It’s practically impossible to overlook the recent drumbeat of inflammatory Russian and Western statements about nuclear policy. In June 2015, when Russian President Vladimir Putin played up a long-planned deployment of 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles, he drew an immediate reaction from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who said, “This nuclear sabre rattling of Russia is unjustified. It’s destabilizing and it’s dangerous.”

The war of words has embroiled Russia’s ambassador to Denmark, who maladroitly asserted that if Copenhagen joined a U.S.-led missile defense system, Danish warships would become targets for Russian nuclear missiles. And it has even drawn in U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who has made pointed statements about possible U.S. responses to alleged Russian cheating on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. In a follow-up to his Senate confirmation hearing in February 2015, the Pentagon chief wrote, “The range of options we should look at from the Defense Department could include active defenses to counter intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles; counterforce capabilities to prevent intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missile attacks; and countervailing strike capabilities to enhance U.S. or allied forces.” Carter’s bottom line was crisp yet ominous: “U.S. responses must make clear to Russia that if it does not return to compliance our responses will make them less secure than they are today.”

Against the backdrop of a sharp deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations, finding a way to moderate current nuclear tensions is a tall order.

The Fate of the INF Treaty

Vladimir Dvorkin
Major General Dvorkin (retired) is a chief researcher at the Center for International Security at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations.
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The first order of business must be to address the instability of the INF Treaty. U.S.-Russian discussions on compliance issues with the 1987 Treaty, which eliminated intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the two signatory states, have been going on for six years now. Long before these exchanges started, then Russian defense minister Sergei Ivanov suggested to his U.S. counterpart that both sides consider pulling out of the treaty—after all, the United States and Russia are the only major powers that do not possess this type of weapon. The Americans reportedly did not take Ivanov’s offer terribly seriously.

In 2007, Moscow proposed making the INF Treaty global by formulating a new multilateral international agreement around it. Washington paid lip service to the proposal. However, from the start it was evident that the Russian initiative was driven largely by propaganda rather than by actual pragmatism. There was little or no chance that such a new agreement would be greeted enthusiastically by China, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other states that rely on intermediate-range ballistic missiles as the backbone of their nuclear and missile arsenals.

The first allegations of possible Russian violations of the INF Treaty were made by journalists and analysts in the United States in response to flight tests of the RS-26 (Rubezh), a new ballistic missile. Because Russia conducted a long-range test of the missile with a single warhead, there was technically no violation of the INF Treaty, which does not apply to weapons with an intercontinental range—that is, over 5,500 kilometers (3,400 miles). Yet it is quite likely that, if armed with a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV), this missile could not reach such a range.

Still, this crafty Russian move did not unnerve the Americans all that much, primarily because the Rubezh missiles count against the 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 delivery vehicles to which both sides are limited by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). So far, there is no reason to doubt the stability of New START. It remains the only nuclear-weapons-related avenue for cooperation between Russia and the United States, and both sides view it as extremely important at a time of badly frayed military-to-military ties.

Of course, it is also possible that Moscow is just waiting for New START to expire. After 2021, if no new agreement is in place, Russia will be able to increase its holdings of Rubezh missiles without any restrictions. However, this may be an overly bold assumption, considering that Russia lacks a strategic outlook when it comes to even short-term matters. Besides, such a program would certainly run into financing difficulties.

All these facts notwithstanding, many experts remain concerned about the instability of the INF Treaty. The Americans complain about Russia’s use of the R-500 cruise missile, whose range exceeds the 500 kilometers (300 miles) allowed by the treaty, while Russian specialists argue that launch containers for U.S. land-based SM-3 antiballistic missiles are identical to those used to launch sea-based long-range cruise missiles.

Under normal circumstances, such issues could be solved by a joint commission. Such bodies have accumulated an impressive track record over many years. But times have changed. Today, even ordinary discussions about arms control compliance generate sharp confrontations, which contribute to heightened tensions between the two countries. There remains a small yet extremely worrying possibility that the situation may get out of control if the overall crisis escalates.

Calls to withdraw from the INF Treaty have resonated in both the United States and Russia. As U.S. Representative Mike Rogers from Alabama put it, “If we’re the only team that’s sticking to the treaty, then I don’t know why we’re sticking with the treaty, since [the Russians] are flagrantly violating it.”

However, it can be argued quite persuasively that dismantling the INF Treaty would seriously undermine Russian, U.S., and European security. Renewed U.S. missile deployments in Europe could lead to a situation similar to that in the 1980s before the elimination of intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles. Back then, Russian and NATO central command bases and even some strategic nuclear sites were clearly within range of high-precision nuclear-armed short-flight Pershing II missiles and high-precision cruise missiles. This inherently destabilizing state of affairs eventually forced Moscow to swallow a deal on the INF Treaty, according to which the Soviet Union had to reduce three times as many warheads as the United States. If such a scenario repeats itself in any form, it is clear that Russia will face the far more serious threat. That’s because higher-quality, more advanced U.S. weapons will be located even closer to the Russian border. Pulling out of the INF Treaty should therefore be completely unacceptable for Russia. Beyond that, there is the nontrivial issue of the prohibitive cost of creating Russia’s own intermediate-range missile arsenal.

As for the United States, the threat of intermediate-range Russian missiles deployed in European Russia would subject U.S. allies to the risk of a catastrophic strike, which might provoke an unpredictable transformation of transatlantic relations.

Nuclear Arms Race

Putin’s announcement that Russia will add 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles to its strategic nuclear forces has also contributed to the current nuclear hysteria.

It is important to understand that all of the missiles in question are intended to replace outdated strategic nuclear weapons systems. A great number of these systems have already had their service lives extended well beyond original expectations. Moscow considers it of utmost importance to maintain the current balance in strategic offensive weapons with the United States because this area is the last attribute of Russia’s superpower status.

Naturally, all of this balancing is taking place within the framework of New START. Russia and the United States agreed to reach the levels set forth by that treaty by 2018 and to stay within those limits until 2021. But while the United States has to reduce its strategic offensive weapons to comply with the treaty, Russia is trying to reach the limit by increasing its arsenal. As of the start of 2014, Russia’s strategic nuclear forces had 1,400 deployed warheads and just 473 deployed launchers. Only in 2014 was Russia able to reach a balance with the United States in terms of the number of deployed warheads (1,643 for Russia, 1,642 for the United States)—mostly as a result of introducing two new Borei-class (Project 955) submarine missile carriers armed with Bulava missiles, as well as the land-based Yars missile system. Nevertheless, Russia remains well below the limit when it comes to delivery vehicles, with 528 units.

In the future, the situation could change because Russia will have to take Delta III (Project 667 BDR) submarine missile launchers out of commission. So much for the strategic arms race.

The distorted belief in a resumption of the arms race may stem from the fact that Russia has an excessive number of types of land-based missile systems. When New START was signed in 2010, the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces had five types of missile systems. At present, the Russians are conducting flight tests for a sixth, the Rubezh system. They are also developing the new Sarmat superheavy missile system and a rail-based missile system. However, this new testing and development does not amount to a violation of the strategic nuclear arms limits established by New START. In fact, such an excessive number of missile types only creates internal problems for the Russians due to the high development costs, lengthy testing requirements, diversified infrastructure, and limited deployment and usage of various strategic weapon types.

Missile Defense as a Destabilizing Factor

The deployment of the U.S. missile defense system in Europe remains a major thorn in Russia’s relations with the United States and NATO. Russian officials have begun saying that this missile defense program may not pose much of a threat to Russia, but the expansion of U.S. global missile defenses is extremely dangerous.

A large number of independent experts have concluded that the threat the U.S. missile defense program poses to Russian nuclear forces is greatly exaggerated. Not surprisingly, the experts’ conclusions have not been embraced by Russian officials, but at least there is now a potential alternative analytical framework that can be used to scrutinize the same missile defense mantra.

Embedded in Putin’s comments at the Army-2015 military exhibition about the addition of 40 intercontinental ballistic missiles was the suggestion that these systems would be “capable of overcoming any most technically advanced anti-missile defence systems.” Generally speaking, his statement did not break any new ground because the same can be said of the missiles that already make up Russia’s current strategic arsenal.

The specialists who formulate the tactical and technical requirements for such missiles are well aware of the requirements for effective missile defense penetration. Each side develops models of the opposing side’s potential missile defenses specifically for this very purpose. In fact, one earlier such model contained the entire range of means imagined by former U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and included space-, air-, and land-based missile defenses. The probability of penetrating the enemy’s missile defenses according to such models should approach 100 percent. Enormous effort was required to develop penetration aids to increase the chances of a missile overcoming enemy defenses at the reentry phase. This generated substantial energy costs to reduce the altitude and duration of the missile’s active flight and to protect its core from possible harm.

At this time, it appears that prospective U.S. missile defense models that are consistent with predictions regarding the future development of the current program differ from the previous SDI-based models. Today, prospective U.S. missile defense models must contain denser missile defenses than those that the United States could deploy in the foreseeable future. Russia’s current technological capabilities in this field should serve as the most convincing argument in favor of removing missile defense from the list of destabilizing factors in the strategic balance between Russia and the United States.

Moreover, no matter how ill-timed it might seem given the current security environment, it would be prudent to start preparations for revamped U.S.-Russian cooperation on missile defense. Not only should previous consultations be revived, but Russia, the United States, and NATO should also engage in actual cooperative endeavors, such as a series of computer-assisted joint missile defense exercises.

According to expert estimates, the joint use of information systems by the two countries—including Russia’s early-warning Unified Space System, which is supposed to be online by 2020—would allow Russian missile defenses to approximately double their effectiveness in intercepting intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

Russia and the United States have a number of other disagreements in the field of weapons and military technology. Among them are the U.S. advantage in long-range high-precision weapons; problems connected to the development of so-called Prompt Global Strike systems, which can hit distant targets in a short period of time; the absence of progress in reaching agreements on space and antisatellite weapons; and reductions of nonstrategic nuclear weapons. These issues are periodically mentioned, but they are not at the heart of the current crisis, even if they exacerbate it. All these disagreements could have been tackled and potentially resolved in a less antagonistic environment.

In reality, the current nuclear hysteria resides first and foremost in the minds of Russian and U.S. government officials. It is highly emotional and has very little to do with facts on the ground. Fears of a nonnuclear, armed confrontation between Russia, on the one hand, and the United States and NATO, on the other, are also unfounded—despite the increased pace of military exercises and deployments taking place along the borders in Eastern Europe.

It is also far-fetched to take seriously the scenarios that have been floated of a NATO attack against a nuclear Russia or vice versa. Russian aggression against European countries that are protected by NATO’s superior forces, including those of such nuclear powers as the United Kingdom and France, is similarly improbable.

Still, the situation in eastern Ukraine—where combat operations between government forces and pro-Russian separatists continue to claim a great many lives—is unlikely to allow for a significant de-escalation of the militaristic frenzy that is now driving the relationship between East and West.

In the absence of any well-grounded predictions of how long the rift between Russia and the West will last, it would seem prudent to lower the degree of tensions by bridging the gap between Russia and the leading powers on common issues of global and regional security. These issues include a familiar list of shared priorities: implementing the July 2015 agreement on Iran’s nuclear activities; resolving the North Korean nuclear problem; strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime; and combating common threats like international terrorist networks and cyberattacks.

In this context, it is fitting to recall the legacy of former Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, who passed away at the end of June 2015. An elder statesman and diplomat, Primakov always advocated rational and balanced foreign policy decisions. As for domestic policy, he believed that periods of financial and economic crisis historically created the necessary conditions for accelerating Russia’s development. As Primakov wrote, “Times of economic decline have directly overlapped with the active phase of structural reforms involving knowledge-intensive industries and modernization, both of which can pave the way for future breakthroughs.” His words are worth remembering.