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US Approach to Russia in New Nuclear Posture Review Risks Boosting Chances of Conflict

February 02, 2018
Jon Wolfsthal

A major breakthrough in the Cold War that radically reduced the chances of nuclear conflict came with the recognition by American and Russian leaders that our countries could not out-arms-race each other. We needed to climb down from the ladder of escalation and did so by introducing verification-based arms control at a time when U.S.-Russian relations were no warmer or more trusting than they are today. The 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review released on Feb. 2 states that the world has seen “the return of Great Power competition” and again puts Russia at the core of U.S. nuclear strategy. Unfortunately, instead of using tried and trusted tools like arms control and engagement to manage the high-risk frictions between Washington and Moscow, the United States appears poised to pursue the one thing that failed to make America and its allies safer in the Cold War: a nuclear arms race more likely to stoke conflict than deter it. What’s equally troubling is that the new NPR treats regular, high-level engagement and diplomacy as an afterthought rather than an integral part of U.S. nuclear-security strategy.

Credible Concerns

To be fair to the NPR’s authors, the United States does have grounds for concern about Russia’s behavior and intentions. Relations between Washington and Moscow are bad and could get worse. To be sure, Moscow’s invasion and occupation of Ukrainian territory, its reported interference in U.S. elections and its alleged violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty rightly worry American policymakers. Worse, U.S. military planners believe Moscow is prepared to use nuclear weapons first if Russia finds itself in a conflict it cannot win by conventional means, though this is a topic of some debate among analysts. At the same time, the NPR notes that states like Russia could use non-nuclear strategic means, including conventional and other attacks, to cripple U.S. critical infrastructure, nuclear command and control and early warning systems. These new capabilities and plans, according to the NPR, require the United States to make clear its commitment to deter such attacks by Russia. To this end, the NPR contains some strong but sensible language—first and foremost, by making clear that Russia will not be able to use nuclear weapons and escape consequences that would be worse than any gain Moscow might hope to achieve. 

New Weapons, New Fears, No Trust

To drive home the point about deterrence, and to make America’s ability and willingness to respond to both nuclear and non-nuclear Russian attacks more “credible,” the Trump administration plans to pursue the first new nuclear weapon systems since the Cold War. The two systems—including lower-yield nuclear weapons deployed on submarine-launched ballistic missiles and new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles—are, the NPR argues, more usable and therefore seen as a more credible deterrent. It is worth noting that there is already and will continue to be a sustained debate about whether either of these systems is needed to deter Russia or convince it of America’s nuclear deterrent capabilities. Congress will have to determine whether such systems are worth funding and, if so, how to afford them given the massive and growing costs of modernizing just the existing triad of nuclear systems deployed by the United States. 

What’s clear is that the pursuit and possible development of these systems threaten to undermine the core requirements of both strategic and crisis stability so sorely lacking in the U.S.-Russian relationship today. In part, this stems from two contextual factors—the lack of trust and communication in bilateral ties and the rise of new non-nuclear weapons technologies. On the first point, Washington has too little regular, candid communication with high-level decision-makers in Russian security circles and this is a huge problem. The lack of communication—and the attendant lack of confidence in our ability to understand and influence Russian decision-making—makes U.S. policymakers rely more on worst-case planning; this, in turn, leads to the pursuit of weapons we may not have otherwise pursued and may not need. Worse still, these new weapons could heighten the risk of conflict by feeding into a dangerous ongoing action-reaction cycle: For some time, new U.S. conventional weapons that are faster, stealthier and/or more precise than before, combined with growing missile defense deployments, have stoked Russian fears that, in a conflict, America could wipe out its forces before they have a chance to inflict any damage. This has driven Russia to maintain and upgrade its tactical nuclear systems and generally modernize its military, including the capacity for asymmetrical and non-nuclear attacks.

Prospects for Stability

In assessing how the new weapons proposed by the NPR could undermine security, it is useful to consider two concepts: strategic stability and crisis stability.

Strategic stability has no clear single definition, but for decades American military and security experts have defined it as a state where neither the U.S. nor Russia sees an advantage in using nuclear weapons first against the other. If each state is confident in the other’s behavior and capabilities, and in the reliability of its own retaliatory nuclear forces, then stability can be maintained—a state that can be further enhanced by sustained dialogue and transparency, aided by verifiable nuclear limits codified in legal agreements. U.S. planners and security officials are worried by the idea that Russian official policy reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first in a failing conventional conflict where the survival or territorial integrity of the Russia state is at stake, and by Russia’s development of multiple nuclear systems with low yield.  These developments suggest Russia no longer believes that strategic stability exists between the two states. With its fears exacerbated by America’s growing missile defense capabilities, Russia may have a different assessment of the strategic landscape or even a different definition of stability. The lack of direct and sustained high-level discussions and negotiations with President Vladimir Putin and his close confidants makes any assumptions on either side uncertain, adding to the insecurity felt by both states.

Crisis stability, though always in flux, has a clearer definition, even if it lacks an objective metric. Anything that affects the perceived ability of leaders to react in an informed and responsible manner to any perceived action—accident, attack, undefined event—has an effect on crisis stability. When crisis stability is high, leaders in Russia, America or Europe have confidence that they have the time to assess a situation and evaluate options before having to respond, or determine if a response is even necessary. Low crisis stability reflects a condition when leaders feel pressure to respond quickly even to ambiguous events because the risk of inaction may be greater than the consequences of acting inappropriately. For example, when few if any nuclear weapons can reach capitals without strategic warning, any indications of an attack or detonation might not require rapid action; but a situation in which both Russia and America/NATO have fast-flying, stealthy nuclear delivery systems and relations are poor, crisis instability is high. 

Under these definitions, the desire to pursue two new U.S. nuclear systems—low-yield penetrating SLBMs and nuclear-tipped SLCMs—could further undermine strategic and crisis stability. They would reduce the amount of time Russian officials have to make critical decisions, including whether to respond to a perceived or real attack, since some of the weapons contained in the NPR could be used to go after key leadership targets in Russia. Thus, while these systems may be meant to enhance deterrence, they may instead make conflict and the use of nuclear weapons more, not less, likely. They will also create even greater pressure on the United States to actually use nuclear weapons should Moscow take some of the steps listed in the NPR as potentially warranting a nuclear response. (As Scott Sagan pointed out in his 2000 essay “The Commitment Trap,” making threats puts pressure on the state doing the threatening to follow through for fear that the credibility of other commitments might be reduced.)

Not mentioned in the NPR is the need for direct, sustained high-level engagement between Moscow and Washington to reduce the risks of conflict and of nuclear tensions. If we are back to a clearly adversarial relationship à la the Cold War, as implied in the NPR and the National Security Strategy released in December, then why not go back to the tools that worked then? Russia and the United States have not been involved in any strategic nuclear arms control negotiations since the New START talks ended in 2010—the longest such break in strategic discussions since the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is ironic that the NPR was released three days before the central limits of that agreement enter into force—limits that both states will meet, demonstrating that both still value managing the nuclear competition between them. Failure to pursue further engagement in a sustained way deprives American planners of insight into Russian thinking and of discovering ways to manage the burgeoning competition between the two nuclear states. In the end, such efforts could prove fruitless and leave America with few options aside from nuclear arms racing, but assuming this to be the case without meaningful efforts to avoid such an outcome is fraught with consequences. Not only does it heighten security risks, but it will be politically divisive abroad and at home: Our allies in Europe don’t want an arms race, and Congress could withhold funding for important security measures if they are packaged with measures seen as risk-enhancing. It is not too late for Congress to convince the Trump administration to broaden its view, but such efforts may come too late to prevent further damage to strategic stability between the two Cold War veterans.


Jon Wolfsthal

Jon Wolfsthal is an associate with the Managing the Atom Project at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is the former special assistant to the president of the United States for national security affairs and former senior director at the National Security Council for arms control and nonproliferation.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate Airman Paul Polach.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.