After the Helsinki Summit was over, the Russian government, the Russian and American media, and many Russian experts in the West have been calling for the United States and Russia to agree quickly to either an extension of the 2010 New Start Treaty, or a new follow-on arms control agreement; the New Start Treaty between the two countries is scheduled to expire in 2021.
Many of these calls for new negotiations and a new treaty are primarily driven by alarm at the bad state of East-West relations, the belief in the inherent benefits of arms control in general, and that arms control remains the area where it is easiest to secure Russo-American dialogue.
Additionally, arms control is historically the arena where Moscow most feels it is being treated as an equal by the United States. According to some American arms control enthusiasts, such deals also provide opportunities for Russia to achieve "parity" and supposedly thus stability between the two nations. Therefore, in the name of international security and East-West dialogue, it is argued, it is necessary to resume arms control talks with Moscow.
It is often assumed that "right wing" ideologues are opposed to arms control with the Russians, just as they purportedly were during the Cold War. This view is apparently based on another assumption: that "right-wingers" desire U.S. superiority over Russia and other armed adversaries, a superiority that bilateral arms control deals would preclude. However, it has always been the case that arms control, when done correctly, has been a policy designed to advance U.S. interests, not an effort to satisfy Soviet-Russian neuroses about being equal to the U.S. Therefore, the test of a credible arms control proposal and/or process is whether it advances U.S. interests.
The facts, ironically, are that it was under Ronald Reagan and the first Bush administration, that genuine arms control reductions were first achieved. Under the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union, the U.S. fundamentally altered the strategic balance in favor of the U.S. and the Western alliance, by cutting Soviet-era nuclear warheads by nearly 10,000.
The START treaty is in marked contrast to previous United States-Soviet agreements, such as the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, or SALT treaty of 1972 that allowed massive growth in the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Particularly troubling was the SALT treaty acceptance of the Soviets' massive increase from 1972-80 in large, heavy, multiple warhead land-based missiles that the United States perceived as a key threat to strategic stability.
Arms control with Russia is also problematic for other reasons. The Russians have no media and other pressures on their negotiators to "get a deal" or "play fair". Moreover, the Russians always cheat on such deals, and the verification measures in place often turn out to be seriously deficient.
Also, the current Russian nuclear forces are nearing complete modernization, (85% or more will be fully modernized by 2020). In contrast, the United States is just beginning its nuclear modernization effort, which will not be nearing completion until well in to the 2030's, first with the initial deployment of a new bomber in 2027, a new land-based ICBM in 2029 and a new Columbia-class submarine in 2031.
This schedule, furthermore, assumes full, uninterrupted funding and support for these nuclear programs.
So far, the Congress has not only fully funded the nuclear enterprise but has provided additional funding for the modest acceleration of the bomber and land-based missile modernization programs. Should the arms control community get its wish on future strategic arms control, however, we will cut both our land-based missiles and submarines at seas. For example, most of the 400 currently deployed Minuteman land-based ICBMS, (each with just one warhead), would have to be eliminated, or, as some arms control proponents have suggested, half of the United States' planned 12 new submarines would never be built.
Such reductions would be terrible, both for strategic stability and the military balance between the United States and Russia. The U.S. would be dramatically reducing its ability to add warheads to its force structure if Russia broke out of current or future arms agreements. And the U.S. would end up with a seriously deficient force to cover enough of an adversary's targets it would need to hold at risk in order to provide credible deterrence.
In one reasonable calculation, reducing America's overall strategic warheads to 1000 from 1550 would, according to General Stephen Wilson, the USAF Vice Chief of Staff, end up leaving the United States with as few as ten key nuclear targets that , if eliminated, would disarm the United States. That force compares to more than 500 such targets the U.S. maintains in its nuclear forces today.
Finally, whatever merits there may be in favor of more arms control, the evidence is firmly on the side of those saying to slow down and look first. The U.S. needs to begin by understanding what Putin is proposing, why he is doing so now, and whether new arms control discussions actually advance U.S. interests at the present time.
According to a July 26, 2018 report in the Russian newspaper Kommersant, the Russians proposed at the Helsinki summit that both the United States and Russia reaffirm their commitment to the New Start and INF treaties, the Vienna Document on conventional forces exercises, and the Open Skies Treaty.
Those Russian ideas perhaps -- probably not coincidentally -- equate to those advanced by many Western arms-control advocates.
If one examines these proposals, however, there is a shell game going on. Russia wants the United States to abide by treaties that they themselves are breaking.
Russia, for instance, has been breaking the INF Treaty since the 1990s, a fact essentially admitted by the Russian press in 2007.
Despite the fact that by now three administrations have noted these treaty violations, there has been no direct INF-type missile programmatic response to Russian actions by the United States.
In other words, the Russians are violating the INF treaty with impunity, while, as noted nuclear expert Franklin Miller noted earlier this year, they are also violating nine key international agreements with the United States. Miller explains:
"So when the Nuclear Posture Review of 2018 was being drafted, we were aware that Russia was in violation of: the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, by which it pledged not to use military force to change borders in Europe; the 1994 Budapest Accord, wherein it guaranteed the sovereignty of Ukraine; the 1999 Istanbul Agreement, where it pledged to take its forces out of Moldova and also the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives of 1991 and 1992; the 2002 Open Skies Treaty; the 2011 Vienna Document; the 1987 INF Treaty; and now as Britain and the world is acutely aware, we also know Russia has violated the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. Now, it's really difficult to do business with a government that so blatantly violates its international commitments and lies about it. We should be quite clear."
Regarding the United States and Russian New Start Treaty of 2010, Moscow released figures earlier this year that suggest it is violating that treaty too. As the distinguished expert and former OSD nuclear expert Mark Schneider has observed, Moscow deployed 26 new and heavily MIRVed (multiple independent reentry vehicles) warheads, but at the same time insisted that its deployed warhead numbers declined by 116. It is what former President George W. Bush diplomatically described as fuzzy math.
Russian commentators writing in 2017 claimed that Moscow had, in fact, more deployed warheads than the New Start treaty allows. Observance of the New Start treaty is, to say the least, in a precarious state.
The Vienna Document, mentioned above, "is a confidence- and security- building measure in which members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) agree to inspections and data exchanges in order to increase transparency of their conventional forces."
Since Russia suspended its implementation of Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) in 2007, however, there has been a subsequent loss of transparency around what exact conventional forces Russia is maintaining in the NATO-Russia border region.
Moscow has thereby also escaped conventional weapons arms control even as it has built up those forces on an accelerated rate since 2008.
Russia now has more than 20 ongoing nuclear weapon projects comprising both new weapons and modifications of late Soviet designs. They include weapons programs such as hypersonic missiles and the Status-6 submarine-launched drone.
Russia's public displays of the new programs is no doubt designed both to intimidate the West into not responding to Russian provocations, and to force the U.S. into one-sided arms control deals in their favor, out of fear of emerging Russian nuclear arms.
Such disinformation is standard Russia fare. Although, to be clear, a large number of Russian nuclear systems are being modernized, some Russian images and videos of supposed new nuclear weapons systems depict weapons that probably don't exist. (This will be explored at length by Stephen Blank, "Reflections on Russian Nuclear Strategy," in the forthcoming The Routledge Handbook of Russian National Security.)
Fortunately, the Russian "fake news" gambit appears to have failed so far, as the U.S. Congress has actually accelerated U.S. nuclear modernization efforts, including adding funding for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) and B-21 bomber programs.
Congress followed the requested nuclear modernization plan laid out by the Trump administration's 2018 Nuclear Posture Review and detailed in its legislative reports on the defense bill, with some 40 defense programs aimed at deterring the growing Russian military threat.
While many Russian military programs are indeed real, US. intelligence agencies have also informed Congress that images of some of the "new programs" unveiled by Putin were films of fake missiles as part of a continued crude propaganda offensive.
Pictured: A screenshot of what Russian President Vladimir Putin called a new "invincible" cruise missile developed by Russia, from a video screened by Putin on March 1, 2018.
The real Moscow build-up of nuclear warheads and associated missiles and bombers are tailored for short, intermediate, and long-range missile strikes. These systems, along with Russian published doctrine and testing, reveals a Russian military preparing to use nuclear weapons (as well as chemical and biological weapons) for war-fighting purposes and to threaten not only military targets but population centers as well.
Further, as noted above by Miller and others, Russia is essentially breaking every existing arms control agreement including the INF, New Start and CFE treaties, the Vienna Document, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and with its revived biological warfare capability, the Biological Weapons Convention of 1969.
Therefore, reaffirming treaties as Russia proposes, absent any credible mechanisms for verification, enforcing adherence or retaliating for Russian violations, is senseless. Doing so would not be negotiating but surrendering to Russian mendacity and treaty violations. Putin's proposals at this time suggest that having nearly rebuilt his arsenal, he wishes to inhibit the new U.S. rebuilding drive that has just begun, and possibly wants to reduce the economic burden of these programs on Russia.
Russia's proposals also aim to block American conventional global strike programs and capabilities and to seek guarantees that American and allied missile defenses, especially those in Europe, will either not be built or will be strictly limited.
In other words, Putin's proposals aim to stop the U.S. defense rebuilding program proposed by President Trump and so far, approved by Congress, while simultaneously preserving a free hand to violate existing arms treaties with impunity and without fear of retaliation
The most recent sign of this double standard was Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu's criticizing "the deliberate strengthening of NATO's military," at a time when Russia admits to having created 70 new units on its Western border, where Moscow already enjoys conventional superiority.
While in principle, arms control may or may not be desirable -- and the U.S. certainly has a shared responsibility with Russia to prevent a nuclear war and increase stability -- President Putin's proposals are not about arms control but part of another round in the political war Moscow is now waging against the West , just as it has since 1917. Only now, as Russia seeks nuclear superiority over the United States with which to coerce it to back down or surrender in emerging European or Middle East confrontations or conflicts that may face the U.S. in the future, the stakes are much higher.
Stephen Blank is Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. Peter Huessy is Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at The Mitchell Institute.