Nuclear weapons are again at the forefront of U.S.-Russian relations. A Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) successor agreement has been signed and will go before the U.S. Senate for ratification. The May 2010 NPT Review Conference is fast approaching, and Russian-American cooperation will be vital if the conference is to succeed. Europe's future security relationship and the place of short-range nuclear weapons on the continent also depend heavily on strategic relations between Washington and Moscow, which in turn affect NATO-Russian conventional military dynamics. Furthermore, Russia plays a central role in the Obama administration’s efforts to pressure Iran on its nuclear agenda and address future proliferation challenges.

Carnegie Moscow’s Alexei Arbatov, one of Russia's leading strategic thinkers and the Russian member of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, discussed Russian perceptions of the new START agreement and the prospects for disarmament with Carnegie’s George Perkovich.

What New START Will Mean

Arbatov compared the new START agreement to early arms reduction treaties between the United States and Russia:

  • Compared to the START I agreement signed by President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Gorbachev in 1991, Arbatov said, the new agreement’s “reduction of warheads is very impressive—nearly 75 percent. Reductions in launchers [delivery systems, such as missiles] are very impressive as well—50 percent.”
  • However, compared to the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) signed between Presidents George W. Bush and Putin, Arbatov said that the new treaty “is less impressive…less than 10 percent reduction in 10 years.”

The new agreement makes changes to how nuclear arms are counted under the treaty:

  • Much of the administration’s touted one-third reduction in force size “will be taken care of by new counting rules,” Arbatov pointed out.
  • The new treaty will count strategic bomber aircraft as one launcher/one warhead. The previous treaty had a similar rule for some systems, but attributed a certain number of cruise missiles to bombers as well. However, Arbatov qualified this by noting that neither the United States nor Russian currently has any operationally deployed nuclear weapons on bombers. Perkovich added that this counting rule “reflects a political reality that bombers are kind of useless,” but that the political will to eliminate them is lacking. “You don’t want to say zero, so you say one,” Perkovich stated.

Ultimately, the chief significance of the treaty is the “restoration of a…legally binding framework for the strategic relationship between the two nuclear superpowers,” asserted Arbatov.

Challenges to Ratification in Russia

Arbatov predicted the new START would be the “most controversial treaty in the history of arms control.” He suggested that Russian audiences perceive nuclear weapons to be “much more important than…during the Cold War.” They may be reluctant to ratify the treaty because, twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, “Russia feels less secure.” To a large extent this insecurity is the result of “mistakes and misdeeds in economic, domestic, and foreign policy.” However, NATO expansion contributed to Russian perceptions of insecurity, and “nuclear weapons are now seen as pillar of national security.”

Ballistic Missile Defenses and Conventional Weapons

Arbatov predicted that ballistic missile defenses (BMD) would be the principal argument used against ratification in Russia.

  • In the long-term, it is very important for the U.S. and Russia to cooperate on ballistic missile defenses. “But we have to recognize,” Arbatov said, “that joint BMD implies a virtual military alliance with common enemies, common threats. At this point we are far from that kind of a relationship.”
  • While Arbatov suggested that Russia needs to be more open to joint BMD, he pointed out that the U.S. long-range precision guided systems missile program isn’t helping Russians become more comfortable with the concept of joint missile defenses. Russia has explicitly defined long-range precision-guided conventional arms as a threat to its national security in its new military doctrine.

Steps to Ratification

Arbatov said that most compelling argument for ratification to Russians is that the new START is “a treaty about American reductions, not Russian reductions. Nothing in the treaty prevents Russian from introducing new systems,” while Russia is drawing down its old forces anyway.

The Russian political elite and strategic community need to be persuaded on three key points, Arbatov suggested, if future arms control and disarmament treaties are to succeed:

  1. Disarmament will not affect Russian prestige or status. With fewer nuclear weapons, Russian interests in the world will still receive attention and consideration.
  2. The United States is serious about nuclear disarmament. Arbatov noted that the present treaty may send conflicting signals. “One the one hand, this is the first new treaty in years. On the other hand, the counting rules seem strange from standpoint of weapons elimination.” While few in Russia doubt President Obama’s commitment to disarmament, Arbatov said, “many doubt” the commitment of the U.S. bureaucracy, military, and national security establishment.
  3. The United States is pursuing disarmament to strengthen international security rather than enhance its conventional superiority.

Tactical Nuclear Weapons and NATO

Arbatov said the issue of tactical nuclear weapons presents one area on which the United States and Russia can cooperate. The United States maintains several hundred tactical nuclear weapons on U.S. bases in Europe, and Russia is rumored to field several thousand.

However, Arbatov said there is less enthusiasm in Russia than in the West for reducing and eliminating tactical nuclear weapons:

  • Russia’s conventional weapons inferiority to NATO gives Russia what Arbatov characterized as a “strategic reason” to keep these weapons deployed.
  • Russia believes that NATO’s expansion and its increasingly global role are a “danger, but not a threat.”
  • Russia is primarily concerned about NATO’s growing military infrastructure. In addition to BMD, this includes new bases in Romania and military modernization in Lithuania.