Boston Globe
September 13, 1999
Pg. 13

A Deal With Russia On Arms Control?

By Sam Nunn, Brent Scowcroft, and Arnold Kanter

The United States is poised to launch a new round of high-level talks with Russia on two related subjects. One is a START III agreement to reduce further the strategic nuclear arsenals on both sides. The other is amendments to the ABM Treaty to permit the deployment of missile defenses.

In some respects, it is hard to imagine a worse time to reengage on these complicated and politically explosive issues. First, US-Russian relations arguably may be on the mend, but still have a long way to go to overcome the profound estrangement and distrust that exist between the two sides. Second, both countries will be mired in domestic politics for the next 15 to 18 months as they embark on a series of national campaigns and elections that will produce new leaders and legislatures in Washington and Moscow. Third and related, the political situation in Moscow is, to be charitable, very fluid.

But if this is hardly a propitious time to try to achieve a meeting of the minds, simply waiting until circumstances improve could be even less attractive. For a combination of political and technical reasons, the Clinton administration is poised to make a decision next summer to deploy national missile defenses.

None of the deployments currently under consideration, however, is consistent with the ABM treaty. This means that going ahead with missile defenses will necessitate amending the ABM treaty or will require the United States to abrogate it. Although the latter course would have serious consequences, not only for US-Russian relations but potentially also for strategic stability, the Russians have steadfastly refused even to consider changes to the ABM treaty. The two sides thus have little choice but to confront daunting challenges at a lousy time.

To make the best of this long-odds situation, Washington and Moscow need to be both hard-headed about their respective objectives, and flexible - even bold - in how they pursue them. Their joint goal should be to avoid a looming train wreck by harnessing the incentives which each side already has and put them to work to fashion an agreed approach by next summer that embraces new limits on strategic offenses and defenses.

Incentives to deal

The Russians face three major incentives to make a deal.

First, they know that with or without new START agreements, their strategic nuclear forces, which they see as one of their last claims on great power status, will continue to shrink as a result of their dire economic straits. They have an interest in using arms control to bring the US nuclear arsenal down to their new level rather than live in a world in which the United States has overwhelming nuclear superiority.

Second, although they are loath to admit it, the Russians increasingly realize that the United States is going to deploy missile defenses in some form. If they have to choose, they surely would prefer reaching agreement on new limits that protect their interests, rather than have to live in a world in which US missile defenses are unconstrained.

Third, they have a strong political interest in reaching an agreement with the United States, not only because they have a stake in good relations with us, but also because they are far better off if they are seen to be players rather than isolated and ignored.

A variety of US interests also are at stake.

First, although we can afford it far better than the Russians, we too have an interest in being freed from the increasingly anachronistic and expensive strategic nuclear forces dictated by the START I agreement (and related congressional requirements that these higher levels be maintained).

Second, we want to do what we can to avoid Russia - which still has a vast nuclear arsenal, but one that is plagued by growing problems - overreacting to our missile defenses in ways that undermine strategic stability and increase the risks of nuclear accident and miscalculation.

Third, although it no longer seems quite so self-evident as it did at the end of the Cold War, we have both a near-term and a longer-term stake in our relationship with Russia. As we have seen on current issues, ranging from the war in Kosovo to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to countries like Iran, even a Russia that is vastly diminished from the Soviet superpower that preoccupied us for a generation can still measurably hurt or help our interests.

Strategically, US foreign policy ought to proceed on the premise that while Russia may be down, it is not out: Sooner or later, Russia will again be a great power. We should not yield to the temptation to exploit its short-term weakness at the expense of reaping its enduring enmity, for if we do, then history indicates that our children will pay the price.

Long-term thinking

These calculations do not argue for sacrificing US interests merely to indulge Russian sensitivities or otherwise to humor them. They do argue for not taking the seemingly easy way out of simply ignoring Moscow on issues like missile defenses, however irritating and troublesome it may be, in the mistaken belief that Russia no longer matters. On the contrary, and without any guarantees of success, it is worth the time and effort to try to fashion a deal that advances our interests while responding to legitimate Russian concerns.

A necessary first step is to make a serious, sustained effort to persuade the Russians of three interrelated realities about our plans for missile defenses.

First, the strategic arguments against the kind of missile defenses envisaged by the ABM treaty may still be valid, but they are not particularly relevant to the missile defenses under consideration. Missile defenses against the weapons of mass destruction threat posed by rogue states can be made perfectly consistent with the spirit and purposes of the ABM treaty.

Second and related, whatever the problems and differences between Russia and the United States, we no longer should be each other's major security problem and preoccupation. Put differently, our missiles defenses not only would not be aimed at Russia, they are not even about Russia.

Third, for the foreseeable future, any national missile defense deployments will be limited not merely as a matter of policy, but as an inescapable consequence of available technology. Even if we wanted to, we could not now deploy the kind of highly effective missile defenses that actually could render the Russian deterrent impotent.

At the same time, and as important and valid as these arguments are, we should not depend on them to successfully persuade Moscow. They will need to be supplemented with proposals on both START and missile defenses that appeal to Russian incentives while advancing our interests. The core elements of a possible bargain are additional cuts in strategic forces, ABM treaty amendments to permit deployment of limited missile defenses, and real rather than merely rhetorical offers of technology cooperation.

The process of fleshing out these elements must start from the recognition that the already long odds against making what amounts to a de facto deal by next summer become almost insurmountable unless there is a willingness on both sides to entertain ideas which depart from the prevailing arms control orthodoxy. For the Russians, this means negotiating amendments to the ABM treaty to allow some missile defenses to be deployed. For the United States, the place to begin is by removing Russian ratification of the START II treaty as a precondition to a deal on strategic offenses and defenses.


It is time to move forward, whether or not the Duma ratifies START II. This treaty, signed more than seven years ago, has much more to do with its Cold War heritage than with current strategic realities. In any event, our insistence that the Duma ratify START II leaves Russians with the mistaken impression that this is an important source of Russian leverage over us or among one another in their domestic political struggles, which they then futilely (if not counterproductively) try to exercise. Put simply, taking START II ratification off the table would help us achieve our objectives, if only by eliminating it as a pawn in the political maneuvering among Russian factions.

Our approach to further reductions in strategic offensive forces should be informed by the twin goals of simplifying the negotiations in order to expedite agreement and maintaining forces that constitute a stable, effective deterrent. To achieve these objectives, the post-reduction forces should be large enough so that foreseeable missile defenses would not have a measurable effect on a retaliatory second-strike and the effects of third country forces do not become a major consideration (so that third countries would not need to be part of the negotiations and the deal).

More broadly, the post-reduction forces also must remain sufficient to support our nonproliferation objectives, both by maintaining the confidence our nonnuclear allies who rely on our nuclear guarantee and by maintaining the nuclear bar sufficiently high to discourage nuclear wannabes from being tempted.

While careful (although not necessarily lengthy) analysis would be required in order to determine the appropriate new limit, it would not be surprising if that number were somewhere in the range of 1,000 to 2,000 weapons. Numbers in this range also would go a long way toward responding to the pressure Russia feels to move down to much smaller and more affordable force levels.

Finally, they would take account of the limited capabilities on both sides to dismantle nuclear warheads in a safe and secure manner and then store or otherwise dispose of the weapons grade material in a way which does not aggravate the proliferation problem.

Rethinking treaty issues

In another departure from the prevailing arms control orthodoxy, we should be prepared to reconsider the START II ban on land-based missiles with multiple warheads in order to address Russia's affordability concerns, and to increase their confidence that they could penetrate any missile defenses we would deploy. One possibility might be to permit them to deploy a two warhead version of their new SS-27 missile, a capability which would not have much impact on our own deterrent or on strategic stability.

The original 1972 ABM Treaty permitted each side to have 100 interceptors at each of two sites. Ironically, virtually any kind of missile defenses we could deploy over the next 10 or so years would fit comfortably within those parameters (although probably not the 1974 treaty protocol which limited each side to 100 interceptors at a single site). But due to uncertainties both about missile defense technologies and future threats, the United States probably will, and surely should, require additional treaty changes.

These changes include relaxing treaty constraints on sensors (especially space-based sensors) and on research and development so that sea-based, space-based, and mobile missile defenses can be thoroughly assessed. We also should reject any de facto ABM treaty limits on theater missile defenses. Finally, the duration of the ABM treaty needs to be set for a fixed period of time rather than remain in force indefinitely.

How much current ABM treaty limits on such things as sensors and R&D are relaxed depends in important measure on how long the newly amended treaty would remain in force: The longer the term, the more latitude we would require.

The Russians may well have a great deal of difficulty in accepting these kinds of changes because, depending on the details, they could significantly enhance our breakout potential: i.e., our ability to rapidly expand our missile defenses beyond the agreed numerical limits. The calculation they would have to make, however, is whether or not an amended ABM treaty along these lines would be better than what is likely to be their only other alternative - no missile defense limits at all.

Defenses for Russia, too

Finally, we need to recognize that even if all of these problems can be solved, a combination of politics and pride probably will preclude Russian agreement unless they can deploy missile defenses of their own. Bilateral cooperation will be key, and cooperation to enhance Russia's early warning system, which would directly serve US interests by strengthening strategic stability, is the place to start. But offers of technology cooperation, even if they transition from the rhetorical to the real, will not be sufficient because Russian missile deployments will take money they do not have.

Obviously, we are not about to fund the modernization of Russia's strategic defenses ourselves, but we should try to be as imaginative as possible about finding ways for them to do so. One possibility, provided it made good technical sense, would be to buy Russian rocket motors to power our own missile defense interceptors. Another might be to fashion a program of cooperation to make our respective theater missile defense systems interoperable so that they could be made available for sale to third countries which face their own missile and weapons of mass destruction threats.

Any clear-eyed analysis would have to conclude that the odds are against reaching a meeting of the minds with the Russians by next summer on a new approach to managing the offense-defense equation. In that event, we will need to balance the risks of leaving ourselves open to the prospect of threats by rogue states armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles, against the risks of lasting damage to our relations with Russia.

A similarly clear-eyed analysis would conclude that the former concerns will likely prevail, but with substantial foreign policy and, quite possibly, security costs. US national security interests would be far better served, and the nuclear risks would be lower, if we could find a way to avoid having to make that choice. Given the stakes, we owe to ourselves to make every effort to defy the odds.

Sam Nunn, a former US senator from Georgia, is senior partner in the law firm of King & Spaulding. Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to presidents Ford and Bush, is president of The Forum for International Policy. Arnold Kanter is a senior fellow at The Forum for International Policy. He was undersecretary of state from 1991-93.