From Parity to Reasonable Sufficiency
No. 4 2010 October/December
Dmitry V. Suslov

Deputy Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics.

Russian-U.S. Relations: How to Break the Vicious Circle

This article follows ‡ discussion held by the SVOP. The participants in the discussion included Alexei Arbatov, Vladimir Dvorkin, Sergei Karaganov, Konstantin Kosachev, Nikolai Mikhailov, Sergei Ryabkov, Yuri Solomonov, Vitaly Shlykov, and Vladimir Yakovlev.

The reset in relations between Russia and the United States, initiated by the Barack Obama administration and supported by the Russian leadership, culminated in the spring and summer of 2010. The signing by Russia and the U.S. of the New START Treaty in 2010 was a landmark event in this process and a symbol of the marked improvement of the political atmosphere over the second half of the 2000s. However, there is no guarantee that the newly-emerged prerequisites for a broad partnership will be used.

The political elites of the two countries have yet to realize that in the world of today and especially tomorrow Russia and the U.S. no longer pose the main threat to each other. This threat stems from tendencies and events, both global and regional, which are external to interaction between the two countries. Moscow and Washington no longer need to build balances and respond (symmetrically or asymmetrically) to every action by the other party.


The paradigm that shaped the mindset of politicians in the two countries during the Cold War persists (more in Russia than in America). Moscow still views the U.S. as a “potential enemy” and seeks to maintain nuclear parity with it by any means. From time to time, one can even hear talk in Russia that it can be threatened not only by American strategic nuclear forces but also by the arsenals of France and the UK (the latter has been included in the U.S. nuclear planning system). This fear makes Moscow seek ways to maintain both its parity with the U.S. in strategic nuclear forces and its quantitative advantage in tactical nuclear weapons. Russia is discussing the development of new types of nuclear missiles that could “compensate” for the creation by Washington (now within NATO’s framework) of elements of a missile defense system in Bulgaria, Romania, Poland and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Traditional thinking is also characteristic of the United States, including the Barack Obama administration, although the White House is now more ready to accept the new reality. Most characteristic is the new approach to strategic stability, presented in the April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review and followed up in a series of policy statements. The reduction of strategic nuclear weapons and of their role in defense policy is planned to be compensated for by the development of missile defense systems and strategic conventional capabilities. The U.S. Prompt Global Strike military initiative provides for equipping intercontinental ballistic missiles with conventional warheads, which would enable the U.S. to deliver a conventional weapon strike anywhere in the world in one hour. These plans are apparently aimed at resuming by Washington absolute superiority in the military field, especially as this approach provides for the reduction of strategic nuclear forces not only by the U.S. but also by Russia and, over the long term, by China.

In addition, during the negotiations on the New START Treaty, it was Washington that insisted on minimal reductions of strategic delivery vehicles, compared with the current arsenals. As a result, Russia can even build up the number of its strategic delivery vehicles to reach the ceiling established by the new treaty. The U.S. nuclear doctrine clearly states that “conservative assumptions” were used to determine reductions in nuclear weapons. This approach may be revised in a new treaty, to be concluded after New START. The U.S. doctrine also provides for maintaining balance between the strategic nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia. Interestingly, this very traditionalist view is considered in the U.S. to be almost revolutionary.

Many aspects of the U.S. missile defense policy also raise questions. These aspects include Washington’s categorical refusal to restrict the freedom of action in this field by international agreements and regimes (the Obama administration is no different from its predecessors in this respect), the lack of transparency for Russia (Moscow learns about many decisions from the media), and the lack of complete clarity regarding the geography of the future missile defense system in Europe and its qualitative and quantitative characteristics. The U.S. plans to build the missile defense system on its own, regardless of Russia’s wishes and concerns, and Russia could only be invited to participate in the already approved architecture.

Another issue that evokes questions is the U.S. decision to deploy SM-3 interceptor missiles in Poland as part of a future missile defense system, where they physically cannot repel the “Iranian threat.” Incidentally, Iran does not have missiles yet that would be capable of reaching Europe, even more so the U.S., and that hypothetically could justify the creation of such a missile defense system.

Finally, there is a high probability that after the Republicans return to key positions in U.S. politics, they will reject even the timid measures, taken under Obama, to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. The Republicans, who have been drifting far to the right of late, stand for a quantitative and qualitative buildup of the strategic nuclear arsenal, the creation of a U.S. strategic missile defense system (rather than a tactical one, as the Obama administration suggests, at least for the period until 2020), and, as before, the achievement of absolute and overwhelming military superiority over the other countries. The Republicans demand a marked increase in allocations for upgrading the U.S. nuclear arsenal as a condition for ratifying New START.

Despite the signing of the New START Treaty, the main symbol of the improved relations, the inability of Russia and the U.S. to give up the traditional logic of their mutual relations and their mistrust of each other has brought about new conflicts between them. For example, the United States now proposes further reductions of nuclear weapons by the two countries and starting work on a new treaty as soon as New START enters into force. As follows from the new nuclear doctrine, the White House has told the Pentagon to start discussing the basic parameters of such a document. The U.S. also insists that the next treaty cover primarily tactical and non-deployed nuclear weapons. More and more publications write about some mythical threat to NATO countries from Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons, which by far outnumber the U.S. ones (the United States keeps an estimated 200 tactical nuclear bombs in Europe). NATO’s new Strategic Concept, adopted in November 2010, also reflects these fears.

Russia has already made it clear that it does not share the Obama administration’s desire to further reduce nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future and that it considers the reduction levels envisaged by New START sufficient for the next 10 years (for which the Treaty will remain in force). Another, still greater challenge is posed by the decision, already made by Washington, to seek that the next treaty cover TNWs or even make their reduction the focal point of the treaty. Such a treaty would inevitably mean unilateral disarmament of Russia, for which the numerical superiority in tactical nuclear weapons plays the role of not so much military as psychological compensation for the significant superiority of the U.S. and NATO in conventional armaments.

Therefore, in order to prevent even the possibility of such negotiations, Moscow insists, as a precondition, that the U.S. unilaterally withdraw its nuclear warheads from Europe and that negotiations should focus on matters of missile defense, strategic conventional weapons and the militarization of outer space.

It is not clear yet whether Washington will really insist on the discussion of further cuts in strategic nuclear weapons within the framework of negotiations on the next treaty, and what scale of the cuts it means. Objective factors (the growing U.S. superiority in conventional weapons, the development of precision weapons, the growing potential of strategic non-nuclear deterrence, the gradual upgrading of missile defense systems, etc.) will prompt America to seek nuclear disarmament. This logic is typical of the Obama administration, which has seriously stepped up the Prompt Global Strike and missile defense programs but which, at the same time, is seeking Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The ratification will make it physically impossible for the U.S. to build up its strategic nuclear arsenal to the level of the 1980s-1990s. In this case, however, it would be natural to expect Washington to exert pressure on other nuclear countries, above all Russia and China, in order to force them into further reductions.

On the other hand, this approach is not shared by all in the U.S. establishment. The military community and the Republicans oppose reductions in nuclear weapons and the ratification of the CTBT if these are not coupled with the simultaneous buildup or modernization of the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal. To gain Republican support on New START and the CTBT (it has not gained either yet), the Obama administration has given the green light to a substantial increase in the funding of the nuclear complex within the next 10 years.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that the U.S. non-nuclear military might is becoming increasingly less usable. Its use involves huge spending and does not produce the desired political results. Considering the increasing budget deficit, which will inevitably cause a reduction in the defense budget and, at the same time, growth in defense spending in “new centers of power,” the U.S. superiority in conventional weapons may start decreasing. In this case, not only the Republicans and “hawks” in the defense community but also other representatives of the political elites may turn their eyes to the strategic nuclear forces again as the main instrument of strategic deterrence and as a way to ensure the country’s military security. That would stand as an insurmountable obstacle to substantial cuts.

Meanwhile, there is a consensus in the U.S. on tactical nuclear weapons. The Republicans advocate their reduction (having Russian weapons in mind) as actively as the Obama administration does. Some of them say that New START has a drawback, namely the absence of limitations on Russian tactical nuclear weapons. A delay in ratification of New START would minimize the probability of the beginning of negotiations on the next nuclear arms reduction treaty before the end of Obama’s current presidential term, yet it will hardly be possible to avoid discussing this issue in the future.

Therefore, the next few years will see growing pressure on Moscow for further reductions in nuclear weapons, above all tactical forces. Unwillingness to move in this direction will be interpreted as a breach of the obligations under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and as an effort to impede the idea of a nuclear-free world, while Moscow will take the pressure as proof of Washington’s desire for absolute military superiority. An irritant will appear in Russian-U.S. relations which will neutralize the positive achievements of the “reset.” In addition, the paradigm of the perception by Russia and the U.S. of each other as potential enemies will only strengthen.

Another dangerous conflict may be caused by matters of missile defense. Washington plans to make its European-based missile defense assets capable, by the year 2020, of intercepting not only short- and intermediate-range missiles (which they will be capable of doing at the early stages of development) but also long-range missiles. These plans, revealed in the U.S. Missile Defense Policy Review, have evoked serious concern among the conservative (and larger) part of the Russian military and political elites, because intercontinental ballistic missiles make the bulk of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. Another source of concern is the quantitative characteristics of the U.S. system. The Pentagon plans to deploy 430 SM-3 interceptor missiles by 2020, which will make the basis of the U.S. missile defense system.

The feasibility of these plans is low – not only because of serious technical problems but also because the next administration can revise these plans as easily, as the Obama administration has revised the Bush administration’s approach. But if there is no rapprochement between Russia and the United States in missile defense in the near future, Russia may soon start taking the U.S. plans not only as a political challenge (as it already does now) but also as a military threat.

Indeed, the creation of a missile defense system close and closed to Russia and armed with more than 400 interceptors, theoretically capable of intercepting ICBMs, is easy to portray as a threat to Russia’s deterrence potential. This will naturally provoke a search for an “asymmetric response” that would help overcome this system, which, in turn, may trigger an arms race in Europe and thus make the system anti-Russian after all, although it is not so at present.

Meanwhile, the probability of rapprochement between Russia and the U.S. on missile defense is still very low. The conflict can be overcome only if the parties give up the Cold War logic of balances and if they are guided by considerations of security and pragmatic implementation of their foreign-policy interests. Despite the halfway measures being taken, the need for compromise with conservatives and a high probability of retrogression, the Obama administration is ahead of Russia in this respect.

The new U.S. global strategy is revolutionary for America. It recognizes the large-scale redistribution of power in favor of new centers, the reality of a multipolar world, the failure of unipolar hegemony and the futility of a strategy based on unilateral actions. At the same time, it proposes jointly combating the new challenges and threats by building new or renovating existing partnerships. According to the Obama administration, joint efforts to counter the new challenges should play a greater role in America’s relations with other centers of power and in international relations in general than traditional inter-state conflicts do.

Actually, it was this logic that prompted the “reset.” The United States under Obama has really played down the importance of some formerly essential disagreements with Russia for the sake of building cooperation with it on issues that Washington views as top priorities and that reflect many of the new challenges and threats.

There would be much less disagreement between Russia and the United States on further nuclear arms reductions and missile defense if Moscow rethought its approaches to its nuclear arms policy and its relations with Washington in this field. Russia should be guided by the need to ensure its military security and international political positions, rather than by the logic of parity and a desire to respond to all U.S. actions in the nuclear field, which may not be targeted against Russia at all in the present circumstances (when Russian-U.S. relations are not the core of world politics, nor the top priority for the U.S.).

For the time being, New START only reproduces the old logic of balances and counterbalances, because there are no discussions in Russia about criteria for determining a sufficient and optimal level of its nuclear arsenal, or about factors that should now determine the country’s nuclear arms policy. Numerous myths and the enormous Cold War inertia suggest an outdated understanding of what quantitative and qualitative levels of strategic nuclear forces meet the task of ensuring national security, foreign-policy prestige and a place in the international system.

As in the early 1980s, Russia’s approach to determining the required quantitative and qualitative characteristics of strategic nuclear forces is determined by the principle of parity with the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the desire to overcome the future U.S. missile defense system. But now there is also a third factor – namely, the need to compensate for Moscow’s lagging behind the U.S. in conventional armaments. It is believed that Russia’s military security and influence in the world can be ensured only by parity and counterweights to every U.S. action in the strategic sphere. As a result, the disagreement between the two countries in the fields of nuclear weapons and missile defense keeps increasing, threatening to foil the “reset.” Even a new round in Russia’s spending on efforts to build up its nuclear arsenal is possible, which would not be justified.


Now let us look at the nuclear factor in Russian-U.S. relations from less ideologized positions.

First, there is no more parity between the strategic nuclear forces of Russia and the United States. Washington is ahead of Moscow in the number of nuclear warheads and, particularly, their delivery vehicles. The existing balance is maintained by Russia’s capability to physically destroy its opponent. That is, by clinging to the principle of parity, Moscow largely deceives itself and has to constantly reproduce the illusion of balance by modernizing the strategic nuclear forces, developing new types of nuclear weapons, finding counterweights to the U.S. missile defense system, etc. This practice results in enormous spending and increases conflicts in Russian-U.S. relations. Finally, Russia runs the risk of appearing as an opponent of nuclear disarmament in the eyes of the international community.

Second, Russia’s military security can be effectively and reliably ensured by a much smaller arsenal of strategic nuclear forces than it has now, even considering the possible need to overcome the U.S. missile defense system in the future. To this end, Russia does not necessarily need to maintain parity; it would be enough to maintain the capability of causing irreparable damage to the enemy. For example, China now is capable of causing irreparable damage to the United States, although its nuclear arsenal is several times smaller than Russia’s. In other words, China solves the same strategic deterrence task, but with much less spending. Moreover, effective deterrence no longer is equivalent to the complete destruction of a state or tens of millions of people, as it was believed in the Cold War times. In fact, it is enough to deliver one or two nuclear warheads to enemy territory (if it is a developed democracy). This alone will be irreparable damage to it, and no democratic government will take this risk.

Rethinking by Russia of its nuclear policy should not simply imply renouncing the principle of parity. Such a decision, should it be made spontaneously and without due preparations, would seriously damage Russia.

First, Russia would lose its nuclear superpower status, which largely determines its position in the international system. Second, it would be a dangerous signal for other nuclear countries, especially China, which may try to reduce their gap in the field of nuclear weapons and catch up with Russia. This, in turn, would have a very negative impact on their relations with Moscow. Third, it would deal a blow to Russian-U.S. relations, as the United States would approach Russia from the position of superiority then. Fourth, the renouncement of parity and large-scale reductions in strategic nuclear forces may prompt Washington to redouble its efforts to build the missile defense system and try to achieve the capability of overcoming Russia’s reduced strategic offensive arsenal. Fifth, many members of the Russian political elite would take the renouncement of the principle of parity as a betrayal of national interests; in addition, it would seriously undermine the leadership’s authority (the experience of Mikhail Gorbachev).

Rethinking the nuclear arms policy implies making it independent – that is, relieving it of the task of maintaining parity with the United States and subordinating it to the interests of the military security and international political influence of Russia.

“Minimal reasonable sufficiency” seems to be a principle that best defines an independent policy. It should be aimed at creating a nuclear arsenal, whose quantitative and qualitative characteristics would be determined by an optimal balance between the capability of causing irreparable damage to a potential enemy, by economic efficiency (least costly) and the preservation by Russia of its international status as a nuclear superpower.

Russia must maintain a minimum amount of strategic nuclear armaments that would:

  • enable it to deliver an assured retaliatory strike against enemy territory and cause irreparable damage to the enemy;
  • exceed by many times the size of the nuclear arsenals of all the other nuclear countries, except the U.S. The required amount may be less than the number of strategic nuclear armaments that Russia has today.

This principle will allow Russia, first, to save enormous financial and economic resources and, second, reduce its strategic nuclear weapons still further, without detriment to its military security and international status.

It would be expedient if Russia proposed to the United States launching a new round of reductions in strategic nuclear forces soon after New START enters into force, without waiting for the U.S. to resume pressure regarding the next treaty after New START. If Russia forestalls the United States and proposes a new round of cuts in strategic nuclear weapons, it could put it into the center of discussions and thus reduce the possibility of having to enter into disadvantageous negotiations on reductions in tactical nuclear weapons. Russia’s approach to further reductions could be made more flexible if strategic and tactical nuclear forces are united into a single nuclear complex. However, this may bring about difficulties with the counting of delivery vehicles, which are the same for tactical nuclear weapons and conventional armaments.

The issue of what amount of Russian strategic and tactical nuclear weapons will meet the criterion of the “minimal reasonable sufficiency” requires a comprehensive analysis and special discussions among military experts and specialists in international affairs. For now, one can say that Russia’s influence in the international arena is largely ensured by its nuclear superpower status. In addition, strategic stability in the world will be maintained for as long as the two nuclear superpowers – Russia and the United States – have essentially larger arsenals of strategic nuclear weapons than all the other countries in the world taken together. If the Russian and U.S. arsenals are reduced to levels comparable to the arsenals of other countries, including China, the global strategic stability will be disrupted, the possibility of a major conflict or even a new world war will significantly increase, and the prestige and military security of Russia and the United States will suffer irreparable damage. For Russia, it is imperative to maintain its nuclear arsenal at a level that would exceed the arsenal of the world’s third largest nuclear power – in this case, China – several times over.

In fact, renouncing the Cold War paradigm, making Russia’s nuclear policy independent and subordinating it to the considerations of economic rationality, military security and foreign-policy influence would bring about a seemingly paradoxical result. This policy must be determined, above all, not by tactical moves of the U.S. or the size of its nuclear arsenal, but by the steps made by China and the size of its nuclear arsenal. Naturally, if there is a real possibility that the U.S. arsenal or missile defense system reach a level that would pose a threat to Russia’s deterrent potential (rather than simply have individual advantages that the Russian strategic complex does not have), then Russia should take countermeasures – again, not those that would be aimed at restoring parity but those that would make it possible to cause unacceptable damage to the United States.

Another thing that needs to be rethought is Moscow’s policy with respect to qualitative characteristics of its strategic nuclear arsenal, which is also marked by the Cold War inertia. As is the case with quantitative characteristics, the main criterion here is again U.S. actions and Moscow’s devotion to the goal of destroying large areas, rather than considerations of Russia’s national security. In particular, Russia persists in maintaining the strategic nuclear forces triad (land-based ICBMs, submarine-launched ICBMs and heavy strategic bombers), thus only duplicating the U.S. policy. (On the other hand, the Obama administration also adheres to a conservative approach as a concession to the Republicans and the military establishment.)

From the standpoint of military security, there is no real need to preserve the classical triad. Over time, the United States itself is likely to renounce the triad in favor of strategic submarines. Progressive military experts in the U.S. more and more actively advocate this issue, and more and more money is allocated for submarine construction. The Obama administration has already admitted that the preservation of strategic bombers is purely symbolic for the U.S.

The main criterion that must determine Russia’s approach to the qualitative characteristics of strategic nuclear forces should be a balance between their survivability (that is, the ability to carry out an assured retaliatory strike after a nuclear attack on Russia) and economic efficiency. The survivability principle goes well with the principle of “minimal reasonable sufficiency” and is, actually, its qualitative expression. The greater the survivability of strategic nuclear forces, the smaller number of them is required to cause assured unacceptable damage to a potential enemy. Considering the geography of Russia, the weapons that best meet this criterion are road-mobile missile systems (Topol-class). Therefore, Russia should focus its main resources on their development and improvement. Perhaps, it should also retain several strategic submarines, whereas strategic aviation is geared to the past and its flights, resumed recently, make the West only smile ironically.

Silo-based ICBMs are the least survivable, so it would be highly unreasonable to preserve them for the foreseeable future and, especially, make them the core of Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal. Such an approach would involve huge – and unfounded – spending and would only weaken Russia’s defense capability and its ability to deliver an assured retaliatory nuclear strike. However, an exacerbation of Russian-U.S. disputes on further reductions of nuclear weapons and, particularly, possible attempts by Russia to overcome the future U.S. missile defense system, which actually will not pose a threat to Russia’s strategic deterrence potential, may prompt Moscow to make emphasis on silo-based heavy ICBMs – again, being guided by the Cold War inertia and mentality. Such developments must be prevented.

Finally, the considerations of Russia’s military security and the need to prevent a further aggravation of relations with the United States require that Russia rethink its approach to missile defense. First, the U.S. current policy in this field is highly volatile, although all administrations declare their devotion to the goal of building a missile defense system. Second, publicly available publications by U.S. experts and the testing of various missile defense assets have shown that the existing technological developments are not enough to build in the foreseeable future a missile defense system capable of operating in a combat environment and accomplishing tasks set by the political leadership. The missile defense system that the United States will possibly deploy in Eastern Europe by 2020 (although the chances for that are small) will likely be good only in a laboratory environment, rather than real-life situations. Therefore, even if the system is made capable of intercepting ICBMs after 2020, as stated in the doctrinal documents, it will hardly pose a great danger to Russia’s strategic nuclear forces, even if they are reduced. Intercepting ICMBs is already described in U.S. official statements as an “additional” option, while the main task of the missile defense system would be intercepting intermediate-range missiles, which Russia no longer has in keeping with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Even if the U.S. deploys about 400 interceptor missiles in Europe and if some of them do shoot down Russian ICBMs (neither assumption is viable), Russia will still be capable of physically destroying the United States, rather than simply causing physical damage to it. Therefore attempts to find a “military response” to the U.S. missile defense policy, especially before the missile defense system is actually deployed, would be wasteful economically, meaningless militarily and counterproductive politically. They would divert financial resources to struggle against an imaginary threat, impede concentration on the main aspect of Russia’s nuclear strategy, namely the improvement of road-mobile ICBMs, strengthen the positions of U.S. and Russian hawks and complicate the building of stable relations between Moscow and Washington.

For the interceptor missile issue to cease being an irritant in Russian-U.S. relations once and for all, the two countries should develop cooperation in this field, with a view to creating a joint missile defense system in the future. This cooperation will radically change the logic of Russian-U.S. relations in the strategic sphere, minimize adverse effects of the situation of mutual assured destruction on them, and bring these relations very close to an alliance in content. However, such cooperation requires that both countries change their approaches.

Russia should depart from its inflexible and unrealistic position, which provides that its participation in creating a joint missile defense system with the U.S. and NATO is possible only if Washington and Brussels renounce their current plans and start discussing the interceptor missile issue from scratch, beginning with a joint assessment of threats.

It would be much more promising, not to try to change the U.S. policy on a European-based missile defense system, approved back in December 2009, but to take part in discussions on the architecture of a future (possible) NATO missile defense system, which is not even blueprinted in detail. For now, it is clear only that it will be based on the U.S. missile defense system, as it was proposed by the Obama administration. This factor gives Russia a chance to participate in the creation of such a system from the very beginning and to make it more acceptable and even attractive to itself.

The United States should also display more flexibility and, first, give up the approach where Russia has only one choice: to accept the invitation to participate in a project approved without it, or to reject it. Second, Russia’s perception of the missile defense system, being created by the U.S., would be less negative and opportunities for cooperation would be greater, if Washington made its approach in this sphere and the European-based missile defense system itself more transparent – for example, if the U.S. held preliminary consultations with Russia regarding the system’s geography and its quantitative and qualitative characteristics, and if it explained to Moscow why missile defense assets should be deployed in European countries; finally, if the U.S. provided Russian military experts with a possibility to inspect these assets and if Russia was provided with the missile defense system’s telemetry data.