Superseding U.S.-Russian Nuclear Deterrence

Alexei Arbatov

Over time and left unchecked, nuclear deterrence and proliferation are likely to follow Frederick Hegel’s dialectical notion of history in which a historical development generates its opposite, or antithesis, and eventually both give way to a new reality or synthesis. Nuclear deterrence (as a policy of leveraging nuclear weapons for political aims) must inevitably give rise to proliferation, as more countries strive to take advantage of the fruits of deterrence to achieve their interests.

As this circle of countries possessing nuclear weapons grows, deterrence will become ever more ambiguous, unstable, and contradictory. States will find it more difficult to resolve such basic strategic questions as how deterrence affects the possibility of a first use of nuclear weapons, whether deterrence can be viewed as a rational approach for policymakers, and what constitutes a country’s appropriate command and control responsibilities.

In the past, arms control efforts succeeded in slowing down this historical trend. Now, we are fast approaching the final stage of proliferation and the final contradiction of deterrence: nonstate actors (terrorist organizations) gaining access to nuclear weapons. At that point, deterrence will be effectively finished as a strategy for leveraging nuclear weapons to protect national security. Nuclear deterrence is not effective against terrorists, and terrorists are interested in nuclear weapons solely for direct use and blackmail.

To rein in these terrorist organizations, a Cold War level of cooperation will not suffice. All new threats, as well as new opportunities, urgently require a qualitatively higher level of cooperation among the major world powers. The cooperation required is comparable to that achieved in such alliances as NATO or the Warsaw Pact, but in some spheres, even greater cooperation is required. Nevertheless, better relations are not possible while the United States and Russia base their military and strategic relations on the principles and the material base of mutual nuclear deterrence. Changes are needed both in specific arms programs and the two nuclear superpowers’ approach to arms control and disarmament.

Deterrence and Arms Control
Arms control was born out of the desire of the leading powers to stabilize mutual deterrence within acceptable limits. At an early stage in the arms control process, after the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, the end of nuclear proliferation began to be viewed as a mandatory condition for progress in nuclear disarmament. After the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed, the powers signed a number of bilateral arms control treaties, from the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), along with multilateral accords such as the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the 1997 Model Additional Protocol granting greater inspection powers to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Yet, these treaties did not fully stop nuclear proliferation, as some countries (India, Pakistan, and possibly North Korea) acquired nuclear weapons.

To defend itself from such rogue proliferators, the United States (and likely other powers in the not-too-distant future) has initiated the development and perfection of a missile defense system and undertaken research into the possibility of using a new generation of nuclear weapons preemptively against terrorist bases or rogue nations. This will likely further undermine the foundations of stable mutual deterrence between the main powers and of the arms limitation and disarmament regimes: already the CTBT, ABM Treaty, START II, and planned START III agreements have fallen victim.

Such moves will also be viewed as not conforming to the spirit of the NPT. That treaty calls in part for the nuclear-weapon states to take steps toward nuclear disarmament in return for non-nuclear-weapon states forgoing such weapons.

A New Approach
It is clearly becoming less productive to depend on deterrence as the main guarantee for preventing a nuclear war. The nuclear powers, the largest non-nuclear states, and the countries supplying nuclear materials and technology must develop a new approach for preventing proliferation and, even more importantly, convincing countries to disarm (as in Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Iraq, and Libya).

As a first step, the great powers, primarily the United States and Russia, must improve their military and political relations in the area of nuclear weapons. Not enough has been done to minimize the mutual suspicion and ambiguity that exist between the major nuclear powers, even if only latently. This has been reinforced and continually perpetuated under the mutual nuclear deterrence paradigm, especially as a result of the disruption of the system of agreements dealing with arms limitation and reduction. This lack of trust seriously impairs deep cooperation between the powers in all aspects of nuclear nonproliferation.

During the Cold War, full-fledged cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation was impaired by confrontation and global rivalry between the two superpowers, which undoubtedly predominated over other individual links of cooperation. The cessation of the Cold War in principle removed the main impediment to cooperation between the two countries. Nevertheless, rather than turning to further disarmament steps, the United States, no longer worried about the Soviet threat, has turned its attention instead to such pressing concerns as new states pursuing nuclear weapons and the discovery of a nuclear black market.

Both Russia and the United States share blame for this failure. The Bush administration’s policies have been viewed by many in Moscow as arrogant and unilateralist. Yet, the Kremlin can also be blamed for weakness, inconsistency, and significant errors.

In addition to changing their bilateral dialogue, both countries have to take steps to cut their nuclear arsenals, recognizing that their disarmament actions are more likely to influence countries than their statements on nonproliferation. Such steps would not only provide good role models, but they would avoid setting bad examples for other nuclear states, as well as for those that are blatantly or secretly on the nuclear threshold. It is by no means certain that if the nuclear powers were to carry out a radical cut in their arsenals other countries would abandon their own nuclear weapons programs, considering their real motives for acquiring them. It is, however, completely clear that the unwavering reliance of the nuclear powers on nuclear weapons as the most important means for ensuring their own security creates additional stimulus for other countries to acquire these weapons, thus providing terrorists with greater access to such arms.

In terms of the NPT, progress by the great powers in meeting their Article VI commitments does not guarantee that the nuclear nonproliferation regime will survive and thrive—many other actions are needed to accomplish this goal. Not meeting these obligations, however, quite certainly guarantees future nuclear weapons proliferation and will demand ever more energetic efforts in order to cut it off, including the use of force. Given the current experience in Iraq, this is surely a fate the nuclear-weapon states would like to avoid.

To make nuclear weapons less attractive to would-be nuclear powers, large cuts in the numbers of nuclear weapons held by the United States and Russia—at least as long as their warhead stocks remain in the thousands—are not as important as the role of nuclear weapons in their military policies, their views on the practical applicability of nuclear weapons, their nuclear force modernization plans, and their attitudes toward arms limitation and reduction agreements.

The trend in recent years has not been encouraging, primarily in the approach taken by the United States, but also by Russia and other nuclear-weapon states. It is not an exaggeration to assert that the great powers bear the main responsibility for the failure in not achieving a wider acceptance of the norm of nonproliferation.

New U.S.-Russian Steps to Stem Proliferation

There are steps that the United States and Russia can take to reverse this trend and hopefully reverse proliferation. To begin with, the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) should be transformed into a full-scale treaty like START I governing the reduction of strategic weapons. This would mean spelling out the corresponding counting rules for warheads reduction, schedules and procedures for dismantling weapons, verification measures, and extension of the terms of the treaty to the year 2017 (currently, the treaty expires in 2012 upon completion of the arms reductions).

Negotiations should begin immediately on a SORT II, which could lead to the reduction of each country’s strategic nuclear arsenal by 2017 to the level of no more than 1,000 warheads. These cuts would be coupled with a gradual lowering of the operational readiness of at least half of the strategic nuclear forces. This would include sharp reductions in the number of nuclear-armed submarines on patrol, the basing of heavy bombers separately from their nuclear weapons, and the removal and separate storage of the nose cones of the larger portion of the ICBMs capable of carrying multiple warheads and of the warheads of single-warhead ICBMs.

This treaty should include broad measures for transparency in the two countries’ strategic nuclear forces. The treaty should also include gradual integration of the Missile Attack Early Warning System and the two countries’ command and control systems, including liaison officers at each other’s strategic command centers as is the current practice with Russia and NATO. Subsequent measures should be directed toward a verifiable reduction in the alert rate of an ever-increasing portion of each country’s strategic nuclear forces (bringing it down to 90 percent) and an increase in the time, visibility, and cost of the reconstitution capabilities of both sides.

Based on the 2002 document covering new principles for strategic relations between the United States and Russia, it is time for a full-scale treaty on cooperation in the ABM area, delineating the spheres of joint and individual development and deployment and presenting guarantees that the two countries’ ABM systems will not be directed against each other. These might include, for example, prohibition of space-based interceptor devices; freedom to conduct tests of any ABM systems, provided there is mutual monitoring of the tests; and limitations on the numbers of anti-missiles of various types allowed.

The two countries should also initiate negotiations on limiting nonstrategic nuclear weapons. These talks would be aimed initially at ensuring that these weapons were not deployed in central and eastern Europe, including the Kaliningrad Oblast. Eventually, the negotiations should be aimed at removing them from Europe, as defined by the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty. Weapons outside Europe, that is, the non-European part of Russia, should be stockpiled only in centralized storage facilities under mutual monitoring. This would indirectly bring about a significant downsizing of Russia’s nonstrategic warhead modernization program.

Unilateral Measures
In addition, some unilateral steps would be useful, such as getting rid of or severely limiting those systems and programs that cannot be justified by any other mission except targeting each other.

The United States should abandon any efforts to develop new nuclear weapons, cancel plans to install W-87 warheads from the Peacekeeper missile on the Minuteman III ICBM, and make a commitment not to resume production of the W-88 warhead for the Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

Russia should alter its nuclear modernization program. Emphasis should be placed on the mobile Topol-M ICBM and survivable control systems and Missile Attack Early Warning System. The Kremlin should stop construction of additional new class 955 (Borey-Yuriy Dolgorukiy) nuclear submarines and their new Bulava-30 nuclear missiles.

A number of multilateral agreements are also needed, but they only stand a chance of entering into force if the United States and Russia take the lead.

The United States should ratify the CTBT, which the U.S. Senate rejected in 1999. A common position between the great powers would ensure that India, Pakistan, and Israel, which do not belong to the NPT but have nuclear weapons, join the pact. Thus, a limit would be established for improvements and, to a significant degree, production of nuclear weapons in the nations that have already created them, and a serious barrier would also be established to the creation of nuclear weapons by other countries. Nuclear nonproliferation efforts would be further buttressed with the conclusion of a treaty prohibiting the production of fissile material for military purposes (see page 25).

The United States and Russia should seek to convince other nuclear powers to accept similar limitations on their strategic nuclear forces. For example, there might be an equal number of SLBM warheads in the forces of Russia and the total forces of the United Kingdom and France or equal numbers of warheads in silo-based ICBMs for Russia, China, and the United States. They should seek to convince all NPT nuclear-weapon states to pledge that they will not be the first to use nuclear weapons against NPT member nations or, alternatively, commit to no first use of any type of weapon of mass destruction (WMD). They might also seek to abandon the concept of a launch-on-warning or launch-under-attack strike, switching to a concept of delayed second strike.

Aside from the mistaken ideas of political and military leaders, as well as the incapability of the political leaders to assert their control over the military establishments and lobbyists of the defense industry, there are no objective security interests of the great powers or real strategic or military technical circumstance that would interfere with taking these steps.

Even more than nuclear weapons themselves, it is the maintenance of the nuclear heritage of those decades and the ensuing military relations among the powers that are the true relics of Cold War, even if they presently only form the background of diplomacy. Now, more than a decade after the end of Cold War, it is time to disassemble its heritage of deterrence in a practical manner and eliminate the burden it imposes on relations between nations and the boundaries it sets on international cooperation. It is time to move forward together to confront today’s problems of WMD proliferation, terrorism, extremism, local instability, and conflicts. By doing so, we will fortify the legal and conceptual core upon which the NPT is built as well as the commitments and mechanism of nonproliferation policy.

Russia on Key Nuclear Issues

Nuclear Warhead Arsenal: Approximately 19,500 warheads total. As of July 2004, Russia claimed a total of 4,959 deployed strategic warheads under the terms of the START agreement.

Latest Nuclear Force Developments: President Vladimir Putin has publicly boasted about Russia’s development of new strategic capabilities. Moscow is known to be working on a mobile version of its Topol-M land-based ballistic missile and on a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, the Bulava, to update its aging long-range missile forces. In the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, Moscow and Washington agreed to field less than 2,200 operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads each by the end of 2012.

Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: Signed September 24, 1996. Ratified June 30, 2000. Fissile Material Production for Weapons: Russia halted all production of fissile material for nuclear arms in 1994. However, Russia is still operating three plutonium production reactors for civilian purposes that it initially pledged in 1994 to shut down by 2000. Moscow voted in favor of a 2004 UN First Committee resolution supporting an “effectively verifiable” fissile material cutoff treaty.

Nuclear Use Doctrine: Russia abandoned in 1993 the Soviet Union’s pledge of no first use. Moscow reaffirmed in May 2000 its past pledge not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but in recent years it has also warned that it would reserve the right to use nuclear weapons to “repulse armed aggression” if other responses failed. Due to the deterioration of its conventional forces since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow has increased its emphasis on the role of nuclear weapons in protecting Russia’s security.


Sources: Arms Control Association, Institute for Science and International Security, Natural Resources Defense Council, and national governments.


Alexei Arbatov is head of the Center for International Security at Moscow’s Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Scholar-in-Residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center, and a member of the Blix Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction. He previously served as deputy in the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma.