Michael KreponUkraine and the Future of Arms Control

Verse of the week:

“I’d like to tell you not to worry. Reality has a way of sorting itself out,/ but panic is infectious. The scare arrives when you’re doing/ jumping jacks or organizing the cutlery. Some moment of low/ cosmological drama. Interrupted by the discovery of a lump.” – Tishani Doshi, “Mandala”

What happened to Vladimir Putin? He was always cunning, calculating, and cruel, but he had a well-honed sense of risk and reward. Now he threatens major predations on Ukraine to make partial amends for the loss of empire and to revise the post-Cold War order. When was the last time a major power invaded a weaker country and declared victory? OK, let’s revise that: When was the last time a major power invaded a weaker country and reaped gains greater than losses?

Ukraine isn’t a manageable diplomatic problem if Putin means a small fraction of what he says. And by going public with his demands, he ensures they won’t be met, leaving him with three choices: to retreat, to go small, or to go big. Putin doesn’t want Washington and NATO to thicken connectivity to states and former Soviet Republics that were once beholden to the Kremlin’s will. But that’s exactly what he’ll get at this point. All that’s left to decide are matters of scale.

Further Russian punishment meted out against Ukraine will prompt punishment in return. The degree of economic punishment will depend primarily on Germany. There will also be additional military assistance to Ukraine, joint military exercises and other visible manifestations of U.S. ties to NATO allies. All of this will happen at a bad time, when the United States is overcommitted and overextended, and when many hear the siren song of America First. Putin has noted all of the above.

What’s unfolding now in Ukraine and perhaps later with respect to Taiwan clarifies even more – as if further clarification were needed – the utter wrong-headedness of waging an extended war in Afghanistan and a war of choice to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Ukraine is another fine mess that the George W. Bush administration has gotten the United States into (with apologies to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy). Bush championed the entry of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, an alliance that had already expanded beyond coherence. There is, however, no revising NATO’s founding principle that states meeting the criteria for eligibility can join, or at least remain in the queue, even if timelines extend to the horizon.

Putin wouldn’t have been satisfied with the situation in Ukraine even if the Bush administration had refrained from going overboard with NATO expansion. Bush’s democracy project has, however, made the stakes higher, and contributed significantly to Putin’s over-the-top reaction. The United States and NATO are nevertheless obliged to come to Ukraine’s support – not as an ally, but as an important state in an important location that seeks its own path.

Putin is pursuing the Kremlin’s old school maneuvers, which include nuclear-tinged methods of coercion. The United States has rejoinders to whatever actions Putin decides to take. Wise countermeasure, rather than the standard Cold War methods can widen the distance between Putin’s ambitions and their realization.

When Putin threatens war on a neighbor because he doesn’t like the loss of empire and the post-Cold War order, the consequences for arms control are resoundingly negative. Most of the time, arms control reflects rather than transcends geopolitics. On rare occasions, under the right conditions, far-sighted leaders with sufficient domestic backing can employ arms control as a tool to change geopolitics. The antithesis of the right conditions is when two major powers are unhappy with the status quo.

As I’ve written in my book, arms control has always been about playing a long game. Going overboard in response to the Kremlin’s nuclear-tinged messaging would serve to reinforce the utility of nuclear threats. Why go there if our goal is to reduce nuclear threat making?

However the Ukraine crisis plays out, the odds are stacked against the use of nuclear weapons, which would be utterly stupid and unconscionably dangerous. Nuclear weapons have not been used in warfare for over seven decades because they have no utility on the battlefield; however attractive the first move appears the following moves make the situation worse.

The size, composition and readiness levels of nuclear forces will not affect the outcome of a small or larger war on Ukrainian territory, which will be determined by the fortitude of the contestants and the pain that can be inflicted upon them by far more prosaic means.

One nuclear signaling option for Putin, as Pavel Podvig has written, is to take a page from the old Soviet playbook and reintroduce ground-based, nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. He was already deployed nuclear-capable ground-launched cruise missiles of a type once banned by the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty – a material breach that led to the Treaty’s demise.

This old-school move doesn’t merit an old school response. The currency of NATO connectivity with the United States is now measured in defensive, not offensive, ground-based missiles. Russian officials argue that defensive interceptors for theater missile defenses can be re-tooled for offensive purposes, but re-tooling isn’t necessary. Theater missile defenses work just fine in alliance cohesion terms, even if they aren’t capable of intercepting Russian INF-range missiles in flight. Like nuclear weapons, theater missile defenses are more about message sending than battlefield utility. If Putin wishes to deploy nuclear-capable missiles, he will strengthen the case for NATO theater missile defenses.

Where, then, does all this leave us in terms of arms control? In a holding pattern, at least for now. Ronald Reagan was able to resume INF negotiations with the Kremlin within two years of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But he was Reagan, the Republican Party was quite different back then, and NATO deployments required an arms control negotiation track.

The world and domestic U.S. politics are now in a far different place. But daylight, as George Harrison reminded us, has a way of arriving at the right time, replacing darkness. Everything will be a hard slog, but there will be new opportunities for dialogue, beginning next month on space debris caused by anti-satellite testing. The key norms of no use, no testing, and nonproliferation can be extended, whether in darkness or in daylight. 


  1. John F. Chick (History)

    I don’t quite see the connection between the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as influencing Putin’s decision to threaten Ukraine, and the expansion of NATO began under President Clinton, and was indeed critiqued at the time with exactly the negative outcomes you rightly describe. Therefore the Clinton policy was continued by Bush and continued (or at least not overtly rejected) by President Obama. The politics aside, what successive administrations apparently failed to consider is what some refer to as “strategic empathy”; considering the situation from the other guys point of view. A possible solution would be the Finlandization of Ukraine whereby Russian agrees not to invade in exchange for a guarantee of not officially joining NATO. Convincing Ukraine to go along with this is another matter of course.

  2. John Chick (History)