I never thought I would be saying this but thank heavens for President Vladimir Putin. By dismissing President Obama’s idea for a one-third reduction in U.S. and (if negotiated) Russian strategic nuclear arms, the Kremlin’s autocratic leader may have saved President Obama and the United States from a terrible mistake.
The Russian government appears to have two major reasons for opposing further reductions to the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals. The first is the most obvious: President Obama’s proposal fails to take into consideration the ongoing global proliferation of nuclear weapons. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov declared that his country could not “indefinitely and bilaterally talk with the United States about cuts and restrictions on nuclear weapons in a situation where a whole number of other countries are expanding their nuclear and missile potentials.” None of the other nuclear powers, declared or otherwise, have any constraints on their arsenals. Even relatively small additional reductions in deployed U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces could provide other nuclear powers, notably China, with the opportunity to achieve strategic parity.
The Russian response suggests that further reductions would require, at a minimum, restructuring the long-standing bilateral nuclear arms reduction framework into a triangular relationship, one that includes China. Or the negotiations would require a five-sided table to include France and Great Britain. Beijing has already made it clear that it is not interested in such negotiations until the two “superpowers” bring their numbers down to levels that approximate those of the PRC. Even then, China would want to bring India into the negotiations in order to prevent a nuclear imbalance in Asia. India, in turn, would not agree to negotiating limits on its nuclear arsenal unless those of its regional rival Pakistan were also limited. Rather than a bilateral or even trilateral negotiation, what President Obama is proposing would inevitably degenerate into a game of nuclear “ring-around-the-rosy.”
Second, there is the problem of Western missile defenses. In March, the President cancelled the last phase of the Phase Adaptive Architecture for theater missile defense, the phase that would have given theater defenses the ability to engage intercontinental ballistic missiles. Much to the White House’s surprise, this concession did not reset the soured Moscow-Washington relationship. In fact, the Kremlin pocketed the concessions and has since demanded additional constraints on U.S. missile defenses. The Russian government’s obsession with U.S./NATO missile defenses would be more understandable if Moscow didn’t enjoy a 20-to-one superiority in theater nuclear weapons.
Despite the obvious self-serving nature of Russian objections to President Obama’s proposal, there is a core of wisdom in their critique. The President proposes to enter terra incognita in which the United States and Russia reduce their deployed nuclear forces down to numbers not seen since the late 1950s. Even then, Washington and Moscow were the only nuclear powers. Now there are a number of nuclear nations, with more possible over the period in which the proposed reductions would be achieved. No one, certainly not Presidents Obama and Putin, have a clue regarding the implications for deterrence and their nations’ security of operating in a world of multiple, essentially equal nuclear powers. But President Putin recognizes, apparently better than President Obama does, the operational and strategic risks associated with a too small nuclear force structure. Also, the decision to construct robust theater missile defenses was taken in the context of both the U.S. and Russia maintaining robust strategic arsenals. As the number of offensive delivery systems and warheads goes down, the impact of even limited defenses must go up.
Some observers have pointed out that the President does not need a formal treaty with Russia in order to implement the changes to the U.S. nuclear arsenal he is proposing. But he should take heed of President Putin’s valid criticisms before he tries to move forward with unilateral reductions.
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