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The sobering reasons Congress must step up on arms control

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President Putin remarked in Helsinki this week that there is “no solid reason” for the “tense atmosphere” between the United States and Russia. Most Americans would disagree. Republicans and Democrats alike resent Russian interference in U.S. elections — by itself a very solid reason for strained relations. Russia’s invasion and annexation of parts of Ukraine and its fueling of the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis present additional challenges to US and global interests.  

As Americans try to make sense of President Trump’s disturbing meeting with Mr. Putin, some history may help put our current troubled relationship with Russia in perspective.

{mosads}This year marks the 35th anniversary of the “Able Archer” nuclear scare. “Able Archer 83” was the name of a large-scale military exercise, meant to simulate for NATO defense officials how to conduct wartime nuclear operations. Though perhaps less well known, “Able Archer,” like previous crises in Berlin, Cuba and the Middle East, brought the world to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe.


The early 1980s was a period of extreme Cold War tension. Soviet military intelligence, the GRU (the very same), had embarked on a massive effort to understand U.S. nuclear intentions. The United States routinely probed Soviet airspace and early-warning systems. In March 1983, President Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative. Soviet leaders believed “Star Wars” would undermine the Soviet nuclear deterrent and with it strategic stability.

In September 1983, the Soviet Union shot down a Korean passenger jet that had strayed into its airspace, claiming it was a spy plane, and killing all 269 people on board. Meanwhile, the Reagan administration readied the deployment of Pershing II intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. In October, the United States invaded Grenada.

Under the circumstances, it is not hard to imagine how Soviet leaders would have mistaken “Able Archer” for the beginnings of a real nuclear attack. They ordered an alert of Soviet nuclear weapons to preempt a U.S. attack. Moscow’s alert was not an exercise. Millions would have died if cooler heads in both countries had not prevailed.

The 1983 war scare shook President Reagan, and helped give rise to much more intensive arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union. Though adversaries, U.S. and Russian leaders understood that arms control would provide enhanced transparency and predictability in the relationship. By late 1987, the United States and Soviet Union had concluded the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, eliminating all U.S. and Soviet intermediate-range missiles from Europe. Negotiations also eventually yielded a series of Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START).

Today, Russia is not the military peer that the Soviet Union was, and the two countries are not perched at the brink of war. But our differences remain deeply felt, and the grave risks posed by our nuclear arsenals persist. Indeed, threats to U.S.-Russian strategic stability are once again growing.

The United States and Russia are modernizing their respective nuclear arsenals and introducing new and potentially destabilizing weapon systems. The INF Treaty is on its last legs, amid reported Russian violations and Russian allegations of U.S. violations. New START, the most recent offspring of the verified arms reduction agreements begun in the 1980s, is set to expire in just two-and-a-half years. New arms control talks are nowhere on the horizon.

The past seriousness with which these problems were addressed is entirely absent. The distraction of President Trump’s sorry conduct in Helsinki pushes the opportunity for arms negotiations with Russia even further out of reach.

Congress is asserting itself by passing additional sanctions to hold Russia accountable for its meddling in U.S. elections. Now it needs to step up its work on arms control — not despite the current tensions with Russia, but because of them. Even as the political fallout from the Trump-Putin summit settles, Congress should take the following steps.

First, Congress should push the administration to extend New START immediately. Both countries have adhered to New START. Its verification procedures, which have worked well, provide reassurance and prevent misperception and miscalculation. The treaty has enjoyed bipartisan support. We should not let relations with Russia worsen before initiating the extension of this treaty.

Second, Congress should encourage the Trump administration, through hearings and oversight, to constructively address violations that threaten the INF Treaty’s future. For example, if Russia is willing to destroy its treaty-violating missiles, or modify them so they no longer can fly to prohibited ranges, the United States should be willing to add verifiable features to its European missile defense launchers to make clear they cannot also launch prohibited cruise missiles. The collapse of the INF Treaty, and the re-introduction of intermediate-range missile in Europe, would in no way advance U.S. security interests, or the security of our NATO allies.

Third, the Senate should revive and focus the work of the National Security Working Group to advise and consult with the administration on arms control measures under consideration, and to inform Congress of the administration’s plans. Democrats and Republicans in the group may not agree on every proposal, but they must agree to wall off partisan politics from efforts to reduce nuclear dangers. This group can play an influential role in guiding and monitoring the pursuit of arms control by the executive branch.

The logic of deterrence is powerful but not infallible. Looking back at the nuclear crises of the Cold War, the inescapable fact is that sheer luck played too big of a role in preventing disaster. Nuclear weapons are complicated machines, operated and maintained by imperfect human beings, within complex organizations. Information for those who must decide whether to use these weapons is always incomplete. Miscalculation and accidents involving nuclear weapons have been far more common than most people realize.

It will take a serious and coordinated effort by Congress and the administration to begin to address today’s nuclear risks effectively, and cooperatively, with Russia even as we hold Russia accountable for its interference in our elections.

Martin B. Malin is executive director of the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @ManagingtheAtom.

Tags Donald Trump Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty Nuclear proliferation Nuclear weapons Soviet Union–United States relations

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