The Future of US-Russia Nuclear Arms Control

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Russia’s decision to deploy nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil is the latest in a series of escalatory moves by both the US and Russia that erodes the viability of arms control agreements going forward and, in doing so, increases the possibility of nuclear conflict between them.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently announced that Russia will deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus. This decision was ostensibly in response to a request by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and is framed as a reaction to US and Nato statements that both Putin and Lukashenko construe as constituting a policy that seeks the strategic defeat of Russia and, by extension, Belarus.

The nuclear weapons — which would involve warheads for the Iskander-M short-range, surface-to-surface missile, as well as gravity bombs delivered by Belarusian SU-30 aircraft — would remain under Russian control, and would only be turned over to Belarus if a joint decision was made to deploy nuclear weapons against any emerging threat to Belarus. According to Russian media reports, Russia has already transferred both the Iskander-M missiles and launchers and the SU-30 fighters to the Belarusian armed forces, who have been trained in the use of nuclear weapons. The actual transfer of nuclear weapons, however, would occur only in July 2023, when a planned nuclear storage facility would be completed on Belarusian soil.

Keep Russia Guessing

The Russian decision to deploy nuclear weapons to Belarus, and to make them available to Belarusian forces in time of conflict or crisis, has a precedent — a decades-long program of nuclear sharing between the US and Nato, whereby the US stores 100 B61 nuclear bombs at US-controlled facilities in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Turkey. The bombs are considered to be US property, but in the event of hostilities, the US would release them to the air forces of six Nato allies (the five hosts plus Greece). These possess aircraft configured for the use of nuclear weapons, flown by crews trained for that task. In response to the war in Ukraine, Poland has asked to become a party to this nuclear-sharing arrangement.

The release of US-controlled B61 bombs to Nato air forces is practiced every year, in an exercise known as Steadfast Noon. The 2022 iteration of this event took place from Oct. 17-30, and involved 60 aircraft from 14 nations flying simulated nuclear strike missions over Belgium, the UK and the North Sea. The exercises included US B-52 aircraft, whose nuclear capacity is treated as separate from the Nato nuclear deterrent from an arms control perspective. Russia, however, contends that the two are, for all intents and purposes, inseparable, with the presence of nuclear-capable B-52 bombers in the Steadfast Noon exercise highlighting the interoperability between the US and Nato-designated nuclear arsenals.

While advocates of arms control have long argued that the B61 bombs are obsolete and should be negotiated away as part of any future arms control agreement between the US and Russia, Nato has argued that its nuclear deterrent is necessary to ensure that the notion of a US nuclear umbrella over Europe is sustained by a discernable link between the US and Nato nuclear deterrence forces. Although the administration of President Barack Obama considered removing the B61 bombs from Europe, this idea was shelved following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The linkage between the B61 bombs and the overall US nuclear posture becomes more critical, from the Russian perspective, when considering that the US nuclear posture under the administration of President Joe Biden articulates that the “fundamental role” of the US nuclear arsenal is deterrence from a nuclear attack, whereby nuclear weapons could be used in “extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the US or its allies and partners,” including pre-emptively in a non-nuclear scenario. This posture deviates from Biden’s campaign pledge to implement a “sole purpose” doctrine built on the premise that the “sole purpose of the US nuclear arsenal should be deterring — and, if necessary, retaliating against — a nuclear attack.”

The Biden administration instead opted to continue with a nuclear posture tied to principles dating to the administration of President George W. Bush, and delineated in the 2020 Nuclear Posture Review published by the administration of President Donald Trump. The deputy undersecretary of defense for policy during the Trump administration, David J. Trachtenberg, said in a speech at the Brookings Institution in 2019 that US allies and partners “should and do take comfort in the fact that the US has both the will and the means to use its nuclear weapons, if necessary, to protect them from aggression,” adding that a key aspect to the US nuclear posture was “keeping adversaries such as Russia and China guessing whether the US would ever employ its nuclear weapons.” To accomplish this, Trachtenberg noted, the Trump administration, along with previous administrations, “refused to countenance the promise to not use nuclear weapons as a first-strike option.”

From the Russian perspective, the continuation of this policy of not ruling out the possibility of a US nuclear first strike positions the B61-equipped Nato nuclear deterrent as an existential threat that justifies a Russian-Belarusian nuclear counter — and, equally importantly, requires a fundamental rethinking of Russia’s relationship with arms control and nuclear disarmament going forward. The US posture has become critical for Moscow in light of US-Nato statements regarding the strategic defeat of Russia in Ukraine.

The End of Arms Control?

Russia recently announced that it had frozen implementation of the New Start nuclear arms reduction treaty, blaming the inconsistencies of seeking to negotiate further restrictions of Russia’s strategic deterrent with a party — the US — that it sees as pursuing the strategic defeat of Russia in Ukraine.

Central to the Russian point of view is the idea that, as a nuclear power, Russia cannot be defeated — because to accomplish this, any opponent would need to pose the kind of existential threat that would trigger the use of nuclear weapons. Russia sees nuclear deterrence as its lifeline, and to negotiate this away in the face of such a threat is unthinkable for Moscow.

The Biden administration has rejected Moscow’s concerns as unfounded, and considers the Russian suspension of New Start as an impermissible act under the treaty terms. While the US maintains that it is prepared to discuss all relevant issues with Russia to bring New Start back into operation, and that it is prepared to begin working with Russia on a follow-on disarmament treaty to replace the treaty when it expires in February 2026, US officials see no linkage between US policy on Ukraine and strategic arms control — and as such refuse to participate in any process that sustains such an assumption.

Further complicating matters is the fact that, according to Russian diplomatic and military sources, Moscow has also changed the ground rules regarding any future negotiations. The US should now add the B61 bombs to the mix of weapons that would need to be covered by any future arms control agreement, Moscow believes. Washington should no longer be able to delink missile defense issues from nuclear force reductions. And the nuclear forces of both France and the UK, once deemed outside the context of bilateral US-Russian arms control, should be incorporated into the force structure when considering any possible future Russian reductions or limitations, Moscow believes.

Seen in this context, the Russian decision to extend its nuclear umbrella to Belarus is a game-changing event, which has fundamentally altered the trajectory of arms control between the world’s two largest nuclear powers. It remains to be seen how the US and Nato will respond to this new dynamic — or if they will opt instead to engage in a new and dangerous arms race with Russia, the consequences of which could be detrimental for all humanity.

Scott Ritter is a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer whose service over a 20-plus-year career included tours of duty in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control agreements, serving on the staff of US Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War and later as a chief weapons inspector with the UN in Iraq from 1991-98. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

Security Risk , Nuclear Policy, Alternative View
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