A New Nuclear Arms Race Is a Real Possibility

History suggests the war in Ukraine could put an end to arms control as we know it.

By , director of the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at Middlebury’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gives hand to U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in front of the American embassy of Vienna June 3, 1961.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gives hand to U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in front of the American embassy of Vienna June 3, 1961.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gives hand to U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in front of the American embassy of Vienna June 3, 1961. UNITED PRESS PHOTO/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has set in motion a catastrophic conflict in Europe. For the first time in decades, it has also brought fears of nuclear war back into the public consciousness. While this doomsday scenario remains unlikely, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling has increased the risk of escalation. Officials in Washington and across the West must now find ways to respond to Russia’s provocations without pushing the world closer to the nuclear brink.

The present crisis raises questions about the future of U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control. Could peering over the nuclear precipice drive Washington and Moscow back to the negotiating table? Or will it instead spell a return to Cold War-style arms racing, this time with new and more dangerous features?

The war in Ukraine has drawn comparisons to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which is often credited with jump-starting U.S.-Soviet arms control. Indeed, the five years from 1963 to 1968 were prodigious, yielding the Hot Line Agreement, the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Outer Space Treaty, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And yet, the relationship between this crisis and the agreements that followed is more complex and less linear than it might initially seem. The historical record points to several important nuances that should inform our expectations today.

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has set in motion a catastrophic conflict in Europe. For the first time in decades, it has also brought fears of nuclear war back into the public consciousness. While this doomsday scenario remains unlikely, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling has increased the risk of escalation. Officials in Washington and across the West must now find ways to respond to Russia’s provocations without pushing the world closer to the nuclear brink.

The present crisis raises questions about the future of U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control. Could peering over the nuclear precipice drive Washington and Moscow back to the negotiating table? Or will it instead spell a return to Cold War-style arms racing, this time with new and more dangerous features?

The war in Ukraine has drawn comparisons to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which is often credited with jump-starting U.S.-Soviet arms control. Indeed, the five years from 1963 to 1968 were prodigious, yielding the Hot Line Agreement, the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Outer Space Treaty, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And yet, the relationship between this crisis and the agreements that followed is more complex and less linear than it might initially seem. The historical record points to several important nuances that should inform our expectations today.

First, the Cuban missile crisis led to feelings of deep mistrust between Washington and Moscow that lingered well beyond Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s withdrawal of weapons from Cuba. As U.S. President John F. Kennedy informed Khrushchev in November 1962, the “undeniable photographic evidence that offensive weapons were being installed was a deep and dangerous shock, first to this Government and then to our whole people.” In this climate, progress on nuclear arms control became almost impossible for eight months after the crisis itself had ended. By the spring of 1963, U.S.-Soviet talks on a comprehensive nuclear test ban were deadlocked over the issue of verification. It was only after Kennedy declared a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing in June 1963 that the two sides were able to break through this stalemate.

Second, the Cuban missile crisis enabled Kennedy to promote arms control objectives that were already under consideration and that he believed were important to pursue. This is true of negotiations on a comprehensive test ban, which had begun under his predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower, and of initial talks on establishing a communication link between Soviet and American leaders—which had failed to gain much traction. Upon entering office, Kennedy himself was seized of the need to end the “deadly arms race” which had “too long overshadowed all else we must do.” In the fall of 1961, he devised an ambitious disarmament plan to operationalize these efforts, which included the seeds of many arms control ideas that were subsequently taken forward.

As Arms Control and Disarmament Agency General Counsel George Bunn later wrote, the Cuban missile crisis catalyzed these efforts by “awaken[ing] American and Soviet interest in seeking accommodation.” In his view, it also gave the president “the enhanced authority … to get any test ban treaty through the Senate.” The crisis did not, however, spark innovative new approaches to nuclear disarmament beyond those that Kennedy and Khrushchev had already contemplated. Had a robust menu of arm control options not already been on the table, it is unclear what the influence of the crisis on nuclear diplomacy would have been.

Third, although many of the lessons learned from the Cuban missile crisis focus on its importance for arms control, fewer mention its impact on the size of the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals. And yet, between 1962 and 1968, the U.S. stockpile grew by almost 16 percent, while the number of Soviet warheads nearly tripled. For William J. Perry, who would go on to serve as U.S. secretary of defense in the 1990s, the “decision not to cooperate in reducing arms and tension … but rather to reinvigorate the arms race” underscored the “surreal quality” of the post-crisis environment. For him, the notion that Kennedy had triumphed over Khrushchev in Cuba is what “accelerated the nuclear arms race already underway between the United States and the USSR.”

The influence of this narrative extended well beyond the Kennedy administration, too. President Ronald Reagan cited it to rationalize the major military buildup he initiated during his first term in office. As he observed in 1983, “at that time [during the Cuban missile crisis], the United States had about an 8 to 1 nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union. So when we stood up and looked them in the eye, they blinked.” For Reagan, this event was a lesson in the value of a credible deterrent—rather than the dangers of blundering into nuclear war.

To be sure, the Cuban missile crisis is not a perfect antecedent for today, so we should be careful not to draw too literally from its history. And yet, these insights suggest that the war in Ukraine may have a chilling effect on arms control—even if it shows policymakers why they must reduce the threats posed by nuclear weapons. Among the highest barriers to overcome will be the anger, mutual suspicion, and mistrust that now define the U.S.-Russia relationship. This environment will make it difficult for negotiators to show the flexibility necessary to reach an agreement while encouraging a fixation on “ironclad” verification that could come at the expense of negotiations as a whole.

This assumes, however, that arms control talks will, in fact, resume—which is not a foregone conclusion. Indeed, in contrast with Kennedy and Khrushchev, today’s U.S. and Russian leaders have not engaged in formal negotiations on an arms control treaty since the conclusion of New START in 2010. The closest they’ve come is the Strategic Stability Dialogue process, which Putin and his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden initiated last year to “lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.” The United States has now suspended these talks in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Although this reaction is not unexpected, the Strategic Stability Dialogue process should be resumed as soon as it is feasible to do so. Not only could it provide a valuable forum for communication during this crisis, but the longer it remains on hiatus, the more difficult it will become—politically and bureaucratically—to return. Further, if domestic stakeholders in either country conclude from this crisis that more nuclear weapons are needed to serve their national security interests, this process will have little chance of yielding meaningful results. If it fails, this will have serious implications for an already impoverished arms control architecture, the last vestige of which will expire in 2026.

The good news is that, as was true 60 years ago, the deliberate, persistent, and personal advocacy of leaders in both Washington and Moscow can go a long way toward overcoming these barriers. Without a clear sense for how this conflict ends, however, it is hard to say whether or when there will be political will for this kind of work on either side. What is certain is that Putin’s recent actions do not align with last year’s U.S.-Russia Presidential Joint Statement, which affirmed that, “even in periods of tension, [the United States and Russia] are able to make progress on our shared goals of ensuring predictability in the strategic sphere, reducing the risk of armed conflicts and the threat of nuclear war.” It remains to be seen whether the two sides will be able to meet this relatively low bar in the future.

Sarah Bidgood is director of the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at Middleburys Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

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