Preparing for the uncertain future of US-Russia arms control

Preparing for the uncertain future of US-Russia arms control

Sarah Bidgood, the Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow in the Security Studies Program, discusses the future of US-Russia nuclear arms control relations. This article was originally published by the University of Pennsylvania Perry World House.

January 19, 2024 | Perry World House | Sarah Bidgood
Sarah Bidgood
January 19, 2024
Perry World House

Despite their intense rivalry, Washington and Moscow have a long history of successful cooperation to reduce the threats posed by nuclear weapons. Over the course of five decades starting in 1963, they negotiated and implemented more than a dozen measures designed to halt the arms race, ranging from legally binding arms reduction treaties with intrusive verification protocols (e.g., the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF) to voluntary unilateral steps that the two sides took in parallel (e.g., the 1991-1992 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives). While the extent of this engagement ebbed and flowed over time, it persisted during some of the most difficult moments of the Cold War. Beyond driving a significant reduction in both sides’ strategic and tactical nuclear arsenals, the results lent a degree of stability and transparency to their relationship that helped to lower the risk of escalation and slow the pace of the arms race.

This robust history of competitive cooperation between the first and largest nuclear weapon states contrasts sharply, however, with the present. The Trump administration’s 2019 withdrawal from the INF treaty on the grounds that Russia failed to comply with its obligations left just one strategic arms control agreement in place between Washington and Moscow: the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START. Just two years later in 2021, this agreement was nearly allowed to expire with no follow-on to succeed or replace it. While this outcome was ultimately averted thanks to a last-minute extension of the accord, Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine and corresponding break with the West have once again rendered the treaty’s future far from certain.

Indeed, in part because of the alleged difficulties that Russian inspectors faced in entering U.S. airspace, Moscow announced in August 2022 that it would prohibit on-site inspections of its nuclear weapons facilities that are subject to verification under New START. Subsequently, in February 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated in his annual address before the Russian Federal Assembly that he would suspend his country’s participation in the agreement. In response, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan indicated the following June that the United States was halting its “day-to-day notifications to Russia that are required under that treaty”—a move designed, per the US Department of State, to “encourage the Russian Federation to return to compliance” with its obligations. While Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has outlined some conditions under which this might occur, they appear to be predicated on a change in US position with respect to supporting Ukraine—an outcome that appears highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.

The future of bilateral arms control beyond New START looks no more promising, at least as long as the war rages on. Indeed, the US-Russia Strategic Stability dialogue process, which was initiated in June 2021 to “lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures” has been on ice since February 25, 2022, with no indications of if or when it might resume. While Sullivan reiterated recently that the United States was ready to “engage Russia now to manage nuclear risks and develop a post-2026 arms control agenda,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov claims that no further clarifications or additions from Washington followed from this overture. Instead, he described the current state of arms control dialogue with the Americans as “extremely sporadic and unsystematic” (translation mine)—a characterization that does not augur well for negotiations in the near term.

These developments, while not unexpected, come at an inopportune time for the international security environment. Advanced conventional weapons are ushering in what Andrew Futter and Benjamin Zala call a “third nuclear age,” the taboo against the non-use of nuclear weapons appears to be eroding, and the United StatesRussia, and China are all in the process of modernizing their strategic forces. Managing these challenges and others will require more than just a return to the status quo ante when it comes to arms control. Instead, it will take innovative, creative, and collaborative solutions to address these multi-player and multi-domain threats effectively.

While identifying and implementing such solutions is possible, it is as yet unclear when there might be sufficient political will to do so. Particularly against the backdrop of Russia’s brutal war and in an environment of renewed great power competition, those voices on both sides calling for a more credible deterrent supported by more tools for so-called escalation dominance may prove louder than those calling for restraint. This outcome could pave the way for a resurgence of arms racing and increased crisis instability. What is more, as the aftermath of past nuclear crises suggest, the mistrust and mutual acrimony that currently characterize the US-Russian relationship make it less likely that officials in either Washington or Moscow will be prepared to show the kinds of flexibility necessary to reach new agreements—even if a return to the negotiating table is possible. It remains unclear when or under what circumstances these emotions will dissipate sufficiently for productive discussions to resume.

Against this backdrop, the focus for both practitioners and scholars in the near term should be on shoring up what remains of the arms control architecture and preparing for more ambitious steps that can be implemented when the time is right. While these are two discrete tasks that require different approaches, they are mutually reinforcing in the sense that—as the historical record shows—cooperation in one area of nuclear diplomacy can beget further cooperation in others. Both tasks will be more likely to yield results if arms control is understood to mean something more than just the legally binding strategic arms reduction treaties that emerged from the 1980s and 1990s, however. Instead, following Thomas Schelling and Morton Halperin, these efforts should take into account  "…all the forms of military cooperation between potential enemies in the interest of reducing the likelihood of war, its scope and violence if it occurs, and the political and economic costs of being prepared for it."

A useful first step in this regard would be to conduct a thorough review of past cases of US-Soviet/Russian arms control cooperation and the conditions that contributed to their success. One valuable output from this exercise would be a comprehensive catalog of existing, but lesser-known, measures to which the two sides could recommit now when the future of New START is uncertain and further agreements appear to be out of reach. A salient example in this regard is the 1973 Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War, which obligates the United States and Russia sides to engage in urgent consultations if it appears that nuclear use is imminent. Implementing the key provisions of this agreement—which remains in force today—could help to reduce the risk of escalation at a time when this is urgently needed.

Another benefit of this exercise is that it would afford experts and practitioners more granular insights into the circumstances under which arms control negotiations between Washington and Moscow succeed and fail. Earlier analyses of US-Soviet nonproliferation cooperation have revealed, for instance, that personal relationships between negotiators; institutional advocates for joint work; and a focus on technical rather than political issues all helped to sustain bilateral nuclear engagement at difficult moments in the past. A comparative analysis of other examples of US-Soviet/Russia arms control could similarly point to additional factors that would facilitate further cooperation, as well as pitfalls to avoid. The results would inform efforts to lay the groundwork for future arms control progress if and when the geopolitical environment becomes more conducive.

Yet another benefit of this exercise is that it would shed light on the ways that past generations of arms controllers have grappled with emerging technologies and novel weapons over time. A useful example in this regard is the history of U.S. and Soviet attempts to conclude a convention prohibiting the development, production, stockpiling, and use of radiological weapons beginning in the 1970s. The contours of this case reinforce the importance of adopting precise definitions in establishing new limits on military technology, of delinking arms control negotiations that are ongoing simultaneously, and—when it comes to multilateral agreements—of providing clear arguments in favor of limits that all key players find compelling. While the military and dual-use technologies with which the international community is currently contending have changed, the insights revealed by historical case studies like these may nevertheless prove useful for addressing the challenges they present when the time is right.

An important driver behind successful arms control cooperation to which the historical record also points is the alignment of perceived threats and interests between negotiating parties. With this in mind, another way that experts and practitioners could lay the groundwork for future arms control success would be to explore by means of a parallel risk assessment what the United States, Russia, and perhaps China regard as the most destabilizing emerging technologies and probable pathways to nuclear use. While this type of exercise would be both more useful, and more difficult, to conduct at a Track 1/1.5 level—possibly as part of the P5 process—valuable insights could nevertheless be gleaned from Track 2 discussions involving individuals with insight into the perceived threats of these three governments. A comparison of the results could reveal areas of overlap and divergence in their views, which could usefully inform both bi- and multilateral arms control negotiations in the future.

Depending on how long it takes for talks to get underway, however, there is a real possibility that few in either the US or Russian governments at that time will have any first-hand experience negotiating or implementing arms control treaties on which to draw. The likelihood of this happening will only increase the longer that participation in New START remains suspended.  With this in mind, initiating more activities aimed at nurturing a diverse next generation of arms control experts—including through the transfer of knowledge from seasoned practitioners to newer entrants by means of meetings and events, oral history projects, and activities like arms control simulations—would constitute a major contribution to international security that can and should be pursued today. While this is, admittedly, a long-term game, there is little point in implementing the other measures identified here if there is no one to operationalize them when the time is right.