After the New START Treaty was signed on April 8, 2010, U.S. and Russian authorities turned their attention from nuclear disarmament to other matters. However, crises in the nonproliferation regime and U.S.-Russian relations could arise all too soon, if the two governments do not continue to address bilateral nuclear disarmament.

Panelists at the Carnegie Moscow Center discussed the short- and long-term importance of nuclear disarmament, as part of the Moscow Center’s series of discussions on nonproliferation and U.S.-Russian relations since the signing of the New START. 

The necessity of further arms reductions

Carnegie’s Alexei Arbatov  listed the reasons why Moscow and Washington must continue paying attention to nuclear disarmament.

  • The balance of power in 2020. When the New START Treaty expires in 2020, the United States and Russia will need to negotiate an entirely new treaty on further reductions to their nuclear forces. The bulk of U.S. strategic nuclear forces consist of nuclear weapons systems developed in the 1970s and commissioned in the 1980s-90s. By 2020-2030, they will be replaced with new strategic nuclear weapons systems and by non-nuclear arms deployed on strategic delivery vehicles. The United States therefore has an interest in ensuring that the next bilateral treaty enables it to cut back its old systems and commission new ones. Russia, however, will not manage to keep its strategic nuclear forces at the level set by the New START Treaty through to 2020, even if it extends the service life of existing arms. Russia thus has an interest in a new treaty which would enable it to maintain parity with the United States at lower levels.
  • Missile defense, tactical nuclear weapons, and militarization of space. Talks on further strategic nuclear reductions are a necessary condition for discussions on issues of mutual concern to both countries, such as missile defense, tactical nuclear weapons, and militarization of space. These problems will become more urgent as the nuclear disarmament process continues. 
  • Britain, China, and France. Limitations on strategic nuclear weapons should be extended to the other three official nuclear powers – Britain, China, and France. But holding talks with these countries will be impossible without continuing the bilateral negotiations between the United States and Russia. If the United States and Russia propose to these states to reduce strategic nuclear forces, but do not back it up with their own example, they will be met with firm refusal.
  • The non-nuclear countries. By the time the NPT Treaty Review Conference takes place in 2015, the non-nuclear states will have realized that while the United States and Russia have brought levels down to 1,550 warheads each, neither country has any intention of making further cuts to its strategic forces without further negotiations, Arbatov said. The only way to encourage the non-nuclear countries to accept a more stringent nuclear nonproliferation regime will be to continue U.S.-Russian arms reduction talks.

Strengthening and preserving the nuclear nonproliferation regime will only be possible if Moscow and Washington demonstrate reciprocal transparency and commitment to nuclear disarmament, Arbatov concluded. 

Missile defense cooperation

Russia and the United States already have considerable experience in missile defense cooperation, Carnegie’s Dvorkin said. They carried out five bilateral computer simulation exercises, and four on a trilateral basis with NATO; reached an agreement on holding exercises using Patriot and S-300 missiles at the Kopyar test ground; and established a Data Exchange Center on missile launches. But the Georgian conflict of August 2008 interrupted this missile defense cooperation.  

Resuming this cooperation is particularly important now, Dvorkin argued:

  • It would help to strengthen mutual confidence and increase transparency – essential for continuing nuclear disarmament talks.
  • It would be a response to the real and potential security threats facing Russia, the United States, and European countries, including unsanctioned missile launches by countries that recently acquired nuclear weapons (India, Pakistan, North Korea), and those who might seek to acquire them (Iran).
  • It would form one of the foundational axes of the Russian initiative on a European security treaty, which many currently think does not have sufficient substance.
  • It is possible that Russia’s importance for the United States as a partner in missile defense could decrease in the years to come. Without Russia, the United States would continue to develop missile defense systems, but without the United States, Russia, with its limited resources, would have a hard time developing strategic missile defense systems.