Russia’s strategy with nuclear weapons, as outlined in official documents and many analyses, leans towards what General John Hyten, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has referred to as “escalate to win.” Pictured: Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) observes military exercises in Moscow on October 17, 2019. Ballistic and cruise missiles were fired as part of the Grom (Thunder) 2019 strategic exercises. (Photo by Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)
The New START Treaty will expire in February 2021. The next administration will therefore have only weeks to decide on how to proceed regarding arms control negotiations with Russia. Although some negotiations with Russia are already taking place, the complexities of the issues make it most unlikely that the current dialogue will lead to a new treaty by February.
Responding to this dilemma, many arms control experts have argued that the next administration should immediately extend the treaty for another five years. Other observers have privately over the past weeks suggested that the next administration should, instead, still propose an extension for 1-2 years and continue negotiating to obtain a new treaty. The current negotiations, thus, duly reflect President Donald Trump’s guidance that there should eventually be a new treaty, but for now there should be only a limited extension accompanied by a freeze on existing deployed force levels. While Russia has not accepted such a deal, the American proposal makes sense.
Regardless of the eventual election results, it is important to understand what extending the current treaty means. The record of the last decade confirms that the New START Treaty is seriously flawed, particularly when it comes to issues of verification. Among those many flaws are bizarre counting rules and a failure to prevent Russia from circumventing the treaty in its building program (as was underway during those negotiations).
Thus, many of the new programs announced by Moscow as part of its overall nuclear weapons program are not counted by the treaty. In fact, as noted by Mark B. Schneider, since the New START treaty went into force, Russia has been building at least 20 new types of strategic nuclear weapons systems, that comprise countervalue, counterforce, and long-range weapons, some not regulated by the current treaty.
Indeed, since the formation of the Russian Federation in 1991, it has built 25 new types of strategic long-range nuclear weapons systems, and due to its current building program is on track to have available some seven to ten thousand nuclear weapons in its overall stockpile this decade, many of which are not covered under the existing treaty, including short range, regional or battlefield nuclear weapons.
Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that President Vladimir Putin has stated that Russia has nuclear superiority over the US. Russia’s strategy with nuclear weapons, as outlined in official documents and many analyses, leans towards what General John Hyten, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has referred to as “escalate to win.” Such a strategy could more accurately be described as being able to dominate and control the escalation ladder, irrespective of what level of conflict emerges. This plan includes first-strike and war-fighting strategies — in some instances, nuclear preemption. Thus, from a US perspective, perpetuating the status quo would hardly be a satisfactory outcome for Washington and its allies.
In addition, merely extending this treaty without attending to its defects of verification would also perpetuate the policy of giving Russia a high degree of camouflage, specifically in hiding Russia’s extremely large breakout capability.
Moreover, the absence of China as a party to any arms agreements, including New START, gives China a total “free ride” on nuclear issues in that there is no requirement for China to limit any of its nuclear weapons, even if the US could verify such an agreement. Since the US Defense Intelligence Agency now estimates that China will double its nuclear arsenal over the next decade, continuing the New START treaty without including China in some form, or fixing its weak verification proposals, gives China and Russia together tremendously dangerous running room in managing their respective nuclear expansions.
The leverage the US has historically used, for example, to push Russia into arms deals is that the alternative of an unimpeded US technological capability to produce nuclear weapons and build defenses would result in a worsening strategic environment for Russia and China, especially if the US also secured its own allied support for a US strategy. President Ronald Reagan made it work through an all-of-government effort to secure a 70% verifiable cut in Russian and US deployed long-range nuclear weapons. In the absence of such deals, however, the US has to maintain a deterrent at least second to none.
As successfully negotiating stringent, credible verification procedures that are mutually compatible is a long, painstaking affair, it is obvious that this will not lead to a treaty before February 5, 2021, when the treaty expires. Simply extending the treaty without major improvements in verification would be highly detrimental to US and allied interests, to say nothing of excluding China from any discussions.
These hard facts seem to elude those calling for a simple extension. Indeed, many of the disarmament advocates who are calling for sustaining the New START treaty have been utterly silent about Russian and Chinese nuclear developments and seem excessively focused on pushing unilateral cuts to the American arsenal. Such calls for one-sided cuts to the US arsenal, particularly during a serious negotiation such as the current one with Moscow, simply undercut America’s negotiating leverage.
The fact is that no matter what the US does, both Moscow and Beijing will continue to build nuclear and other high-tech weapons, including space weapons and hypersonic-capable weapons, because neither state can accept that the US has conventional superiority. If these adversaries cannot compete on the conventional level, they have no choice, given their ambitions, but to go nuclear to assert themselves against the interests and values of the US and its allies, and carry out their aggressive and hegemonic designs.
Moreover, as inherently imperial autocracies, they are driven from within to states of siege, if not war, with the US, as well as imperial probes across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
For these reasons, the Trump Administration has correctly focused on ending China’s “free riding” regarding arms control talks and on placing all of Russia’s nuclear programs on the table, coupled with far better verification. Many of those opposing such a strategy apparently have forgotten that the first reason a great power such as the US engages in arms control is not altruism. Rather, and as the fathers of deterrence theory understood, arms control is an action that states undertake primarily to advance their own interests and security and that of their allies.
Thus, from a US perspective, perpetuating the status quo would hardly be a satisfactory outcome for Washington and its allies.
Many of those now demanding cuts and the extension of treaties without improving their shortcomings appear to have forgotten this point. We can be sure that neither Moscow nor Beijing has ever failed to grasp it. And neither should we.
Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Peter Huessy is President of Geostrategic Analysis.
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