The U.S. Needs More Arms Control Talks With Russia, Not Less

The U.S. Needs More Arms Control Talks With Russia, Not Less

While Russia’s war on Ukraine has derailed any hopes for U.S.-Russian nuclear weapons talks in the near future, it is essential that this temporary hiatus not be allowed to stretch on for too long.

 

Last week, with the Russo-Ukrainian War still raging, Russia tested a new nuclear-capable missile. In a television appearance, Russian president Vladimir Putin said that “this truly unique weapon will strengthen the combat potential of our armed forces.” This so-called Sarmat missile can hold up to fifteen nuclear warheads and, because of its long-range capabilities, could reach the U.S. and bypass missile defense systems.

Though tests like these could still continue even under a new arms control agreement, this affair revealed the necessity for the United States to do more to prevent the casual build-up of nuclear weapons writ large. While Russia’s war on Ukraine has derailed any hopes for U.S.-Russian nuclear weapons talks in the near future, it is essential that this temporary hiatus not be allowed to stretch on for too long. There is simply too much at stake for American and global security.

 

The alternative, canceling and postponing arms control talks, is outright dangerous. The test comes at a time when Putin has put Russia’s nuclear weapons on an increased state of readiness to launch, and Russia has an “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine in which Russia may use nuclear weapons first if it risks losing a conflict.

During their June summit last year, the United States and Russia launched an ambitious “Strategic Stability Dialogue” with the hope of crafting a new deal to prevent a nuclear arms build-up. The primary goal of the dialogue was to eventually replace the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, a treaty that limits the number of deployed nuclear weapons of the United States and Russia to 1,550 and allows satellite monitoring and on-site inspections. By most accounts, the June summit was a success. After a few rounds of discussions, the dialogue created working groups and outlined security concerns. There was some reason to be cautiously optimistic.

However, that all fell apart when Russia invaded Ukraine. Among a flurry of more headline-grabbing punitive measures against Russia, President Biden’s decision to cut off arms control discussions with Russia mostly flew under the radar. Yet there is a case to be made that now, more than ever, we should continue those talks to reduce the prospect of nuclear war as much as possible.

The West’s urge to cut ties with everything connected to Russia is understandable. Russia has invaded a sovereign nation, shelled Ukrainian cities, and massacred civilians. However, considering that the United States and Russia’s nuclear arsenals account for 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, it is essential to compartmentalize the issue of nuclear stability. Crucially, Russia has maintained that it is willing to continue arms control talks. Given the Biden administration’s rhetoric on diplomacy, it's time to follow through and pick up the phone.

Biden can take a page from the Cold War, which saw a combination of containment and détente. At the height of the Cold War, amidst proxy wars across the Global South, the United States and Russia opened a dialogue of diplomacy to negotiate two strategic arms control treaties, SALT I and SALT II. Those treaties came at a time of tremendous animosity between the two superpowers, but both recognized the necessity of nuclear arms control after a series of close calls, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The SALT negotiations were by no means without flaws, but they produced a remarkable reduction in nuclear arms, and they were accompanied by the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) of 1972, which restricted each country to two anti-missile systems, thereby reducing pressures to build up nuclear weapons.

While the United States can’t trust Russia, trust isn’t a prerequisite for arms control—mutual interests are. Many may shy away from the notion of entering into good-faith talks with Russia at a time when it has shown disregard for international law and invaded a sovereign nation. However, the principles of realism dictate that we should still expect Russia to respond to diplomacy in pursuit of its national interests. Moreover, trust isn’t necessary when there are reliable verification methods in place, including telemetric exchanges of information, pre-launch notifications of treaty-accountable ballistic missiles, and biannual data exchanges. In other words, you can distrust Russia but verify its compliance.

Some of this compartmentalization is already underway. For example, on March 1, just a week after the invasion, the United States and Russia exchanged classified information about the sizes of their nuclear arsenals, complete with a breakdown of warhead numbers across each delivery vehicle. This information exchange was scheduled as part of the biannual data exchanges under New START, and it showed that Russia is still in compliance with the treaty. It was as if it was any other March 1 since New START was first implemented.

“In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, New START has become more important, not less important, for both the U.S. and Russia,” explained Julie Newton, a research fellow at the Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre at St Antony's College, in an interview. Yet, when New START expires in 2026, there won’t be a single arms control treaty between the United States and Russia, underscoring the urgent need for new arms control talks.

Taking a page from the Cold War and restarting arms control talks is necessary to de-escalate nuclear threats and reduce the risk of catastrophe. Compartmentalizing the issue of nuclear stability doesn’t make the United States any less committed to supporting Ukraine’s fight against Russia, but instead acknowledges the extremity of the risks involved in a total lack of communication between two countries with over 11,000 nuclear warheads between them.

Even if the current prospects for constructive talks are low, Derek Johnson, managing partner of Global Zero, points out that it “won’t be the case forever, and we can’t afford to take our eye off the ball.” “The future,” he writes, “of this generation and all generations to come depends on it.”

Nick Cleveland-Stout is a researcher at the Quincy Institute, a 2022-23 Fulbright finalist, and a senior at Colorado College.

Image: Reuters.