Nuclear missiles.

US and Russian Experts Share Insights on Strategic Stability Ahead of Bilateral Talks

July 27, 2021
RM Staff

Top U.S. and Russian diplomats are to meet in Geneva on July 28 to revive a high-level dialogue on strategic stability, which lapsed prior to the latest changing of the guard at the White House, and which President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, agreed to revive during their recent summit in the Swiss city. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will lead the U.S. team, which will also include recently confirmed Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Bonnie Jenkins, who has tweeted ahead of the talks that she is “committed to reduce the risk of nuclear war by effective arms control" and "limit Russian and PRC nuclear expansion.” As for the Russian team, it will be led by Jenkins’ counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, as during Russian diplomats’ interactions with two previous U.S. presidential administrations. In remarks ahead of the strategic stability meeting, Ryabkov warned that that the Russian and U.S. diplomats are entering "uncharted territory" given that they must try to make room within the architecture of strategic stability for weapons and technologies that did not exist when the New START treaty entered into force in 2011. But what constitutes strategic stability in the U.S. view and in the Russian view? Can differences in these views be reconciled, and what issues should the diplomats of the two countries prioritize when they meet on July 28?

Below you will find a selection of recent answers to these three questions by some of America’s and Russia’s top arms control experts.

1. How would you define strategic stability today, and what elements should it include? 

Alexey Arbatov, head of the Center for International Security at the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations:

The concept of strategic stability was defined in legal norms in June 1990 in a joint statement of the USSR and the United States. This concept was defined as a strategic relationship that removes the incentive to launch a first nuclear strike. To shape such a relationship, future strategic offensive arms reduction treaties had to meet a number of agreed-upon criteria: recognizing the relationship between strategic offensive and defensive weapons (so that the defense cannot weaken the other side’s retaliation); reducing the concentration of warheads on strategic delivery vehicles (so that one delivery vehicle with several warheads cannot hit several enemy delivery vehicles with a much larger number of warheads at the starting positions); preference for weapons systems with high increased survivability (so that they cannot be destroyed before launch by a preemptive strike).

According to the accepted criteria of strategic stability, the current balance between Russia and the United States is much more robust and excludes the possibility of (and thus any incentive for) a first (i.e., disarming) nuclear strike.

… START-3 ensured significant progress in improving strategic stability according to the principles of 1990’s joint declaration. In the last decade, however, the development of military technology and new strategic concepts have altered the strategic relations of the two parties against the backdrop of a deterioration in their political relations and a long pause in arms control talks. It is now necessary to make up for lost time and correspondingly adapt the concept of strategic stability and the legal norms of treaties that guarantee it. (Excerpted and translated from “Problems and Dilemmas of the Next START Treaty,” World Economy and International Relations, 2021, Vol. 65, No. 6, pp. 5-20.)

Nadezhda Arbatova, head of the Department for European Political Studies at the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations:

In 1990 strategic stability was clearly formulated in a joint declaration of the USSR and U.S. It was defined in terms of a strategic relationship that removes incentives for a first nuclear strike by either party. Nowadays, we see a tendency in the Russian and American strategic communities to blur this concept by adding new elements that bring it closer to the vaguer concept of international security. Such an approach may deprive negotiations of the solid foundation that was the basis of arms control for 30 years. The only new element that fits into the traditional strategic stability concept is high-precision, long-range conventional weapons. Such weapons could radically change strategic stability if their speed and accuracy make it possible to deliver a disarming strike by conventional means and confront the enemy with a dilemma—to use its remaining nuclear forces or surrender. The main reason for the current arms control crisis is not so much new technologies but rather the fact that arms control ceased to be a priority for the “post-bipolar” generation of politicians. (Written answers to questions from RM, 07.26.21)

Rose Gottemoeller, lecturer at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and its Center for International Security and Cooperation:

Biden and Putin will also be talking about strategic stability, the idea that one country should not be able to gain decisive advantage over another with its strategic weapons. Here, too, Obama and Medvedev set a useful precedent, because they discussed strategic stability separately from the more concrete goals of the treaty. Biden and Putin have similarly signaled that they agree the strategic stability agenda should be separate from treaty negotiations. The goal here is a good discussion rather than a treaty, although over time the two sides may agree to some measures to build mutual understanding, confidence and predictability. (Politico, 06.14.21)

Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center

One thing that hasn’t changed since the Cold War is that rivals habitually compete. Because they compete, guardrails are needed. These guardrails provide the elements of strategic stability. One guardrail is not playing with fire. Another is refraining from dangerous military practices. A third is respecting borders. When a rival jumps over guardrails, the ambit of diplomacy shrinks while defense preparedness grows. A fourth element of strategic stability is arms control, including reductions in weapons that are terribly powerful, prone to escalatory use and yet militarily ineffective. It’s reasonable to conclude that weapons that haven’t been used in warfare for over seven decades could be reduced further—but reason doesn’t always prevail in such matters. (Arms Control Wonk blog, 07.06.21)

2. What are the differences in U.S. and Russian visions of such stability and can (and should) they be reconciled?

Alexey Arbatov:

In advance to starting the new negotiations, Russian officials declared the concept of the “security equation.” The term itself is not terribly original, but its content is important. It should not supersede but must further develop the proven concept of strategic stability in order to eliminate both past and new incentives for any first strike and any first use of nuclear weapons.

The main difference in the outlook of the parties regarding the priorities of the forthcoming negotiations can be defined schematically to the United States wanting to reduce both strategic and tactical nuclear arms, while Russia wishes to limit both nuclear and nonnuclear strategic arms. (Excerpted and translated from “Problems and Dilemmas of the Next START Treaty,” World Economy and International Relations, 2021, Vol. 65, No. 6, pp. 5-20.

Nadezhda Arbatova:

No doubt, Russia and the U.S. have deep differences in their vision of strategic stability, which has not been updated for 30 years. Moreover, in the expert communities of both sides there have appeared new schools of strategic thinking that can be defined as revisionist. The representatives of these schools propose to abandon past practices and argue that nuclear multipolarity and the latest weapon systems have abolished the old principles of arms control. Moscow is concerned about U.S. high-precision, long-range conventional weapons and ballistic missile defenses (BMD). Washington, in turn, is concerned about Russian sub-strategic nuclear weapons and the so-called Putin package—a new generation of nuclear-capable weapons such as the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile and Poseidon underwater drone. Aside from this, the China factor is casting a long shadow on the U.S. approach to strategic stability talks with Russia. It might be possible to exchange some limitations on Russian sub-strategic nuclear weapons for limitations on American high-precision, long-range conventional weapons, as well as “the Putin package” for U.S. BMD, but it is not clear yet how China’s missiles can be taken into account in the U.S.-Russia talks on strategic stability. (Written answers to questions from RM, 07.26.21)

Michael Krepon:

Washington will continue to spend large sums for nuclear weapons and the submarines, missiles, and bombers to carry them. Large sums will also be spent on national missile defenses that have suspect and unproven effectiveness. If, as a result of these deployments, Putin worries about prospective disadvantage or if he is obliged to curtail spending on nuclear forces, he might be amenable to reductions at the margin. Biden might, as well. We’ll see, but the growth in Beijing’s strategic nuclear forces won’t help matters.

What about other elements of strategic stability? There are plenty to chose from. Moscow has expressed a strong interest in discussing new military technologies, U.S. deployments prompted by Putin’s material breach of the INF Treaty, the offense-defense equation, and long-range conventional strike capabilities. These topics do not lend themselves to negotiating breakthroughs.

Some seek negotiating breakthroughs by widening the scope of New START limitations to include tactical nuclear weapons, all warheads, and intermediate-range missiles. These topics are worthy of serious discussion, but they are extremely hard to address even in the absence of an intensified competition. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were able to reverse gears, but Reagan, unlike Biden, had the domestic political leeway to do so, the Soviet Union was weak and Gorbachev knew it, and Putin isn’t Gorbachev.

Where, then, can progress toward strategic stability be made? At the outset, these talks might make headway in trying to reach common understandings of what constitutes strategic stability. Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev tried their hand at this in 1972. The effort had no lasting effect, but might be worth trying again. At a minimum, there is value in clarifying actions that would trigger strenuous pushback. (Arms Control Wonk blog, 07.06.21

3. What are the top issues your country should prioritize during the talks on strategic stability when they resume on July 28?

Nadezhda Arbatova:

Russia’s security priorities that should be promoted during the upcoming talks on strategic stability include: (1) U.S. high-precision, long-range conventional weapons; (2) new limitations on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF); (3) BMD predictability and transparency; (4) anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) systems; (5) cyber threats to strategic command, control, communications and information (C3I). Looking back, we cannot help but recognize that new technologies—be they multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), long-range cruise missiles or the Strategic Defense Initiative—have always brought uncertainty in strategic relations. Still, it was possible to solve these problems before.

It is clear that arms control treaties have not been ideal. The development of military technologies, as before, poses new challenges: limiting strategic non-nuclear weapons, cyber threats, space weapons, hypersonic and autonomous systems and the like. Nuclear multipolarity encourages serious thinking about how to engage third countries. However, within revisionists’ vague agenda for endless discussions these most complicated problems cannot be solved. Concrete negotiations are required in deeply thought-out formats. Otherwise, the chaos of the world order and military technologies will be aggravated by the chaos of the legal system of disarmament and disorder in the heads of politicians and experts. With due attention, arms control could be extended to new technologies, at least to some of them. It would be relatively less difficult to reach a compromise on long-range, high-precision conventional weapons (including hypersonic weapons), harder on space weapons and the hardest on sub-strategic nuclear weapons, robotics and cyber technology. Of course, it is not realistic to hope that everything can be addressed by arms control, as was the case in the past. However, arms control has been, is and will remain an indispensable pillar of strategic stability. (Written answers to questions from RM, 07.26.21)

Rose Gottemoeller:

A key priority will be to negotiate limits on warheads—including those contained in storage facilities, Rose Gottemoeller told Kommersant. It won’t be easy to agree on concrete measures in this area; storage sites for warheads are a sensitive issue, and concrete measures will be difficult to agree on, but this issue is a priority for the United States nonetheless. (Kommersant, 07.27.21; translated by RM)

... The replacement for New START [should] focus on limiting strategic offensive arms, but will also acknowledge the relationship between strategic offensive forces and missile defense capabilities. ...

... The negotiations should include weapons delivery systems, including the exotic new missile systems Putin is rolling out, as well as the warheads themselves—that is, the actual bombs. New START limited delivery vehicles like missiles and bombers, as well as launch systems. But it didn’t directly limit nuclear warheads, in part because the issue was too sensitive given the top-secret nature of the weapons. (Politico, 06.14.21)

Michael Krepon:

Reaffirming the three norms of No Use, no testing, and nonproliferation deserve pride of place in strategic stability talks. If these norms are breached, regional and strategic stability would take severe hits; if they are reaffirmed and extended, ambitious objectives are possible, including stabilization.

Using strategic stability talks to advance ambitious negotiating agenda items seems unavoidable, but Moscow and Washington have very different ideas about how to proceed. Meanwhile, near-term steps to reduce nuclear dangers are needed. Does the intensified state of competition lend itself to stabilization measures? One place to find out is by seeking to revive and update agreements between Washington and Moscow that aim to reduce dangerous military practices at sea, in the air, and for ground forces operating in close proximity. (Arms Control Wonk blog, 07.06.21)

Kevin Ryan, Brig. Gen. (U.S. Army retired), associate fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs:

In discussions on strategic stability with Russia, the US should address the following five priorities:

  1. The United States and the West cannot move forward in serious discussion of stability with Russia until the situation in Ukraine (both Donbas and Crimea) is resolved and peaceful rebuilding begins.
  2. Address the weakening nuclear arms control regime between the two countries. Incorporate “non-strategic” nuclear weapons into nuclear talks and provide more transparency on the locations of all warheads and delivery systems. As it stands today, the two countries are pursuing nuclear deterrence strategies which are not aligned and which increase instability between us.
  3. Establish some rudimentary “rules of the road” for cyber attacks and information operations that might target infrastructure and nuclear command and control systems. 
  4. Climate issues have become part of strategic stability and the US should work with Russia to build an international framework for addressing the issue.
  5. Nuclear weapons no longer cover the entire spectrum of strategic stability. New technologies and situations are affecting domestic and international stability. The US and Russia should establish a dialogue to explore the new aspects of strategic stability and resolve to minimize the possibility that those threats can lead us to open conflict. (Written answers to questions from RM, 07.26.21)


Photo by U.S. Air Force Museum, shared by Flickr with a Creative Commons license. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the quoted individuals.