U.S.-Russian relations are at their lowest point in decades, with huge implications for the future of arms control and nonproliferation. Should the situation deteriorate even further, Washington and Moscow could soon be on the brink of a direct confrontation or even a nuclear escalation. The Soviet Union and the United States were long able to avoid a nuclear war by negotiating a set of political agreements and treaties that kept military escalation under control. Unfortunately, the arms control regime that those agreements helped build is on the verge of complete collapse.
The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which placed limits on missile defense, and the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, which limited the number of tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery guns, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters used on the continent, are dead. Meanwhile, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which bans ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 500–5,500 kilometers (310–3,400 miles), is in big trouble, with both sides accusing each other of violations.
If the INF treaty, a cornerstone of European security, collapses, the New START treaty signed between then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and then U.S. President Barack Obama in 2010 will not be able to survive on its own. The agreement, which reduced the number of strategic nuclear weapons to 700 deployed launchers and 1,550 warheads, would then expire on February 5, 2021, without prolongation. Should this come to pass, the multipolar international system will be thrown into chaos.
To prevent a disastrous clash, the two countries need to maintain and strengthen the arms-control safety net. That’s why it’s necessary to resume a Russian-U.S. dialogue that will lead to official negotiations. For now, the agenda should be narrow, prioritizing three key issues: the preservation of the INF Treaty, the prolongation of the New START treaty, and the prevention of dangerous military accidents.
SAVING THE ARMS-CONTROL SAFETY NET
At present, the INF Treaty is in danger of collapsing because of accusations of violation on both sides. Addressing these accusations is the first step to ensuring that the treaty continues.
Moscow claims that Washington committed three violations of the treaty. First, it accuses the United States of using of medium-range missiles (made of two stages of ICBMs) banned under the agreement as targets for testing American ballistic missile defense interceptors. Second, Russia has pointed to the U.S. use of armed unmanned aerial vehicles, which effectively operate as ground-launched cruise missiles prohibited under the deal. Finally, it claims that the United States’ Aegis Ashore missile defense system deployed in Romania (and soon Poland) can be fitted to fire offensive, sea-launched cruise missiles (Tomahawk missiles) as ground-launched ones. Washington claims that it didn’t install the necessary software to launch Tomahawks from the platform, but Moscow is concerned that even if that is presently the case, it could easily do so in the future.
Fortunately, there is a way to resolve each of these disputes. The issue of test missiles can be fixed through a compromise that will permit both the United States and Russia to use a limited number (for instance, five to ten annually) of the prohibited weapons, deployed only at the testing base and not elsewhere. The problem of drones requires a compromise definition of these systems as distinct from the ground-launched cruise missiles prohibited by the INF Treaty. Lastly, Washington should agree to modify the tubes of the interceptor launchers in Romania and Poland so that canisters containing Tomahawks or other offensive missiles cannot be installed there. Russian inspectors should be able to visit American facilities in both locations in order to verify that this is the case.
The United States, meanwhile, has accused Russia of violating the INF Treaty by testing, producing, and deploying a new type of ground-launched cruise missile with a prohibited range. In response, the U.S. government sanctioned two Russian companies (Novator Design Bureau and Titan Central Design Bureau) in December 2017 for their alleged role in the development of this missile. The Pentagon, meanwhile, has received funds to begin research and development of its own new intermediate-range, road-mobile, ground-launched ballistic missile. The Trump administration, however, announced last December that it was ready to cease the research and development activities if Moscow “returns to full and verifiable compliance with its INF Treaty obligations,” and the new U.S. Nuclear Posture Review does not mention withdrawal from the INF Treaty.
The problem can be resolved if Russia agrees to invite American inspectors to verify that the missile in question is not of the ground-launched variety banned by the INF Treaty but, rather, a ship- and submarine-launched land attack missile now in service with the Russian Navy. (The treaty allows testing of sea-launched cruise missiles from ground-based platforms.) The matter can then be put to rest. Moscow and Washington should also agree to restore the original inspecting and monitoring regime of the INF Treaty, which was abandoned in 2001. They may also decide to call on other nuclear weapon states to join the agreement.
If the INF Treaty is preserved, Russia and the United States can quickly negotiate prolongation of the New START treaty until 2026. Today, there are no official negotiations on deeper cuts of strategic nuclear weapons. This means that if the treaty is allowed to expire in 2021, there will no limitations on nuclear arsenals at all for the first time since 1972.
Finally, both countries need to make a renewed effort to prevent dangerous military accidents that could quickly lead to disaster. It’s important to remember that the United States and the Soviet Union signed agreements on prevention of accidents at sea (1972); prevention of a nuclear war (1973); and prevention of dangerous military activities (1989). With the passage of these agreements, the two sides agreed to not play games of chicken and engage in other reckless activity. Those arrangements helped to prevent dangerous incidents such as the underwater clash of submarines. Together with arms control treaties, these deals helped to stabilize the rivalry between the two superpowers and eventually to end the Cold War. Moscow and Washington should resume regular contacts to revisit those agreements, modernize them, and adapt them to the new situation.
Additional steps could further improve the situation. There is a need for a separate Russia-NATO agreement on prevention of military accidents, for example. But for now, there is no reason that the current trends need to continue between the United States and Russia. If Moscow and Washington agree on proposed rules of competition, they can restore trust, maintain the nuclear and arms-control safety net for the next decade, and prevent tensions from escalating to the point of disaster.