By Andrew Szarejko and Kingston Reif
Like a bad penny that always seems to find its way back into your pocket, critics of the Obama administration are using a crisis abroad to recite their favorite talking points about the importance of nuclear weapons and missile defense to U.S. security.
Further Russian aggression toward Ukraine could be avoided, they suggest, if only President Obama would revive a Bush-era missile defense plan for Europe or at least accelerate the current plan, the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). If only Obama would consider deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe and provide additional billions (on top of the hundreds of billions already planned) to accelerate the modernization of the American nuclear arsenal, Putin would never show his bare chest again and return Crimea to Ukraine.
Some of these and other proposals can be found in the recent legislation sponsored by Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) titled “The Russian Aggression Prevention Act of 2014”. The legislation calls for accelerating implementation of the EPAA, halting nuclear weapons reductions under New START and any further reductions until Russia is in compliance with its arms control obligations and is no longer threatening Ukraine, and prohibiting overflights of U.S. territory by Russian aircraft under the Open Skies Treaty using new digital surveillance devices.
These actions may satisfy a political desire to poke Russia in the eye and make the Obama administration look weak, but they are wrong-headed and don’t respond to the threat. U.S. nuclear weapons and missile defenses are largely irrelevant to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. While augmenting nuclear and missile defense capabilities and ditching existing arms control mechanisms will not dissuade Russia from engaging in more mischief in Ukraine, they could amount to pouring gasoline on an already large fire.
Let’s start with missile defense.
Some critics have called for an expansion of U.S. missile defense efforts in response to the Ukraine crisis, including promoting a return to a Bush-era missile defense plan for Europe. They argue that President Obama’s abandonment of the plan, which would have put 10 long-range interceptors in Poland and a supporting radar installation in the Czech Republic, was a “gift to Putin”, and restoring the plan might deter Russian aggression further into Europe, if not in Ukraine. This, however, overlooks the critical facts that the system would be useless against Russian missiles and the Czech Republic still doesn’t want the radar. Furthermore, the administration did not simply scrap the Bush-era plan; it replaced that plan with the EPAA, the first three elements of which are proceeding, though not without somedelays.
Speaking of the EPAA, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is also prompting calls to accelerate this plan, especially Phase III, which would put the yet to be developed SM3-IIA anti-missile interceptor in Poland.
This is another head-scratcher.
First, the EPAA is designed to respond to the potential missile threat from the Middle East, not from Russia. Despite our current tensions with Russia, it is not in the U.S. national interest to feed the Russian suspicion that the EPAA is directed at them (an impression we have spent years trying to dispel). Moreover, it’s not clear what Phase III would be defending against since the Pentagon says it would be useless against Russia’s strategic forces and Russia doesn’t have medium range missiles.
In addition, the SM3-IIA missile is being co-developed with Japan, and the missile is not yet technically mature. There is little that can be done to accelerate development at this point. Furthermore, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report, some development activities associated with the EPAA already risk development and deployment at the same time. Attempting to accelerate implementation would surely exacerbate these concurrency problems, reduce the effectiveness of the system, and result in additional costs to fix problems resulting from deploying the system prematurely.
While the administration might consider the less provocative step of deploying an additional Patriot or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense battery in central Europe to assure allies if additional systems, the bottom line is that missile defense is not the solution to Russian mischief in the region.
Which brings us to nuclear weapons. Can the United States deter further Russian aggression by accelerating the modernization of U.S. nuclear weapons and putting tactical nuclear weapons in eastern Europe? The answer is “No”.
The United States currently deploys some 2,100 nuclear warheads. It has also begun an incredibly ambitious nuclear modernization program to rebuild this arsenal at cost that could exceed $1 trillion over the next thirty years. NATO alsoretains significant conventional superiority over Russia. If this doesn’t deter Russian aggression, it’s hard to believe that more nuclear weapons and more nuclear spending would do the job. Indeed, given tight budgets in Washington, the money spent on maintaining a bloated nuclear arsenal is money that can’t be spent to help Ukraine’s economy or provide central European allies with additional conventional military support.
Relying more heavily on nuclear weapons in response to Russian aggression ignores the very limited relevance of nuclear deterrence in the current crisis. The maintenance of a core U.S. nuclear deterrent may play a role in deterring Russian aggression against NATO, but a Russian conventional attack would almost certainly be met by a NATO conventional response. Moreover, nuclear weapons will not prevent Russia from meddling in the affairs of its more immediate neighbors, as it is doing in Eastern Ukraine. Threatening the use of nuclear weapons to deter such meddling is not credible. Nuclear weapons are only credible as a defensive deterrent against nuclear attack or in response to an existential threat.
Our nuclear forces do provide assurance to our allies by extending deterrence, but the heavy lifting of extended deterrence is done by our central strategic forces based in the United States and under the oceans, not forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. In the current situation even strategic forces are of very limited value, since there is at this point no direct Russian threat to NATO – conventional or otherwise. Moving tactical nuclear weapons to the territory of the newest NATO members could cause Russia to move tactical nuclear weapons closer to NATO.
Ultimately, nuclear weapons are just one piece of the assurance puzzle. Our resolve to protect our central European NATO allies against potential Russian aggression is demonstrated first and foremost through our commitments under NATO. As George Perkovich has written, “If NATO membership itself did not deter Russia from encroaching on these states, would NATO plausibly use nuclear weapons to stop it?” Likewise, if allies question our resolve, more nuclear capabilities won’t reverse the perception that our commitment is weak. In the military sphere, our commitments to NATO are most effectively demonstrated through steps such as conventional military cooperation and stationing US troops on the territory of allies, which is what they care most about. These are exactly the kind of steps the Obama administration is taking.
In stark contrast to controversial missile defense and nuclear weapons deployments, arms control agreements have greatly enhanced U.S. security at low cost.
The crisis in Ukraine is not a good reason to undermine New START; in fact, the treaty is now more valuable than ever. The treaty enhances the predictability and stability of the U.S.-Russia nuclear relationship, thereby putting an important bound on the current tensions between the two countries. As former US ambassador to Ukraine Steven Piferpoints out, the treaty “serves to keep the deterioration in relations in check. With New START in place, Washington does not have to worry about a strategic-nuclear-arms race on top of everything else it must deal with regarding Russia.” Other nuclear risk reduction agreements and confidence-building agreements such as the Open Skies Treatyand the 2011 Vienna document are also playing a role in limiting the fallout of the crisis. Jeopardizing these efforts would make us less, not more, safe.
The Russian annexation of Crimea and continued threats to eastern Ukraine are unequivocal violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Russia should face (and is facing) consequences for its actions until it ceases its aggression. In addition, the United States and Europe should take steps to support the new Ukrainian government and reassure allied governments in the states of the easternmost NATO members. The question is what means are likely to be most effective in securing these ends. The proposals that are being put forward on nuclear weapons and missile defense would be ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. We should continue to focus our policy energy and effort on more productive responses.