From Strategic to Tactical Stability

5 october 2017

Why Is Arms Control No Longer Effective?

Alexander Kolbin - Advisor to the PIR Center and to the President of the Volga-Dnepr Group.

Resume: The new definition of stability, which must be maintained simultaneously at several tactical levels of the arms race in order to achieve the common strategic goal of preventing war, could serve as a new conceptual rationale for arms control.

Arms control helped maintain strategic stability during the Cold War. However, after the end of the Cold War, the concept of strategic stability has ceased to be a hostage to the Soviet-U.S. confrontation and the nuclear arms race between the two countries. This concept now includes additional international players and security threats. As a result, Russia and the U.S. have different views on factors that affect strategic stability, and the boundaries of this concept have become blurred. Gone is a common understanding of strategic stability, along with a general understanding of the need for arms control as a factor for this stability. In Russian-U.S. relations stability should be reset at several tactical levels, or at least the parties should implement the idea of “tactical stability” as a new conceptual basis for bilateral arms control.


Most scholars agree that Soviet-U.S. rivalry was the central issue of the Cold War, which ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union. British historian Oliver Edwards wrote that the term ‘Cold War’ means “a state of permanent hostility between two powers which never erupts into an armed confrontation or a ‘hot war.’” In 1951, Richard Crossman, the future leader of the British Labor Party, defined the Cold War in a similar way: “Superficially, the definition of Cold War seems obvious enough. It describes the fact that we are neither at war nor at peace with the Soviet Union, but in a state of undeclared hostility.” However, scholars are still divided on the content, duration, and causes of this “hostility.”

As U.S. historian Uri Ra’anan wrote, “In the case of almost each Soviet leadership change since Stalin’s death, Western commentators have adjusted the definition of ‘cold war’ to describe simply whatever the preceding Soviet administration had done, and have contrasted that with the period of supposed détente for which the Soviet successor regime has been given credit.”

Soviet scholars defined the Cold War as “a policy of reactionary and aggressive circles of the West towards the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, as well as peoples struggling for national independence, peace, democracy, and socialism.” The definition given by American philosopher Roland Végs? places emphasis on ideological confrontation: “(…) the fundamental conflict was not between two rival ideologies, but between an evil ideology and the neutralized universal concept of human nature and a generalized concept of freedom.”

British historians Dale Walton and Colin Gray characterize the Cold War era as a time when “most of the strategic literature concentrated obsessively on U.S.-Soviet competition in the nuclear realm.” At the same time, they continue, “the then-prevailing focus on nuclear armament was understandable, but overly restricted.”  “It should be remembered that the Soviet-American relationship never was defined by nuclear weapons—the latter were merely tools that each superpower, profoundly mistrustful of its peer, accumulated in great quantity. The deeper reasons for the mistrust were ideological, historical, and geopolitical in character: nuclear weapons did not cause the Cold War any more than tanks and aircraft carriers caused World War II.”

There are many other definitions for the period. When I use the term ‘Cold War,’ I mean the period of ideological, military-political, economic, and cultural confrontation between the Soviet Union and the U.S., which lasted from 1945 to 1991. This confrontation did not evolve into a direct armed conflict thanks to the nuclear weapons that the two countries had. Each country knew that those weapons could destroy all life on the planet many times over.


Elbridge Colby of the Washington-based Center for a New American Security wrote: “Strategic stability emerged as a concept during the Cold War as part of an effort to find a modus vivendi for the two hostile superpowers. Its basic logic was to stabilize the bipolar confrontation by ensuring that each side had the ability to strike back effectively even after an attempted disarming first strike by its opponent.”

At the same time, Michael Gerson, an op-ed columnist for The Washington Post and a former senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, believes that “strategic stability is—and has always been—a widely used concept without a common understanding. There is no single, universally accepted definition of stability, which factors contribute to and detract from it, or agreed upon metrics for how to measure it. Consequently, there are significant gaps in understanding in the United States and around the world about how nuclear-armed countries view and define the requirements of stability.” At the same time, Gerson emphasizes the interrelationship between nuclear arsenals in the Soviet Union and the U.S. and the emergence of a situation of strategic stability. In particular, he writes that “the core ideas that underpin the concept of strategic stability date as far back as the early 1950s, as both the United States and the Soviet Union began to build an arsenal of atomic bombs.” Marc Trachtenberg, a professor at the University of California and a prominent theorist of international security, adds that “the stability theory emerged quite suddenly at the end of the Eisenhower period, or more precisely in 1959 and 1960.”

David Holloway, the author of the bestseller Stalin and the Bomb (1994), identifies two signs of strategic stability during the Cold War: confrontation between the two superpowers and their nuclear arsenals. In his view, “Strategic stability came to be defined during the Cold War in terms of deterrence: the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union was stable as long as both sides knew that each could respond in a devastating way to a nuclear attack by the other.”

At the same time, Holloway and leading Russian experts agree that the definition of the term ‘strategic stability’ during the Cold War could be based on bilateral arms control documents, primarily the 1972 ABM Treaty and the two countries’ joint statement of 1990. Holloway notes that, although the term ‘strategic stability’ is not used in the ABM Treaty, its basic elements are reflected in the treaty’s preamble: “Effective measures to limit anti-ballistic missile systems would be a substantial factor in curbing the race in strategic offensive arms and would lead to a decrease in the risk of outbreak of war involving nuclear weapons.”

In 2010, a team of Russian scholars led by Alexei Arbatov published the survey “Strategic Stability after the Cold War,” which cites the other bilateral document as an example. In particular, the authors write that, as follows from the aforementioned 1990 statement, strategic stability is “a balance between the strategic forces of the United States and the Soviet Union (or a state of strategic relations between the two powers), in which there are no incentives for a first strike.”

Even though in 1972 and 1990 the Soviet Union and the U.S. came to agreement on a common interpretation of strategic stability, Soviet/Russian scholars (both during and after the Cold War) had their own understanding of the term. As Arbatov writes, they defined strategic stability “in a broad and narrow sense. In the broad sense, strategic stability was viewed as the resultant of political, economic, military and other measures by the opposing states (coalitions) to deny the other party the ability for military aggression. In the narrow sense, strategic stability was understood as a state of strategic groups of armed forces and military relations between states (coalitions) characterized by roughly equal military capabilities and the absence of attempts by either party to change the military balance and thus achieve superiority over the other party through military operations for a sufficiently long period of time.”

The documents of 1972 and 1990 demonstrate that during the Cold War Russian and American experts practiced the “narrow” understanding of strategic stability and singled out two concepts within it—crisis stability and arms race stability. As Arbatov explains, “the former implied that the situation is stable, when even in a crisis situation neither of the opposing parties has the capability and incentives for a first strike. In the latter concept, stability was assessed by the presence of incentives to drastically build up one’s strategic potential.”

In describing in 1991 the U.S. approach to the problem of strategic stability, Trachtenberg found it “remarkable how much weight the stability theory continues to carry.” He explained this by “the total absence of intellectually respectable alternatives.” I contend that the strategic stability concept has lost its former significance in the post-Cold War world not because of the “intellectual weakness” of Western or Russian theorists, but because conditions for the existence of strategic stability in its “narrow” understanding have disappeared with the end of the Cold War.

Finally, I tend to agree with the definition of Cold War-era strategic stability given by Arbatov in the above survey. In those years, strategic stability was defined as “stability of the strategic nuclear balance, maintained for a long period of time, despite the influence of destabilizing factors.”


In a book published in 1996, British scholar Stuart Croft proposes a “broad” definition of arms control, making no distinctions between arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation. In his opinion, arms control includes not only “restrictions on the use and possession of arms,” but also “treaties on disarmament,” “the laws of war,” “restrictions on proliferation,” and the United Nations’ “disarmament efforts.” Croft’s view contrasts with the traditional approach, expressed by Hedley Bull, one of the founding fathers of the arms control theory. According to Bull, disarmament implies the reduction or destruction of armaments, whereas arms control implies “restraint internationally exercised upon armaments policy, whether in respect of the level of armaments, their character, deployment or use.” I tend to agree more with Bull’s definition.

However, the approaches of Croft and Bull do not contradict Trachtenberg’s idea that “whatever other functions it might have, the primary purpose of arms control is to help prevent war.” In this sense, arms control prevented the Cold War between the superpowers from escalating into an armed conflict in which nuclear weapons could be used. In other words, arms control during the Cold War helped maintain strategic stability. As Trachtenberg writes, “now the goal was no longer force reduction as an end in itself, but rather ‘strategic stability,’ defined as a situation where neither side had any incentive to go first in a crisis.”

Finally, according to Croft, arms control, intended to strengthen strategic stability, had (like strategic stability itself) two dimensions: the strengthening of crisis stability and the strengthening of arms race stability. This logic worked during the Cold War, but ceased to work after its end.


The logic according to which arms control helps maintain strategic stability failed after the end of the Cold War. I think this happened for the following three reasons.

Firstly, from the point of view of crisis stability, in the 1990s the United States no longer viewed the new Russia as an enemy comparable to the Soviet Union. Any possible crisis in relations with Russia, led by Boris Yeltsin’s democratic administration that sought to integrate the country into the “Western world,” would be something too different from the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Berlin Crisis—simply because Russia would not have the resources for that kind of confrontation.

Secondly, from the viewpoint of arms race stability, in the 1990s the United States and its allies did not fear a nuclear buildup by Russia because the Russian economy was in a crisis. Rather, they were concerned about eliminating excess nuclear weapons in Russia and ensuring the safety of the remaining weapons. This issue was covered by several bilateral cooperation programs.

As a result, after the end of the Cold War, when crisis stability and arms race stability declined in significance in Russian-U.S. relations, bilateral arms control lost one of its functions—maintaining strategic stability. The U.S. withdrew from the ABM Treaty; and crises emerged over the Intermediary Nuclear Force Treaty and the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and in nuclear security cooperation. New spheres appeared for a potential arms race (including offensive operations in cyberspace, the deployment of weapons in space, and non-nuclear strategic weapons), not covered by arms control measures.

The third reason for the crisis in arms control was that, after the end of the Cold War, the very notion of strategic stability ceased to be a hostage to the Russian-American confrontation and the nuclear arms race between the two former adversaries. Both countries significantly expanded their understanding of strategic stability in terms of geography and factors affecting it. The aforementioned “broad approach” to the definition of strategic stability prevailed in Russia and the U.S.


Russian official documents describing the country’s current strategy in the field of foreign policy and national security list among factors contributing to the maintenance of strategic stability not only “actions aimed at implementing arms limitation and reduction agreements,” but also efforts to prevent the emergence of “new types of weapons,” “maintain the stability of the international legal system,” “form an international information security system,” and “withstand natural and man-made disasters.” Even sanctions imposed by the U.S. against Russia are named among factors threatening strategic stability.

The U.S. still emphasizes the role of strategic nuclear forces in maintaining strategic stability. On the other hand, the U.S. seeks to maintain strategic stability not only with Russia, but also with China and “other major powers.” The latest U.S. Nuclear Posture Review of 2010 states: “Given that Russia and China are currently modernizing their nuclear capabilities—and that both are claiming U.S. missile defense and conventionally-armed missile programs are destabilizing—maintaining strategic stability with the two countries will be an important challenge in the years ahead.” At the same time, the purpose of a dialogue with China on strategic stability is to “provide a venue and mechanism for each side to communicate its views about the other’s strategies, policies, and programs on nuclear weapons and other strategic capabilities.”

Obviously, the former (Cold War-era) geographical and content boundaries of the strategic stability concept are becoming blurred both in Russia and the U.S., letting in “other major powers” and “other strategic capabilities.” In the absence of a common understanding of strategic stability, at least at the bilateral level, one of the traditional rationales for arms control, namely the need to maintain strategic stability, is disappearing. Simultaneously, new spheres are emerging for a potential arms race between the two states, which are not covered by arms control measures, but which definitely have an impact on strategic stability because they can create conditions favorable for a first strike.

Given all this, it is time to find a new rationale for arms control as a factor important for maintaining stability in interstate (primarily Russian-U.S.) relations. Rephrasing Arbatov’s definition of strategic stability, in the context of today’s Russian-U.S. relations, stability could be defined as “stability of the balance of strategic capabilities, maintained simultaneously in several spheres of the arms race for a long period of time, despite the influence of destabilizing factors, aimed at reducing first strike capabilities.”

This new definition of stability, which must be maintained simultaneously at several tactical levels of the arms race in order to achieve the common strategic goal of preventing war, could serve as a new conceptual rationale for arms control. Within the framework of this “tactical stability” concept, both Russia and the U.S. could reset their cooperation in certain “tactical” areas of arms control and eventually involve third countries in those efforts.

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