be reduced below the START III level of 2,500 deployed warheads, depending on the new strategic guidance developed by President Bush for the Strategic Command. The scale of the reductions and the process to be followed could be announced as early as the Bush-Putin meeting in Crawford.

The Bush administration further maintains that negotiated reductions are no longer needed because in the coming decades Russia will rapidly decrease its number of strategic offensive weapons for its own strategic and financial reasons. Current projections estimate that the Russian deployed strategic arsenal will consist of fewer than 1,100 warheads by 2010. (See Table 2.) U.S. officials have even signaled that they would not object to Russia maintaining (and expanding the future deployment of) multiple warheads on its land-based intercontinental missiles as assurance that the Russian force could overwhelm any U.S. defensive systems.

The U.S. announcement of deep reductions, it is believed, should demonstrate to Russia and the world the U.S. commitment to decreasing its reliance on nuclear weapons and should help advance non-proliferation goals. Free of treaty constraints, the United States will be able to adjust its nuclear forces upward, should the need arise, without accusations of breaking treaties.5 Moreover, this flexibility to go up as well as down should deter others, particularly China, from challenging U.S. dominance or seeking strategic parity.

Thus, by reaching agreement with Russia on the elimination of the ABM Treaty and the unilaterally implemented (but bilaterally arranged) reduction of offensive nuclear forces, the United States and Russia would actually accelerate the arms reduction process beyond that envisioned by the START agreements. Although both sides would retain robust nuclear capabilities—Russia’s would be sufficient to overwhelm envisioned U.S. defenses—the nature of the relationship would prevent any concerns about nuclear build-ups, breakout, or strategic instability.

Going beyond purely bilateral aspects, other benefits could accrue from this approach. By the administration’s rationale, beginning deployment of defensive systems, however imperfect at first, will also deter potential rogue state challengers by reducing the attractiveness of ballistic missiles and increasing the perceived likelihood of U.S. response to regional crises, even if the regional powers have weapons of mass destruction. Thus, defense will strengthen, not replace, nuclear deterrence. Within this new, assertive security policy, U.S. allies should, so the argument goes, be reassured that the United States will remain engaged and will not be deterred from its regional security commitments. Far from being an isolationist policy, these measures will ensure continued U.S. military strength and global engagement for decades to come.

In short, the best case is that, by clearing the underbrush of extraneous and counter-productive treaties and negotiations, the United States will be better positioned to construct a new strategic paradigm over the coming years that will preserve its security and allow U.S.-Russian relations to truly move beyond the Cold War.

A Worst-Case Analysis

Of course, things rarely work out as planned. Unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and deployment of missile defenses by the United States could lead to a deterioration of the U.S.-Russian relationship and could lead Russia to take unilateral steps of its own to ensure its ability to overwhelm any such system or future systems.

Obvious steps include deploying countermeasures and maintaining as many warheads on active platforms as possible. Moreover, Russia could withdraw from those arms control treaties that place constraints on its deployed nuclear arsenal, including START I and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Although Russia could not rebuild its forces to Cold War levels, it could greatly increase the number of weapons it otherwise would likely deploy at the end of the decade. Russia could also slow or end its cooperation with U.S. threat reduction programs and hinder U.S. non-proliferation efforts.

Expanding the Arsenal

Current projections show Russia’s deployed strategic arsenal declining to just over 1,000 weapons by the end of the decade. However, through a variety of means, Russia could maintain a deployed arsenal almost four times larger than actually planned, with a variety of associated concerns for security and strategic stability. Russia could accomplish this by accelerating production of new MIRVed missiles, slowing the pace of dismantlement of current systems, and implementing extraordinary measures to extend the operational life of these systems.

By the end of 2010, given current conditions, Russia’s ICBM force would likely consist of about 230 SS-27s if production immediately increased to 20 missiles per year from 2001 through 2010 (fewer if production stayed at the current 10 per year). Under current conditions, Russia would not field any SS-18s in 2007 and only 72 SS-19s, with only one warhead on each.

However, ABM Treaty withdrawal by the United States would end any chance that START II, which bans the deployment of ICBMs with multiple warheads, would come into force. Without the constraints of START II, Russia could MIRV its growing number of SS-27 missiles, expand production to 50 per year (the limits of current facilities), and—in the extreme—take extraordinary measures to extend the service life of the SS-18 (with 10 warheads each) and the SS-19 (with 6 warheads each). It is therefore possible that, by the end of 2010, Russia could field 440 SS-27s with 1,320 warheads;6 72 SS-19s with 432 warheads; and perhaps as many as 90 SS-18s with 900 warheads (this would require cannibalizing parts from other SS-18s slated for destruction). This is not a prediction of the future force, merely a description of the physically possible force, given sufficient finances.

The obvious question is, so what? Why should the United States care how many warheads Russia deploys, or vice versa? Does it matter if somehow Russia manages to deploy 3,850 rather than 1,000 warheads? The Bush administration argues that the nuclear arsenals of each state have little if any bearing on the deployments of the other and that, because the United States and Russia are not enemies, the United States should deploy those nuclear forces it deems necessary without consideration of the Russian arsenal.

In reality, however, the nuclear arsenals of both countries do affect one another. The reluctance of the U.S. Strategic Command to agree to a deployed nuclear arsenal much below the proposed START III level of 2,500 deployed strategic warheads is based primarily on its nuclear exchange calculations vis-à-vis Russia’s nuclear arsenal and its requirement to hold Russia’s nuclear and military targets at risk.7 Likewise, Russia, even in a cooperative environment with the United States, will continue to view U.S. deployments (offensive and defensive) as the primary factor in sizing its future force.

There are real dangers associated with large, deployed forces. Missiles with multiple warheads are considered high-value targets. In order to protect these assets, military commands in both countries keep such missiles on high alert, ready to launch within minutes. Given the poor and degrading state of the Russian early-warning system, the continued deployment of MIRVed ICBMs poses a major risk of accidental launch or launch-in-error, even during periods of strategic stability. Such risk could rise exponentially if U.S.-Russian relations deteriorate.

The United States has offered to assist Russia with enhancing its early-warning capabilities—and may offer again. But progress to date in this area has been poor, and security, bureaucratic, and political obstacles to major progress remain. It is unlikely that Russia’s early-warning network is likely to improve in the near to midterm. Reductions in the number of Russian missiles, maintaining the START II ban on MIRVed land-based missiles, and encouraging the de-alerting of the majority of the forces would substantially decrease serious, existing nuclear threats to the United States.

In addition, there are serious concerns about the physical security of Russia’s nuclear weapons. Currently, deployed weapons are guarded by elite troops and considered highly secure, but the same cannot be said of nuclear materials in storage, despite U.S. cooperative threat reduction efforts. A larger deployed Russian arsenal requires Moscow to maintain larger numbers of reserve warheads and nuclear materials, with security concerns growing in direct proportion to the size of those assets. The storage of warheads, assembled plutonium “pits” for warheads, and supplies of nuclear materials outside of weapons continue to pose a major security risk. Only dismantling the weapons and permanently disposing of the materials will eliminate this threat.

The End of Threat Reduction?

This threat from a large, inadequately secured Russian arsenal would be significantly compounded if the deterioration in strategic U.S.-Russian relations led Moscow to slow or even stop its participation in cooperative threat reduction programs.

The dramatic reductions in the Russian arsenal under the START I agreement have been carried out, in large part, through the successful implementation of U.S. cooperative threat reduction programs, which provide financing and equipment for Russia and other former Soviet states to fulfill their arms reduction obligations and dismantle unwanted weapons. As of mid-2001, these programs had resulted in the elimination of 423 ballistic missiles, 383 ballistic missile launchers, 85 bombers, 483 long-range nuclear air-launched cruise missiles, 352 submarine missile launchers, 209 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and 19 strategic missile submarines. (See Table 3.)

But a significant amount of work remains, and a slide in the relationship might lead Russia to rethink its participation in these programs—particularly those that directly reduce the size and flexibility of the Russian nuclear arsenal, such as ICBM, SLBM, and bomber elimination. Although Russia could extend the service lives of some systems, such as the SS-18, to some extent now, they could extend them further by cannibalizing parts from some missiles to sustain others. However, this could not be done if missile systems were eliminated, as is now planned under cooperative threat reduction. The same is true of the schedules to decommission strategic submarine launchers, which could remain active—in port if needed.

Even if Russia wanted to continue cooperation with the threat reduction programs, continued U.S. funding would be highly questionable because Russia would be expending resources deploying up to 50 new missiles per year. Political support within the United States for these programs would likely dry up if such a confrontational and uncooperative relationship were to develop. Already skeptical of U.S. funds for cooperative threat reduction programs, key members of Congress would have an effective new argument to constrain cooperative efforts.

Beyond assistance to eliminate specific weapons systems, this loss of support would hamper other nuclear security matters covered by cooperative threat reduction. Besides the warheads and delivery systems themselves, hundreds of tons of Russian nuclear weapons-usable materials are at risk of being stolen or diverted. The immense task of disposing of excess nuclear materials has been a mixed success. More than 100 tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) have been diluted and sold to the United States as part of the “HEU Purchase Agreement,” but an agreement between the United States and Russia to dispose of 34 tons each of weapons-grade plutonium is in great peril due to lack of funds and waning political support in Washington. Another potential threat lies with the tens of thousands of Russian workers who have knowledge in the production of, or potential access to, nuclear weapons and who are demoralized, underemployed, and underpaid.

International Implications

Beyond the immediate U.S.-Russian context, the maintenance of larger nuclear arsenals has other implications. The size of the Russian and U.S. arsenals directly and indirectly affect the size of nuclear arsenals in China, India, Pakistan, and potential nuclear weapons states, as well as nuclear weapons research and development programs and pressures to resume nuclear testing. Hard-liners in China will argue that the combined reality of U.S. missile defense deployments and still large U.S. and Russian deployed forces requires a dramatic expansion of China’s nuclear modernization programs. This will then have serious implications for India, which in turn will affect Pakistan, as well as Japan, the Koreas, and Iran.9

This cascading effect would undoubtedly weaken the already strained international non-proliferation regime. Article VI of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) requires all states to “negotiate in good faith” efforts toward nuclear disarmament. It can (and probably will) be argued that the United States’ refusal to negotiate with Russia on further arms reductions is a material breech of the NPT, a treaty the Bush administration supports. Some already believe the United States has reneged on its obligations under the NPT and the agreements reached at the 1995 and 2000 review conferences—for example, through the Senate’s rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999. U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, followed by Russian withdrawal from the START and INF agreements, could seriously undermine confidence in and compliance with international arms control and restraints.

Proliferating Countermeasures

Russia also has the ability to complicate the potential effect of U.S. missile defense deployment in other ways. As an advanced nuclear-weapon state, Russia has developed significant expertise in the area of missile defense countermeasures. From systems as simple as wire “chaff” or reflective balloons to more complex designs, such as maneuverable or simulated warheads, Russia could deploy a wide variety of effective countermeasures to any U.S. system currently contemplated.

More serious for U.S. planners, Russia could decide to sell such systems to other missile-possessing states. It could also provide technical expertise to advise such nations on likely U.S. defensive systems and techniques for overcoming these defenses. Such a development could further complicate relations between the United States and Russia and have a direct negative effect on the utility of any U.S. missile defense system. Thus, in the worst case, Russia could thwart the effectiveness of a U.S. missile defense system not just against its own warheads but also against missiles fielded by other countries.

More Missile Sales

The United States has long been concerned that Russia has not adequately prevented its missile technology from benefiting states developing missile capabilities. The Russian government does not officially condone the transfer of ballistic missile technology and material to states such as Iran or North Korea, but the United States has imposed sanctions against Russian institutes and companies for allegedly engaging in just these sort of activities with Iran.

It is possible that Russia, in seeking to further complicate U.S. efforts to deploy an effective missile defense against such systems, might be even less inclined to enforce effective export controls on missile technology. Although unlikely, Russia might even adopt a more aggressive policy of expanding its direct involvement in missile programs in India, Iran, and other countries, possibly using the guise of aiding their development of space-launch vehicles.

U.S. appeals to Russian officials to constrain this sort of activity, now only marginally effective, could become even less so. Moreover, the United States is less likely to gain allied support for its overall export-control efforts in the ballistic missile field if it has unilaterally pursued a missile defense system at the expense of its relationship with Russia.

Increased Nuclear Reliance

By increasing Russia’s general sense of strategic unease, the U.S. decision to pursue missile defenses unilaterally could also further convince Russia of the need to increase its reliance on nuclear weapons for its current and future security. In part, this process may be inevitable in the near future. The decline of Russia’s conventional forces, as demonstrated in Chechnya, has led to an increased rhetorical reliance on the role of tactical nuclear weapons. This official position also reflects Russian concern over the eastward expansion of NATO, another round of which now appears likely.

What is not yet determined is how far this reliance on nuclear weapons will go. There are elements in Russia (as there are in the United States) that are pushing for the development, testing, and deployment of smaller nuclear weapons, often referred to as “mini-nukes.” There is nothing new about low-yield nuclear weapons; they have been developed and were even deployed widely in the 1950s and 1960s by both the United States and Russia. The possible return to such systems (now mated to precision-guided munitions) raises numerous concerns including the implications of resuming nuclear tests in Russia, the wider deployment of nuclear weapons and associated command and control issues, and possible threats to use—or the actual use of—nuclear weapons in battlefield situations.

Let’s Make a Deal

One cannot deny that it may be possible for the United States to withdraw from the ABM Treaty and contain the damage. It is possible that, as a Russian official recently said, the U.S.-Russian relationship could continue to improve and grow while both hold strongly differing positions on the value of the treaty or even in the treaty’s absence. It is also possible that after withdrawal missile defenses might remain constrained by technological challenges, serious operational difficulties, weak public and military demand, low threat, and high costs. Defenses may be deployed in very low numbers; deployed and then retired (as in the 1970s); or deployed only in specific theaters, not globally.

But there is no need to run the risks that withdrawal and related policies would bring. The worst-case scenario is completely avoidable. The United States and Russia could, while preserving the ABM Treaty, agree at Crawford to permit extensive testing of missile defense systems, leaving the question of large deployments a decade or more in the future. Russian officials and experts have indicated over the past few months that Russia could accept substantial modifications to the ABM Treaty along these lines.9

The outlines of a possible deal are simple. First, Russia and the United States could quickly negotiate a binding agreement for deep reductions to between 1,500 and 2,000 deployed weapons, relying on a modified set of START verification procedures. This likely could be accomplished in weeks, not years. There should be no need for long, drawn-out negotiations, given the history and knowledge both states have of verification measures. A new agreement would, in essence, replace the existing START I limit of 6,000 deployed strategic warheads with a new, lower target. Transparency and verification procedures (possibly streamlined) established by the treaty would continue, including exchange of nuclear force data and mutual inspections. A variety of associated issues could be quickly resolved.

Second, the ABM Treaty constraints on testing could be just as easily settled. The two sides could quickly agree to modify the ABM Treaty to permit expanded testing of land- and sea-based systems (such as the proposed tests of Aegis radars) needed to validate the feasibility of future missile defenses. Future decisions on the deployment of such systems can be safely deferred. With such an agreement, there is little that the Bush administration would like to do over the next five years that it cannot do within the ABM treaty.

Before September 11, President Bush had one major foreign policy priority: withdraw from the ABM Treaty and deploy missile defenses. After the attacks, the war on terrorism and the need to maintain an international anti-terrorism coalition are now at the top of the agenda. By pursuing an agreement with Russia that allows testing but preserves the ABM Treaty’s ban on wide-scale deployment of defenses, President Bush can pursue both priorities. Both nations can rightfully declare a diplomatic success. This course of action will also allow U.S.-Russian strategic reductions to proceed cooperatively and enhance prospects for further threat reduction initiatives


Table 1

Deployed Russian Strategic Weapons, 2001


SS-24 (silo)
SS-24 (rail)
SS-27 (silo)
Tu-96 (ALCM)
Tu-95 (Non-ALCM)

As 2001 draws to a close, Russia remains a major nuclear power, deploying some 5,800 strategic nuclear warheads on almost 1,200 delivery vehicles. The arsenal is well below its Cold War peak of more than 12,000 deployed strategic warheads and has been in decline since 1989. Further substantial reductions in the size of the arsenal are to be expected, given the life expectancy of those systems now deployed and financial and other constraints. The pace and severity of this decline, however, will depend on a number of factors—not the least of which is the overall strategic and political relationship with the United States.

Russia’s nuclear arsenal is deployed in a triad of weapons systems: land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and long-range bombers. All but one of the currently deployed systems (the land based SS-27), however, are older systems that are slowly being retired. Given current projections and adequate funding for weapons dismantlement, Russia’s arsenal could drop to less than 1,100 deployed strategic warheads by the end of the decade. However, although the number of delivery systems will decline, a large number of the warheads themselves (and the nuclear materials within them) will remain in storage. In addition, Russia is currently thought to possess more than 8,000 tactical warheads, and it is not clear how many such warheads Russia plans to maintain in the near future.

Table 2

Projection of Russian Nuclear Forces, 2010
Current Projections for 2010 Deployed Warheads
Upper Limits for 2010 Deployed Warheads

Table 3

Cooperative Threat Reductions:
2001 and Planned
Planned Total
Warheads Deactivated
ICBMs Destroyed
ICBM Silos Eliminated
Mobile ICBM Launchers Destroyed
Bombers Eliminated
Nuclear Air-Launched Cruise Missiles Destroyed
SLBM Launchers Eliminated
SLBMs Eliminated
SSBNs Eliminated
Nuclear Test Tunnels Sealed

Source: Defense Threat Reduction Agency

1. Andrew Higgins, “Russia Watchers Ponder Whether Shift Toward West Is for Long Haul,” The Wall Street Journal, October 11, 2001.
2. Interview on CBS’s Face the Nation, July 29, 2001.
3. Interview on PBS’s The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, August 16, 2001.
4. Interview on Fox News’ Fox Special Report with Brit Hume, August 10, 2001.
5. For further discussion of this freedom of action, see “Rationale and Requirements for U.S. Nuclear Forces and Arms Control,” National Institute for Public Policy, January 2001.
6. Assumes the current force is 30 missiles and that the production rate increases to 20 per year in 2002, 40 in 2003, and reaches its maximum of 50 annually from 2004 through 2010.
7. See testimony of Admiral Richard W. Meis, commander-in-chief of U.S. Strategic Command, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, July 11, 2001.
8. For a more detailed discussion, see Joseph Cirincione, “The Asian Nuclear Reaction Chain,” Foreign Policy, Winter 1999.
9. Interviews with the authors.

Joseph Cirincione is senior associate and director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Jon B. Wolfsthal is an associate at the Non-Proliferation Project.