Michael KreponPeace, Justice and Nuclear Arms Reductions

[Update below the jump. -Ed.]

Berlin brings out the best in U.S. Presidents.

President Barack Obama has now tried in Berlin to replicate successful JFK’s recipe for curtailing nuclear tests. Senior administration officials have talked privately with the Kremlin about taking parallel steps to reduce strategic forces by one-third and to make bold reductions in tactical nuclear arsenals. Obama made this pitch privately and directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland. He has now publicly called on Putin to join in taking these reductions in parallel. Left unsaid is whether the Obama administration will reduce these nuclear arms, which have been declared by the Pentagon to be in excess of U.S. requirements, if the Kremlin balks.

Nuclear weapons are expensive to maintain and even more expensive to replace. Despite concerns over budgetary outlays and calls for spending reductions, Republicans on Capitol Hill will resist making nuclear arms reductions. To do so by regular order would take the form of a treaty, but the Congress no longer follows regular order. Congressional consent would still be required, however, in the form of budget and appropriation measures.

Changing Putin’s views toward the value of nuclear weapons will also be a challenge. He is pursuing the deployment of a liquid-fueled missile that can carry multiple warheads and is expressing deep concerns about U.S. missile defense programs – even though Russia can foil U.S. defenses even if funding for them were increased ten-fold.

The Kremlin is speaking in ways that are stuck in the 1970s. President Obama is speaking about the future. To succeed in making parallel, verifiable strategic arms reductions, they have to find common ground in the present – preferably before the 2015 NPT Review Conference.

Update | June 20. The initial Russian reaction to President Obama’s offer has been lukewarm to negative.  No surprise there.

Three “ifs”: If this is not a negotiating ploy, and if the Kremlin holds fast to its negativity, and if the Obama administration eventually decides to de-link its offensive reductions from Russian force levels, we all move one step closer to the end of Big Nuclear Treaties.  This step may be coming, in any event, given how much the Washington, DC-based Republican Party has changed, but the Kremlin would be wise to consider whether it wishes to hasten this outcome.

The demise of Big Nuclear Treaties is a consequential, slow motion trend.  They have been part of the geo-strategic landscape since 1963, and they have ordered the strategic arms competition since 1972.  Big Nuclear Treaties provided order out of the chaos of the Soviet Union’s demise, even as these treaties lost their centrality when the Cold War competition ended.

Strategic offenses and defenses were delinked by the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002.  If offensive reductions are de-linked, what’s left?


  1. M Harries (History)

    “To succeed in making parallel, verifiable strategic arms reductions, they have to find common ground in the present – preferably before the 2015 NPT Review Conference.”

    Agreed, but I think we should keep expectations low about the amount of goodwill that further strategic arms reductions are likely to produce among the non-nuclear-weapon states (and not just in the non-aligned movement) in 2015.

    Unfortunately, there is a big gap between, on the one hand, how difficult it is for the US to negotiate reductions in deployed strategic forces and to sell them domestically, and, on the other, how much worth they are afforded by many NNWS in the NPT context. Their priorities seem to lie elsewhere, particularly on steps that are seen as part of ‘reducing the role’ of nuclear weapons.

    For better or for worse, it is probably true that further reductions in deployed strategic forces are necessary but not sufficient to encourage reciprocal concessions from NNWS on other NPT issues.

    So I think it would be wise to sell further reductions in strategic forces on the grounds that they will increase US national security – and not that they will produce particularly meaningful results in 2015.

    That said, there are other parts of the new guidance that could go over quite favourably with key NNWS – particularly any modifications to the launch-under-attack posture. And although the 2015 RevCon is certain to be very tricky for a number of reasons, it will certainly be harder if no reductions in strategic forces have taken place.

  2. Cthippo (History)

    If we want further agreements from the Russians we need to start seeing the world through their eyes and understanding what their motivations, hopes and fears are, rather then describing them as “stuck in the 1970’s” and dismissing them. Until we understand that the other side is looking for something different than we are and start asking what we can offer to them that is meaningful to them, they’re unlikely to be interested in more agreements.

    What the Russians seek is security, regional influence, and relevance, and they feel that possession of large numbers of nuclear weapons gives them these things. More to the point, they feel that of all the resources they have currently, ONLY nuclear weapons gives them these things. The US is asking them to give up what they perceive as the only tool they have to guarantee these things, without offering any other sort of guarantee in return.

    Let’s start with security. What every government, and especially non- or less-democratic governments fear most is regime change. This fear extends about equally to either internal regime change (Think Arab Spring) or external (Iraq in 2003). The Russian leadership defines national security in terms of themselves remaining in power, and threats to that hold on power are threats to national security.

    US, western, and Chinese nuclear weapons are all threats to Russian national security, but so are things like Prompt Global Strike which would allow the US to remove the current government using relatively small conventional weapons. Russia perceives foreign, especially western, troops on it’s borders because the Russian government knows that it is not in a position to counter an invasion with conventional forces and so would find itself in a position of either retreating across it’s own soil or else responding with nuclear weapons, again on it’s own soil.

    US willingness to support regime change in other countries, either directly through invasion or through support to local rebellion, is extremely worrying to states like Russia and China because it creates the possibility that some day it could be their turn. I doubt the Kremlin is all that hot on al-Assad, but they are distinctly opposed to the precedent that one or more western powers has the right to remove any government they find objectionable. The assertion of that right is a direct challenge to the security of the Russian government and to the government of any other non- or less-democratic state.

    So, getting back to my original point, what do we have to offer Russia that will make them feel more secure, relevant and influential? Currently, possession of nuclear weapons confers a significant sense of security because it allows them to deter both nuclear and conventional threats to the current government. Currently they’re not able to back up that nuclear deterrence with conventional military forces, nor are they the economic or ideological power they once were.

    It’s time for US negotiators to start thinking about what we can offer the Russians in terms of their own perception of their security if we are going to ask for further reductions in their nuclear arsenal.

    • Rob Goldston (History)

      Yup. Always a good idea to set yourself in the seat of the guy on the other side of the table. Prompt Global Strike has always seemed to me like a trigger for a nuclear war; it is interesting to think about what it looks like to Putin. Our having a huge arsenal of ready-to-go uploadable warheads must be another unattractive feature from the Russian point of view. One fundamental problem is that Russia and Pakistan both see themselves outgunned in conventional firepower, like we saw ourselves in Europe 30 years ago. How do we resolve that? A touch of conventional disarmament as well?

  3. Bradley Laing (History)

    Supposedly, China and India are having a nuclear arms race.

    How is Putin going to react to the U.S. asking him to change the Russian Federations deterrent, when China is increasing it’s arsenal?

    • krepon (History)

      What are the estimates of the size of the Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals?

  4. Bradley Laing (History)

    Estimate of Russian arsenal:

    A total 1,800 strategic warheads are on missiles and at bomber bases; 700 strategic warheads are in storage; 2,000 non-strategic warheads are in storage.


    China’s arsenal of an estimated 250 warheads is small compared to those of Russia and the US, home to about 8,500 and 7,700 warheads respectively.


    —But, what do Putin’s advisors tell him about future Chinese behavior towards India?

    —If he thinks an accelerated arms race will happen in a few years, what kind of cuts will Putin agree to, compared to if he does not think an accelerated India/China arms race will happen in a few years.

    • krepon (History)

      SIPRI estimates of the growth of the Chinese nuclear arsenal suggest that the Kremlin’s lead will be safe for a while.

  5. Bradley Laing (History)

    NEW DELHI — Indian scientists are upgrading the nation’s indigenous ballistic missile defense (BMD) system to extend the range at which it can kill an incoming missile from 2,000 kilometers to 5,000 kilometers.

    The first phase of the BMD system has been completed, a Defence Ministry official said.

    Avinash Chandra, the newly appointed head of the state-owned Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), said the agency has given top priority to the BMD effort


  6. SW (History)

    What the Russians seek is security, regional influence, and relevance? Maybe. But the way they express the last two of these objectives looks suspiciously like nostalgia for the 1970’s sway, the kind the old USSR held over the (essentially vassal) states of the late unlamented Warsaw Pact. For all practical purposes Russia regards the ex-Warsaw Pact members, now in NATO, to be a bunch of traitors who have switched sides, and need to be brought back within the Russian sphere of influence. Nations have long memories in that part of the world. They remember Munich.

  7. Bradley Laing (History)


    It’s ironic how these advocates of Indian inclusion into the NSG are also advocates of nuclear non-proliferation and have given a commitment under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) towards nuclear disarmament. Having already failed on the latter, they would also lose their moral authority over the former. Irony also lies in the fact that the same states that felt hard done by Indian transgression in 1974 are pushing for its membership.

    The quintessential criterion for the NSG membership is a good non-proliferation record and adherence to international non-proliferation treaties like the NPT, as well as other bilateral or multilateral agreements. It also entails support to international efforts to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). India fails on both these accounts.

  8. JO (History)

    “He is pursuing the deployment of a liquid-fueled missile that can carry multiple warheads”

    What is this? Air breathing? Cruise or semi-cruise missile? Or wanting maximum specific impulse or throttling on the final stage?

    Why not solids like the rest of their modern rockets?

    • Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

      The Russians/Ukranians are artists when it comes to liquid fueled ICBM’s. They make ICBMs with very large payloads. If you make the Russians nervous they attack the rocket equation in some amazingly ingeneous ways. They want to replace their SS-18/R-36.

    • JO (History)

      Some investigating since posting: apparently its a silo-based 100 tonne ICBM, storable propellant and early MIRV separation, conventional warhead option, and the stated principal reason for liquid fuel is high throw weight. Interestingly one of the reports stated that Russia presently has two expertise/build/manufacture complexes for their ICBMs – one solid and one liquid focused. They want to retain both complexes.