As Russia feels out the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, Moscow and Washington have found themselves in an eerily familiar situation. Trump suggested over the weekend that he may ease sanctions against Russia in exchange for its participation in a nuclear arms reduction deal. The announcement came just as rumors surfaced that the president-elect plans to meet with his soon-to-be counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik — the site of a historic U.S.-Soviet summit on arms control. Though both sides denied that the details of a new summit have been settled, using nuclear weapons talks as a basis for building better relations is a tried-and-true tactic that Washington appears ready to dust off. But this time the negotiations will take place under vastly different circumstances, ones in which the United States' go-to approach will no longer work.
When Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981, the Soviet Union and United States were barely on speaking terms. Washington's fears that Moscow might soon win the Cold War were rising: The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, supported non-state militant groups on nearly every continent and built up a massive nuclear arsenal. Then there was the matter of leadership. As one of the country's staunchest Cold War-era policy hawks, Reagan refused to meet with any Soviet leader. Yet even if he had, positions in the Kremlin were constantly changing hands; three Soviet secretary-generals died in as many years during Reagan's term.
Rather than negotiate, Washington stepped up the pressure on Moscow by lending support to the Afghan mujahideen and to nascent independence movements in the Eastern Bloc. At the same time it triggered an arms race, hoping to spend the Soviets into the ground. The strategy, which included the nuclear defense shield known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, plunged the two countries' ties to an all-time low. But the abrupt shift in tactics also caught Moscow's attention.
After Mikhail Gorbachev took the Russian helm in 1985, he began signaling his desire to heal the rift between Moscow and Washington. Yet there was only one subject the two could agree to discuss: the nuclear arms race. Following an introductory summit in Geneva, Russia proposed holding more serious negotiations on an arms reduction treaty in Reykjavik in late 1986. At the time, the Soviet Union's rapid decline was becoming clearer to the rest of the world: Collapsing oil prices had sent the Soviet economy into a nosedive, independence movements had taken hold in the Eastern Bloc, and the Chernobyl disaster had revealed the country's crumbling infrastructure. Within the span of a year, the United States and Soviet Union had reached an arms control deal, marking the first tangible step toward ending the Cold War.
A quarter-century after the Soviet Union's collapse, tensions between Moscow and Washington are worse than they have been since the Cold War's end, and Trump has made no secret of his intention to repair the relationship. But using a new arms control treaty to do it will be tough, because today's world is not ruled by a competition between two superpowers, but by a rivalry among many.
Since the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty was signed in 1972, most of the major arms control initiatives to emerge have been in the form of bilateral agreements between Washington and Moscow. The reason for this was fairly simple: The two owned the biggest nuclear stockpiles in the world, and there was little need to involve other parties whose arsenals were comparatively tiny. But U.S. and Russian arsenals are much smaller than they once were; each side now has only 1,550 nuclear warheads deployed, as opposed to 6,000 when the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) I expired in December 2009. (Both countries do, however, have thousands more tactical and undeployed strategic warheads at their disposal.) Should the imposed limits drop any further, U.S. and Russian defense planners will be pressured to rope in other nuclear powers — including China, which is on the verge of greatly expanding its own nuclear deterrent — to any new agreement they pursue.
In fact, now, more than ever, China will figure prominently into the other major arms control agreement between the United States and Russia, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Like most arms control agreements, the INF, by its very nature, is about putting mutually agreed-upon limits on its signatories' military forces. But like most deals of its kind, the INF has also left its signatories at a distinct disadvantage compared with other countries. Noting this fact, Putin for years has alluded to China's production of missiles banned by the INF as motive for Moscow to consider its withdrawal from the treaty.
Ignoring the arsenals of the world's other nuclear powers will become more and more difficult as the United States and Russia mull the idea of a new treaty. But drawing those countries into the talks, which have historically given states like China the upper hand, will make the prospect of an actual deal only more distant.
To complicate matters even more, it's getting harder to keep the issues of ballistic missile defense and nuclear arms control separate. The United States' current ballistic missile defenses are neither big enough nor advanced enough to make a noticeable dent in Russia's nuclear deterrent. But Moscow knows full well that it is only a matter of time before Washington's technology improves, so much so that — when combined with better conventional and nuclear precision-strike weapons — it could restore the United States' ability to launch a nuclear first strike. Faced with these circumstances, it will not be easy for Russia to scale back its nuclear inventory again without a parallel reduction in the United States' ballistic missile defenses. After all, the fewer nuclear warheads Moscow has, the easier it will be for Washington's missile shields to intercept them.
A new nuclear arms dialogue or treaty might be the opening Washington and Moscow need to revamp their relationship. But the bilateral framework of decades past will be much less effective in the modern multipolar world, amounting to little more than an old bandage on a deep and festering wound.