Seven Reasons Moscow Will Say "Nyet" to Nuke Cuts

By William Martel

Last week, President Obama called for a new round of nuclear arms talks with Russia, but Moscow in response voiced its opposition to the drastic reduction Obama proposed.

Despite the allure of reducing nuclear arsenals, it is not clear why the United States proposed a new round of nuclear arms cuts. Worse, there are powerful reasons why such a proposal is doomed to fail.

1. Russia’s only measure of power is nukes. For Moscow, nuclear weapons are the sole remaining symbol of its former superpower status. No wonder President Vladimir Putin lamented that the "demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

Consider Russia today. Putin gradually dismantled democracy in Russia, while harassing and jailing opponents. Russia faces demographic challenges that loom over its future along with crippling corruption that stifles any forward progress.

Russia’s economy shows serious signs of weakness. Half its national income derives from oil and gas exports. When the price of oil falls below roughly $100 per barrel, Russia's coffers suffer. Lacking a serious export industry (other than energy), Moscow joins the ranks of other petro states in the Middle East and elsewhere that have similarly weak economies.

2. Russia’s absolute opposition to ballistic missile defenses. Since nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles remain Russia’s sole remaining measures of former glory, anything that interferes with that power is anathema to Putin.

Ballistic missile defenses are designed to shoot down missiles. From Russia’s perspective, U.S. influence increases when it can effectively destroy incoming ballistic missiles. American missile defenses, however, are not sufficient by any stretch of the imagination to negate Russia’s large numbers of ICBM's. But that is not the point.

For Russia, the problem is that Washington has a capability Russia lacks. While Russia’s missile defenses protect Moscow, the U.S. has leaped far ahead with missile defenses that, unlike Russia’s, do not rely on using nuclear warheads to intercept incoming missiles. U.S. missile defense uses hit-to-kill technologies that are more technologically advanced than, and probable well beyond, what Russia can develop. In this critical measure of national capabilities, Russia cannot compete – yet again.

In Obama’s current proposal, Washington’s position remains that it will not agree to any reductions and limitations on its missile defense systems, some of which will be positioned in Europe. The problem is that the presence of missile defenses counters Moscow’s desire to diminish America’s influence in Europe.

3. 500 fewer U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons do not strengthen international security. For decades, Washington and Moscow possessed thousands of strategic nuclear weapons. Today, both sides are limited by treaty to 1,500 warheads.

Will the world rest any easier because Moscow and Washington each have “only” 1,000 warheads? The answer, of course, is “no.”

Russians understand the logic of nuclear and conventional deterrence. Smaller nuclear arsenals increase the relative power of the United States. When Russian conventional military forces are pathetic by comparison and the U.S. clearly has conventional superiority, reducing nuclear arsenals only increases U.S. influence and power.

4. Rise of new nuclear states. Back when nuclear arms control was the lingua franca of superpower relations, reducing the number of nuclear weapons – or limiting ballistic missile defenses – made great sense as symbols of peaceful relations.

Today, however, the emergence of new nuclear states dramatically changes the strategic dynamic.

Further bilateral U.S.-Russian arms control makes absolutely no sense. Pakistan and North Korea are new members of the nuclear club. Moreover, Iran likely will join the nuclear club within the next year or so. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked whether Japan should have nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, South Korea will not be far behind given Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal and domestic support for nuclear arms according to recent polls.

The challenge for modern arms control is managing a world in which more states possess nuclear weapons. With Russia and China actively promoting and protecting efforts by Iran and North Korea to join the nuclear club, it is strategically useless for Washington to propose bilateral nuclear talks with Moscow. More importantly, these three great powers should be searching for common ground on how to address the rising nuclear stockpiles of the new nuclear states.

The real problem, which the U.S. proposal ignores, is the security of the arsenals of the new nuclear states: Pakistan, North Korea – and likely soon, Iran.

5. America's geopolitical position is weakened. When we survey the state of current problems, the U.S. geopolitical position has eroded dramatically.

Moscow’s position on Syria is prevailing as it provides arms and political support to bolster the Syrian government. Likewise, Russia’s support for Iran effectively stymies Obama administration efforts to dissuade Iran from building nuclear weapons. In effect, Putin’s initiatives in the crucial cases of Syria and Iran are succeeding, while the policies of the Obama administration are failing.

Facing declining American influence, there is no compelling strategic reason for Putin to accept an American proposal to cut nuclear weapons. Following Obama’s initiative only strengthens the U.S. position, while Putin’s refusal to cut nuclear arms makes him look stronger and Obama weaker. Putin has to be acutely aware that Washington’s policies toward Iran, Syria, North Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq are failing across the board. Nor should Putin abandon the political offense given that this strategy has dramatically strengthened his influence in foreign policy.

Obama, facing political scandals at home, shows signs of domestic political difficulties. In the joint press conference at last week’s G-8 Summit, Putin looked tough, combative, and entirely dismissive of Obama. Why would Putin allow nuclear arms talks to “reset” his relationship with Obama when he is in such a commanding position?

6. Diplomatically, Russia-China will outmaneuver America. Close coordination between Beijing and Moscow suggests that they will run circles around U.S. proposals. To complicate matters, they could ask: “Why not add China and other states, such as Britain, France, Israel, not to mention India, Pakistan, North Korea, and even Iran to the talks?”

If bilateral arms control negotiations are tough, multilateral talks will never succeed. The list of difficulties goes on and on. America’s position is further complicated by U.S. pledges to defend Japan and South Korea against nuclear attacks from China or North Korea.

Since Russia and China strongly oppose U.S. missile defenses, they will ask, credibly, “Why not bring ballistic missile defenses into the negotiations?”

For Russia, the only acceptable reason to cut its nuclear weapons would be if the U.S. gave up missile defenses. However, with the U.S. and its European and Asian allies deeply worried about the nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran, Washington likely cannot negotiate away its missile defenses. Furthermore, American domestic politics will make this option "dead on arrival."

7. The world is pretty safe as it is. In reality, reducing the number of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons will not make the world any safer. In recent public opinion polls, only 27 percent of Americans support President Obama’s proposal to cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The U.S. has nothing to gain from assuaging the anti-nuclear fetish. Ultimately, nuclear cuts proposed by the U.S. will collapse of their own accord, producing just another foreign policy letdown. Russia likely will reject or “slow roll” the U.S. proposal, just as Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rejected U.S. demands to extradite NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

Where to do we go from here?

To succeed, arms control must proceed from a coherent strategy, and when it does, as we saw in the past, it can lead to dramatic cuts in nuclear arsenals.

However, Russian and American nuclear weapons are not the problem. The central problem is the stalled U.S.-Russian relationship, which cannot be reversed by another round of marginal cuts in nuclear weapons.

What interests, beyond generalities, do the U.S. and Russia share? For now, the problem is that neither President Obama nor President Putin has a good answer to this question. Until they do so, relations between Washington and Moscow will continue to deteriorate.

A coherent strategy for the United States rests on several elements.

First, President Obama should begin to criticize Putin’s policies. To achieve success in the U.S. relationship with Moscow, the key is to put Putin on the defensive for the failure of democracy in Russia, the rise of authoritarianism, the nation’s fading economy, and Russia’s overall failure to join the ranks of the democracies that represent most of the people on the globe.

Second, President Obama should reject arms control initiatives until there is evidence that Putin wants to engage in a productive relationship. Meanwhile, accelerating American ballistic missile defense programs is a time-tested way to put pressure on Moscow.

Third, the United States needs to reassure our allies of its commitment, while reminding opponents of Washington’s will and resolve.

For now, one senses that U.S.-Russia relations have entered a tense period. One can only wonder if we are seeing the emergence of an all too familiar pattern from decades ago, which many assumed had been relinquished to the "dust bin of history." U.S. - Russia tensions still remain because both sides clearly have different geostrategic interests. Proposals devoid of any overall grand strategy that offer both sides a clear benefit are doomed to fail. 

William C. Martel, Associate Professor of International Security Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, is the recent author of Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Strategy. Twitter: @BillMartel234

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