Russia and the US: realising nuclear disarmament and building trust

According to the most recent estimate by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), the world’s combined stockpile of nuclear warheads stands at more than 17,000. The US and Russia have over 93% of the world’s nuclear weapons, with about 1,800 on high alert, ready to unleash their devastating explosive power against each other at short notice. This means that the two nations will have to take the lead on reducing the size, role and political-military significance of their arsenals if the peace and security of a world free from nuclear weapons is to be realised. In order to explore how Russia and the US could make progress on these issues, BASIC recently co-sponsored a roundtable in Moscow with several other NGOs, including the Russian Center for Energy and Security Studies (CENESS), the Arms Control Association (ACA) from the US and the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH) based in Germany.


One of the central concerns that emerged from the presentations and contributions of the Russian experts and officials present at the meeting, was Russia’s need for the US to treat it as an equal. Russia feels threatened by the US’s far superior conventional military power, which under the auspices of NATO, now reaches close to its territory. As Dmitri Trenin has explained, Russia also feels vulnerable in this respect to a rising China, with which it shares a long border on its eastern flank. In order to balance against these perceived threats, Russia has come to heavily rely on maintaining a massive nuclear arsenal for deterrence purposes, while it slowly modernises its armed forces. The problem is that Russia’s nuclear weapons will no longer provide strategic balance if the US can deploy a functioning ballistic missile defense system (BMD) -which, as  Yousaf Butt  points out, is by no means certain- as this will nullify Russia’s ability to retaliate against a US first strike.


The current tension and mistrust between Russia and the US, with the huge stakes of nuclear war if deterrence fails, seems especially tragic given the end of the Cold War and the potential for co-operation. If the relationship between the two nations continues in its current form, with further modernisation of nuclear weapons and advances in hi-tech warfare at a time of global political instability, the danger of great power conflict could become a real possibility. In the long-term, therefore, it is essential for the US, Russia and European states to realign their relations, so that trust is embedded.


Russia’s integration into a new security community covering the Euro-Atlantic area would bring immediate political and economic benefits to all sides- not least in terms of saving billions on unnecessary military spending. Russia would be able to divert funds to much-needed investment in social goods and services, which, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is currently relatively low, with ‘poverty and income inequalities well above the OECD average’. The US and European states, troubled by austerity and social unrest, could similarly begin to move resources towards tackling the underlying causes of global insecurity, such as climate change, resource competition and socio-economic marginalisation and inequality. More widely, the process of bringing Russian and US nuclear forces down to low numbers on the road to elimination – if accompanied by a more benign security environment where China did not feel threatened militarily – would, according to Major General Pan Zhenqiang, enable it to join in nuclear disarmament efforts.


Such improvements in relations between the great powers could also enable governments to engage more constructively on resolving regional tensions and conflict, including long-running disputes over nuclear programmes, in the Middle East and Korean peninsula. Furthermore, the prospect of a new global co-operative security compact would provide decision-makers in all nuclear weapon states with the opportunity to create a compelling political narrative that could be used to persuade and mobilise domestic audiences. This is necessary in order to overcome opposition, from supporters of the status quo, to reorienting economies away from dependence on nuclear weapons-related production, through conversion to alternative, civilian output. A key challenge here is how to design a model of security co-operation which creates a new, collective identity for participating states that resonates with public opinion while allowing each state to retain a distinct national identity.


How can the requisite levels of trust be developed to kick-start such a project? If Russian and US leaders committed themselves to nuclear disarmament as a shared common goal, the process of closely co-operating on the elimination of their nuclear weapons could develop a sense of interdependence, facilitating a deeper partnership. At present, while the recently agreed New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) has seen reductions in Russian and US nuclear stockpiles, these reductions do not count as disarmament according to the principles of irreversibility, transparency and verifiability enshrined in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.


Decision-makers in both capitals instead continue to attach high value to their nuclear weapons, albeit for different strategic reasons, as ways to maintain power and control both domestically (e.g. via investments through the military-industrial establishment) and internationally. Talks on nuclear weapons involving state officials are thus commonly framed in terms of arms control, which is understood by elites to mean managing or, at best, limiting rather than eliminating nuclear arsenals. At root, this is because the ‘great powers’ share an addiction to nuclear weapons, believing that their arsenals bestow greatness in their game of global competition.


For co-operation and trust to be built on nuclear disarmament between the US and Russia, US decision-makers will have to understand and develop empathy with the predicament of their Russian counterparts in order to act in ways which reassure and build confidence. Meanwhile, the self-image Russian leaders have of their nation as a global power with a right to significant influence in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, will have to be rethought in line with their reduced resources. Above all, both parties will eventually have to accept that all nuclear weapon systems (including so-called tactical or non-strategic weapons) and BMD are unnecessary and illegitimate in order to provide certainty over each other’s intentions. Such clear and straightforward signalling is a pre-requisite for the realisation of nuclear disarmament, which could help create the conditions for a new security settlement- based on the delegitimisation of military force- between Russia and the US.

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