The Uncertain Future of U.S.-Russia Arms Control

Time is running out for the United States and Russia to revive cooperation on arms control before the expiration of New START in 2026. Despite efforts from the Biden administration to kickstart progress, Russia remains an unwilling partner for the foreseeable future.

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Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov announced that Russia would not engage with the United States on nuclear arms control until the United States drastically altered its position on the war in Ukraine on January 18, a public reiteration of a message that Moscow had delivered to Washington privately in December. The Biden administration has attempted to restart progress on bilateral nuclear arms control with Russia, with the most recent lines of effort outlined in an address given by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in June 2023.

Russia’s latest refusal raises questions about the future of U.S.-Russia arms control efforts, which have promoted stability and transparency for nearly five decades.

Q1: Why is Russia refusing to engage with the United States on arms control?

A1: The United States and Russia have fundamentally divergent views on when arms control should be pursued and what purpose arms control should serve in the current strategic environment.

Sullivan indicated in his June 2023 address that the United States is willing to engage in arms control discussions “without preconditions.” While the United States still perceives Russian nuclear threats as gravely irresponsible behavior, it does not see Russian nuclear saber-rattling nor any of its other actions in Ukraine as prohibitive to cooperation on managing nuclear risks. Pranay Vaddi, special advisor to the president and senior director for arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation at the National Security Council, recently reiterated this in a speech at CSIS, noting that the United States and Russia “don’t need to agree on everything to keep moving forward on issues like arms control. . . . We are going to be undeterred in pursuing good-faith efforts to address weapons of mass destruction no matter what else is happening in the world.”

However, Russia is unwilling to divorce issues it sees with the wider European security environment from any negotiations on strategic arms control, with Lavrov arguing arms control cooperation is contingent on “the West fully renouncing its malicious course aimed at undermining Russia’s security and interests.” While political tensions certainly complicate arms control negotiations, they have not prevented them in the past; for example, the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty was negotiated while Soviet troops were on the ground in Afghanistan and amid U.S.-imposed economic sanctions.

Russia and the United States also seem to fundamentally disagree about the current purpose of arms control. Special Advisor Vaddi further noted last week that “arms control is and continues to be a cornerstone of international security, from a U.S. perspective.” While the United States’ position remains that cooperation to manage the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals is in the best interests of the international order, Moscow believes current U.S. efforts to reinstate arms control are part of a wider effort to take advantage of Russia as it is bogged down in Ukraine, with Foreign Minister Lavrov arguing the United States was merely interested in trying “to establish control over our nuclear arsenal and minimize nuclear risks for itself.”

Q2: Where does this leave U.S.-Russia arms control?

A2: The longstanding U.S.-Russia bilateral arms control regime developed during the Cold War has become increasingly fragile as of late, and any optimism that accompanied the 2021 extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) has rapidly disappeared. While the conflict in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic played important roles in the demise of legacy arms control, the path toward arms control’s current nadir can be traced further back to include Russia’s violation of, and the Trump administration’s subsequent withdrawal from, the 1987 INF treaty. The collapse of the INF treaty left U.S. and Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons unchecked by any formal agreement and leaves New START, an agreement that only limits strategic offensive arms, as the sole remaining treaty limiting Russian and U.S. nuclear forces.

New START, already weakened due to a suspension of inspection activities during the Covid-19 pandemic, is also close to collapse. A 2022 meeting to discuss the resumption of inspections was postponed indefinitely by the Russians on short notice in summer 2022, and Moscow decided months later in February 2023 to suspend participation in the treaty. While Russia claims to still adhere to the cap of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 deployed strategic delivery systems imposed by the treaty, the suspension of inspection activities complicates the U.S. ability to validate this claim. Should Russia upload warheads to the maximum capacity of their delivery systems, their number of deployed warheads would roughly double.

Russia’s current behavior is an attempt to force the United States and its allies to choose between the preservation of the bilateral arms control regime or continued Western support for Ukraine. While the erosion of legacy arms control cooperation has not to this point deterred such support, the now-abandoned treaties served as valuable risk management tools in an increasingly contested security environment and their loss is a detriment to the global security order. As the United States devotes increased efforts to managing competition with both Russia and China, guardrails for nuclear competition are sorely needed. The United States and China met in November 2023 for a rare consultation on arms control, and while the talks produced no concrete progress, it marked a positive step in the development of a bilateral relationship that has rarely engaged on arms control topics. If the United States can find a way to simultaneously strengthen its arms control relationship with China while arresting the collapse of its relationship with Russia, it may begin to identify areas of potential cooperation between the three powers, or at the very least engage in separate bilateral channels with better situational awareness of the broader strategic environment.

Q3: What comes next for U.S.-Russia arms control and managing nuclear risks?

A3: While arms control does not necessarily require positive diplomatic relations between parties in order to succeed, it does require a perception from all sides that they are better off with arms control than without it. Current trends indicate that Moscow now only finds utility in arms control to the extent that the treaties themselves can be leveraged as bargaining chips. Until this perception changes, it will remain exceptionally difficult to engage with Russia in meaningful discussions on arms control. Despite this, there remain venues for the United States to continue to pressure Russia into engaging in arms control informally or multilaterally.

The future of arms control will need to be more flexible and adaptive to meet the challenges of the emerging security environment. Informal arms control agreements may help reduce risks while avoiding political hurdles, involving restrictions on force size and design, or sensitive inspections. These informal initiatives could take many forms; they could be unilateral, such as the Biden administration’s self-imposed moratorium on destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests, or reciprocal, as were the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives between the United States and the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. While Russia is unlikely to join such initiatives in the near future, these initiatives work toward establishing responsible behaviors and enacting guiding rules for the wider international community.

The P5 Process, the forum for the five recognized nuclear weapons states (the United States, France, United Kingdom, Russia, and China) to discuss their obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, remains an important venue for engaging multilaterally with Russia on arms control. Along with its P3 allies, France and the United Kingdom, the United States could introduce a range of proposals aimed at risk reduction and crisis management with Russia and China. Sullivan laid out a series of potential proposals for arms control and risk reduction, including guarantees to maintain a “human in the loop” for nuclear command and control, crisis communications channels between the members of the P5, and a formalized missile launch notification regime. Several of these proposals could take advantage of frameworks or agreements that exist between some members of the P5 and expand them to encompass all members. Russia currently serves as the president of the P5 process, meaning it would have to carefully weigh its desire to avoid arms control cooperation with its desire to be perceived as a responsible nuclear weapons state if faced with concerted proposals from the P3.

Ultimately, the collapse of U.S.-Russia arms control has been a harbinger of increasingly opaque and hostile decisionmaking in Moscow. Russia’s inability to separate nuclear competition with the United States from broader Western support for Ukraine’s self-defense will continue to be deeply problematic and will only increase nuclear risk as the conflict settles further into its current stalemate while Moscow is forced to play with an ever-weakening conventional hand. As Russia grows more desperate to conclude the conflict on favorable terms, it may look to increasingly extreme means to achieve increasingly improbable ends. While the acute risk of nuclear use in Ukraine remains low for now, that risk could become more complicated over time, and arms control cooperation remains one of the few tested avenues to reduce those risks.

Nicholas Adamopoulos is associate fellow and associate director with the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for the Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C,

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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