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Facing Obama's Russian Roadblock

Richard Weitz

In a recent speech in Berlin, US President Barack Obama reaffirmed his commitment to nuclear disarmament and proposed steps toward achieving that goal. But Russia has made clear that it does not plan to pursue further reductions to its nuclear arsenal any time soon.

In the speech—delivered nearly 50 years after President John F Kennedy addressed the then-divided city, highlighting the value of arms control between adversaries—Mr Obama announced that the United States is prepared to cut its nuclear arsenal by up to one-third. He also proposed major reductions in the number of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) deployed in Europe. Moreover, he called upon the international community to renew its efforts to prevent Iran and North Korea from developing nuclear weapons; to bring the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and the proposed Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty into force; and to make nuclear energy safer.

Three years ago, Russia seemed to share Mr Obama’s aspiration to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures, with both countries agreeing to limit their deployed weapons to 1,550 as part of the New Strategic Arms-Reduction Treaty (New Start). In fact, Russia considers New Start to be a “gold standard” treaty, based on core principles—modest and balanced reductions over an extended time period, adequate but not excessive verification measures, and recognition of the connection between strategic offence and defence—that should be applied to all future arms-control treaties.

But Russian officials have since reaffirmed their hardline position, stating in various settings—including at the recent European Security Conference in Moscow—that Russia will not consider further cuts to its nuclear arsenal until the US addresses certain issues affecting Russian interests. In fact, many of the Kremlin’s demands may well be beyond the Obama administration’s capacity to deliver.

One of Russia’s main concerns is America’s efforts to build up its ballistic missile defence system (BMDS). Although experts have disputed the capacity of America’s BMDS, Russian leaders remain convinced that it could seriously undermine Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

Russian officials intimate that the US is using the threat of a North Korean or Iranian attack on the US with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles as a pretext to erect defences against Russia (and probably China). Despite Mr Obama’s assurances (and those of his predecessors), Russia asserts that America’s BMDS is actually intended to expand Nato’s role in Europe, complicate Russian diplomacy, and facilitate US military interventions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has even warned that, left unchallenged by Russia’s nuclear deterrent, the US would be tempted to intervene militarily in more countries, as it did in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya. These concerns have driven Russia to demand that the US sign a binding treaty that limits the speed, location and capabilities of its missile defences and includes mandatory transparency provisions—even as Russian officials acknowledge that the US Senate would never ratify such a treaty.

Another issue constraining nuclear disarmament is Russia’s view that, without nuclear weapons, its military capabilities would be no match for the conventional forces of the US and Nato. Indeed, many in Russia worry that a US attack against Russia’s nuclear deterrent and other defence assets that relies on America’s growing stock of long-range, precision-guided conventional weapons would be as devastating as a nuclear strike.

These fears are exacerbated by Mr Obama’s declared intention to work alongside Nato in seeking to reduce by as many as 5,000 Russia’s arsenal of TNWs—which dwarfs Nato’s holdings of roughly 200—and to have the remaining warheads relocated away from Nato members’ territory. Many in Russia view their country’s dominance in this area as essential to offsetting imbalances in conventional weaponry.

In fact, no formal arms-control treaty directly covers these non-strategic weapons; nor have they been the subject of targeted Nato-Russia negotiations. And, as long as the US has TNWs deployed near Russia’s border, Russian officials insist they will not initiate such talks.

Even if the US managed to get Russia to the negotiating table, convincing it to accept sizeable cuts in its TNW arsenal could require the US to fulfil additional demands, such as limiting Nato’s military concentrations and facilities near Russia’s periphery and resurrecting the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe on the Kremlin’s terms. Moreover, Russian leaders demand that other nuclear-armed states accept comparable limits on their TNW stocks.

Indeed, Russia wants to replace the predominantly bilateral nuclear arms-control processes of the past 50 years with multilateral negotiations aimed at constraining the offensive capabilities of other nuclear states, including the United Kingdom, France, and China—and maybe other countries. But convincing these states to participate in arms-reduction negotiations, much less to accept new constraints on their relatively small nuclear arsenals, would be difficult. Like the Obama administration, they believe that the next round of cuts should focus on Russia and the US, which still possess almost all the world’s nuclear weapons.

The fundamental challenge is that Russia’s leaders do not share Mr Obama’s aversion to nuclear weapons. On the contrary, they believe that, while the likelihood of a nuclear war has fallen sharply since the end of the Cold War, nuclear deterrence has become more valuable for Russia and other countries that are outmatched by America’s conventional military power. This might prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to realising the Obama administration’s vision of a nuclear-weapons-free world.

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