Argument

Nuclear Deference

Nuclear Deference

Barack Obama hopes to engage Russia in his effort to continue reducing nuclear armaments. For the president, this is vital for advancing his goal of a world less reliant on nuclear weapons. For Moscow, however, nuclear arms remain the bedrock of military security and a key component of Russia’s international status. This does not necessarily doom Obama’s approach, but it makes further reduction of U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals contingent on Washington’s willingness to consider Moscow’s security needs. The United States should examine those requirements in order to understand not only what kind of a deal with Russia is possible, but how Russia’s needs relate to its own security interests.    

Since the end of the Cold War nearly a quarter century ago, Russia has existed in a heretofore unprecedented strategic environment. For the first time ever, it faces no likelihood of a major war erupting either in the west or in the east that might involve Russia. In another first, there is no threat of a foreign invasion of Russia itself. And, finally, having reconciled itself with the loss of both its outer empire in Eastern Europe and the inner one in what used to be the USSR, Russia has no need to physically control others and no interest in reabsorbing them within a new imperial construct.

Thus, for nearly 20 years following the breakup of the USSR, Moscow could afford to postpone the modernization of its conventional forces, allowing them to decay, while fully relying on its nuclear umbrella. Psychologically, being one of two nuclear superpowers helped the Kremlin overcome the trauma of imperial collapse and state disintegration. As a result, Moscow’s present concept of a great power is the reverse of the classical one. It aims not so much at dominating others as not being dominated by the stronger powers. Given that the Russian military is no match for the Pentagon — or soon the PLA — the Kremlin believes nuclear deterrence is the best way of preserving Russia’s strategic independence.

This deterrence operates at both strategic and tactical levels, making up for the huge gap in conventional capabilities between Russia and the leading military powers of the 21st century. Like the United States, Russia, of course, has inherited from the Cold War a nuclear arsenal which was absurdly large, thus allowing for massive reductions under the START and New START treaties — but now the smaller the numbers have become, the smaller the margin is for further reductions. Russian political and military leaders have also identified three factors which weigh on their strategic calculus and impact policy decisions: the steady U.S. progress in the development of a global missile defense system, the vastly increased capabilities of non-nuclear weapons systems that can perform strategic missions, and the growing Chinese capability to dramatically increase its nuclear arsenal, should Beijing want.  

Of course, none of the above, for now, can appreciably devalue Russia’s nuclear deterrent, but, looking two decades ahead, each of these factors will become much more important. This means that the United States, if it wants further cuts in nuclear weapons, will need to credibly assure the Russians that U.S. missile defense deployments, while effective against third countries (i.e., Iran), will not diminish Moscow’s deterrence power. Washington will also need, when discussing tactical nuclear weapons, to include non-nuclear systems with a capability for precise strikes. Finally, both Washington and Moscow soon need to reach out to Beijing to include it in the process of limiting nuclear arms and enhancing strategic stability. None of these tasks will be easy, but all of them will be necessary if relations among the world’s major nuclear powers are to be further stabilized.

Great-power stability is crucial for a number of reasons. One is stopping further nuclear proliferation, mainly in Iran and North Korea, for which Russia and China are key. Moscow’s assessment of the pace of Tehran’s nuclear program may differ from Washington’s, but it has zero interest in a nuclear-armed Iran. Russians might prefer a different way of dealing with Pyongyang than the very uneven U.S. approach to North Korea, but they clearly see the dangers of living next to a country that is constantly testing its nuclear devices and long-range missiles. U.S.-Russian cooperation at the strategic level certainly creates a better prospect for coordinated non-proliferation efforts.

Another issue is regional security. Next year’s U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is ushering in a number of uncertainties in Central and South Asia. In post-American Afghanistan, the Taliban are likely to increase their influence, even as Pakistan and India will compete even more intensely there. Russia’s defense policy these days focuses more and more on contingencies along its southern borders, primarily in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Moscow has been trying, with mixed results, to revamp and strengthen the very loose post-Soviet Collective Security Treaty Organization, which it leads, to deal with emergencies in that part of the world. A Eurasian economic union might help, but, to be successful, it will need to stay economic and voluntary. Americans should lose no sleep over it: Moscow’s desire, and ability, to impose its will on these partners is small. The Russian empire will continue to rest in peace.   

To many U.S. observers, however, Russia’s efforts there are virtually indistinguishable from former tsarist and Soviet practices. Yet, the decade-long Chechen war, and the ten-year postwar recovery have resulted in a settlement under which Chechnya exists as a virtual state loosely associated with Russia. It is actually more stable and more prosperous today than other republics in the Russian North Caucasus. As to Georgia, Russia’s military response to President Saakashvili’s 2008 reckless attack in South Ossetia was strong, but also measured: Despite the popular belief in the West, Tbilisi controls almost as much territory today — with very minor exceptions — as it did before the war. Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia broke away from Georgia and proclaimed independence in the early 1990s, although now, unlike before the war, they also host regular Russian forces. For the foreseeable future, both places are de facto Russian military protectorates. The United States and virtually every other country support Georgia’s territorial sovereignty, so the conflict will only be resolved politically. Until then, it will remain safely frozen.     

Moscow’s biggest benefit from Obama’s foreign policy reset has been his downplaying of the NATO option for Georgia and Ukraine. Since then, the domestic changes in Kiev and, more recently, in Tbilisi have de-emphasized the NATO accession option even more. Russian policymakers and strategic planners feel relieved: They no longer have to account for the possibility of U.S. power projection too close to their borders. In the South Caucasus, they are happy to leave Georgia to deal with its own problems, and only worry that the long but uneasy truce between the Azeris and the Armenians in Nagorny Karabakh may be broken. As Erevan’s formal military ally with forces on the ground, and Baku’s economic partner, Moscow has a stake in keeping the situation under control — an interest shared by Washington.

The NATO enlargement specter out of the picture, Ukraine has remained an economic and geopolitical issue to Russia, but it has ceased to be a military one. The Baltic states may be perennially worried about their big neighbor, and some Swedes may implicitly use Russia as an argument in favor of increasing defense expenditures, but Europe has ceased to be a priority for Moscow’s strategists. Their only significant new activity along the western axis has been the announced deployment of missile defenses to counter NATO’s system — in the wake of a failure, so far, to reach an agreement with the United States on the issue. In the best possible scenario, U.S./NATO and Russian defenses can be operationally coordinated — with the Western system, while effective against third-country missiles, having no capability against the Russian nuclear deterrent. A formal treaty to this effect is not necessary, but a high degree of mutual openness is. If this were achieved during Obama’s second term, it would amount to a real game-changer in U.S.-Russian strategic relations, phasing out residual adversity now rooted in mutual mistrust and allowing collaboration to gradually prevail.        

Finally, as Russia’s military reform progresses and its force modernization continues, Moscow may become a more equitable partner to the Pentagon in a number of areas, from search and rescue in the Arctic, to fighting pirates off the African coast, to anti-narcotics operations in Afghanistan. The United States may indeed appreciate a solid working relationship with a country that, while being vociferously independent and straight-talking, is no longer expansionist and ideological. Americans should kick the habit of seeing mainly through the prism of its past experience with the Soviet Union, or through the optics of Russia’s domestic developments alone. Obama’s nuclear bid, to be successful, requires an updated and comprehensive look at Russia.