Razing the Old to Build the New?

5 october 2017

Is Arms Control Obsolete?

Alexei Arbatov is Full Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Director of the International Security Center at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations; a member of the Russian delegation to the START I negotiations (1990); and Deputy Chairman of the Defense Committee of the State Duma (1994-2003).

Resume: If we give up the norms and instruments of nuclear arms control developed over the past half century, we will eventually end up with nothing. Instead, we should urgently save this invaluable structure and improve this system in a prudent way, adapting it to new challenges and threats.

The confrontation between Russia and the West and the beginning of a new cycle in the arms race have brought the nuclear weapons issue back to the forefront of world politics after twenty years of oblivion. Donald Trump’s administration does not consider progress in nuclear arms control a priority, which may cause Moscow to substantially revise its policy in this field. But in which way? This question remains open.


Russian President Vladimir Putin said at the Valdai Forum in October 2016: “Nuclear weapons are a factor of deterrence and a factor of peace and security in the whole world” and they cannot be viewed as a “factor of potential aggression.” This was the first time the role of nuclear weapons was given such a positive and, I would even say, romantic assessment at the highest state level in this country—nothing of the kind had happened either in the Soviet Union or democratic Russia.

However, much depends on interpretation. If these words express a desire for how things should be as long as nuclear weapons exist as an objective reality, there is nothing to object to here. Perhaps, it was intended to mean that nuclear weapons should be intended only for a retaliatory strike, that this possibility should deter an aggressor from attack (“factor of deterrence”), and that it is inadmissible to use nuclear weapons in a first strike (as a “factor of potential aggression”). In this case, this is a rephrased concept of strategic stability as a state of strategic relations between the parties that minimizes the likelihood of nuclear war, at least between the two superpowers.

However, if the above statement reflects a view of ??the existing order of things, then it cannot be accepted without substantial reservations.


The first reservation is that all nine nuclear-weapon states reserve the right to first use of nuclear weapons in their official military doctrines or by default.

Until recently, China and India were the only two countries to pledge no first use of nuclear weapons. However, China is now considering a departure from this stance in view of the United States’ growing capability to destroy Chinese nuclear weapons with high-precision, non-nuclear long-range missiles, while India has apparently altered its pledge, declaring that it applies only to non-nuclear states. The new wording brings the Indian strategy closer to the doctrines adopted by Russia and the U.S.

The military doctrines of Washington’s NATO allies Britain and France have always accepted the possibility of using nuclear weapons first, although their nuclear forces, which have undergone reductions, are more fit for a purely retaliatory strike, at least against Russia (and before that, the Soviet Union).

Pakistan openly and unconditionally embraces the concept of first use of nuclear weapons (both tactical and medium-range) against India which has great superiority in general-purpose forces.

Israel does not officially confirm or deny having nuclear weapons. But considering its geopolitical neighborhood, there is no doubt that Tel Aviv implicitly adheres to the first strike concept.

North Korea has no doctrine but makes ideological declarations threatening to use nuclear weapons. As they are small in number and vulnerable in a potential conflict with the U.S., a first strike is the only way to use nuclear weapons (and then perish).

The above applies even more to the two leading nuclear powers. Russia’s official military doctrine unequivocally provides not only for a retaliatory nuclear strike (as a response to aggression against itself and/or its allies, using nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction) but also a first nuclear strike: “The Russian Federation shall reserve the right to use nuclear weapons (…) in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” In this case, a nuclear strike would guarantee “the infliction of unacceptable damage on the aggressor in any situation.”

The U.S. defense policy, too, has always accepted the possibility of using nuclear weapons first, because “there remains a narrow range of contingencies,” as the American Nuclear Posture Review released in 2010 says. To fulfill its security guarantees to allies in Europe and Asia, the United States may use nuclear weapons to deter a conventional, chemical or biological attack against them and “is therefore not prepared at the present time to adopt a universal policy that deterring nuclear attack is the sole purpose of nuclear weapons.”

So, Russia, the United States and other nuclear-weapon states do not rule out a first nuclear strike (as a “factor of aggression”). This possibility is part of their understanding of nuclear deterrence (as a “factor of peace and security in the whole world”). The only feasible explanation for this doctrinal symbiosis is that all of these countries, without exception, understand a “factor of aggression” as a first nuclear strike by a potential enemy, whereas they themselves are ready to use nuclear weapons first only in response to aggression involving other types of WMD or conventional weapons.

In many wars, especially after 1945, each party believed that, even when conducting offensive operations, it defended itself, repelling actual or imminent aggression. This entailed, or could entail, conflict escalation. The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 clearly demonstrated the possibility of a nuclear war due to loss of control over events, rather than as a result of planned aggression. Several times, the world was saved from a nuclear catastrophe by pure luck, although there was already mutual nuclear deterrence (albeit asymmetric) at the time and neither side wanted to enter into a direct conflict.

Similar (but less dangerous) situations of escalating mutual defensive actions took place during the Berlin Crisis of 1961, the Vietnam War (1964-1972), the Afghan War (1979-1989), and the first Gulf War (1990). The same is also true of four Middle East wars (1957, 1967, 1973 and 1983), the Falklands War (1982), the Indo-Pakistani War (1971), the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and other events of this kind. In several of them, some leading states even made open threats to use nuclear weapons and raised the alert level of their nuclear forces.

The current confrontation between Russia and NATO in Europe and the multilateral nature of crises in the Middle East, coupled with the development of cutting-edge nuclear and conventional precision-guided weapons and sophisticated information and control systems, create a threat of rapid and inadvertent escalation of a conventional (even local) conflict between the great powers into nuclear war. This threat is exacerbated by “innovative” concepts for the use of nuclear weapons, included in strategies of major states.


During the previous Cold War, the probability of a rapid (or even immediate) escalation of a major armed conflict in Europe to the use of nuclear weapons by NATO and the Warsaw Pact was taken as a given (a total of 17,000 tactical nuclear weapons were deployed on the continent). After the end of the Cold War, both parties drastically reduced their tactical nuclear forces, and apocalyptic scenarios were forgotten for a quarter of a century.

But the crisis over Ukraine and the military build-ups on both sides of the new borders between Russia and NATO have brought the bygone fears back into European politics. The parties have begun to hold large-scale military exercises, simulating the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Hundreds of such weapons are still deployed with general-purpose forces at Russia’s forward operating bases and American storage facilities in NATO countries.

But there are also innovations that are just as dangerous and these include selective use of strategic nuclear weapons. From the early 1960s, the United States experimented with counterforce nuclear strategies aimed at destroying strategic forces and other military facilities in the Soviet Union, while avoiding damage to cities (at least in the early stages of the war). But all those plans were rendered futile by the possibility of massive nuclear retaliation by the other party.

Changes came many years later: in 2003, Russian official documents contained plans for “de-escalation of aggression by threatening or launching conventional and/or nuclear strikes on a varying scale.” These plans also provided for “measured combat use of certain elements of the Strategic Deterrence Forces.”

Subsequent editions of Russia’s Military Doctrine did not mention such concepts, and for a while they faded into the background. However, now that tensions have risen high, similar ideas are seeping into the military media, possibly leaking from secret strategic studies conducted by authorized organizations. Therefore, it can be assumed that Russia, the United States and, apparently, China are working on concepts of selective use of strategic nuclear weapons.

For example, military professionals from the Russian Defense Ministry’s secret research institutes emphasize “the limited nature of a first nuclear strike, which is intended not to embitter but sober up the aggressor, force it to stop the attack and begin negotiations. The absence of a desirable reaction will lead to increasingly massive use of nuclear weapons in terms of both quantity and power. Therefore (...) a first nuclear strike by the Russian Federation may be limited. The enemy may respond with a massive or limited nuclear strike. We believe the latter variant is more likely. This conclusion rests on the fact that the United States is the country where the concept of limited nuclear war was born.” A first strike may be carried out by means of new Sarmat-class silo-based heavy missiles, because the vulnerability of silos makes it impossible to count on them for a retaliatory strike in the event of a massive counterforce attack by the United States.

The United States, in turn, is apparently reviving the concept of “tailored nuclear option” for limited strategic nuclear war. Weapons that may be used for such strikes include air-launched long-range stand-off cruise missiles and B61-12 guided and variable-yield bombs.

In Russia, such selective strikes are most often proposed as a response to massive non-nuclear “aerospace aggression” by the U.S. and NATO (an expanded version of air strikes against Yugoslavia, Afghanistan or Iraq). In the U.S., such “options” are considered as a response to limited nuclear attack from Russia (as well as China). In reality, the United States has neither plans nor enough forces for non-nuclear “aerospace aggression” against Russia, especially if it is directed against its strategic missile forces. These scenarios exist in the imagination of Russian strategists. However, the mutual development of plans for selective strategic strikes may immediately escalate any local (and even accidental) armed conflict between the two superpowers to a global scale.

I wonder why the authors of the Russian concept think that the United States will be the first to backpedal during a limited exchange of strikes. Apparently, their assumptions are based on a subconscious stereotype that people in the United States are richer and value life more and patriotism less than Russians. This may be so in a big and protracted conventional war (suffice it to compare the attitudes of U.S. and Russian societies to the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan). However, they fail to see that nuclear weapons are a “great equalizer:” neither the rich nor the poor want to see themselves, their children and grandchildren turned into “radioactive dust.” In any case, the historical experience of Cold War crises does not bear out the idea that Americans are cowards. Besides, the gap between the standards of living in Russia and the West has decreased since then.

Another idea, which is gaining momentum now, is that, following major reductions in nuclear arsenals over the past quarter-century, nuclear war has again become possible and will not entail a global catastrophe. Here is one example of a prediction of this kind: “If the United States ventures to deliver a counterforce preemptive strike against Russia (...), it will have good reason to hope for success. (...) As a result, up to 90 percent of Russia’s nuclear weapons will be destroyed before launch. The total yield of nuclear explosions will be about 50-60 megatons. (...) The U.S. will easily survive the death of millions of Americans and the loss of its economic potential. This will be a moderate price to pay for world domination, which overseas or transnational elites will gain, having destroyed Russia.” As a remedy, the author proposes creating 40 to 50 100-megaton warheads for heavy ICBMs or ultra-long range torpedoes for use against “geophysical areas on U.S. territory (the Yellowstone supervolcano and tectonic faults on the Pacific coast of the U.S.) (...) They will guarantee the destruction of the U.S. as a state and all of the transnational elite.”

One could dismiss such ideas as irrelevant for strategic analysis and requiring the attention of a different type of specialists, but things are not that simple. The author of these ideas (Konstantin Sivkov) for many years served in the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and took part in the development of national military doctrines. Other publications by him and other aforementioned experts, contrary to Moscow’s official stance, provide convincing calculations proving that mass destruction of Russian missile silos or a large part of industries with high-precision non-nuclear weapons is impossible. A couple of years ago a Russian federal TV channel, in a report about a meeting of the country’s top military-political leaders, “accidentally” showed a photo of the aforesaid super torpedo, causing quite a stir in the West.

The above examples do not allow one to accept, without reservation, Russian political scientist Sergei Karaganov’s thesis that “the presence of nuclear weapons and their inherent theoretical ability to destroy countries and continents, if not entire mankind, were changing mentality, ‘civilizing’ ruling elites in countries with nuclear weapons, making them more responsible. These elites rid themselves of people and political groups whose views could have led to a nuclear conflict or kept them away from spheres pertaining to national security.” It is not because extremists or insane people can get their hands on the nuclear button, but because secret institutions tend to generate a narrow-minded way of thinking, detached from reality and fraught with horrible consequences if it prevails.

Anyway, the above concepts are both artificial and dangerous. Russia and the United States have for two years been unable to coordinate their conventional air strikes even against a common enemy in Syria, let alone reach a tacit mutual understanding of “rules” for exchanging selective nuclear strikes against each other. As regards the acceptability of nuclear war between countries with reduced nuclear capabilities, even if we accept the highly controversial forecast that Russia would be able to retaliate with a strike of at least 70 megatons (the surviving ten percent of its weapons), one should have very weird mentality to conclude that the Russian response (5,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima explosion) will not mean the complete destruction of the United States and its allies along with all elites.

In reality, there is no reason to believe that nuclear weapons, now and in the future, can become a rational tool for conducting a war and concluding it on favorable terms. However, there is a risk (especially after the change of the U.S. administration) that state leaders who do not know the subject well, who do not have access to alternative sources of information, and who do not know the history of dangerous Cold War crises, may believe in the feasibility of such concepts. In a tense international situation, such leaders, trying not to look weak, may make a fatal decision and start the process of uncontrolled escalation to a global catastrophe.

The banalization and rationalization of nuclear weapons and nuclear war itself, and irresponsible bravado on these hitherto taboo issues is a very dangerous trend. Paradoxically, the above strategic innovations have emerged at a time when there is a solid margin of safety in the parity and stability of the nuclear balance between Russia and the United States. It seems that even the classical bilateral nuclear deterrence in the relations between the two superpowers (not to mention other nuclear states) is eating itself from within. Now people can hardly pin their hopes on it as the only “factor of peace and security.”

One must admit that traditional concepts and methods of strengthening strategic stability cannot eliminate this danger. This requires new principles of strategic relations between the great powers and mechanisms for mutual renunciation of dangerous strategic innovations. But they cannot be created amid the decaying system of control over nuclear weapons and an unlimited arms race.


Another reservation concerning the “Valdai formula,” mentioned at the beginning of the article, is that the nuclear “factor of deterrence” works only within the framework of the arms control and nonproliferation system and process. Today, amid the enthusiastic drive for overturning old truths, doubts are raised about this point of view. For example, Sergei Karaganov, quoted above, writes that “it is very hard to say whether old arms control did more good or harm.” Nevertheless, it is easy to do, for all the complexity of the nuclear weapons problem.

Before arms control was put into practice (starting with the 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty), the world had been on the brink of nuclear war several times. Characteristically, the above-mentioned most dangerous episode—the Cuban Missile Crisis—was caused, apart from the conflict between the Soviet Union and the U.S. over Cuba, by the nuclear deterrence dynamics. In response to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s great bluff about his country’s missile superiority after the launch of a satellite in 1957, the United States began to build up its nuclear missile forces. The John F. Kennedy administration, which came to power in 1961, inherited from its predecessors 12 old intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and the first two nuclear-powered submarines with ballistic missiles (SLBMs). In a matter of a few years (by 1967), the number of missiles in service with the U.S. strategic nuclear forces increased 40(!) times. When Khrushchev realized what was going on, he ordered placing Soviet medium-range missiles in Cuba, if for no other reason than to at least reduce the missile gap between the Soviet Union and the United States. The rest is well known.

Thus, nuclear deterrence nearly led to nuclear war. One could argue indefinitely whether it was nuclear weapons that saved the world or not. Neither argument can be proved, because, thank God, nuclear war did not take place then. On the other hand, during the hundred years between the Battle of Waterloo and August 1914, there was no great war in Europe, either, although there were no nuclear weapons in those times, as well as during the 150 years between the Thirty Years’ War and Napoleon’s invasion. But there were many small wars, just as in the Cold War years, and in some of them the great powers fought each other through their proxies.

For half a century after the Treaty of 1963 was concluded, an extensive system for the limitation and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons was created and used. The last Cold War crisis took place in the fall of 1983, also due to the nuclear deterrence dynamics: the deployment of new medium-range missiles by the Soviet Union, a similar response by the U.S., and the failure of nuclear arms limitation talks. The conclusion is obvious: international conflicts taking place amid an unlimited nuclear arms race now and then lead the world to the brink of a nuclear Armageddon, but they do not if there is an effective arms control regime.

The direct and inverse correlation between peace and arms control can be denied only if one does not want to admit the obvious. It was agreements on the limitation and reduction of nuclear weapons that stabilized the military balance at lower levels and played a decisive role in saving the world from a global war. There is a similar interrelationship between successes and failures of the nuclear disarmament dialogue between the great powers, on the one hand, and progress and regression in the nuclear non-proliferation regime, on the other.

Nevertheless, even though deterrence, along with agreements between the great powers, was one of the factors that saved the world from nuclear war in the past, this does not mean that things will continue this way. The relations of stable strategic parity were established only between the Soviet Union/Russia and the United States (although disturbing factors have begun to appear here, too). But there is no reason to expect the same effect in relations between other nuclear states, for example, India and Pakistan. This particularly applies to North Korea and other potential possessors of nuclear weapons, if their proliferation continues, which is inevitable if negotiations on further reductions in nuclear arsenals fail.

These weapons or weapons material and expertise will inevitably fall into the hands of terrorists via new nuclear states, which will put a catastrophic end to the role of nuclear weapons as a “factor of peace and security.” According to the eternal laws of Hegelian dialectics, nuclear deterrence will kill itself, especially as an unprecedented crisis is developing within the nuclear arms control system.


For the first time in more than half a century of negotiations and agreements on nuclear weapons (since the 1963 Treaty), the world may very soon lose treaty-based control of the most destructive weapon in the history of mankind.

The Soviet-U.S. Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) of 1987 is the weakest link in the system of nuclear arms control. The parties have for several years been accusing each other of violating the treaty, and after the change of administration in Washington it may be denounced in the foreseeable future. Russia is skeptical about the treaty, which is regularly expressed in its leaders’ statements. An even more alarming sign is that the latest edition of the Foreign Policy Concept adopted in 2016 does not even mention the INF Treaty among treaties to which Moscow remains committed.

Russia’s main complaint about the INF Treaty is that the Soviet Union had to eliminate more than twice as many missiles as the United States (1,836 and 859, respectively), and many Russian experts, both military and civilian, are still outraged at this arithmetic. But it was not just that the Soviet Union had deployed more missiles than the U.S. and that it had to reduce more of them to achieve the “zero option.” Of more importance was the fact that strategically the Soviet Union benefited in terms of quality, as the U.S. eliminated elements of strategic nuclear threat to it, especially Pershing II missiles, which could deliver precision strikes against command bunkers near Moscow, reaching them within seven minutes. At the same time, the INF Treaty did nothing for the continental United States, because it was beyond the reach of Soviet medium-range missiles by definition.

Another argument against the treaty is that Russia needs medium-range missiles for strikes against U.S. anti-missile bases in Europe. Meanwhile, all unbiased estimates show that these systems are not capable of intercepting Russian ICBMs either during the boost or midcourse phase. In addition, President Putin has said that Russia’s new missile systems are capable of overcoming any U.S. missile defense.

One more argument, namely that it is necessary to respond to medium-range nuclear missiles of third countries that are not parties to the treaty, is also unconvincing, because Britain and France do not have missiles of this type; of the five other nuclear states, China and India are strategic allies of Russia; Pakistan directs its missiles only against India, Israel against its Islamic neighbors, and North Korea against the United States’ Far Eastern allies and, in the future, against the United States itself.

In any case, Russia has a large number of pre-strategic nuclear weapons for deterring third countries, in addition to the strategic potential intended to deter the United States, part of which can be retargeted to any other destination. And if this huge power is not enough to deter third nuclear states, the deployment of ground-based ballistic and cruise medium-range missiles will not help. Russia will have to rely on its missile defense, including the modernized A-235 Moscow Region missile defense system, the newest S-500 systems and subsequent generations of weapons of this type, and simultaneously reconsider its position on the need to renounce missile defense systems or impose strict limitations on them.

Contrary to the criticism of the treaty, this is much more important for Russia’s security in the current geopolitical situation than it was 30 years ago. In the event of the treaty’s collapse and in response to the deployment of the now-banned weapons by Russia, the West will resume the deployment of U.S. medium-range missiles, and not in Western Europe, as before, but in advanced positions  such as Poland, the Baltic States, and Romania, from where they will be able to hit targets in Russia east of the Urals. This will force Moscow to spend much more money to increase the survivability of its nuclear forces and their information and control system.

The crisis of nuclear arms control is also manifested in the six-year absence of negotiations between Russia and the U.S. on a new START treaty—the longest pause in the 47 years of START negotiations. The current New START Treaty expires in 2021, after which a vacuum will appear in control of strategic armaments. There is less and less time to conclude a new treaty, considering the depth of disagreements between the parties on missile defense systems and high-precision non-nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the new administration in the White House shows no interest in concluding a new START treaty before 2021 or extending the current one until 2026.

It is in the mid-2020s that the United States plans to launch a major $900-billion program to upgrade its strategic nuclear arsenal and, possibly, expand its missile defense program, to which Russia will have to respond. Unlike in the Cold War years, this nuclear missile race will be coupled with rivalry in conventional offensive and defensive strategic weapons and the development of space and cyber weapons. The latest weapon systems are especially dangerous as they blur former technical and operational distinctions between nuclear and conventional, offensive and defensive, and regional and global armaments.

In addition, the arms race will become multilateral, involving also China, NATO countries, India, Pakistan, North and South Koreas, Japan and other states. Russia’s geopolitical position makes it particularly vulnerable in this situation.

Through Washington’s fault, the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has not entered into force and the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement has recently been frozen. Negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), which would prohibit the production of fissile material (weapons-grade uranium and plutonium) for military purposes, have been stalled for many years at the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament. Over the past three years, Russia has stopped cooperation with the United States on programs for the safe disposal, physical security and protection of nuclear weapons, material and facilities.

The 2015 NPT Review Conference ended in failure. North Korea, which withdrew from the NPT in 2003, continues to test nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. In April 2017, even China, the main patron of North Korea, distanced itself from it. The reluctance of the new U.S. administration and Congress to abide by the 2015 Iran nuclear deal may be a final blow to the NPT. The further proliferation of nuclear weapons will take place mainly near Russia’s borders (Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Japan).

If and when these weapons fall into the hands of terrorists, Russia, which recently has been leading the fight against international terrorism, may become one of the first targets of their revenge, especially considering the vulnerability of its geopolitical position and permeability of its southern borders.


The traditional nuclear arms control was based on a distinct bipolarity of the world order, an approximate balance between the parties’ forces, and agreement on classes and types of weapons subject to negotiation. Now the world order has become multipolar; the balance has become asymmetric; and new weapon systems blur the previous distinctions. Arms control and measures to prevent nuclear war must be adapted to changing conditions in due time. But superstructing a building requires a solid and tested foundation—this is a basic rule of any reconstruction.

In the aforementioned article, Sergei Karaganov writes about the need for “new arms control mechanisms.” He explains that “the instrument to do this is not traditional negotiations on the reduction (elimination) of nuclear weapons. (…) It is time we left behind the obsolete and largely senseless notion of numerical parity. (…) Instead, all nuclear powers (possibly even Israel and North Korea …) should start a dialogue on how to strengthen international strategic stability. Russia, the United States and probably China could co-chair this process. The purpose is to prevent global war and the use of nuclear weapons. It should aim to increase stability and predictability, inform each other of mutual concerns, and avert new destabilizing aspects of arms race, especially those that are based on the new principles of missile defense in dynamic combination with offensive weapons. Naturally, such dialogue should also cover non-nuclear but de-facto strategic arms, as well as cyber weapons.” Therefore, the political analyst continues, “the purpose of the dialogue is not arms reduction as such but prevention of war through information exchange, clarification of positions including the reasons for deploying certain systems, doctrinal principles, confidence-building efforts or at least alleviation of suspicion.”

First of all, with regard to this approach, I would like to note that Moscow and Washington already have a joint concept of strategic stability, which was agreed upon for the first and, unfortunately, last time in 1990. Its essence (a state of strategic relations that eliminates incentives for a first strike) is still alive. As for specific ways to strengthen stability (achieving a mutually acceptable balance between offensive and defensive weapons, reducing the concentration of warheads on delivery vehicles, and putting emphasis on the development of survivable weapon systems), they certainly need to be discussed and supplemented. It is necessary to take into account the emergence of new offensive and defensive armaments, the aforementioned dangerous concepts for their use, cyber threats, and the proliferation of nuclear and missile weapons. But increasing the number of parties to such negotiations would be premature. In the foreseeable future, achieving mutual understanding even in a bilateral format would be a major success, after which this format could be broadened.

In addition, abstract discussions of strategic stability are akin to scholastic debates popular in the Middle Ages. They will not bring concrete results, such as the averting of “new destabilizing aspects of arms race,” mentioned by Karaganov. It can hardly be expected that opponents will convince each other—just by force of argument—of the need to give up worrisome programs without reaching mutual compromises, such as limiting and reducing specific types of weapons. And if so, then there is no alternative to “numerical parity:” neither side will agree to formalize its lagging behind.

This view is confirmed by practical experience. U.S.-Chinese consultations on strategic stability, which have been going on for several years, have produced no result, except a joint vocabulary of military terms, due to the lack of balance between the countries’ military potentials. The same fate befell negotiations conducted by the top five nuclear states since 2009: the parties reached no agreement and only expressed general good intentions. Finally, there was the Russian-U.S. dialogue on missile defense in the context of strategic stability, which continued until 2012. The intellectual interaction ended in a fiasco, as the United States opposed any limitations on its missile defense system, while Russia did not propose such limitations but only demanded “guarantees of undirectedness.”

If Karaganov’s proposal to organize a forum of nine countries to discuss strategic stability were translated into life, it would, at best, be a futile discussion club or, at worst, a platform for mutual abuse (especially if it involved such peculiar countries as Israel and North Korea).

The only meaningful definition of stability was given in 1990 because it was agreed upon within the framework of negotiations on the START I Treaty. This definition was embodied in its articles and the most intrusive system of verification and confidence-building measures. Therefore, parity, quantitative levels, sublevels and qualitative constraints are the most optimal and proven foundation for agreements for strengthening stability. In the nine strategic treaties concluded since the early 1970s, the reduction and limitation of armaments, confidence-building measures and predictability are not an end in itself but a practical, not theoretical, way to approach the main goal—the prevention of nuclear war.

It is very easy to destroy the existing system of arms control. One does not even need to do anything for that—without constant efforts to strengthen this system, it will collapse by itself under the pressure of political conflicts and military-technical development. But it will be impossible to build something new on its ruins, especially if it is proposed to involve all nuclear states and discuss all pressing problems simultaneously.


After the change of power in Washington, Russia could be the only country to ensure the preservation and improvement of the nuclear arms control regime—if it had such a desire, of course. But in this case, there will be no counting on the United States, China or NATO/EU. Apart from its responsibility as a great power and nuclear superpower for this fundamental aspect of ??international security, Russia may have other incentives. A sober analysis of the situation, free of political grievances and “nuclear romanticism,” shows that Moscow should be interested in that more than other countries from the point of view of national security.

Firstly, the United States is now planning to lead the nuclear arms race; so why give it a free hand? It is in Russia’s interests to set lower strategic ceilings on arsenals, including hypersonic weapons, and resume negotiations on parameters and confidence-building measures with regard to missile defense systems, especially as Russia has been intensively building such a system under a major aerospace defense program.

Another incentive is that Russia is in a much more vulnerable geostrategic position than the U.S. and NATO countries and does not have allies among nuclear states—as a matter of fact, it has few loyal military-political allies. Therefore, well thought-out and vigorous arms control measures could help it eliminate many dangers, which cannot be done by means of arms race.

Finally, a new military rivalry will require huge costs, but the Russian economy is clearly not on the rise today (this year will see serious cuts in Russia’s defense budget). Limiting strategic forces and other measures will help save much money and use it for other needs.

As Washington will hardly come out with new proposals or respond to Russian initiatives with enthusiasm, Russia should view this fact as an additional argument in favor of stepping up its policy in this field. If Moscow puts forward serious proposals (not like those on plutonium disposition), they will be hard to ignore. Moreover, given the difficulties in the relations between the two nuclear superpowers in other areas (Ukraine, Syria, Iran, and North Korea), this sphere can quickly trigger a resumption of their interaction, which was a major topic during Donald Trump’s election campaign. In addition, he will be able to credit himself for achieving success where the previous president failed. (There were precedents in history: Nixon and Johnson, Reagan and Carter.)

The resumption of Moscow’s active efforts in this field will undoubtedly evoke support from all countries of “Old Europe,” China, Japan, neutral and non-aligned countries, broad public movements (like the campaign to ban nuclear weapons at the UN) and the liberal circles in the U.S., which are now mostly opposed to Russia. In a sense, Russian diplomacy in the sphere of nuclear arms control can become an important instrument of soft power aimed at expanding Russia’s global influence.

The top priority is to save the INF Treaty. Instead of engaging in futile exchanges of accusations, the parties should jointly work out additional verification measures to eliminate mutual suspicions. Of course, this would be possible only if Russia acknowledges the key importance of the treaty in ensuring its own security and if it discards short-sighted views on this agreement.

After that, the parties should conclude a new START treaty for the period after 2021 and, on this basis, coordinate their measures in the field of missile defense and new non-nuclear strategic weapons. Subsequent moves should include efforts to consolidate the practical effect of the CTBT and then work towards its entry into force; cooperation under the FMCT and in plutonium disposition; and the resumption of cooperation with other countries in the physical protection of nuclear facilities and the safety of nuclear material. Simultaneously, efforts should be made to strengthen the NPT and the Missile Technology Control Regime and, later, limit pre-strategic nuclear weapons and, in this context and on a stage-by-stage and selective basis, make the process of reducing nuclear weapons multilateral.

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As Russia’s historical experience in other social spheres has shown, in real (rather than ideal) life it is impossible to knock down the old to the foundations and then build something new and beautiful. In fact, if we give up the norms and instruments of nuclear arms control developed over the past half century, we will eventually end up where we started. Instead, we should urgently save this complex and invaluable structure and then improve this system in a prudent way, adapting it to new challenges and threats to Russian and international security. As the great Russian historian Vasily Klyuchevsky wrote, “Where there is no path, one often has to look backwards to go straight ahead.”

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