What arms control outcomes do you expect—and hope—from the summit? 

What I think we're going to see coming out of the summit is a vague endorsement of the importance of avoiding nuclear war and the concept of strategic stability. Success, however, would require more specificity on arms control issues—clear goals articulated at the presidential level that negotiators could then try and reach. 

A follow-on treaty to New START, which expires in five years, is one obvious goal—but that’s going to be a long hard slog. It's going to be challenging to manage all the issues that that treaty will need to encompass, let alone achieve Senate ratification in the United States. But a follow-on treaty is a good medium-term goal. 

I would also like to see President Biden and President Putin direct their negotiators to work on near-term confidence-building and transparency measures—agreements that aren't treaties but help make us safer. These measures could at least start to address Russian concerns about ballistic missile defense, for example, and U.S. and NATO concerns about nonstrategic nuclear weapons. 

What are the main interests and concerns for both sides ahead of Geneva in terms of strategic weapons? 

I am still pessimistic on the prospects for U.S.-Russia arms control, but there is now a sliver of light coming through the door. Both sides genuinely want to avoid a nuclear war. And beyond that, each side has threatening capabilities that Moscow and Washington can trade off against one another. Moreover, I think that each side is willing to at least go some way in making those trades. 

The fact that each side has some leverage, however, doesn't mean getting an agreement is going to be easy. U.S. and Russian interests are increasingly asymmetric. The United States and NATO are primarily worried about Russian nuclear weapons, especially Russia's new “exotic” strategic weapons, including a developmental nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered torpedo and a developmental nuclear-armed, nuclear powered cruise missile. Russia, meanwhile, is primarily concerned with U.S. non-nuclear weapons, including ballistic missile defense and high precision conventional munitions that could threaten Russia's nuclear forces.

How can Moscow and Washington try to manage this growing asymmetry? 

Confidence-building and transparency measures could be useful here. No single measure is going to suit both sides. For example, a measure to address ballistic missile defense would help to address Russian concerns but not U.S. ones. On the flip side, a measure to address non-strategic nuclear weapons would be welcome in Washington but not in Moscow. 

The only way forward is to pair measures together into mutually beneficial packages. For example, the Obama administration invited Russia to use Russian equipment to measure the speed of interceptors being deployed in Poland so Russia could verify that they aren’t fast enough to catch Russian ICBMs. At the time Russia declined the offer, but this is a good idea that deserves to be revisited (and could be made more attractive to Russia). 

This measure could be packaged with another on non-strategic nuclear weapons—such as inspections of facilities that do not contain non-strategic nuclear warheads. For example, NATO is concerned that there may be non-strategic warheads stored in Kaliningrad—though it’s very unclear whether there are. If there are not, one could imagine Russia permitting inspections to verify their absence there in return for reciprocal inspections on NATO territory. 

How should Biden and Putin address the risk of cyber interference with nuclear capabilities? 

The cyber-nuclear nexus is an enormously important issue—but also an exceptionally difficult one to manage. There are very good reasons to worry that cyber interference with nuclear command-and-control systems could spark escalation in a crisis. Many of these command-and-control capabilities are dual-use. In fact, the United States does not really have a nuclear command-and-control system; it has a command-and-control system that manages both nuclear and non-nuclear operations. If Russian actors are fiddling around in that command-and-control system to try to undermine U.S. conventional capabilities, it may look to the United States like those actors are trying to interfere with U.S. nuclear forces. This would be exceptionally escalatory. And of course, all of these dynamics apply in reverse, should the United States launch cyber operations against Russian command-and-control assets.

In principle, therefore, Russia and the United States should discuss how to manage the cyber-nuclear interaction—but such discussions would be very difficult because the subject matter is so heavily classified. By contrast, there is considerable transparency around kinetic weapons—particularly nuclear weapons. The United States has a good idea which weapons Russia is developing and Moscow knows which strategic systems the U.S. is developing. Such transparency facilitates dialogue. 

The same is not true for cyber capabilities. Neither side is going to go into meetings and tell the other about its cyber capabilities or what it knows of the other side’s vulnerabilities. They will hold their cards exceptionally close to their chest. So there’s going to have to be a thorough, serious review process internally within each state to decide what it can usefully say. President Biden and President Putin should flag the cyber-nuclear interaction as a topic that should be covered in strategic stability talks. The two presidents should then have their own bureaucracies prepare for those talks and work out what they could actually say to make those talks productive. 

  • James M. Acton