Despite the end of the Cold War nearly two decades ago, mutual deterrence continues to define bilateral relations between Moscow and Washington. But as Russian and American think tanks point out, there may be other options for negotiators.

A launch of U.S. Standard Missile-3 (SM-3). Photo: Missile Defense Agency / U.S. Department of Defense

With the U.S. and Russia failing to reach agreement on key issues related to missile defense and non-proliferation, mutual deterrence continues to define bilateral relations between the two nations. This, despite the end of the Cold War nearly two decades ago. In September and October, Russian and American think tanks considered new approaches to overcome the mutual deterrence mentality.

Non-proliferation, missile defense, conventional weapons, and U.S.-Russia mutual deterrence were the key issues of seminars, debates and reports by Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science of International Affairs, the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies, and Carnegie Moscow Center.

Transcending mutual deterrence

Transcending Mutual Deterrence in the U.S.-Russia Relationship, a joint report prepared by Harvard’s Belfer Center and Russia’s Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies, addresses the thorniest challenges in the Moscow-Washington dialogue.

The authors of the report are prominent experts in U.S.-Russia relations and missile defense, including Matthew Bunn, Associate Professor of Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and Russia’s Senior Military Representative to NATO from 2002-2008, Vice Admiral Valentin Kuznetsov, as well as other well-known experts.

According to the report, mutual deterrence between Russia and the U.S. is still alive because of “the unhealed scar tissue of the Cold War.”  

“Russia and the United States ceased being mortal enemies with the end of the Soviet Union in December 1991.Yet a relationship based on the constant threat of mutual nuclear annihilation persists,” the report reads, pointing out the fact that the historical causes of war – territorial disputes, competition for resources, and conflicting ideologies – seem to be absent in contemporary U.S.-Russia relations. That’s why the authors of the report find the situation “paradoxical in today’s world.”

 Photo: U.S. Department of Defense The report argues that the mutual deterrence mentality in both countries results from differences on regional and international issues on the one hand, and risk aversion and institutional momentum on the other.

Differences on regional and international issues include NATO expansion, American ABMs in Europe and Asia, and U.S. vigor to spread democratic values and intervene in other countries like Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya. The report says that many Russian experts see “a broader international clash with the U. S. that justifies a continued reliance on nuclear deterrence.” According to them, without the check provided by Russia’s nuclear forces, Washington might exploit its military and economic power to dominate in the world and achieve a hegemony which could undermine Russia’s interests.

“The United States, in forming its policy toward Russia, must take into account Moscow’s perspective on NATO enlargement,” the report reads. “At the same time, Moscow must acknowledge that NATO is vastly different in character and capabilities than it was in 1990, and that enlargement poses no serious military threat to Russian territory.”

Risk aversion and institutional momentum is another set of reasons that contribute to mutual deterrence in U.S.-Russia relations. As the report says, “risk aversion is reinforced by the professional instincts and operating habits of military planners” who are supposed to prepare for the worst.

“For decades, Americans and Russians have eyed each other warily from missile silos, submarine decks, and ballistic missile early warning radar control rooms,” the report reads. “It is not illogical to focus national security policy on one’s strongest potential adversary… Like a supertanker, it takes time to change their course.”

While offering some ways how to overcome the mutual deterrence mentality, the report seems to sound very optimistic. It proposes focusing more on expanded cooperation beyond the nuclear sphere that will bolster political goodwill between Russian and American elites, increased bilateral economic integration, intelligence cooperation on joint challenges like international terrorism, greater transparency in nuclear postures and missile defense, and robust missile defense cooperation (i.e. threat assessment, division of responsibilities between Russian and U.S. missile defense systems, integration).

“It is possible to recognize that the current deterrent relationship is disproportionate to the differences that remain between the two countries, and to imagine ways to move forward a different strategic relationship and a different strategic posture,” the report sums up.

Michael E. O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research at Brookings’ Foreign Policy Department, agrees that the Moscow-Washington dialogue is hampered by “the habits of the Cold War.” At the same time, he points out the achievements Russia and the United States have reached in the field of security and disarmament.

“It is taking a while to get beyond the habits of the Cold War,” he told Russia Direct. “But we should remember we have come a long way already. Arsenals are much smaller; cooperation on issues like Iran and Afghanistan and now, even Syria’s chemical stockpile, is much greater. So, I do hope that as time continues to pass, lingering tendencies towards nuclear competition can change further. The arrival of a new generation in power in both places over time may help, too.”   

Likewise, James M. Acton, a senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment, echoes O’Hanlon.

“Will the U.S. and Russia overcome their differences in [missile defense] and collaborate on this area? I hope so, but it’s going to be difficult. The prospect of arms control is not good right now,” he told Russia Direct during the presentation of his new book, Silver Bullet? Asking the Right Questions About Conventional Prompt Global Strike, at Carnegie Moscow Center on Oct. 22. “The United States is primarily concerned about Russian nuclear weapons, [while] Russia is primarily concerned about U.S. conventional weapons, including ballistic missile defense.”

According to Acton, overcoming this asymmetry will be extremely difficult for Moscow and Washington. Yet it doesn’t necessarily mean the problem is hopeless, he said. Recognizing this fact may help resolve the standoff.

“I don’t see it [missile defense differences] as hopeless,” he said. “It is going to be hard. And I hope some of the ideas about conventional weapons would help reduce one of those areas of differences. Arms control is a very good idea, but is very hard to achieve.”

Trust between Russia and the U.S. won’t come about until the countries make robust efforts to step up negotiations, according to Alexei Arbatov, an expert on security and nuclear disarmament at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

“Trust is a result of negotiations and treaties as well as the capability to persuade [the other side],” he argues. “And if we just sit and wait for trust to start negotiations on such important issues [like nuclear disarmament], it will never come. Of course, the mistrust [between Russia and the U.S.] has some political aspects and origins. Yet if we look back at the 50-year history of negotiations, we will understand that we should negotiate.”

According to Arbatov, other global challenges like international terrorism and economic instability put nuclear disarmament – the major challenge during the Cold War era – on the periphery now. At the same time, the development of new missile technologies complicates the problem of nuclear disarmament. All of which makes it difficult for the countries and their representatives to negotiate, he said.

“There is an interesting phenomenon: the problem is becoming more complicated, but the level of professional skills and training of those responsible for all this is decreasing. That’s why we are now facing the standoff,” Arbatov explains.

Does involving other countries in nuclear disarmament make sense?

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

The report Transcending Mutual Deterrence in the U.S.-Russia Relationship supports the idea of involving other countries in the nuclear disarmament process. According to the report, this move might encourage U.S.-Russia dialogue on security as well as reduce mistrust.

“Ultimately, the goal must be to build a global system that provides security for all, while relying less on nuclear weapons and posing fewer nuclear dangers,” it reads. “Many of the steps – expanded cooperation across many fronts, increased transparency, and more – should be pursued with many other countries as well, particularly the other nuclear weapon states under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).”

When asked about the possibility of involving other countries like France, UK or China in nuclear disarmament and if it could help Russia and the U.S. transcend the mutual deterrence mentality O’Hanlon from Brookings said it depends on specific issues in security.

Photo: U.S. Department of Defense “For offensive arms, the U.S. and Russia are still the main players, though it would help if other countries would promise at least to cap their arsenal,” he clarifies. “On nuclear testing, we need all countries, of course. The same is true for nonproliferation, and for space arms control.”

Acton argues that Great Britain, France or China “can do much more and should do much more” to demonstrate to the U.S. and Russia that their participation in missile defense negotiations could calm down Moscow and Washington. “In terms of involving other states [in disarmament], it’s not feasible to have formal negotiations on limitations between five states, or eight states, or nine states,” he said.

Meanwhile, Arbatov points out to the strategic difficulties of engaging other countries in nuclear disarmament. “From the strategic point of view, it’s very difficult to involve France or the United Kingdom in the process,” he said during last week’s seminar on the nuclear disarmament of France and the UK at Carnegie Moscow Center. “Why? Because Great Britain and France are the members of NATO. They are allies of the U.S. And joining U.S.-Russia negotiations would be absurd and awkward for them. What can they negotiate with the U.S.? They are allies. They know each other very well.”

According to Arbatov, the non-proliferation negotiations between France and Great Britain, from one side, and Russia – from the other side – are very difficult to start “because of a huge asymmetry in their nuclear forces.” From the point of view of international security, French and British forces don’t see why they should focus much on nuclear arms regulation and control, Arbatov argues.

“Strategically, it is a highly difficult problem,” he said.

At the same time, excluding the U.S. and Russia, France and Great Britain are the only countries that give much more information about their nuclear forces and reduce their nuclear potential unlike the rest of five nuclear powers – India, Pakistan, Israel, China, and North Korea, Arbatov said.

Yet he believes that the countries need more transparency, and that could drive China to reveal its nuclear potential. In the case of greater transparency China would be under political pressure and might reveal a part of its nuclear warheads, maybe, in the framework of special negotiations.

“The main uncertainty of global scale is in China,” he said. “We even don’t know approximately how much it possesses in warheads. It might contain hundreds of rockets and warheads in its tunnels. And it is the major destabilizing factor in [the disarmament process]. China might turn out to be not only the third nuclear power after the U.S. and Russia, but also China might have much more nuclear weapons than the rest of nuclear states put together [excluding the U.S. and Russia]. That’s why the certainty regarding China is very important.”

Arbatov argues that China’s involvement would encourage other countries to join the nuclear disarmament process and make it more multilateral. And this might impact U.S.-Russia negotiations on nuclear disarmament.