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Prospects for US-Russian nuclear arms control

Published Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Bilateral agreements aimed at restricting the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia have been in place since the early 1970s. For the first time in nearly 50 years that nuclear arms control architecture is now potentially heading towards a crisis.

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Bilateral talks aimed at restricting the nuclear arsenals of the Soviet Union and the United States began during the late 1960s as concern mounted over the rapid expansion in the number of warheads and delivery systems. Over the decades that followed a series of arms control regimes emerged. Of those the New START treaty, concluded in 2010, remains in force. On 2 February 2019 the US suspended its participation in the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which had been in force for over 30 years:

  • Under the INF the Soviet Union and the US agreed to eliminate all nuclear-armed ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500km, their transporter/ launcher mechanisms and any associated infrastructure. Under Article VI both sides also agreed not to produce, or flight test, any missiles which fall within the treaty’s parameters. The treaty also provided for an extensive on-site inspection regime; while a Special Verification Commission was established in order to promote the objectives and implementation of the provisions of the treaty. The treaty entered into force in June 1988 and within three years both countries had met their obligations under the treaty, withdrawing an entire class of approximately 2,500 nuclear weapons from their respective nuclear arsenals and ending a nuclear stand-off in Europe.


  • Under the terms of New START the US and Russia committed to a limit of 1,550 strategic operationally deployable warheads and a combined limit of 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments. The treaty also establishes a verification regime that combines various elements of the original START verification regime and measures that are tailored to the current treaty. Under the treaty agreed reductions in warhead numbers and delivery systems were to be achieved within seven years (5 February 2018) and the treaty will remain in force until 2021, unless superseded by a subsequent agreement, and may be extended for no more than five years. New START data exchanged between the US and Russia on 5 February 2018 showed that both countries had reached the agreed treaty limits.

What next for arms control?

With both State Parties reaching the agreed treaty ceilings of New START by the February 2018 deadline, attention has subsequently shifted toward the future and whether Presidents Trump and Putin will agree to extend the treaty out to 2026, and/or negotiate a successor to the treaty, achieving further reductions in their nuclear arsenals.

Complicating the issue, however, is the wider political relationship between the US and Russia, which is arguably at its lowest since the end of the Cold War, and the ongoing dispute over alleged Russian non-compliance with the INF treaty which has been overshadowing the arms control agenda more broadly.

Both factors prompted the US in its February 2018 Nuclear Posture Review to clearly identify Russia as a strategic competitor and one of the main threats driving the assumptions and conclusions of that review. It also clearly linked progress in future arms control to Russian compliance with existing international agreements.

Russia, in turn, has very firmly expressed the belief that the threat to the existing arms control architecture lies with the United States’ refusal to engage in substantive talks.

As such, the prospects for US-Russian arms control do not appear encouraging. If the INF treaty collapses as expected and the New START treaty is allowed to lapse in 2021, then there will be no limits on the US and Russia’s strategic nuclear forces for the first time since 1972, prompting fears of a quantitative arms race. It will also leave the US and Russia with fewer tools with which to verify the size and composition of each other’s nuclear arsenals. Observers have also pointed out that it will leave both countries in violation of their disarmament obligations under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Suspension of the INF Treaty

After several years of suspicion and rumour, it was only in 2014 that the US formally, and publicly, accused Russia of being in violation of the INF treaty, following reported Russian testing of a new ground-launched cruise missile (the Novator 9M729/ NATO designation SSC-8) with a range of between 500km and 5,500km. In 2017 the US suggested that Russia had advanced beyond flight testing and had begun to deploy the missile in question, a move which violated “the spirit and intent” of the INF treaty.

As a consequence, in December 2017 the US announced that it would introduce economic and military measures to induce Russia back into compliance, which included sanctions and a review of the research and development options for new US conventional, ground-launched intermediate-range missiles. The 2018 US Nuclear Posture Review reiterated these measures, while also recommending the reintroduction of nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles as an INF-compliant response to Russia’s alleged violation. However, both the NPR and the US State Department indicated that the US could cease its pursuit of either option if Russia returned to full and verifiable compliance with its INF obligations.

Allegations of non-compliance have been consistently disputed by the Russian government which has stated that the missile in question has a much shorter range than the US has suggested and has criticised the US for not providing evidence to the contrary. In turn, Russia has also accused the US itself of violating the INF Treaty with the fielding of its ballistic missile defence system in Europe, which they have argued can launch intermediate-range Tomahawk cruise missiles. Russia has also suggested that the US’ development and deployment of unmanned combat aerial vehicles is a breach of the treaty’s provisions.

Attempts to resolve the INF impasse

Both sides indicated that they were willing to engage in dialogue on the INF treaty, although nothing substantive emerged from the few meetings that have taken place. Allegations and counter-allegations of non-compliance have continued to be levelled by both parties, while practical efforts or proposals toward allaying the concerns of either side have been distinctly lacking. This has led to concern among commentators and experts that there is, in fact, little genuine interest, by either side, in resolving the dispute.

Indeed, many within the Russian government have long considered the INF treaty discriminatory, and one which places a greater burden on Russia which, unlike the US, is surrounded by third countries in possession of significant intermediate-range cruise missile capabilities. Several Russian critics have also expressed the belief that the treaty inhibits Russia’s effective use of its nuclear forces to offset the deficiencies in its conventional military capabilities, in particular in Europe. As such many observers have considered that, for Russia, the strategic benefits to be gained from non-compliance with the INF treaty may, in fact, be worth it.

In the United States the treaty equally has its critics, including President Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton who referred to the INF in 2014 as an “obsolete treaty even before Russian cheated”, and has advocated pulling out of the treaty, regardless of whether Russia is compliant or not.

US withdrawal

The influence of John Bolton is considered, by many commentators, to be the reason behind President Trump’s announcement at a campaign rally on 20 October 2018 that the US would withdraw from the INF treaty. The announcement has been considered a significant setback for international arms control and has been met with concern from allies and arms control experts alike, who argue that it could lead to an unconstrained and dangerous nuclear arms competition with Russia and undermine security in Europe.

On 4 December 2018 the US administration announced that it would suspend its obligations under the INF treaty if Russia failed to come back into compliance within 60 days. Following the failure of further talks, on 1 February 2019 President Trump formally announced the US’ intention to suspend its obligations under the INF treaty, effective as of 2 February, and that the US would begin the process of withdrawal, which would be completed in 6 months unless Russia came back into compliance by “destroying all of its violating missiles, launchers, and associated equipment”.

Russia responded by announcing tit-for-tat measures, with the formal suspension of Russian involvement in the INF treaty and the start of work on new missile capabilities currently prohibited by the treaty. However, President Putin also stated that Russia would not deploy such weapons in Europe, unless the US does first.

If little attempt at resolving the INF dispute is made by both sides over the next 6 months, then the collapse of the INF treaty in August 2019 is inevitable and will allow both Parties to freely pursue the development and deployment of ground-launched intermediate-range missiles.

Such an outcome also does not bode well for discussions on the extension or replacement of the New START treaty, which is due to lapse in 2021 and is the only remaining treaty placing checks on the nuclear arsenals of the US and Russia.

An extension or successor to New START

Early on in his Presidency Donald Trump was dismissive of the New START treaty, reportedly calling it “one-sided” in favour of Russia and failing to respond positively to a suggestion allegedly put forward by President Putin that the deal should be extended.

In the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review the US outlined its ongoing commitment to implement New START, although stopped short of committing to an extension of the treaty or negotiating a successor agreement. It also offered no proposals for moving this issue forward, claiming that Russia had “rebuffed” US attempts to start discussion on the next round of negotiated reductions. In May 2018, however, the US Government announced that it would conduct an interagency review which would examine “whether to extend, replace or jettison New START or to pursue a different type of approach such as the 2002 SORT treaty”.

The pursuit of ‘other options’, such as SORT, is thought to be something that John Bolton favours greatly as he was involved in the negotiation of that treaty while at the State Department in 2002. He has also been a frequent and vocal critic of New START, deriding it as “unilateral disarmament” by the United States, as, among other things, it failed to take into consideration Russia’s significant arsenal of non-strategic nuclear weapons.

President Putin has repeatedly expressed his desire to keep New START, and at the Helsinki summit in July 2018 reportedly presented the Trump administration with several proposals “to work together further to interact on the disarmament agenda, military and technical cooperation”. Included in those were proposals to begin discussions on extending New START, reaffirming commitment to the INF treaty and to resume dialogue on Russian concerns about the US’ missile defence plans.

However, giving testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 25 July 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed that no specific agreements had been reached on arms control in Helsinki and that the US administration did not yet have a position on whether to extend New START. The Russian government continues to set out its willingness to engage in discussions, although President Putin declared on 2 February 2019 that Russia would no longer initiate them.

A potential compromise?

While the current political climate makes negotiation of a successor treaty difficult in the near term, extending the treaty to 2026 is widely acknowledged as a potential ‘win-win’ compromise for both Presidents, both in terms of arms control but in US-Russian relations more broadly.

Both Presidents could, by personal agreement, extend the treaty without the need for ratification by the US Senate or the Russian Duma. By taking this option it would allow the existing limits on warheads and delivery systems and the verification regime to continue for a further five years in the hope that US-Russian relations, at some point, chart a more favourable course thereby allowing negotiations on further nuclear reductions to occur.

Pursuing this option would not require any concessions by the US administration toward Moscow and it could be done independently of the INF issue. Maintaining the status quo could be construed by both sides as a political victory while buying some valuable time.

Whether the US administration’s interagency review will regard the extension of New START as an acceptable compromise remains to be seen, however, particularly given the prominent role of NSA John Bolton. The personality and unpredictability of President Trump may also yet play an important part. If the US withdraws from the INF treaty and both Parties do not agree an extension or negotiate any successor to New START, President Trump will be the first sitting US President since Jimmy Carter not to have engaged in meaningful arms control negotiations or restrictions with Russia.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8421

Authors: Claire Mills; Noel Dempsey

Topics: Arms control, Eastern Europe, Europe, North America, Russia, Western Europe

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