I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb.

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College (Takoma Park, Maryland)
July 1, 2020
If You Lead, They Will Follow: Public Opinion and Repairing the U.S.-Russian Strategic Relationship

John Steinbruner and Nancy Gallagher

During the past decade, attention to the U.S.-Russian strategic relationship has steadily declined, even though the two countries’ nuclear arsenals continue to represent the greatest physical threat that their societies face. Official policy and media discussions have been absorbed with problems of proliferation that have greater immediate prominence but lesser potential consequence. It is widely assumed that public opinion in both societies endorses this allocation of attention and accepts the deterioration that has occurred in the arms control process that was once a principal pillar of international security.

In order to test this assumption and determine what the U.S. and Russian publics actually think about nuclear weapons, arms control, and disarmament, the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) and its affiliated Program in International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) jointly conducted a study with a nationwide poll in each country. We found that U.S. and Russian citizens are nearly unanimous in placing a high priority on cooperative efforts to reduce the danger from nuclear weapons, especially to prevent dissident states and terrorist organizations from acquiring them. Responses to detailed questions reveal a striking disparity between what U.S. and Russian leaders are doing and what their publics desire. Leaders who set bold goals for nuclear cooperation and who re-energized the arms control process would likely find a supportive public following.

The Policy Context

The poll was conducted at a time of increasing tension on strategic issues between the Russian and U.S. governments. In several recent rhetorical sallies, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sharply criticized U.S. security policies, warning that they endanger the formal treaties and supplementary political arrangements that regulate international security. Putin has most specifically objected to the proposed deployment of U.S. ballistic missile defense installations in the Czech Republic and Poland and has stated that this project threatens both the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The scope of Putin’s reaction indicates that he considers the entire legacy of strategic restraint to be at stake.

Commentary in the United States has generally minimized the significance of Putin’s statements. Press reports have noted the similarity to Cold War posturing, but more with bemusement than alarm. Government officials, commenting anonymously, have suggested that Putin’s remarks are meant for public consumption in Russia before its March presidential election and have implied that the intergovernmental dialogue has been less contentious. These dismissive reactions might be commended for tolerance, but not for comprehension. Putin has solid reasons for his expressed concerns; but, if he is responding to a domestic constituency, it would be his defense planners. We found the Russian general public to be less belligerent than Putin has recently been.

The reasons for concern extend back to the 1991 formation of the Russian Federation, which absorbed all of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons and thereby assumed the considerable burden of balancing U.S. deterrent forces. Russia also absorbed approximately one-half of the Soviet Union’s conventional forces, the most advanced units of which had to be withdrawn from central Europe. Dedicated to internal economic reform and international market adaptation, the new Russian government could not and did not sustain the heavy investment in those inherited forces that would have been required to make them competitive.

NATO has expanded progressively closer to the new Russian borders since the late 1990s. Russian military planners have undoubtedly been compelled to acknowledge in their inner deliberations that they could not assure defense against the sophisticated forms of air attack that the United States in particular is capable of undertaking. They therefore could not meet the standards of contingency planning that the Soviet Union had labored to uphold. Those standards require the ability to defend against the capability of conceivable opponents regardless of how improbable an actual attack might be. Russia’s highly exposed borders, the most extensive in the world, virtually preclude that level of self-protection.

As a result, at a fundamental level Russia is more dependent than the Soviet Union was on the formal arms control measures negotiated during the Cold War period, not by preference or choice but by necessity. Further, because no amount of informally expressed reassurance could alleviate this dependence, the deterioration of these mutual restraints is an inevitable concern to Russian defense planners. In particular, the 2002 U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, formerly a keystone of bilateral stabilization, must have been a major blow. Russian defense planners likely concluded that their ballistic missiles could readily penetrate planned U.S. defenses if Russia initiated a large, operationally optimized attack. They must have fretted, however, that a retaliatory launch would be less likely to penetrate such defenses if the Russian command system had already been attacked and coordination was severely degraded. For Russian defense planners, missile defense is credible principally as a supplement to pre-emptive offense, and restraint on U.S. pre-emptive offensive attacks is their primary concern.

Meanwhile, the United States has explicitly advanced a national security strategy of pre-emptive attack on potential enemies and has pursued the necessary technologies and operational capacities supported by a defense budget that is roughly 10 times the size of Russia’s. The U.S. effort is said to be directed against rogue states and terrorist groups, but the resulting capabilities can readily be directed against Russia as well. U.S. officials have repeatedly asserted that they have no intention of attacking Russia, but they have not authorized any effort to convey that reassurance in the form of operationally meaningful legal restraint. Certainly, the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT) did not assuage Moscow’s concerns because its only legal obligation—the ceiling of 2,200 operationally deployed strategic warheads—does not take effect until the day when the treaty ceases to exist.

Putin’s remarks indicate that general expressions of benign intent are not sufficient, and he seems prepared to become increasingly disruptive in order to command the sustained attention that the United States has been refusing to give. His ultimate intent, one can presume, is to resurrect and update the formal provisions of mutual restraint. That certainly is a principal security interest both for Russia and the United States.

There have been notable efforts in Russia and the United States to develop a concrete cooperative agenda that could be pursued by leaders who were serious about nuclear risk reduction and strategic partnership. In Beyond Nuclear Deterrence, Alexei Arbatov, a leading Russian defense intellectual and former Duma member, and Vladimir Dvorkin, a retired top strategic planner for the Ministry of Defense, argue that Russia and the United States, in hedging against nuclear uncertainty, perpetuate unnecessary risks and preclude the type of constructive cooperation that could increase mutual security against “real and present dangers,” such as proliferation, terrorism, and civil conflict.[1] A group of prominent former U.S. government officials, led by George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, has proposed a set of cooperative measures to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons and even argued that the guiding objective should be to eliminate nuclear weapons as a threat to global security. This endeavor was initially announced through a January 2007 Wall Street Journal editorial and subsequently endorsed by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.[2]

To be sure, these arguments have yet to filter down to the broader publics in Russia or the United States. Neither political system has prominently featured debates over nuclear policy in its public discussions, where vague language about the end of the Cold War deterrence relationship holds much greater sway than it does for professional military planners. The successors to Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush, slated to take office within a year, are unlikely to receive a direct mandate from their respective electorates on these issues.

Implications of the Poll Results

Yet, should a leader choose the path of nuclear cooperation, our poll results indicate that he or she could draw on considerable political capital. Underlying opinion in both societies would welcome far more extensive nuclear restraint and far more meaningful reassurance than either government has been willing to discuss so far. Elected leaders who chose to develop more robust measures to reduce risks from legacy arsenals, new nuclear states, and potential proliferators could readily evoke broad public approval despite the resistance they might encounter in their security bureaucracies.

The questions in our poll were developed by translating expert-level debates and proposals into terms that the average Russian and U.S. citizen could understand. Where we were looking for evidence of continuity or change in opinion over time, we repeated questions asked in a 2004 CISSM/PIPA poll, “Americans on WMD Proliferation.”[3] We also included questions to assess knowledge of and attitudes toward legacy agreements, proposed next steps, and innovative ideas for security arrangements that would have been unthinkable during the Cold War. The sample sizes were roughly comparable—1,247 in the United States and 1,601 in Russia—but we were able to ask a larger number of more detailed questions using an internet-based poll in the United States than we could through face-to-face interviews conducted in Russia.[4]

At the most fundamental level, the vast majority of Americans and Russians think that nuclear weapons have a very limited role in current security circumstances and believe that their only legitimate purpose is to deter nuclear attack. It is highly consistent, then, that the publics in both countries would favor eliminating all nuclear weapons if this action could be taken under effective international verification.

We used a divided sample to probe more deeply public attitudes toward eliminating nuclear weapons. Seventy-three percent of Americans and 63 percent of Russians supported elimination when asked at the end of a sequence of questions about progressively lower bilateral, then multilateral limits. Responses were more equivocal when people were only asked a single question with four options: eliminate nuclear weapons unilaterally (chosen by 7 percent of Americans and 8 percent of Russians); eliminate them through verified arms control (38 percent of Americans and 31 percent of Russians); engage in arms reductions but not elimination (33 percent of Americans and 31 percent of Russians); and do not participate in treaties that would reduce or eliminate nuclear arms (19 percent in both countries). We consider the higher response in the more deliberative sequence of questions to be a more reliable indicator of how the public would feel about verified elimination if they were asked after the intermediate steps had been successfully accomplished.

The total number of respondents favoring elimination as the guiding objective for U.S. policy in our multiple-choice question (45 percent) is lower than the number who chose elimination when asked the same question in 2004 (61 percent). This drop may have reflected last fall’s drumbeat of accusations by U.S. officials that Iran was secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons. If so, then support for the goal of elimination would likely increase again if the public gained confidence that international pressure and inspections had persuaded Iran to end its clandestine weapons-development program.[5] Support for verified elimination is significantly higher in both our 2007 and 2004 poll than when a similar question was posed in 1998 without mention of verification.[6]

Even a question worded to see how Americans intuitively weigh different types of nuclear risks found a nearly even division between those favoring elimination and retention. Fifty-two percent of Americans selected “eliminating nuclear weapons is too risky. Nuclear weapons create stability because countries know that there will be dire consequences if they try to attack another country.” Forty-seven percent chose “since the risk is high that terrorists will someday get hold of nuclear weapons, it is crucial that we pursue the goal of eliminating them.”

There is strong bipartisan support in the United States for almost all of the kinds of steps that the Wall Street Journal op-ed identified as urgently needed to reduce current risks and lay the groundwork for elimination.[7] These measures also received majority support in Russia, although both approval and disapproval figures were somewhat lower, reflecting the larger number of Russian “don’t know” responses. For example, 79 percent of Americans and 64 percent of Russians favor reducing the number of nuclear weapons on high alert, with 64 percent of Americans and 59 percent of Russians supporting a verified agreement to de-alert all nuclear weapons. Likewise, 64 percent of Americans and 55 percent of Russians want to ban all further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.

U.S. efforts to help Russia improve the physical security of its nuclear stockpile was the one cooperative measure advocated in the Wall Street Journal op-ed that did not receive enthusiastic support in our poll. When asked about the United States “providing technical assistance and money to help Russia secure its nuclear weapons and materials,” 52 percent of Americans disapproved and 47 percent approved. Russian support was a lukewarm 36 percent for and 31 percent against. This may reflect a sense in both countries that Russia can afford to secure its own nuclear arsenal. When Americans were asked in 1998 about having the United States and other NATO countries help Russia dismantle its nuclear weapons, another aspect of ongoing cooperative threat reduction programs, 81 percent thought that they should provide assistance, but only 37 percent thought that they should cover the cost.[8]

The ambivalent answers to this question highlight a recurring theme in our poll. The U.S. and Russian publics want equitable agreements with meaningful legal obligations and effective verification, not just informal policy coordination or treaties that do not require signatories to do things differently than they would in the absence of an accord. For example, support for the 2002 SORT agreement is very high, but almost as many respondents in each country would favor a requirement to reduce to SORT levels sooner than 2012 and then to make significantly deeper reductions.

Americans and Russians are not looking for a return to Cold War-style bilateral treaties that preserve a large gap between superpower arsenals and those of other current or potential nuclear-armed states. Instead, majorities in each country favor a multilateral agreement reducing U.S. and Russian arsenals to 400 active nuclear weapons and precluding other nuclear-weapon states from increasing above this level. When asked about different arrangements for information exchanges to enhance nuclear weapons security, respondents strongly prefer a multilateral approach to a bilateral version.

Given the diverse perspectives of the former U.S. government officials who co-authored the Wall Street Journal op-ed, it is not surprising that any measure on which they could agree would also receive strong bipartisan public support. Our U.S. poll asked about several forms of security cooperation that one might expect to be more controversial. We found that respondents were willing to think seriously about innovative steps that go well beyond the mainstream of expert opinion in the United States. We proposed two alternative strategies for minimizing the number of countries that can enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium: offering fuel guarantees from Nuclear Suppliers Group members to countries that promise not to build their own enrichment facilities and having the International Atomic Energy Agency control all facilities that process nuclear material. The difference in overall support for the two strategies was statistically insignificant, 57 percent for the voluntary national fuel consortium and 54 percent for mandatory international control of all sensitive aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle. There was, however, a striking partisan difference. Republican support for the consortium arrangement was much higher than for the UN agency idea, while Democrats more strongly support the UN agency.

Missile defense is one very important topic in U.S.-Russian security relations that was not addressed in the Wall Street Journal op-ed. We asked Americans to choose among three options: try to build a missile defense unilaterally to maximize U.S. freedom of action, try to build one with Russian and Chinese cooperation to minimize fears that the system is directed against them, and do not try to build one because it is unlikely to be effective. Contrary to the perception that there is now a bipartisan consensus in support of current national missile defense plans, we found that only 46 percent of respondents supported the current unilateral policy while a total of 49 percent chose cooperative missile defense or no missile defense. There was no significant partisan difference on cooperative defense, but there were predictable differences between Republicans who were more willing to build a defensive system unilaterally and Democrats who showed a greater willingness to end the program because they see it as ineffective.

The Reliability and Relevance of Public Opinion

These results seem to indicate that the American and Russian publics would support future leaders who directed their own bureaucracies to alter fundamentally both the guiding objective and the action program used to address the challenges of the new nuclear era. Would public support stay strong if domestic opponents mounted a concerted campaign against efforts to dramatically change the nuclear status quo or if some external event underscored the risks associated with nuclear cooperation? There are good reasons to believe that American public opinion would hold relatively stable and might even move in a more intensely cooperative direction if developments increased public attention to nuclear security.[9]

When the public is asked to make a judgment about a specific security policy issue, they think less about the details that interest experts and more about the underlying values about which they feel confident in having an opinion. The high levels of support we found for a broad range of cooperative nuclear risk reduction measures are very consistent with the results in other polls that ask about the principles that Americans believe should inform U.S. security policy. In the 2004 CISSM/PIPA poll “Americans on WMD Proliferation,” 83 percent of respondents thought that the most important principle for U.S. foreign policy was for the United States to “coordinate its power with other countries according to shared ideas of what is best for the world as a whole,” while only 16 percent believed that the United States “should use its power to make the world be the way that serves U.S. interests and values.” A more recent PIPA study found a comparably high level of bipartisan consensus on a number of relevant principles, including the benefits of multilateral cooperation over unilateralism or isolationism, the need for more emphasis on diplomatic and economic methods rather than military ones, and the importance of strong international institutions.[10] These values have characterized the mainstream of American opinion on foreign policy for decades, and they are not easily changed.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) provides a good indication of opinion stability because it is one of the few nuclear issues where roughly comparable questions have been asked over an extended period of time. Support for a treaty banning all nuclear explosions fluctuated between 60 percent and 75 percent, then climbed to 80 percent or higher since the final years of the Cold War except for a dip in 1997, the year in which a detailed treaty was finally concluded. Thus, context matters to a limited degree, but the dominant pattern is one of public support at high enough levels for any president or senator who favored ratification to be able to claim a popular mandate.

The 2004 “Americans on WMD Proliferation” poll shows that public opinion does not soften significantly when respondents hear arguments that might be used against a specific arms control measure. In that survey, 87 percent of respondents favored CTBT ratification before being exposed to various pro and con arguments, and 84 percent still favored it after hearing counter-arguments, a statistically insignificant difference.

Instead of expecting popular support for arms control to disintegrate if the public knew more about current policies and expert-level debates, the most likely effect would be increased awareness of the huge gap between respondents’ preferences and actual policy. When we asked Americans to give “their best guess” as to how many nuclear weapons the United States has, the median response was 1,000—an order of magnitude lower than the actual size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. When asked how many nuclear weapons the United States needs for deterrence, the median answer was 500, suggesting that people know that the U.S. arsenal is larger than they would consider necessary but have no idea how much larger it actually is.

This tendency for people to assume that the policy positions of their elected leaders and political candidates is roughly in line with their own preferences shows up on other issues too. When we asked whether the United States participates in the CTBT, 56 percent of Americans said that it does, while only 37 percent knew that the United States has not ratified that accord. When asked in 2004 about presidential candidates’ positions on a wide range of foreign policy issues, Bush supporters and uncommitted voters tended to attribute policy positions that they favored to Bush but that were at odds with his stated positions and track record over the previous four years.[11]

All this means that if future U.S. and Russian leaders wanted to adopt cooperative nuclear risk reduction measures that match the changed circumstances of global security, their citizens would be favorably disposed. If security bureaucracies or opposition parties tried to resist change, then the presidents could use their bully pulpits to solidify and mobilize public support by educating people about the current state of affairs and articulating a compelling alternative that is more in line with the public’s core values.

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John Steinbruner is director of the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) and chairman of the board of directors for the Arms Control Association. Nancy Gallagher is research director at CISSM. This article is based on a public opinion study, “Americans and Russians on Nuclear Weapons and the Future of Disarmament,” by the two authors, Steven Kull, Clay Ramsay, and Evan Lewis. The report, questions, and methodology of that study are available at www.worldpublicopinion.org.


1. Alexei Arbatov and Vladimir Dvorkin, Beyond Nuclear Deterrence (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006); Alexei Arbatov, “Superseding U.S.-Russian Nuclear Deterrence,” Arms Control Today, January/February 2005, pp. 12-15.

2. George P. Shultz et al., “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007; Mikhail Gorbachev, “The Nuclear Threat,” Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2007.

3. Steven Kull, “Americans on WMD Proliferation,” April 15, 2004, www.pipa.org; Steven Kull, “Survey Says: Americans Back Arms Control,” Arms Control Today, June 2004, pp. 22-26.

4. The U.S. sample was probability based, and respondents were recruited over the telephone.

5. This is one of the key judgments of the November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear activities.

6. Henry L. Stimson Center, “Public Attitudes on Nuclear Weapons: An Opportunity for Leadership,” 1998, p. 17, www.stimson.org/wmd/pdf/pollrpt.pdf.

7. Their recommendations include de-alerting, deep cuts in nuclear arsenals, elimination of short-range nuclear weapons, reconsidering ratification of the test ban treaty, improvement of security for nuclear weapons and weapons-grade material, a ban on production of more fissile material for weapons, and control of the production of nuclear fuel for reactors.

8. Henry L. Stimson Center, “Public Attitudes on Nuclear Weapons,” p. 15.

9. There are not enough data on Russian public opinion regarding nuclear weapons and other security policy issues to provide a comparable answer.

10. Steven Kull, “Opportunities for Bipartisan Consensus – 2007,” January 2007, www.worldpublicopinion.org.

11. Steven Kull, “Public Perceptions of Foreign Policy Positions of the Presidential Candidates,” September 29, 2004, www.pipa.org.