America and Russia May Find Themselves in a Nuclear Arms Race Once Again

America and Russia May Find Themselves in a Nuclear Arms Race Once Again

Despite the Trump administration’s decision to treat it as an afterthought, arms control is not dead.

Upon entering office last January, President Donald Trump asked Secretary of Defense James Mattis to prepare a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that would lay out the Trump administration’s nuclear strategy. The document will soon be released, and while claiming to seek a world where nuclear weapons use is less likely, the review’s recommendations would actually expand the conditions under which the United States would use nuclear weapons. The draft NPR also seeks to add two new nuclear weapons to the American arsenal and would significantly lower the threshold for nuclear use. Sadly, the document gives short shrift to the need to revitalize the moribund arms control and reduction process, ignoring the best means the United States has to shape the strategic landscape and reduce the nuclear dangers that pose the greatest threats to us and our allies. For all if its complications, direct arms reduction engagement offers the best hope of heading off another disastrous cycle of nuclear one-upmanship between Washington and Moscow.

While not yet released to the public, a draft of the all but complete Posture Review was leaked to the press last week. Much of the document rightly focused on enhancing deterrence with Russia and making clear to Moscow—and North Korea—that any decision to use nuclear weapons would bring about severe consequences to the attacker. These are sound policies and should be welcomed by members of both parties. By making clear that any use of nuclear weapons against the United States or its allies is unacceptable and would thus require a severe reaction, the document starts squarely in the mainstream of nuclear strategy and policy.

However, the document and the thinking behind it fall woefully short in laying out how to end the action-reaction cycle we increasingly find ourselves in with Russia. The only mention of arms control and diplomatic engagement to reduce nuclear risks appear at the end of the document, almost tacked on as a fig leaf to show that the issue was not entirely ignored. In contrast, past documents have talked about how arms control can enhance strategic stability and strengthen the global norms against proliferation and nuclear use. However, by dismissing and seeing arms control mainly as an unwanted constraint on American freedom of action, the NPR sadly undervalues the role that arms control and engagement with Russian has and can again play in reducing nuclear risks and restoring both strategic and crisis stability with America’s main nuclear rival. In this respect, the NPR resembles the administration’s National Security Strategy, an eighty-page document released late last year that omitted any discussion of the contribution that arms control could make to American security.

Arms control—legally binding, verifiable agreements that manage military competition—has enhanced stability in difficult moments in the past and remains one of the few elements effective elements in the bilateral relationship today: both sides continue to adhere to the 2010 New START agreement that limits each side to 1,550 nuclear warheads.

But another pillar of the arms control system that facilitated the end of the Cold War is now in real jeopardy. The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty banned both sides from having and deploying medium range ground-launched missiles. Washington argues that Moscow is violating the accord and is now deploying dozens of cruise missiles in Russia. Moscow, meanwhile, denies this and, contends that the American side is undermining the accord by deploying missile defense launchers that could also be used to launch cruise missiles. As a result, both sides are hinting that they are prepared to walk away from the agreement. The agreement is on life support.


Russia’s alleged violation of the INF Treaty gets prominent attention in the NPR’s short arms control section, much more in fact that any consideration of how to use engagement, diplomacy and verification to reverse the dangerous trends in U.S.-Russian nuclear matters. In fact, the NPR calls for the United States to move towards deploying a new sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) to, in part, compel Russia to return to compliance with the INF Treaty. It is far from clear that the new proposed SLCM will be successful in incentivizing Russia to return to INF compliance. Surprisingly, there is no discussion of more feasible and less dangerous ways to motivate Russia, including agreeing to pursue enhanced transparency and verification to demonstrate that NATO’s missile defense deployments in Europe are not equipped to or capable of launching offensive weapons banned by the INF Treaty—a major Russian counterclaim.

Threats to the survival of the INF Treaty are only the tip of the iceberg, however. Russia is now in the process of rebuilding much of the Soviet Union’s strategic nuclear arsenal, including mobile, intercontinental-range ballistic missiles and a new fleet of missile-armed submarines. The United States is in an early stage of a trillion-dollar plus modernization program of its own, including new submarine and land-based missiles and a new stealth bomber armed with a new stealthy, long-range cruise missile. The NPR endorses the Obama program of modernization, and even hints that this program may be increased even beyond the call for new submarine launched warheads and SLCMs.