If September talks in Moscow fail, will we be thrown back into a new Cold War and arms race?

It remains to be seen if the U.S. and Russia will be able to agree on missile defense. Photo: Missile Defense Agency / U.S. Department of Defense

With the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama in Moscow drawing near, the two countries will have limited time to prepare legally binding agreements on Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) and nuclear weapons. Yet, between now and early September, they can realistically agree on the format of and principles for new official negotiations on these issues. The future of Russian-American relations hinges on this.

So far, there is no sense that Russia has comprehensively analyzed President Obama’s proposal for further cuts of nuclear weapons. It is time to come up with our own initiatives. Russia may say that American proposals are not enough, but where are our own specific proposals?

Eliminating reversal potential

Russia could come up with a package of proposals on launching negotiations on the entire range of military-strategic stability issues. Such negotiations could be conducted along parallel tracks but at varying speeds.

First of all, an irreversible reduction in nuclear weapons has to be agreed in order to eliminate the U.S. advantage in terms of reversal potential.

The new START treaty sets the ceilings for both sides at 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed launchers for inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBMs), as well as heavy bombers. The total number of deployed and non-deployed launchers and heavy bombers may not exceed 800.

According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the U.S. has 2,150 deployed warheads and Russia about 1,800. In 2010, the Obama Administration announced that the U.S. nuclear potential consisted of 5,113 “active” warheads. According to American experts Robert Norris and Hans Christiansen, by 2013, that number had dropped to 4,650.

The report on Nuclear Weapons Employment Strategy notes that the U.S. has “a stockpile of additional non-deployed nuclear warheads as a hedge against… the possibility of a change in the international landscape that would alter the U.S. calculus about the necessary composition of its deployed nuclear forces.”

This can be interpreted as a possible reaction, on the one hand, to the rapid modernization of the Chinese nuclear potential and, on the other hand, to Russia’s potential withdrawal from the New START Treaty.

A recently declassified U.S. Defense Department document claims that, “The U.S. nuclear force structure, as articulated in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, has been designed to account for any possible adjustments in the Russian strategic force configurations that may be implemented in response to the New START Treaty.”

So, the U.S. has a vast reversal potential because the cuts under the New START Treaty are mainly put into effect by removing warheads from ICBMs and SLBMs. According to our calculations, this potential amounts to at least 2,500 warheads. This means that the 1,550 American warheads under the New START Treaty may turn into 4,000 within 6-12 months.

Russia is in a different situation. Moscow does not publish official data. As heavy ICBMs are decommissioned, the reversal potential of the Russian strategic nuclear forces will diminish and will be significantly inferior to that of the U.S. This has far-reaching implications because the Republicans could come to power in the U.S. and the country might withdraw from the New START Treaty, as it did with the ABM Treaty. Then the U.S. would gain a significant edge on strategic nuclear weapons, amounting to at least double superiority.

We should also propose cutting the number of deployed strategic means of delivery from, say, 700 to 500, as we have. In that case, the American reversal potential would diminish by one-third, if not by one-half.

Infographic by Natalia Mikhailenko. Source: SIPRI. In the absence of official declarations, the publicly available information [on World Nuclear Forces] is often contradictory or incorrect (SIPRI's note).

Format for a possible accord

The political situation in the U.S., notably the balance of power in the Senate, effectively rules out a new legally binding treaty on strategic offensive or defensive weapons over the next few years. If, therefore, Moscow and Washington manage to reach agreement, it is unlikely to take the form of a treaty.

Yet, other solutions are possible.

For example, when concluding START-1 in 1991, the USSR and the U.S. exchanged political statements committing themselves to exchanging plans for deployment of nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles for 5 years and not deploying more than 880 nuclear SLCMs during the effective term of the Treaty.

Ballistic Missile Defense

Signing of a new ABM Treaty is unrealistic today. Even so, to ensure that the situation is predictable, Moscow and Washington could, for a start, agree on creating a Ballistic Missile Defense (BDM) cooperation center. The Center could implement a range of transparency measures, such as technical briefings on the characteristics of existing and future BMD systems and annual statements on the BMD system.

A battery of the American Patriot air defense missiles deployed at the Polish town of Morag, not far from the border on Russia's Kaliningrad Region. Photo: RIA Novosti / Igor Zarembo

 BMD forces may hold joint exercises in computer modelling, command-and-staff exercises, joint preparation and use during the exercises of Russian and American BMD systems, gathering and exchange of data obtained by radar and early warning satellites, as well as provision of information for Russian and U.S. command and control centers.

These agreements could be sealed in an “executive agreement.”


In the sphere of cybersecurity, it is desirable to discuss with the U.S., inviting other countries to join the Russian-American agreement on combating cyber threats. In June, Putin and Obama reached an unprecedented agreement on fighting cyber threats with a view to creating a mechanism for exchanging information to ensure more effective protection of critically important information systems. If necessary, the hot line used by Moscow and Washington since 1963 to prevent a nuclear conflict could be pressed into service.

Growing cyber attacks drive the world to tackle potential threats in Internet. Pictured (L-R): Chief of Estonia's Defence Forces Ants Laaneots and NATO Allied Command's General Koen Gijsbers at NATO's Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre. Photo: Reuters

It would also help if a permanent bilateral or multilateral center were set up for reducing threats to cybersecurity.

Space weapons

At present, Russia and China are advocating a treaty to ban deployment of any types of weapon in outer space, while the European Union is promoting the idea of a Code of Conduct in Space. We believe Russia should support the Code. Because the U.S. is in no hurry to join the Code, this would put the U.S. in an awkward position. The gap between positions should be narrowed on the basis of a compromise: at the first stage, to adopt a Code of Conduct in Space, with the proviso that, at the second stage, negotiations would begin on a treaty to ban deployment of any weapons in space.

We could also propose to the American side that a joint statement be made at the Moscow summit to the effect that Russia and the U.S. do not intend to place strike systems in space and call on other countries, including China, to join that commitment.

Other nuclear powers

Direct multilateral talks on limiting nuclear weapons in the “nuclear five” format cannot be held any time soon because the starting positions of the parties are too far apart. It should also be kept in mind that Russia and the U.S., according to SIPRI Yearbook 2012, account for 16,200 out of the 17,300 nuclear warheads in the world. The combined share of France (300 warheads), Great Britain (225), China (250), India (110), Pakistan (120), Israel (80) and North Korea (about 10) is less than 7 percent of the total nuclear stockpiles in the world.

Even so, Russia may propose that a joint statement of the two presidents be adopted at the Moscow summit, inviting other nuclear powers to enter into negotiations on confidence measures. Russia and the U.S. should make available to other nuclear powers some of the data they are exchanging on a bilateral basis and ask them, in turn, to provide some data in line with the range of data Russia and the U.S. exchange under the START Treaty.

The P5 format should be used. Within that format, it is possible to get political commitments by the United Kingdom, France and China not to increase their nuclear potential -- provided the U.S. and Russia continue reducing their nuclear arsenals.

Window of opportunity

The new Russian-American agenda has been outlined but is not yet being implemented. For this reason, the Putin-Obama meeting in September 2013 will be crucial. The two leaders want to establish a dialogue and agree on a new agenda, but this will require considerable effort to put into practice.

The U.S. will have mid-term elections in eighteen months’ time, which will turn Obama into a “lame duck” President, because the country will start preparing itself for the 2016 presidential race. The window of opportunity is not wide, but serious negotiations must start now in order to complete them next year. Russia should think hard about its position at the coming talks. It is time not only to react to U.S. proposals but also to make our own. Further down the road, the political situation in the U.S. will preclude achieving any accords.

Thus, the success or failure of the Russian-American dialogue in the coming period will determine the character of relations between the two countries for years to come. Will these relations be strong and stable or will we be thrown back to the Cold War and a new arms race?

The article is abridged from the original version, which first appeared on the website of Russian International Affairs council (RIAC).