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Putin’s treaty withdrawal doesn’t spell doom for arms control

Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin watches military exercises at Donguz shooting range near Orenburg, Russia, on Sept. 20, 2019. Putin has warned that he wouldn’t hesitate to use nuclear weapons to ward off Ukraine’s attempt to reclaim control of its occupied regions that Moscow is about to absorb.

Although he certainly meant it as no favor to the United States, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent decision to suspend Russia’s participation in the so-called “New START” U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control treaty may do us a service nonetheless. The arms control void opens up opportunities for creative thought about what, if anything, should replace New START when it definitively expires in 2026, including and especially ways of bringing China’s nuclear arsenal into a regime. Moreover, the question of what should follow New START will be pertinent even if the Ukraine war ends by then and Russia resumes its obligations under the current treaty.

The accord, a successor to the SALT agreements under Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter of the Cold War and the START treaties under President George H.W. Bush has been useful since its entry into force in 2011. New START limits long-range nuclear warheads, on land-based missiles and sub-based missiles and heavy bombers to 1,550 for each side — still several times what would be needed to destroy Russian and American societies. But those numbers are reduced more than 80 percent relative to Cold War levels. Not only does this reduce the risk of a nuclear accident, it also means Russia and the United States save a lot of money compared to what they otherwise might spend on an unconstrained nuclear arms race.  

Additionally, through on-site inspections and data exchanges, New START is meant to foster transparency and confidence-building — easing fears that either side might be planning a surprise buildup or even nuclear first strike against the other. Except, of course, that Russia is now suspending those stabilizing measures.

Even without the latest shenanigans from Moscow, however, New START has become dated.  Though a much-evolved version of earlier bilateral nuclear limitation agreements, it adheres too closely to the original formula to maintain long-term relevance in an increasingly complex strategic environment — namely, limitations on shorter-range or tactical nuclear weapons, where Russia has a lead, were left for a successor agreement. Likewise, long-range precision-strike conventional weapons, where the United States generally sets the pace, were left for a future negotiation. Same for Putin’s “Dr. No”-like dream weapons to include silly contraptions such as intercontinental nuclear-armed torpedoes. 

Most of all, New START leaves out China — a country that, after decades of being content to marshal nuclear forces less than a tenth the size of our arsenal, now appears bent on owning 1,500 of its own by 2035, according to the Pentagon’s latest assessments. That would remain no more than a third of our own arsenal’s size. Yet, in a world where Moscow and Beijing increasingly collaborate strategically, such a force level no longer would be negligible. 

What to do? The first thought might be to ask China to join a future arms treaty and to cap its buildup at 1,000 to 1,500 warheads. That number would be several times what it has today, but would remain far below U.S. levels, so perhaps would constitute a reasonable compromise.  Additionally, Putin has called for factoring in the combined British/French nuclear strength of about 500 warheads, which, together with U.S. warheads, could sustain a rough parity between the Western alliance system and the China-Russia “axis.” 

Of course, there are several problems with this approach. First, Beijing appears entirely uninterested in this — or any other kind of formal arms control at present. Perhaps fearing the United States might try to invoke nuclear superiority in a future Taiwan crisis, when Washington no longer could count on just conventional military forces to protect the island, China may wish to checkmate that capacity by growing its arsenal to a size that approaches nuclear parity.  

Second, and in fairness to Beijing, it is probably tired of getting harangued for its supposedly aggressive nuclear behavior after more than half a century of considerable restraint. If entering into arms control talks would just subject China to criticism, China understandably may have little interest. 

In addition, even if this kind of accord maintained a certain parity between “East” and “West” today, it would favor Chinese and Russian forces numerically in the long run (since Britain and France have no intentions of building up their forces). Finally, why would we want to push Beijing and Moscow even further together through the structure of future arms control accords, when our real strategic goal should be the Nixonian one of eventually driving them apart?

The right answer in a future arms treaty must be to not leave China out — but to not bring it in as part of the same bloc as Russia, either. A more creative third way is needed. Enter a new approach.

First, China, along with Britain and France, should join the United States and Russia in a formal treaty that mandates verification measures, data exchanges and consultations. This approach would foster transparency and reduce uncertainty, rather than impose limitations on the new participants.

In addition, there would be treaty-based mechanisms to discourage big nuclear buildups but without formal numerical constraints on China, France or Britain. The three new participants would also declare, as with the Paris Agreement on climate change, their nuclear goals for the future. Such declarations would be non-binding, in the sense that they could be modified. But all participants would be subject to inspection and assessments of compliance. They also would be expected to explain and defend their plans for nuclear modernization or expansion. These would be the new, unequivocal requirements for being a “responsible nuclear power.”

The treaty could clearly state that by 2030, the onus would be on any country considering a nuclear buildup to justify to the other parties and the world why that was necessary. Such moral suasion is admittedly not always an adequate tool for limiting the assertive behaviors of foreign powers. But if it did not suffice here, the other parties would retain the right to withdraw from the treaty framework. Moreover, any willingness by Moscow and Washington to agree, in this or a future accord, to further nuclear cuts would naturally depend in large part on the nuclear expansion efforts of China, in particular, in the intervening years. That understanding would create at least some implicit leverage to employ with Beijing as well as Moscow. 

This kind of approach is less of a departure from “traditional” arms control treaties than it may seem: Arms control is increasingly valuable for the information it provides and treaties have grown in breadth to include multiple methods of providing information since SALT I, which relied on national technical means (spy satellites) exclusively.

Further, rather than a numerical limitation treaty of limited duration, this agreement ought to be one of unlimited duration, with provisions for flexibility and adaptation, including a consultative body, and provisions for including additional members. It should have mechanisms to consider novel technologies of relevance in the future as well, as needed.

This arms control framework would be a long-term means of managing uncertainty and enhancing transparency in the nuclear competition, while also keeping at least some lid on the cost of any multi-party nuclear arms race. 

Given the state of great-power relations today, this kind of accord may well not prove negotiable for some time. But we are already overdue for a conceptual debate about how to think about the future of arms control once that is again possible. Perhaps Putin has just reminded us to get on with it.

Amy J. Nelson is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Foreign Policy program and with the Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy and Technology. Her research focuses on emerging, evolving and disruptive technologies and their impact on proliferation, as well as improving the efficacy of arms control. She previously was a Robert Bosch Fellow in residence at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. Follow her on Twitter @AmyJNelsonPhD.

Michael O’Hanlon is the Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy at the Brookings Institution and the author of several books, including “The Art of War in an Age of Peace: U.S. Grand Strategy and Resolute Restraint” and “Military History for the Modern Strategist.” Follow him on Twitter @MichaelEOHanlon.

Tags Arms control China nuclear New START Treaty Nuclear weapons Richard Nixon Russia-US relations Vladimir Putin

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