Invoking the Nuclear Option: Reviving Treaty-Based Arms Control with Russia

by Blake Narendra on August 3, 2013

Obama Putin G8 Summit June 2013

In June, President Obama chose Berlin as the setting to breathe new life into his nuclear “Prague Agenda”. The choice of the Brandenburg Gate as a backdrop for the President’s address was symbolic as he reiterated his claim that the greatest barrier to arms control is the persistence of a Cold War mentality that continues to shape attitudes in both East and West. The New START Treaty, signed in Prague in April 2010, was intended to be a step forward towards more ambitious bilateral arms control, eventually growing to include a class of non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW) not governed by an existing legal agreement. But two formidable obstacles confront President Obama’s goal of concluding a follow-on treaty to cut nuclear stockpiles by an additional 30 percent. First, Russia’s official defense posture is not amenable to correcting the NSNW asymmetry that the U.S. and NATO want to address. Second, any agreement with Russia faces a vocal minority in the U.S. Congress that voted against New START and still opposes implementation. These two challenges are also complementary, since greater flexibility in negotiations with Russia would endanger Congressional support for ratification. Yet changing political and economic circumstances may still offer a way forward.

Non-strategic nuclear weapons play an indispensable part in Russia’s 2010 Defense Strategy that permits first use as a “de-escalatory” measure against a hypothetical territorial attack that could not be deterred by conventional means. Meanwhile, the 2012 NATO Defense and Deterrence Posture Review (DDPR) preserved NATO’s nuclear mission in reverence to the alliance’s vulnerable Central and Eastern European members (CEE). But a combination of anti-nuclear public opinion in Europe, reduced Russian military reliance on NSNW, and budget cuts on both sides of the Atlantic may improve the prospects for a comprehensive agreement.

Two European dual-use delivery aircraft, the Tornado and F-16, are approaching their service limits, forcing governments to decide whether to absorb the billion-dollar price-tag of the replacement F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Meanwhile, in the United States, the program to refurbish B-61 bombs faces significant cost overruns and could fall victim to Congressional fiscal hawks and disarmament advocates. The combination of untenable long-run costs and diminished utility facing NATO’s NSNW presents a narrow window of opportunity to use withdrawal as a lever to win Russia’s buy-in for reciprocal cuts to its own arsenal. Even though the withdrawal of NSNW from six NATO bases would likely occur even in isolation, accelerating the process can help provide CEE states with an unprecedented transparent view into the size, location and movement of Russia’s 2,000 active NSNW. The longer that NATO delays a negotiated drawdown, the longer that Russia will be seen as a threat by its Eastern European neighbors, perpetuating the Cold War security dilemma.

But the Obama administration still faces a second challenge in Congressional opposition to the New START Treaty. The administration boasted that winning seventy-one votes for ratification in December 2010 was a bipartisan victory, but that figure was far less overwhelming than the unanimous vote in favor of the 2003 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). The fact that eighteen U.S. Senators who voted for SORT withheld their support for New START showed that arms control is no longer immune to partisan politics. Furthermore, the recently passed FY 2014 House Energy Appropriations bill would constrain President Obama’s authority to make nuclear reductions unilaterally or as part of an executive agreement. The bill also endangers future treaty prospects because it funds the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Weapon Activities Account at a level beneath President Obama’s pledge during the New START debate. Nonetheless, Congressional opposition does not mean that bilateral treaty-based reductions will be dead on arrival.

To overcome attempts to exercise a de facto veto of the “Prague Agenda,” President Obama can reassure Republican Senators that he remains committed to conditioning incremental arms reductions on sustained funding for modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Also, since the arduous process of approving New START allowed many Senators to enter their grievances in the public record, such as the absence of a cap on Russia’s NSNW stockpile, the President can respond to these issues directly. A treaty that set a cap of 3,000 warheads would produce substantial cuts in Russia’s NSNW arsenal and address concerns that the scope of New START was too narrow, thereby helping prevent partisan interests from blocking ratification.

Successful negotiations with Russia and the U.S. Senate will not be enough on their own to secure a new treaty to support further cuts. Although the Obama administration will be called upon to heed the demands of Russian negotiators and U.S. Senators, it cannot be certain that its partners are working in good faith. But partisan politics can be prevented from derailing a new treaty if the President restores Congressional Republicans’ trust that he respects the linkage between nuclear arms reduction and increased funding for a leaner stockpile. And by taking advantage of prevailing trends to get Russia and NATO to accept a series of security-enhancing trade offs, he can preserve the future of his “Prague Agenda”.

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