The Obama Administration and the Medvedev-Putin government of Russia approach the issue of strategic arms control from diametrically opposed positions. For the U.S. administration the threats of concern are those posed by the nuclear weapons themselves in the event of crises, their potential for being proliferated or falling into the hands of terrorists, and the problem that the maintenance of a secure deterrent can create for the attainment of a positive relationship between Moscow and Washington. This reflects the views held by many U.S. strategists that the challenge to an improved political relationship is the maintenance of a security strategy based on deterrence.
The U.S. approach to nuclear arms control is based on a fallacy: that both sides would be better off if the role of nuclear weapons in their respective security strategies were minimized. Many U.S. observers mistakenly believe that Russia’s political and security interests are largely parallel to those of the United States. They assume that the threats the West sees from so-called rogue states and terrorist groups acquiring weapons of mass destruction are those that also concern Russia.
This is not the case. Today, Russia is in greater need of maintaining the mutual hostage relationship created by strategic deterrence than perhaps at any time since the end of World War Two. Moscow understands that it too is bound by that relationship. But considering its relative weakness vis-à-vis the United States this is acceptable particularly in light of Russia’s retention of a large arsenal of theater nuclear weapons and its promulgation of a doctrine of nuclear first use.
The principal danger to Russian security, or more correctly to the security of its leadership’s hold on power, would be the absence of nuclear weapons. For the Russian leadership, the problem is the inherently adversarial nature of relations between these two nations, the potential cataclysmic consequences of which can only be held in check by a mutual hostage relationship. For Moscow, nuclear forces are not anachronisms of the Cold War because the essential feature of that era, the enduring rivalry between the main antagonists, continues.
In this way the Russian government is in the same position as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who needed to pretend to have a program to develop weapons of mass destruction for both security and political purposes. The current Russian leadership needs the aura provided by nuclear weapons both as a response to the exaggerated threat perceptions they have put forward and as a means of holding onto power both internationally and domestically.
Moreover, nuclear weapons serve a political role for Moscow without parallel for any other nuclear power. In essence, nuclear weapons are a political tool for Russia. The reason for this is the commonly held belief in the Russian government and among the Russian elite that the fall of the Soviet Union was a political (and one could argue psychological) disaster for Russia. The Russian government and many strategic observers make the argument that the conditions which existed after the collapse of the Soviet Union were fundamentally unstable. They argue that the end of the Cold War was not the result of a change in the nature of the international system but the collapse of one of the two poles that bounded and balanced that system.
While it is certainly possible for the United States and Russia to conclude a new START Agreement and even to make progress on other nuclear issues, it is highly unlikely that the current Russian leadership is willing to go down the path towards complete denuclearization. Nor is it likely that Moscow will be willing to see nuclear weapons relegated to the “backroom.” This creates a potential dilemma for the Obama Administration. It can seek to gain Russian agreement to further nuclear arms reductions beyond the planned START levels by reassuring Russia regarding its strategic position. The United States can do this by limiting both the development of advanced conventional weapons and the refitting and modernization of its future nuclear forces. But in so doing, it inevitably increases the value of Russia’s residual nuclear arsenal, making it even harder for Russia to relinquish those weapons and any perceived advantage that might accrue from superiority in selected aspects of their strategic or theater nuclear posture.
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