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How to Avoid the Dark Ages of Arms Control

There are two possible pathways after Ukraine. One of them is harrowing.

By , a senior lecturer in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London
Activists march with an inflatable globe during a demonstration against nuclear weapons in Berlin on Nov. 18, 2017.
Activists march with an inflatable globe during a demonstration against nuclear weapons in Berlin on Nov. 18, 2017.
Activists march with an inflatable globe during a demonstration against nuclear weapons in Berlin on Nov. 18, 2017. Adam Berry/Getty Images

Putin’s War

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is upending one long-standing geopolitical norm after the other, with nuclear arms control potentially one of the next to go. In 2021, the United States and Russia extended the 2010 New START pact—the only remaining major nuclear agreement between the two countries—through 2026. Russia is now threatening to halt U.S. military inspections required under the agreement, but there are challenges for the future of arms control that go beyond the fate of New START.

There are two possible pathways for arms control after Russia’s war in Ukraine. The first, less likely scenario is an arms control renaissance. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis, for example, was a wake-up call for the United States and Soviet Union to the dangers of nuclear escalation. The decade after the crisis saw a suite of arms control efforts, including the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and a series of risk-reduction measures, such as the Incidents at Sea Agreement. The Ukraine crisis may prove another impetus for post-conflict cooperation, albeit a costly one.

The second pathway is more harrowing. We could see any existing vehicles of cooperation dry up, including New START. It would be the dark ages of arms control. Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, a New START follow-on under the Biden administration was domestically inconceivable in Washington because it would require a two-thirds ratification by the U.S. Senate. (Many Republicans have consistently opposed arms control agreements, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who voted against New START in 2010 on the grounds that it “does nothing to significantly reduce the Russian Federation’s stockpile of strategic arms.”)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is upending one long-standing geopolitical norm after the other, with nuclear arms control potentially one of the next to go. In 2021, the United States and Russia extended the 2010 New START pact—the only remaining major nuclear agreement between the two countries—through 2026. Russia is now threatening to halt U.S. military inspections required under the agreement, but there are challenges for the future of arms control that go beyond the fate of New START.

There are two possible pathways for arms control after Russia’s war in Ukraine. The first, less likely scenario is an arms control renaissance. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis, for example, was a wake-up call for the United States and Soviet Union to the dangers of nuclear escalation. The decade after the crisis saw a suite of arms control efforts, including the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and a series of risk-reduction measures, such as the Incidents at Sea Agreement. The Ukraine crisis may prove another impetus for post-conflict cooperation, albeit a costly one.

The second pathway is more harrowing. We could see any existing vehicles of cooperation dry up, including New START. It would be the dark ages of arms control. Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, a New START follow-on under the Biden administration was domestically inconceivable in Washington because it would require a two-thirds ratification by the U.S. Senate. (Many Republicans have consistently opposed arms control agreements, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who voted against New START in 2010 on the grounds that it “does nothing to significantly reduce the Russian Federation’s stockpile of strategic arms.”)

Russia’s legacy of noncompliance and the U.S. withdrawal from the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019 also undermined trust between Washington and Moscow. And Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion is turning his country into an international pariah, potentially ruling out cooperation for the foreseeable future.

A breakdown in nuclear arms control would have repercussions for U.S.-China relations as well. In the final year of his administration, then-U.S. President Donald Trump unsuccessfully attempted to engage China in nuclear negotiations. More recently, the Biden administration has expressed interest in arms control with China in order to “reduce the dangers from China’s modern and growing nuclear arsenal.” In recent years, the United States sought trilateral arms control negotiations with Russia and China to incorporate the latter into existing agreements. But the conflict in Ukraine has thrown into question prospects for future trilateral arms control.

It is too soon to determine if arms control will be reinvigorated or relegated because of Putin’s invasion. Instead, this is a moment for a strategic arms control rethink. Some reports indicate the Biden administration has already taken this step by halting strategic stability dialogues with Russia. Additionally, future meetings of the P5 process—an annual gathering of the five nuclear weapon states recognized by the NPT (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and United States)—also remain uncertain given that diplomats are walking out of international forums of dialogue with Russia. The P5 jointly stated in January 2022 that “[a] nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” yet Russia’s invasion and aggressive nuclear posture suggest these were hollow words for Moscow. It is questionable whether Putin can be trusted in any future dialogues or cooperation on nuclear weapons.

It may be tempting to shun disarmament altogether in the face of Putin’s aggression, but that would be a mistake.

This rethink in strategic arms control coincides with the upcoming release of both the delayed U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, which will outline the Biden administration’s nuclear policy, doctrines, and capabilities as mandated by Congress, and NATO’s Strategic Concept, which will provide guidance for the alliance’s strategy and initiatives. During the rollout and implementation of both of these, Washington should reestablish three priorities for future arms control.

The top priority should be consulting with and reassuring NATO. Historically, NATO has balanced deterrence and collective defense obligations with its commitment to arms control and disarmament. While this dual-track approach should remain the alliance’s guiding principle, the balance has historically shifted between deterrence and détente, and it is likely to lean toward the former in the coming years. So while NATO allies have always been important to Washington’s security strategy, they will likely have an even louder voice in Washington’s arms control and disarmament efforts after the Ukraine crisis. For example, if future cooperation with Russia jeopardizes U.S. credibility to NATO allies in Eastern Europe, Washington should proceed slowly and cautiously. Assuring allies should be more important than cooperation with Russia in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine.

Washington should also prioritize reducing the risks of crisis escalation. Previous agreements, such as New START, provided important transparency and predictability measures to avoid arms racing and crisis escalation. NATO could take a lead in strategic risk reduction, with France, the United Kingdom, and the United States working together to identify the most serious risks of crisis escalation, encourage transparency of nuclear doctrines, and develop crisis communication tools accordingly. These guardrails would also prove useful for risk-reduction efforts in the Indo-Pacific.

Risk reduction will be more valuable than ever after the Ukraine crisis. Putin’s announcement on Feb. 27 of a change in Moscow’s military alert status to a “special service regime” amid the invasion led to confusion in the West and increased risks of misperception—for example, Washington or European capitals could have interpreted the announcement as Russia preparing its nuclear weapons for use. Thanks to arms control, numerous communication channels existed for Moscow’s leadership to clarify the announcement to their U.S. counterparts to avoid any risks of misunderstanding, though we do not know if these were used.

A final priority for the United States should be to uphold its legal obligation to make progress toward nuclear disarmament under the NPT. It may be tempting to shun disarmament altogether in the face of Putin’s aggression, but that would be a mistake. Putin’s attack on Ukraine is an attack on the international order, and his nuclear bullying is an attack on the nuclear order. The NPT is the foundation of that order. Through bilateral agreements with Russia, the United States has reduced its nuclear arsenal by 88 percent from the height of the Cold War. While further reductions may not be feasible in the near term, the United States can continue to fulfill its obligations under New START, restate its commitment to the NPT, and partner with states such as Sweden, which is currently leading a major international initiative for nuclear disarmament, to advance risk reduction.

Whichever trajectory nuclear arms control takes after the war in Ukraine, it will look very different from the past. It probably will not include treaties requiring U.S. Senate ratification because of U.S. domestic politics and Russia’s legacy of noncompliance. Treaties such as New START remain the ultimate objective for arms control and should not be abandoned altogether. But in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion, arms control might instead focus in the near term on risk-reduction measures and establishing rules of the road that are more agile than previous arms control treaties. These new arms control efforts might include agreements to reduce the risks of entanglement scenarios and incidents in space, following the model of the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Incidents at Sea Agreement, which includes noninterference measures and requires that ships maintain a specific safe distance to avoid escalation.

The coming years will also probably require more flexibility in arms control to account for strategic asymmetries. Asymmetric arms control can take many forms. One option would be to develop ratio agreements, allowing for states to limit their intermediate-range nuclear delivery systems, but with different limits. A similar model was used in the naval treaties of the 1920s that limited the five great powers of the time to a 5-5-3 ratio of capital ships.

Another option for asymmetric arms control might be an exchange on limits on U.S. missile defense for reductions in Russian and Chinese delivery vehicles. To be sure, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are likely to reject any risk-reduction and arms control efforts in the near future, but Washington should explore and develop these ideas to lay the groundwork for future cooperation when Moscow and Beijing may be more incentivized to participate in arms control again, potentially for economic or security reasons. This rethink would also signal to the international community the United States’ enduring commitment to reducing nuclear risk and, ultimately, nuclear disarmament.

Arms control does not take place in a vacuum. It is a product of the geopolitical environment. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted challenging questions about the role of nuclear weapons in European security and whether the United States should pursue arms control at any cost with Russia and, eventually, China. A strategic pause in arms control is not infinite. It is an opportunity for a big rethink about deterrence, arms control, and disarmament. Washington should take the time to answer these hard questions and, most importantly, assure allies that they remain the top priority, whether we are entering an arms control renaissance or the arms control dark ages.

Heather Williams is a visiting fellow with the Project on Managing the Atom in the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is visiting from King’s College London, where she is a senior lecturer in the Defence Studies Department. Twitter: @heatherwilly

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