"[Arms Control Today] has become indispensable! I think it is the combination of the critical period we are in and the quality of the product. I found myself reading the May issue from cover to cover."

– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
Explaining Mr. Putin: Russia's New Nuclear Diplomacy
Share this

Andrew C. Kuchins

Since at least 1999, much of the arms control and Russia-watching communities repeatedly cautioned that U.S. plans to develop and deploy national missile defense would bring on the next “great train wreck” in U.S.-Russian relations (to say nothing of the nonproliferation regime). Some Russian analysts in 2000 and 2001 expressed concern that the one-two punch of killing the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and expanding NATO to include the Baltic states would strike such a blow to U.S.-Russian relations that it risked bringing on another Cold War and an arms race as well as a possible security alliance between Moscow and Beijing.1

The Russians repeated over and over the mantra that the ABM Treaty was “the cornerstone of strategic stability” and, if the United States abandoned it, the entire architecture of arms control would unravel. Russian President Vladimir Putin, like his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, warned his American counterparts that U.S. unilateral action on the ABM Treaty would receive an “adequate response” from the Russian side—a warning that U.S. and Russian analysts often interpreted as including a variety of measures, such as withdrawing from the START regime; putting multiple warheads on the Topol-M ballistic missile; deepening strategic cooperation with China, Iran, and perhaps others; and pulling back from cooperative threat reduction efforts to secure Russian weapons and fissile materials.

Although some of these predictions may come to pass—in fact, it can be argued that some already have, with Moscow’s withdrawal from START II and its talk of increased cooperation with Iran, Iraq, and North Korea—it is clear that, at least in the short term, the reaction from the Russians has been much more positive than expected. With the ABM Treaty dead and NATO poised to invite the Baltic states to join its next round of expansion, U.S.-Russian relations and Russia’s ties with the West are arguably better than anytime since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin quietly critiqued the withdrawal from the ABM Treaty as a “mistake” rather than a catastrophe. Despite the withdrawal, he made it clear that he was committed to improving U.S.-Russian relations and supporting the counterterrorism campaign in Afghanistan. Now one may reasonably assert that U.S.-Russian relations have improved in spite of rather than because of Bush administration policies. The fact remains, however, that the Russians have behaved in a manner contrary to the predictions of most experts in the Russia-watching and arms control communities. As Ricky Ricardo often said in response to Lucy’s vexing antics, “You have a lot of ‘xplaining to do.”

The improvement in U.S.-Russian relations stands as one of the major positive developments from the shock to the international system brought on by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last September. It would have raised more than a few eyebrows a year ago to speculate that U.S.-Russian relations would be closer than any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union even after the United States had withdrawn from the ABM Treaty, supported NATO expansion to the Baltic states, established military bases in Central Asia, and sent military advisers to Georgia. September 11 and the decisions of the Putin administration to unconditionally support the United States have had a tremendously catalytic effect toward improving U.S.-Russian relations.

But was it just September 11 that so fundamentally altered the strategic environment from Putin’s perspective that his views on nuclear issues underwent a metamorphosis akin to that of biblical Saul on the road to Damascus? Or did Putin recognize that in Russia’s weakened condition there was little Russia could do in response to U.S. offensive and defensive nuclear strategy that would advance Russian interests? Or did Putin want to distract attention from his decision not to cut a deal with the Clinton administration that might have been more favorable to Russian interests, salvaging the ABM Treaty and generating a new START III agreement?2

As is often the case in explaining complex phenomena, no single explanation is sufficient. To understand the response of the Putin administration to the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty we must account for September 11 and changing Russian foreign policy priorities, the post-Cold War structure of the international system, and—to the extent we can—the calculations of Putin in a domestic and foreign political context.

Russia Reassesses Its Priorities

There is no doubt that September 11 increased Russia’s strategic value to the United States and that U.S. and Russian interests were closely aligned in overthrowing the Taliban and destroying al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan. In fact, for years Moscow had been stressing to Washington the dangers of terrorism and Islamic-inspired and -supported separatist groups. At the Ljubljana summit in June 2001 where he first met George W. Bush, Putin proposed greater intelligence sharing on nonproliferation and terrorism and specifically addressed the terrorist threat emanating from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.3 Unconditional Russian support for the United States and the international coalition in Afghanistan through intelligence sharing, arms supplies to the Northern Alliance, and acquiescence to the U.S. use of military bases in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan catalyzed the dramatic U.S.-Russian rapprochement of the fall of 2001 that served as the backdrop for discussions and negotiations on the future of the ABM Treaty and nuclear arms reductions.

But the momentum of U.S.-Russian rapprochement predated September 11. The Bush administration realized in the spring of 2001 that to pursue its goals of national missile defense and NATO expansion it needed to somehow bring the Russians on board, in great part to mollify its European allies who feared a breakdown in U.S.-Russian relations.4 Bush made a concerted effort to cast relations between Washington and Moscow in a warm light. At their first meeting in Slovenia, Bush stated, “I said in Poland, and I’ll say it again, Russia is not the enemy of the United States. As a matter of fact, after our meeting today, I’m convinced it can be a strong partner and friend, more so than people could imagine.”5 Putin essentially agreed with these sentiments, but the Russian warmth was more than a function of tactical maneuvering on specific issues. Powerful internal and external changes have contributed to an increasingly pro-West and pro-U.S. orientation in Russian foreign policy that transcends the impact of September 11 and helps us understand the stance Putin has taken on the ABM Treaty and nuclear arms reductions in the past year.

Putin’s foremost preoccupation is the economic recovery and modernization of Russia, and he clearly understands that the West is an essential partner for success in this task. Not only will continuous and stable economic growth be essential for his own political future, but Putin knows that only through strengthening Russia’s global economic position will Russia restore its place as a respected major power in the international system. Putin’s outlook for Russia can be likened to that of Deng Xiaoping, who more than 20 years ago concluded that long-term economic recovery was essential for restoring Chinese international influence as well as bringing prosperity to the Chinese people. In fact, Russia’s continued interaction with Iran and Iraq—which on the one hand could be seen as a strategic rebuff to the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty—could also be seen in a purely economic light. Russia makes money from selling arms and civilian nuclear technology to Iran, and it wants to develop oil in Iraq and reclaim its Soviet-era debt from Baghdad.

There is also an increasing tendency in Russia to view the West, notably the United States, as a key security partner in Eurasia. This was most vividly demonstrated by the strong coincidence of interests between Russia and the United States in overthrowing the Taliban and destroying the bases and training camps of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. It would be an overstatement to say that Russia is unequivocally pleased with the U.S. military presence in Central Asia and now Georgia; Moscow remains sensitive to the possibility that Russia’s influence could be seriously curtailed in this traditional sphere of influence. But as the Russian president has stated on a number of occasions, there are real dangers and threats emanating from Russia’s southern periphery including terrorism, religious extremism, and drug trafficking. Russia recognizes that it shares an interest with the United States in addressing these threats in Central Asia, including Afghanistan and the Caucasus, and it realizes that alone it does not have the resources to guarantee security and stability there.

Concomitant with these developments is the view in Moscow that the West, including the United States and NATO, is not a direct threat to Russia. The mentality of the current Russian military leadership was shaped and trained in an environment when the West was the primary threat, and existing documents approved in 2000 in the wake of the war in Kosovo still identify the hegemonic and unbridled power of the United States as a major threat to Russian interests. But increasingly, the formative military experiences of the Russian military leadership will be conflicts in the south, beginning with Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Chechnya. In fact, the Russian government has begun discussions on drafting a new security doctrine to reflect this shift in focus.

Finally, Russia is coming to realize that in traditional power terms it cannot compete with the United States. Many analysts, observers, and politicians who have warned for the last decade that withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, expansion of NATO, war in the Balkans, and other possible actions taken by the United States and the West will lead to a new Cold War neglect the essential point that Russia simply lacks the resources to engage in such a pitched battle for any foreseeable future.6 World Bank calculations for 1999 have the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) as more than 20 times the size of that of Russia; even adjusted for purchasing power parity, the U.S. GDP is 9 times that of Russia. For comparison sake, GDP figures for the Soviet Union and the United States in 1982 had the Soviet GDP at about 46 percent of that of the United States.7 Even in its salad days, competing with the United States was beyond the means of the Soviet Union. Soviet efforts to compete with the United States and its NATO allies greatly contributed to the collapse of the Soviet economy, and the Russian leadership is painfully aware of this history.

Russians may not be comfortable with the deep power asymmetry of the U.S.-Russian relationship, but Putin and many Russians have reconciled themselves to Russia’s position in the world and no longer harbor superpower illusions. The Russian leadership also understands that this is not an “equal partnership,” as no country really has such a relationship with a global hegemon such as the United States, whose combination of economic and military power is unparalleled in modern times. Rather than trying to balance the power of the United States as espoused in the multipolar world framework associated with former Prime Minister Yevgeniy Primakov, Putin has elected to “bandwagon” with U.S. power. It was a highly effective strategy of former U.S. adversaries Germany and Japan after World War II. Putin hopes that by becoming an accepted member of the Western club, Moscow may have more influence on the definition of the “rules of the game” in ways that will better serve Russian interests.

The Impact on Nuclear Strategy

This great power asymmetry means that, when it came time for changes to the U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship, in many respects Moscow did not have a choice but to go along with what the Bush administration wanted. For example, Russia’s choice on missile defense was either to withdraw from the ABM Treaty jointly or to watch the United States unilaterally withdraw. Not surprisingly, Putin chose the latter course since the former offered no domestic or foreign political incentives for him.

The situation was similar with the strategic nuclear reductions agreement signed in May. The assessments of the U.S. and Russian arms control communities were fairly unanimous in the view that the treaty leaves much to be desired on counting rules, the speed of reductions, and transparency and verification measures. Because it does not call for the destruction of downloaded warheads, the agreement leaves Russia, which is being forced to reduce its deployed arsenal for economic reasons, facing a United States that will be capable of rapidly reconstituting its forces. But Russia faced a Hobson’s choice between a bad treaty or no treaty at all—between accepting a lightweight treaty that allows maximum flexibility for both the United States and Russia or risking the complete demise of the nuclear arms reduction treaty regime. At least this treaty’s minimalism gave Russia some benefits, such as the ability to keep MIRVs in its arsenal.

John Holum, former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, accurately captured Russia’s position when he recently explained why the Russians agreed to such a minimalist arms reductions treaty:

President Putin came to the negotiating table with virtually no leverage. He could not bargain warhead numbers down because it has long been obvious that Russia cannot afford to maintain its existing forces and, in fact, Moscow has for years been pushing for a lower number than the United States would accept. Previously, Putin’s main leverage to extract lower numbers and other concessions had been his ability to withhold amendment of the ABM Treaty, but that card evaporated in December when President Bush gave notice of U.S. withdrawal from that treaty.8

The long-time Russian arms control negotiator, Georgy Mamedov, must have felt a bit like John Maynard Keynes did in World War II negotiating financial terms with the demanding allies in Washington. Keynes dreaded these discussions, and on his last mission he wrote, “May it never fall to my lot [again] to have to persuade anyone to do what I want with so few cards in my hand.”9

Those in the Russian government tasked with defending the arms reduction treaty could muster little enthusiasm. Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov was only slightly disingenuous when he said, “Neither side, neither Russia nor the United States, surrendered any national interests while drafting this agreement…. This agreement is the result of a compromise, like any other international agreement.”10 Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Igor Ivanov evaluated the situation a little more honestly in simply concluding, “It was the most that we could get.” 11 Alexei Arbatov, deputy chair of the Duma Defense Committee, agreed with this conclusion, but argued that Russia had weakened its bargaining position by announcing its reductions plans and failing to proceed more rapidly in the development of the Topol-M force, a weapon that he insists is a generation ahead of the Americans’. In Arbatov’s view, if Russia had proceeded more aggressively with the Topol-M, the United States would have likely taken a softer stance both on the ABM Treaty and arms reduction talks.12 Maybe, but it is doubtful.

But Russian acquiescence on the ABM Treaty withdrawal and a suboptimal strategic reductions treaty represents more than just a bitter psychological pill that the Russians have been forced to swallow because of a power imbalance. It also reflects Russia’s increasingly pro-Western foreign policy, as discussed above. If the West is not a potential adversary in any foreseeable future, there is no need for Russia to maintain an anachronistic nuclear posture that emphasizes the ability to destroy the United States. In accepting ABM Treaty withdrawal and signing a new arms control agreement, Putin has effectively agreed with the Bush team’s assertion that nuclear issues, offensive and defensive, are now a relatively smaller piece of a broader and deeper U.S.-Russian relationship. A most insightful commentary on why Putin signed the nuclear arms reduction treaty was offered by Izvestia commentator Georgy Bovt:

In signing such a treaty, Putin does not simply bow to the necessity of taking into account the new realities and limited financial capabilities of the country but tries to literally push Russia to a new relationship level with the United States and the entire world…. The real threats to Russia these days are coming not from the West but from the South….13

The current U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship is truly a Cold War relic that correlates less and less with other key indices of the international balance of power. Neither does the nuclear relationship correspond with the improvement of bilateral relations that has occurred in fits and starts over the last decade or so. Although the United States and Russia may not be “friends,” as Bush administration officials are fond of saying, we certainly are not enemies. Yet, contradicting the quality of the bilateral relationship at its core is enduring nuclear deterrence.14

Getting beyond deterrence, however, is an admirable but very long-term goal. Despite the Bush administration’s claims, the “balance of terror” that characterized the Cold War has not been eliminated. Both the United States and Russia still insist on having the ability to destroy each other.

Rather, the most salient conclusion one can draw from the Russian positions on the ABM Treaty and the signing of the Treaty of Moscow is that the Kremlin is taking a major step toward getting beyond the parity paradigm that has characterized the U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship. The Treaty of Moscow maintains the appearance of parity, which remains important for some of Putin’s domestic political constituencies, but in effect it allows both the Russians and the Americans a great deal of flexibility to pursue their own nuclear strategies. Because of financial constraints, Russia is likely to deploy 1,700 or fewer warheads while the United States remains at the 2,200-warhead upper limit allowed by the treaty. Nuclear parity will therefore no longer exist.

Calculations and Miscalculations

In reviewing Putin’s policies on nuclear security with the United States since he came to power nearly three years ago, we cannot understand his motivations without taking into account his domestic political context. The decisions Putin has made not to protest the actions of the Bush administration too loudly can be seen in part as an attempt to deflect attention from what, in retrospect, may seem like miscalculations.

In the months before the United States announced its withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, Putin had reason to believe that a deal could be reached with the Bush administration. At a June 2001 press conference in Ljubljana, he dismissed comments by U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice that the United States would deploy a national missile defense, saying,

But we took due note of the other statements of senior administration officials. Now the secretary of state, for example, said….“The United States is not seeking destruction of the ABM Treaty of 1972, but firmly intends to follow the course for creating effective but limited missile defenses.”… I think this is a very serious statement. The U.S. is not seeking the destruction of the ABM Treaty.15

Putin and other Russian officials thought—as did many in Washington—that a deal was even more likely after September 11 since the United States “needed” the Russians. That the United States made the withdrawal decision after the tide had turned in Afghanistan made the Russians feel used. Coming so quickly on the heels of the dramatic post-September 11 U.S.-Russian rapprochement, it was an embarrassing slap in the face and a disappointment for Putin. Putin’s relatively mild response to U.S. withdrawal can thus be seen as an attempt to distract attention from Washington’s poor treatment of Moscow, which seemed to suggest that Russia was not in fact that important in the post-September 11 world.

Perhaps more importantly, had Putin protested loudly, it might have highlighted what must have seemed, in retrospect, like a serious miscalculation: the fact that he had not made a deal with the Clinton administration that would have preserved the ABM Treaty and provided for a more satisfactory and far-reaching—if not deeper-cutting—treaty on nuclear arms reduction. Did Putin really think that he could possibly get a better deal with a new Bush administration if elected? There was a conventional wisdom running in Russian foreign policy elite circles that it would be easier to do business with the so-called more realistic, hardball Republicans than with the more “romantic” Democrats as the Soviets had cut deals with previous Republican administrations from Nixon to Reagan to Bush the elder.

But this explanation is based on such a fundamentally flawed assumption that it stretches the imagination to believe Putin fully bought into it. The flaw, of course, is that during those earlier Republican administrations—at least Nixon and Reagan (the most frequently noted analogous cases for Russian punditry)—Washington believed that Soviet international power was, if not on the rise, then on par with the United States. In 1999 and 2000, that was obviously no longer the case. Furthermore, dismissive and negative comments about Russia by candidate Bush and some of his leading advisers in 1999 and 2000 should also have led Putin to conclude that an incoming Republican administration would be more difficult to deal with on arms reduction and the ABM Treaty.

A more plausible explanation is that the new and inexperienced Russian president did not feel politically powerful enough to make a bold deal with the Americans in 2000. In an environment of high anti-Americanism in influential Russian circles in the wake of the war in Kosovo, the new president’s popularity was more likely to be enhanced if he was seen as standing tall against the Americans and not budging from defending Russia’s national interest in preserving the “cornerstone of strategic stability,” the ABM Treaty. There was virtually no domestic political upside for Putin to compromise on a modified ABM Treaty that would allow for the United States to pursue a limited national missile defense.


It has almost become conventional wisdom in analysis of Russian foreign and security policymaking that economic imperatives drive much of the decision-making. Whether the issues are energy development, arms sales, or nuclear policy, a lot of mileage can be gotten from an economically driven analysis. Just as the demands of economic modernization led Mikhail Gorbachev to undertake perestroika in the late 1980s, so much of Putin’s foreign policy program is both motivated and constrained by economic factors. But it would be a serious mistake to conclude that economics are the whole story and that politics do not matter in Russia today. Russia is hardly a perfect democracy, but we should not underestimate the importance of public opinion—and not just that of the elites.

Although building good relations with the West, including the United States, remain popularly supported goals in Russia, strengthening those ties at the expense of perceived excessive concessions of Russian national interests is not. For Putin, his high political ratings in Russia constitute essential political capital that he will ration very carefully. On the ABM Treaty, Putin calculated that he was best off letting the United States walk away from the treaty. Reaching a compromise with the Clinton administration or jointly withdrawing with the Bush administration would have been roundly criticized in Russia as kowtowing to the United States. Whether the issue is Kosovo, the ABM Treaty, or now Iraq, Putin can only go so far to accommodate U.S. interests lest he risk, fairly or unfairly, being viewed like Gorbachev, who was pilloried for making many concessions to the United States and getting little in return.

But Putin’s post-September 11 orientation has been reasonably well rewarded, and he can make a plausible argument that Russia is now getting from the West as good as it is giving. First, there is the nuclear arms treaty rather than a handshake. There is a new and potentially tighter institutional relationship between Russia and NATO. Russia has been recognized as a market economy by both the European Union and the United States—important steps in the World Trade Organization accession process. And in July, Russia was accepted as a full member of the G-8 beginning in 2006. Nuclear security is not unimportant, but it is not as important as economic recovery and development for Russia. Not only does Putin understand that his personal political future depends on the latter, but so does Russia’s return as an influential major power.


The author thanks Rose Gottemoeller for comments on an earlier draft and Anne O’Donnell for her research and editorial assistance.

1. See, for example, the comments of Sergei Rogov, director of the U.S.A. and Canada Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace conference, “Russia—Ten Years After,” June 8, 2001.
2. In his recent book The Russia Hand (Random House, 2002), former Undersecretary of State Strobe Talbott discusses the efforts of President Clinton to convince Putin to reach such a deal. Relevant sections were excerpted in Arms Control Today, June 2002.
3. This proposal was in response to a question from Patrick Tyler of The New York Times. See “President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin Joint Press Conference,” Federal News Service, June 16, 2001.
4. The rhetorical turning point was the address on national missile defense that President Bush delivered at National Defense University on May 1, 2001, when, after several months of very sharp criticism of Russia, the president spoke very warmly about the importance of close ties with Moscow and joint U.S.-Russian interests.
5. Federal News Service, June 16, 2001.
6. President Putin said as much in his press conference at the Slovenia summit in his discussion about the impact of excessive military spending on the Soviet economy. See “Bush and Putin Joint Press Availability,” Federal News Service, June 16, 2001.
7. For more analysis of these figures, see Andrew C. Kuchins, “Russia Rising” in Russia after the Fall, Andrew C. Kuchins, ed. (Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2002).
8. John Holum, “Assessing the New U.S.-Russian Pact,” Arms Control Today, June 2002.
9. Robert Skidelsky, “Imbalance of Power,” Foreign Policy, March/April 2002.
10. Angela Charlton, “Russian Defense Minister Insists Arms Control Deal with U.S. Wasn’t a Sellout,” Associated Press, May 15, 2002.
11. Vladimir Isachenkov, “Senior Lawmaker Predicts Swift Ratification of U.S.-Russian Arms Deal in Russian Parliament,” Associated Press, May 21, 2002.
12. Arbatov made this argument on many occasions in 2001 and 2002. See, for example, “Press Conference with Alexei Arbatov, Vice Chairman of the State Duma committee for Defense and Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, Vice President of the Geopolitical Problems Academy on May 2002 Russia-West Summits,” June 28, 2002.
13. Andrei Zolotov, Jr., “Press Puts a Positive Spin on Summit,” The Moscow Times, May 24, 2002.
14. James E. Goodby most eloquently made this argument in his fine book Europe Undivided: The New Logic of Peace in U.S.-Russian Relations, (Washington D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 1998).
15. “Putin Interview with American Media,” Federal News Service, June 18, 2001.

Andrew C. Kuchins is the director of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.