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Its not you, its me: The end of bilateral arms negotiations and an uncertain future.

Its not you, its me: The end of bilateral arms negotiations and an uncertain future.

Photo by Ingram Publishing/Ingram Publishing / Getty Images

Photo by Ingram Publishing/Ingram Publishing / Getty Images

Ukraine has overshadowed most other issues in the Russian-NATO/US relationship. Yet, when western commentators talk about arms control they usually define the current state of U.S.-Russia arms control affairs in relation to missile defense.  Yet, an examination of US and Russian missile defense history demonstrates there has never been a conventional wisdom on the subject. Both sides altered their views on missile defense more than once over the last 65 years (the subject of a future post). Likewise, the missile defense issue is somewhat of a canard.

In what will certainly be recorded by history as one of the more ill-advised comments by an American President overheard on an open microphone, President Obama’s promise of “flexibility” to then President Medvedev on the Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) issue, almost certainly now precludes such flexibility. There are significant doubts on the Russian side as to whether any such flexibility ever existed in the first place. As Fydor Lukyanov noted, “American presidents, whether they like it or not, cannot possibly give up this missile defense system. It's like a religion in America” (Butler 2012).

Such comments reflect a growing recognition that American BMD is here to stay. For the United States, BMD is no longer a bargaining chip. While implementation modifications and minor giveaways might be possible, BMD is now a critical component of American national security. Given the present state of affairs between the US/NATO and Russia, any idea of giving up BMD is pretty much dead anyway.

Missile defense, for the Russians, is not their driving issue, though publicly they continue to pronounce its importance. This is more of a bargaining position than a necessity. Practical realities about the Russian nuclear arsenal and shifting views of its military role in relation to conventional force weakness drive Russian nuclear policy in ways unseen since the Cold War. The recent Russian Foreign Ministry position on multilateral negotiations comes from real threats, threats beyond NATO and the United States. 

During his 2013 speech in Berlin, President Obama suggested another cut in American and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals, offering U.S. reductions of almost a third (Obama 2013). This met with a very clear and immediate Russian response, “The situation now is not like in the 1960s and 1970s, when only the United States and the Soviet Union held talks on reducing nuclear arms,” said Yuri Usakove, President Putin’s senior foreign policy adviser (Mamontov 2013). Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov added, “This means that further moves possibly proposed for reduction of actual strategic offensive arms will have to be reviewed in a multilateral format. And I’m talking not just official nuclear powers, but all countries that possess nuclear weapons” (Voice of Russia UK 2013). The Russian signals are clear. The era of bilateral negotiations marked by high-level summitry is over.

Russia is hardening its nuclear policy rather than becoming more conciliatory. Foreign policy goals, military strategy, and security concerns are driving a nuclear weapon revitalization program in Russia that precludes further nuclear weapons reductions, no matter the status of American missile defense programs. Further, quantitative and qualitative differences between the Russian and American arsenal make future cuts difficult. The Russians have pursued a “retire and replace” strategy to nuclear force cuts since the end of the Cold War. The Russians may even emerge from New START with a newer, leaner, nuclear triad while American nuclear weapons and delivery systems approach the end of their lifecycle and several modernization programs languish in budgetary deferrals. Predictably, the Russians oppose the U.S. modernization program, which is also mired in sequester, defense cuts, and budgetary negotiations between the White House and Congress.

There are three factors driving the shift in Russian policy, which broadly fall under foreign policy, military strategy, and security concerns. The overarching foreign policy goal of the Russian Federation is the maintenance of the Russian Federation’s status as a world power (Mankoff 2012). Underpinning this goal is a consistent Russian nuclear and military strategy since the end of the Cold War that places nuclear weapons and deterrence at the center of Russia’s defense policy. The United States effectively halted many of its nuclear weapons programs and upgrades in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the Yeltsin and Putin governments continued to field new missiles, submarines, and other nuclear weapon systems as part of a Russian strategic force modernization program, though not without significant problems. The Russians have also avoided talks on their non-strategic weapon stockpile, which they view as a hedge against the clear qualitative advantage of American and NATO conventional forces. The Russians have made unilateral cuts but are also modernizing that force. Finally, security concerns regarding NATO expansion, American Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD), and recognition of the growing nuclear threat in South and East Asia have driven efforts to modernize and improve a smaller, better Russian nuclear triad.

While the Russians vociferously oppose American and NATO Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD), the issue is a straw man. American concessions on missile defense are unlikely to produce the desired result, even though the Russians will continue to encourage them. The fact that the Russians have dismissed any further bilateral talks on reductions, while maintaining high-level negotiations with both the United States and NATO on the BMD issue, is telling (UPI 2013). The Russians hold out the prospect of further bilateral negotiations predicated on a BMD agreement, and the United States and Europe have eagerly pursued the Russians on that premise.

 A clear examination of the Russian arsenal shows they are on a certain path to meet their New START levels well before the United States, with the majority of their reductions coming from older systems they planned to retire as their new systems come on line. Russia is not “giving up” nuclear weapons in any real sense but producing new ones while retiring older systems with little quantitative change in the stockpile. If anything, the Russian arsenal may decline slightly over the next few years due to delays in production of new systems. Since the United States is far from its New START targets, and is struggling to modernize its triad and dismantle its old one, the Russian Federation could still emerge from the New START period with a more modern, advanced strategic nuclear arsenal, despite technical and fiscal challenges.

Achieving American and NATO concessions on BMD in the interim would be icing on the cake. Absent those concessions, a deployed US/NATO BMD system would provide Russia the excuse to let the New START limitations expire and expand or modify her nuclear force. This might occur against the backdrop of an American nuclear triad in deep decline if modernization programs continue to flounder. In a strange twist, current American arms reduction strategy may be setting the stage for a future arms race. Such a scenario is unlikely, but not impossible. In any case, what is clear is that the period of bilateral talks is over. Whether the United States is prepared to accept that reality is a different question.

It is difficult to see what the next decade of New START will produce. Three basic scenarios confront the United States and Russia. 

  • Russia emerges with a more modern upgraded arsenal
  • The U.S. emerges with a more modern upgrade arsenal
  • Both sides emerge with arsenals worse off than they currently possess.

There is a fourth option where both emerge with superior arsenals, but that is a very remote possibility given current trends and constraints. It is also important to note that the first two options are variable by degree. If the United States cancels or further delays its modernization program and Russia limps along on present trends, Russia might still emerge with a slightly more modern arsenal. If Russia is able to solve some of its technical and budgetary issues, that advantage might be greater. The same is true for the United States in the second option. Similarly, if both continue to struggle, the outcome could produce any of the three possible outcomes.

There is also the possibility that the United States could “negotiate with itself” and unilaterally make further cuts in strategic arms or BMD, believing such action would spark Russian reciprocity or rapprochement. The Russians appear to be acting in the hope that will occur. Such an action would increase the likelihood of Russia emerging from New START with nuclear advantages.

In any case, the next decade is critical for the future of both American and Russian nuclear arsenals and is fundamentally linked to conventional force modernization. While American conventional force superiority has been a  given since the 1991 Gulf War, the current state of American conventional forces, and their future under continuing defense cuts, will likely produce a much smaller less capable conventional force, especially among ground forces. At best, the United States will emerge from New START with a conventional force able to execute missions at a degraded rate than current force structures, and almost certainly less than 1991 or 2003. Meanwhile, the Russians and the Chinese are reorganizing and modernizing their forces based on the American model with a mind toward hybrid warfare and anti-access/area-denial. While the United States will likely maintain technical advantages, its actual force projection and capability is an open question. 

Future Russian and Chinese conventional force capabilities are also in doubt. Their modernization and reorganization programs face multiple challenges and obstacles. Given that, the role of conventional force balance or imbalance in influencing future nuclear postures is difficult. Significant conventional force imbalances led to increased American reliance on nuclear weapons after 1945. A similar situation drives current Russian policy and the fastest growing nuclear power, Pakistan. The end of New START may expand, not limit, future arms production, with the U.S., China, and Russia all seeking to expand or upgrade their nuclear arsenals in some way, not to mention what might happen if a nuclear arms race breaks out in the Middle East, as increasingly looks likely.

Given all these variables, the future is uncertain. One thing is not. The United States and Russia are "breaking up" when it comes to arms control. To be more accurate, Russia is breaking up with the United States, its old Cold War negotiating partner. The Russians have essentially signaled to the United States, “It’s not you, it’s me.” The possibility of the United States negotiating with itself in an attempt to win back Russia remains. Many in the United States still cling to the relationship, living in denial. It is time to move on.


Butler, Desmond. 2012. “Obama faces bumps with Russian Policy.” Associated Press November 12.  http://hosted2.ap.org/ORBEN/1e38c7a90bbb42c9bda8ea8c454a5424/Article_2012-11-12-US-Russia-Analysis/id-5256ddc8489a4bb6b02015f594319eb7 (November 24, 2012)

Obama, Barack. 2013. “Remarks by President Obama at the Brandenburg Gate – Berlin, Germany.” The White House Office of the Press Secretary. June 19. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/19/remarks-president-obama-brandenburg-gate-berlin-germany (November 25, 2013).

Mamontov, Sergei. 2013. “Russia Skeptical Over Obama’s New Nuclear Reduction Proposal.” RIA Novosti. June 19. http://en.ria.ru/russia/20130619/181755868.html (November 22, 2013).

Mankoff, Jeffrey. 2012. Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Voice of Russia UK. 2013. “Lavrov: nuclear arms reductions not limited to Russia and US.” RIA Novosti. June 22. http://voiceofrussia.com/uk/2013_06_22/Lavrov-nuclear-arms-reductions-Russia-and-US (November 27, 2013).

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