“Consistent with these goals, the United States and Russia will embark together on an integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue in the near future…Through this dialogue, we hope to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures” Biden-Putin Joint Statement June 16, 2021
It is undoubtedly satisfying to some that Presidents Biden and Putin have agreed to begin “strategic stability” talks. But it should be unsettling to many more to reflect that, while the term is thrown about in academic and even some government circles, there is no agreed definition (even within the U.S. government, let alone between the American and Russian governments) of what “strategic stability” means – or moreover how a discussion around it can “lay groundwork for future agreements."
Strategic stability can be all things to Western arms control theorists. To some, it means “first strike stability” – a situation where neither side has either an incentive or a force structure designed to carry out a disarming first strike against the other. That’s a nice idea, but (historically) Soviet and (now) Russian ICBM forces are designed around first strike, there being no other reason to maintain the heavily MIRVed SS-18 ICBM for decades only to begin replacing it recently with the larger “Sarmat” missile. The flip side of “first strike stability” is allowing each side to retain sufficient second-strike retaliatory capabilities to deter a would-be aggressor from contemplating a first strike; both Washington and Moscow seemingly accept this approach, but only Russia continues to pursue first strike disarming capabilities notionally aimed at reducing U.S. second strike potential – raising questions about the degree to which Moscow truly subscribes to it. Alternatively, strategic stability might mean “arms race stability”, in which neither side begins fielding new weapons systems as long as its potential opponent does not.
But again, Russia began modernizing all of its nuclear forces – both long-range and shorter-range systems—over a decade ago while at the same time the U.S. was content to allow existing forces to age. Strategic stability might be applied to avoiding accidents between the air or naval forces of the United States and Russia. But such agreements – the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement and the 1989 Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities Agreement – already exist and remain in force; the problem is that the Russian military – with direction by or at least tacit support from the Putin Administration -- routinely ignores them by harassing U.S. and allied units in a dangerous and unprofessional manner. (The recent treatment of the British destroyer HMS Defender in the Black Sea is the latest case in point.) Strategic stability could also be applied to avoiding fears of a surprise attack by conventional forces, thereby reducing international tensions. This, too, has already been addressed: the 2011 Vienna Document calls for the parties to provide notice and transparency regarding exercises; Russia routinely ignores the Vienna Document by lying about the size of its exercises and by convening massive “snap drills” which foster fears among observers that they are actually preparations for an invasion or attack. In a perfect world, strategic stability talks might also address cyberattacks on critical infrastructure and key capabilities such as nuclear command and control systems; that said, cyber capabilities and operations are so highly classified that there is no reasonable prospect of a meaningful outcome in discussing them. President Biden’s warning to Vladimir Putin in Geneva is as much as can be done in the diplomatic sphere.
Given all of the above, what then might we expect from a dialogue on “strategic stability”?
No dialogue should be necessary to avoid dangerous interactions between U.S. and Russian forces and avoid threatening exercises. Russia needs to be reminded of its existing obligations, and we should avoid any suggestion that we would make new concessions to get them to observe them. Russian negotiating tactics since the mid-1940s have often demonstrated, in the words of Averill Harriman, “getting us to pay for the same horse twice”. That should not happen again.
Halting or curtailing the needed modernization of U.S. nuclear forces similarly should be off the table: we have reached a point where our forces must be replaced or retired: there is no middle ground. And according to Putin’s Defense Minister. Russia’s nuclear modernization program is already over 80% complete. Reducing Russian reliance on heavily MIRVed ICBMs, while desirable, is unachievable.
Realistically speaking, the only area which might usefully be discussed is updating New START. If addressed correctly, there is potential promise here, but it requires breaking from the arms control establishment's traditional approach. Existing canon calls for a new round of reductions in U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces. But this approach is not only threadbare but flawed on multiple counts. First and foremost, it ignores the bloated Russian arsenal of shorter-range forces. Russia has a fully modernized force of several thousand ground-, air- and sea-launched nuclear weapons designed for use on the battlefield and in the theater. All of these are dubbed "non-strategic," but the old saw that a weapon is "strategic" if one is in the impact area applies. Russian tactical and theater weapons – not their intercontinental ones -- are likely the first to be used in any war. Therefore, it is essential to capture those in any new agreement. Second, the U.S. has little to trade off against these Russian systems, having eliminated 95% of U.S. counterpart weapons in the 1990’s pursuant to the George H.W. Bush-Gorbachev and Bush-Yeltsin Nuclear Initiatives (which Russia failed to implement regarding its short- and medium-range nuclear forces). As a result, Russian interest in a separate agreement on “non-strategic” nuclear forces is non-existent.
From both a deterrence standpoint and a negotiating one, the only sensible way is to seek a new agreement that would replace New START and capture all deployed U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons ("deployed" defined as all weapons, not in the dismantlement queue). This would exploit the fact that Russia is, in fact, interested in keeping New START in one form or another. (The Trump administration embraced this approach in mid-2020, but by the time it was deployed, it was both too late given Russian considerations of U.S. domestic politics and complicated by the Administration’s goal of including China.) As an opening move, the U.S. might propose that each side be limited to 3500 nuclear weapons of all types. Each side would have total freedom to mix as its forces under that cap. The arms control community will object that the “optics” of “increasing the cap” from New START’s limit of 1550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons (which is really about 2300-2500 given the way bomber weapons are counted) to 3500 total weapons, but the willful refusal to acknowledge and count tactical and mid-range weapons ignores the very real danger those weapons pose.
Moscow will likely counter by seeking to include U.S. hypersonic weapons and missile defense systems. The U.S. should not agree to either. First, the U.S. (unlike Russia – or indeed China) has no current or planned nuclear-tipped or dual-capable hypersonic systems: the Army, Navy and Air Force programs are still in advanced development and are in any event conventional only. Russia and China have each deployed nuclear-armed hypersonic systems. Second, the Navy hypersonic systems are a vital response to Russian and Chinese deployment of anti-access/area denial (A2AD) systems and would be absolutely essential in wartime. If a separate agreement involving conventional hypersonic systems is to be contemplated, it ought to include calling for permanently dismantling the A2AD complexes those U.S. systems are being deployed to counter (and this would have to extend to cover those built by China on the artificial islands Xi promised never to militarize). While hypothetically attractive from a deterrent and national security perspective, this is a completely unlikely outcome and therefore should not be pursued.
The politics of missile defense in both Washington and Moscow argue that no agreement acceptable to one side will ever be acceptable to the other. (Indeed, it was the missile defense issue that prevented START II from entering into force and thereby from eliminating MIRVed ICBMs in the 1990s.) Seeking to incorporate missile defenses into an agreement would prove to be a time-consuming sideshow that would have great potential to derail any progress which might have been made on nuclear weapons.
Therefore, at the end of the day, "talks on strategic stability" translates realistically into "talks about further limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons.” Establishing an overall limit would represent progress. Anything less would not. No deal is better than a bad one.
Franklin Miller, a principal at the Scowcroft Group, served for three decades as a senior policy official in the Pentagon and on the NSC Staff