Jeffrey LewisArbatov on Revising Nuclear Deterrence

CISSM is hosting Alexei Arbatov, Senior Research Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, to discuss his paper (with co-author Major General Vladimir Dvorkin, Ret.) on Revising Nuclear Deterrence.

Among other things, Arbatov was deputy chair of the defense committee of the Russian Parliament (State Duma). Dvorkin is a former Strategic Rocket Forces officer. Here are their biographies.

Arbatov (right) and Dvorkin argue—absent a START III agreement—Russia will build up to current Moscow Treaty levels:

On the other hand, Russia must continue with modernization of its SNF to keep at the SORT ceilings (1700 to 2200 warheads), since maintaining some strategic balance is considered essential for national security.

This is all the more so, since the United States refused to go for lower numbers and demonstrated clear reluctance to having a new full-scale arms reduction treaty in place of START I and START II/III. Huge projected US offensive counterforce weapons (carried by Trident-2 SLBMs and Minuteman-3 ICBMs with powerful W-87 warheads refitted from dismantled Peacekeeper MX missiles) in combination with a strategic ballistic missile defense system is commonly perceived as a technical (if not strategic) threat to Russian nuclear deterrence capability.

Being obliged to accept aid from the West through CTR in the past and Global Partnership in the future, Russia is at the same time not willing to lose its deterrence and concede to the US clear-cut nuclear superiority, which Washington had failed to retain during several decades and four big rounds of the massive Cold War nuclear arms race (1950s to the 1980s).

The idea that Russia would build up to the levels reached in an arms control agreement reveals the sophistry behind Steve Rademaker’s claim that the Moscow Treaty was ‘the deepest reduction ever mandated by a strategic arms control treaty.”

This is a subject that Paul and I have both mentioned before. In December 2004, I argued that the Moscow Treaty wasn’t a reduction, so much as it was a gamble that Moscow would keep reducing its nuclear forces to save money—a gamble that was based on intelligence community projections that are increasingly difficult to verify.

Paul, too, noted that he wouldn’t “bank totally on these intelligence projections.”

We live in interesting times.


  1. Pavel Podvig (History)

    Dvorkin was not a Commander of the Strategic Rocket Forces. He was the Director of the Central Research Institute of the SRF.

  2. j (History)

    Jeff, I have to disagree. The Moscow Treaty only affirmed the status quo in U.S.-Russian strategic relations. Thus, as you have pointed out, it is a farce to argue that the Treaty is a significant arms control acheivement. At the same time, it is incorrect to declare that the Treaty is prompting Russia to build up to the 1500-1700 warhead level.

    The U.S., during the Treaty negotiations, was adamant that it was reducing to 2200 deployed warheads, per the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review. Russia asked for a treaty for domestic reasons, and sought to expand the range to 1700 to 2200 warheads because it recognized it would only likely reach the 1700 level. The Russians would have liked to have gone down even further, but that was not in the cards for the Bush Administration.

    Hence, Russia would be striving for these levels with or without the Treaty. The key motivator for them is the U.S. level, which was determined in advance and independent of the Moscow Treaty.

  3. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    That is the thought that I attempted to express, however inarticulately I may have done so.

    The treaty is merely a codification of the existing relationship, a relationship that produces larger, more ready Russian strategic forces than necessary.

    Some additional arrangement (either a treaty or mutual understanding) providing for further reductions in numbers and alert rates could result in a pareto improvement for the security of both states.

  4. Pavel Podvig (History)

    I have a better theory. The treaty is indeed a codification of the existing relationship. But the essense of that relationship is that no one really cares how many weapons the other side has.

    Yes, Russia could keep about 1500 warheads. But would it make any difference compared to the current 3500 or to, say, 500?

  5. plw

    Do you really think further reductions would bring an improvement in terms of absolute security for both sides?

    I.e., given fewer warheads on alert, how low can they go when taking in account the warheads and conventional capabilities of any future adversary (NATO&China and China&RF)?

    The point: if they go into the low hundreds, can the ‘strategic planners’ be sure their arsenal would survive a massive conventional first-strike or a limited nuclear first strike? If not, couldn’t this lead again to higher alerting and possible decrease of absolute security for all sides?