The Limits of Hostility: Today’s U.S.-Russian Relationship

Areas of mutual benefit remain. One such area is nuclear weapons reductions.

Heart-breaking images of repression by brutal regimes in Syria and Ukraine, both backed by the Russian government of president Vladimir Putin, convey the impression that a long slide is underway toward Cold War levels of animosity between Washington and Moscow. But having served in diplomatic postings to West Germany and the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s, I see current tensions nowhere near those of the perilous past.

The world still remains fundamentally and positively transformed by the “fall of the Wall” and the subsequent dissolution of the U.S.S.R. For the United States, the opportunity (and challenge) with Russia today lies in eliminating the lingering elements of Cold War thinking in our nuclear force posture.

This opportunity may be difficult to perceive. For those of us who have wished for and worked for better relations between the United States and Russia, these are discouraging times. And yet, although some aspects of U.S.-Russian relations are adversarial, there are powerful countervailing forces at work to prevent the two countries from becoming enemies. Today Russians can readily access independent sources of news and opinion. Significant numbers of Russians now travel outside the country. Whatever Potemkin village flourishes the Sochi Winter Olympics may have offered, Russia succeeded overall in delivering a safe and beautiful stage for an uplifting international spectacle.

For every frustrating example of Moscow and Washington working at cross purposes, there is another example of surprisingly close cooperation—from the northern supply line to U.S. forces in Afghanistan operating over and through Russia, to the solidarity maintained thus far among the six powers in nuclear negotiations with Iran, to the electricity for American homes and industries generated from nuclear-reactor fuel fashioned from Russian nuclear weapons, to the shuttling of American astronauts and supplies on Russian rockets to the International Space Station.

In Washington, new indications of the tectonic shifts in the U.S.-Russia relationship were visible. The intelligence community’s 2014 Worldwide Threat Assessment led with cyber threats, and listed a wide variety of other threat categories, including “mass atrocities” and “extreme weather events.” However, Russia’s nuclear arsenal was conspicuously absent. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made no mention of it in three congressional hearings on the assessment. Moreover, members of Congress asked Clapper no questions about Russian strategic forces in those hearings. The American people reflect a similar perception; only 9 percent still identify Russia as America’s greatest threat, according to a recent Gallup poll.

Unfortunately, one aspect of the Cold War stubbornly persists. U.S. and Russian strategic forces are still structured and poised to deal with a disarming nuclear first-strike directed by one state against the other. Indeed, the current U.S. nuclear stockpile includes nearly two thousand operational strategic warheads, a significant portion of which are on continuous alert, ready for launch in minutes. For its part, Moscow still operates its strategic forces as if the possibility of a U.S. first-strike is real. As obsolescence forces the retirement of Russia’s most powerful weapon, the ten-warhead SS-18 heavy intercontinental ballistic missile, Moscow plans to develop and deploy an equally destabilizing replacement.

Although President Obama has declared that the United States can safely cut U.S. strategic forces by an additional third after reaching the New START limits, U.S. strategic-warhead totals are currently being reduced at a very slow rate, still well above the treaty limits established three years earlier. In fact, the United States has expanded its lead over the more rapidly declining level of Russian strategic forces by nearly three hundred warheads. Each of these warheads is much more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb; the use of only a dozen would constitute an unparalleled humanitarian catastrophe.

Moreover, U.S. planning for future defense forces anticipates retaining and modernizing all three legs of the nuclear triad at a currently programmed ten-year cost of some $355 billion. So far, resources for the forces directed at the highest-priority contemporary threats identified by the U.S. intelligence agencies must take a back seat to the threat that wasn’t worth mentioning in their annual assessment.

U.S. intelligence is doing its job, objectively assessing the most serious threats now facing the country. It is the job of the political leadership to draw appropriate conclusions regarding the need for changes in U.S. nuclear force posture. President Obama’s speeches appear to set the right course, but his actions have not been commensurate. A long-overdue task of the U.S. Executive and Legislative Branches is to bring the size and posture of the U.S. nuclear arsenal into alignment with the threat. This means moving expeditiously to a smaller nuclear force at a lower state of readiness.

We must wake up from our sleepwalk through the nuclear nightmares of the Cold War. There is no time to lose and no excuse for delay.

Greg Thielmann, senior fellow of the Arms Control Association, is a former Foreign Service Officer who headed the Strategic, Military, and Proliferation Office of the State Department’s intelligence bureau.