After days of anti-Russian sentiment at the weekend NATO summit in Warsaw, reports surfaced Monday that the White House's National Security Council is preparing to introduce more nuclear arms controls. The White House could undertake these politically controversial nuclear policy changes without having to seek formal congressional approval, sidestepping the current U.S. political theater during this election season. Options under consideration are declaring a "no first use" policy by the U.S. nuclear arsenal, pushing the U.N. Security Council to ban nuclear weapons testing, scaling down long-term plans for the $350 billion modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and exercising the option under the New START treaty, which expires in 2021, to offer Russia a five-year extension. But Russia, under growing pressure from the West, has been increasingly wary of negotiating away its nuclear capabilities.
The original Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), signed in 1991, was one of three key treaties (the others being the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe) that helped create the post-Cold War arms control regime. All three included rigorous declaration, inspection and verification mechanisms that subsequent treaties have lacked.
A further nuclear arms reduction was one of the hallmark policy agendas espoused by Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race. In his first big foreign tour as president in April 2009, Obama and then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev agreed on the sidelines of the G-20 summit to a "fresh start" between the nations. This would entail steps toward a "nuclear-free world." Obama carried this message across Europe and the Middle East, saying the United States had a moral responsibility to launch a new era of nuclear disarmament — a sentiment that contributed to his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize later that year.
Before then, new treaties such as START II and III never fully went into effect. The New START treaty was negotiated between 2009 and 2010 during a chilly period between Washington and Moscow. In the years prior, Russia had invaded Georgia (a NATO ally) and was supporting Iran while the United States was setting up a missile defense program in Central Europe. Despite the hostile atmosphere, in 2010 Washington and Moscow signed New START, which requires both countries to reduce their nuclear arsenals to 700 deployed missiles and bombers, 1,550 deployed warheads, and 800 total deployed launchers by 2018. As of March 2016, both sides have nearly reached compliance with their arsenal reduction.
But the White House and Kremlin have each recently accused the other of stalling on full implementation of New START. In 2014, the Obama administration ordered the Pentagon to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal, triggering Russian accusations that Washington was sparking a new arms race. And when the West supported the overthrow of the Russia-friendly government in Ukraine, Moscow threatened to withdraw from both the New START and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaties.
Between Russia's interventions in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere and the West's efforts to bolster its position along Russia's flanks, relations between the United States and Russia have continued to degrade. Nevertheless, as his term in office winds down, Obama is thinking of his legacy. Russia, however, is not really interested in any further reductions or an actual "nuclear-free" world, as Obama promised. The Kremlin offered a nonplussed reaction to the news of Monday's leak.
Despite the current treaty, Russia's ever-changing military doctrine continues to prioritize the country's nuclear forces and willingness to strike first — a change from Soviet policy. Its present doctrine, drawn up by Medvedev in 2009, resembles the aggressive doctrines of the 1960s and 1970s under Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev as Russia settled into a prolonged Cold War with the West. In recent months, Russia has been restructuring its military forces in its Western Military District, while during the weekend, NATO agreed to expand its forces in the east. Moscow is keenly aware of its overall conventional military weakness compared with NATO, particularly as Russia's defense funding continues to grow tight. So its long-term strategy will be to lean on its powerful nuclear arsenal as the ultimate deterrent. Russia is considering moving nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, near the Baltic-Polish borders, and to Crimea, the former Ukrainian territory on the Black Sea.
In response, NATO is implementing its ground-based missile defense initiative in Eastern Europe, known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach. Though the program would be of limited use against a strategic nuclear attack by Russia, Moscow is still vehemently opposed to its deployment and has insisted that the West abandon it as part of any future nuclear treaty negotiations. Moreover, the United States is still investing in ballistic missile technology, a serious long-term threat to Russia.
But even if the United States were to follow Obama's dream of initiating global arms control, Russia couldn't simply back down — it has other nuclear rivals, such as China, to worry about. For the United States, China is still a nascent nuclear power with limited mobility. But for Russia, which shares more than 4,000 kilometers (about 2,500 miles) of border with China, mobility is not an issue. In addition, in its recent Defense White Papers, Russia has expanded the conditions under which it would be willing to use nuclear weapons to include non-nuclear adversaries, such as invading armies.
But as Moscow obsesses over Obama's push for arms control and Russia's continued strategic need to maintain its nuclear capability, there was another issue Obama pressed that is worrying the Kremlin just as much. During that European tour seven years ago, Obama praised former Soviet bloc countries for their willingness to rise up against Moscow's domination without the use of armies or missiles. He cited a range of revolutions in the last 25 years of the Soviet Union that "brought down a nuclear empire without firing a shot." Since then, Russia has seen instability — uprisings, color revolutions and mass protests — across its borderlands and even in its own capital. Such a threat cannot be countered by treaties, military spending or doctrine — and poses a much deeper threat to Russia in the long term.