I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them. -

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
Engagement With Russia: Managing Risks, Repairing Rifts

John Steinbruner

The U.S. security relationship with Russia is a matter that is more significant to the U.S. government and the American people than was apparent during the presidential election. Elections are primarily about attitudes. The exercise of power is about the management of consequences.

As Barack Obama assumes the burdens of the presidency, he will acquire direct responsibility for the fact that the nuclear deterrent force operated by Russia represents by far the greatest physical threat to the United States and the only one that might plausibly put the viability of our society into immediate question. He will need to be continuously aware that he alone bears direct responsibility for managing that situation under our constitutional system. No one can contest or share his exclusive authority on the basis of experience, institutional position, personal stature, or anything else.

The prevailing attitudes that will surround the new president assume with nearly unshakeable conviction that the actual use of Russian nuclear weapons is decisively precluded by the countervailing threat posed by U.S. deterrent forces. As the person with prime responsibility, the president cannot entirely rely on that simplistic conception. It obscures an unacknowledged risk more ominous than those that generated the recent financial meltdown. In the reality that Obama will inherit, the operational coupling of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces creates an inherent danger of inadvertent catastrophe, and the measures of reassurance necessary to manage that danger have been weakened by the Bush administration's contemptuous denigration of bilateral diplomacy, an indulgence of belligerent ideological attitudes so far tolerated in deference to bipartisan etiquette by many who know better. As a consequence, the security relationship with Russia is in urgent need of emergency repair, and there is a strong case for attempting fundamental transformation.

Emergency Repair

Amid the clamor of many competing priorities, Obama will not have time to absorb and ponder all the relevant history of nuclear deterrence before he is forced to make decisions of consequence, and there is serious danger he will be trapped in the legacy of defective policies. A great deal depends on how he reacts to the specific problem most likely to command his immediate personal attention: the fate of START.

That treaty, scheduled to expire December 5, provides the legal basis whereby Russia and the United States inform each other in some detail about the disposition of their respective nuclear forces. For each country's intelligence establishments, understanding and specifying the opposing deterrent threat is a primary obligation, whatever else they are asked to do. The reporting process established by START allows that obligation to be met with much greater accuracy and efficiency than either could do with their own resources alone. It has become a central measure of reassurance that is especially important to the United States because U.S. involvement in several wars means that its intelligence gathering assets are severely burdened by competing obligations. The entire process of arms control diplomacy has been so seriously damaged, however, that the treaty and the reporting arrangements it provides are in jeopardy.

However much Russia's dual leadership might have been affected by the widespread hope for constructive change inspired by Obama's presidential campaign and however rattled they might be by the global economic crisis, they are unlikely to agree without conditions to the obvious emergency expedient: a simple five-year extension of START that is explicitly allowed under its terms. The Russian leaders surely understand the practical importance of the reporting arrangements to the United States, and they cannot be expected to confer the benefit without raising at least some of their accumulated grievances. They will predictably demand credible reassurance that NATO will not extend membership to Georgia or Ukraine in defiance of their objection and that the Obama administration does not commit to the deployment of strategic missile interceptors in eastern Europe in a manner that could impinge on Russia's deterrent capabilities. Regardless of Russia's views, the missile defense proposal does not improve U.S. or European security because the system has not been proven operationally effective and the threat it is designed to address, an Iranian long-range ballistic missile force, does not exist and will not for at least five to 10 years.

Those issues might seem to be peripheral from a U.S perspective, but they reflect the underlying precariousness of Russia's security circumstances and have deep resonance in the federation's formative history.

Provided the president is willing to defend his subcabinet appointments against ideological assault, the emerging Obama administration will certainly present Russia with a constructive change in attitude. Still, even the limited agenda of emergency repair is likely to require significant and potentially controversial policy innovations as well. The central issue so far preventing a negotiated extension of START has been the Bush administration's refusal to accept verifiable and legally binding reductions of deployed warheads below a level of 1,700 to 2,200 on each side, to maintain clear and verifiable limits on the number of strategic delivery systems, and to further reduce delivery system levels below the START ceilings.

As a candidate, Obama embraced the principle of legally binding commitments and deeper reductions in nuclear warheads and strategic delivery systems. It is at least as strong an interest of the United States to have legally binding arrangements as it is for Russia. Although many Republican moderates such as Senator Richard Lugar (Ind.) support this approach, there will be resistance from conservative ideologues who resist international security treaties and significant nuclear weapons reductions as fiercely as they do economic regulation.

That difficulty will be compounded to the extent that negotiated restraints on nuclear weapons deployments are substantively as well as legally binding. The dominant practical fact is that the United States has a very large conventional military advantage over Russia that will progressively increase under realistically projected rates of relative military investment. Negotiated agreements will necessarily constrain the U.S. advantage in order to protect the element of mutual reassurance that is critical to safe management of the deterrent relationship. Regulatory protection is as important to the responsible conduct of security as it is to the financial markets, but there will predictably be major battles within the United States over both applications. The current balance of judgment will have to be altered before constructive consensus can be established.

With respect to START and the agenda of emergency repair, U.S. and Russian negotiators will need to discuss further reductions in nuclear warhead inventories and associated delivery systems. Russia's rate of defense investment cannot indefinitely support the numbers of 1,700 to 2,200 operationally deployed warheads mentioned in the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). Those numbers are legally binding only on the single day in 2012 on which the treaty expires. Because reasonable deterrent requirements can clearly be met at much lower force levels, it makes compelling sense for Russia and the United States to set more restrictive ceilings as they work out streamlined arrangements for verifying compliance.

A good faith effort to do so would be important and perhaps even essential to demonstrate continued progress toward disarmament and successfully manage the review conference for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) scheduled for May 2010.

If Obama directs the Department of Defense and other cabinet agencies to conduct a nuclear posture review based on the principle that nuclear weapons shall only serve the role of deterring the use of nuclear weapons by others, U.S. and Russian negotiators could reach an agreement that mandates reductions to 1,000 or fewer total warheads without excessive division in the U.S. national security establishment.

The more fundamental point would be the declared purpose of those nuclear forces that remain in service. The most significant provision of mutually reassuring restraint would be a formally agreed restriction on the legitimate purpose of nuclear weapons, confining them exclusively to preventing the use, as distinct from the possession, of other nuclear weapons.

Fundamental Transformation

It is reasonable to expect that the Obama administration will seek to repair the security relationship with Russia and will succeed to some extent. The more interesting question is whether the president who has emerged as the apostle for constructive change will attempt a more fundamental transformation of the Russian security relationship in an exercise of his unique responsibility.

The reasons for doing so are substantively compelling. Legitimate deterrent requirements do not remotely justify prevailing operational practices whereby thousands of nuclear weapons are kept on continuous alert and are programmed to execute mass attacks within a few hours independent of any immediate circumstance that would require it. That operational configuration derived from Cold War history reflects the impulse both to pre-empt against the opposing force in an effort to disarm it and to preclude pre-emption against one's own force by assuring rapid reaction to tactical warning. Virtually anyone with a grasp of common sense can recognize that as a perverse outcome of inadequately regulated competition. The United States, Russia, and the rest of the world would be much safer if all nuclear weapons were removed from active alert and locked in secure storage where they could be accurately counted, continuously monitored, and securely protected against any unauthorized access. Should a legitimate need for an immediate deterrent ever arise, weapons could be removed from monitored storage, restored to active status, and programmed for missions justified by immediate circumstances.

Such an arrangement would require very robust measures of continuous verification, but such measures are technically feasible. If developed and implemented, they would essentially remove the risk of a deliberate or inadvertent triggering of alert forces producing a massive catastrophe. They would also provide much stronger protection against terrorist seizure of a weapon and an accounting standard that could support the NPT goal of eventual elimination. In its mature stages, the arrangement would have to include all nuclear weapons of all states, but it would logically begin in bilateral discussions between Russia and the United States, which together possess 95 percent of the nuclear weapons believed to exist.

Compelling as that outcome is in common sense terms, in the practical world in which we all are obliged to live, it would be difficult to achieve, largely because it would require a massive change of entrenched attitudes and institutionalized procedures. We cannot reasonably expect Obama to accomplish such an outcome in the course of his presidential tenure, but there is good reason to hope he might recognize the opportunity to initiate a serious effort that ultimately does accomplish it. That would necessarily begin with Russia.

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.