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Russia and Arms Control: Are There Opportunities for the Obama Administration?

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank. | March 2009

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Even before the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008, U.S.-Russian relations were reaching an impasse. Matters have only grown worse since then as Washington has stopped all bilateral military cooperation with Moscow, and it is difficult to imagine either Washington or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) entering into arms control talks with Russia before the end of the George W. Bush administration. Indeed, as of September 2008, the administration is contemplating not just a break in arms talks but actual sanctions, and has allowed the bilateral civil nuclear treaty with Russia to die in the Senate rather than go forward for confirmation. U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Beyerle recently admitted that this is not a propitious time for bilateral nuclear cooperation and explicitly tied its resumption to Russian policy in Georgia. Similarly, Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) and former Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA), who authored the Comprehensive Threat Reduction Program (CTR) to ensure the removal of unsafe nuclear materials and weapons from Russian arsenals, have expressed their concern that continuation of this vital program may now be in danger due to the deterioration in Russo-American relations. But those are by no means the only reasons for concern regarding the arms control agenda. Since August 8 when the war broke out, the following developments on both sides have further hardened positions and raised tensions apart from the war itself and Russia's quite evident refusal to abide by its own cease-fire terms.

Poland has signed an agreement with the United States to host up to 10 missile defense interceptors and, as a public sign of its distrust of NATO guarantees,demanded and obtained a mutual security guarantee and the stationing of Patriot air defense batteries from the United States, whose troops will defend some of those batteries through 2012. This triggered Russian threats to attack Poland with nuclear missiles and to "neutralize the American missile defenses by military means." Ukraine, undoubtedly due to Russian threats, has also stated its readiness to work with the West on missile defenses. Finally, Russia has announced its intention to equip the Baltic Fleet with nuclear weapons, and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt announced in return that "According to the information to which we have access, there are already tactical nuclear weapons in the Kaliningrad area. They are located both at and in the vicinity of units belonging to the Russia fleet."

For better or worse, arms control and its agenda remain at the heart of the bilateral Russo-American relationship and will remain there for a long time to come. Thus arms control and disarmament issues are quintessentially political as well as military issues that are among the most critical components of the bilateral relationship and regional security in both Europe and Asia. For these reasons, neither the political nor the military aspect can be divorced from the other. Furthermore, for the Russian government, the United States is its principal partner or interlocutor precisely because of the importance Moscow attaches to this agenda as having not just profound impact on the bilateral U.S.-Russian relationship, but as a major factor of global significance and import.

Accordingly, from Moscow's standpoint, trends in this bilateral relationship exercise a profound and fundamental influence upon the entire world order. Neither is this exclusively a Russian view. For example, Stephen Cimbala, a long-time analyst of the bilateral strategic relationship of U.S. and Russian military policies, writes that this relationship is one of complex interaction that relates to the strategic agenda of NATO and to the question not just of nuclear force structures among the superpowers, but also of global proliferation issues. This connection between the major nuclear powers' self-restraint and even downsizing of their arsenals and the viability and durability of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime is clear and enshrined in both the NPT itself and in formal documents between Russia and America. For example, the Strategic Framework Declaration on U.S.-Russian relations signed by both Presidents Bush and Vladimir Putin on April 6, 2008, explicitly states that both governments will work toward a post-Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) agreement on limiting strategic arms that would enable "strategic offensive arms reductions to the lowest possible level consistent with our national security requirements and alliance commitments." It also further stated that such an agreement would "be a further step in implementing our commitments under Article VI of the [Nonproliferation] Treaty." Under present conditions of hostility due to the crisis generated by the war in Georgia, the converse is true. If strategic arms control accords cannot be reached, the likelihood of increased proliferation increases accordingly, and the 2010 Review conference of the NPT will be as big a fiasco, if not worse, than was the 2005 session.

For these reasons, even if anyone is skeptical about many of the claims made on behalf of arms control and deterrence, certain hard facts and outcomes remain indisputable. Certainly for Russia, America's willingness to engage it seriously over these issues means that America respects it as a power and potential interlocutor, if not a partner. On the other hand, numerous and constant Russian complaints are that America will not respond to its proposals or consult with it. Although these are likely false claims, it has long been the case that the Bush administration's preference is to maximize its freedom of action by claiming that Russia and the United States were no longer enemies. Therefore we need not go back to the Cold War, and each side can pursue its own agenda in security.

The current discord on arms control reflects not only Moscow's wounded ego and foreign policy based to a considerable degree on feelings of resentment and revanche, but also America's unwillingness to take Russia as seriously as Moscow's inflated sense of grandiose self-esteem demands. If Russia and America reach a strategic impasse, the global situation as a whole deteriorates correspondingly.

Moreover, a constant factor in the relationship irrespective of its political temperature at any time is that both sides' nuclear forces remain frozen in a posture of mutual deterrence that implies a prior adversarial relationship that could easily deteriorate further under any and all circumstances. The problematic nature of the bilateral relationship is not due to deterrence. Rather, deterrence is a manifestation of a prior underlying and fundamental political antagonism in which Russia has settled upon deterrence as a policy and strategy because that strategy expresses its foundational presupposition of conflict with America and NATO. Thus the fundamental basis of the rivalry with Washington is political and stems from the nature of the Russian political system, which cannot survive in its present structure without that presupposition of conflict and enemies and a revisionist demand for equality with the United States so that it is tied down by Russian concerns and interests. From Russia's standpoint, the only way it can have security vis-à-vis the United States, given that presupposition of conflict, is if America is shackled to a continuation of the mutual hostage relationship, based on mutual deterrence that characterized the Cold War, so that it cannot act unilaterally. In this fashion, Russia gains a measure of restraint or even of control over U.S. policy. Thanks to such a mutual hostage relationship, Russian leaders see all other states who wish to attack them, or even to exploit internal crises like Chechnya, as being deterred. Therefore nuclear weapons remain a critical component in ensuring strategic stability and, as less openly stated, in giving Russia room to act freely in world affairs.

Indeed Moscow sees its nuclear arsenal as a kind of all-purpose deterrent that has deterred the United States and NATO from intervening in such conflicts as the Chechen wars. Nevertheless, its military and political leaders argue that threats to Russia are multiplying. Certainly Russian officials see the weaponization of space, the integration of space and terrestrial capabilities, missile defenses, the Reliable Replacement Weapons (RRW), and the U.S. global strike strategy as apart of a systematic, comprehensive strategy to threaten Russia. So in response Moscow must threaten Europe.

The perpetuation of the Cold War's mutual hostage relationship is, of course, exactly what the United States, at least under the George W. Bush administration, has striven mightily to leave behind. Russian analysts and officials believe in deterrence and the accompanying mutual hostage condition of both sides' nuclear forces as the only way to stop what they see as America's constant efforts to find ways in which nuclear weapons can be used for warfighting or to be free to use military force across the globe without being deterred by anyone. However, U.S. current weapon plans, the development of missile defenses, reluctance to negotiate verification protocols for a START treaty, NATO enlargement, and weapons in space, all suggest to Russia that there is "a growing gap between the military capabilities of the two countries. This gap challenges the condition of strategic parity that Russia still believes to be the underlying principle of its relationship with the United States. This enduring adversarial condition reflects a mutual failure on the part of both Washington and Moscow.