The Cold War, it could be argued, is rearing its ugly head again. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been aggressively seeking to reassert Russia as a dominant geopolitical player, to the consternation of Western powers.
As a result, one of the seminal accomplishments between Russia and the United States is unraveling, signaling a possible return to the Cold War-era arms buildup that had the world on edge.
Earlier this year, President Trump announced the U.S. would walk away from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which was signed by President Ronald Reagan and his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1987.
The arms control pact put a stop to the buildup of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a 500- to-5,500-kilometer range. It is a landmark agreement because it represents the first time the U.S. and the Soviet Union decided to mutually cut nuclear weapons — resulting in the elimination of over 2,600 missiles — and keep each other in check with on-site verifications.
The INF was also critical because it eliminated the threat of intermediate-range missiles that could quickly trigger a nuclear war because of their short flight time, which could deliver a nuclear warhead to Europe in as little as 10 minutes. It thereby significantly cut down on the risk of an accidental nuclear strike during a misunderstanding — an ability that is even more important today given the potential of cyber hacks.
But now one of the most important military and diplomatic achievements of the Cold War is in danger of becoming obsolete—not because it is no longer needed, but because the U.S. and Russia seem ready to scrap it.
Problems with the treaty are not new to the Trump administration. During the Obama administration, in 2014, the U.S. called out Russia for violating the INF by developing a new long-range ground-launched cruise missile — a charge many experts say is accurate.
The Trump administration used the violation as justification for pulling out of the treaty. Another likely factor in its decision was that the INF constrained America’s ability to counter the military rise of China, which is not a party to the treaty.
“We can no longer be restricted by the treaty while Russia shamelessly violates it,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared.
Russia denounced the decision, accusing the White House of using any pretext to abandon the treaty without even trying to resolve the impasse.
It marked another low in U.S.-Russia relations and increased the possibility of a new global arms race between the two rivals (along with other nations that may now respond by modernizing their own nuclear weapons programs). Already, the U.S. has begun building a low-yield nuclear weapon that could be used in conventional warfare.
“The U.S. nuclear weapons modernization budget is projected to cost $494 billion between 2019 and 2028, with some estimates putting the 30-year cost at $1.7 trillion, even before adding in new intermediate-range missiles,” wrote nuclear policy experts Pranay Vaddi and George Perkovic in a Jan. 30, 2019, brief for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Both Moscow and Beijing will likely outpace any U.S. deployments of intermediate-range missiles, especially over the next decade, making an arms race unwise and costly for the United States.”
In a similar vein, New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), which entered into force in 2011, also seems to have a tenuous future under the Trump administration. New START, which replaced an earlier 1991 treaty, significantly reduces U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals, notably by allowing each side to verify the other’s compliance. New START expires in 2021, just after the next U.S. presidential election.
The potential demise of New START could mark the collapse of over four decades of constraints on nuclear weapons, reopening the door to an arms brinkmanship that threatens national, regional and global security.
Thomas Countryman, chair of the Arms Control Association (ACA) Board of Directors, is working to find a diplomatic solution. A career diplomat, he served in the U.S. Foreign Service for 35 years, including as the acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security and as assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation. He was among several high-ranking career diplomats who were dismissed from the State Department in the early, chaotic days of the Trump administration.
He spoke with The Diplomat about the current state of affairs between the U.S. and Russia regarding nuclear weapons and the ramifications for the world order.
The Washington Diplomat: Tell us a little about the Arms Control Association and your role there.
Thomas Countryman: The Arms Control Association is one of the oldest NGOs working in this field. It was established in 1971. When I was assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, I was always impressed by the practicality of their policy recommendations, so when I left government two years ago and they asked me to join the board, I was surprised to learn that by Washington standards this is a very small organization compared to other NGOS, but it has always punched above its weight in delivering quality analysis and up-to-the-minute policy recommendations for the administration, Congress and foreign governments.
I’m proud to be chairman of the board, overseeing this small staff and the influence they have over this crucial conversation on nonproliferation and arms control.
TWD: The U.S. and Russia are both abandoning INF. NATO supports the U.S. decision. What does that mean for national security? NATO regional security? Global security?
TC: First, Russian deployment of the cruise missile that violates the INF treaty is not a direct threat to the U.S. homeland — it is a direct threat to European countries and cities and military sites, so the Europeans have the most to lose from this new dispute between Moscow and Washington. NATO needs to find a response that balances an appropriate military response, an effective deterrent, while avoiding escalation or provocation.
There are many aspects of the INF treaty, including mutual assurances and inspections, that could be preserved by less formal agreements, but it depends very much on Europe finding its own voice and not being subject only to decisions made in Washington and Moscow.
On a global level, I’m concerned this will spur U.S. and Russia to produce intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which many other countries are already doing. The spread and vertical proliferation of missiles is obviously a concern.
TWD: What do you predict will happen to New START, and what will be the consequences?
TC: On the negative side, word around Washington is that National Security Adviser John Bolton has always been a critic of New START. It’s rumored that he’s dragging out the decision process in the U.S. government and may even seek to prevent any extension of New START. That would be consistent with his reputation as a serial assassin of other arms control agreements. So, I’m very concerned about that.
On the positive side, there’s increasing interest in Congress of the importance of New START. I think congressional and foreign leaders will attempt to get across the message that this is important to national security. It will serve U.S. interests.
If Trump isn’t re-elected, there will be a small opportunity under a new president to extend the treaty before it expires in 2021.This is the most important and easiest step that the U.S. and Russia could take right now to reduce the dangers of nuclear conflict.
TWD: Let’s say all major nuclear deals are off. How do you propose nuclear-capable countries keep themselves in check?
TC: That is a very big question. I do fear a situation in which there is no arms control, no bilateral treaties between Washington and Moscow. It would be the first time since 1972 that there are no numerical limits and no legal strictures to prevent a brand new arms race. In that environment, there will be enormous pressure to resume the arms race that we last saw in the 1960s.
There are measures that both countries could take to prevent the worst outcome. It’s possible to agree to continue respecting New START limits, to agree to mutual information exchange and even on-site inspections. Even if an agreement is not as formal as New START, it would hold in check excesses of a nuclear arms race.
The more urgent issue is: Can the U.S. and Russia at the military level reinstate the consultation channels, the de-escalation mechanisms to prevent nuclear conflict?
TWD: Keeping the peace requires the cooperation of all parties. Russia doesn’t seem interested. Is it possible to engage them again in arms reduction/nonproliferation while Putin remains in power?
TC: Disputes between the U.S. and Russia are serious, and they’ve brought us to a low point in our bilateral relations. It’s true a lot of those are actions initiated by Putin, like Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. It’s hardened the attitude of many people toward Russia, including me.
I’m deeply concerned about this declaration of soft war by Putin against the U.S. I think history will show, will recount years from now, that the election attack on the U.S. was the single biggest mistake Putin ever made.
But nonproliferation and arms control is an issue where the national security of both countries is at stake. It’s an issue in which we have consulted and cooperated through difficult times throughout the Cold War. We ended up with agreements that protected the national security of both sides.
It’s clear Russia is ready to resume the discussion of stability. The U.S. at the moment is less prepared to move forward on this, but it’s essential. It’s possible to engage with Russia on this existential issue even while we disagree on so many issues. It’s vital.
TWD: The U.S. is readying a low-yield nuclear weapon and has already called out Russia for testing a weapon that violates the INF. Are we at the start of a new arms race, including emerging nuclear powers (China, North Korea, etc.)? What does this mean for arms control/nonproliferation going forward?
TC: There are two levels here. There is concern about the development of a so-called ‘low-yield’ nuclear weapon. Let me divert for a moment to say that the concept of low-yield is a definite misnomer. A nuclear weapon that is only half as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb is still a nuclear weapon. It is hard to achieve a scenario in which using that does not lead to an escalation to all-out nuclear warfare.
The fact that the U.S. is preparing a nuclear version of the so-called low-yield and that Russia has about 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, this means both countries are thinking of a situation in which it would be conceivable to use nonstrategic low-yield nuclear weapons — and imagining that to be possible is deeply concerning because there’s no reason to have confidence that even a single use will not trigger a ladder of conflict.
The other level is what other nations will do. I don’t think the U.S. having a low-yield nuclear weapon has a direct impact on North Korea, which has been very consistent for decades in pursuing a nuclear strategy. They know they won’t compete with the U.S. In their view, they don’t need to. They only need credible capability.
China is a different story. In the last few years, China has behaved more responsibly in the nuclear weapons field than either Russia or the U.S. It’s kept a lid on the total number of nuclear weapons. It has not sought to have first-strike capability but only second-strike capability. In a situation where the U.S. and Russia no longer have New START, are increasing their arsenals and no longer sharing information, Beijing may be tempted to expand its nuclear capabilities because of uncertainty about what the U.S. and Russia are doing.
My fear of a world without New START is there’s not only a bilateral arms race — China would now have incentives to join in the race.
TWD: Anything you want to add?
TC: My main concern is about the trend in U.S.-Russian relations, so ACA, like several other NGOs in this field, has been heavily engaged in track-two diplomacy — that is, talking to Russia in different formats, trying to find a more reasonable policy for our two governments to pursue. It’s hard to see how that effort is paying off immediately, but it’s necessary to continue the conversation when our two governments are not talking.
One of the things we take hope from is there is absolutely common ground for the U.S. and Russia to talk about national security and to think about the best means to avoid the nuclear end of the human species.
About the Author
Aileen Torres-Bennett is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.