The June 16 summit in Geneva between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin — the leaders of the two largest nuclear-weapons states — is a pivotal opportunity to begin reducing the growing risk of nuclear conflict and get back on track to pare their bloated and dangerous nuclear stockpiles, which exceed any realistic requirements for deterrence.
After more than a decade of rising tensions and growing nuclear competition between the two major nuclear-weapons states, disarmament discussions have been pushed to the back burner.
Both countries are spending tens of billions of dollars a year modernizing and upgrading their massive nuclear stockpiles. Russia has wantonly violated several arms-control and nonproliferation agreements, is developing new nuclear weapons delivery systems that echo some of the worst excesses of the Cold War, and may be increasing its total warhead stockpile for the first time in decades.
The strategic relationship has been further complicated by the development and fielding by each side of emerging technologies, such as offensive cyber and hypersonic weapons, and new advances in U.S. missile defense systems.
At this point, neither side can credibly claim they are fulfilling their nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament ….”
In February, with only days to spare, Biden and Putin wisely agreed to extend for five years the only remaining treaty limiting the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals: the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Unless they make progress in the next few years on new nuclear arms control agreements, there will be no binding limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons for the first time since 1972.
As a bicameral congressional working group on nuclear arms control noted in their April 20 letter to the president, “Although New START is necessary, it is not by itself sufficient to tackle the threat that nuclear weapons present.”
In recent weeks, dozens of nuclear security and disarmament experts and organizations, including the Arms Control Association (where I serve as executive director), have called upon the two leaders to:
“Commit to a bilateral strategic dialogue that is regular, frequent, comprehensive and result-oriented leading to further reduction of the nuclear risk hanging over the world and to the re-discovery of the road to a world free of nuclear weapons.”
As a tangible step to help defuse tensions and provide some positive momentum, a wide range of experts and former senior officials are also calling on the two presidents, as well as the leaders of the other nuclear-armed states, to reaffirm the common-sense statement issued by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan at their 1985 summit that: “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
Mutual Interest in Maintaining “Strategic Stability”
While there are many areas of disagreement between the two governments, there is a common interest in renewing a serious dialogue on maintaining “strategic stability,” the aim of which is to ensure that neither side has an incentive to use nuclear weapons first or has an incentive to build up its nuclear forces. Doing so requires dialogue aimed at achieving greater predictability, transparency, and understanding between the two sides.
Strategic stability has been one of the central objectives of U.S.-Russian arms control talks and agreements since the late-1960s. In 1973, the two sides concluded a formal Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War. In 1990, Presidents George H. W. Bush and Gorbachev updated their countries’ understanding of the elements of strategic stability in a joint communique.
Maintaining strategic stability is, however, easier said than done, especially given the absence of meaningful talks on the subject since the United States cut-off the dialogue following Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. New weapons developments, including planned new Russian nuclear systems, advances in U.S. missile defense, increased offensive cyber activity, misconceptions about each other’s nuclear use policies, as well as close military encounters between U.S./NATO and Russian forces, have further complicated the situation.
To be effective, future strategic stability discussions need to amount to more than brief exchanges of grievances, as was the case during the Trump era. Instead, the dialogue needs to be regular, frequent, comprehensive, and results-oriented. It must lead to actions and agreements that meaningfully reduce of the nuclear risk.
On April 15, Biden said a summit meeting with Putin could be a launching point for talks on strategic stability and nuclear arms control.
On June 9, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated Russia’s support for “a comprehensive approach and taking into account all, without exception, factors influencing strategic stability in our dialogue with the United States. I mean nuclear and non-nuclear, and offensive and defensive weapons.”
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on June 10, in reference to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, among other issues: “We believe the starting point for strategic stability talks should be the very complex set of nuclear arms issues that face our two countries. We’ve extended New START for five years. But what comes after that? How do we deal with the fact that the INF Treaty is no more? How do we deal with our concerns about Russia’s new nuclear systems…Whether additional elements get added to strategic stability talks in the realm of space or cyber or other areas — that’s something to be determined as we go forward.”
Next Steps on Nuclear Arms Control
Serious, sustained strategic stability talks are overdue and essential, but achieving new agreements to specifically reduce nuclear excess will be even more challenging. The two sides can and must move quickly to find effective and innovative solutions before New START expires in 2026, because such new agreements take years to negotiate.
To make progress, the two sides will need to tackle four difficult but resolvable sets of issues:
- Strategic nuclear cuts. A key objective of the next round of talks should be deeper, verifiable reductions in the total number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems. In 2013, the Obama administration, with input from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, determined that the United States could further reduce its strategic nuclear forces by up to one-third below New START levels, to approximately 1,000 warheads, and still meet core U.S. nuclear deterrence goals. These limits will need to factor in new strategic nuclear systems being developed by both sides, including hypersonic weapons and sea-based nuclear-armed cruise missiles.
- Tactical nuclear weapons. New START follow-on negotiations should also address nonstrategic nuclear weapons, beginning with a transparency agreement requiring detailed declarations on tactical nuclear stockpiles, including warheads in storage. Russia is believed to possess 1,000 to 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, with many in centralized storage; the U.S. possesses a few hundred, including some 160 that are forward-deployed at five NATO bases in Europe. Making progress on tactical nuclear arms control, however, should not become a prerequisite for lower ceilings on the two sides’ strategic nuclear arsenals.
- Understandings on strategic missile interceptors. U.S. efforts to further limit Russian nuclear weapons and bring China into the arms control process are unlikely to gain traction unless Washington agrees to seriously discuss constraints on its long-range missile defense capabilities. Fielding sufficient numbers of U.S. missile interceptors to mitigate the threat of a limited ballistic attack from North Korea or Iran and agreeing to binding limits on the quantity, location, and capability of missile defense systems should not be mutually exclusive.
- Averting a race on intermediate-range missiles. In the absence of the INF Treaty, the risk of a new nuclear missile race in Europe will grow. Biden, in coordination with NATO, should counter Russia’s 2020 proposal for a verifiable moratorium on the deployment in Europe of missiles formerly banned by the INF Treaty. Although imperfect, the Russian proposal is a starting point. Another option would be to verifiably ban nuclear-armed ground-launched and sea-launched cruise and ballistic missiles.
Biden and Putin should explore how they can work together to broaden the disarmament effort. But rather than arrogantly and unsuccessfully demanding, as the Trump administration did, that Beijing join in three-way nuclear arms control negotiations with Washington and Moscow, they could leverage an existing P5 Dialogue (involving the five nuclear-armed states, including also China, France, and the U.K.) on nuclear issues and explore creative options that take into account the disparities in the size of the nuclear powers’ arsenals. (China’s arsenal is estimated to be around 350 nuclear weapons; the U.S. and Russian arsenals are estimated to exceed 5,200 and 6,500 respectively.
One option might be for the United States and Russia to call upon China, France, and the U.K. to join them in reporting on their total nuclear-weapons holdings and to freeze their nuclear stockpiles as long as the United States and Russia pursue deeper verifiable reductions in their far-larger arsenals. For their part, Chinese leaders need to be prepared to respond with constructive ideas.
Once a nuclear weapon is used by accident or miscalculation or in response to nonnuclear aggression, there is no guarantee that all-out nuclear war can be averted, and certainly, no one can claim to be the “winner.” It is by no means certain that the leaders of the nuclear-armed states, particularly the United States and Russia, will continue to have enough good luck, responsible leadership, and managerial competence to avoid catastrophe.
In 1979, during the depths of the Cold War, then-Senator Joe Biden argued for “the necessity of arms control.” He told an Arms Control Association gathering that “pursuing arms control is not a luxury or a sign of weakness, but an international responsibility and a national necessity.” That was true then and is true today.