Can the United States and Russia Bridge the Growing Gap on Arms Control?


U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said May 14 on Meet the Press that the United States needs to “improve the relationship between the two greatest nuclear powers in the world.”

“I think it’s largely viewed that it is not healthy for the world, it’s certainly not healthy for us… for this relationship to remain at this low level,” Tillerson told Chuck Todd. “But I think the President is committed, rightly so, and I am committed with him as well, to see if we cannot do something to put us on a better footing in our relationship with Russia.”

If the Trump administration truly desires better relations with Russia now and for the future, protecting our shared, decades-long progress on arms control is a good place to focus. It is encouraging that the readout of the May 10 meeting in Washington between Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov noted that the two countries plan to continue talks on strategic stability.

As the world’s two largest nuclear powers, Washington and Moscow have a special obligation to work together to reduce nuclear weapons risks. Much of Washington – and Democrats in particular–are likely to view any engagement with Russia with suspicion given the ongoing investigations into the Trump campaign’s ties to and possible collusion with Russia. But cooperation on arms control should be judged on its own merits, namely whether it enhances U.S. security.

Even when the relationship between Moscow and Washington was at its most tense during the Cold War, cooperation on arms control provided an important means for the two superpowers to reduce tensions and strengthen global security.

But resuming the arms control dialogue won’t be easy. There is wide divergence between the two countries on a range of nuclear issues, as demonstrated by the differing perspectives in the 2016 State Department compliance report published in April and the corresponding Russian Foreign Ministry response. For its part, the U.S. State Department again accused Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Forces (INF) Treaty and provided “detailed information” about the violation to Moscow. The Foreign Ministry continues to reject allegations of Russian noncompliance, insisting the United States has offered no supporting evidence, and has levied its own accusations of treaty violations by the United States.

The two sides’ opposing viewpoints extend to the issue of nuclear doctrine as well. Whereas many U.S. experts contend that Russian military doctrine lowers the threshold of use for nonstrategic nuclear weapons, the Russia Foreign Ministry also accuses the United States of “reducing the threshold of nuclear weapons” and claims that Washington “deliberately distorts” Russian doctrine.

In addition, the two countries shared un-pleasantries on the 2000 Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (of which Russia suspended implementation last year), as well as elsewhere on missile defense, chemical weapons use, and other issues.

How can such a large gap be bridged? If there is a path toward continued arms control cooperation, where do we start?

Three areas in particular are worth pursuing: attempting to resolve INF treaty compliance concerns, initiation of a dialogue to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), and collaboration to address the North Korean nuclear threat.

A plan of action for addressing the INF dispute was recently published by the Deep Cuts Commission, a group of nuclear experts from the United States, Russia, and Germany. The first step would entail Russia allowing U.S. experts to examine the SSC-8 missile, which appears to be the allegedly noncompliant Russian ground-launched cruise missile cited by the United States. If the United States concludes that the missile is indeed violating the treaty, the paper recommends convening the treaty’s Special Verification Committee (SVC) or a similar independent panel of U.S. and Russian experts, to discuss a path forward to destroy the illegal missiles and launchers and bring Russia back into compliance.

Their proposal also suggests that Washington address Moscow’s concerns with U.S. compliance by negotiating revisions to the treaty language to cover UAV drones and the use of booster stages in target missiles for ballistic missile defense. Russia has also expressed unease about the U.S. land-based Mk-41 vertical launch system in Eastern Europe. Moscow argues that because the ship-based version of the Mk-41 can launch intermediate-range Tomahawk cruise missiles, the land-based Mk-41 could also have this capability. Yet Washington notes that the system is intended to launch SM-3 missile defense interceptors. Still, to satisfy Russian concerns, the authors recommend that the United States alter the land-based version to clearly differentiate it from the Mk-41 systems placed on U.S. warships, and institute transparency mechanisms that allow Russia to verify that the launchers in Romania and Poland only contain SM-3 interceptors.

Long-term cooperation on arms control requires that Washington and Moscow initiate a dialogue to extend the New START treaty, which is set to expire in 2021 but can be extended for five years beyond that date. Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly expressed interest in extended the treaty in a Jan. 28 phone conversation with President Trump. Trump has repeatedly called the treaty a “bad deal.” But failing to try to extend the treaty would be a major unforced error that would only further alienate Moscow and inflame tensions.

At least the U.S. and Russian interests converge on the need to counter the North Korean nuclear threat. After a May 14 North Korean missile test, Putin declared that Moscow is “categorically opposed to the expansion of the club of nuclear powers, including at the expense of the Korean Peninsula due to North Korea.” He called the North Korean nuclear program “counterproductive, harmful, and dangerous” and missile tests “unacceptable.”

Agreement at the rhetorical level is one thing. Pursuing cooperative action to mitigate the North Korean threat is another matter. The United States and Russia can address this problem through joint effort with China to strengthen implementation and enforcement of existing sanctions and agreement on common parameters for the resumption of talks. Collaborating in this manner would send a strong message of great power unity on the importance of nonproliferation.

According to the Kremlin, Trump and Putin will meet in person in July during the G-20 summit in Germany. That meeting could provide a launching point for a productive dialogue on arms control. If Washington and Moscow follow through on their stated goal to resume talks on strategic stability, it will be a significant advancement toward greater increased security.