By Andrey Pavlov and Anastasia Malygina
Unless Russia and the United States choose to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for up to five years, the treaty is scheduled to expire in just one year. It represents the last vestige of the Cold War-created arms control foundations that have served to stabilize U.S.-Russian relations, and its collapse could create high levels of uncertainty and unpredictability. A complete collapse of these foundations, coupled with the deepening conflict between Russia and the West, could create a situation of high uncertainty and unpredictability.
Revising the Cold War Legacy
The U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control agreements signed after the Cold War adopted their foundations from the principles and criteria pursued during strategic arms limitation talks in the 1970s. These elements included a general vision of strategic stability, the principle of equal and indivisible security for all, equal limitations of weapons, and the types of nuclear weapons regarded as strategic and to be limited. Today, Russia continues to believe in the first three elements, while the fourth requires revision in changing circumstances.
Efforts to define strategic stability under the present world order are currently developing quite intensively. Some Russian experts say that the traditional understanding is outdated and has lost its meaning,1 but most officials and analysts in Moscow continue to hold to Russia’s long-standing definition of strategic stability as a situation in which no party has an incentive to initiate a nuclear first strike.2 Maintaining parity with the United States in strategic nuclear armament also remains essential to Russian experts and officials.
The list of launchers and delivery vehicles subject to reductions and restrictions was formed during the period of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. At that time, the list included intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers. The same scope was preserved in the New START, but Russia is no longer satisfied with the status quo. Russia’s political and military leadership believe that future arms control agreements should account for weapons that are not included in the traditional set, but may be of strategic importance in the present or the near future.
Primarily, Moscow is concerned with the unregulated development of U.S. ballistic missile defenses. In 2002 the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and began to develop and deploy previously prohibited missile defense systems. When negotiating New START, Russia tried and largely failed to incorporate missile defenses into the talks. New START’s main provisions do not address missile defense, but the two sides agreed to include preambular language on ballistic missile defense: the two sides recognized “the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms, that this interrelationship will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced, and that current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties.” The scope of the treaty remained unchanged, and there is no reference to missile defense in the main provisions of New START. In connection with the development of missile defenses, Russian arms control rhetoric also often refers to the dangers posed by U.S. plans to deploy weapons in space.
Moreover, Russia is concerned by the growing strategic importance of non-nuclear offensive weapons and their impact on strategic stability. Although New START’s title does not mention nuclear weapons, attention is still directed at them. Only the treaty’s preamble stipulates that the parties are to be “mindful of the impact of conventionally armed ICBMs and SLBMs on strategic stability.”
Meanwhile, the general relationship between strategic nuclear and non-nuclear weapons is enshrined in Russian military doctrine. The 2010 military doctrine did not mention non-nuclear deterrence, but the latest version published in 2014 offered a clarification of “nuclear and non-nuclear” in brackets after the words “strategic deterrence.” The increased range, speed, and accuracy of these weapons, as well as their growing number, dramatically intensify their negative impact on strategic stability.
Not all Russian experts agree on the impact on strategic stability of weapons outside of New START’s restrictions, but Russian leaders strongly believe in their negative impact and in the need to take this impact into account in any future arms control agreements.
Expanding the Arms Control Agenda
Even in the most difficult times, Russia has managed to maintain parity with the United States in the field of strategic nuclear arms, in part thanks to U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control agreements. This situation will not change as long as the generally agreed restrictions on offensive strategic nuclear weapons are maintained.
New START is quite convenient for Russia. Unlike the previous two strategic arms reduction agreements, the current treaty does not constrain Russia’s ability to determine the structure of its nuclear forces or create new weapons systems. In addition, the verification system established by this treaty is much more favorable for Russia than it was previously.
Russian leaders appear satisfied with New START, but the development of U.S. weapons systems outside of it remains a cause for concern. If the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was seen as the beginning of the process of reducing strategic nuclear weapons, further arms reductions after the implementation of New START seemed very unlikely in Russia. Consequently, when U.S. President Barack Obama announced his 2013 proposal to discuss further arms reductions, the Russian side did not react positively.3
Almost immediately after New START’s entry into force, Russia determined its main direction of further development of policy within the framework of bilateral arms control, which remains relevant to the present day. Unable to match this technological development, Russia has expressed interest in engaging the United States regarding weapons systems that are not on the traditional list. Any form of dialogue is seen as a possible beginning of a complex negotiation process that would allow for more comprehensive agreements that expand the scope of strategic arms control. The main problem for Russia has been that neither the Obama administration nor the Trump administration was interested in such talks, preferring to limit only ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers.
Russia has employed several different tactics in an attempt to persuade the United States to expand the scope of the arms control conversation. During the Obama administration, implementing and maintaining New START appeared to be very important to the United States. At the time, Russian officials repeatedly said that Russia might consider withdrawing from New START if the U.S. development of weapons systems outside of the treaty restrictions threatened Russia’s security. At first, all attention was directed at the development of the ballistic missile defense system. In November 2011, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a special statement about a potential response to the further deployment of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system.4 Among the retaliatory measures, he noted the possibility of Russia’s withdrawal from New START. Russian officials have persisted with this position for some time. In May 2012, for example, the statement was repeated by the Chief of Russian General Staff General Nikolay Makarov5 and in February 2014 by Michail Ulyanov, the director of the Department for Security and Disarmament of the Russian Foreign Ministry.6 The last known mention of the possibility of leaving New START as a response to U.S. missile defenses was made in May 2016 by Viktor Ozerov, the Chairman of the Committee of the Federation Council on Defense and Security.7
After 2016, Russian officials no longer publicly explored the possibility of unilateral withdrawal from New START. The Trump administration policy increased the chances of the United States itself withdrawing from New START or simply waiting for its expiration date and refusing to renew it. This option is clearly not in Russia’s interest, and currently Moscow emphasizes Russia’s desire to keep New START in force.
At the same time, this does not mean Russia completely let go of the previous desire to encourage the United States to engage in a broader dialogue on arms control. While responding to the further development of U.S. missile defenses in his State of the Nation address to the Federal Assembly in March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin did not mention the possibility of leaving New START. Instead, his message was about new weapons systems that Russia intends to develop and deploy to enable a credible deterrence. In 2011, Medvedev also listed the military systems that Russia intends to use to reduce the destabilizing effect of U.S. missile defenses. At the time, there was nothing new on the list, whereas Putin identified four types of weapons that definitely could be considered as strategic nuclear: the hypersonic glide vehicle Avangard, the heavy ICBM RS-28 Sarmat, the nuclear-powered cruise missile Burevestnik, and the intercontinental, nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, undersea autonomous torpedo Poseidon.
Sarmat is nothing radically new, so when it comes into operation, it will fall under existing New START limitations. This was less clear for the Avangard vehicle because the reentry vehicle’s flight path is not considered ballistic over most of its flight path, but Russia has deployed the weapon on treaty-limited ICBMs, and the Russian leadership has decided not to remove this system from the limitations under the treaty. In November 2019, missiles armed with this warhead were demonstrated to U.S. inspectors conducting inspections in accordance with New START verification procedures.
The other two strategic nuclear systems are not subject to New START restrictions and Russia is not obligated to provide information about them to the United States. The role of these systems in strengthening Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrence is quite unclear, but their importance in the development of the U.S.-Russian dialogue on strategic stability and arms control may be significant. Today, it appears that the development of weapons systems not limited by New START may raise concerns in Moscow and Washington. There is one more change in Russia’s tactics: During 2011–2016, Russia regarded withdrawal from New START as an extreme measure in case the United States radically improved its missile defense capabilities. Now, Moscow is already willing to proceed in development and deployment of the new strategic nuclear weapons systems.
Today, the United States is calling Russia’s attention to the fact that new strategic weapons outside the traditional set of ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers should be considered somehow. In other words, the United States might now be interested in expanding the dialogue with Russia on strategic arms control beyond the traditional framework. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, speaking in November 2019 at the Moscow Nonproliferation Conference, expressed an openness to the new U.S. willingness but only in conjunction with all the other strategic arms “negatively affecting strategic stability.”8 In particular, Ryabkov mentioned missile defense, as well as the possible deployment of weapons in space. While appearing on Russian TV recently, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also mentioned U.S. conventional strategic weapons developed in the prompt global-strike programs.9
Arms Control: Bilateral or Multilateral?
Although dodging the question of extending New START, Trump administration officials have often said that bilateral nuclear arms control is outdated and that China should be included in future arms limitation agreements. Russia has historically endorsed the idea of adding partners to arms control talks. Even during the Cold War, the Soviet Union wanted to negotiate not just with the United States, but also with other NATO countries possessing nuclear weapons. At a minimum, Moscow sought to have the nuclear arsenals of other NATO countries taken into account when determining bilateral U.S.-Soviet arms limits. So while the Trump administration aims to multilateralize talks by adding China, Russia has always focused on France and the United Kingdom. In November 2019, for example, Vladimir Ermakov, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry Department of Nonproliferation and Arms Control, confirmed that further reductions in strategic offensive weapons were “unlikely” without the involvement of France and the UK.10 Yet, the modern problem lies in the preservation of the current arms limitations established by New START while further reduction is generally seen as just a possibility.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s statements about the need to involve China in future negotiations are perceived by Russia rather skeptically at best. Russia has nothing against China’s involvement in the negotiations, but is clearly not going to actively support the initiative. China’s position is clear and unchanged: China will not participate in the negotiations as long as there exists such a large quantitative gap between the nuclear arsenals, deployed or in storage, of Russia and the United States on the one hand and China on the other.
Without changes to the scope of arms control, the system that has helped U.S.-Russian stability could disappear in just one year. Expansion of bilateral dialogue beyond the traditional Cold War framework is the main aim of Russia’s current arms control policy, and it will remain relevant regardless of whether New START is extended by up to five years as allowed by the treaty. Nevertheless, Russia prefers to participate in such discussions with New START in force.
Russia and the United States have expressed interest in addressing new types of weapons and technologies in future talks, as well as more nuclear-armed nations, but they have disagreed on which weapons and nations to include. Unless they can agree to a new scope, there is a serious risk that both nations will embark on a dangerous new arms race.
1. For example, see Sergei Karaganov and Dmitry Suslov, “Сдерживание в новую эпоху,” Russia in Global Affairs, September 12, 2019, https://globalaffairs.ru/number/Sderzhivanie-v-novuyu-epokhu-20174.
2. Andrey Pavlov and Anastasia Malygina, “The Russian Approach to Strategic Stability: Preserving a Classical Formula in a Turbulent World,” in The End of Strategic Stability? Nuclear Weapons and the Challenge of Regional Rivalries, ed. Lawrence Rubin and Adam N. Stulberg (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2018), pp. 41–65.
5. Nikolaj Makarov, speech at a ballistic missile defense conference held by the Russian Defense Ministry, May 5, 2012, http://stat.mil.ru/conference_of_pro/news/more.htm?id=11108033@egNews (in Russian).
6. Mikhail Uljanov, interview, Interfax, February 1, 2014, http://www.interfax.ru/russia/355289 (in Russian).
7. “Россия может выйти из договора СНВ в ответ на новые ПРО,” Izvestiya, May 12, 2016, https://iz.ru/news/613368.
8. See “Moscow Non-Proliferation Conference plenary session ORI,” November 7, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5vV7WiVx50.
9. “Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s Answers to Questions in The Great Game Show on Channel One,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, December 22, 2019, https://www.mid.ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3968263.
10. For Vladimir Ermakov’s comments on future strategic arms reductions, see “В МИД прокомментировали перспективы дальнейшего сокращения СНВ,” RIA Novosti, November 7, 2019, https://ria.ru/20191107/1560655230.html.
Andrey Pavlov chairs the Strategic and Arms Control Studies master’s degree program at Saint-Petersburg State University. Anastasia Malygina is an associate professor at Saint-Petersburg State University.