Similar to during the Cold War, the US and Russia are once again nuclear peer competitors. However, the emergence of a range of new nuclear actors hamper traditional understandings and represent a new – more complex – era in nuclear international relations.
It is no surprise that post-Soviet relations between the United States and Russia are at an all-time low. Tensions between the two nations, including the NATO Alliance, have increased since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in early 2014, its covert assistance to resistance forces in Eastern Ukraine, and its support for the Assad regime in the Syrian civil conflict. The ambiguity surrounding Russia’s execution of grey (or hybrid) war, involving a combination of kinetic and non-kinetic activities (cyber and information operations), is not only focused on Baltic populations but includes interference in domestic affairs of states through the manipulation of public opinion.
Tensions between the West and Russia are further exacerbated by nuclear modernization programs involving upgrades and new systems, including the deployment of missile defences in Europe and plans to enhance national missile defences in the United States. These events have contributed to the deterioration of stability-enhancing arms control as a result of mutual mistrust, fear, and uncertainty. More recently, the thirty-two-year-old INF Treaty ended on August 2nd, the U.S. withdrew from the JCPOA (the Iran Nuclear Deal) in May 2018 and is now pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty. These developments may threaten the renewal or extension of New START after 2021.
The failure of arms control is deeply concerning, particularly its contribution to the ramping up of potentially costly and destabilizing arms races. This state of affairs requires us to consider how we got here. What are the conditions contributing to increasing tensions? And what are the dangers?
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Before the events of 2014 that led us to the current situation, tensions between Russia and the West waxed and waned since the end of the Cold War. Incidents that contributed to the degradation of relations include NATO’s mission in Kosovo in 1999, NATO enlargement eastward up to Russia’s borders, and the U.S. abrogation of the ABM Treaty in 2002. The latter included plans to modernize the nuclear arsenal with replacements and enhancements to the three legs of the triad, integrating active and passive defences, and enhancing ISR to achieve information superiority. A common theme in each of these developments is Western behaviour that inadvertently provoked Russia – a nation seeking to re-establish its power and influence in the world since the end of the Cold War.
Today’s context is different from the Cold War. The United States and Russia are again nuclear peer competitors, as they both possess the largest nuclear arsenals compared to other nuclear-weapon states. However, emerging competitors like China, in addition to “revisionist states with nuclear ambitions” (i.e. “rogue” states such as North Korea and Iran), influence the bilateral relationship. In a typical spiral model, the U.S. responds to an emerging threat from China or North Korea by developing a new capability. Russia perceives the U.S. new capability as a threat to its strategic forces. This perception causes Russia to respond by developing weapons that asymmetrically target the weaknesses of Western nuclear and non-nuclear forces (i.e. security dilemma). These intervening third-party variables complicate the bilateral strategic competition, creating more obstacles along the path to strategic stability.
Today’s context is different from the Cold War. The United States and Russia are again nuclear peer competitors, as they both possess the largest nuclear arsenals compared to other nuclear-weapon states.
Challenges to arms control and strategic stability involve the deployment of offensive weapons designed to enhance deterrence-by-denial. Deterrence-by-denial refers to strategies and capabilities designed to deny any other state the ability to launch a nuclear attack. Strategic doctrine and weapons systems emphasizing deterrence-by-denial tends to constrain progress on new arms control, extending current treaties, and, as we have seen, has contributed to the deterioration and demise of long-standing agreements, such as the INF Treaty. The modernization, upgrades, and “enhancements” to nuclear arsenals involve weapons that are perceived as increasingly threatening as they could be deployed for preemptive and/or first strike advantage. Generally, these are weapons with increased stealth, speed, precision, accuracy, and low- or high-yield capabilities. Recent developments in new offensive systems include cruise missiles enhanced with stealth, longer-ranges, and hypersonic speeds. Deterrence-by-denial pursued with conventional counterforce alternatives creates an entanglement of conventional capabilities within the nuclear architecture.
Entanglement blurs the boundaries between nuclear and conventional – potentially increasing the risk of miscalculation (e.g. discrimination issues). Missile defence architecture is being enhanced for increased defence against ballistic missiles, with options being explored to address the advancing threat of cruise missiles designed to evade detection and interception. Enhancements also include developing capabilities for both right- and left-of-launch, within an integrated concept that includes layered systems, improved sensors and radars, and non-kinetic capabilities such as cyber and electronic warfare. In response, Russia is pursuing multiple systems to counter missile defence to fill the asymmetric gap, such as hypersonic vehicles, new heavily MIRVed ICBMs, and an autonomous underwater delivery vehicle. These systems pose a significant threat to the West. Perceptions of threat and intentions are critical drivers of deteriorating strategic relations between the U.S./NATO and Russia.
Engagement on nuclear non-proliferation and arms control requires establishing a dialogue with our adversaries on the dangers of abandoning arms control and multilateral efforts to address the problems posed by nuclear/conventional entanglement, advances in cruise missile and hypersonic technology, and sub-strategic nuclear weapons. The challenge is how to establish such a dialogue. The beginning requires an understanding of the perceptions of each side, particularly how certain weapons systems and doctrine are perceived as threatening. Such issues exacerbate uncertainties about intentions which must be acknowledged and resolved to achieve peaceful progress. Dialogue facilitates consensus toward acceptable conditions, even if incremental. For this issue, agreeable terms might include limitations on advanced cruise missile and hypersonic developments. There might also be a consideration for limiting missile defences and addressing the tactical nuclear weapons problem that is absent in New START.
Ultimately, in strategic competition among peers (and near-peers), where one state has a strategic advantage over the others, unilateral action – such as reductions or elimination of a threatening system – might have to be offered to incentivize other states to consider cooperating on further reductions of nuclear forces. Sometimes, peaceful results are only possible when a stronger competitor extends the olive branch first.