Between MAD and Flexible Response
No. 2 2011 April/June
Alexey Fenenko

Doctor of Political Science

Moscow State University, Moscow, Russia

Associate Professor of Faculty of World Politics






SPIN RSCI: 3552-5037
RSCI AuthorID: 460972
Scopus AuthorID: 55189886400


E-mail: [email protected]
Tel.: (+7) 916-044-22-12
Address: 1 Leninskie Gory, Moscow 119991, Russia

Russian and U.S. Nuclear Policies after the Cold War

During the entire Cold War period the nuclear conceptions of the Soviet Union and the United States were focused on a hypothetical nuclear conflict with each other. In the late 1950s, military experts of both countries came to the conclusion that it would be difficult to win a total nuclear war. Alternatively, they discussed scenarios of a “limited nuclear war” (the 1960s), a “war on the basis of intermediate- and shorter-range missiles” (the 1970s), and a “war with the use of missile defense systems” (the 1980s). In reality, the U.S. and the Soviet Union followed the strategy of “mutual assured destruction” (MAD). Such logic was based on refraining from attacking each other due to a potentially inevitable response, namely a retaliatory strike against own strategic targets.

Over the last twenty years, Russia and the U.S. have lowered the nuclear threshold and returned to the idea of “flexible response” of the 1960s, which envisioned limited use of nuclear weapons. After the diplomatic conflict over a third U.S. missile defense position area (2007) and the war over South Ossetia (2008), Russian and American military experts pointed to the danger of a direct confrontation between Moscow and Washington. Such conflict could be a regional collision between the Russian and American military forces, probably with limited use of nuclear weapons. The danger of implementing such scenarios may become real due to the sharp reduction of strategic nuclear forces (SNF), the development of high-precision non-nuclear systems, and the development of various types of missile defense systems.



The Soviet Union’s collapse did not cause profound changes in the U.S. nuclear planning. On May 12, 1989, U.S. President George H. W. Bush (1989-1993) said that the United States’ political and military strategy goals were not restricted only to containment of the Soviet Union. But the U.S. nuclear planning system still focused on updating the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) developed in the late 1950s and specifying how American nuclear weapons would be used in the event of nuclear war. On September 18, 1994, the Pentagon issued a Nuclear Posture Review, according to which the greatest potential threat to the United States was Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. The document reiterated the focus of the U.S. strategic nuclear forces on counterforce. At the same time the paper envisioned various scenarios of the use of SNF potential – from a total attack to flexible and selective engagement. These provisions were included in the U.S. National Military Strategy (February 1995), according to which 80 to 90 percent of potential targets were still located on the territory of the Russian Federation.

After the Soviet Union’s breakup, Russia retained the Soviet strategic capability and therefore could deliver strikes at key strategic targets on the U.S. territory. Mutual nuclear deterrence remained the basis of Russian-American relations. But in the early 1990s the United States recognized the Russian Federation as the sole successor of the Soviet Union and helped the administration of Boris Yeltsin to withdraw nuclear weapons from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Washington expected that “grateful” Russia would rapidly reduce its strategic potential to a safe (from the U.S. viewpoint) level.

In exchange for assistance, Washington expected concessions from the Russian leadership on strategic issues. The START II treaty (January 3, 1993) was imbalanced in favor of the U.S., as it was based on the principle of “breakout potential” and the priority of reducing Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) with Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRV), which formed the basis of the Russian SNF. On January 18, 1993, Russia and the U.S. signed the Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) Agreement, under which Russia pledged to supply the U.S. with low enriched uranium (produced by diluting highly enriched uranium, earlier used in Russian weapons programs terminated under the START I treaty of 1991) at commercial prices. On September 23, 1997, a bilateral agreement was signed on the cease of the production of reactor-grade plutonium. In 1998 and 2000 it was completed with partnership agreements in the sphere of plutonium disposal. The Clinton administration expected even more concessions during the discussions of the START III draft in the fall of 1994.

Russia did not want radical, let alone unilateral, reductions of its strategic potential. Moscow declined the initial version of START II (1995) and the U.S. draft of START III (1999). Since 1994, the Kremlin became increasingly opposed to the U.S. policy in the Balkans and possible enlargement of NATO eastwards. From the mid-1994, one could observe a psychological crisis in the Russian-American relations. Moscow and Washington held opposing positions on most international issues.

These trends eventually resulted in a doctrine of “Mutual Assured Safety” announced by Defense Secretary William Perry on January 5, 1995, and enshrined almost in all the documents of the National Security Strategy of the Clinton administration. Washington linked the reduction of its strategic nuclear forces with the continuation of democratic reforms in Russia. If the Russian leadership embraced the “democratic values” outlined in the Washington Charter (June 1992), the Americans agreed to continue talks on reducing strategic offensive arms. But if Moscow refused to adhere to these rules, Washington would reserve the right to recreate the strategic nuclear forces to the level of the late 1980s. The U.S. strategic nuclear forces would get an automatic edge in case the political and military situation changed.

Technical plans for updating the U.S. strategic nuclear forces seemed modest. The Clinton administration announced plans to re-equip the Minuteman III ICBMs with W87 warheads from the Peacekeeper ICBM and to preserve W88 warheads, designed to defeat hard targets, on Trident II submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Also, the U.S. implemented a series of projects to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons. On June 24, 1995, the Pentagon launched a program to improve the security of nuclear warheads on SLBMs. In 1996, there were reports of a program aimed at developing small nuclear warheads, such as the B61-11, intended to destroy hardened underground targets. Besides, there were discussions about the development of “nuclear warheads of the future” – W-94 and W-95, which, theoretically, could be created on the basis of “pure fusion weapons.” However, such programs contradicted the 1994 Furse-Spratt Provision which bans research and development of nuclear weapons of less than five kilotons, even though the Clinton administration insisted it was only research.

The Clinton administration was considering moving to a new strategic relationship with Russia based on U.S. superiority in the strategic area. The Missile Defense Act of 1991 terminated the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program and declared the priority of developing theater missile defense (TMD). In 1995, the Pentagon also launched a “3+3” program which provided for the creation of exoatmospheric defense systems as components of a future strategic ABM system. The U.S. Congress refused to ratify the New York Protocol to START II on differentiation of strategic systems and TMD, which was signed on September 26, 1997. Since early1999, the White House raised the issue of modifying the 1972 ABM Treaty, threatening, otherwise, to withdraw from it. The formal reason for this was the mounting campaign in the U.S. against the growing missile threat from “pariah states” – Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, and possibly Pakistan.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the new strategic trends received final consolidation. On January 8, 2002, a new Nuclear Posture Review was approved, which provided for the possibility of conducting operations involving both nuclear and conventional forces (Joint Nuclear Operations). For this purpose, the U.S. planned moving to a new structure of the strategic triad:

  • joint offensive systems (nuclear and conventional);
  • strategic defense systems (missile defense, air defense, civil defense);
  • an upgraded infrastructure linked to information and space telecommunications systems.

On June 13, 2002, the U.S. withdrew from the ABM Treaty and began to deploy this system. In November 2003, the U.S. Congress repealed the Furse-Spratt Provision (although at a congressional hearing on May 20, 2003, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that Washington intended only to study the capabilities of new weapons and not apply them in practice). The Joint Nuclear Operations Doctrine (2005) provided for the possibility of preemptive use of nuclear weapons in regional military conflicts. American military commanders were now given the right to ask the president for authorized selective nuclear strikes against countries threatening to use WMD against the U.S. or its allies.

The next wave of modernization of the nuclear deterrence concept came in the second half of the 2000s with the publication of a series of alarming reports about the modification of the Russian and Chinese SNF. Some publications claimed that the United States had fallen behind Moscow and Beijing in the modernization of nuclear forces. In 2007 and 2008, Defense Secretary Robert Gates made alarming statements about the need to strengthen the U.S. SNF. According to the U.S. National Defense Strategy (2008), Russia and China were considered potential opponents. Some analysts skeptically argued that the reason for such discussions was the Pentagon’s desire to secure more military orders. But problems over Taiwan (2005) and the position of the White House over the five-day war in South Ossetia (August 2008) proved that the Pentagon was actually considering a possibility of regional conflicts with Russia and China.

Also, the U.S. nuclear strategy revived its interest in using space for military purposes. In 2004, the National Security Space Office was established at the Department of Defense. In 2006, a new National Space Policy was released in the U.S., which provided for broadening the space-based component of the missile defense system. China’s anti-satellite missile test on January 11, 2007 aroused Washington’s concern over excessive dependence of the U.S. Armed Forces on information and space systems. The Space Operations Doctrine (January 23, 2007) called for increased protection of the U.S. space assets. In line with this doctrine Washington conducted an ASAT test on February 21, 2008.

The shifts in the U.S. nuclear strategy were the result of the consideration of the outcome of the five-day war in South Ossetia. America’s involvement was explained by several reasons. First, it wanted to see if Russia was really ready to use force outside its borders. Second, it wanted to estimate the ability of the Putin-Medvedev tandem to take action in a crisis. Third, it needed to identify how strong the influence of Russia was in the Caucasus. Fourth, it planned to test the vulnerability of the Russian Air Force with regard to the U.S. information and space systems. Fifth, it was an attempt to establish a precedent for changing the Montreux Convention (1936) and ensure U.S. presence in the Black Sea. According to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the war showed (1) the ability of the Russian army to effectively block actions of U.S. high-precision systems, and (2) a low degree of vulnerability of its aircraft for the U.S. information and space systems. Indirectly, Gates expressed the opinion that the U.S. should try to change the strategic capability balance in relations with Russia.

In April 2009, the Barack Obama administration proclaimed a “minimal deterrence” strategy based on several new priorities.

First, it stands for a transition to containment based on lower ceilings. The National Security Strategy of 2010 sets the prospective goal to reduce the U.S. and Russian SNF by 75 percent. As a result, the nuclear potentials of the U.S. and Russia will become comparable with those of Britain, France and China.

Second, the reduction of SNF should be accompanied by the development of missile defense. The Nuclear Posture Review of 2010 sought to allay Russia’s concerns about the U.S. missile defense system. However, when ratifying New START (December 2010), the U.S. Congress rejected Russia’s demands to impose restrictions on the deployment of strategic missile defense. The United States has not ratified the New York Additional Protocol to START II (1997), which fixed the parameters of differentiation between strategic and tactical interceptors. Creating “strategic defense systems” remains an important component of the U.S. nuclear strategy.

Third, the U.S. retains priority in the development of high-precision non-nuclear weapons. In the 2010s it is expected to accelerate the development of a new generation of cruise missiles and their carriers based on Stealth technology. Some of these projects still remain uncertain, yet Washington refuses to include high-precision non-nuclear systems in the system of arms control.

Fourth, the U.S. will not give up the “breakout potential” principle. New START does not impose restrictions on the “breakout potential.” The American nuclear disarmament policy allows for both the destruction and storage of weapons. This, however, creates uncertainty about the future size of the U.S. nuclear potential.

Fifth, the problem of tactical nuclear weapons is becoming a hot issue in the U.S. nuclear strategy. Washington is trying to reduce the potential of the Russian tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) in Europe. At the same time, the U.S. is interested in maintaining its TNW in Europe as a guarantee of its nuclear presence. This policy is reflected in the decisions of the NATO summit in Tallinn (April 22, 2010) and the new NATO Strategic Concept (November 20, 2010).

Sixth, the U.S. strategic nuclear forces are targeted at various types of strategic objects of potential adversaries. This allows the Command of the U.S. Forces to strike at both the whole strategic potential and selected objects of the opposite side, including using strategic nuclear forces. A new variant of this strategy was proclaimed in 2010; namely, it stated the priority of targeting the economic potential of possible opponents of the U.S., using strategic nuclear forces.

The approaches observed in the American nuclear strategy at the end of the 2000s reveal its conservative nature. It continues providing for the possibility of a total or limited nuclear war with a potential adversary having a comparable nuclear potential (Russia or China). The lowering of SNF ceilings, alongside the development of antimissile technologies and counterforce attack, increases the risk of using nuclear weapons in military conflicts. Implementation of the main principles of the minimal deterrence strategy makes the MAD logic doubtful. This may increase the temptation for the U.S., as s stronger party, to put military pressure on its opponents, or even start a limited military conflict.



Since 1991, Russia has been updating its nuclear policy, too. In the early 1990s, the Russian authorities wanted the U.S. to recognize Russia within the borders of the former Russian Federation as established in 1991, assist it in removing nuclear weapons from Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and support the Boris Yeltsin administration in its confrontation with the Supreme Council (parliament). For these reasons Russia was ready to make concessions to the United States on some strategic issues. The Camp David Declaration of February 1992 fixed Russia’s and America’s decisions to stop viewing each other as strategic rivals and their promises to reduce the level of combat readiness of their strategic nuclear forces. According to the Washington Charter (June 1992), the two countries intended to establish a common security space “from Vancouver to Vladivostok.” For the first time in history, Moscow announced its intention to align its national security policy with the security policy of the “Atlantic community.”

Back in September 22-23, 1989, at a meeting in Wyoming, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and U.S. Secretary of State James Baker agreed on the following four principles for negotiating the reduction of strategic offensive weapons:

  • separation of the talks on offensive and defensive strategic weapons;
  • admissibility of simplified warhead counting rules for heavy bombers, which would create a certain imbalance in favor of the United States;
  • restriction of the throw weight of heavy ICBMs with MIRVs;
  • exclusion of the issue of sea- and air-launched cruise missiles, which the Pentagon viewed as the key high-precision non-nuclear systems, from the agenda of future negotiations.

The U.S.-Russian negotiations were based on the “Wyoming compromise,” which especially concerned the Soviet-American START I Treaty (1991; 1994). The treaty established parity between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the number of warheads (6,500 units for each country) and introduced a system of inspections at warhead and carrier elimination facilities. At the same time, the treaty introduced simplified warhead counting rules for heavy bombers. The Wyoming compromise logic was even stronger in START II (1993) and the Framework Agreement on START III (1997).

At the beginning of the 1990s, the Russian government admitted the possibility of developing joint projects in “sensitive” – from the viewpoint of national security – areas. In February 1992, President Boris Yeltsin announced that it was possible to establish a joint Russian-American system of limited missile defenses. On June 17, 1992, the Presidents of Russia and the United States signed a bilateral Agreement Concerning Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space for Peaceful Purposes. On October 5, 1992, they signed an agreement on a Russian-American program of satellite surveillance, RAMOS (Russian-American Observation Satellite), to detect ballistic missile launches.

However, after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, the United States and NATO received superiority in conventional weapons. Moscow actually faced the same challenges as the U.S. did in the late 1950s – the danger of being involved in regional military conflicts with the enemy having absolute superiority in the conventional armed forces. The situation in the Balkans in the 1990s, which gave rise to the concept of new interventionism, convinced the Russian authorities that such a trend was risky. Therefore, after the implementation of the first strategic priorities, the Russian leadership since late 1993 has been less inclined to make concessions to the U.S. in the strategic sphere.

The key trend in the Russian Nuclear Strategy of the 1990s was a sudden lowering of the nuclear threshold. “The Guidelines for the Military Doctrine of Russia” (November 1993) abrogated the pledge made by the Soviet Union in 1982 not to use nuclear weapons first. The document named two scenarios when Russia could use nuclear weapons: in the event of an attack on Russia or its allies by a nuclear state, and in the event of support for an aggressor state by a state possessing nuclear weapons.

In 1995, the draft National Security Law for the first time codified the notion of “nuclear deterrence” as the primary task of the Russian strategic nuclear forces. The nuclear deterrence policy aimed at preventing military aggression was codified in both editions of the National Security Concept of the Russian Federation in 1997 and 2000.

The 2000 Military Doctrine of Russia provided for the possibility of using both nuclear and conventional weapons for repelling aggression. The document also emphasized the need to possess a nuclear deterrence capability that would “guarantee the infliction of the required damage on the aggressor in any situation.”

In 2003, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that Russia had the right to make pre-emptive strikes at an enemy that was suspected of planning aggression. In September 2004, immediately after the Beslan terrorist attack, it was announced that Russia had the right to make strikes at terrorist bases anywhere in the world. It was emphasized that such attacks would be applied with non-nuclear weapons. In 2005, this provision was adopted as an amendment to the Military Doctrine of Russia. After the U.S. adopted the Preventive Strike Doctrine (2002), these steps of Russia looked like a parallel action to what Washington did. (The logic was quite simple: if the U.S. was allowed to do it, why cannot the others do the same?)

Since 2000, Russian experts assumed that such moves by Washington would cause Moscow to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) (1987), the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) (1996), and, possibly, START I. But officially this possibility was voiced only in the Munich speech by President Vladimir Putin on February 10, 2007. For the first time since 1985, Russia mentioned the possibility of countering unfriendly actions by the U.S. with military means. To prove the seriousness of its position, in July 2007 Russia imposed a moratorium on the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty and in August 2007 it resumed regular flights of strategic aircraft, frozen in 1992.

More changes in Russia’s nuclear strategy came with the adoption of a new Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation on February 5, 2010. The new doctrine proclaimed that nuclear weapons would remain an important factor in preventing nuclear wars and conventional military conflicts. The document reiterated the provision of 2000 that “Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to application of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in case of aggression against the Russian Federation with conventional weapons, if it threatens the very existence of the state.” For Russia, military risks that can acquire a nuclear dimension are:

  • creation and deployment of a strategic missile defense system that can undermine global stability and upset the balance of forces in the nuclear field;
  • militarization of outer space;
  • deployment of strategic non-nuclear systems of high-precision weapons;
  • proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, missiles and missile technology;
  • growth in the number of nuclear states.

Russia announced its intention to revise the principles of the “Wyoming compromise.” On April 20, 2009, President Dmitry Medvedev said in Helsinki that Moscow would conduct further negotiations on strategic arms reductions only on condition that Washington renounces its program for deploying space strike systems, puts restrictions on the deployment of missile defense systems, and extends control to extended-range high-precision systems. In Amsterdam, on June 20, 2009, Medvedev said that Russia was not satisfied with the principle of “breakout potential” and the storing of nuclear warheads. Russia plans to introduce new principles after signing a new strategic arms reduction treaty, which is being drafted in line with the “Wyoming rules.” This caused certain difficulties in drafting the New START treaty (signed on April 8, 2010). Russia considered the final text of the treaty as a compromise – the renunciation of part of the Helsinki requirements in exchange for freedom in the strategic triad formation without limitations on MIRVs.

But the Preamble to New START refers to a linkage between strategic offensive and defensive weapons. Russia and the U.S. have different interpretations of this provision. The Russian Foreign Ministry sees it as Washington’s commitment not to increase the existing number of interceptors, whereas the U.S. Department of State and Department of Defense view it only as a framework for future negotiations on strategic arms reductions. Since April 2010, Russia has insisted on a mutually binding agreement that would impose limitations on the number of missiles and their location. (In case of a sharp build-up of the U.S. missile defense system, Russia reserves the right to withdraw from New START). The Washington summit between Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev (June 24, 2010) failed to reach a compromise. Russia hopes to reach agreement through negotiations on a European missile defense project, which were resumed in November 2010.

The Russian nuclear policy aims at preserving the MAD logic. At the same time, Russia is beginning to recognize the American doctrine of flexible response, which was rejected by Soviet experts in the 1970s.



The relations with “third nuclear powers” do not take center place in the Russian and U.S. nuclear concepts. However, the growing role of these countries is being increasingly taken into account in the Russian and American strategic planning.

The issue of third nuclear powers goes back to the Cold War period. In 1957, the U.S. began to locate TNW on the territory of its allies in Western Europe and the Pacific Rim. Due to these trends, Moscow viewed third nuclear powers as an appendage to the American nuclear arsenal and demanded that Britain and France join the bilateral agreements. But the White House insisted on an “independent” nature of British and French nuclear potentials.

After the Cold War the situation did not change. The U.S. maintained the system of nuclear guarantees for its allies in Europe and the Far East. The Tallinn (April 22, 2010) and Lisbon (November 20, 2010) NATO summits confirmed that nuclear policy remains the prerogative of the Alliance and a decision to withdraw American TNW should be taken by consensus. Washington retained the validity of the Nassau Agreement (1962), according to which the British SNF were included in the American system of nuclear planning. Currently, the British nuclear forces consist of four Vanguard nuclear submarines armed with U.S. Trident II ballistic missiles. In March 2007, the House of Commons adopted a program for the modernization of the British nuclear arsenal, and the U.S. is considering participating in it.

After France resumed its membership in NATO in March 2009, the Obama administration sought to devalue the “independent” nature of the French nuclear policy. On November 3, 2010, Britain and France signed an agreement on cooperation in using nuclear energy for military purposes, and another agreement on cooperation in the field of computer simulation of nuclear tests. In the context of U.S.-British relations, these agreements mean a transition to closer cooperation between Washington and Paris in nuclear issues.

Russia is concerned about these moves. The U.S. can recreate intermediate- and shorter-range missiles as part of a joint program with Britain and France. Since early 2007, in its dialogue with Washington, Russia has repeatedly raised the issue of involving Britain and France in the INF Treaty (1987). Since the spring of 2010, Russia has also discussed with the Obama administration the problem of the British nuclear arsenal within “Euro-Atlantic security initiatives.” Russian experts have fears that the U.S. may evade the New START limits through joint programs with Britain. Russia proposed to sign an additional protocol to New START that would restrict Britain from building up its strategic nuclear forces over the level achieved in 2007.

Moscow’s proposals were not accepted by Washington. The American administration again insisted on the independent nature of the British nuclear arsenal. Presumably, some tacit agreement between Russia and the U.S. on the British nuclear arsenal has been achieved.

Considerable progress has been made in Russian-Chinese and U.S.-Chinese relations. In 1996, Russia signed two declarations with China: on mutual non-targeting of their SNF and on demilitarization of the Russian-Chinese border, including the withdrawal of TNW. In 1996, they signed a protocol to set up a Russian-Chinese intergovernmental commission on space cooperation. In 2007, this document was extended to an agreement on cooperation in joint exploration of outer space, including Moon and Mars programs. American experts attributed China’s rapid success in manned space flights (which, above all, demonstrates the country’s ability to deliver nuclear weapons to any point in the world) to Russia’s support. There is currently no official information on mutual targeting or non-targeting of Russian and Chinese SNF. But since 1996, Moscow and Beijing have made regular claims that their relationship is not built on mutual nuclear deterrence.

By contrast, U.S.-Chinese relations have become more confrontational. Throughout the Cold War years, the U.S. strategic nuclear forces were targeted at China. After the events at Tiananmen Square in June 1989, the George H. W. Bush administration terminated its program of interaction with China in nuclear issues. The Nuclear Posture Review of 1994 and the U.S. National Military Strategy of 1995 confirmed that the American nuclear planning system did not rule out a potential conflict with China. Since 2003, U.S. experts have been increasingly concerned about China’s programs for building up the counterforce capability of its SNF through the deployment of solid propellant ground-based ICBMs, the construction of a new generation of nuclear submarines, and the equipping of nuclear submarines with new-generation ballistic missiles, possibly with MIRVs. According to the new U.S. National Security Strategy of 2010, control over Chinese military programs must become stricter.

The Taiwan issue holds a special place in U.S.-Chinese relations. In the mid-1990s, U.S. experts considered scenarios of a Taiwan crisis escalation. The greatest danger, in their opinion, came from the Chinese strategy of “limited deterrence” with regard to the American power in the Pacific Rim. Specifically, the Americans were concerned about China’s possible use of TNW against the U.S. Navy or U.S. military bases in the Pacific region. To effectively counteract Beijing’s possible actions, U.S. experts advised a partial reviving of the “flexible response” strategy of the 1960s. Scenarios for “escalation control” in a hypothetical limited conflict with China were integrated into the American nuclear planning system.

The most significant changes have taken place in relations between the U.S and new nuclear powers. Until the end of the Cold War, the United States focused on strengthening the international nuclear nonproliferation regime, but on December 7, 1993, U.S. Defense Secretary Les Aspin said that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was unable to prevent “rogue states” from obtaining WMD. Presidential Decision Directives 18 (1993) and 60 (1997) allowed Washington to use force, if needed, to strengthen the nonproliferation regime. The National Security Strategies of 2002 and 2006 set five tasks for the U.S. Counterproliferation Strategy:

  • providing economic inducements to a violator state in exchange for the termination of its WMD program;
  • taking control over nuclear facilities of problem states;
  • partial recognition of the nuclear status of individual countries;
  • coercive disarmament of potentially dangerous proliferators;
  • tightening control over the fissile materials market.

However, according to the NPT, any non-nuclear state has the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy. On February 11, 2004, President George W. Bush proposed the following reform of the NPT: banning the supply of closed nuclear fuel cycle technologies to countries that did not possess them before January 1, 2004; obliging countries wishing to withdraw from the NPT to return nuclear fuel cycle technologies to the IAEA; adopting an international code of conduct in peaceful uses of nuclear energy; and introducing mandatory reporting to the World Nuclear Association. The Bush administration’s proposals were discussed at the G8 Sea Island summit in June 2004 and the 2005 NPT Review Conference. Other powers, however, viewed them as an attempt to change the nonproliferation regime in a way unfavorable to them. Therefore, since 2004 the U.S. has been focusing on a counter-proliferation strategy through international legal precedents.

Iraq became the first testing ground. Throughout the 1990s, the U.S. carried out individual missile attacks against Iraq each time Baghdad refused to liquidate, under UN control, factories that allegedly produced WMD. In 2003, the United States and its allies launched a military invasion of Iraq to “eliminate whatever weapons of mass destruction could be found.”

Iran was a precedent of a different kind. In 1992 and in 2000, the U.S. Congress imposed sanctions on Iran, suspecting it of developing a nuclear program of its own.

The next candidate for “coercive disarmament” was North Korea. In 1993 and 2003, Washington threatened to launch disarming strikes against North Korean nuclear facilities. Five powers (the U.S, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea) proposed discussing the North Korean nuclear program within a six-party framework. However, North Korea conducted nuclear tests twice – on October 9, 2006 and May 25, 2009.

Pakistan holds a special place in the U.S. Counterproliferation Strategy. In autumn 2001, the two countries discussed ways to assist the Pervez Musharraf government in ensuring safe storage of Pakistani nuclear weapons. American experts considered supplying Pakistan with transmitters that would track the movement of nuclear warheads, or with equipment that would eliminate nuclear weapons in the event of danger to nuclear facilities. On November 22, 2004, the U.S. mass media reported the signing of a U.S.-Pakistani agreement that allowed the Pentagon to conduct combat operations on Pakistani territory. Officially, Islamabad disavowed this statement. But starting in 2007, some prominent American politicians (including Barack Obama) have said that in case of emergency, Washington reserves the right to conduct independent military operations to protect Pakistan’s nuclear facilities.

Russia’s approach to these issues has been quite cautious. Back in September 2003, President Putin pointed to the growing threat of nuclear proliferation and emphasized the need for interaction among the leading countries in this field. In 2006, a “White Paper on Nonproliferation” was published, which stated that Russia was prepared for cooperation with the U.S. in curbing the spread of nuclear fuel cycle technologies.

Moscow views the U.S. Counterproliferation Strategy as an attempt to address two different problems: the fight against WMD proliferation (in which Russia is ready to support the U.S. as long as these efforts do not involve the use of force); and the creation of precedents for disarming “dangerous” regimes. It is difficult to say to what extent the U.S. intends to involve other nuclear powers in this scheme.

Another problem concerns the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Currently, Russia is the only nuclear power that has ratified the CTBT and imposed a moratorium on nuclear testing. The prolonged non-entry of the CTBT into force puts Russia at a disadvantage over other nuclear powers. Hence the increasing tendency of the Russian diplomacy to intensify the discussion of the prospects of the CTBT’s entry into force or an agreed revision of the treaty’s provisions.

* * *

Over the last twenty years, Russia and the U.S. have come up with fundamentally new ideas in the field of nuclear deterrence. They have reconsidered the concept of flexible response of the 1960s, trying to use it as a framework for new military technologies. Both Moscow and Washington have sharply lowered the nuclear threshold, compared with the late 1980s. This is particularly alarming, considering that there are territories where Russian and U.S. military, political and economic interests clash. The development of stabilizing rules of conduct in case of an unauthorized military clash or conflict with third countries is again a priority in U.S.-Russian relations, as in the 1970s.

The situation, however, may change in the 2020s. By this time, the Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals can be seriously curtailed. This will give a new dimension to such issues as the deployment of missile defense systems, technological development, the “disarming” impact of tactical nuclear weapons, and relations with third nuclear powers. New challenges may call for a new generation of nuclear doctrines in Russia and the United States. Will Moscow and Washington be able to keep the traditional logic of mutual assured destruction, which for half a century has ensured peaceful bilateral relations?