US and Russia arms race would be detrimental to strategic stability

US and Russia arms race would be detrimental to strategic stability
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With the death of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Pentagon’s recent testing of a medium range, ground-based cruise missile, and the looming expiration of the New START treaty, one can be forgiven for feeling a sense of Cold War déjà vu. 

The United States and Russia — the world’s two largest nuclear superpowers — are on the cusp of a 21st century arms race that would be detrimental to strategic stability and yet throw one more obstacle in the way of stabilizing an already tense and acrimonious U.S.-Russia relationship.

U.S. and Russian officials are currently talking past each other and casting allegations about who is primarily at fault for making the world a more dangerous place. 

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At the same time Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinTrump's 'soldier of fortune' foreign policy Feehery: Impeachment fever bad for Democratic governing vision Taliban travels to Moscow after Trump declares talks dead MORE is promising to “react accordingly” to Washington’s fielding of new mission systems, U.S. defense officials have committed to developing, testing and deploying longer-range cruise and ballistic missiles as a response to Moscow’s violation of the INF Treaty. 

The Kremlin will respond to any increase in Washington’s missile buildup with an increase of its own, lighting a match to the same kind of arms race that proved so dangerous in the past. U.S. 

President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev eventually came to the logical conclusion that there were no winners in an arms competition and that plowing resources into ever-more sophisticated missiles was unsustainable. Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin should take a lesson from their predecessors and work collaboratively to prevent the situation from becoming worse.

The first item for business is to address the potential crisis resulting from the demise of the INF. Pointing fingers in a war for public perception serves no purpose other than to further politicize an effort at turning the relationship around. 

Instead of engaging in a war of words, Trump and Putin should immediately dispatch and empower their negotiators to launch a comprehensive discussion about limits and caps to the very land-based, medium and long-range missile systems covered under the INF Treaty. 

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While the INF may be dead and buried, Washington and Moscow can begin work on codifying an informal understanding whereby the deployment of INF treaty-covered missiles is prohibited. 

Although such an understanding could conceivably be broken at any time, such an interim measure would at least freeze the current strategic balance as it now exists and provide both sides with an opportunity to explore alternative arms control arrangements that better take into account a world with new strategic and non-strategic weapons platforms. 

The objective is less about immediately hammering out an agreement and more about buying time, reassessing, and letting cooler heads prevail before an expensive and needless missile buildup is solidified.

Second, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump conversation with foreign leader part of complaint that led to standoff between intel chief, Congress: report Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Trump to withdraw FEMA chief nominee: report MORE should stop wasting precious time and come to the realization that renewing the New START agreement is in the U.S. national security interest. 

New START, which caps the number of deployed nuclear warheads on deployed land, sea and air-launched platforms to 1,550, is an information bonanza for the United States on Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal. The accord mandates information exchanges, precise data about the number, type and location of Moscow’s deployed nuclear warheads and a series of on-sight inspections every year the testy is in effect to assist in verifying Russian compliance (according to the U.S. State Department, Russia is in fact complying with the treaty). 

Without New START, all of this information and access goes away, freeing up Moscow to deploy more warheads and increasing the incentive for U.S. officials to base future strategic decisions on worst-case assumptions. Allowing the last remaining arms control mechanism between two countries with a combined 12,600 nuclear weapons to expire is as nonsensical as it is dangerous.

Washington and Moscow could also desperately use a hard-headed, difficult, but necessary dialogue on issues of disagreement (of which there are many) in order to help ensure competition in one arena does not negatively impact cooperation in other areas of mutual concern. 

U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman, who will soon vacate his post, was right when he observed that however intractable U.S.-Russia relations have been over the past five years, the bilateral relationship is too important to mismanage or allow to be overtaken by permanent antagonism. 

Wise statecraft requires searching for opportunities for collaboration on shared interests on everything from counterterrorism and arms control to trade and non-interference in one another’s internal affairs. Many times, this means swallowing your pride and talking directly with competitors and adversaries. If U.S. and Russian officials could do it during the height of the Cold War, they can do it today.

For officeholders, lawmakers and pundits in the Beltway, it is far easier politically to talk tough to the Russians, enact sanctions on the Russian economy and snub pragmatic diplomacy when disagreements arise. 

In some cases, sticks may be appropriate. But a blanket U.S. policy of diplomatic isolation often does more harm than good, especially when the targeted country is a great power in the international system. 

If Presidents Trump and Putin wish to stabilize U.S.-Russia relations, they both need to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.