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"[Arms Control Today] has become indispensable! I think it is the combination of the critical period we are in and the quality of the product. I found myself reading the May issue from cover to cover."

– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
US-Russia Nuclear Arms Control

U.S., Russia Discuss Threats of Nuclear Use

The U.S. intelligence community assessed in October that some senior Russian officials, not including Russian President Vladimir Putin, have discussed the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, though Russia denies the assessment. The U.S. National Intelligence Council circulated the assessment within the Biden administration in mid-October, according to multiple senior U.S. officials who spoke with The New York Times . CNN also described the division among U.S. officials over the implications of the analysis, with some believing the Russian discussions might signal genuine...

Toward a New Nuclear Arms Control Framework Arrangement

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Volume 14, Issue 7
October 26, 2022

Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, the United States indefinitely suspended the U.S.-Russian Strategic Stability Dialogue, a longstanding forum in which the two sides planned to lay the groundwork for more formal bilateral talks on a successor to the only current but soon-expiring nuclear arms control agreement between them: the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

This is certainly not the first time throughout the long history of U.S.-Russian dialogue on arms control, disarmament, and risk reduction that talks between the world’s two largest nuclear-armed states have come to a standstill. Nevertheless, for more than five decades, leaders in both countries have overcome vast ideological and geopolitical differences and disputes to, out of a shared recognition of the great dangers of nuclear weapons, establish and maintain mutually verifiable limits on their respective nuclear arsenals. Since the first two agreements struck in 1972, the United States and Russia (and the former Soviet Union) have negotiated a series of nuclear arms control and arms reduction agreements that have successfully strengthened strategic stability, provided highly-valued predictability, and reduced the risk of nuclear war.

In support of such benefits of arms control, U.S. President Joseph Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed last year to extend New START, as allowed by the treaty text, until Feb. 5, 2026. As a result, the United States and Russia have continued to adhere to the limitations on their nuclear arsenals under New START, with the most recent regular biannual exchange conducted on Sept. 1.

At the same time, however, Putin continues to warn of potential Russian nuclear weapon use as a response to any perceived interference in Ukraine, existential threat to Russia, or threat to what the federation calls its “territorial integrity,” which includes the four recently illegally annexed Ukrainian regions. Although the likelihood of nuclear use remains low, the United States and its allies and partners must meet nuclear threats with utmost seriousness, condemnation, and consequence.

Even while rallying the world in support of Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s invasion and ongoing attacks, Washington must pursue the negotiation of a new arms control arrangement to supersede New START sooner rather than later.

“No matter what else is happening in the world,” said Biden on Sept. 21, “the United States is ready to pursue critical arms control measures.”

Despite such statements from Biden, as well as senior Russian officials, arms control talks have not begun, in part due to ongoing differences over how and when to resume New START on-site inspections, which have been paused since 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic as well as Russian implementation concerns. Even if such talks began soon, the time left until 2026 is not much for the two countries to hold formal, time-consuming treaty negotiations and secure any necessary domestic support for the new arrangement.

If the treaty should expire in 2026 with no replacement, it would mark the first time since 1972 that the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals are entirely unconstrained.

In addition, Russia’s catastrophic war in Ukraine has vastly exacerbated uncertainty on what, if any, arms control arrangement may follow New START.

Putin’s war of choice on Ukraine is absolutely indefensible and reprehensible, and Russia has rightly been hit with very real consequences from countries across the world. The pursuit of formal arms control negotiations with Moscow nonetheless is necessary, if only to ensure that the Russian nuclear arsenal remains constrained, subject to a verification regime, and open to a measure of transparency. The alternative in which the two sides fail to negotiate a new nuclear arms control framework will only heighten the factors leading to strategic instability and nuclear war, exacerbate the difficulties of engaging China and other nuclear-armed states in the nuclear risk reduction and disarmament enterprise, and open the door for a global nuclear arms race that benefits no one.

Now is the time to evaluate the potential approaches to the creation of a new nuclear arms control framework.

The Value and Status of New START

The last major nuclear arms control negotiation between Washington and Moscow took place more than a decade ago. After 11 months of negotiations—a historically rather short timeline for striking arms control deals—U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed New START in April 2010.

The treaty limits U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals to 1,550 warheads deployed on 700 delivery vehicles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers assigned to a nuclear mission.

New START entered into force in February 2011 with an expiration date of 10 years, though it could be extended for an additional five years upon mutual agreement. Washington and Moscow had until February 2018 to cut their respective nuclear arsenals to those limits, and they successfully did so, with Russia significantly reducing its number of deployed warheads on ballistic missiles.

Over the ensuing years, the U.S. and Russian arsenals would naturally fluctuate based on the particular maintenance and upgrade schedules for the nuclear weapons components. Washington and Moscow have both remained at or below the treaty limits since 2018. Following the demise of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019, New START became the last treaty limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

An integral part of New START has been the establishment of a rigorous verification regime.

The treaty allows 18 on-site inspections per country per year and requires regular notifications on the status of strategic delivery vehicles and launchers, data exchanges twice a year on the makeup of each country’s strategic nuclear arsenal, as well as the formation of the Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC) to handle any compliance or implementation concerns that might arise.

This regime provides crucial, detailed information about the strategic nuclear arsenals of the world’s top two owners of nuclear weapons that cannot currently be gained through another avenue. The U.S. Defense Department has gone on the record emphasizing the great value it places on the information about Russia’s nuclear arsenal gathered due to New START.

Former and then-current government and military officials as well as national security leaders also spoke out strongly in favor of extending New START by five years until 2026, which Biden and Putin agreed to do in February 2021, just two days before the treaty’s expiration.

The pandemic disrupted business as usual when it came to both the New START verification regime and the talks on an arms control arrangement to follow the treaty after its expiration—all of which Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has further disrupted as well as imperiled.

The United States and Russia mutually decided to suspend on-site inspections, as well as indefinitely delay a meeting of the BCC, in March 2020 as the coronavirus tore across the world. The two countries started to hammer out how to restart inspections about a year ago. However, Moscow informed Washington in August 2022 of its decision to temporarily prohibit inspections of its nuclear weapons-related facilities subject to New START.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has claimed that there are ongoing unresolved issues, including adjusted inspection procedures to account for situations in which coronavirus spreads among the crews and inspectors, as well as difficulties the Russian flight crew and inspectors have encountered when trying to obtain visas and permissions to enter airspace controlled by the United States and its allies and partners. The latter has occurred primarily as the United States and its allies and partners, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), have imposed steep costs on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Russia’s announcement regarding inspections came during the second week of the monthlong review conference for the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which brought together leaders from nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states at the United Nations headquarters in New York City.

Biden and Putin released statements on the first day of the conference Aug. 1, in which they each emphasized their commitment to nuclear arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation.

The United States and Russia were already going to be on the hot seat at the conference due to a widespread view among NPT states-parties that the two countries, along with the other three NPT-recognized nuclear-weapon states (China, France, and the United Kingdom), have not upheld their treaty obligation to genuinely pursue nuclear disarmament.

With New START expiring in less than four years and no replacement arms control arrangement in sight, plus the more than two-year ongoing break in on-site inspections, Washington and Moscow have little ground to stand on to say that they have been fulfilling their NPT commitments since the last review conference in 2015.

The Current Generation of Security Concerns

For years, the United States and Russia have been suggesting differing agendas on what to cover in the next arms control arrangement after New START. The road to future U.S.-Russian arms control has long been forecast to be divisive and arduous, as well as reliant on political will.

After New START’s official extension in 2021, the Biden administration began to broadly outline its priorities for what might come next, particularly aiming to limit for the first time Russian non-strategic, or tactical, nuclear weapons. Moscow is estimated to have about 1,900 tactical nuclear weapons, all in central storage.

In addition, Washington wants to incorporate new Russian nuclear weapon delivery systems, such as those officially unveiled by Putin in 2018 and 2019 like the nuclear-powered, nuclear-tipped torpedo named Poseidon, and to explore options for arms control with China.

In contrast to the Trump administration’s initial effort to condition the extension of New START on establishing some sort of future U.S.-Russian-Chinese arms control arrangement, the Biden administration has taken a different approach toward conducting arms control talks with Beijing by suggesting bilateral U.S.-Chinese talks.

The current U.S. approach toward China on arms control, though requiring increased attention by the Biden administration, makes sense for two reasons. First, Beijing has yet to engage in the kind of nuclear arms control and disarmament treaties signed by Washington and Moscow, which struck their first arms control deal in 1972. It would be difficult for China to jump into an ongoing arms control process, outside Beijing’s preferred multilateral arena, with which the United States and Russia have much more established, though strained, relations on the issue.

Second, the Chinese nuclear weapons arsenal is estimated to be at 350, which is significantly smaller than the U.S. nuclear arsenal of about 4,000 and the Russian arsenal of about 4,500. Even if Beijing continues with the rapid expansion of its arsenal to amass 700 strategic nuclear warheads by 2027 and 1,000 by 2030 as projected by the Pentagon, it will still be numerically smaller than those of the United States and Russia. An arms control arrangement that requires equal numerical limits on all parties, like New START, would therefore be a non-starter for China.

Beijing has repeatedly expressed adamant resistance to engaging in bilateral or trilateral arms control talks over the years, instead stating its preference for multilateral arms control and stipulating that its involvement depends on U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals first decreasing to the size of the Chinese arsenal. By setting realistic expectations with China, Washington may be able to see some long-sought-after progress, which may look as straightforward as formally establishing a bilateral strategic stability dialogue.

In addition, a concern repeatedly popping up in U.S.-Russian dialogue would be addressed for the time being with a U.S.-Chinese strategic stability dialogue underway, which can ideally be paired with efforts in other fora as well. In other words, Russia’s common refrain to the U.S. demand to include China in any future arms control arrangement is to require the participation of France and the United Kingdom as well. By addressing other nuclear powers in alternative venues, such as in a separate bilateral dialogue or in the P5 process, and essentially dividing the multitude of contentious issues on the table into different, though parallel, strains, Washington and Moscow could make some headway bilaterally.

Russia also brings to the table concerns with U.S. missile defenses, which Washington has long resisted putting up for negotiation, and U.S. non-strategic weapons deployed in Europe, estimated at about 100. Since the demise of the INF Treaty in 2019, Moscow has aimed to address at least a portion of the missiles formerly banned by this accord (ground-launched nuclear and conventional, ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers) in the next arms control arrangement.

The United States and Russia do share, however, a recognition of the fact that what may follow New START might not be a traditional arms control treaty, but rather another type of arms control arrangement or arrangements. The makeup of the U.S. Senate essentially guarantees the impossibility of procuring advice and consent on the ratification of a new U.S.-Russian arms control treaty. Therefore, the two sides must consider alternative forms of agreement, including an executive agreement.

Russia communicated its agenda to the United States and NATO in two separate proposals for agreements on broader security guarantees delivered to Washington and Brussels in December 2021. The Russian proposals were laden with non-starters (such as a proposed commitment from the United States and NATO to prohibit further NATO expansion), making it apparent that the documents were not ultimately serious in nature and thus intended for rejection.

Russian Proposals on Security Guarantees to the United States and NATO, Dec. 15, 2021 U.S. and NATO Responses to Russia, Jan. 26, 2022
Arms Control, Risk Reduction, and Transparency

Parties shall not deploy ground-launched, intermediate- and short-range missiles either outside their national territories or inside their national territories from which the missiles can strike the national territory of the other party.

The United States is prepared to begin discussions on arms control for ground-based intermediate- and short-range missiles and their launchers. NATO calls for Russia to engage with the United States on these discussions.

The United States is prepared to discuss transparency measures to confirm the absence of Tomahawk cruise missiles at Aegis Ashore sites in Romania and Poland, so long as Russia provides reciprocal transparency measures on two ground-launched missile bases of U.S. choosing in Russia.

No similar articles.

The United States proposes to begin discussions immediately on follow-on measures to New START, including on how future arms control would cover all U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons (strategic and non-strategic, deployed and non-deployed) and new kinds of nuclear-armed intercontinental-range delivery vehicles. NATO calls for Russia to engage with the United States on these discussions.

NATO calls for all states to recommit to their international arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation obligations and commitments, such as toward the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention. NATO calls for Russia to resume implementation of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty.

NATO is ready to consult on ways to reduce threats to space systems and to promote a free and peaceful cyberspace.

Sources: Article 6, Russia Proposal to U.S.; Article 5, Russia Proposal to NATO; Pages 3 and 4, U.S. Response to Russia; Article 9, NATO Response to Russia
Nuclear and Conventional Forces Posture

Parties shall not deploy nuclear weapons outside their national territories and shall destroy all existing infrastructure for deployment of nuclear weapons outside of their national territories.

Parties shall not train military and civilian personnel from non-nuclear countries to use nuclear weapons or conduct exercises that include scenarios involving the use of nuclear weapons.

The United States and NATO are prepared to discuss areas of disagreement between NATO and Russia on U.S. and NATO force posture, including possibly the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe, and discuss conventional forces concerns, including enhanced transparency and risk reduction through the Vienna Document.

NATO is prepared to discuss holding reciprocal briefings on Russia's and NATO's nuclear policies.

Sources: Article 7, Russia Proposal to U.S.; Article 4, Russia Proposal to NATO; Page 3, U.S. Response to Russia; Article 9, NATO Response to Russia
NATO-Russia Relations

Parties reaffirm that they do not consider each other as adversaries.

Parties shall not undertake actions, participate in activities, or implement security measures that undermine the security interests of the other party. Parties shall not use the territories of other states to execute an armed attack against the other party.

Parties shall settle all international disputes by peaceful rather than forceful means. Parties shall use fora such as the NATO-Russia Council to address issues or settle problems. Parties shall establish telephone hotlines.

NATO poses no threat to Russia.

NATO believes that tensions and disagreements must be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy, rather than through the threat or use of force. NATO calls for Russia's immediate de-escalation around Ukraine. 

NATO supports re-establishing NATO and Russian mutual presence in Moscow and Brussels and establishing a civilian telephone hotline.

Sources: Articles 1 and 3, Russia Proposal to U.S.; Articles 1, 2, and 3, Russia Proposal to NATO; Articles 1, 2, and 7, NATO Response to Russia
NATO Expansion

All NATO member states shall commit to prohibit any further NATO expansion, to include denying the accession of Ukraine. The United States shall not establish military bases in or develop bilateral military cooperation with former USSR states who are not part of NATO. 

The United States and NATO are committed to supporting NATO's open door policy. The United States is willing to discuss reciprocal transparency measures and commitments by both the United States and Russia to not deploy offensive ground-launched missile systems and permanent combat forces in Ukraine.

Sources: Article 4, Russia Proposal to U.S.; Article 6, Russia Proposal to NATO; Pages 1 and 2, U.S. Response to Russia; Article 8, NATO Response to Russia
Military Maneuvers and Exercises 

Parties shall regularly inform each other about military exercises and main provisions of their military doctrines.

Parties shall not deploy armed forces in areas where the deployment could be perceived by the other party as a threat to its national security (except when the deployment is within the national territories of the parties).

Parties shall not fly heavy bombers (whether nuclear or non-nuclear) or deploy surface warships in areas outside national airspace and national territorial waters where they can strike targets in the territory of the other party. 

Parties shall maintain dialogue to prevent dangerous military activities at sea.

NATO calls for Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova.

The United States is prepared to discuss confidence building measures regarding ground-based military exercises in Europe (to include modernization of the Vienna Document) and to explore an enhanced exercise notification regime and nuclear risk reduction measures (including strategic nuclear bomber platforms).

The United States and NATO are prepared to explore measures to prevent incidents at sea and in the air (to include discussing enhancements in the Incidents at Sea Agreement and the Vienna Document).

Sources: Article 5, Russia Proposal to U.S.; Articles 2, 3, and 7, Russia Proposal to NATO; Pages 2 and 3, U.S. Response to Russia; Articles 8 and 9, NATO Response to Russia
Reaffirmation of UN Charter

Parties shall ensure that all international organizations or military alliances in which at least one party participates adhere to the principles contained in the United Nations Charter. 

NATO remains committed to the fundamental principles and agreements underpinning European security, including the United Nations Charter.

Sources: Article 2, Russia Proposal to U.S.; Article 8, Russia Proposal to NATO; Article 3, NATO Response to Russia

Though flawed, pieces of the Russian proposals touch upon concerns that the United States and its allies and partners share, suggesting possible options for future arms control arrangements. For instance, both the proposals to the United States and NATO included an iteration of Moscow’s suggestion for a moratorium on the deployment of INF missiles. Limiting at least some of the missiles once banned by the INF Treaty—which the Pentagon has begun developing but has struggled to lock down basing options for abroad—would benefit the United States by helping to avoid an arms race of INF-like missiles and prevent the reintroduction of additional, unnecessary nuclear capabilities into Europe as well as Asia.

Of course, if not doing so already, the United States will have to grapple with the significant changes in the strategic and geopolitical environment in which the United States and Russia now operate— changes that inescapably affect the realm of arms control. For instance, Moscow has depleted its conventional forces throughout its brutal assault on Ukraine and will therefore have to spend considerable time and money as the war drags on or after the war to rebuild those forces. Consequently, as acknowledged by the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy publicly released Oct. 12, Moscow may funnel most funds toward rebuilding its conventional arsenal and increase reliance on its nuclear deterrent, all while dealing with an expansion of NATO.

Lastly, it is important to note that arms control talks would take place against the backdrop of Putin’s recent and thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons several times, including a few days into the renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine and, most recently, after the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions.

“We will defend our land with all the forces and resources we have, and we will do everything we can to ensure the safety of our people,” he said on Sept. 30. In late February, he also ordered the move of “Russia’s deterrence forces to a special regime of combat duty.” The scenarios in which Putin may consider nuclear use, most of which Russia outlined in its June 2020 policy, include if any country attempts to interfere in the war on Ukraine, if Moscow perceives a threat to Russia’s existence, or if Moscow perceives a threat to what it calls its “territorial integrity.”

Although the possibility of the actual use of nuclear weapons is low, it is not zero, with some analysts suggesting Russia may use nuclear weapons in a strike at a Ukrainian military facility or in a “nuclear display,” such as the detonation of a nuclear weapon over the Black Sea or the Arctic Ocean. Putin’s nuclear threats must be taken seriously.

There is unquestionable, considerable daylight between the U.S. and Russian agendas for a future arms control arrangement that, considered alongside Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine, portends a rather gloomy outlook for arms control in a post-New START world. However, nuclear arms control remains in the best security and safety interests of both the United States and Russia, not to mention the entire world, especially at such a time of growing nuclear threats and risks of escalation and miscalculation.

Redefining Arms Control in the Current Age

The United States refuses to engage in “arms control for arms control’s sake,” argued Marshall Billingslea, then-special envoy for arms control at the U.S. State Department, in May 2020. At the time, less than a year before New START was set to expire, the Trump administration had yet to put forward a concrete proposal on either the treaty’s extension or an alternative arms control arrangement to supersede the treaty.

When the Trump administration’s proposal did arrive in October 2020, it was a poison pill meant to ensure the expiration of New START with no replacement, a result that arms control opponents such as Billingslea wanted.

In December 2019, Putin tabled an offer to extend the treaty for five years with no preconditions. Ultimately, the Trump administration left the issue of New START extension up to the Biden administration, which agreed in February 2021 to the extension.

Billingslea’s charge served as a common retort to those who wanted to see the treaty extended. The Trump administration had argued that New START “does not reflect today’s reality,” citing how the treaty neither included China nor covered Russian novel and tactical nuclear weapon systems. Extending New START and pursuing those additional arms control objectives, however, were not mutually exclusive. Endeavors to expand the arms control architecture to include additional types of nuclear weapons and additional nuclear-armed countries have an arguably stronger fighting chance without having to simultaneously worry about the dangers of unconstrained U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

The overall benefits of arms control, whether undertaken in times of relationship highs or lows, can be many, including avoiding an action-reaction arms race; reducing incentives to preemptively strike adversary conventional and/or nuclear forces; lowering the chances of inadvertent escalation; increasing transparency and predictability; and saving money. In general, arms control can be defined as a form of mutual agreement or commitment through which states aim to reduce nuclear risks.

This definition of arms control is broad, as it should be. Traditionally, the concept of arms control has been primarily thought of as referring to formal treaties imposing specific limits on or the elimination of particular components of U.S. and Russian/Soviet nuclear arsenals. However, with the advent of new and emerging technologies affecting strategic stability, the development and deployment of new nuclear weapon delivery systems (such as Russia’s Poseidon), the advancing abilities of existing nuclear weapon systems (such as the increased maneuverability of ballistic missiles), as well as the high disinclination that the U.S. Senate would support new arms control treaties, the traditional understanding of arms control has warranted a reevaluation.

U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Agreements
Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) (1969-1972)
  • The Interim Agreement
    • Pledged not to construct new ICBM silos or significantly increase their size. Capped the number of SLBM launch tubes and SLBM-carrying submarines.
  • Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty
    • Permitted deployment of two fixed, ground-based defense sites of 100 missile interceptors each. Later adjusted to limit each to one regional defense of 100 ground-based missile interceptors to protect either the capital or an ICBM field.
Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty (1987)
  • Required the elimination of all nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500-5,500 km
  • Led to the destruction of 2,692 treaty-accountable missiles by 1991
Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) (1991)
  • Limited each to 6,000 warheads and 1,600 delivery vehicles (ICBMs, SLBMs, heavy bombers)
Strategic Offense Reductions Treaty (SORT or Moscow Treaty) (2002)
  • Reduced deployed strategic nuclear forces to 1,700-2,200 warheads each
  • Warhead limit set to take effect and expire on the same day, December 31, 2012
  • Relied upon START verification regime
New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) (2010)
  • Superseded SORT
  • Limits each side to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 700 strategic delivery systems and limits deployed and nondeployed launchers to 800

Strategic stability can be affected by a variety of capabilities, whether nuclear or non-nuclear (e.g., conventional weapons as well as cyber operations) and offensive or defensive. Most often, strategic stability is defined as the union of crisis stability, in which nuclear powers are deterred from launching a nuclear first strike against one another, and arms race stability, in which two adversaries do not have an incentive to build up their strategic nuclear forces.

The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union underscored the interrelationship between defensive and offensive systems by imposing limits on anti-missile systems. At the heart of the treaty, from which Washington withdrew in 2002, stood the recognition that the acquisition of ever-more capable offensive weapons would result in efforts by targeted states to acquire defenses against those weapons, sparking a never-ending cycle of competitive one-upmanship and upending strategic stability.   

As another example of this concept, multiple countries are pursuing new classes of hypersonic weapons: hypersonic boost-glide vehicles and hypersonic cruise missiles. The United States is developing conventional-only hypersonics, while China and Russia have also deployed or continued to develop nuclear or dual-capable hypersonics. New hypersonic weapon capabilities have ignited a new arms race among nuclear-armed countries to master this technology first, as well as a drive to develop anti-hypersonic defenses. Furthermore, a 2019 study conducted by United Nations two disarmament bodies found that some countries may perceive certain types of hypersonic weapons as a strategic threat regardless of whether they are conventional- or nuclear-armed.

The new types of hypersonic weapons are but one category of numerous new and emerging technological military capabilities entering the field today and arguably adding new factors to the strategic stability calculation. A sophisticated cyber operation, depending on its intent, can wreck deleterious effects directly on a country’s nuclear weapons arsenal (e.g., nuclear-capable delivery vehicles or the command, control, and communications systems) or indirectly on the confidence and situational awareness of those who decide whether to employ nuclear weapons. Artificial intelligence (AI) generates its own set of risks given the variety of applications that possess a form of cognitive capability and fall beneath the wide AI umbrella; for example, an overreliance on AI-enabled systems could prompt humans to make premature or misguided decisions, leading to armed conflict and possibly nuclear war.

All this to say, arms control must work to integrate all the new and emerging military capabilities and technologies, from nuclear to non-nuclear, capable of making waves in the nuclear realm, as well as take into consideration the various threat perceptions held by nuclear-armed countries. Given the breadth of capabilities and concerns on the table, arms control must encompass a broad range of initiatives, including not only traditional legally binding treaties but also risk reduction, crisis management, and confidence-building measures, such as establishing hotlines between high-brass military officials. Future arms control arrangements must also consider limitations or reductions across different domains (e.g., outer space, cyberspace) and different capabilities (e.g., nuclear delivery vehicles, conventional hypersonic weapons), in a style known as asymmetric arms control.

There are certainly lessons to be learned from past or expiring arms control agreements. New START, for instance, has provided an avenue to address new kinds of strategic offensives arms that might emerge after the treaty entered into force. Yet, as some experts have noted, the next arms control arrangement may aim to require a stronger, more effective new kinds of strategic offensive arms clause, such as one that applies to both nuclear and non-nuclear weapons of strategic range and automatically makes new kinds accountable to the terms of the arrangement.

Arms control at a time like this, when Russia has brandished its nuclear arsenal on multiple occasions during its war in Ukraine, becomes all the more important. Arms control can mean not only limitations on the numbers and the kinds of nuclear weapon systems but also informative data exchanges, boots-on-the-ground inspections at nuclear facilities, and crisis communication channels—all of which shed light on what a country holds in its nuclear arsenal.

The challenge presently facing the Biden administration can be described less as deciding whether arms control is worthwhile and valuable to U.S. national security interests, as it clearly is, and more as determining how to preserve, expand, and advance arms control given the differing U.S. and Russian agendas and, more notably, the despicable war waged in Ukraine by Russia.

Next Steps in U.S.-Russian Arms Control

The crucial questions at this juncture are when the United States and Russia should begin formal arms control negotiations and, relatedly, if the start of those negotiations relies on Ukraine and Russia first reaching some type of peace agreement.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the Biden administration rightly paused the U.S.-Russian Strategic Stability Dialogue. Biden and Putin revived the dialogue in 2021, which then convened in July, September, and January. In the last meeting, Moscow had coopted the dialogue for its own purposes by deviating from the usual established agenda and inserting its demands for security guarantees from Washington and NATO, styled to lay the diplomatic groundwork for its invasion of Ukraine less than two months later. Thus, the bilateral dialogue is no longer a suitable place for genuine arms control discussions at this time. Plus, the dialogue, which covers topics outside of arms control, is not equivalent to a venue for formal arms control negotiations, and the latter is where Washington and Moscow must go.

Launching formal arms control negotiations on a New START replacement as Russia commits more atrocities in Ukraine will take tremendous political will. Yet, given the risks the Russian nuclear arsenal poses, it remains essential that the United States, with support from its allies and partners, engages in serious, nose-to-the-grindstone negotiations with Russia. A Russian nuclear arsenal with no limits or transparency would only heighten the risks of intended or unintended nuclear escalation and miscalculation in areas of conflict, such as Ukraine. Thus, the sooner the better that those negotiations begin.

With this recognition, by the end of 2022 at the absolute latest, there are two actions that Washington and Moscow must accomplish:

  1. The United States and Russia must launch formal bilateral negotiations on a new arms control arrangement(s) to supersede New START.
  2. Russia must end its restriction of New START on-site inspections at its nuclear facilities subject to the treaty and cooperate in the resumption of the inspections soon thereafter. However, formal arms control negotiations should not be contingent on the resumption of New START inspections.

During the formal U.S.-Russian arms control negotiations, the following should constitute the main objectives for a New START follow-on arrangement.

Central Limits

The central limits of the new arrangement should further reduce the size of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals and incorporate new nuclear weapon capabilities. New START imposes caps on ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers assigned a nuclear mission, and a new arrangement should maintain restrictions on those capabilities while adding restrictions on new ones, such as Russia’s Poseidon nuclear-powered torpedo. The new arrangement should also more specifically capture intercontinental, ground-launched missiles, for although Russia’s Avangard fell under the treaty due to its pairing with a treaty-accountable delivery vehicle, future systems of this type may not necessarily be covered.

The new limit for strategic nuclear warheads should be lowered from 1,550 to 1,000. In 2013, the Obama administration determined that the U.S. nuclear arsenal could be reduced by up to one-third below the New START level without any ill effects on U.S. national security and nuclear deterrence. Although the strategic environment has changed since then with Russia’s new nuclear delivery systems and China’s expanding nuclear arsenal, so have U.S. nuclear weapon systems advanced in their abilities, meaning that the Pentagon can do more with less. Like-for-like limitations are not particularly helpful in today’s day and age, and the Pentagon’s calculation for what kind of and how many capabilities are needed to meet which threats should be reevaluated.

Furthermore, while the Pentagon projects that Beijing aims to have 1,000 strategic nuclear warheads by 2030, this is ultimately an estimation, and the Pentagon has made enormously wide-ranging projections in the past. Even so, attempts to include China in U.S.-Russian arms control have been met with only failure thus far, which is unlikely to change now. Allowing three nuclear-armed countries to go without limits on their arsenals because one would not join in arms control would be an act of sheer folly.

Lastly, at the very least, if the United States and Russia arrive in 2026 with no new arms control arrangement, the two countries must make a mutual commitment to continue adhering to the central limits of New START until such an arrangement is in place.

INF Missiles

The new arrangement should prohibit the development or limit the deployment of at least some types of missiles formerly banned by the INF Treaty. Although flawed, Russia’s proposal for a moratorium on the deployment of INF missiles, plus some verification measures, can serve as a starting point.

There are various routes available. For instance, one option could be to ban all nuclear ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles, as suggested by Rose Gottemoeller, chief U.S. negotiator for New START. Another option could be to prohibit the deployment of ground-launched, intermediate-range nuclear ballistic and cruise missiles in Europe and to the west of the Ural Mountains. Any of these or other options must ensure that verification is a key component and that Russia will address the currently deployed 9M729 missiles.

The motivation to pursue a variation of the INF Treaty in the next arms control arrangement rests on the fact that neither the United States nor Russia can afford another expensive, unnecessary arms race with another class of weapon and that these weapons heighten tensions. U.S. military officials have already expressed skepticism over efforts to bring ground-launched intermediate-range missiles to the Army.

There have also emerged issues with locations to base these missiles in Europe and Asia, a challenge that the Army has acknowledged. While Army Secretary Christine Wormuth argued in May that finalizing such basing decisions do not need to be made before the development of these missiles, experts have disputed this notion, as the location of the missile will influence its range requirement.

Furthermore, a U.S. introduction of these missiles into Europe (which would require NATO’s cooperation) would serve as a provocative threat to Russia, which has stated that it will respond in kind. In such a scenario, Europe would become flooded with missiles that are not a proven military necessity and would compromise European security.

Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons

The new arrangement should address non-strategic, or tactical, nuclear weapons. With an estimated 1,900 Russian tactical nuclear weapons in central storage and 100 U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe, these weapons are a point of interest for both countries.

Tactical nuclear weapons are understood as being designed for battlefield, or so-called limited, nuclear use and possessing shorter ranges and lower yields than strategic nuclear weapons. The thought process informing the development and the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons has generally been to have a smaller, more precise nuclear weapon that is more prompt than a strategic nuclear weapon. Yet, for comparison, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was about 15 kilotons, which would be defined as tactical today, and many modern tactical nuclear weapons have far greater yields, into the hundreds.

“No one knows if using a tactical nuclear weapon would trigger full-scale nuclear war,” wrote Nina Tannenwald, an international relations professor at Brown University, in March.

Past arms control arrangements have yet to cover tactical nuclear weapons, though it has been a longtime goal to do so.

Numerous challenges lay ahead for incorporating tactical nuclear weapons into the next U.S.-Russia arms control arrangement (e.g., mutually agreeing to definitions of relevant terms, addressing the differing numbers of tactical nuclear weapons in each arsenal, establishing a suitable verification regime, etc.). Therefore, a simple option to begin tactical nuclear arms control would be to agree to exchange detailed declarations on tactical nuclear stockpiles, including warheads in storage.

Missile Defense

The new arrangement should institute numerical limits on missile defense interceptors and launchers. Given Russian (and Chinese) longtime concerns about U.S. missile defenses, there is almost no way in which a new arms control arrangement would be reached without effective limits on U.S. missile defense systems. Despite the technical challenges, the unimpressive testing record, and the steep costs for missile defense systems, the United States has continued to pursue these capabilities and dismiss any limits on them.

The ABM Treaty, as amended in 1974, limited the United States and Russia to 100 ground-based missile interceptors deployed at one site. Such a numerical limit could be revived without any adjustment to current or future force levels. In addition, the verification regime of the new arms control arrangement could require, similar to New START, a quota for on-site visits to missile defense facilities and advance notifications before interceptor flight tests.

Missile defense systems, particularly those meant to intercept strategic threats, do not perform reliably and effectively even under the most scripted of conditions and therefore do not provide reliable protection, making it no great loss to agree to reasonable limits on those systems. Besides, the United States agreeing to limit the quantity, location, and capability of missile interceptors for a limited ballistic attack from Iran or North Korea should not impede fielding the interceptors in a sufficient number.

Verification Regime

The new arrangement should maintain an on-site inspections and verification regime, similar to that of New START. The U.S. military has repeatedly gone on the record to confirm the great value of the New START verification regime, as, for instance, the information gathered through data exchanges cannot necessarily be attained through other avenues.

Although adjustments will likely have to be made to establish the process for inspections of new kinds of nuclear delivery vehicles, these should be rather straightforward changes.

Additional Nuclear-Armed Countries

U.S.-Russian arms control does not and should not exist in a silo. Therefore, alongside the steps on a new U.S.-Russian arms control arrangement outlined above, the following actions should also be taken:

  1. The five NPT-recognized nuclear-weapon states should implement various, effective risk reduction and conflict escalation management measures.

    A measure that should be implemented as soon as possible is the official establishment and the consistent use of hotlines, or direct communication channels, between both political and military leaders of different countries. Washington and Moscow established a similar deconfliction line a few days after the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which proved a smart move as Russian missile strikes crept closer to NATO borders. In May and October, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talked to their Russian counterparts in an attempt to gain clarity on various claims and avoid miscommunication or escalation.

    Additional potential measures include delaying tests of nuclear weapon delivery systems and nuclear exercises or related activities that could be perceived as particularly provocative. Austin delayed then canceled a scheduled test of the U.S. Minuteman III ICBM in early March to guard against any worst-case assumptions. Unfortunately, the United States and NATO moved ahead with the scheduled Steadfast Noon nuclear exercise in October, while Russia proceeded with nuclear exercises in the Kaliningrad enclave in May and in the Ivanovo province in June and has just begun its annual Grom exercises.
     
  2. The United States must, if it has not already, invite China to officially establish a U.S.-Chinese strategic stability dialogue that includes arms control among its main topics for discussion. Washington must propose to design the dialogue as a venue in which to set the foundation for potential arms control in the future. This means building familiarity with each country’s arms control officials, establishing a glossary of terminology for more detailed discussions, and so on. The first session of the dialogue should not include a demand that China immediately join in U.S.-Russian arms control processes, as that would likely prompt Chinese officials to walk right back out the door. Creating an official U.S.-Chinese strategic stability dialogue is the first step in a very long potential multilateral arms control endeavor.

    In addition, the United States can consider augmenting the P5 forum—which involves senior officials from Washington, Moscow, London, Paris, and Beijing discussing their NPT obligations—to feature more formal arms control discussions and perhaps, in time, negotiations. One possibility in this venue is for China, France, and the United Kingdom to report on their total nuclear weapons holdings and freeze the size of their nuclear stockpiles so long as the United States and Russia pledge to pursue deeper verifiable reductions in their arsenals.

The top priority must be for the two countries to, at least, continue adhering to New START’s central limits until they successfully negotiate a new arrangement, although the better option would be to secure lower limits on strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems in U.S. and Russian arsenals.

From there, Washington and Moscow can tackle missiles formerly banned by the INF Treaty, tactical nuclear weapons, U.S. missile defenses, and new and emerging technologies in the space and cyber domains, in this general order.

The achievement of a U.S.-Russian arms control framework to replace New START, plus the other actions for the five NPT-recognized nuclear powers, will require unwavering political will and determination in the currently charged strategic landscape, as well as pragmatism and compromise. However, the outlined steps must be taken to guard against the outbreak of nuclear war.

History demonstrates that the benefits of bilateral arms control agreements involving the possessors of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals have consistently outweighed the costs. Now is the time to absorb lessons learned from previous arms control efforts and apply them to the negotiation of a new, effective, and more comprehensive arms control arrangement between the United States and Russia that addresses today’s current strategic and geopolitical environment, and before the existing nuclear arms control regime under New START ends. —SHANNON BUGOS, senior policy analyst

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Even while rallying the world in support of Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s invasion and ongoing attacks, Washington must pursue the negotiation of a new arms control arrangement to supersede New START sooner rather than later.

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Putin’s Latest Nuclear Threats: What’s at Stake and What Can Be Done to Walk Back from the Brink?

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Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022
1:00 pm to 2:30 pm U.S. Eastern Time

Sixty years ago this month, the Soviet Union and the world teetered on the edge of nuclear Armageddon over Russian missile deployments in Cuba. Once again, the world is facing the heightened risk of nuclear war, this time due to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s thinly-veiled threats of nuclear weapons use in his war on Ukraine. 

Our expert panel provided a detailed analysis of Russian tactical nuclear weapons capabilities, the consequences of their potential use, the pros and cons of potential responses from the United States and the international community to any Russian nuclear detonations, and diplomatic and political options designed to reduce the risk of the first use of nuclear weapons in 77 years.

The panelists were: 

  • Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists and co-author of the Nuclear Notebook column in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the World Nuclear Forces overview in the SIPRI Yearbook.
  • Rose Gottemoeller, senior lecturer at Stanford University's Institute for International Studies and its Center for International Security and Cooperation, former Deputy Secretary General of NATO (2016-2019), former U.S. Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, and the chief U.S. negotiator of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russian Federation.
  • Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association. His latest analysis on the topic, "No Viable 'Nuclear Option' for Russia in Ukraine," was published last week.  
  • Shannon Bugos, Senior Policy Analyst, Arms Control Association (moderator) 

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

 

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Following President Putin's thinly-veiled threats of nuclear weapons use in his war on Ukraine, our expert panel addressed Russian tactical nuclear weapons capabilities, the consequences of their potential use, and diplomatic and political options.

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U.S. Conditions Talks on New START Inspections


October 2022
By Shannon Bugos

The United States declared in September that any negotiation of a new nuclear arms control arrangement to follow on from the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) depends on the resumption of the treaty’s on-site inspections of nuclear-related facilities, which Russia has impeded.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Wesley Baptiste (L) and Airman Daniel Peryer perform a “simulated missile reduction” in accordance with the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, in 2011. Such inspections, and the treaty itself, are now at risk because of Russia's failure to resume the inspections amid its war on Ukraine.  (Photo credit: U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Desiree Esposito)The two countries agreed to suspend inspections in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although talks had been ongoing since last year to resume these inspections, Russia undermined such efforts and further extended the pause with its decision in August to prohibit inspections of its relevant facilities subject to New START. (See ACT, September 2022.)

“The first step is to resume inspections” under New START, “and we have been trying to work with the Russians toward that end,” a U.S. National Security Council spokesperson said on Sept. 1. New START is the last remaining U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control agreement and will expire in February 2026. Washington paused arms control talks with Moscow following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February. (See ACT, March 2022.)

Russia claimed that its flight crew and inspectors have faced difficulties in obtaining the necessary documents, such as visas, to carry out inspections in the United States, which has imposed, alongside U.S. allies, sanctions and restrictions on Russia due to its invasion of Ukraine.

But U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Aug. 16 that “U.S. sanctions and restrictive measures imposed as a result of Russia’s war against Ukraine are fully compatible” with New START and “don’t prevent Russian inspectors from conducting treaty inspections in the United States.” Another State Department spokesperson later added, “The United States has and will continue to engage Russia on the resumption of inspections through diplomatic channels,” such as the Bilateral Consultative Commission established by the treaty to address implementation and verification concerns.

Although the pause of on-site inspections is concerning, U.S. officials continue to assess that Russia does not appear poised to employ nuclear weapons imminently.

Since the outset of the war, the United States has consistently monitored Russian nuclear forces for any signs of impending use, thus far seeing none.

Against this backdrop of rising tensions, the United States moved ahead with a long-planned test of an unarmed nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Minuteman III, on Sept. 7. The test ICBM carried three reentry vehicles and traveled 4,200 miles from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California to a test range at the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

In March, the Pentagon delayed and then cancelled an ICBM test so as not to exacerbate tensions amid the Russian war in Ukraine. It also delayed by two weeks an ICBM test in August due to heightened tensions with China over Taiwan. (See ACT, April and September 2022.)

Meanwhile, Moscow announced in mid-August the deployment of Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missiles on Mikoyan MiG-31 fighter jets based at the Chkalovsk Air Base in the Kaliningrad enclave as part of “additional measures of strategic deterrence,” according to the Russian Defense Ministry. Although the deployed missiles are conventional, the Kinzhal is thought to be nuclear capable.

Over the course of the war, Russia has used Kinzhal missiles to strike targets in Ukraine in March and possibly in May, leading a U.S. defense official to estimate that Russian forces have employed about a dozen hypersonic missiles in total. (See ACT, April and June 2022.)

“We have deployed [the Kinzhal system] three times during the special military operation” in Ukraine, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in an Aug. 31 interview with Russian media, “and three times it showed brilliant characteristics.” U.S. defense officials, in contrast, have asserted that the Russian use of hypersonic weapons has not proved to be a game-changing decision in the war.

Russia declared that the United States would become a party to the conflict if it “cross[ed] the red line” by supplying Ukraine with longer-range missiles, such as the Army Tactical Missile System that has a range of up to 300 kilometers.

“We reserve the right to protect the Russian territory by all available means,” Maria Zakharova, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said in a Sept. 15 briefing.

Russia and the United States suspended inspections in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic; Russia has extended the pause.

An Opening for Renewed Disarmament Diplomacy


September 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball

In addition to increasing human suffering and reminding the world of the risks of nuclear weapons, the Russian war on Ukraine halted U.S. and Russian arms control talks that are necessary to maintain verifiable caps on, perhaps even reduce, the world’s largest nuclear arsenals. But now there is an opportunity for renewing disarmament diplomacy.

Photo by Vasily Maximov/AFP via Getty Images)U.S. President Joe Biden, building on his letter to the Arms Control Association on June 2 in which he said that “our progress must continue beyond the New START [New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] extension,” issued a statement on Aug. 1 at the start of the 10th review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in which he declared, “Even at the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were able to work together to uphold our shared responsibility to ensure strategic stability. Today, my administration is ready to expeditiously negotiate a new arms control framework to replace New START when it expires in 2026. But negotiation requires a willing partner operating in good faith.”

This call for further nuclear arms control negotiations was welcomed by dozens of states at the NPT review conference, where frustration over the deficit in disarmament diplomacy ran high. Importantly, the United States and Russia agreed in the draft NPT document “to pursue negotiations in good faith on a successor framework to New START before its expiration in 2026, in order to achieve deeper, irreversible, and verifiable reductions in their nuclear arsenals.” Despite Russia’s decision to block consensus on the draft NPT document over other issues, both sides should follow through on the New START follow-on talks.

Without new arrangements to supersede New START, there will be no limits on the size or composition of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972. Moreover, efforts to engage China and the other nuclear-armed states in the disarmament enterprise will fall flat, and the dangers of unconstrained global nuclear arms racing will only grow.

Although Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin say they want to negotiate new arms reduction agreements, they have not resumed their dialogue, and each suggests progress depends on the other.

Russia says it supports New START and talks on follow-on agreements, but first wants more details on the Biden administration’s proposal for talks. Complicating matters, Russia announced on Aug. 8 that it would not allow the resumption of inspections under New START that were suspended in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Russia claims that U.S. travel restrictions make it difficult for Russia to conduct inspections of U.S. nuclear installations while U.S. inspectors do not face similar rules.

Given that the war in Ukraine could drag on indefinitely and that time is running short on New START, it is imperative that Moscow and Washington immediately resolve the differences blocking the restart of New START inspections and begin negotiations, without conditions, on new arms control arrangements to supersede New START.

The key objective should be deeper, verifiable reductions to a total of 1,000 deployed strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems per side, which would be roughly a 33 percent decrease from the levels in New START.

New understandings need not be expressed as formal treaties that require approval by the Russian Duma and the gridlocked U.S. Senate. Binding executive agreements, like the first U.S.-Soviet arms control deal, would suffice.

At a minimum, U.S. and Russian leaders should issue unilateral reciprocal commitments to respect the central limits of New START until such time as new agreements that supersede New START are concluded. With the recent collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, negotiators also should pursue a verifiable moratorium on the deployment in Europe of missiles formerly banned by the treaty.

Progress will not be easy and political support is not assured. With the Dr. Strangelove Caucus in Congress already clamoring for the United States to abandon New START, the Biden administration and nongovernmental organizations committed to nuclear risk reduction need to expand their efforts.

Franklin Miller, a former Defense Department official, argues that, in response to China and Russia, the United States should withdraw from New START to allow a buildup from the current level of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads to 3,000 or 3,500. Such radical notions would repudiate 50 years of U.S. policy, violate U.S. legal obligations under the NPT to pursue disarmament, and open the door to a dangerous new era of nuclear arms racing and nuclear proliferation.

Negotiations on a New START follow-on framework are essential to reduce the Russian nuclear threat, constrain a potential Chinese nuclear buildup, and lower the risk of nuclear conflict. Now is the time for Washington and Moscow to resume talks on nuclear arms control. In 1979, Sen. Biden (D-Del.) told an Arms Control Association meeting that “[p]ursuing arms control is not a luxury or a sign of weakness, but an international responsibility and a national necessity.” That was true during the Cold War, and it remains true today.

 

In addition to increasing human suffering and reminding the world of the risks of nuclear weapons, the Russian war on Ukraine halted U.S. and Russian arms control talks that are necessary to maintain verifiable caps on, perhaps even reduce, the world’s largest nuclear arsenals. But now there is an opportunity for renewing disarmament diplomacy.

A Turning Point on Nuclear Deterrence


July/August 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats of possible use of nuclear weapons against any state that might interfere with Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine have reawakened the world to the dangers of nuclear war. The possibility of military conflict between Russian and NATO forces has significantly increased the risk of nuclear weapons use. Because Russian and U.S.-NATO military strategies reserve the option to use nuclear weapons first against non-nuclear threats, fighting could quickly go nuclear.

Photo Credit: International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear WeaponsPutin’s threats violate foundational understandings designed to reduce the dangers of nuclear deterrence, including the 1973 Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War, in which the United States and Russia pledged to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the other party, against the allies of the other party and against other countries, in circumstances which may endanger international peace and security.”

As egregious, worrisome, and risky as Putin’s nuclear antics are, the reaction of the international community until recently has been far too mild. The U.S. response to Putin’s nuclear threats, as well as those of Western governments that also embrace nuclear deterrence ideologies and rely on the credible threat of nuclear use, has been particularly underwhelming.

At the outset of the Russian invasion, U.S. President Joe Biden, answering a question about whether U.S. citizens should be concerned with a nuclear war breaking out, said, "No." Then, in a May 31 essay in The New York Times, Biden referred to Russia’s “occasional nuclear rhetoric” as “dangerous and extremely irresponsible,” implying that some nuclear threats are more responsible.

Fortunately, a much needed, more forceful rejection of nuclear weapons and threats of use emerged from the first meeting of states-parties to the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) held in Vienna June 21–23. Citing “increasingly strident nuclear rhetoric,” the TPNW states-parties issued the Vienna Declaration, which condemns all threats to use nuclear weapons as violations of international law, including the UN Charter. The declaration demands “that all nuclear-armed states never use or threaten to use nuclear weapons under any circumstances.”

The TPNW states-parties condemned “unequivocally any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances.” Far from preserving peace and security, “nuclear weapons are used to coerce and intimidate; to facilitate aggression and inflame tensions. This highlights the fallacy of nuclear deterrence doctrines, which are based and rely on the threat of the actual use of nuclear weapons and, hence, the risks of the destruction of countless lives, of societies, of nations, and of inflicting global catastrophic consequences,” they added.

The declaration underscores that, for the majority of states, outdated nuclear deterrence policies create unacceptable risks. The only way to eliminate the danger is to reinforce the norms against nuclear use and the threat of use and to accelerate stalled progress toward verifiably eliminating these weapons.

Nevertheless, NATO leaders insist that the alliance must double down on its dangerous nuclear deterrence posture to prevent a Russian attack on NATO member states. In reality, U.S. and NATO nuclear weapons have proven useless in preventing Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine. At the same time, Russia’s brazen nuclear threats have failed to deter NATO efforts to supply Ukraine with weapons needed to repel the Russian onslaught.

Instead, Ukraine’s partners have responded with political, economic, and diplomatic means to help Ukraine defend its territory. The conflict has demonstrated that even for a state or alliance possessing a robust nuclear arsenal, such as NATO, conventional military capabilities are the key to deterring military attacks and to ensuring battlefield success.

The more NATO rhetoric emphasizes the value of nuclear deterrence and of possessing nuclear weapons, the more legitimacy it lends to Putin’s nuclear threats and to the mistaken, dangerous belief that nuclear weapons are necessary for self-defense.

The next global gathering concerning nuclear weapons will take place in August at the 10th review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). All states must seek to rise above their differences and work together to reverse today’s dangerous nuclear trends.

Non-nuclear-weapon states can build on the TPNW meeting by encouraging wider support for the norms against nuclear weapons. Rather than simply criticize Russian nuclear threats as “irresponsible,” NPT states-parties should condemn unambiguously all threats of nuclear weapons use. They must unite in demanding that the nuclear-weapon states undertake specific actions to fulfill the NPT’s Article VI disarmament provisions. This should include an explicit call for the United States and Russia to begin negotiations on new disarmament arrangements and for all NPT nuclear-armed states to freeze their nuclear stockpiles and engage in disarmament negotiations before the next NPT review conference, in 2025.

Given the growing risk of nuclear war, the first meeting of TPNW states-parties and the NPT review conference must become a turning point away from dangerous nuclear policies and arms racing that threaten global nuclear catastrophe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats of possible use of nuclear weapons against any state that might interfere with Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine have reawakened the world to the dangers of nuclear war.

Russian-U.S. Arms Dialogue Remains Uncertain


July/August 2022
By Shannon Bugos

As Russian-U.S. tensions over Ukraine continue to grow, neither side is showing any sign of quickly resuming bilateral contact over strategic stability issues that could help avoid misunderstandings and escalation.

In remarks to the Arms Control Association annual meeting, Mallory Stewart, U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification, and compliance, was pessimistic about resuming stability talks with Russia because "it’s very hard to... think that our diplomacy will be taken seriously on that side.”  (Photo by Allen Harris/Arms Control Association)Russian President Vladimir Putin said on June 30 that “Russia is open to dialogue on ensuring strategic stability, preserving agreements on the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and improving the situation in arms control.”

U.S. President Joe Biden similarly stated in June that engagement with Moscow on strategic stability and nuclear arms control issues must continue even as “we rally the world to hold Russia accountable for its brutal and unprovoked war on Ukraine.”

“Today—perhaps more than any other time since the Cold War—we must work to reduce the risk of an arms race or nuclear escalation,” Biden wrote in a June 2 letter to the Arms Control Association. “My administration is committed to reducing the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons, protecting the American people, and reinvigorating the global nuclear order to reduce the risk of use and proliferation of nuclear weapons.”

But senior U.S. administration officials indicated that current conditions in Ukraine prevent the resuscitation of the bilateral strategic stability dialogue with Russia that the United States paused at the outset of the war.

Prior to Biden’s statement, a senior U.S. official told The New York Times on June 1 that “right now it’s almost impossible to imagine” how the dialogue might resume before the last treaty limiting the Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals expires in 2026. Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin extended this treaty, the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), last year for five years. (See ACT, March 2021.)

Mallory Stewart, assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification, and compliance, made a similar point during the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting on June 2.

“With [Russia’s] illegal invasion of Ukraine and their continued, horrific 17th century activities, it’s very hard to figure out how we can sit and think that our diplomacy will be taken seriously on that side,” Stewart explained. “If there was some way to indicate good faith on their side, if there was some way to indicate that the dialogue would be more meaningful than just another meeting in Geneva, we could consider something.”

Meanwhile, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on June 16 described the future of Russian-U.S. nuclear arms control as “important not only for the peoples of our two countries, but also for the whole world, for global security.” This topic, he added, is not one that can be avoided. But Peskov acknowledged on June 30 after Putin's remark that "there are no tangible plans" now to resume the dialogue.

Russia officially launched a full-blown war in Ukraine on Feb. 24. Within two days, the U.S. State Department announced a suspension of the strategic stability dialogue, which Biden and Putin had revived in 2021 and which last took place in January. (See ACT, March 2022; July/August 2021.)

In previous rounds of the dialogue, Washington and Moscow had begun to exchange proposals on future arms control arrangements to follow New START. They also established working groups in an attempt to make headway between official meetings. (See ACT, September and November 2021.)

“Our progress must continue beyond the New START extension,” Biden emphasized in June.

Jenkins, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said on May 26 that the United States remains committed to “eventually getting back to the table to continue the dialogue on laying the groundwork for future arms control and to the pursuit of follow-on measures” to New START.

She also reiterated the administration’s overall agenda for future arms control, to include sustaining limits on systems covered by New START, addressing new kinds of Russian nuclear weapons in the development or deployment stages, and limiting the Russian arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons.

For its part, Moscow has continued to call for the creation of “a new security equation” that addresses all nuclear and non-nuclear, offensive and defensive weapons that affect strategic stability. That would include U.S. missile defense systems, which Washington has long resisted putting up for negotiation, as well as missile systems formerly banned by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Russia incorporated this agenda into its December proposals on security guarantees to the United States and NATO.

Given the various likely divisive topics on the table and the makeup of the U.S. Senate, Washington and Moscow have conceded that what may follow New START might not be a traditional arms control treaty, but rather another type of arms control arrangement or arrangements.

Putin’s decision to raise the alert level of Russian nuclear forces in the opening days of the war and his multiple threats since then to use nuclear weapons should any country interfere in Ukraine has further highlighted the need for a revived dialogue to ensure limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals.

Despite Putin’s hostile behavior and rhetoric, the Biden administration has repeatedly made assurances that there is not an imminent threat of Russian use of nuclear weapons.

“We currently see no indication that Russia has intent to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine,” Biden wrote in a May 31 op-ed for The New York Times. “Let me be clear: Any use of nuclear weapons in this conflict on any scale would be completely unacceptable to us as well as the rest of the world and would entail severe consequences.”

The Pentagon also repeated its assessment on May 26 that it sees no indication that “we would need to change our strategic deterrent posture.”

Since March, U.S. national security officials have conducted a series of tabletop exercises to evaluate how the president should respond if Putin uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine or around the Black Sea. (See ACT, April 2022.) An administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the Times on June 1 that the group is focusing primarily on non-nuclear responses, such as sanctions and conventional strikes.

The three ranking members on the House foreign affairs, intelligence, and armed services committees—Reps. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), Mike Turner (R-Ohio), and Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), respectively—sent Biden a letter on June 17, asking for further details on how the United States might respond to the Russian use of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine.

“We urge you to clarify U.S. policy concerning the use of tactical nuclear weapons by Russia in Europe and to clearly communicate such policy to the Russian government,” they wrote. “If Russia uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine, the U.S. must act. This must be clear to Russia to deter their use of nuclear weapons in this unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, Russia in June proceeded with military nuclear exercises after simulated nuclear exercises the previous month. The latest drills were held in Ivanovo province, northeast of Moscow, with an estimated 1,000 troops and 100 vehicles, according to the Russian Defense Ministry on June 1.

The June exercises were aimed at practicing setting up missile systems in the field, carrying out “intensive maneuvering actions on combat patrol routes,” and organizing combat security. The drills featured the nuclear-capable Yars intercontinental ballistic missile.

A Russian military official said on June 1 that the Zircon, a sea-launched hypersonic cruise missile, has completed the testing phase of development and will be deployed by the end of 2022. In May, Russia said it had launched a Zircon missile from a frigate in the Barents Sea to a target about 625 miles away in the White Sea.

As U.S.-Russian tensions over Ukraine grow, neither shows signs of resuming bilateral contact that could avoid escalation.

The Nuclear Risk Dimension of the War On Ukraine

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Remarks by Daryl G. Kimball
Executive Director, Arms Control Association
June 20, 2022

“No matter who tries to stand in our way ... they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history ....” Russian President Vladimir Putin, February 24

"If someone wants to interfere in the situation in Ukraine from the outside and creates an unacceptable threat of a strategic nature for Russia, the response will be lightning-fast, decisions on this matter have been made,” Mr. Putin said at a meeting with members of the Council of Legislators April 27.

"Russia's response will be immediate and will lead you to consequences that you have never faced in your history. We are ready for any development of events," the Russian president added. He said that Russia has all the tools for this, "such as no one can boast of now. We will use them, if necessary," Vladimir Putin warned.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, along with his implied threats of nuclear weapons use against any who would interfere, have raised the specter of a nuclear conflict in ways we have not experienced in the post-Cold War era.

  • Russia’s war on Ukraine and the ongoing possibility of military conflict between Russian and NATO forces have significantly increased the risk of nuclear weapons use.
     
  • Unlike the extremely dangerous 13-day-long Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, the war in Ukraine, will likely last many more months. And unlike the 1962 crisis, which did not involve a sustained exchange of fire, the war in Ukraine does. As a result, the world will remain in a condition of heightened nuclear danger for some time to come.
     
  • President Putin’s statements threatening possible nuclear use, and his announcement early in the conflict that he was raising the readiness level of Russian strategic nuclear forces, are designed to ward off outside military interference by U.S. and NATO forces in his attack on Ukraine.
     
  • From a legal perspective, the International Court of Justice unanimously determined in its 1996 advisory opinion that a threat to engage in nuclear weapons use, particularly under the circumstances suggested by Mr. Putin, is contrary to international humanitarian law, and, of course, the threat to use nuclear weapons, violates the UN Charter, and under any circumstance, is prohibited by the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
     
  • Putin’s threats also violate Article II of the 1973 bilateral Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War, which pledged the United States and Russia to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the other Party, against the allies of the other Party and against other countries, in circumstances which may endanger international peace and security.”
     
  • So far, President Joe Biden has not engaged in inflammatory nuclear rhetoric or raised the alert status of U.S. nuclear forces. U.S. and NATO leaders have made it clear their military forces will not directly enter the conflict. Nevertheless, the risk of escalation is real. A close encounter between NATO and Russian warplanes or an attack by Russia on NATO territory or vice versa could become a flashpoint for a wider conflict.
     
  • Because Russian and U.S. strategies reserve the option—under extreme circumstances—to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear threats, fighting could quickly go nuclear. Russian nuclear doctrine states that nuclear weapons can be used in response to an attack with weapons of mass destruction or if a conventional war threatens the “very existence of the state.” Right now, these conditions do not exist. But if the Kremlin believes a serious attack on Russia is underway, it might order the use of short-range, tactical nuclear weapons to tip the military balance in its favor. Such a scenario would seem unlikely, but it cannot be ruled out.

    U.S. President Joe Biden’s new Nuclear Posture Review states that the “fundamental role” of the U.S. arsenal will be to deter nuclear attacks while still leaving open the option for nuclear first use in “extreme circumstances” to counter conventional, biological, chemical, and possibly cyberattacks.
     
  • In addition to the possibility of an escalation of the fighting beyond the borders of Ukraine to involve NATO and Russian forces and territory, there is the potential, albeit small this time, that Russia might consider the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine itself. In April, CIA Director William Burns said that although there is no sign that Russia is preparing to do so, “none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons."
     
  • Since then, Russian officials have denied there is any intention to do so because the Russian state is clearly not under imminent threat from either Ukraine or NATO. But if the Kremlin thought an attack from the United States or NATO was underway or if the Kremlin finds that Russian forces are on the verge of a catastrophic defeat in Ukraine, Putin might consider the nuclear option, perhaps beginning with the use of short-range, “tactical” nuclear weapons, to try to tip the balance in Russia’s military favor or to try to end the conflict.
     
  • Once nuclear weapons are used in a conflict, particularly between nuclear-armed adversaries, we are in completely uncharted territory. Theories that a nuclear war can be “limited” are just theories. In practice and in the fog of nuclear war, once nuclear weapons are used in a conflict involving the United States and Russia, there is no guarantee it would not quickly become an all-out nuclear conflagration. A recent Princeton Program on Science and Global Security simulation estimates the use of nuclear weapons in war between NATO and Russian forces could lead to the death and injury of nearly 100 million people in just the first few hours. As the head of U.S. Strategic Command General John Hyten said in 2018 after the annual Global Thunder nuclear wargame: “It ends bad. And the bad meaning it ends with global nuclear war.”
     
  • Nuclear threats and alerts of various kinds were not uncommon during the Cold War, before the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and after. But Russia’s implied nuclear threats to shield an attack by a nuclear-armed state against a non-nuclear-weapon state is unprecedented—and unacceptable—in the post-Cold War era. And since the Soviet Union dissolved, no U.S. or Russian leader has raised the alert level of nuclear forces to try to coerce a potential nuclear adversary’s behavior.
     
  • Such actions are dangerous for all sides. Nuclear threat rhetoric and orders to raise the operational readiness of Russian or U.S. nuclear forces could be also misinterpreted in ways that lead the other side to make nuclear countermoves that trigger nuclear escalatory moves, fears of an imminent attack, and potentially nuclear weapons use.
     
  • We must also understand that another feature of the war is that Russia is “using” its nuclear weapons to provide cover for a major conventional military intervention against an independent, sovereign non-nuclear-weapon state. We must also recognize that this is not a uniquely Russian idea. Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, said in February 2021 that “[w]e must acknowledge the foundational nature of our nation’s strategic nuclear forces, as they create the ‘maneuver space’ for us to project conventional military power strategically.”
     
  • Putin’s invasion also underscores the fact that nuclear weapons don’t prevent major wars. Rather, they can facilitate aggression by nuclear-armed states and make wars waged by nuclear-armed states far more dangerous—especially when nuclear-armed states become pitted against one another and there is an increased risk of miscalculation and miscommunication.
     
  • Of course, Russia’s 2014 occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and its more recent invasion violates the security assurances extended to Ukraine in 1994 by the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States through the Budapest Memorandum—and makes a mockery of the negative security assurances extended to nonnuclear weapons states in the context of the NPT.
     
  • NATO countries may argue that because Russia has not attacked a NATO member, this shows the utility of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. In reality, U.S. and NATO nuclear weapons have proven to be useless in preventing Russian aggression against Ukraine.

    Instead, Ukraine’s allies and friends have responded with political, economic, and diplomatic means to help defend Ukraine and thwart the aggressor, along with military and humanitarian assistance to help Ukraine defend its territory. Even for a state or alliance possessing a robust nuclear arsenal, conventional military capabilities are key to deterring conventional attacks and to battlefield success, or failure.
     
  • Russia’s explicit nuclear threats, which President Biden and other leaders have criticized as “irresponsible,” also create a dilemma for NATO, which is a self-declared nuclear alliance that depends on maintaining the credible threat of nuclear use.

    The more NATO emphasizes the value of nuclear deterrence and the value of possessing nuclear weapons, the more legitimacy it lends to Putin’s nuclear threats and the mistaken and dangerous belief that nuclear weapons are necessary for self-defense. As Pope Francis declared in 2017: “[Nuclear weapons] exist in the service of a mentality of fear that affects not only the parties in conflict but the entire human race [and] create nothing but a false sense of security.”

Finally, the conflict has derailed the “Strategic Stability Dialogue” between Washington and Moscow that was intended to lead to negotiations on new nuclear arms reduction agreements designed to supersede the New START agreement, which will expire in early 2026.

In a statement issued to the Arms Control Association on June 2, President Biden said: “Our progress must continue beyond the New START …” But it remains unclear whether and when the U.S.-Russian dialogue will resume, let alone whether they can reach agreement on capping or further reducing their bloated arsenals beyond 2026.

As a result, neither side can say they are meeting their legally binding nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations under Article VI of the treaty, and it is more likely than not that after 2026, there will be no legally-binding limits on the world’s two largest nuclear stockpiles—something the world has not seen in more than five decades.

Response Options: As the war drags on, it is vital that Russian, NATO, and U.S. leaders maintain lines of communication to prevent direct conflict. They must refrain from threatening nuclear rhetoric and actions that increase the risk of nuclear escalation, such as moving to deploy tactical nuclear weapons, putting strategic weapons on higher alert levels, or developing new types of nuclear weapons designed for fighting and “winning” a regional nuclear war.

In particular, the international community needs to take stronger action to strengthen the legal and political norms against nuclear weapons use and the threat of use of nuclear weapons.

We must also press the nuclear-armed states to finally take the actions necessary to fulfill their commitments to verifiably reduce and eliminate their nuclear weapons and adopt non-nuclear approaches to defense that can more effectively preserve international peace and human security.

The March 2 vote in the General Assembly condemning Russia’s invasion and Putin’s decision to increase the readiness of his nuclear forces, was important but is not sufficient. We should recall that the UNGA issued a declaration in November 1961 that said that “any state using nuclear…weapons is to be considered as violating the Charter of the UN, as acting contrary to the laws of humanity and as committing a crime against mankind and civilization.”

The first meeting of states parties to the TPNW is a crucial and timely opportunity to reinforce the norms against nuclear weapons. States attending the 10th NPT Review Conference must also seek to reinforce the norm against nuclear use and nuclear threats and steer the nuclear possessor states away from nuclear confrontation and arms racing and toward a resumption of disarmament negotiations.

Bottom Lines: The nuclear dimensions of the war on Ukraine are reminders that outdated nuclear deterrence policies create unacceptable risks. If we are to eliminate the danger, we must actively reinforce the legal prohibitions and norms against nuclear weapons development, testing, possession, proliferation, and use—and press for disarmament diplomacy that leads to concrete actions that put us on the path toward the complete, irreversible, and verifiable elimination of all nuclear weapons in our lifetimes.

Description: 

Remarks by Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association, to the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons, June 20, 2022

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After Exercise, Russia Downplays Nuclear Threat


June 2022
By Shannon Bugos

Russia simulated launches of nuclear weapons during military exercises in the Kaliningrad enclave in May, according to its defense ministry, even as Russian diplomats attempted to downplay the likelihood of Russia employing nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

Russia has used the Iskander-M missile, shown parading through Red Square, to pummel Ukraine and conducted simulated launches of nuclear weapons with the missile during military exercises in the Kaliningrad enclave in May.  (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)The Russian exercise included “electronic launches” of dual-capable, road-mobile Iskander-M ballistic missiles against targets such as airfields, equipment depots, and military command posts. The Russian Defense Ministry said that more than 100 troops participated in the simulation launched from Kaliningrad, which is located between the NATO countries of Lithuania and Poland along the Baltic coast. Russia has used conventional Iskander-M missiles extensively in Ukraine.

Despite the nuclear simulation and continued threatening rhetoric from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Ministry officials have dismissed the prospect of Russia employing nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine.

When questioned about the possibility of nuclear war, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asserted on May 1 that “Russia has never ceased its efforts to reach agreements that would guarantee the prevention of a nuclear war.” He emphasized that Moscow has agreed twice in the past year to reaffirm the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

Konstantin Gavrilov, head of Russia’s delegation on arms control in Vienna, said more directly on May 4 that “we by no means pursue any nuclear war-related aims on the territory of Ukraine.” Alexey Zaitsev, Russian Foreign Ministry deputy spokesperson, echoed this on May 6, saying that nuclear weapons “are not applicable to the implementation of the tasks set in the course of the special military operation in Ukraine.”

Zaitsev pointed to four scenarios in which Moscow might use nuclear weapons, including when the state’s existence is perceived to be in jeopardy. The scenarios are outlined in the Russian nuclear deterrence policy released in June 2020. (See ACT, July/August 2020.)

The remarks by the Foreign Ministry officials differ from Putin’s statements since the start of the war in Ukraine, in which he has threatened to use nuclear weapons if any country attempts to intercede on Ukraine’s behalf. (See ACT, March 2022.)

“If anyone intends to intervene from the outside and create a strategic threat to Russia that is unacceptable to us, they should know that our retaliatory strikes will be lightning fast,” Putin reiterated on April 27. “We have the tools we need for this…[and] we will use them if necessary.”

U.S. President Joe Biden has described such rhetoric as irresponsible and dangerous. “No one should be making idle comments about the use of nuclear weapons or the possibility that they’d use that,” he said on April 28.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby commented on the Russian war game and threats of nuclear use, dismissing the prospect of a U.S. or NATO reaction. “Has that exercise or has this rhetoric resulted in us changing the footprint on NATO’s eastern flank? No,” he told reporters on May 5.

Nevertheless, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines assured Congress on May 12 that the United States “will remain vigilant in monitoring every aspect of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.”

Thus far, neither the United States nor NATO has mirrored Putin’s decision in February to raise the alert level of Russian nuclear forces. Adm. Charles Richard, head of U.S. Strategic Command, testified in March that he sees no need to change U.S. nuclear force posture. Kirby said on May 5 that the United States is “comfortable and confident that our strategic deterrent posture is well placed and robust enough to defend the homeland, as well as our allies and partners.” (See ACT, April 2022.)

Haines said that “there is not a sort of an imminent potential for Putin to use nuclear weapons.” But she added that he may engage in some further signaling of Russian disapproval of U.S. support for Ukraine “by authorizing another large nuclear exercise involving a major dispersal of mobile intercontinental missiles, heavy bombers, [and] strategic submarines.”

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin resumed communication with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Shoigu, with an hour-long phone call on May 13, the first since the invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24.

During the call, Austin “urged an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication,” according to the Pentagon readout. A senior defense official added that the department had “been consistently asking for this conversation,” but it was not until that week when Shoigu finally agreed.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley then spoke with his Russian counterpart, Chief of Russian General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov, on May 19, also for the first time since the war started.

Moscow and Washington created a Russian-U.S. deconfliction line at the operational level between the Russian Defense Ministry and U.S. European Command in March, but there has been no communication at the most senior level until now.

China has called for restraint. “No one wants to see the outbreak of a third world war,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters on May 23.

The military exercises simulated launches of nuclear weapons.

Fifty Years Ago, the First Strategic Arms Limitation Agreements Were Concluded

Fifty years ago, on May 26, 1972, the first bilateral nuclear arms control agreements were struck: the U.S.-Soviet Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The breakthrough agreements, which began the process of slowing the nuclear arms race, followed the entry into force of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1970. The U.S.-Soviet agreements were the product of intensive negotiations that began in 1969. The chief American negotiator was Gerard Smith, who had been appointed the director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency by then-president Richard...

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