The Crumbling Architecture of Nuclear Arms Control

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By Dan Smith, Director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. He is also a part-time Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Manchester, affiliated with the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute. Until August, 2015, he was Secretary General of International Alert, the London-based international peacebuilding organization. Originally published at his blog; cross posted from openDemocracy

At a political rally on Saturday 20 October President Trump announced that the US will withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987. This confirms what has steadily unfolded over the last couple of years: the architecture of US-Russian nuclear arms control is crumbling.

Building Blocks of Arms Control

As the Cold War ended, four new building blocks of east-west arms control were laid on top of foundations set by the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972:

  • – The 1987 INF Treaty eliminated all ground-launched missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometres, including both cruise and ballistic missiles.
  • – The 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) reduced the numbers of strategic nuclear weapons; further cuts were agreed in 2002 and again in 2010 in the New START agreement.
  • – The 1990 Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty) capped at equal levels the number of heavy weapons deployed between the Atlantic and the Urals by the then-members of both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Treaty Organization (WTO).
  • –  The 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs) were parallel, unilateral but agreed actions by both the US and the USSR to eliminate short-range tactical nuclear weapons, of which thousands existed.

Taken together, the nuclear measures – the INF Treaty, START and PNIs – had a major impact, as this graph from the Federation of American Scientists shows:

The fastest pace of reduction was in the 1990s. A deceleration began just before the new century started, and there has been a further easing of the pace in the last six years. But year by year, the number continues to fall. By the start of 2018 the global total of nuclear weapons was 14,700 compared to an all-time high of some 70,000 in the mid-1980s. Nuclear weapons are more capable in many ways than before; the reduction is, nonetheless, both large and significant.

Cracks Appear: Charge and Counter-Charge

Even while the numbers continued to drop, problems were emerging. Not least, in 2002 the US unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty. That did not stop the US and Russia signing the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty in 2002 or New START in 2010 but perhaps it presaged later developments.

Trump’s announcement brings towards its conclusion a process that has been going on for several years. The US declared Russia to be violating the Treaty in July 2014. That, of course, was during the Obama administration. The allegation that Russia has breached the INF Treaty, in other words, is not new. This year the USA’s NATO allies also aligned themselves with the US accusation, albeit somewhat guardedly (cf the careful wording in paragraph 46 of the July Summit Declaration).

The charge is that Russia has developed a ground-launched cruise missile with a range over 500 kilometres. Many details have not been clearly stated publicly but it seems Russia may have modified a sea-launched missile (the Kalibr) and combined it with a mobile ground-based launcher (the Iskander K system). The modified system is known sometimes as the 9M729, or the SSC-8, or the SSC-X-8.

Russia rejects the US accusation. It makes the counter-charge that the US has itself violated the Treaty in three ways: first by using missiles banned under the Treaty for target practice; second because some US drones are effectively cruise missiles; and third because it has taken a maritime missile defence system and based it on land (Aegis Ashore) although its launch tubes could, the Russians say, be used for intermediate range missiles. Naturally, the US rejects these charges.

A further Russian criticism of the US over the INF Treaty is that, if the US wanted to discuss alleged non-compliance, it should have used the Treaty’s Special Verification Commission before going public. This was designed specifically to address questions about each side’s compliance. It did not meet between 2003 and November 2016; it was during that 13-year interval that US concerns about Russian cruise missiles arose.

Now Trump seems to have closed the argument by announcing withdrawal. Under Article XV of the Treaty, withdrawal can happen after six months’ notice. Unless there is a timely change of approach by either side or both, the Treaty looks likely to be a dead letter by April 2019.

It could be, however, that the announcement is intended as a manoeuvre to get concessions from the Russian side on the alleged missile deployment or on other aspects of an increasingly tense US-Russian relationship. That is what Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, implied by calling it “blackmail”.

Arms Control in Trouble

Whether the imminence of the INF Treaty’s demise is more apparent than real, its plight is part of a bigger picture. Arms control is in deep trouble. As well as the US abrogation of the ABM Treaty in 2002,

  • –  Russia effectively withdrew from the CFE Treaty in 2015 arguing that the equal cap was no longer fair when five former Warsaw Pact states had joined NATO.
  • –  The 2010 New START agreement on strategic nuclear arms lasts until 2021 and there are currently no talks about prolonging or replacing it.
  • –  Russia claims that the US is technically violating New START because some launchers have been converted to non-nuclear use in a way that is not visible to Russia so it cannot verify them in the way the Treaty says it must be able to. The Russian government’s position is that until this is resolved, it is not possible to start work on the prolongation of New START, despite its imminent expiry date.

It seems likely that the precarious situation of US-Russian arms control will simultaneously put increasing pressure on the overall nuclear non-proliferation regime, and sharpen the arguments about the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. For the advocates of what is often known as the nuclear ban, the erosion of arms control reinforces the case for moving forward to a world without nuclear weapons. For its opponents, the erosion of arms control shows the world is not at all ready for or capable of a nuclear ban.

The risk of a return to nuclear weapons build-ups by both Russia and the US is visible. We risk losing the degree of safety we gained with the end of the Cold War and have enjoyed since then. With US National Security Advisor John Bolton in Moscow as I write, and more importantly with the well-earned reputation for springing surprises that the US and Russian Presidents both have, there may be more developments in one direction or another in the coming days or weeks.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    The British author John Wyndham once wrote that 95 per cent of the human race wants to live in peace while the other 5 per cent was always considering its chances if it should risk starting anything. It was chiefly because no one’s chances looked too good, what with nuclear weapons, that the lull after WW2 continued. Now it looks like a new generation of wonks who are not reality-based want to put the US in the position of being able to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack on at least Russia with missiles based in Europe. Like with the old Pershing missiles, tough luck if you live in Europe. Russia has already said that they will target any European country that houses these missiles with nukes.
    Saw a hint on RT that if the US continues these efforts, that Russia may develop missiles that could set off the Yellowstone Caldera. That would be…not good. The Russians are always ready to negotiate but the problem is that the US now has a reputation of being agreement-incapable. Remember that Bush was stationing missiles in Europe as a shield against non-existent Iranian nukes on top of Iranian missiles that did not have the range. Russia suggested that the missiles be located in Turkey but the US refused. After the Iran treaty went into effect, the US announced that – surprise, surprise – the missiles were for use against Russia after all. How do you negotiate with something like that?

    1. Buckeye

      “develop missiles that could set off the Yellowstone Caldera.”

      Hilarious! Sounds like something out of James Bond! The villain could be named “Ivan Gazbahm”.
      And his sultry Chinese-German henchwoman is named “Jiu Si Hahtkroch”.

      Barbara Broccoli and Daniel Craig, please pick up the white courtesy phone.

  2. Bill Smith

    In regard to the INF Treaty the Russian newspapers have had some stories that they consider that particular treaty likely the worst they ever signed. That’s because the USSR gave up many more missiles than the US did. The articles also mention that the Russians feel they are many counties that have those type of missiles all around them. For example, China, Pakistan, Iran and Israel are specially mentioned. Lastly the technology has changed so much in the 30 or so years since that treaty was signed.

    In a better time a new series of treaties might be negotiated but these are not better times.

    1. David

      Ambassador Bolton agrees with you. (source)

      …But there is a larger question here – I think one that applies to both Russia and the United States – and that’s the countries that are producing intermediate range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles right now, specifically Iran, China and North Korea. We have this very unusual circumstance where the United States and Russia are in a bilateral treaty, whereas other countries in the world are not bound by it. Now some of the successor states to the Soviet Union are bound by it, but it’s really only Russia that has the wherewithal to have this kind of program. So it has been the view of the United States, in effect, that only two countries were bound by the INF treaty.

      It appears that Mr. Trump likes bilateral trade agreements and multi-lateral arms agreeements.

      1. Tomonthebeach

        This is all part of Bolton’s war on Russia. Like Trump, he indulges in old score-settling with Beltway & Pentagon colleagues as well as proving he was right all along to oppose these and most other treaties. I am highly suspicious of this entire fiasco.

        Why are we so preoccupied with a country that has an economy a fifth the size of the US alone (much less NATO/EU)? Even if allied with China and NATO ally (?) Califwannabe Erdogan, Russia is more annoying than a threat.

        Bolton, on the other hand, scares the crap out me. He’s just plain nuts.

        1. NotTimothyGeithner

          Its about China and even the EU. Russia in either sphere dramatically weakens the “need” for the U.S. around the world.

        2. redleg

          Oil, gas, platinum, etc.
          Russian resources are coveted by the western oligarchs, and the Russians aren’t allowing those oligarchs to steal them anymore/again.

  3. Lambert Strether

    I’m very glad this post is up. That this isn’t a huge story is a fine example of “The tyranny of the urgent.” (Those who read the transcript of Putin at the Valdai Club may recall this passage:

    [PUTIN] Look, we live in a world where security relies on nuclear capability. Russia is one of the largest nuclear powers. You may be aware, I have said it publicly, we are improving our attack systems as an answer to the United States building its missile defence system. Some of these systems have already been fielded, and some will be put into service in the coming months. I am talking about the Avangard system. Clearly, we have overtaken all our, so to speak, partners and competitors in this sphere, and this fact is acknowledged by the experts. No one has a high-precision hypersonic weapon. Some plan to begin testing it in one or two years, while we have this high-tech modern weapon in service. So, we feel confident in this sense.

    Naturally, there are many other risks, but they are shared risks, such as environment, climate change, terrorism, which I mentioned, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. If we are unable to put an effective end to this, it is not clear where it will lead to, and in whose hands this deadly weapon may end up.

    So, in this sense, nothing has changed. We are not going anywhere, we have a vast territory, and we do not need anything from anyone. But we value our sovereignty and independence. It has always been this way, at all times in the history of our state. It runs in the blood of our people, as I have repeatedly said. In this sense, we feel confident and calm.

    And this:

    I have said that our nuclear weapons doctrine does not provide for a pre-emptive strike. I would like to ask all of you and those who will later analyse and in one way or another interpret my every word here, to keep in mind that there is no provision for a pre-emptive strike in our nuclear weapons doctrine. Our concept is based on a reciprocal counter strike. There is no need to explain what this is to those who understand, as for those who do not, I would like to say it again: this means that we are prepared and will use nuclear weapons only when we know for certain that some potential aggressor is attacking Russia, our territory. I am not revealing a secret if I say that we have created a system which is being upgraded all the time as needed – a missile early warning radar system. This system monitors the globe, warning about the launch of any strategic missile at sea and identifying the area from which it was launched. Second, the system tracks the trajectory of a missile flight. Third, it locates a nuclear warhead drop zone.

    Only when we know for certain – and this takes a few seconds to understand – that Russia is being attacked we will deliver a counter strike. This would be a reciprocal counter strike. Why do I say ‘counter’? Because we will counter missiles flying towards us by sending a missile in the direction of an aggressor. Of course, this amounts to a global catastrophe but I would like to repeat that we cannot be the initiators of such a catastrophe because we have no provision for a pre-emptive strike. Yes, it looks like we are sitting on our hands and waiting until someone uses nuclear weapons against us. Well, yes, this is what it is. But then any aggressor should know that retaliation is inevitable and they will be annihilated. And we as the victims of an aggression, we as martyrs would go to paradise while they will simply perish because they won’t even have time to repent their sins.

    I’ve see a video of a fancy new weapon. Is it real?

  4. Bill Smith

    The Avangard is in testing or just completed testing. Depending what stories you see it has been successfully tested at least once. Even successful testing may not mean deployment. Earliest estimate for deployment is about 2020 in very limited numbers. I’m not sure how big a deal this thing is as it launched from an ICBM. How much faster than an incoming ICBM warhead does it move?

    The Avangard has nothing to do with the INF.

    The Russian nuclear doctrine does allow for the use of nuclear weapons – at least in fairly narrow circumstances. The wording implies the circumstances would “have to threaten the collapse of the state”. First use in those circumstances might not be considered preemptive. Putin help write to doctrine when he was Secretary of the Russian National Security Council Staff .

  5. Andrew Foland

    Just a general thing, for those interested in excellent technical (both scientific and legal/compliance) commentary on arms control, I highly recommend Arms Control Wonk. The level of discussion is very high, the kind of level NC readers would appreciate. I’m in no way associated with it except for being a longtime reader.

  6. Scott1

    The UN was created not to sell Sustainable Development but to prevent Apocalyptic Riot. During the Cold War & a Bi Polar power balance of separate economics it did the job. However flawed it was, it did that one job.
    Now it sits there selling Sustainable Development, which is great, but not what it was really made to do.
    If the UN, or a new one with an overt and covert armed forces becomes the World’s Unitary Power intent on eliminating nuclear weapons it could negotiate them away and fight a war or two, and be involved in a permanent level of conflict to keep the fields free of nukes.
    In fact the banning of nuclear weapons would give a UN the power to enforce transformational energy programs. I have strong doubt that the UN as it exists now will prevent apocalyptic riot.
    Human nature being what it is does not get excited and passionate about the environment. Humans get excited about big new power systems and war.

    There has been a demonstrated desire to reduce the likelihood of nuclear war. The Cold War worked. During that period it was long only the US & the USSR that had nuclear bombs and delivery systems.
    Russia moved into the Ukraine with tanks, took Crimea and got away with it. Pretty much the situation is that wherever you see tanks move you may see the employment of tactical nuclear weapons. A conventional ability to stop all tanks then is important for those nations vulnerable to tank attacks.
    In fact I say that you cannot expect to reduce nuclear devices unless you address the reason for them, and that is to stop tanks. Reducing tanks first is then the right order to do things. Come to tank treaties first and then tackle nuclear weapons and the rest of the WMDs is what I say.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      ‘Tactical’ nuclear weapons are not the only way to stop tanks. The Russian move into Crimea is hardly an argument for the superiority of a tank invasion or the need for tactical nuclear weapons. Tanks are effective in open relatively flat even terrain, and as long as you have control of the air and sufficient infantry support around them. If the objective is to stop a tank rather than destroy it there are ways. You could stop a tank by spraying glue over their weapons sight, or vision blocks, or the camera port for some of the more recent armored vehicles. Even if you can’t stop a tank you can stop parts from coming in to make repairs or diesel to run the their hungry engines … if their supply lines are not well protected. The tanks will quickly stop on their own. You could also stop tanks with opposing tanks … if you’re ready to absorb the costs for building the force and keep it ready to roll near an attack corridor. Tactical nuclear weapons might save a little money (???) but they are a hellish invention for increasing the threats to our fragile world as we transition through Climate Disruptions into the new Anthropocene Climate Regime.

      While you’re working on those tank treaties, please include ground mines especially those with plastic casings — oh! and don’t forget to eliminate those nasty spent-uranium shells.

    2. rosemerry

      “Russia moved into the Ukraine with tanks, took Crimea and got away with it” Rather a warped interpretation of a situation where the USA had overthrown the Ukrainian government and Crimea had been part of Russia and the population overwhelmingly voted to return. NO bloodshed at all. The video “Crimea, the way back Home” is worth a look.

      1. RMO

        Keep in mind you’re dealing with a commenter who also said “The Cold War worked. During that period it was long only the US & the USSR that had nuclear bombs and delivery systems” which is so dazzlingly wrong in so many ways in so few words that it makes my head spin.

  7. Jeremy Grimm

    This is a very disturbing post coming as it does only two days before Vasili Arkhipov day.

    I cannot imagine what kind of people could seriously consider using nuclear weapons under any circumstance whatsoever.

Comments are closed.