Nuclear Race Pandemic

Will countries with nuclear missiles want to make the world safer
after COVID-19?

The novel coronavirus has put some of humanity’s gravest problems on the back burner. One of these is the threat of a nuclear war. Doctors and virologists promise that the pandemic will eventually end, but the threats posed by globally accumulated nuclear arsenals will not disappear. Will there be a new, more terrible misfortune after the coronavirus — a nuclear arms race? The Army Standard discussed this issue with a leading expert in the field, former chief of the military security department of the Russian Security Council, participant of the Russian-American strategic offensive arms negotiation process, Chief of the Strategic Missile Forces General Staff (1994-1996), Colonel General Viktor Yesin.

The Last Hope

- Mr. Yesin, last August, the United States withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The two superpowers’ entire nuclear arms control regime was shaken to its foundation.

- That is true. The only treaty which remains in force is the Prague treaty on measures for the further reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms, signed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama in April 2010. It entered into force on February 5, 2011. This agreement is known in Russia as SNV-3, and in the United States as the New START. It will expire soon. The deadline is February 5, 2021, and the importance of its extension is extremely sensitive now.

As you know, the treaty may be extended for up to five years Moscow and Washington mutually agree to do so.

- And what is needed for that to happen?

- Just the political will of the Russian and American presidents. There are no other obstacles. The possibility of extending the New START is included in the document, in Article XIV. I would like to recall that the treaty itself was approved by the Russian and the U.S. parliaments upon its ratification.

- Why is this treaty so important to us?

- In the current reality, with U.S.-Russian relations worse than at any time since the end of the Cold War, the New START treaty is what maintains the strategic stability between the two countries at the lowest acceptable level. It limits the strategic nuclear potential of Russia and the United States, but more importantly it ensures transparency and predictability in the status and development of such potentials, as well as in the actions of the two parties’ nuclear forces.

- In what way?

- Article VIII of the New START obligates each party to take measures to eliminate ambiguity associated with the deployment or increased readiness of strategic offensive arms. In other words, each party must provide the other party with information on such activities in advance.

For example, if Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces put mobile missile systems into field position for exercises, they have to let the treaty partner know. And the same applies to the United States.

This prevents misinterpretation by the other party to avoid harmful consequences for strategic stability.

- What are the potential harmful consequences?

- A Cold War situation. Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States would notify each other about military exercises with strategic nuclear forces, and preparations were also kept in secret. If one party conducted such exercises, the other one would get nervous and increase the readiness of its strategic nuclear forces in fear of a surprise nuclear attack.

In turn, the opposing party would react similarly. As a result, the risk of unintentional or accidental nuclear war increased significantly. There was a very dangerous situation in the fall of 1983, when Moscow reacted strongly to large-scale U.S. military exercises with a significant increase in the readiness of the entire American nuclear triad. The preparation of these exercises was kept in secret, so they came as a surprise for the Soviet Union, and increased Soviet sensitivity resulted in a sudden exacerbation of the nuclear confrontation with Washington.

- What can we do now to save the New START treaty?

- Moscow is doing everything possible to avoid developments in the U.S.-Russian relationship that would be dangerous and undesirable for the global community. Russia is ready to extend the New START for five years right now, with no preconditions. And this is exactly what we are urging Washington to do.

- What about Washington?

- The New START’s prospects are uncertain. Most recently, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper named three conditions for the extension of the treaty: the treaty must cover Russia’s new strategic weapons; Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons must also be under the treaty; and China must be a party to it.

If this approach becomes the official position, extending the New START will be impossible, primarily because there is no way to change the text of the treaty to meet Mr. Esper’s conditions.

Stumbling Missile

- The U.S. is proposing that the current treaty cover what people call "Putin’s" weapons, which the president announced on March 1, 2018, is that correct? I am referring to the promising strategic missile systems Sarmat and Avangard, the multipurpose underwater vehicle Poseidon, and the cruise missile Burevestnik.

- Yes, and this is unacceptable to Russia, for understandable reasons. I will explain why. The New START covers only the strategic offensive weapons specifically listed in the document. Of these new Russian strategic offensive arms, only the Avangard and Sarmat missile systems, which have intercontinental ballistic missiles, fall under the New START.

In late 2019, Russia showed the U.S. its Avangard missile system with a glide vehicle. The demonstration was conducted in strict accordance with the procedures provided for under the New START. As part of that transparency principle, Russia had to show the complex to its treaty partner before putting it into operation in the Dombarovsk Rocket Division under the Head Missile Regiment.

Russia will also show the treaty partner its new liquid-fueled heavy intercontinental ballistic missile in the Sarmat complex. That is, if the New START is still in force by the time the Strategic Missile Forces start to deploy the missile in its main strike group.

Other new Russian strategic offensive weapons, including the multipurpose underwater vehicle Poseidon and the nuclear-powered cruise missile Burevestnik, do not fall under the Treaty, nor do nonstrategic nuclear weapons.

- What can be done about that? The United States seems to be extremely wary of them.

- Completely different arrangements are required to control these weapons. As noted by deputy head of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Sergey Ryabkov, such a complex, multifaceted and, at the same time, non-controversial task simply cannot be physically solved in the extremely limited amount of time remaining until the expiration of the New START.

At the same time, Moscow is not refusing to have a dialogue with Washington on all the issues that the Americans are concerned about with regard to both Russian and Chinese weapons.

- Does Russia have any concerns about the new U.S. arms? Is Moscow making any demands?

- Yes. Russia believes that the issues that Russian government is worried about should also be addressed during the negotiation process. For example, the unlimited deployment by the U.S. of a global missile defense system that has footprints in Alaska, Japan, South Korea, Europe…

The U.S. plans to launch strike assets into space, Russia is also concerned about the possible deployment in regions adjacent to Russia’s borders of medium-range ground-based missile systems developed after the U.S. withdrew from the INF Treaty. There are other issues, as well, including the development by the U.S. of weapons based on new physical principles.

- There seem to be enough mutual concerns to result in deadlock. Is there a standard algorithm for overcoming this situation?

- Moscow reasonably believes that the sequence of actions should be as follows: first of all, it is necessary to preserve what still functions to maintain strategic stability. That means the New START as-is.

This approach will extend the document’s functional timeframe, securing transparency and predictability. Then, with a time reserve in hand, discussions over further arms control measures can continue, including the potential involvement in the process of other leading powers, primarily China, the UK and France. All of these nations, together with Russia and the U.S., are permanent members of the UN Security Council and, therefore, bear special responsibility to the international community for maintaining strategic stability and securing peace.

- So far, only Russia and the U.S. have maintained this dialogue, and it has been interrupted due to the coronavirus pandemic. How productive is it on the whole?

- The most recent U.S.-Russian consultations on strategic stability took place in Vienna on January 16, 2020 and did not yield any promising results.

Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed a way out of this approaching dead end. On January 23, while in Israel, he suggested holding a meeting of the heads of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, dubbed the “nuclear five”, with a view to finding collective responses to current challenges and threats to peace.

All the members of the nuclear five supported the initiative, though with certain reservations. Consultations have been held through diplomatic channels on setting the agenda for the upcoming meeting.

Will the Nuclear Club Reach an Agreement?

- When could that meeting take place?

- The preliminary agreement is for a meeting of the heads of Russia, the U.S., China, the UK and France to be held in September in New York, on the sidelines of the regular session of the UN General Assembly. Sources say that the meeting will focus on arms control issues.

This prospect opens up the hope that the heads of the five nuclear powers may reach an agreement that is acceptable to all members for upgrading the current nuclear arms control regime. The agreement could result in a regime in a multilateral format to respond to current developments.

Here is what I believe could be one of the most acceptable options for such an agreement: Russia and the U.S. undertake to extend the New START for five years, while China, the UK, and France commit to attend multilateral negotiations with Russia and the U.S. to limit nuclear weapons, whether strategic or not, deployed or not, with a view to reaching a multilateral treaty within five years.

Although the form and substance of such a treaty are subject to negotiation, one thing is clear: Russia and the U.S. will have to further reduce their nuclear weapons in exchange for limiting or freezing the nuclear weapons of the remaining three powers.

Let me remind you that the number of nuclear devices and their delivery vehicles in Russian and U.S. arsenals is almost an order of magnitude greater than in China, the UK or France.

Reaching such an agreement will not be easy. It will require strong political will on the part of the heads of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, as well as their sincere desire to reduce the risks of a nuclear confrontation, risks that will undoubtedly grow in the absence of multilateral agreements to limit nuclear arsenals. An unfettered nuclear arms race vastly increases the risk of a nuclear disaster.

- What could prevent the powers from reaching an agreement?

- It cannot be ruled out that the upcoming meeting of the nuclear five may fail to achieve positive results for an upgrade of the nuclear arms control regime, as Beijing still does not show any interest in the U.S. initiative that China should join the U.S.-Russian agreements. If China refuses, Washington may consider the New START worthless for the United States.

- Is this Washington’s only stance? Do you see any other options?

- Many high-ranking U.S. military officers are advocating for an extension of the New START because, as the U.S. general John Hyten (who headed the U.S. Strategic Command in 2017-2019) said, it will give them extremely important insight into Russian developments in the area of strategic nuclear weapons.

This U.S. general, who is currently Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is absolutely right. In 2021, Russia will commence mass production and deployment of advanced strategic offensive arms, such as the Avangard and Sarmat missile systems, the new Borei-A-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, and the majorly upgraded Tu-160M2 strategic bombers with updated nuclear weapons. All of these weapons systems are covered by the New START and, if it is extended, subject to monitoring at their base locations by the U.S. inspection teams.

That said, it is the U.S. president who will make the final decision regarding the New START. If Donald Trump wins the November presidential election, then the United States is likely to refuse the New START extension. Trump convinced himself long ago that this treaty is a bad deal for the U.S., largely for domestic political reasons, because the New START was signed by Obama, a Democrat, and Trump is a Republican.

- How can the adverse consequences for strategic stability be mitigated if the New START terminates in February 2021?

- I believe Moscow could make a statement that it is not going to build up its strategic offensive arms beyond the New START limits and urge Washington to do the same. This initiative could be executed as a political agreement between Russia and the United States in the form of a joint statement or simultaneous statements.

If observed by the parties, these obligations will restrict the unfettered build-up of strategic nuclear weapons and uphold global strategic stability.

It is also important that Moscow and Washington reaffirm their commitment to the 1988 Agreement on Notifications of ICBM and SLBM Launches and the 1989 Agreement on Reciprocal Advance Notification of Major Strategic Exercises. This way, they would maintain notification exchange pursuant to these agreements through the Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers, which is extremely important as I have already mentioned.

Another helpful effort would be a joint statement that the open 1971 Prevention of Nuclear War Agreement on Measures to Reduce the Risk of Outbreak of Nuclear War between the U.S. and the USSR and the 1973 Prevention of Nuclear War Agreement between the U.S. and the USSR will remain in force. These agreements are crucial to prevent an accidental or unintentional nuclear war.

These measures are not enough, however. We also need a joint U.S.-Russian statement at the highest level on the necessity of preventing nuclear war and promoting strategic stability, and urging other nuclear powers to accede to it.

Moscow delivered a draft of a joint statement to U.S. officials in October 2018, and the statement would be extremely helpful even if the New START survives.

- Statements alone may be not enough. What specific actions are required?

- You are right. If the New START terminates, the Bilateral Consultative Commission will dissolve, which is the only ongoing mechanism for Russia and the U.S. to discuss issues related to strategic offensive and strategic defensive weapons. Dissolution of the Commission, if it comes to that, will create an urgent need for a specialized platform for bilateral discussions on strategic arms issues and to generally maintain strategic stability in the absence of a legally established nuclear arms control regime.

If Moscow and Washington want to safely avoid nuclear confrontation in the absence of nuclear arms treaties, they have to upgrade the currently irregular U.S.-Russian consultations on strategic stability to the realm of a permanent body in the form of an intergovernmental commission. It would be reasonable for the heads of the foreign affairs and defense departments of Russia and the U.S. co-chair such a commission.