Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT

Mending Nuclear Fences

The insidious decay in arms control could be reversed if the two countries were to intensify their cooperation in new areas and to tackle key issues through parallel actions

by Anatoli S. Diakov and James E. Goodby

This paper was published in IEEE Spectrum, March 2000, V37, Number 3.

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The end of the Cold War brought with it the hope, and even the expectation, that the dreaded nuclear sword of Damocles would no longer hang over the heads of Russians, Americans, and, indeed, over all the world's peoples. Yet 10 years after the Berlin Wall was torn down, that hope seems further from being realized than before. Instead of the bold visions enunciated by President Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan--not to speak of the citizens and scientists urging them on--the world now witnesses foot-dragging on conclusion of agreements, nitpicking and haggling over details, and a deterioration of trust and even mutual comprehension.

Sadly, the system of nuclear restraints embodied in treaties and tacit understandings during the Cold War is very nearly defunct. The U.S. Senate has rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Russian Duma has refused to ratify the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start 2). Meanwhile, the two countries are sparring acrimoniously over whether to renegotiate the 1972 treaty banning missile defenses, which both Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton only in 1997 described as a "cornerstone" of arms control--as did their foreign ministers in January 1999.

Meanwhile, the strategic nuclear forces of the two countries remain on hair-trigger alert, as if the Cold War were still in full swing, while nuclear smuggling has become a critical global issue. This would all be bad enough in a world otherwise free of problems; but in the world as it is, age-old differences arising from geopolitical position, economic stakes, and clashing values are bound to reassert themselves sooner or later.

Farewell to arms control?

Of course, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War period were poisoned by a fundamental ideological hostility. But at the same time both superpowers operated within a common system of geopolitical priorities, so that a set of concepts and doctrines was developed to maintain strategic stability and avoid global nuclear war. Most of these concepts were codified in the strategic nuclear arms control agreements. From the late 1960s onward, these always had the purpose of:

That system of treaties and tacit understandings, while it did not progress far enough during the Cold War to prevent each superpower from deploying tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, at least moderated the rivalry. Whether it now can be brought back from its current near-death state is a question to which there is no clear answer.

The effects of that festering uncertainty will not be confined to relations between Russia and the United States. Their failure to strengthen the nuclear restraint regime during the past seven years, unless corrected in the next year or two, can only be a weakening of global norms against nuclear proliferation--just as regional pressures to build powerful, modern armed forces are rising.

India and Pakistan already have blown a large hole in the nuclear nonproliferation and test-ban regimes. The two countries think of themselves as putting the principles of mutual assured destruction to work--that very same MAD doctrine that seemed to help maintain peace during the Cold War. What they omit from the equation is that they have fought three full-fledged wars since independence whereas the United States and Russia never allowed a direct confrontation of their armies.

Just as disquieting are instabilities spreading in East Asia. A North Korean ballistic missile test in 1998, and the U.S. and Japanese responses to it, have stimulated public and private discussions in Japan and throughout the region about future defenses and the role of nuclear weapons. South Korea seems to have concluded that an indigenous ballistic missile deterrent on its own soil is necessary, and the sharing of missile defense technology with Taiwan has been broached. The People's Republic of China is deeply aggrieved by that prospect, and concerned that the U.S. plan to build a national defense system, as it is advertised, is capable of neutralizing China's small long-range nuclear deterrent. In response, China may build mobile, multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles--admittedly it might anyway, but prospects for a happy outcome are worsened by the changing balance of incentives and disincentives.

Does it matter?

Some, to be sure, argue that arms control is simply the wrong paradigm for contemporary U.S.-Russian transactions, that it is an outmoded approach to the achievement of strategic stability. It is true that classical arms control tends to presuppose an adversarial relationship (after all, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] and East-Bloc countries did not try to reduce armaments among themselves). Perhaps this is what U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had in mind when she said that worries about the current U.S. ballistic missile defense program amounted to "reviving old problems."

Left out of account in that view, however, is that no other methods and institutions that could promote the functional equivalent of strategic nuclear arms control have been put in place, and that relations between Russia and the United States do not yet truly correspond to relations between friendly states. That is, these are not yet countries instinctively taking the same view of problems and challenges more or less as they arise. Indeed, not one Russian policymaker considers U.S.-Russian relations a true partnership, and certainly very few in the United States think in terms of a U.S.-Russian partnership of equals. Especially in recent months, with conflicts in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Chechnya, a strong impression has been created of two countries quite deeply divided by differing perceptions of the world around them, while still in possession of vastly destructive arsenals.

Today, paradoxically, no real understanding can be sensed between Moscow and Washington about their security concerns and motives. Sensitivities to each other's positions were in many ways keener during the Cold War.

To the United States, the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union brought relief from the insecurities of four decades of confrontation with the Soviet Union. [See Fig. 1] The ideological adversary no longer existed, and the probability of a nuclear cataclysm had apparently reached vanishing point. Today, in contrast, the nonproliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and the control of missile and missile technology exports have emerged as top strategic priorities for the United States.

For Russia things are quite different. Its leaders made a decisive and successful effort to end the Cold War, but the reward, in Moscow's view, was that Russia became much more vulnerable than other great powers. Now Russia sees itself confronting strategic threats on both the global and regional levels similar to those it faced early in its history. Anxieties have been heightened by NATO's expansion into East Europe and its military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. The problems of nonproliferation are not high priorities, however large they loom in the minds of U.S. strategic thinkers.

Russia's preoccupations are much aggravated by the weakness of its economy, which prevents it from playing a decisive role in global policy, another disappointment. Its conventional military forces are thought to be hard-pressed to guarantee the country's territorial integrity. Consequently, nuclear weapons have gained more prominence in Russian defense thinking. A new Russian concept of national security, issued on 10 January 2000, emphasized that point by anticipating first-use of nuclear weapons if absolutely necessary. The Start 2 treaty, concluded in a period of euphoria over the country's relations with the West, is now seen by many Russian arms control experts to have several shortcomings that could damage their national interests, including making it easier for the United States to upload warheads in a crisis. It also requires Russia to build many new, single-warhead ballistic missiles if it is to reach its permitted ceiling on deployed warheads.

Russian strategic thinkers find support for their arguments in the key role that nuclear weapons continue to play in U.S. security thinking. The Pentagon's last nuclear posture review recommended that the United States should maintain a "hedge" of several thousand nuclear warheads, to be deployed in the event of a failure of U.S.-Russian strategic arms agreements. NATO has retained from the Cold War era, when the military balance was quite different, a nuclear first-use policy similar to that echoed in the new Russian policy statement of 10 January. Yet U.S. superiority in conventional weaponry is greater than ever. Indeed, if somehow all nuclear weapons could be removed from all the world's arsenals, U.S. military predominance would be even more decisive than it is today. In effect, Russia has adopted the U.S. Cold War posture, and the United States has retained it.

Can the deadlock be broken?

Beyond all doubt, then, the current deadlock in nuclear arms control does matter; it inevitably harms all other aspects of the relationship between the powers. The next few years are likely to be a watershed in human history. Either the United States and Russia will move on to deeper reductions in nuclear weapons, or the downward trend in these weapons seen in recent years will be halted and perhaps reversed. A global nuclear arms race cannot be excluded, if the major powers take the wrong road, as they appear to be doing. How can nations be partners within a security community and, simultaneously, rivals in nuclear weaponry? It is a dangerous illusion to think that there is any way of resolving that dilemma short of scrapping one or the other of those mutually exclusive goals. All the ingredients for a catastrophe are still out there.

The two governments, Russian and U.S., must now consider urgently how the several issues before them can be resolved. Delay will make these problems even more intractable. Last December's parliamentary elections in Russia, swayed by the government's aggressive prosecution of the war in Chechnya, produced the political basis for a pro-government majority within the Duma. Consequently, these elections at first generated some hopes that the Start 2 treaty might now be ratified. But that may prove much too optimistic a view.

The war in Chechnya also has intensified the role of the Russian military within the domestic policymaking framework. Since a majority among the military have resisted any modification of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and regard it as the cornerstone for the Start treaties, the prospect for Start 2 treaty ratification by Russia will remain very cloudy so long as the United States insists on renegotiation of the ABM treaty.

Given the long stand-off over Start 2, the wisest course would be to intensify the present U.S.-Russian diplomatic exchanges and to produce a new treaty, drawing on elements of Start 1 and Start 2 and aiming at a ceiling of 1500 deployed nuclear warheads [see Table 1]. The level of 3000-3500 nuclear strategic warheads, established by the Start 2 Treaty, is too high for Russia, and not only because it faces severe financial difficulties. More importantly, this level, as well as the level of 2000-2500 warheads agreed to by Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton in 1997 in Helsinki, is more than Russia and the United States need to support security and nuclear deterrence.

Many Russian arms control experts believe that to sustain its own security their country needs to have a nuclear arsenal of about 1500 warheads and can support this level. The United States is capable of maintaining its own nuclear arsenal at the level of 6000 warheads without difficulties in spite of the cost entailed; consequently, it lacks the same economic motive to go for the deeper cuts.

But possession of a larger nuclear arsenal adds nothing to U.S. security. Even with 1500 nuclear warheads, each side has the ability to destroy the other as a nation.

Beyond arms control

Regardless of immediate prospects for Start 2 ratification and beyond, classical arms control methods cannot meet all the new challenges of these times. Reductions in levels of nuclear forces alone will not suffice to transform deterrence; nor will deep reductions be possible until other aspects of the deterrent relationship have been changed.

From this point of view, one of the most positive developments of the past few years is the emergence of a variety of strategic nuclear issues as regular topics on the official Russian-U.S. agenda: safety of nuclear weapons; security of weapons and fissile materials; detargeting and deactivation of strategic nuclear forces; and improvement of early-warning systems--to name the most important, and those that have been the main topics of this special report.

The United States and the Russian Federation already have agreed to cooperate on enhancing early warning of ballistic missile flights, and discussions of improvements in early warning systems are ongoing. Auspiciously, a joint U.S.-Russian team in Colorado monitored missile launches during the transition from 1999 to 2000 with the Y2K problem in mind. Evidently the effort was a success.

A decision to reduce the prominence of nuclear weapons in U.S.-Russian relations should also be part of a strategy of limiting the role that these weapons play in international relations generally. This decision cannot be made on military grounds alone. It is a national decision, and must treat military considerations as part of a broader view of national interests in a rapidly changing world. Reducing reliance on the rapid launch of nuclear weapons would be a particularly effective way of turning away from nuclear war-fighting doctrines--the notion, embedded in both countries' strategic doctrines, that the adversary might try to knock out its nuclear forces to gain a strategic advantage and "win" a nuclear war.

An array of U.S.-Russian cooperative arrangements--executive agreements and lab-to-lab contracts--have dealt, fairly successfully, with a variety of specific issues related to the reductions of nuclear weapons required by Start 1 and problems created by the collapse of the Soviet Union. These have addressed safety and security problems connected with dismantling the weapons, and have provided goods and services to offset the costs incurred by the Russian government in dismantling nuclear forces. (The Nunn-Lugar program, a U.S. fund established by Congressional action in 1991-92 at the initiative of Senator Richard Lugar and former Senator Sam Nunn, is the heart of U.S. undertakings to keep Russian weapons-related materials and personnel secure.) It is also heartening that both sides, for the first time in the history of nuclear arms control, have agreed that nuclear warheads should be dismantled under some kind of mutually acceptable monitoring.

New approaches to BMD

Another area in which cooperation could be fruitful is theater and national ballistic missile defense (BMD). While bilateral consultations have been held about possible amendments to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, their scope has been limited. Generally, too, they have not been animated by zeal for understanding how either side's security could be enhanced, especially in relation to third countries (countries that each might call rogue states, but with different nations in mind).

Perhaps the deadlock over ballistic missile defense cannot be broken in the near term. But the two sides could be discussing the issue more rationally than now seems to be the case. Russia sees a U.S. threat to abrogate the treaty and suspects another attempt to gain unilateral advantage. U.S. strategic thinkers envisage threats from countries like North Korea, Iraq, or Iran, which they believe could be countered with minor changes in the treaty. This is hardly a climate in which serious exchanges can be encouraged.

Talk of abrogating the treaty should be replaced by an objective analysis of the "rogue-state" threat as Washington perceives it, and Russian doubts about U.S. purposes should be addressed soberly, by experts from both sides, with an investigation of the impact of ballistic missile defenses on U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces.

If ballistic missile defenses of the type now being weighed in Washington were to be deployed after outstanding issues between Russia and the United States had been resolved, and at a time in the future when the technology to overcome even modest attempts at deception were available (not the case at present), the two countries could seek agreement on an asymmetric deployment of offensive forces and ballistic missile defenses. That is, the United States could field a finite number of interceptors and related radars, while Russia could deploy fewer but would be entitled to a higher number of deployed warheads.

An alternative would be to re-orient the current U.S. ballistic missile defense program toward a system less threatening to Russia and China. This could be a boost-phase intercept system, in which ballistic missiles are intercepted shortly after launch. Such a system would be more likely than an exo-atmospheric or terminal phase defense to succeed: the boosters are large, and their precise location cannot be concealed, unlike the situation with incoming warheads.

As the warning and reaction times of an effective boost-phase missile defense system are very short, interceptors might have to be placed on territory adjacent to "rogue states"--for example, Russia's. This presupposes a high degree of political cooperation between it and the United States.

Theater ballistic missile defenses are another matter. The United States and Japan have agreed to cooperate on developing a system for Northeast Asia. South Korea has declined a U.S. invitation, citing its proximity to North Korea. But Russia and China each should be invited to consider the system architecture and its purposes since theater missile defenses in Northeast Asia will affect their security, too. Extending theater missile defense to Taiwan is a question already on the table. Technology is less of an obstacle for theater than for national defense; but whether theater defense is cost-effective at the margin, that is to say, whether the defense could be overwhelmed by a less expensive offense, is unknown. The question of who can outspend whom could come into play, as would the prospect of a regional arms race.

Other key issues

There are other areas in which great progress could in principle be made without becoming the subject of formal arms control treaties. They include, as mentioned, early-warning systems and launch procedures, cooperative programs in theater national missile defense, transparency in warhead dismantlement, and verified withdrawal of all short-range nuclear weapons systems to each country's home territory.

In the case of warheads, greater transparency would have several goals. It would provide increasing levels of confidence that dismantling is taking place. It would increase mutual understanding concerning the size and nature of each other's stocks of weapons and fissile material. It would also enhance security of fissile materials against theft. All this should involve data exchanges, to give a degree of confidence that what is in a container is likely to be a warhead and that what goes into secure storage is likely to have come from the same warhead. It requires something beyond joint material protection, control, and accounting--probably spot checks at storage facilities.

As for short-range nuclear weaponry, the obvious next step would be to consolidate and complete the bold measures initiated by Presidents George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev right after the foiled coup against the latter in 1991. By a series of informal and parallel steps, each country withdrew all combat nuclear weapons such as mines and artillery forces from its armies based on enemy soil. Both countries also removed from deployment all tactical nuclear weapons kept at sea--including cruise missiles and bombs, but not, of course, strategic missiles. Each also de-alerted or deactivated over 500 strategic missiles.

Those measures went into effect, however, largely without any provision for verification, and the United States reportedly retained tactical nuclear fighters overseas equipped with nuclear bombs. Withdrawal of those bombs obviously would be a plus from Russia's point of view, while more data exchange as to where weapons are stored and deployed would be seen as especially advantageous by the United States, given what is believed to be significant Russian superiority in holdings of such weapons.

Regain post-cold war spirit

It has not been all downhill in relations between the United States and the former Soviet states since the breakup of the USSR. The withdrawal of all nuclear weapons from the non-Russian successor states, and their accession to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, was a tremendous diplomatic accomplishment that left everyone much safer. Throughout the 1990s, both U.S. and Russian leaders took great care to keep lines of communication open and to quickly temper public statements made in haste or anger.

Yet, in retrospect, the most notable feature of the final Cold War years was that U.S. and Russian leaders openly announced the desirability of ridding the world of nuclear weapons altogether. At the time, the idea was not considered respectable or even mentionable in the top strategic and political circles of either country--and it quickly disappeared once the Cold War was over.

While Ronald Reagan was president, this article's U.S. co-author met with him in the Oval Office several times for so-called photo opportunities. These always proved an occasion for short conversations. In one such meeting, the enigmatic Reagan gave me (I was then head of the U.S. delegation to the conference on confidence-building measures in Europe) the following instruction: "You tell people that I'm willing to go as far as anyone else in getting rid of nuclear weapons."

Regardless of past partisanships, that spirit sorely needs recapturing.

About the authors
Anatoli S. Diakov is a professor of physics at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. In 1990, together with Frank von Hippel of Princeton University's Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, he established the Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology to study developments in nuclear arms reduction. His current activities include work on the Russian policy for weapons-grade plutonium disposition, and transparency in and irreversibility of nuclear arms reductions.

James E. Goodby is Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus, Carnegie Mellon University, Senior Research Fellow, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Senior Fellow (nonresident) of the Brookings Institution. He was President Bill Clinton's special representative for the security and dismantlement of nuclear weapons, 1995-96; chief negotiator for co-operative threat reduction agreements, 1993-94; head, U.S. delegation, conference on confidence- and security-building measures in Europe, 1983-85; vice chair, U.S. delegation to Start 1, 1982-83; and ambassador to Finland, 1980-81.

Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT, 2000

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