Considering future US-Russian arms control & global dynamics

This week Moscow hosts an international security conference that will focus on the future of missile defense, more specifically, the need for effective US reassurances that it will never undermine Russia’s nuclear deterrent, and the possibility of cooperation on the issue. Because of its cost and poor justification, President Obama earlier this year decided to abandon the controversial Phase IV of his European Phased Adaptive Approach missile defense system; however, any hopes that this would transform the relationship with Russia have so far not come to pass. He will be looking to discuss this further with President Putin when they meet on the fringes of the 39th G8 summit on Lough Erne in Northern Ireland on June 17-18th. He will look to engage Russia in follow-on talks to further reduce nuclear forces, but unless the two leaders surprise analysts it seems unlikely to herald any significant progress.

If the BASIC meeting in Moscow last week, (co-sponsored with ACA, IFSH and the Moscow-based Center for Energy and Security Studies (CENESS)) is anything to go by, Russian fears over missile defense are symptomatic of larger challenges, involving both countries’ roles in the world. Russia needs to find its place in the world. It needs more than its nuclear arsenal and permanent seat on the Security Council to gain self-respect; it needs a vision. Persistent support for Putin’s nationalistic authoritarianism comes in part from the despair over Russia’s impotence abroad. And the most powerful demonstration of this is the US impunity to act, against Russian interests. Russian strategists see a key role for Russia in constraining the US ability to act, and they call it strategic stability. It comes straight out of the international relations text books – the concept of balance of power. They see their strategic and tactical nuclear weapons as the key tool in achieving that balance, as the US development of non-nuclear technologies streak away from any Russian abilities to keep up. They resent the US approach in that appears to pick and choose from the dimensions of the carefully-negotiated arms control framework that suit them, and leave those (such as the ABM Treaty) that do not.

It is not only Russia that sees a need for US power to be balanced in the world. The US desire to maintain its strategic global dominance both for security against any possible emerging threat into the distant future and its desire to proactively intervene in regional disputes is a prime cause of challenge for many states. This dynamic will be the subject of debate at the Hay Festival this Saturday. The US Government and Congress face important choices over whether and when to:

  • accept constraints on their freedom to act or develop capabilities in the interests of building a strong and cooperative global security architecture capable of constraining emerging threats; or
  • pursue a path of dominance in military technology and capability, unconstrained by international agreement.

If it chooses the latter course it cannot expect the support of other states with different interests when they need it. Whilst the long-awaited Nuclear Posture Review Implementation Study could open flexibility for the United States to engage with reductions, they may not have a willing negotiating partner unless they consider broader shifts in posture that introduces some genuine reassurance for Russia.

Equally, the Russians would do well to look again at their strategy of relying quite so much on weapon systems that clearly have little relevance to the conflicts of today. Strategic nuclear forces of both states simply have no role in regional conflict. The constraints on US power come not from Russian nuclear weapons and some sort of balance of strategic terror, but rather the clear limitations of military projected power, when its use undermines US soft power and attracts passionate local resistance in other forms.

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