Amid the uncertainty surrounding the discussion between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in their two-hour summit meeting without staff in Helsinki, Finland on July 16, one thing is clear: Both leaders talk determinedly about improving US-Russia relations. Trump and Putin have invited each other for follow-on visits in their respective capitals, possibly next year. Trump said before Helsinki that the nuclear “arms race” was on his agenda, and the Russian leader said at the summit’s press conference that his administration had given the Americans “a note with a number of specific suggestions” on “strategic stability and global security and nonproliferation,” and indicated his desire “to work together further” on nuclear issues.
The actual contents of the meeting the Russian proposal remain unknown, and there is skepticism from US observers across the political spectrum that a nuclear deal with Russia should even be attempted at present. Even so, the US and Russian governments should make the most of this moment and see if a good deal can be struck. It is worth the effort. An agenda for a restarted arms control process should include extending the New START accord that is working well for both sides, shutting down a nascent nuclear arms race, and beginning to address still-dangerous Cold War legacies, including multiple-warhead ballistic missiles.
From Cold War to New START
In the closing years of the Cold War and first two decades after its end, the bilateral Washington-Moscow nuclear arms control process achieved deep reductions in deployed warheads and nuclear delivery vehicles (bombers, missiles, and submarines). It also facilitated steep cuts in total warhead stockpiles.
Smaller atomic arsenals lowered the risk of a nuclear exchange between the superpowers. They reduced the odds that terrorists would acquire “loose nukes.” Today, US and Russian arsenals are down almost 90 percent compared with their Cold War peaks. The central limits of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) took effect this year, with both parties below its limits on strategic (intercontinental) nuclear forces of 700 deployed missiles and bombers, and 1,550 deployed warheads.
When New START expires in 2021, the parties can extend it once for up to five years. With Putin’s endorsement at Helsinki, extension should be a no-brainer. New START buttresses strategic stability via limits that keep the strategic nuclear forces of the two nuclear superpowers at effective parity. It provides predictability. The treaty allows regular on-site inspections that provide transparency, deter cheating, and ultimately allow the parties to, in President Ronald Reagan’s famous words, “trust, but verify” (dovorey, no provery in Russian). The dozens of annual inspections, frequent data exchanges and notifications (more than 15,000 to date), and regular dialogue maintain a vital working relationship between Washington and Moscow regarding the most fearsome weapons they possess.
A Long-Term Relationship on the Rocks
Unfortunately, as US-Russia relations have deteriorated, even something as simple as extending New START has become a question mark.
Tensions were rising well before Russia occupied Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, and before Russia carried out division-stoking information operations, hacking, and other espionage inside the US and other Western democracies starting in 2015-16 (which continues through the present day).
Russia has complained bitterly for years about US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 and expansion of NATO eastward starting in the 1990s. For geopolitical and internal political reasons, the Russian government in the early part of this decade ramped up efforts to stoke anti-Western paranoia inside Russia, raised exaggerated concerns about limited NATO missile defenses focused on Iran, rehearsed nuclear attacks on NATO, and touted its nuclear force modernization.
For several years now, in a manner not seen since the Cold War, Russia has been rattling its nuclear saber by word and by deed, including by operating Russian nuclear forces near US and NATO territory. Putin and then-US President Barack Obama had chilly personal relations, and the Kremlin dismissed Obama’s 2013 call for new negotiated nuclear arms cuts. The risk of military conflict involving Russia, the US, and other NATO members is real – and indeed higher than at any point since the Cold War.
Russia has also taken steps that undermine the arms control regime crafted to such great success at the Cold War’s end. Most notably, after years of ominous hints, as of last year Russia appears to have deployed up to two dozen new cruise missiles (the 9M729, or SSC-8) that the US believes violate the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The greatest achievement of Reagan’s partnership with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the INF Treaty banned ground-launched missiles with ranges from 500 to 5,500 kilometers. The verified dismantlement of these weapons eliminated, all told, 846 US and 1,846 Soviet missiles. Meanwhile, Russia alleges that several small US systems that (unlike the Russian cruise missile) are not intermediate-range nuclear forces violate the INF Treaty, most notably the US missile defenses in Europe that are focused on Iran’s missile capabilities.
At the close of Obama’s presidency, both Russia and the US had programs underway to replace aging Cold War-era strategic nuclear hardware, while still reducing the stockpile to below New START limits. But as acrimony and allegations of treaty violations have escalated, the signs of a new arms race have stacked up.
Just as he has initiated trade wars and claimed they are “good, and easy to win,” Trump has claimed that the US is conducting an “arms race” and reportedly told Putin “I’ll win.” The US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) released earlier this year proposed two new US nuclear systems: a new tactical nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) to be carried by attack submarines, and a low-yield nuclear warhead for the strategic Trident II missiles carried by ballistic missile submarines. And, reaction to Russia’s INF Treaty violation, R&D is also underway on a new US ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) that, if fielded, would violate the INF Treaty.
Putin responded in a major speech earlier this year by highlighting a variety of advanced new Russian weapons. These included a fast nuclear-armed underwater drone, and upgraded missiles and warheads purportedly able to penetrate US missile defenses. Putin played a video (here at roughly the 1:20:00 mark) showing a huge new Russian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) – Russia calls it “Sarmat,” NATO calls it the SS-X-29 or “Satan II” – showering nuclear warheads on targets near Trump’s Mar-a-Lago hotel in Florida.
Putting Things in Perspective
An arms race, of course, could be enormously expensive at a time of vast and expanding federal budget deficits in the US. Moreover, it risks disrupting the nuclear balance, shredding the arms control regime, and ultimately endangering nuclear deterrence, world peace, and human civilization.
Indications of a new nuclear arms race, together with the general deterioration in US-Russian relations and allegations of violations of the INF Treaty, also stand in the way of addressing persistent Cold War nuclear threats. As I have explored in my scholarship, the Cold War’s unfinished business includes the risks associated with strategic land-based missiles carrying multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), and tactical nuclear weapons carried by fighter jets, short-range missiles, and naval vessels.
In short, there is important work to be done, but a lot of reasons why progress will be difficult. Relations may well deteriorate further.
We should remember, however, that just before the modern nuclear arms control regime was forged, things looked even worse before they got better. By 1983, the US-Soviet arms control process had halted, the nuclear arms race was at full tilt, and concern about war in Europe was real and growing. Each side had more than 10,000 nuclear warheads. By the time of the INF Treaty in 1987, however, two leaders – Reagan and Gorbachev – had forged a cooperative personal relationship and agreed to work together to end the arms race and reduce tensions.
The 1980s and late 2010s are not perfect analogues, to be sure. Geopolitics, the Washington-Moscow relationship, the domestic politics of both countries, and the motives of the two leaders seem even more complex today. Even so, Trump and Putin do seem to want to get along, and there are nuclear problems to be addressed.
A Package Deal
If Trump and Putin want to do a nuclear deal, here is where they should start.
First, they should extend New START. The treaty’s limits would put a lid on the US-Russian race in global-range strategic nuclear forces through 2026. The parties could replace Cold War systems but avoid any net increase in deployed forces.
If the parties can – as Putin reportedly suggested at Helsinki – additionally reaffirm the INF Treaty and agreements on conventional forces in Europe and other matters, and also see full Russian compliance, that would be terrific. Either way, the US should offer two inter-related deals that move beyond New START.
One is that the parties both foreswear new systems they are developing that are not subject to New START. The US would halt work on the new cruise missiles (the nuclear SLCM and non-nuclear GLCM) and Russia would shelve plans for a nuclear underwater drone. These systems would cost money and increase uncertainty during crises. If fielded, the naval nukes could raise the stakes if the two navies ever come to blows at sea.
The other deal would involve intermediate and strategic forces. As I proposed recently in the Stanford Journal of International Law, the US would agree to amend the INF Treaty to provide minor relief for Russia (say, 50 missiles with one warhead each), in exchange for Russia agreeing to a ban on heavy strategic land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with multiple warheads (MIRVs).
Russia has been interested in relief from the INF Treaty for some time, reportedly due in part to concern about China, which is not a treaty party, fielding missiles with intermediate ranges. To be sure, there would be concern in Asia and within NATO about Russia having intermediate-range nuclear forces again. But Russia is already in violation, and allowing the Kremlin 50 cruise missiles would not meaningfully shift the military balance.
The US – and the world – would get something truly meaningful in a land-based MIRV ban. MIRVed ICBMs have long been regarded as the most potentially destabilizing strategic (long-range) nuclear arms. That is because MIRVs concentrate many warheads on single targets, creating reason to shoot first if use of nuclear weapons looks imminent. Both sides know that one or two attacking warheads could destroy up to 10 warheads on one MIRVed target missile – fostering “use it or lose it” pressure in a crisis both to attack MIRVed missiles first and to fire MIRVed missiles first.
Such “shoot first” incentives undermine strategic stability: alignment of incentives against use of nuclear weapons. In the interest of strategic stability and achieving treaty limits, the US de-MIRVed its land-based missiles – all have one warhead each. However, MIRVed risks are growing as Russia replaces the aged 10-warhead SS-18 “Satan” missile with the new 10-warhead (or more) Satan II, and China and Pakistan move forward with MIRVs. India may follow.
A land-based MIRV ban was the great promise of the 1993 START II treaty that never entered into force. The US should propose reviving the ban. Because missiles are more expensive than warheads, scrapping the huge Satan II might be costly for Russia and upset some constituencies in its military-industrial-political complex. But other Russian power players would benefit as Russia built more single-warhead missiles to match total deployed US levels near New START’s ceiling. Putin would have to manage the politics at home.
Ultimately, this package deal would look pretty good for Russia: extension of New START’s cap on strategic force levels beyond even a potential second term of an arms race-favoring Trump, and agreement from the US to not field new cruise missiles that could be deployed at sea and in Europe within range of Russia. To sweeten the deal, the US could offer to forego a low-yield warhead on Trident submarines (the US already has other nuclear weapons, such as the B61 bomb, with low yield capabilities).
The US, for its part, would keep Russian strategic forces capped and inspected under New START through at least 2026; achieve the decades-old US objective of eliminating Russian MIRVed ICBMs; and would see the proposed new US cruise missiles put to the main use Defense Secretary James Mattis envisions: a bargaining chip. Both sides win, with lots of room to argue to their domestic constituencies that the other side lost.
The Way Ahead
Not just an INF Treaty amendment, but any nuclear deal in full should be contained in a treaty subject to the advice and consent of the US Senate. That is a four-decade tradition with nuclear arms control accords. Public skepticism of Trump’s ties with Russia is another important reason why the American people through their senators should have a say regarding any nuclear deal with Putin.
Certainly, cutting the kind of deal I outline here would not be easy. US-Russian tensions across a wide swath of issues, other agenda items such as Ukraine and Syria, the nascent nuclear arms race, and the lack of even a joint communique emerging from Helsinki are not encouraging. But whatever potential is there for a nuclear deal should be pursued. At the very least, the attempt would help set the agenda for whenever conditions change sufficiently to allow the arms control process to resume successfully. The growing risk of military conflict involving Russia against the US and its NATO allies, together with growing nuclear risks, makes it worth the effort.