US-Russian Dialogue on Arms Control: Does It Have a Future?

December 5, 2019

On November 7, 2019, the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) and the Center for Energy and Security Studies (CENESS) held its eighth meeting in the US-Russia Dialogue series devoted to the state of play and the prospects, if any, for arms control. The meeting was chaired by CNS Director Dr. William Potter and CENESS Director Anton Khlopkov.

The event brought together representatives of governments as well as nongovernmental experts, including a number of former senior officials:

  • Grigory Berdennikov, Former Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the Conference on Disarmament and to the International Organizations in Vienna Ambassador
  • Linton Brooks, Former US Undersecretary of Energy for Nuclear Security and Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
  • Evgeny Buzhinskiy, Former Head of the International Treaty Directorate and Deputy Head of the Main Department of International Military Cooperation in the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation
  • Thomas Countryman, Former US Acting Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security
  • Victor Esin, Former Chief of Staff and Vice Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces
  • Robert Einhorn, Former US Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation

The meeting was attended by officials of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the US Embassy in Moscow.

Participants at the Event

(L-R) Grigory Berdennikov, William Potter, Daria Selezneva, Thomas Countryman, Petr Topychkanov

Discussions at the meeting were constructive and forward-looking, tackling challenges to strategic stability and arms control as well as practical options for addressing them. While acknowledging serious disagreements and the worsening political conflict, they concentrated on the shared interests of the two countries and opportunities for cooperation.

Participants agreed that further reductions in the US and Russian nuclear arsenals are not feasible in the current political environment. Consequently, the priority task today is preservation of strategic stability—first and foremost through the extension of the 2010 US-Russia New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START)—and dialogue that should lay ground for addressing new issues on the agenda, such as new classes of weapons systems or the emergence of new actors, in particular China. Participants emphasized the importance of regular, serious consultations about strategic stability that could help better understand the motivations and concerns of the other side as well as search for solutions to outstanding challenges.

Extending New START

Participants were unanimous about the need for extending New START, which helps to maintain strategic stability and addresses the security interests of both countries. Participants agreed that the ultimate factor in extending New START is whether the political will to do so exists. Although an extension could be implemented through a simple exchange of notes at the last moment, participants agreed that it was desirable to finalize the extension as soon as possible. American experts shared their opinion that the Donald Trump administration’s agenda concerning the New START extension remains vague, and that it has yet to make up its mind about seeking extension, specifying possible conditions or suggesting other courses of action, such as launching a trilateral arms-control endeavor that includes China.

There was also an in-depth discussion of the new types of weapons the United States wants to include in the treaty. Russian participants clarified that some of these, which fit the definitions of strategic weapons contained in the treaty text, will be subject to accounting, while others that fall outside these definitions could only be considered in subsequent consultations. Otherwise, the text of New START would have to be amended, which will make its extension virtually impossible. Russian participants also raised concerns about the conversion of certain US strategic weapons from nuclear to conventional use, which would exclude them from the treaty’s accounting scope, but indicated that this issue should not become a precondition for extension.

Short and Medium-Range Missiles in a Post-INF World

Participants in the dialogue noted the negative consequences of the collapse of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty for international and especially European security. They emphasized that, in the new environment, it is paramount to find ways to avoid a new arms race, and that all relevant states must exercise restraint. The majority expressed the view that conflict over perceived past INF violations cannot be resolved in the current atmosphere and should be put aside to make sure that it does not negatively affect subsequent decisions.

The discussions gave rise to a range of options for avoiding a renewed arms race. Some argued to concentrate on preventing the deployment of nuclear-armed, intermediate-range missiles. Others, however, suggested that a time-proven way to resolve differences is to “expand the pie,” in which missiles beyond those covered by the INF Treaty would be discussed, including all basing modes, to focus on European security as a whole, allowing the parties to avoid direct confrontation over a specific issue.

All participants were pessimistic about the chances of bringing China into negotiations of a new, multilateral INF Treaty, and into a trilateral arms-control framework overall. In addition, many experts suggested that European countries need to play a greater role in finding a solution to what some regard as the new Euromissile crisis, especially given the uncertainty about US policy on the issue.

The Global Context

Working toward an extension of New START and mitigating the damage done by the abrogation of the INF Treaty could have a positive effect on the tone and even the outcome of the 2020 Treaty on the Non Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) Review Conference. Several participants remarked that the extension of New START is a precondition for success at the review conference, although even that might be seen as an insufficient reaffirmation of the US and Russian commitment to the NPT’s Article VI disarmament obligation. Some pointed out that a bigger problem is the growing conflict over the nuclear-weapon states’ implementation of political commitments taken at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference and subsequent review conferences. Nuclear-weapon states do not see existing political conditions as favorable to a major nuclear-arms-reduction effort while non nuclear weapon states do not regard the unfavorable political environment as a sufficient reason for not moving toward nuclear disarmament.

Participants also discussed in considerable detail the prospects of the P-5 process, in particular the desirability of engaging China in arms-control and transparency discussions. They also underlined the importance of the P-5 producing some meaningful contribution and report to the 2020 NPT Review Conference on their nuclear doctrines and risk-reduction efforts, as well as other steps taken in compliance with Article VI.

Finally, participants remarked on the importance of continued, productive dialogue in fora, such as the CNS-CENESS track 1.5 dialogue series. Planning has already begun for the next dialogue in the series.

View the Event Agenda.

Briefs and Papers

Past Dialogues

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