The global nuclear disarmament and risk reduction enterprise is at a crossroads as U.S.-Russian relations have reached perhaps their lowest point in more than a quarter century. Nevertheless, it remains in U.S. and Russian interests to implement existing nuclear risk reduction agreements and pursue practical, low-risk steps to lower tensions. Present circumstances demand new approaches to resolve stubborn challenges to deeper nuclear cuts and the establishment of a new framework to address Euro-Atlantic security issues.
Even before the recent political turmoil in Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s extralegal occupation and annexation of Crimea, relations between Moscow and Washington were chilly. Despite U.S. adjustments to its missile defense plans in Europe that eliminate any threat to Russian strategic missiles, Putin rebuffed U.S. President Barack Obama’s proposal last June to reduce U.S. and Russian strategic stockpiles by one-third below the ceilings set by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).
Moving forward will be difficult, but doing nothing is not an option. Through earlier crises during and after the Cold War, U.S. and Russian leaders pursued effective arms control and disarmament initiatives that increased mutual security and significantly reduced the nuclear danger. Much has been achieved, albeit too slowly, but there is far more to be done.
As the world’s non-nuclear-weapon states persuasively argue, U.S. and Russian stockpiles still far exceed any plausible deterrence requirements, and the use of just a few nuclear weapons by any country would have catastrophic global consequences. As the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference approaches, pressure to accelerate action on disarmament will only grow.
For now, neither Russia nor the United States wants to scrap the existing arms control regime, including New START and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which provide greater predictability and stability in an otherwise strained bilateral relationship. A return to a period of unconstrained strategic nuclear competition would not only deepen the distrust and increase dangers for both sides, but also would undermine the NPT. Scrapping the existing nuclear risk reduction measures would do nothing to protect Ukraine from further Russian aggression or reassure nervous NATO allies.
Unfortunately, the profound tensions over Ukraine delay the possibility of any formal, bilateral talks on nuclear arms reductions and missile defense. In light of these realities, Obama and other key leaders must explore alternative options to reduce global nuclear dangers and defuse U.S.-Russian strategic tensions.
Accelerate New START reductions. As a 2012 report by the U.S. secretary of state’s International Security Advisory Board suggests, with New START verification tools in place, further nuclear reductions need not wait for a formal follow-on treaty. Obama, the report suggests, could announce he will accelerate the pace of reductions under New START. As long as Russia remains below New START limits, he could also move U.S. force levels well below the treaty’s ceiling of 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 strategic launchers, to 1,100 warheads and 500 launchers. Such an initiative could induce Moscow to build down rather than build up to U.S. strategic force levels, which currently exceed Russia’s by more than 275 deployed strategic launchers.
Cap the arsenals of the other nuclear-armed states. Continued progress in cutting bloated U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, which still comprise more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear stockpiles, is possible and necessary, but other countries must do their part. As a first step, other nuclear-armed states, beginning with China, should pledge not to increase the overall size of their growing nuclear weapons and missile stockpiles as long as U.S. and Russian reductions continue. Such an effort must involve states outside the NPT, specifically India and Pakistan, which continue to expand their stocks of nuclear weapons material and their holdings of nuclear weapons.
Ban certain nuclear delivery systems. In 2007 the United States and Russia together called for the globalization of the INF Treaty, which bans ballistic and ground-launched cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, in part to curb missile buildups by China, India, Pakistan, and others. Today, the United States and Russia could renew and expand the concept by seeking a global phaseout of all nuclear-armed cruise missiles.
The United States no longer has nuclear-armed ground- or sea-launched cruise missiles and does not need new cruise missiles to maintain the bomber leg of the nuclear triad. This would allow both states to forgo expensive modernization programs for nuclear-armed cruise missiles and help to head off dangerous nuclear escalation elsewhere around the globe.
As Obama said last year, “[S]o long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe. Complacency is not in the character of great nations.” In the coming months and years, creative, bold approaches will be needed to overcome old and new obstacles to the long-running effort to reduce nuclear dangers.