Implications of President Obama’s Speech in Berlin and Nuclear Strategy Review

Progress on nuclear reductions will require more successful engagement with Russia

President Barack Obama set out his second term nuclear agenda on June 19, 2013 in a major speech in Berlin, and in tandem released elements of his long-awaited Nuclear Weapons Employment Strategy. No major policy shifts were revealed in his speech, other than issuing the conclusion that the United States could reduce its deployed strategic nuclear arsenal down to about 1,000 warheads if Russia is willing to make similar reductions. The Obama Administration will need to proactively engage Russia and manage potential obstacles in Congress if he is to follow through on this agenda.

In recognition of this, President Obama reiterated his commitment to encourage bipartisan consensus in the Senate for U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. But the Administration does not know whether it is anywhere near the two-thirds support of the Senate required to approve the treaty, and another U.S. rejection could kill it off and further damage the credibility of the U.S. international non-proliferation and disarmament agenda. He also repeated his support for the commencement of negotiations around a verifiable ban on fissile material, often referred to as a Fissile Material (Cut-off) Treaty. Such negotiations have been held up for decades in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Though vital for global nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, neither treaty holds the potential for a likely near-term win for the President. In an area where President Obama has taken the lead, he committed to hosting another Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC in 2016, before he leaves office (the next Summit is scheduled for 2014 in The Netherlands).

The highlight of the President’s remarks on nuclear weapons came in his statement drawing from a key result of his recent review of nuclear weapons policy:

“After a comprehensive review, I’ve determined that we can ensure the security of America and our allies, and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent, while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third. And I intend to seek negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures.”

He also reiterated his intention to “work with our NATO allies to seek bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe.” The President’s remarks were intended to show that he is continuing to make steps toward his long-term vision of a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons, while clearly conditioning further reductions in deployed nuclear warheads on some type of reciprocal cooperation from Moscow.

Changes for efficiencies, not bold reductions

The unclassified Defense Department Report on the Nuclear Weapons Employment Strategy outlines the broad shifts in U.S. military planning on nuclear weapons. Unlike the sense of change that the President evoked in his speech, the Report suggests continuity in current nuclear planning while acknowledging disarmament aspirations as a long-term goal. The Report emphasizes improved efficiencies as the basis of reductions, rather than abandoning the Cold War thinking that underlines nuclear deterrence doctrine.

  • It sustains the nuclear triad of land, sea and air-based nuclear platforms, despite budgetary pressures that had thrown into question whether the United States needs to commit to recapitalizing all three legs. “These forces should be operated on a day-to-day basis in a manner that maintains strategic stability with Russia and China, deters potential regional adversaries, and assures U.S. Allies and partners.” (p. 6)
  • It retains “counterforce targeting” of military and industrial assets. “The new guidance requires the United States to maintain significant counterforce capabilities against potential adversaries. The new guidance does not rely on a ‘counter-value’ or ‘minimum deterrence’ strategy.” This suggests that the military continues to plan for nuclear war-fighting, and follows-on from the Review’s stipulation that the United States make nuclear employment plans even “in the event deterrence fails” (p. 4) Such a strategy shows a lack of faith in nuclear deterrence, and requires a great deal more nuclear forces, in more variety, underpinning the triad.
  • It maintains the “hedge” arsenal and associated strategic platforms as a backup in case the “reduced” deployed arsenal’s warheads need replacing for “technical” reasons, or if a future strategic situation ‘requires’ a higher deployment level. (p. 7)
  • It maintains a commitment to strategic parity with Russia as the “only peer in nuclear weapons capabilities”, going on to explain that “large disparities in nuclear capabilities could raise concerns on both sides and among U.S. allies and partners” and it “place[s] importance on Russia joining us as we move to lower levels of nuclear weapons. “ (p. 3) Disarmament requires reciprocity.

Numbers aside, the accompanying press release of key conclusions from the Nuclear Weapons Employment Strategy revealed some incremental changes to policy that signal attempts to reduce the overall U.S. nuclear posture within existing assumptions, including:

  • [T]he United States will only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners. The guidance narrows U.S. nuclear strategy to focus on only those objectives and missions that are necessary for deterrence in the 21st century. In so doing, the guidance takes further steps toward reducing the role of nuclear weapons in our security strategy.”
  • The Strategy “[d]irects DOD to examine and reduce the role of launch under attack in contingency planning, recognizing that the potential for a surprise, disarming nuclear attack is exceedingly remote. While the United States will retain a launch under attack capability, DOD will focus planning on the more likely 21st century contingencies.”

These two measures are clear attempts to enhance strategic stability with Russia and address criticism coming from NPT Non-Nuclear Weapons States, without rocking the boat in Washington.

Although the Obama Administration is ordering the Pentagon to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and seek further nuclear reductions based on Russian cooperation, the Review stipulates that the nuclear posture reductions will be compensated by bolstering non-nuclear military capabilities: “As the role of nuclear weapons is reduced in U.S. national nuclear security strategy … non-nuclear elements will take on a greater share of the deterrence burden.” (p. 9) This will not evoke positive responses from Russia, which has already expressed concern over U.S. plans to improve long-range conventional strike capabilities.

Situation in Washington

The President did not say he would seek a new treaty beyond 2010’s New START, which his Administration struggled to push through the Senate. The bar may simply be too high next time around. Initial reaction among politicians in the United States toward the President’s speech and nuclear guidance was mixed.

The “Senate Missile States Coalition” made up of Democrats and Republicans from states hosting Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) – and therefore with jobs and economic considerations on the line – were on the defensive and warned against any policy actions that could lead to significant reductions in ICBMs. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (Democrat-California) welcomed the President’s announcements, saying that “the world will be better off without an unnecessarily high number of these powerful weapons”.

The greatest potential challenge appears to be rising efforts among Republicans seeking to block the President’s ability to make further reductions. Though previous Presidents have had no trouble confirming nuclear reductions by Executive orders, President Obama has so far shown a reluctance to exercise his authority in this way. Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker (Republican-Tennessee) admonished the Obama Administration to seek the advice and consent of the Senate before committing to more reductions with Russia; contending that the President must make good his commitments to modernize the existing forces first, and codify any agreement in another treaty. Senator Marco Rubio (Republican – Florida), a member of the Senate Foreign relations and Intelligence Committees, and over 20 other Senators joined him in sending a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry making clear their expectation that President Obama also first acquire Senate approval before reductions are made.

Prospects for moving forward with Russia

Negotiating additional cuts with Moscow could be challenging enough given the increasingly complex nature of Russian-U.S. relations. Initial Russian reaction to the President’s speech appeared skeptical. In response to his call to reduce theater nuclear weapons in Europe, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin said [BBC-6/19] that Moscow “cannot take these assurances seriously”. President Vladimir Putin repeated concerns [RT-6/19] expressed over missile defense and precision conventional weapons, warning that these developments would “disrupt the [strategic] balance” between Russia and other NATO countries. He also said that any talk of weapons reduction would need to include countries beyond the United States and Russia. Such skepticism is not new. During the New START negotiations, the Russians resisted U.S. calls for deeper reductions in strategic arsenals at that point, leading many to conclude that further reductions now would require important U.S. concessions elsewhere.

Moscow may be more willing than they imply to engage with the United States specifically on further strategic nuclear reductions compared with other sensitive areas, because Russia already has lower levels of strategic nuclear warheads and needs to invest billions of rubles in new systems just to stay still; securing mutual U.S. reductions could be in its interest. Its resistance to lower warhead numbers may have been connected too with their worries over the U.S. upload capacity and the U.S. reluctance to reduce further delivery systems. Moscow has a relatively long shopping list of desires with the United States that an improved negotiating relationship could bring, but there is a lack of clarity within the leadership and amongst analysts about priorities and how best to start. There are signs of strong reluctance to give away too much too early (a strong narrative in Russia to describe the approaches of Presidents Gorbachev and Yeltsin in the 1980s and 1990s), as well as a distrust of U.S. strategic intentions. Improving relations around missile defense, a difficult task in itself, would strengthen the odds for any agreement involving strategic warheads. The Russian leadership may well respond more positively to a larger bargain with strategic assurance at its heart.

Russia and the United States could proceed with more confidence because reaching lower limits could still take place within the verification framework already established between Russia and the United States under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). One positive indicator was Moscow’s recent course reversal announced on the sidelines of the G8 Summit to revive a more limited version of Cooperative Threat Reduction activities. The change shows that if the offer is right, then the United States and Russia can still cooperate on arms control.

Although President Obama stated his commitment to seek reductions with Russia on theater, or “tactical” nuclear weapons as well, the White House Press release made clear that these weapons were not part of the President’s recent review. The United States has about 200 theater nuclear weapons (TNW) deployed in five NATO countries, including in Germany. He did not stipulate any new actions beyond what his Administration proposed several years ago, a policy which was solidified in NATO’s Deterrence and Defense Posture Review and which already conditioned the reduction of TNW on reciprocal but unspecified cooperation from Russia, which is estimated to have a total of around 2,000 warheads, not all based in the European theater.

Possible confidence-building measures between Russia and NATO were discussed during an event BASIC organized with partners in Moscow last month. The possible ways forward on TNW reductions include broadening the agenda to incorporate regional security issues addressing Russian, and Central and Eastern European concerns, and starting with smaller steps of transparency that are currently lacking when compared to the strategic arsenals that are addressed under New START.

The United States will have a challenging road ahead for making progress on nuclear policy at home and abroad, and the Administration has further narrowed the focus to Russia. Hopes are now pinned on further progress in advance of the summit between Presidents Obama and Putin in early September in St. Petersburg.


 –The author would like to thank Rebecca Cousins, Paul Ingram, and Sarah Gilcrest for their assistance with this brief.


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