The United States and Russia Must Work Together on Nuclear

Winning Essay for the 2019 Foreign Policy and Carnegie Corporation Essay Contest


If you’ve been reading Foreign Policy and using Carnegie Corporation’s U.S.-Russia Relations website, you know that, given the United States and Russia’s history of cyberattacks, military encounters, geopolitical competition, economic sanctions—and even the risk of nuclear annihilation—getting the relationship between them right is more important than ever.

This fall, we gave readers a turn to chime in with their ideas with our 2019 student and professionals essay contest.

While Carnegie Corporation does not endorse any specific viewpoint, it strongly endorses continued thoughtful conversation aimed at improving global stability and peace. Based on originality, clarity, and argumentation, Foreign Policy picked two winners—one in the undergraduate category and one in the professionals category. The winning student essay is below.

A tired soldier sits in an office, counting down the minutes until he gets to go home. He thinks about what he will eat for dinner, maybe whether he will watch something on TV or read a book. Suddenly, there is a ping on his screen: “INCOMING OBJECT.” He sees a foreign missile about to enter his country’s airspace and must immediately evaluate the threat: Is the object a nuclear weapon? The soldier knows that the future of his country and the entire world hinges on his decisions in the next two minutes. Should he flag the missile as a nuclear weapon, causing the release of his country’s nuclear arsenal? Or should he wait two painfully long minutes to see if it is simply a weather probe? In either scenario, being wrong is deadly.

This terrifying scene actually did play out in 1995, when a weather missile was launched over Norway but was mistaken by Russian soldiers as a nuclear weapon. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and no nuclear weapons were launched. The question, however, remains: If the same thing were to happen in 2019, would a similar decision be reached––by either the United States or Russia?

In order to improve global security and avoid the type of scenario described above, the United States should further engage Russia on arms control and nuclear security; these issues are inherently intertwined with other key issues in the U.S.-Russian relationship, including cybersecurity and geopolitical competition. By effectively engaging Russia on nuclear security, the United States would see tangible results in these other sectors as well, thereby improving global security across many dimensions.

The primary way the United States should engage with Russia is by building a stronger arms control relationship between the two countries. This task should begin by simply holding candid talks between experienced American and Russian career diplomats to address a variety of points of contention in the current arms control regime, including notions of strategic stability and accusations of cheating on treaties.

The ultimate goal of these proposed talks must be twofold: the implementation of concrete risk reduction measures and a follow-on agreement to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, which expires in 2021. Risk reduction measures can include actually using the presidential hotline between Washington and Moscow and moving the risk status of some weapons down from high alert.

Such measures could possibly prevent a horrific nuclear strike and would increase overall trust in the relationship. A follow-on treaty, which should be implemented after the extension of New START, must properly address the new concerns of each side, some of which were raised as the countries levied mutual accusations of cheating on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which the United States subsequently left.

A follow-on treaty is paramount: If New START, the only remaining bilateral arms control treaty between the United States and Russia, disappears, so too do the last measures through which each country can verify that the other has not massively rearmed. Without verification mechanisms, any vestiges of trust between the two countries would be short-lived and would ultimately dissipate, with the countervailing result of an even greater arms race and increased risk of an unintended nuclear war.

Nuclear war not only poses an existential threat to humanity, but it is also tied to other important aspects of the U.S.-Russian relationship. For example, as cybersecurity becomes an increasing challenge, the risk of a terrorist group or third country spoofing a nuclear attack to provoke a counter-response increases. To prevent this and the other potential cyber disasters, the United States and Russia must display bold global leadership and establish an agreement governing the rules of cyber-engagement.

Finally, greater engagement between the United States and Russia could mitigate the nuclear threat in geopolitical hot spots around the globe. For example, Russia invaded the Donbass and annexed Crimea after Ukraine had surrendered its Soviet nuclear weapons years prior. And Russia’s possession of nuclear weapons might be one reason there was no significant NATO or U.S. response to the Russian invasion into Ukraine. By engaging with the Russians on nuclear issues, it might be possible to prevent similar invasions from occurring elsewhere.

The United States should engage Russia on nuclear specifically to reduce the existential threat of nuclear war and additional threats from cyberattacks and geopolitical hot spots. Doing so will bring much-needed improvements to overall global security.

Grace Kier is a student at the College of William & Mary in the Global Studies Department and Government Department.