Strategic Stability Revisited
No. 4 2017 October/December
Pavel Zolotarev

Deputy Director of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Prospects of U.S.-Russia Talks on Nuclear Weapons

Bilateral Soviet-American and Russian-American negotiations on nuclear arms limitation and reduction mainly concerned strategic weapons and were based on the strategic stability logic. The notion of strategic stability agreed upon in 1990 was based on the premise that neither party had a motivation to strike first with nuclear weapons.

The lack of motivation for either side to be the first to use nuclear weapons implied that they understood the inevitability of a retaliatory strike and the unacceptability of the damage that could be suffered by the attacker as a result of such a strike.


Significantly, nuclear deterrence became rather effective long before the conditions for strategic stability and the criteria for unacceptable damage were created. For instance, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. nuclear potential exceeded that of the USSR by a factor of ten, but nuclear deterrence already manifested itself. However, it was based on political considerations, rather than on the correlation of the nuclear potentials of the parties.

Arguably, prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis the mutual nuclear deterrence factor had virtually no impact at the military level. If it had not been for active actions of the political leadership of the two countries, particularly those of Nikita Khrushchev and John Kennedy, the intentions of the military would have led to a military clash.

It can be argued that the political component of nuclear deterrence during the Cuban Missile Crisis was already fully effective, unlike the military component.

Traditionally, the political aspect of deterrence is seen through the concept of unacceptable damage. But under this approach highly uncertain political factors are added to the objective criteria of unacceptable damage.

Indeed, it can now be asserted that no modern political leader of a nuclear state will decide to use nuclear weapons first under any military conflict scenario, although each nuclear state has doctrinal provisions stating possible conditions for such use.

Such logic can lead to the conclusion that even the use of a single nuclear weapon causes unacceptable damage. But this contradicts the role of nuclear deterrence and is completely unacceptable for the military leaders. For them, the grounds and criteria for nuclear planning in that case are missing. In this regard, it seems quite logical to divide nuclear deterrence into two independent components—political and military.

Politicians should understand that the military are required to develop plans for nuclear warfare and achieve victory in such a conflict in advance, in peacetime, in all political conditions, including the most favorable ones. At the same time, politicians need to take into account that elements of military paranoia, which the defense industry is ready to passionately support, emerge inevitably. But the military should also understand that some politicians may become irresponsible if they learn of the existence of warfare plans including those for a nuclear conflict. Such politicians may be tempted to start a “small scale nuclear war.”

In this regard, it seems reasonable not only to consider the political and military component of nuclear deterrence separately, but also to keep them in separate planes so that they never intersect. Then politicians can rely on nuclear deterrence with a single bomb, and the military can carefully develop plans for military conflicts, including nuclear ones.

The military component of nuclear deterrence uses very specific quantitative criteria. As we know, even before the ‘unacceptable damage’ term was coined by Robert McNamara, there were various estimates of the level of damage required for achieving victory. For example, according to the so-called Truman criterion, 400 nuclear bombs are enough to destroy a nation. According to other estimates, 100 nuclear bombs would be sufficient for this purpose. American studies in the 1950s showed that 50 nuclear weapons could lead to the loss of 40% of the population and 60% of the industrial capacity. According to Herman  Kahn, the annihilation of 50 to 100% of the population stops the historical development of a country.

The McNamara criterion claimed that it would take 400-500 warheads, one megaton each, to kill 30% of the population and destroy 70% of industrial capacity in the Soviet Union.

Strategic planning in the Soviet Union essentially relied on McNamara’s definition of unacceptable damage and was aimed at destroying a matching number of U.S. facilities in any situation including a retaliatory strike.

Prior to the emergence of ballistic missile early warning systems and protected ICBM systems on constant alert, both sides were massively increasing their stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

The chances of a nuclear conflict during this period were very high. The military continued to view nuclear weapons as real weapons of destruction just more powerful than other munitions. The political and military components of nuclear deterrence were almost on a par with each other.

At the same time, the analysis of the results of military exercises and assessments of the situation showed that should a military conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact forces occur, NATO would have had to use tactical nuclear weapons. Thus, the nuclear conflict in Europe would quickly have grown into a full-scale nuclear war with all ensuing consequences.

These observations laid the foundation for the subsequent agreement on the necessity to limit the conventional armed forces of the opposing sides (the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty), signed on November 19, 1990).

The emergence of ballistic missiles early warning systems and the deployment of ground-based ICBMs on constant alert gave each side the opportunity to launch under attack. This marked the emergence of the strategic stability as we know it, which was officially defined and agreed upon by the Soviet Union and the United States. Mutually assured destruction became real.

Nevertheless, both states continued the arms race, focusing not so much on quantitative as on the qualitative characteristics of nuclear weapons. While retaining restrictions on the number of nuclear launchers, the U.S. tried to gain the upper hand using the multiple reentry vehicles, but Soviet designers quickly mastered that technology as well. The Soviet Union, for its part, focused on deployment of mobile intermediate-range ballistic missiles (RSD-10 Pioneer). This led the United States to deploy medium-range Pershing-2 missiles in Europe with a range of up to 1,800 km and ground-based cruise missiles with a range of up to 2,500 km.

As a result, by end of the 1980s strategic stability had been put in jeopardy. The Pershings’ high precision and short flight time to the central regions of the Soviet Union combined with a possible cruise missile attack made the so-called decapitation strike possible. These circumstances forced the Soviet leadership in 1987 to sign an agreement on the elimination of intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles (INF Treaty) even though the USSR had to destroy significantly more missiles than the United States.

The INF Treaty example shows that attempts to obtain significant unilateral advantages likely lead to the development of effective countermeasures by the other side that can not only eliminate the imbalance of opportunities but also render meaningless the costs of obtaining unilateral advantages.

A similar situation arose when the Ronald Reagan administration launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program in the United States. The Soviet Union’s response demonstrated that asymmetric countermeasures involving the development of weapons capable of penetrating U.S. missile defenses require considerably less economic effort than the creation of a multilayered missile defense system and reduce their effectiveness to an unacceptably low level.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union, mutual nuclear deterrence became a Russian-American issue.

The first strategic documents of the early 1990s, both Russian and American, gave reasons to expect a drastic change in the sphere of mutual nuclear deterrence.

The purpose of the U.S. doctrinal documents of the first half of the 1990s was to ensure America’s prosperity in the absence of external threats. The military threats included the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and strategic nuclear stockpiles in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine).

The Basic Provisions of the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, adopted in October 1993, stated that Russia “does not consider any state its enemy,” and also “the aim of the Russian Federation’s policy with regard to nuclear weapons is to eliminate the danger of nuclear war by deterring possible aggression against the Russian Federation and its allies.” Having renounced the provision of the Soviet military doctrine not to use nuclear weapons first, the Russian Federation formulated such conditions for the use of its nuclear weapons that aimed to contain aggression and, at the same time, encourage states to adhere to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The document stressed that Russia “seeks to reduce its nuclear forces to a minimum level that would guarantee prevention of a large-scale war, maintenance of strategic stability, and complete elimination of nuclear weapons in the future.”

During those years, Russia and the United States moved towards further reduction of strategic nuclear weapons. At the same time, both sides took measures to reduce the potential for mutual nuclear deterrence. Among them was the decision that their strategic nuclear forces must stay on constant alert while not being aimed at each other. During the same period, each side took a number of steps to change the state of reserve command and control systems. In particular, both sides agreed that their airborne control centers and airborne relay aircraft designed for conveying orders to submerged submarines would no longer stay permanently on combat duty. The number of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, the number of the U.S. bases, the U.S. and allied NATO troops in Europe was reduced dramatically. American and Russian military officers and generals began to actively exchange visits, including on-site visits to important strategic nuclear forces facilities of each side (command posts, launching pads, submarines, etc.).

The practical military steps taken at that time matched the real movement towards bilateral relations that did not need mutual nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction.

In the early 1990s, the political and military components of nuclear deterrence almost did not intersect. Mutual nuclear deterrence was almost no longer in demand in politics, and the military component, due to a number of organizational and technical factors, was limited to the top level.

The most important objective factor that influenced the negative trend in Russian-American relations in the 1990s was the resumption of the policy of deterrence once used towards the Soviet Union and restored with respect to Russia.

First, the struggle for spheres of influence resurfaced. With its Partnership for Peace initiative launched in 1994, the U.S. began drawing former socialist countries into its sphere of influence through the North Atlantic Alliance. But the first thing that contributed to Russia’s distrust of U.S. policy was the events in Yugoslavia. NATO’s aggression against Yugoslavia and the U.S. assistance in the formation of the so-called Kosovo Liberation Army from Kosovo Albanian criminal groups not only led to the separation of that region, but also put an end to Yugoslavia as a sovereign state.

After the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1999, the first wave of NATO enlargement took place. The North Atlantic Alliance was joined by Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Russia’s concern over NATO expansion was not taken into account.

As the political leadership in Russia and the United States changed in 2000-2001, the situation got worse. As Sergei Kortunov wrote, “…the Bush administration began with a number of statements that belittled Russia’s role and place in the modern world, questioned the patterns of interaction established over the years. Washington questioned the necessity of joint steps in arms reduction and limitation, declared a course towards a national missile defense system. The United States did not ratify the previously signed START II and CTBT treaties.” 

Nevertheless, after the terror attacks of 9/11 and the beginning of the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan against the Taliban, Russia acted as a real partner of the United States and provided much greater assistance than its official allies. Russia’s influence on members of the Northern Alliance made it possible to create a compromise Afghan Interim Administration and then to proclaim the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (IRA).

Russia also acted as a partner of the United States in justifying and preparing the U.S. military operation in Iraq. However, it was a responsible partnership. Russia tried to draw the United States’ attention to the risks of the military operation aimed at ousting the Saddam Hussein regime. As was demonstrated by further developments, and as the United States subsequently admitted, the consequences for the whole region turned out to be much more dramatic than it could have been if the operation had not taken place.

In December 2001, the U.S. announced its withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. Russia reacted to this step unemotionally, although called it a mistake.

However, the United States continued to ignore Russia’s interests.

The second wave of NATO enlargement took place in 2004 and was different in scale and nature. It not only included Eastern European states, but also the three Baltic post-Soviet states. Moreover, at the same time, the so-called color revolutions happened in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004), each supported by the United States. When Victor Yushchenko came to power in Ukraine and Mikhail Saakashvili in Georgia, they unleashed anti-Russian rhetoric and started to persuade the public opinion of the need to join NATO.

Simultaneously, Western countries began to exert pressure on Russia, acting on the strength of the Istanbul obligations under the CFE Treaty. By emphasizing certain obligations but ignoring the others, distorting the meaning of obligations concerning the military bases in Batumi and Akhalkalaki, as well as the obligations to withdraw ammunition from Transnistria, Western countries clearly demonstrated their desire to marginalize Russia in Transcaucasia and Transnistria and “delay the ratification and entry into force of the adapted CFE Treaty.”

In 2003, Sergei Kortunov rightly pointed out that “behind the U.S. disdainful attitude towards Russia is not another round of a Cold War-style confrontation, but a transition to bilateral relations completely different in nature, when one party treats the other as an inadequate partner which is incapable of responding appropriately in the foreseeable future.”

Apparently, such a qualitative change in the United States’ approach towards Russia influenced the nature of Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007. His statement provoked a lively reaction, but did not affect the Western countries’ Russia policy.

The United States’ assistance in training the Georgian armed forces prompted then President Saakashvili to try a military solution in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Almost at the same time, the government of Ukraine began to raise the issue of the Russian Black Sea Fleet facilities in Crimea and to say that it saw no grounds for extending the contract allowing the Black Sea Fleet to stay on the peninsula. Given the prospects for Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO, Russia saw these developments as an attempt to force it out of the Black Sea.

Russia’s peace enforcement operation against Georgia in August 2008 began only after several Russian peacekeepers in the region had been killed. Nevertheless, the Western media unleashed a powerful information campaign, where Russia was shown as an aggressor having attacked small and defenseless Georgia. The North Atlantic Alliance, instead of employing the Russia-NATO Council for its direct purposes—for consultations amidst a crisis—suspended the Council’s work.

Further developments that led to the Ukraine crisis were a logical extension of the policy to limit Russia’s sphere of influence in the post-Soviet area. The coup carried out with the Western support immediately after the agreement between President Victor Yanukovich and the opposition was signed on February 21, 2014 “was the most blatant coup in history” [J. Friedman. “In Ukraine, U.S. Interests are Incompatible with the Interests of the Russian Federation,” Kommersant, December 19, 2014]. Perhaps Russia’s actions after such outright deception and complete disregard for its interests were not entirely balanced and were to some extent emotional. However, in general, there could hardly be a different reaction. Even when NATO was preparing to admit the Baltic States, opinions were heard that it was a red line which Western countries should not cross. But the true red line was the coup in Ukraine, which brought nationalist and pro-fascist forces to power.

At the same time, other geopolitical goals of the United States can also be seen.

Economic relations between the European Union and Russia in recent years had reached the same magnitude as the U.S.-China relations. The sanctions policy allowed the U.S. to strike at these ties, which, along with other issues, contributed to the current crisis of the European Union. At the same time, as Henry Kissinger note in his book World Order. Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History, “the United States has every reason from history and geopolitics to bolster the European Union and prevent its drifting off into a geopolitical vacuum; The United States, if separated from Europe in politics, economics and defense, would become geopolitically an island off the shores of Eurasia, and Europe itself could turn into an appendage to the reaches of Asia and the Middle East.” Therefore, the U.S. is forced to balance between its two goals, which lead to contradictory consequences. Generally, the United States is not interested in a state of Russian-American relations that would push Russia towards very close relations with China; simultaneously the U.S. openly declares a policy of deterring Russia.

This leads to the conclusion that, despite significant deterioration in Russian-American relations, there is no objective need for a political component of nuclear deterrence either today or in the foreseeable future. However, the military component of mutual nuclear deterrence of Russian-American relations will continue to be used as a foreign policy instrument.

Due to organizational and technical issues, strategic nuclear forces of both countries (ground-based ICBMs) are kept in a state that matches the reality of mutual nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction. But since this state will continue into the foreseeable future, it would be quite logical to use it for certain purposes as a foreign policy instrument. Therefore, maintaining strategic stability will remain relevant. But this raises several questions, in particular:

  • Can the existing approach to strategic stability remain unchanged, taking into account the emergence of precision strike weapons with global reach, hypersonic and other new types of conventional weapons and the further buildup of missile defense capabilities?
  • Can the existing approach to strategic stability be used to launch a multilateral nuclear arms control process?
  • What criteria or indicators of strategic stability can provide the basis for such a process?


There is every reason to argue that the existing approach to strategic stability based on sustaining the state of mutually assured destruction has already become an impediment to the bilateral nuclear weapons reduction regime and is completely unfit for the transition to a multilateral framework of nuclear arms negotiations.

Strong correlation between strategic stability and mutually assured destruction does not allow the two countries to go beyond the existing framework of strategic stability and limits the possible scale of strategic arms reduction. The emergence of precision strike weapons ranging from tactical to strategic (global strike) ones prompts thoughts of an expanded interpretation of strategic stability.

Generally speaking, further prospects of nuclear arms cuts by Russia and the United States look very vague.

Obviously, the existing approach to strategic stability will cause even more serious difficulties at the start of multilateral negotiations. For example, an attempt to establish strategic stability between the U.S. and China can lead to an absurd situation requiring the nuclear potentials of the U.S., Russia, China, India, and Pakistan to be equalized.

The beginning of multilateral nuclear weapons negotiations warrants a new approach and new criteria related to the real role of nuclear weapons in the modern world.

The awareness of the catastrophic global consequences even a limited use of nuclear weapons may have led to the perception of nuclear weapons as an effective deterrent rather than a real weapon of war. But the paradox is that nuclear weapons can only maintain their deterrent role if the real possibility of their use remains uncertain. This approach is very clearly articulated in the U.S. Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations: “The U.S. does not make positive statements defining the circumstances under which it would use nuclear weapons. Maintaining U.S. ambiguity about when it would use nuclear weapons helps create doubt in the minds of potential adversaries, deterring them from taking hostile action. This calculated ambiguity helps reinforce deterrence. If the U.S. clearly defined conditions under which it would use nuclear weapons, others might infer another set of circumstances in which the U.S. would not use nuclear weapons. This perception would increase the chances that hostile leaders might not be deterred from taking actions they perceive as falling below that threshold.” In addition, it is necessary to take into account that not every nuclear state has a policy of military deterrence towards any other state. For example, France, a nuclear-weapon state, applies political and diplomatic containment in relations with other nations.

The strategic documents of Russia and the U.S. feature completely different conditions for the possible use of nuclear weapons.

For Russia, the possibility of nuclear weapons use is connected with the capability of conventional forces to repel aggression with conventional means. Moreover, if until recently the conditions that may present a threat to the existence of Russia as a state during a conventional conflict were linked to the weakness of the Russian conventional forces, now these conditions are critically dependent on the existence of dividing lines in Europe and on whether Russia will be chosen as an adversary of NATO. The military capabilities of Russia and NATO are incomparable. During the Cold War, NATO was forced to consider the use of nuclear weapons in case of military defeat. Nowadays the same decision is being imposed on Russia.

The U.S. approach to the use of nuclear weapons is completely different. Its location and military power render any threat to the state’s existence as a result of external conventional aggression all but impossible. Therefore, regardless of official doctrinal documents, the real motives behind the possible use of nuclear weapons are related to global power projection. It follows from strategic documents that the U.S. does not exclude the use of nuclear weapons in local conflicts. History shows that unfortunately such a scenario cannot be completely ruled out. The text of the Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations, where the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are mentioned as an example of the effective use of nuclear weapons, gives more reasons for such fears.

The top military authorities of both Russia and the United States adjust and maintain their plans for the use of strategic nuclear forces against each other. Those are each side’s basic plans for the use of nuclear weapons. As already mentioned, the military authorities are obliged to carry out such plans regardless of the current political situation.

Nuclear forces operations planning should obviously take into account new factors, new weapon systems and military equipment. But all that data should remain within the military establishment, not leaked to the mass media, getting distorted and transformed along the way to serve the political interests of certain groups and giving rise to toxic propaganda campaigns in each respective country. Historical record shows that hyped up propaganda in a critical situation may prompt a country’s leadership to make decisions based not on real facts, but on unhealthy public sentiments.

In general, there is no doubt that, from a military point of view, nuclear deterrence should include planning for the use of nuclear weapons. There is no question that the lack of motivation for the use of nuclear weapons by either side should be at the heart of strategic stability.

But is it necessary to bind the lack of motivation for the use of nuclear weapons with maintaining mutually assured destruction? If we stay faithful to this approach, we will need to take into account conventional high-precision weapons of various ranges and basing modes (ground, air and sea), missile defense capabilities, hypothetical decapitation and disarming strikes, etc. We will get stuck in a bilateral format in the face of the remaining challenge of nonproliferation, further development of China’s nuclear forces and unrecognized nuclear-weapon states.

For nuclear-weapon states, there is every reason to say that nuclear weapons are a political tool in their relations, and not a real warring device. In this regard, the approach offered by Sergei Rogov, the Academic Director of the Moscow-based Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies—a transition from mutually assured destruction to mutually assured security—seems most promising. The nature of mutually assured destruction is quite clear. Mutually assured security apparently requires a more detailed examination.


Security, broadly defined, is a condition that provides for development. In each specific case, we may talk about the development of different areas of human activity.

Nuclear weapons, on the one hand, provide the conditions for the development of mankind, acting as a deterrent, but on the other hand, if used, they are able to halt human progress or destroy humankind as we know it.

With that in mind, we can propose the following definition of nuclear security.

Nuclear security is a condition that provides political and military nuclear deterrence with a minimum risk of using nuclear weapons.

Based on the official paradigm outlined in the current Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, political nuclear deterrence can be defined as a condition wherein the fact of possessing nuclear weapons prevents the emergence of a military challenge and its escalation into a military threat.

Military nuclear deterrence can be defined as a condition wherein the fact of possessing nuclear weapons prevents the escalation of the military threat into a military conflict or prevents further escalation of a local conflict.

With this approach, the ultimate goal is to prevent the risk of using nuclear weapons. To this end, two main directions for providing the security of nuclear weapons (minimizing the risk of using nuclear weapons) can be identified:

  • Development of means and methods of conventional deterrence with efficiency comparable to nuclear deterrence.
  • Minimizing the risks of using nuclear weapons while pursuing the objectives of political and military nuclear deterrence, as well as in case of a military conflict.

A common goal for Russia and the United States with regard to nuclear weapons is a return to bilateral relations, where there is no political need for nuclear deterrence, but where the military component is maintained.

Overall, mutually assured security for nuclear states can be defined as the combination of the lack of political necessity for nuclear deterrence, the preservation of the military component of nuclear deterrence and the implementation of organizational and technical measures aimed at minimizing the risks of using nuclear weapons.

As mentioned earlier, the nuclear-weapon states must inevitably retain nuclear planning and include the use of nuclear weapons as a means of preventing a military threat or escalation of a local military conflict.

The set of actions to minimize the risks of using nuclear weapons should be split into national and international levels.

The international set of actions to reduce the risks of using nuclear weapons may well become the basis for engaging all nuclear states, both recognized and unrecognized, in dialogue, but it should begin in a bilateral Russia-U.S. format.

The specific aspects of this set of measures is a separate important issue, but some points can be indicated.

These measures can essentially be ensured through peacetime exchanges of certain types of information to alert the other side in case of confrontation or nuclear deterrence actions. The peculiarity of the deterrence mechanism is that a number of military actions traditionally kept in secret should be carried out openly for deterrence to be effective.

As for the issue of strategic stability at a time of new weapon systems, we should stop exaggerating the existing problems.

Just as it is impossible to create an effective missile defense system capable of stopping a massive nuclear missile strike (though it is possible to create a system that can protect from a conventional strike), it is impossible to ensure a disarming or a decapitating strike.

Speaking about a decapitation strike, it is necessary to additionally take into account the existence of automatic systems for launching missiles in response to a decapitation strike (the so-called “dead hand”).

Concentration of the necessary amount of precision strike weapons for the simultaneous destruction of strategic nuclear forces and command and control systems is not feasible, even if one of the parties decides to use nuclear weapons.

Moreover, it must be affirmed in official documents and openly stated that attacks on any element of nuclear forces infrastructure during a military conflict are unacceptable and will provoke a preemptive strike. The use of conventional weapons, including non-traditional means of warfare, should not provoke the first use of nuclear weapons. Such an approach can be established through international documents so as not to clutter strategic arms control and strategic stability agendas.