Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Ramesh Thakur  |  21 June, 2021

Unpredictability and Strategic Stability in Russia–US Relations

Image: Felipe Fortes/Flickr

After the summit talks in Geneva on 17 June, Russian and US presidents Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden held separate and contrasting press conferences. Biden made it clear his staff had given him a prepared list of reporters on whom to call, strongly suggesting questions and answers drafted in advance to minimise gaffes by a president whose thoughts can wander sometimes. Putin was vigorous and demonstrated considerable mental agility in fielding questions from a wide range of journalists in attendance. BBC reporter Steve Rosenberg asked him if he was prepared to eschew unpredictability for the sake of better relations with the West. The response was robust and energetic. Putin referenced the US withdrawal from the ABM, INF and Open Skies treaties as examples of “absolutely unpredictable” acts that had undermined strategic security. “There’s almost nothing left,” he noted: “And you think we’re the unpredictable ones? No, I don’t think so.” For “true stability,” he concluded, “we need to agree on the rules of behaviour in all the areas we touched on today”: strategic stability, cybersecurity, resolutions of regional conflicts, etc.

If only some journalist had gone back to Biden for a comment on this retort. Let’s set aside regional conflicts for another day and look at the list of arms control reversals by the US that began before Donald Trump but accelerated under his presidency. The US–Russia relationship is critical because just these two account for 90 per cent of global nuclear warheads.

On 13 December 2002, President George W. Bush formally announced the US withdrawal from ABM, the US–Soviet Antiballistic Missile Treaty signed in 1972. He explained that the treaty was signed “at a much different time, in a vastly different world." One of the two signatories “no longer exists” and “neither does the hostility that once led both our countries to keep thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, pointed at each other.” Putin called it “an erroneous decision” but said Russia did not feel threatened by it. China repeated its opposition to the missile defence system proposed by the US. On 1 March 2018, Putin showed off a new array of invincible nuclear weapons and noted the US had not heeded Russian warnings when it pulled out of the ABM Treaty. “You didn’t listen to our country then. Listen to us now,” he said.

The Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed in December 1987, prohibited both conventionally-armed and nuclear-tipped ground-launched missiles in the 500-5,500km range. By the implementation deadline of mid-1991, around 2,700 missiles had been destroyed, of which two-thirds were Soviet missiles. As the first nuclear disarmament agreement, INF made a significant contribution to the security of Europe as the frontline of the Cold War divisions and also underpinned broader international security for 30 years. US doubts over INF were rooted in suspicions of Russian cheating, a firming conviction that bilateral accords were a historical Cold War legacy becoming obsolete in a multipolar global nuclear order, and concerns that it put the US at disadvantage in the increasingly salient Indo-Pacific geopolitical theatre in the growing strategic rivalry with China whose missiles are predominantly in the INF range. When the US pulled out in February 2019, Russia followed suit and on 2 August the treaty lapsed. Because of the potentially destabilising consequences of an arms race involving intermediate-range missiles, it would be good to begin negotiations on restoring the reciprocal restraints while simultaneously exploring practical opportunities to bring China into trilateral frameworks.

On 22 November 2020, the US withdrew from the 35-party 1992 Open Skies Treaty that was both a symbol of political engagement and a practical contribution to risk reduction. Over its lifespan, the treaty authorised nearly 1,500 missions, including more than 500 flights over Russia as the most overflown and best-monitored country, with every flight muting anxiety about surprise attack. Describing it as “One of the pillars upholding international peace and security today,” former US Secretary of State George Shultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Senate Armed Services Committee chair Sam Nunn noted that even during times of tension in Russia–US relations, the treaty helped to “preserve a measure of transparency and trust.” They warned in October 2019 that “withdrawal would be a grave mistake.” Biden would do well to correct the mistake.

Somewhat surprisingly, Putin did not include the Iran nuclear deal in his list of destabilising unilateral US retreats from the arms control architecture. Trump’s decision to walk away from an international agreement that had been multilaterally negotiated, unanimously endorsed by the UN Security Council and was being faithfully implemented by all other parties, was especially egregious. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, 2015) had made a significant and effective contribution to achieving non-proliferation goals in the Middle East and globally by checking any possible nuclear weapon ambition by Iran.

The JCPOA had reversed and mothballed Iran’s suspected nuclear weapon programme. Biden has indicated a desire to return to the deal, but only if Iran is in compliance with it. Its resuscitation may prove complicated because the politics around it involve Iran and the ayatollahs, Israel, other Arab allies and weapons of mass destruction. If the domestic US and Middle East regional politics can be taken care of, the legal route to the US returning to the JCPOA is simple enough. Biden could revoke Trump’s decisions and actions and return to full compliance with the agreement. Unfortunately, following the US withdrawal, Iran breached the JCPOA’s purity and quantitative limits on uranium enrichment. With Trump’s pullout having discredited the accommodationists, there will also be stiff resistance in Tehran to an on-again, off-again relationship with Washington.

The rapid deterioration of nuclear arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation pacts added to the rising risk of the use of nuclear weapons. Amidst heightened global tensions, entering the path of a new arms race offsets the significant reductions achieved during and since the Cold War under the auspices of the various arms control pacts. The more that Putin and Trump revalidated the role of nuclear weapons in strengthening their respective national security, the more they normalised the discourse of nuclear weapons use and emboldened calls for nuclear weapon acquisition in other countries All states must do their utmost to preserve, uphold and advance nuclear arms control and disarmament pacts for the maintenance of peace and stability. This will help to protect the integrity of the rules-based international system with effective multilateralism as a key principle.

Ramesh Thakur is emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Senior Research Fellow, Toda Peace Institute; and Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He was an R2P commissioner and one of three authors of its report. His most recent book is Reviewing the Responsibility to Protect: Origins, Implementation and Controversies (Routledge, 2019).