By John Erath
It is certainly good news that the United States and Russia are talking about arms control again. Although some might argue that it would be better if China were participating as well, the convening of a dialogue to follow up on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is overdue. Amid the general relief, however, a note of caution would be appropriate. Both sides are calling the process a “Strategic Stability Dialogue.” This should raise concerns over its ultimate conclusion for two main reasons.
First, the term “strategic stability” has been construed by Putin’s government to have too limited a scope. In Moscow, it is understood clearly to mean that the balance of forces between Russia and the United States (with its NATO Allies included) should be adjusted to compensate for Russia’s perceived military inferiority. In the Russian formulation, “stability” can only occur if there is no modernization of U.S. strategic forces or development of new technologies. At the same time, Putin has continued to champion new types of Russian strategic weapons, including some that likely are prohibited by New START. In particular, Putin would like to see Washington abandon missile defense. Despite cost overruns and problems with the technology, Russia perceives U.S. missile defense as eventually becoming the greatest threat to its deterrent. Although it would be appropriate to discuss U.S. plans for missile defense in the context of de-emphasizing the significance of nuclear weapons as the process goes forward, the goal of the process should instead be on reducing the dangers of nuclear weapons.
Allowing Russia to set the terms for the dialogue could create other problems. Since the negotiation of New START more than a decade ago, Putin has evinced little interest in arms control and much in strengthening Russia’s military. Although the treaty was intended to live up to its name and open new avenues for additional arms control, Moscow has treated it as an end point rather than a way forward. In the meantime, arms control has not fared well. Russian violations led to the end of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and Moscow ended even the pretense of its compliance with the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. Engaging with Russia only on its terms effectively puts Putin in charge of the negotiation, and putting Putin in charge of an arms control negotiation would be like putting the New England Patriots in charge of preparing game balls.
The second problem with defining arms control with Russia as strategic stability is the lack of ambition. The word stability connotes the absence of change, including change for the better. Whatever their national origin or political affiliation, most would prefer a world with fewer nuclear weapons. By setting “stability,” rather than fewer weapons, as the goal for the dialogue, Moscow is deliberately aiming low.
By accepting the Russian formulation, the Biden administration risks missing out on real results by getting sidetracked by peripheral concerns. The lack of ambition is already responsible for a decade of arms control stagnation; several avenues are open for exploration, but taking them will require moving away from the stability so comfortable to Putin. The two sides, for example, could explore reciprocal confidence-building measures that would add to transparency and reduce risks of accidental launches. Such measures could be open to other nuclear weapons states to serve as a point of entry to get China into mainstream arms control in the future. There is also space to discuss how emerging technologies can improve future verification regimes that would narrow the room for Russian cheating and make agreements more sustainable. There can also be dialogue on proliferation threats and the common U.S.-Russian interest in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.
As a candidate, President Biden said he wanted to de-emphasize the role of nuclear weapons. Doing so will require upsetting the stability that Putin cares about and forcing a real dialogue focused on eventually reducing numbers of nuclear weapons. That might not be stable, but would make the world safer.