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  • Position : Chairman of the Executive Board
  • Affiliation : PIR Center
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U.S.-Russia arms control: where we are and where we are going

Evgeny Buzhinskiy

Now when the U.S. presidential elections are over the fate of the START Treaty and nuclear arms control, in general, has become clearer.

The New START treaty is set to expire on February 5, 2021, and only a few months ago there was little doubt that it would be the end of it. The Trump administration had no desire to extend it unless Russia agreed to “freeze” its nuclear holdings which in fact meant declaration and verification of Russian non-strategic nuclear arsenal.  Even a very modest proposal, made by President Putin, to extend START for one year without preconditions and meanwhile to try to find a reasonable compromise, was bluntly rejected by Washington. Moscow, in its turn, made it absolutely clear that it would not plead for START extension, let alone make unilateral concessions to the United States. And that is a pity because the most basic role of arms control regimes is to create mutual predictability, ensuring that no country participating is uncertain about its security both now and into the future. In this way, arms control helps to keep defense spending in check, but it also allows countries to build up mutual confidence, stability, and security.

Only a few months ago I was absolutely sure that after U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty nearly fifty years old history of nuclear arms control was coming to its end.  In general, the collapse of arms control agreements (such as the ABM Treaty and INF Treaty) has unleashed old arms racing dynamics and generated new ones, and it is far from clear how these can be constrained. It is widely accepted that the arms control architecture that was developed at the end of the Cold War is inadequate in today’s multipolar, multidomain environment, but the complexity of the task (plus complacency, suspicion, and numerous other factors) have prevented it from being updated.

Nevertheless, dismantlement of the entire nuclear arms control system, even if it may be considered to be outdated, may lead to an uncontrolled multilateral arms race involving strategic, intermediate-range, tactical nuclear and non-nuclear offensive and defensive weapons, as well as cyber warfare systems, laser weapons, and other arms innovations.

Although, I don’t think that this arms race will be quantitative (there is no need to again store thousands of nuclear warheads), rather it will be qualitative. Moreover, dismantlement of the nuclear arms control is certainly introducing a huge dose of unpredictability into the global strategic equation.

So now there is a good chance (of course, if Biden keeps his pre-election promises) that START will be extended for another five years. Although, his promise was made before President Putin made his proposal about the one-year extension. So now there is no 100 percent confidence in Biden’s position. But even if the Treaty is extended for five years the future of nuclear arms control and strategic stability is uncertain.

I don’t think that U.S will give up its intention to cover by limitations non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW) and new types of nuclear weapons like the Russian underwater drone “Poseydon” or nuclear-propelled cruise missile “Burevestnik”. I’m not sure about hypersonic weapons, taking into account quite a number of U.S. programs on the development of this kind of weapons.

The issue of “Poseydon” and “Burevestnic” is solvable by means of certain “tradeoffs”. But the issue of non-strategic nuclear weapons is more complicated. Probably that is true that START covers 45% of the Russian nuclear arsenal and 92% of the U.S. one. But START deals with strategic offensive nuclear weapons and that was known from the very beginning of the nuclear weapons reduction process. The reason for the above-mentioned asymmetry is the different composition of Russian and U.S. nuclear holdings. The U.S. has more strategic nuclear weapons and much fewer NSNWs, Russia – vice versa – more NSNWs and less strategic ones. For Russia, unlike U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons is a means of regional deterrence. To include them in a future arrangement without addressing Russian concerns like missile defense and space-based weapons is, in my view, impossible. Moreover, beyond the abovementioned Russian concerns, there are prompt global strike concept and the emergence of strategic non-nuclear systems linked to it as well as the role of cyber tools in the strategic sphere.

Thus, in today’s assumption arms control is no longer about numbers of generally similar weapons; it is about the capabilities of a broad range of diverse systems, each of which impacts the strategic calculus.

Placing all this under the effective control and verifying the implementation of agreements will be enormously difficult, if at all possible. So, from a technological perspective future arms control will be exceedingly challenging – much more difficult than it was during the Cold War.[1] 

As for the Chinese participation in the future nuclear arms control, it will depend on the general state of the U.S.-China relations. Moreover, I can repeat arguments against the trilateral nuclear arms control arrangement.

 First, there is no such concept as multi-lateral deterrence. Each nuclear state has its own subject to deter. So, you can not involve China and not involve India, India without the involvement of Pakistan, and so on.

Second, to start multilateral negotiations between at least seven confirmed nuclear states, that is: U.S., Russia, China, U.K., France, India, and Pakistan, the latter two should be recognized as nuclear states in the framework of NPT.

Third, the U.S. and Russia still possess 92% of the world's nuclear stockpile. How can they convince the other nuclear states (China first of all) to reduce their stockpiles until U.S. and Russia reduce theirs to the appropriate levels?

Forth, the problem of transparency. American and Russian holdings are officially declared and verified. French, British and Chinese levels are declared but not verified (Chinese level of 300 warheads, which has been declared for the last twenty years is not trustworthy). Indian and Pakistani stockpiles are not even officially declared. Israel sticks to its traditional position of no denial or confirmation of its nuclear status.

As I’ve already mentioned, irrespective of the extension or non-extension of START, sooner or later the U.S. and Russia will have to think of the new arrangements in the field of nuclear arms control. I’m sure that future agreements will have to take into consideration the new technological realities of the 21st century.

There is a great deal of uncertainty over the potential impact technological breakthroughs could have on nuclear deterrence. This includes developments in precision non-nuclear and hypersonic weapons, strike unmanned aerial vehicles, directed energy weapons, artificial intelligence, and other disruptive technologies that can undermine command, control, communication, intelligence, and critical infrastructure. Some of these technologies could have a profound impact on the strategic environment, particularly those that impact situational awareness, speed, accuracy, and survivability.

New technologies could emerge that conceivably could enable an adversary to preemptively negate or largely degrade one’s nuclear deterrent. Technologies – digital or otherwise – could operate against space platforms vital for commanding and controlling nuclear systems. Or, breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and sensors could threaten the survivability of nuclear-armed submarines. This does not suggest an adversary would “wake up” one day and decide to try to destroy a competitor’s nuclear deterrent, which if the attempt failed could trigger nuclear retaliation. But technological breakthroughs could make big and rapid leaps in an escalation of conflict more likely.

But meanwhile, I’m sure that both United States and Russia should explore the possibility of a new bilateral, legally binding, and comprehensive arms control agreement that would succeed START, whether it ends in 2021 or 2026. By its terms or in conjunction with separate, less formal arrangements, such an agreement would need to address concerns of one side or the other about missile defenses, conventional strike systems, non-strategic nuclear weapons, offensive cyber and space capabilities, and any innovative weapons systems.

To conclude I must say that while negotiations on new arms control agreements may be a thing of the future, in the meantime, discussions today on strategic stability issues in the form of seminars, presentations, briefings, and the like can generate a much better understanding among adversaries of their opponents’ objectives, principles, and strategies. This understanding may not necessarily lead to mutual restraint, but it might help to reduce the dangers of misperception. Restraint, even if unilateral, is absolutely rational; anything that goes beyond what is necessary for deterrence is both useless and provocative. Strategic bomber patrols close to an opponent’s borders or surprise major exercises demonstrate capacities and capabilities, but also contribute to escalation and might lead to accidents and incidents.

Transparency is another tool that can be very useful in today’s deregulated strategic environment. If deterrence, rather than warfighting, is the name of the game, nuclear powers are interested in demonstrating both their capacity to deter notional adversaries and their intention to keep the peace. Arms control has produced an unprecedented level of mutual transparency between the United States and Russia. While this transparency cannot be matched in the foreseeable future by other powers, particularly in the absence of arms control, a degree of transparency, even unilaterally, should help. The degree of transparency should be safe enough not to undermine deterrence.[2]


This paper was produced for the joint PIR Center – CSIS series of seminars "Reducing Nuclear Risks During Great Power Competition" (November 12 – December 9, 2020). PIR Center thanks the CSIS for their cooperation and support for this publication. 


[1] D.Trenin, “Stability amid Strategic deregulation: Managing the End of Nuclear Arms Control”, The Washington Quarterly, fall 2020, p. 168-169.

[2] D.Trenin, “Stability amid Strategic deregulation: Managing the End of Nuclear Arms Control”, The Washington Quarterly, fall 2020, p. 173.



Security Index №3(18), January 2021