Presented at the New Faces Conference 2000: Nuclear Weapons and International Security in the 21st Century, organized by the German Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Security Studies and Conflict Research of the ETH Zurich

Nuclear weapons have been an integral component of U.S.-Russian relations since the development of the first atomic device in 1945. While nuclear issues no longer dominate public attention like they did during the height of the cold war, and knowledge of the intricacies of nuclear deterrence are no longer a pre-requisite for top leadership positions in either country, nuclear questions still exist at the core of the U.S.-Russian relationship. To be sure, the current focus of U.S. actions in Russia are related to safety and security over nuclear weapons, materials, and expertise, not the continued reduction of mutual arsenals. This is caused in part by a lack of motivation in the United States to seriously address the future of its nuclear arsenal, combined with the pre-occupation with missile defenses, domestic political conditions, and the multi-year delay by Russia in implementing existing arms control agreements. The result is a stalemate in formal arms control and the unnecessary possession of cold-war sized nuclear arsenals. The consequences of this stalemate are serious and growing, as dissatisfaction among non-nuclear weapon states increase and the future of the international non-proliferation regime is placed in doubt. Moreover, the risk of accident, miscalculation or diversion is an under appreciated threat whose risks must be finally taken seriously and addressed.

The current stalemate in US-Russian strategic nuclear arms reduction has led many analysts to question the future of the formal arms control process. It is becoming commonplace in American arms control circles to refer to traditional negotiated agreements as a thing of the past, and a growing chorus of experts are singing the praises of ?unilateral/reciprocal? measures as an alternative to more formal negotiated agreements[1]. Advocates of this approach argue that formal agreements take too long to negotiate and prevent both sides from seizing present day opportunities to make deep cuts and alter nuclear operations[2] which can be achieved through reciprocal but informal arrangements.

Many traditional arms control advocates quickly dismiss the unilateral approach as threatening to the strategic balance and counterproductive to the long term goal of deep nuclear reductions and strategic stability. While these advocates acknowledge that the arms reduction process between Russia and the United States is stalled, this state of affairs is attributed mainly to domestic factors in both countries, and not seen as a failing of the reduction process per se.

Advocates for both sides often dismiss the alternative approach as unworkable, naïve or inappropriate for addressing the security concerns foremost in their minds. Often overlooked in this growing debate is that the two options are not mutually exclusive and, in fact, can be mutually reinforcing. Moreover, current trends in the United States and Russia speak to the benefits of moving quickly on a series of ?unilateral/reciprocal? measures that can later be codified in legally binding international agreement. Such a hybrid approach would allow the United States and Russia to reap the security benefits offered by both methods.

Formal Arms Control

Continuing to pursue formal arms control has a number of long-term benefits, including the legally binding and politically significant nature of negotiated and ratified agreements. Even in extreme circumstances, the United States and Russia have been reluctant to abrogate such pacts (see ABM discussion below). In addition, the binding nature of verification and information exchanges within these style agreements continue to provide both countries with high confidence in compliance and with greater predictability in the overall relationship. While accusations of cheating are common under arms reduction agreements, none have ever reached the informal threshold of military significance (even the historical Krasnoyarsk Radar installation) and, as verification measures have become more intrusive, accusations of non-compliance have greatly diminished.

It is clear that formal agreements should not be pursued simply for their own sake, but for the real and pervasive benefits they bring. Arms control is not an end in itself. Undersecretary of State John Holum has mentioned on numerous occasions that arms control is simply national security by other means, and is part of a broad approach that includes a strong military and active diplomacy.[3]

If one needed to be reminded of the benefits of formal arms control agreements, they need look no further than the current U.S.-Russian standoff on national missile defenses (NMD). The existence of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty has restrained U.S. actions toward deploying NMD and provided Russia with both formal and ad hoc opportunities to discuss its concerns about US NMD proposals with Washington.[4] It is likely that without the existence of a formal ABM agreement, the United States may have already begun deployment of an NMD program with unknown consequences for US-Russia and global strategic stability. Although NMD advocates proclaim the ABM Treaty as a relic of the past cold war mentality, it has undeniably forced the United States to consider its plans as part of a bilateral discussion with Russia, reducing the danger of strategic surprise or miscalculation. Even if the United States eventually withdraws from the agreement as part of a decision to deploy NMD, the Treaty will have provided significant benefits for US-Russian relations and forced the states to pursue a dialogue in developing a new strategic relationship. Few suggest that the ABM Treaty could, or should be able to bind the United States beyond a decision to exercise its right of withdrawal from the treaty, nor is that what the treaty (or any treaty for that matter) was designed to do.[5]

Unilateral Measures

Arms control has almost always been a slow process. Although the START II agreement was negotiated relatively quickly, it rested on a bedrock of inspection and elimination procedures negotiate over the better course of a decade in the START I agreement.[6] The lengthy process of arms control was directly related to the arcane nature of verification and the supreme importance of nuclear weapons during the cold war. Negotiations also often fell victim to the trends of the overall relationship, with long pauses being used to show displeasure with other facets of the relationship.

The speed and effectiveness of unilateral measures can be an attractive option, albeit not without potential risks. Prime examples used by unilateral advocates, such as U.S. Presidential nominee George W. Bush[7], include the reciprocal moves on tactical nuclear and naval-based weapons taken by President?s George Bush, Gorbachev and Yeltsin.[8] These agreements, unilateral and not legally binding in nature had a major security impact on US Russian relations and in global security terms. Another example is the side agreement to START I limiting the deployment of U.S. sea launched cruise missiles to 880, responding to late minute Russian concerns expressed during formal START negotiations.

The downside to the speed of flexibility of such an approach to arms control is the lack of reliability and the risk of reversal, known as ?breakout? in traditional arms control terms. As noted above, the legally binding nature of the ABM agreement is showing its benefits now that the circumstances have led the United States to re-evaluate its interest in defenses and a less formal unilateral ?agreement? would not provide the same type of stability. Such a situation would risk rapid changes in the global strategic landscape with unpredictable results. This risk speaks to the need to rely in the long term on more formal agreements, if not at first, then at least later and then for those facets of the arms control agenda that have the most significant implications for the states involved if actions were reversed.


It is surprising, given the benefits offered by both approaches, that neither the United States or Russia have seriously sought to use a combined approach give their need to reduce the levels of nuclear weapons.[9] It is obvious that the disagreement over the possible NMD deployment by the United States has dominated and been partly responsible for the now near deadlock in US-Russian arms control negotiations, but then why have the two states not turned to less formal initiatives?.[10] The most likely explanation is that the longstanding deadlock has left the United States and Russia politically unable or unwilling (for internal reason) to seize the opportunities for further reductions in nuclear arsenals and, perhaps more importantly, changes in the cold war-style nuclear operations of the two states.

Making use of both negotiated agreements and unilateral (but coordinated) moves would provide both countries with greater flexibility in pursuing strategic stability at lower levels of nuclear weapons. The U.S. Congress? current hostility towards negotiated arms control could be bypassed through a series of coordinated, unilateral and reciprocal measures. This may be necessary regardless of the U.S. Presidential election. Certain outcomes, however, including even a Republican-led Congress and President could mark a resurgence for negotiated arms control, but only if the missile defense issue can be overcome.[11] Either way, the pressing threats of the current US-Russian nuclear postures and arsenals require concerted action that can and should make use of both approaches.

Proposals for Unilateral Initiatives

Russia is in the forefront of taking unilateral action to reduce the nuclear arsenals as a result of its aging nuclear stockpile. Operation lifetimes of major delivery systems are fixed, and cannot be extended indefinitely and Russia?s arsenal, even if freed from constrains on multiple warhead ICBMs contained in START II, is likely to drop to 1500 weapons by 2010[12]. This arsenal is likely top rely on a small number of mobile and silo-based, single warhead ICBMs and a mixture of submarine and bomber based weapons. The future size of the Russia arsenal has been acknowledged by Russian leaders, including Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergeyev.

One possible option, if Russia and the United States were to adopt an approach including unilateral but reciprocated moves, would be for Russia to announce a rapid drawdown of its arsenal to 1500 before 2010, retiring older systems before the end of their life expectancy (and reaping additional financial savings as a result) and even de-mating/de-alerting warheads from launchers before the launchers were retire and eliminated[13]. In exchange, the United States could announce reductions of its own force to the 1500 level, relying on a backbone of de-MIRVed Minuteman IIIs and a smaller number of Trident submarines. As an incentive for this move, the next U.S. President cold announce additional U.S. funding through the Cooperative Threat Reduction program to help Russia pay for the early elimination of weapon systems and pledge to quickly follow suite after working to remove the Congressional ban on rapidly lowering its nuclear stockpile. Presidential nominee Bush has already indicated a interest in unilaterally determining the future size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and Vice President Gore has also voiced a desire to continue nuclear reductions.

The risk of moving unilaterally to lower numbers, as described above, is that such steps? while reducing the risk of nuclear accident or miscalculation and helping to reinforce the non-proliferation regime ?lack the legal and internally binding nature of a negotiated agreement. And while the United States could gain verification of Russian actions through the accountability built into CTR projects, Russia would have lingering doubts about the speed and permanency of U.S. actions (since Minuteman IIIs could be reloaded with MIRVs). Thus, these steps should be codified after the fact in a traditional agreements. This process should be very basic, setting a new lower ceiling for strategic arms as defined by START II and using inspections and elimination methods spelled out under previous agreements. Making this ceiling permanent through a negotiated treaty might not prevent future moves to return at some point to higher levels, but would raise the barrier significantly and help build in some predictability that might not exist otherwise.

Other proposals for unilateral moves address operational changes to the US-Russian nuclear arsenal. One proposal is to restrict the operations of ballistic missile submarines to the home waters of each country[14]. The current state of the Russian nuclear navy was demonstrated by the loss of the Russian SSGN Oscar-class submarine Kursk. Given the lack of funding and poor training and maintenance for the Russian navy, another, even more serious accident, is possible at any time. Moreover, future accidents might involve a submarine carrying nuclear weapons, as with the case of the Russian submarine Komsomolets which sank in 1989 carrying nuclear torpedoes. Keeping Russian and U.S. ballistic missile submarines in their home ports or water would reduce the need for Russia to keep its attack submarines, which pose a proliferation and environmental risk, at sea as well. [15]

A U.S. decision to reduce submarine alert rates, which currently keep four ballistic missiles submarines on hard alert (meaning on station and capable of launching on notice) at all times, could be achieved with almost no impact on U.S. security or US-Russian strategic stability, since submarines could be sent to sea in a crisis rather quickly. In the mean time, the risks associated with high operation of Russian submarines would be greatly reduced, to say nothing of the cost saving that would be afforded to both Russia and the United States.

Unlike the previous proposal for reducing the deployed numbers of nuclear weapons, it would be more difficult to lock this sort of confidence building agreement into a legal treaty. Moreover, it is not clear that any additional benefits are to be gained by later codifying such a proposal as the impact on strategic stability is small, especially compared with nuclear force numbers and other issues.

Remaining Problems

Use of both negotiated agreements and more unilateral, but reciprocal measures can be used to improve the outlook for nuclear reductions, nuclear security, and to improve the overall non-proliferation regime. Moreover, there are a number of potential opportunities, based on the current and future realities facing the US and Russian nuclear arsenals, that can be achieved through the application of both informal and formalized agreements.

It is unlikely that any of the proposals aimed at making deep and meaningful cuts in the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia, however, will prove viable in the face of U.S. interest in NMD. Even through President Clinton has deferred the decision on deploying NMD to the next President, this issue will quickly re-appear after the election in November. Both Gore and Bush have made proposals including deployment of some form of missile defense, and Russian officials have made it clear that even their most recent proposals to move unilaterally to 1500 nuclear weapons are contingent on the continued viability of the ABM Treaty. Even if Russia could be convinced that its nuclear arsenal faced no real threat as a result of U.S. NMD, the likely response of China and other countries, would increase Russian security concerns and make lower numbers hard to achieve.

Recent moves by North Korea, whose missile development program is the pacing item in U.S. NMD activities opens up at least the possibility that NMD deployment may be deferred for a period of some years, giving the United States and Russia time to make some real progress on achieving lower nuclear levels. This barrier to rapid cuts in nuclear weapons, however, need not permit the use of unilateral steps to address nuclear operations.

Lastly, it must be recognized that there is little strong appetite for moving aggressively for lower levels of nuclear weapons in the United States policy-making apparatus. To be sure, the next president (regardless of party) will engage in a nuclear policy review and this process may even result in recommendations to reduce the level of U.S. nuclear weapons (either as a result of negotiated agreements or unilateral moves). The goal of these reduction may be to bring down the level of nuclear weapons in Russia or even, in the future, to engage other nuclear states in a negotiated framework to increase the predictability of the global nuclear environment. Neither a President Bush or Gore, however, has shown any proclivity by history or comment, to seriously think about moves toward nuclear abolition as has been discussed by the P-5 in the context of the NPT Treaty and 2000 NPT
Review Conference.

Current attempts to move to lower numbers, at least in the United States, are motivated mainly by a desire to encourage safer
and more secure nuclear practices in Russia and to help ensure (but not at all costs) the non-proliferation regime which now
more than ever, benefits the United States.[16] The fear of nuclear threats posed by Russian weapon systems are gone as a motivator for deep U.S. cuts. As outlined above, the first U.S. motive can be achieved through a series of negotiated or
unilateral steps, provided that the two countries can find a way around their current and likely future disagreement over missile defenses. The later motive will be more problematic over the long term, unless the United States and Russia are ready or are motivated to get more serious about complying with their pledges under the NPT to pursue nuclear disarmament, which will have to rely on negotiated, binding and comprehensive agreements.


President Clinton, Bush or Gore should move as quickly as possible to seize the opportunity provided by Russia?s naturally declining nuclear arsenals to place political constrains on the future size of the U.S. and Russian nuclear capability. This can and should be done through a series of unilateral but coordinated measures designed to bring the United States and Russia down to sustainable, safe and secure but lower levels of nuclear weapons around the 1,500 level. In addition, these agreements should seek to implement these cuts quickly through a combination of de-alerting and restricting deployment of certain assets, including submarines. These measures should then followed up with an effort to codify these cuts in nuclear deployments, giving the political agreements a more legally binding nature. It is recognized that completing a treaty containing such levels would not prevent breakout, but it would raise the bar of doing so.

[1] For an example, see ?Jump-START: Retaking the Initiative to Reduce Post-Cold War Nuclear Dangers? Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers, February 1999.

[2] A number of the proponents of unilateral measures have other motivations. Some see moving to unilateral determinations of nuclear levels as a way of de-linking U.S. weapons levels from the rapidly declining Russian arsenals. Still others see unilateralism as a way of bypassing an American congress hostile to formal arms control, as witnessed by the defeat of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

[3] State Department web page,

[4] For extensive discussion of these negotiations, see the web sites of the Carnegie Non-Proliferation project at and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at

[5] These beneficial arguments can also bee seen in the case of North Korea?s attempted withdrawal from the NPT and in the legally binding nature of the CTBT for states that have signed the as yet unimplemented CTBT.

[6] For text and summaries of START I and II, see Carnegie Non-proliferation project web page at

[7] George Bush, ?New Leadership on National Security, ? Speech at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. Tuesday, May 23, 2000.

[8] See Arms Control Today, October 1991.

[9] Russia is interested in bilaterally reducing the levels of nuclear weapons to reflect the realities of its aging nuclear arsenal and economic inability to maintain high numbers, and the United States has an interest in preserving the non-proliferation regime that rests, in part, on the pledges of the nuclear weapon states to pursue ?good faith negotiations on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament?, Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament,

[10] The Russian Duma?s multi-year delay in ratifying the START II agreement played the largest role in this delay. For a full description of this issue, see Alexander Pikayev, ?The Rise and Fall of START II?, Carnegie Endowment Working Paper #6, 1999 (available on line at

[11] See Joseph Cirincione, ?Republicans Do It Better,? Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, September/October 2000.

[12] ?Russian Nuclear Status Report: Nuclear Weapons, Fissile Material and Export Controls in the Former Soviet Union,? Jon Wolfsthal, Editor, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace/Monterey Institute of International Studies, forthcoming, 2001.

[13] For a full discussion of the de-alerting concept, see Bruce Blair, De-alerting Strategic Forces, Center for Defense Information, forthcoming, 2000.

[14] See Jon B. Wolfsthal ?The Lesson Implicit in the Kursk, Christian Science Monitor, August 28, 2000.

[15] U.S. attack submarines help protect carrier groups and play important offensive and special missions and would be difficult to include in any unilateral moves.

[16] Many would argue that as the world?s remaining conventional superpower, the United States has every incentive to keep future conflicts from going beyond the conventional realm. See Lewis Dunn, Containing Nuclear Proliferation, Adelphi Papers, IISS.