Ongoing Russian violations of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty need to be effectively addressed because they defy a longstanding bilateral agreement and directly threaten our NATO allies. However, the Trump administration’s move to pull out of the treaty is misguided; instead, we should launch a major initiative to strengthen strategic stability between the United States and Russia. The additional notice by national security adviser John Bolton that the United States is “considering its position about New START” — the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty — is another example of escalatory rhetoric and illogical action that will undermine, rather than enhance, nuclear security.
Over the past five years, it has become increasingly evident that the Russians were cheating on the agreement negotiated between Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that put an end to an escalating short- and medium-range nuclear arms race in Europe. It was a landmark achievement, and substantially diminished nuclear risks for decades.
Reducing reliance on this class of weapons, also called “tactical” nuclear weapons, has been a focal point of U.S. arms control efforts because they are stationed closer to a potential battlefield and, therefore, can be subject to a variety of greater risks of accidental use or theft. We have actively encouraged other nuclear powers to steer clear of fielding such systems because of the risks they pose. In major initiatives to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons without undermining deterrence between the legacy nuclear superpowers, the U.S. reduced its arsenal to approximately 500 and Russia to between 1,000 and 2,000, according to public documentation.
This imbalance — and it may be even greater — has been a legitimate concern, and we have sought to persuade Moscow to further reduce its deployments. Now, by unilaterally withdrawing from the INF Treaty, the United States is giving Moscow a free pass to not just violate the treaty on a relatively small scale but to rapidly accelerate its redeployments of tactical nuclear weapons without constraints.
Of even greater consequence to our security are strategic nuclear weapons that can target the U.S. homeland from Russia, and vice versa. When managed shrewdly, these weapons can provide both deterrence and strategic stability. President TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal MORE is on the record disparaging New START, calling it a “bad deal” in February 2017. Scrapping this pact — negotiated, signed and implemented in the past decade — is a dangerously destabilizing gambit because it caps the United States and Russia at 1,550 deployed strategic warheads each. Moreover, we know that Russia is seeking an extension of New START, and a U.S. decision to break the agreement would give away significant leverage that should be deployed at the negotiating table.
The more exigent real challenge U.S. nuclear planners now face is the growing evidence that Russia is pursuing new nuclear capabilities that are not constrained by existing agreements limiting strategic weapons. Rather than leap to an escalatory response, the Trump administration needs to tackle these legitimate concerns in a structured dialogue at the highest levels, involving a joint negotiating team from the White House and the Departments of State, Defense and Energy. The agenda must be comprehensive, covering strategic weapons, tactical weapons and new nuclear capabilities — capabilities that the United States has chosen not to pursue in the interest of reducing reliance on nuclear weapons in its national security strategy.
Reducing nuclear risks is a solemn responsibility that both Washington and Moscow bear as the two Cold War-legacy nuclear superpowers. This does not mean reducing the effectiveness of, or giving up, the U.S. nuclear deterrent, which remains the ultimate guarantor of our security and the security of our allies around the world. Rather, it means managing our present and future arsenal in such a way that we strengthen the balance that prevents Moscow (or another nuclear power) from making the misjudgment that it can prevail in a nuclear or conventional attack.
In the past, a bipartisan consensus has supported efforts to reduce threats emanating from nuclear weapons through a variety of agreements and mechanisms, and those commitments have been sustained across multiple administrations. Deliberate withdrawals from international agreements, treaties, and processes — and threats to withdraw from even more — have devalued the word of the United States in current and future negotiations, reduced confidence in existing American commitments around the world, and emboldened our adversaries to test us.
Working to enhance nuclear deterrence and strengthen strategic stability, while reducing nuclear proliferation around the world, is a core responsibility for the President of the United States and his leadership team. It is a no-fail mission on behalf of the American people and our allies and partners on which this administration’s performance must be judged. The challenges posed by Russian treaty violations are real, but we should draw on substantial prior positive experience in reducing nuclear dangers.
Despite the negative spiral of our post-Cold War relationship, Washington and Moscow still share a solemn responsibility for, and stake in, reducing nuclear dangers.
Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall is a distinguished professor at the Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology, and senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She served in the Obama administration as deputy secretary of Energy and as White House coordinator for defense policy, countering weapons of mass destruction and arms control.