This article was written by two Spring 2012 Participants in PSA’s Congressional Fellowship Program. All CPP articles are produced by bipartisan groups of Democrat and Republican Fellows who were challenged to develop opinion pieces that reach consensus on critical national security and foreign affairs issues.
The Timing Just Isn’t Right
What is preventing the United States and Russia from pursuing further nuclear disarmament talks beyond the New START treaty?
In the U.S., a flurry of debate has taken place among elected officials and the arms control community since the enactment of the New START treaty. The debate has centered on determining the number of weapons needed to maintain a minimal deterrent, modernization of the strategic triad, the role of missile defense and what role and utility do nuclear weapons have in our defense strategy today. Skeptics of further disarmament have argued that larger reductions, without adequate modernization, will lead to instability by inviting aggression against allies who are considered protected by the U.S.’s extended deterrent. Those in favor of disarmament have countered that the current U.S. arsenal far exceeds what is necessary to deter nuclear attack and reducing the force level would be a smart way to meet defense spending targets set in the Budget Control Act. Despite the timeliness of the budgetary argument, the skeptics are clearly carrying the day, as both the House and Senate versions of the fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act include robust funding levels for the nuclear triad and provide funding for large modernization projects not requested in the President’s budget.
Although these issues are front and center in U.S. dialogue, surprisingly little discussion is taking place in regard to what factors are discouraging the Russians from coming to the table. It takes two to tango and there needs to be enough motivation by Russian leaders to make any agreement successful.
The largest hurdle preventing Russian leaders from pursuing further negotiations are their objections to the placement of the U.S. missile defense system. Russian officials claim that if the U.S. continues with the implementation of a missile defense system, they will be compelled to target tactical nuclear weapons against locations in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Russian leaders make this threat despite American reassurance that the missile system is solely aimed at threats in the Middle East and does not have the capability to counter most delivery systems in the Russian arsenal. Nevertheless, Moscow is reportedly concerned that if they reduce their deployed weapons to lower levels, Russia’s ability to retaliate and overwhelm a missile defense system will be diminished, leaving them susceptible to a successful first strike by U.S./NATO forces. Furthermore, given that the original Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) concept was formed to counter the USSR, Moscow has an inherent distrust of the American program. As long as the Ministry of Defense perceives the U.S. missile defense program as a threat, they will be reluctant to pursue further reductions and weaken their deterrent.
A more credible Russian concern is the eastward expansion of NATO into their regional sphere of influence. Russia views NATO in a similar fashion as the U.S. missile defense program, a Cold War relic inherently designed to bolster their regional adversaries and restrict Russian freedom of action. Given NATO’s post 1990 mission creep and growth into Commonwealth of Independent States , Russia’s skepticism is not unwarranted.
Similar to the U.S., Russian decisions have their own domestic political dynamic. Feelings of glory attached to the old empire and the nationalistic zeal of a resurgent Russia are present throughout their political culture. NATO’s expansion and the missile defense system are perfect candidates to be used in the old political tactic of directing fear and criticism away from domestic actors and toward outside influences. With the 2012 Russian elections over, it will be seen if Russian objections regarding the missile defense program and NATO expansion can be overcome.
Other variables affecting the prospect of negotiations outside of U.S.-Russian bilateral relations should also be mentioned. The effort by China to develop a new SLBM, India testing their new Angi-3 missile with the capability of reaching Beijing, and the continued growth of Iran’s nuclear program are all developments that hinder the potential for negotiations. As aspiring nuclear states and other nuclear powers continue to test and modernize their deterrent, the atmosphere for pursuing further reductions slowly dampens.
To put it simply, neither nation enjoys a political climate that is ripe for an additional disarmament agreement and the international community’s attention is focused on more pressing matters. Until these conditions change, both nations will implement the New START treaty and give lip service to calls for addition reductions in their arsenals.