Michael KreponArms Control, Interrupted

Note to readers: For those who want to dive deeper into this history, check out my magnum opus/door stop, Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control. 

Quote of the week:

“Arms control is an unnatural act.” — Paul Warnke

“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” — James Baldwin

The process of nuclear arms control and reduction invites interruption. The primary culprits are domestic divisions in Washington and naked power plays by Moscow.

Washington’s political debates do not bring negotiations to a halt. Instead, domestic divisions periodically stymie implementation of the agreements reached. In functional democracies, cause produces political effect. It follows that nuclear negotiations are interrupted when Russian troops invade another country.

Washington also sends troops to fight abroad, and far more often than Moscow. But U.S. wars in distant places haven’t impeded negotiations or the signing of arms control agreements. Richard Nixon visited Moscow to sign the first strategic arms limitation accords in 1972 while the Soviet Union was suffering casualties from U.S. bombing runs in North Vietnam.

Russian troops are now poised to invade Ukraine. The most likely worst case for arms control here isn’t mushroom clouds. Russia has no need for them, nuclear weapons are not good for self defense, Ukraine doesn’t have them, and U.S. forces will not face off against Russian troops.

Instead, the most likely worst case for arms control is if Russian forces advance to the Dnieper River like a hot knife through butter. The easier a military campaign is for Putin, the harder it will be for arms control to rebound and to hold the line against proliferation.

A military offensive against Ukraine would be the third time that the Kremlin’s use of force interrupted nuclear negotiations. The first occurred in the Johnson administration. Lyndon Baines Johnson was eager to start strategic arms control negotiations with the Kremlin. No matter how much he accomplished in whatever field, he wanted more. LBJ oversaw the completion of two foundational accomplishments in our field – the Outer Space Treaty and the Nonproliferation Treaty. He did so without micromanaging negotiations the way he tried to micromanage the prosecution of the Vietnam War.

LBJ’s next goal was to attend a grand opening ceremony for strategic arms control negotiations. His Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, was also ready to kick off these strategic arms limitation talks, or SALT. Preparatory work on the U.S. negotiating position was led by the Pentagon, a reflection of Robert McNamara’s keen interest in this subject, despite his preoccupation with Vietnam. Paul Warnke, who worked for McNamara and who would later become the chief U.S. SALT negotiator, used to say that McNamara was the founding father of strategic arms control.

The central feature of the U.S. proposal developed in the Johnson administration was a freeze on land- and sea-based missile deployments. A construction freeze could be monitored by photo-reconnaissance satellites. Because these limitations didn’t require on-site inspections, they were within the realm of possibility.

The day before both Washington and Moscow were set to announce the prospective talks, the Kremlin acted to snuff out the Prague Spring. When Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in August 1968, negotiations were placed on hold.

The Nixon administration picked up this ball and ran with it, concluding an “Interim Agreement” with Moscow on strategic offensive forces three and one-half years later. The delay was costly, but not because it made it harder to stop the flight-testing and deployment of multiple, independently-targeted warheads. LBJ was as disinclined as Nixon to oppose the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs, and hawkish legislators on Capitol Hill who insisted on letting MIRVs run free.

Instead, the principal cost of delay was that it provided more time for the Soviet missile build up to proceed. By the time U.S. negotiators succeeded in freezing missile deployments in SALT I, the Soviets had hundreds more of them. The Kremlin also refused to accept tight constraints on their upgrade.

The Soviet missile build up fueled opposition to strategic arms control – opposition that proved disabling to Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Carter finally completed negotiations on SALT II in 1979. This treaty mandated equal numbers of “strategic nuclear delivery vehicles,” or long-range missiles and bombers. It wasn’t good enough for U.S. deterrence strategists. They were up in arms over prospective increases in Soviet missile-carrying capacity, or “throw weight” that could be exploited by the MIRVs they refused to ban.

This wasn’t the Carter administration’s only problem in seeking treaty ratification. The Kremlin was active in far away places that most people couldn’t identify on maps, but which conveyed a sense of Soviet momentum. There were other contentious issues, such as the very belated discovery of a Soviet “combat” brigade in Cuba, and the loss of U.S. treaty monitoring stations in Iran after the Shah was toppled.

The coup de grace to SALT II came when a rump group within the Politburo decided to invade Afghanistan to keep it in the red column. This proved to be a grievous error in judgement, but at the time, it seemed to confirm worst-case estimates of Soviet intentions.

The insular, old men in the Kremlin who authorized the disastrous invasion of Afghanistan probably figured there wasn’t much to lose in terms of U.S.-Soviet relations. The defense budget increases and strategic modernization programs that the Carter administration authorized to help with SALT II were going to happen even if ratification wasn’t.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was costly but not disabling for arms control. Negotiations resumed soon enough — within two years — because the Reagan administration wanted to deploy nuclear-armed missiles in five NATO countries, and deployments required a parallel negotiating track.

Arms control serves as a buffer against years of living dangerously, and arms control was dead in the water during Reagan’s first term. Nuclear dangers spiked severely after SALT II was shelved. The year 1983 was particularly harrowing. In four short years, the Kremlin leadership went from expecting SALT II to be ratified to expecting nuclear war.

Fast forward to our current year of living dangerously. Just one year ago, President Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin extended the last surviving strategic arms control treaty for five years. Now Biden warns American citizens to leave Ukraine as soon as possible because Putin has massed forces suitable for a three-front offensive. Once again, relations between Moscow and Washington as well as arms control are dead in the water. 

Post-Cold War triumphalists now face the reckoning for decisions taken during Washington’s “unipolar moment.” The costs and ramifications of NATO’s headlong expansion during the George W. Bush administration should now be apparent, especially Bush’s decision to clear a path for Ukraine to join NATO.

Ukraine gave up its sudden nuclear inheritance when the Soviet Union collapsed. In return, Kiev received the help it needed to get started as a viable independent state. Kiev also received security assurances — but not ironclad guarantees — from Russia, the United States, and Britain. After Bush forged a nominal consensus to eventually bring Ukraine into NATO’s fold, and after Ukrainians sent a corrupt, pro-Russian government packing, Putin lit matches to these security assurances. 

A successful Russian offensive in Ukraine would increase hedging by states that have practiced nuclear abstinence, in part due to a protective U.S. umbrella. Hedging has already begun in the Middle East because of Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Any agreement reached to place limits on these capabilities will be less assuring than the one negotiated during the Obama administration, which Donald Trump and John Bolton dismissed without figuring out how to do better. Resistance on Capitol Hill to a renegotiated agreement with Iran will be stronger than last time around, when the agreement did not enjoy majority support on Capitol Hill.

The “light” hedgers in the Middle East have ties with the United States and are concerned about how much they can depend on Washington. U.S. friends and allies in Asia are also watching how the Ukraine crisis plays out with a keen interest. So is Xi Jinping, who has Taiwan in his sights.

Our work will take hits if Putin once again runs roughshod over Ukraine’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty. How big the hits are will depend on how much Putin wins or loses if he resorts to the use of force.

If history is our guide, arms control will eventually rebound for the same reasons as before: States and the people who reside in them want reassurance that mushroom clouds will not be part of their future. Deterrence alone cannot provide that reassurance.

Hopes to avoid another interruption, thin as they might be, depend on Kiev providing reassurances that it does not intend to join NATO. The West has many other ways to help Ukraine, including ways to make a Russian invasion costly.