Intensified U.S.-Russian Nuclear Relations

At the plenary session of the 2015 St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June, Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly indicated that U.S. foreign policy decisions are dragging the world into a new Cold War. Later that same month, in a demonstration of Russian resolve, Putin announced at a military equipment exposition that Russia will field 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) this year. Taken together, these verbal warnings and high-profile military deployments indicate that the U.S.-Russia relationship has inched another step closer to a new Cold War in the wake of the Ukraine crisis that began in late 2013. Because of worsening U.S.-Russia political relations, relations at the strategic and security levels have deteriorated. 

Russia has made a point of emphasizing that nuclear weapons play a central role in its national security. Even as it faces severe budget shortfalls across the board, Russia continues to increase its investments in nuclear weapons, comprehensively modernizing and upgrading all three components of the country’s integrated nuclear triad, which includes land-based ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and strategic bombers. Russia is also preparing to introduce heavy liquid-fuel ICBMs, nuclear weapons that have high offensive firepower but limited survivability. Introducing these ICBMs could have a negative effect on strategic stability. Russia is also preparing to revive a Soviet-era railway-car-based ICBM launch system, prompting observations of a resurgent Cold War atmosphere. Finally, Russia has carried out a number of military exercises involving nuclear weapons, and increased the frequency and geographical scope of its strategic nuclear-armed patrols. 

Tong Zhao
Tong Zhao is a fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program based at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.
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Western countries have seen all of these developments as a grave threat. In addition, Putin admitted that he had considered putting Russia’s nuclear weapons on higher alert during the Ukraine crisis, which made the pressure on Western countries all the more palpable. In light of Russia’s actions, NATO countries have debated whether to strengthen their own nuclear deployments toward Russia; at a recent NATO gathering of defense ministers and during meetings of the NATO Nuclear Planning Group, how NATO should strengthen its nuclear forces has been an important topic of discussion. 

In the United States, a number of top think tanks and scholars have continuously called for the development of new nuclear weapons that are more flexible and usable. They have also called for the renewal of provisions in the U.S. nuclear posture that would allow the United States to employ tactical nuclear weapons in limited wars in a more flexible manner. The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Mac Thornberry, has called for the United States to discuss the development of new nuclear weapons. The United States is currently at a critical juncture as the country decides how to upgrade the next-generation components of its nuclear triad. Mounting tensions in the U.S.-Russia nuclear relationship could have long-term effects on the U.S. nuclear posture.

History demonstrates that the U.S.-Russia competition over strategic arsenals never really stopped. However, in recent years, this competition has grown in intensity. The reasons for this intensity, bilateral U.S.-Russia interactions, and the effects that these trends will have on both sides’ strategic planning are all questions that demand attention. After all, this trend will affect China, directly or indirectly. 

Security Dilemma as Root Cause

Against the backdrop of two years of political sparring between the United States and Russia, increasingly intense bilateral nuclear relations are highly remarkable. At its core, this tense nuclear relationship stems from a security dilemma between the two countries. A security dilemma refers to a situation in which two states do not intend to take offensive measures against one another, but both sides misinterpret each other’s defensive measures as offensive ones, causing an unnecessary arms race.

Russia’s increased investment in its nuclear forces did not begin after the Ukraine crisis. Many years of economic difficulties in the wake of the Cold War weakened Russia’s nuclear forces rapidly. These difficulties prompted Russia to halt its strategic nuclear patrols at one point, and there was a substantial decline in their combat readiness. As Russia entered the twenty-first century and its economy began to recover, Russia began to gradually resume investing in its nuclear deterrent. This began before U.S.-Russian relations worsened. From Russia’s perspective, the primary purpose of this increased investment has been to compensate for many years of inadequate investment. Theoretically, this policy was not inherently offensive, because the primary strategic value of nuclear weapons is as a means of deterring nuclear and large-scale conventional military attacks. But given that mutual political trust is severely lacking, it was easy for the United States and other Western countries to interpret Russia’s efforts to strengthen its nuclear deterrent as a nuclear arms expansion. 

On the other hand, NATO countries have recently moved to strengthen their own conventional military forces and redeploy heavy-weapon equipment within its Eastern European member states. Russia, knowing that it lacks the upper hand in conventional military strength, has responded by relying even more heavily on its nuclear deterrent. There are significant differences in the two sides’ understandings of each other’s strategic intentions. Currently, the two sides are still limited by the provisions of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). However, it remains unclear whether the United States and Russia can establish a new arms control regime—one that prevents backsliding on nuclear disarmament—in a timely manner after the New START treaty ends.

The U.S-Russia nuclear security dilemma is also affected by third-party factors. Judging by internal U.S. discussions, it can be deduced that the U.S. decisions to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, to develop missile defense systems, and to develop conventional prompt global strike capabilities are primarily directed toward small- and medium-sized countries that the United States has deeply antagonistic relationships with (such as Iran and North Korea). While a small number of individuals in the United States hold extreme views, the majority of U.S. policy makers and experts believe that the country should not and cannot rely on missile defense or conventional prompt global strike capabilities to offset Russia’s nuclear deterrence. However, it is both technically and operationally difficult to convey this strategic intent to Russia, so Russia has worried about the effectiveness of its nuclear deterrent. This has further worsened relations between the two countries in the nuclear realm. 

Finally, politicized technical differences have further exacerbated the U.S.-Russia nuclear security dilemma. Since 2014, the United States has publicly accused Russia of violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). U.S. official statements and media commentary suggest that Russia has intentionally violated the treaty with research and development on land-based cruise missiles. But the broader picture of this dispute that the two countries’ differing interpretations of the treaty’s provisions on fixed-launcher testing is likely the source of the conflict. This is a minor technical issue, and it is entirely possible that Russia does not intend to violate the treaty. 

However, attention from Congress and the U.S. media has quickly politicized the issue, causing a significant number of Western political figures and the general public to believe that Russia has intentionally and flagrantly violated the treaty, or even deployed such missile systems on a large scale. Such actions would pose a grave threat to the security of Western countries. A number of Western commentators have gone even further by stating that Russia is taking a first step toward officially withdrawing from the INF. The UK has even mentioned that it will consider allowing the United States to deploy intermediate-range missiles on its soil. 

Mistaken interpretations and worst-case predictions have led Western leaders to strongly believe that Russia cannot credibly deny that its strategic ambitions are aggressive. Political mistrust has led to misunderstandings over technical issues, which in turn has further exacerbated mistrust. 

Strategic Impact on Major Power Relations

For some time, the stability of the U.S.-Russia security relationship has relied on a balanced, stable nuclear relationship. However, the emerging security dilemma involving nuclear weapons is threatening this stability. In addition to deepening nuclear tensions between the two countries, instability between the United States and Russia at the nuclear level has caused instability at the conventional level as well. 

Russia has strengthened its nuclear-armed strategic patrols, and has more frequently dispatched bombers and nuclear submarines to the adjoining airspaces and waters of a number of NATO countries. NATO, in turn, has frequently scrambled its warplanes and sent out anti-submarine forces. These tactics have heightened the risk that an accident could trigger a conventional military conflict. What is more, NATO has deployed heavy weapons within the territories of its Eastern European members, which will force Russia to consider deploying short-range missiles near its borders that could be used in both nuclear and conventional scenarios. This shift could increase Russia’s emphasis on tactical nuclear weapons. Instability at the nuclear level would likely lead to instability at the conventional level, which in turn would further exacerbate nuclear-level instability. This will send the security relationship between Russia and the West into a downward cycle. 

If the U.S. and Russia move closer toward a nuclear arms race, this will adversely affect China’s interests. While China does not strive to achieve nuclear balance with the other major nuclear powers, one cannot dismiss the possibility that U.S. and Russian policy choices will indirectly affect China’s nuclear weapon policies. To avoid seeing the U.S.-Russia nuclear arms race weaken the effectiveness of China’s nuclear deterrence, China may face pressure to adjust its own nuclear policies. In addition, a halt or reversal of U.S.-Russia nuclear disarmament would have a profound effect on nuclear arms control throughout the world. A breakdown in U.S.-Russia disarmament talks would also seriously undermine international nonproliferation regimes, which would also have a negative effect on China’s security environment. If the INF is weakened or discarded, or if the United States and Russia make serious efforts to develop land-based mid-range as well as intermediate-range missiles, China’s security situation will be worse off.  

Furthermore, the U.S.-Russia nuclear security dilemma has caused unnecessary conflict and friction, and has led to a number of negative security consequences. The U.S.-Russia security dilemma also contains lessons for the U.S.-China strategic security relationship. The U.S.-Russia political relationship has significantly deteriorated over the past few years, and there has been talk of a new Cold War for quite some time now in the North Atlantic region. 

In the Asia-Pacific region, however, the United States is vigorously implementing its rebalance toward Asia, and this has caused security friction with China, which is growing stronger by the day. China’s firm resolve to defend its core interests has been interpreted by the United States and its allies as being aggressive, if not expansive, diplomacy. Some in the United States have called for the country’s overall strategy toward China to be adjusted and efforts to contain China to be strengthened, and these voices have been steadily growing stronger. Several media reports have suggested that China and the United States may be advancing toward a Cold War of their own. Therefore, China and the United States, to a certain extent, are also facing the issue of how to avoid falling into a strategic security dilemma. 

If China and the United States are to avoid the pitfalls of the U.S.-Russia relationship, both countries’ strategic planners must fully understand their counterparts’ policy concerns, the other side’s domestic policy environment, and the effect that perceptual differences have on the nuclear relationship. China and the United States must proactively pursue dialogue at all levels including top political leadership, which must involve candid discussions to seek consensus on specific issues of strategic stability, as well as the depoliticization, wherever possible, of nuclear policy issues. This is an important challenge that the U.S.-China strategic security relationship will face as it develops into the future.

This article was originally published in Chinese by Chinese Social Sciences Today.