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How can Russia and the US work together towards nuclear disarmament?
How can Russia and the US work together towards nuclear disarmament?
Russia and the US are the two largest nuclear-weapon states in the world. Their arsenals exceed by two orders of magnitude the number of nukes and missiles available to other nuclear-weapon states. There are compelling reasons to believe that, unless Moscow and Washington make a considerable headway towards disarmament, others will not follow suit. Other nuclear powers will be waiting until American and Russian stockpiles get anything close in numbers to the British, French or Chinese arsenals. Non-NPT states, such as India, Pakistan, North Korea, most likely Israel as well as any other countries that may be contemplating a nuclear bomb will demand not only that Russia and the US disarm up to low levels, but also that their regional security concerns be adequately addressed. For example, India and Pakistan have long been concerned with each other, Iran — with Israel and the US, Israel — with its Arab neighbours as well as with Iran, North Korea — with the conservation of its own political regime etc. It means that generally two conditions have to be met before substantive progress can be made towards serious nuclear disarmament:
- American and Russian advances in nuclear cuts;
- resolution of a number of long-standing regional disputes that justify the need for nuclear weapons among the parties involved.
Complete disarmament, as it is floated now on the international agenda, is indeed a very remote prospect. However, for any significant effort at multilateral disarmament, the two mentioned conditions still hold. In brief, there need to be fewer reasons for acquiring nukes and there needs to be someone who would lead by example. In such context, what could be the roles of Russia and the US on these two tracks?
One dimension for a joint Russian-American effort at nuclear disarmament is the involvement of Moscow and Washington in mediating regional conflicts, such as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, or addressing the grievances of potential proliferant states, such as North Korea or Iran. All these negotiations are analysed in the widely available literature. This dimension of movement towards nuclear disarmament will not be discussed in this presentation. Let us rather focus on how Russia and the US could affirm themselves as the leaders in arms control and — potentially — disarmament.
My point is that Russia and the US could work together towards nuclear disarmament only by leading together along this way. And this leadership has to be leadership by their own example in arms control and related areas. Before we look at what measures are necessary for the US and Russia to become universally recognized leaders, we have to note that any such measures will be effective only if they are undertaken jointly by Moscow and Washington. Disarmament will not advance if Russia and the US fail to cooperate and lead together.
What could the United States and Russia undertake together to promote nuclear disarmament?
As their first move, Moscow and Washington may decide agree on and then implement significant reductions in their nuclear arsenals. This is necessary in order to get other nuclear powers aboard these cuts at some point when Moscow and Washington approach the levels of China, France or Britain. And deep reductions are also needed to demonstrate to other parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty that nuclear-weapon states are pursuing disarmament «in good faith» — as the Treaty requires. A possible START III agreement may not turn out to be very far-reaching and will fall short of getting down to the levels of other nuclear states. It will hardly allow to appeal to China or France asking that they follow Russia and the US along the way towards nuclear disarmament. This is understandable given the intricate compromises on the number of missiles and warheads as well as the ways of their disposal that Moscow and Washington have to agree upon. However, both sides to START III may choose to emphasise that the treaty is just a first step on the way towards more ambitious accomplishments. And these deals may soon become compelling enough to involve other nuclear-weapon states in the process and also convince non-nuclear-weapon states that the NPT is duly implemented.
Second, ratification by the US Senate of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty could certainly catalyse disarmament discussions worldwide. It is a highly important symbolic move that could win the US a great deal of authority and prestige among non-nuclear-weapon nations. Hopefully, the Senate will press ahead with ratifying CTBT in the nearest future.
Third, Moscow and Washington could make moves to demonstrate that they share and stand firmly behind the goals of non-proliferation. This can be done on two major tracks — those of Iran and North Korea.
- On Iran, there have been signs lately that Tehran may agree to enrich at least part of its uranium for subsequent use in peaceful reactors at some international facilities — Russian and then French. However, some Iranian commentators have suggested that it may only mean a pause for Iran in pursuing its cherished goal of deploying a full-fledged enrichment capacity on its own soil. So obviously there is still a need to make sure that Iran does not walk out of this deal at some moment when it feels its own enrichment capacity has been tacitly upgraded.
- Then there is North Korea which appears to have already gone nuclear. Here neither Russia, nor the US are the actor who could exercise decisive leverage. But even if China has more cards to play in this situation, Moscow and Washington could, first, demonstrate that they are capable of brokering effective multilateral agreements with a state that has acquired nukes and has to be talked into disarming. And then the US and Russia could continue acting together in order to ensure that Pyongyang does not proliferate nuclear materials or technologies.
- Finally, more complex cases are presented by India, Pakistan and Israel. They are safer in the short-run, that the North Korean nukes, for example, but in the longer run, they will present a formidable challenge. These cases can be only tackled in their regional setting, that is, Russia and the US may here cooperate to resolve long-standing conflicts and alleviate regional rivalries. And we may expect that once there is a widely supported push towards nuclear disarmament, the pressure on India, Pakistan, Israel, Iran and others will be such that they will find less reasons to be locked up in struggling with each other and to justify the need for maintaining nuclear arsenals by this struggle.
For a beginning, if and when Iran and North Korea are talked out of acquiring nuclear weapons, the message will be spread to the rest of the world that Moscow and Washington will cooperate if a certain state obstructs progress towards multilateral nuclear reductions. It means that Russia and the US will demonstrate that they may in the future act as guarantors in a disarmament process — they will discourage any state from attempting to arm itself with more nukes while others will be disarming.
Fourth, there are a few technical issues that have to be addressed to make disarmament sustainable and irreversible. One such issue is the availability of fissile materials. Here Russia and the US may choose to work together towards a comprehensive ban on enriched uranium. If both sides, as well as other nuclear states, agree on the location and operation procedures of prospective international uranium enrichment centers, they could mount pressure on other states to commission enrichment only in such centers. That will virtually outlaw (from an international standpoint) any unilateral enrichment programme and make sure all newly produced fissile materials are appropriately accounted for. As a result, these materials will not be easily available once all states have gone down in the size of their nuclear arsenals so that a minor change in the number of someone’s warheads could entail a decisive advantage.
Fifth, Russia and the US may find it useful to continue building a comprehensive system of safeguards and search for loose fissile materials. A major project in this area is Proliferation Security Initiative proposed by the US in 2003. So far, over 90 states have signed up to this initiative and are working towards a regime whereby it could become possible to check whether a particular vessel is carrying fissile material which has not been placed under IAEA safeguards. Making such controls more effective is necessary if comprehensive disarmament is to progress far enough so that it could be easily derailed by a surprise injection of new unaccounted bomb-making material that anyone can get hold of.
And finally — and most importantly — the US and Russia may find it useful to show that they are moving away from the stance of mutual nuclear deterrence. This is an objective that, once implemented, will greatly facilitate future Russian-American arms control agreements. And at the same time, it will show the rest of the world that nuclear deterrence is becoming an outdated concept and strategy — at least in relations between the two nuclear superpowers. Of course, doing away with mutual nuclear deterrence is not an easy goal to accomplish. Let us consider what may be needed for that.
First, it is important to improve the overall political climate in US-Russian relations. This relationship has long suffered from the lack of mutual trust. Such deep mistrust in fact distinguishes Washington’s relations with Moscow from those with Paris, for example. Like Russia, France has an independent nuclear arsenal, but the United States does not carry out deterrence vis-à-vis France.
Second, there is a need for Russia and the United States, if they are able to overcome mistrust, to successfully handle common security challenges. That could become a second step on the way towards eliminating deterrence from Russian-American relations.
Third, Russia insists on a clear-cut connection between arms reductions and missile-defense projects. In its turn, Washington would hardly forgo an opportunity to develop missile defence as that would be difficult to explain to US citizens who believe that something should be done to counter missile threats from a number of hostile states. A solution therefore may lie in joint missile defence projects that would involve Russia at the European as well as global levels. This policy change is unavoidable if Washington would like to harness Moscow’s potential to the case for substantive nuclear cuts. Russia has to believe that any prospective MD system is not directed against it.
Fourth, in order to eliminate deterrence from their mutual strategies and proceed with disarmament, Russia and the US may choose to overcome the conventional forces stalemate in Europe. The US could possibly encourage its European allies to proceed with ratifying the CFE Treaty in which Russia has suspended its participation since the late 2007. These ratifications along with Russia’s return to confidence measures provided for by the CFE Treaty could help unlock the situation although the problem of US forward base deployments in Europe would still be pending. However, it may be resolved gradually once some of the CFE Treaty provisions are back in place.
Fifth, doing away with nuclear deterrence would involve confidence measure in the field of high-precision conventional arms. Russia is quite concerned with the proclaimed ability of the United States to carry out high precision strikes using conventional warheads on ballistic missiles. Is the possibility of such pre-emptive strike becoming official US doctrine? It is of course China with its much smaller deterrent who may be concerned with conventional pre-emptive scenarios, not so much Russia. But at sub-nuclear levels of escalation, conventional warhead deployments on strategic missiles have become a source of anxiety for Russia as well. It takes an expert to say what kind of confidence measures may be appropriate, but the problem is clearly on the table. There is a need to put a cap on some advanced conventional technologies if we are to reach low levels of WMD arsenals.
Finally, there is the issue of nuclear first-strike doctrines in Russia and the United States. Both sides have moved towards loosening up the rules of the use of nuclear weapons.According to Russian officials, Moscow plans to include in the new Russian Military Doctrine, which is now being drafted, the possibility of the first use of nuclear weapons in regional conflicts. In the previous version of the Doctrine issued in 2000, Russia only pledged to use nukes «in response to large-scale aggression using conventional weapons in situations critical to the national security of the Russian Federation». Now Russia may be lowering the threshold.
The same trend seems to be underway in the US where nuclear strategists are pondering whether a first disarming strike against the adversary’s nuclear sites could be feasible. These developments have only reaffirms the prominent role of deterrence in Russian-US relations.
To sum up, action along two tracks are needed from the US and Russia if the world is to move towards nuclear disarmament. The first track is multilateral — here Moscow and Washington could lead by example primarily through their own disarmament. The second complements the first and has to do with bilateral confidence measures that may help to do away, in a mutually beneficial way, with strategic deterrence in relations between Russia and the United States.
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