13.05.2010. The Nucleus of the Treaty

Russia and the U.S. have signed a new strategic arms reduction treaty. This officially cuts their surplus of arms by one third, but in actual fact, each party will only decommission several dozen such armaments.

If the U.S. Senate and the Russian parliament ratify the agreement, the two countries will restore control over strategic nuclear armaments, making the situation more predictable.

In the course of the negotiations, Russia reached almost all the objectives it could possibly set. The only serious fault, for which we should blame politicians, not the negotiators, is that Russia failed to link the treaty – which the Obama administration was more anxious to reach than Russia – to the obligation to draw and sign a European security treaty, as Russia demands.

Russia did not succeed in reanimating the restrictions on the deployment of strategic missile defense systems. It was impossible anyway, not with the current setup in the U.S. Senate where any rigid constraint on the development of strategic missile defense would have killed all the chances for the ratification of any treaty.

Nor was it possible to secure a de facto ban on the development by the U.S. of high-precision non-nuclear systems capable of destroying strategic facilities. However, these factors will not threaten Russia if it modernizes its nuclear potential, its survivability, and capability to overcome missile defense, and if it makes no further moves to reduce it.

Yet the Treaty is good anyway. It normalizes political relations between the two countries, facilitating further their cooperation and rapprochement. And this is advantageous for Russia. Poor relations with the U.S.A., especially under the Obama administration, would harm almost all main fields of the Russian foreign policy.

The comeback to the center of the strategic armaments, has helped Russia to gaine political weight and highlighted the field in which it remains a superpower. It has also given a strong backing to the political positions of Barack Obama, cast as the most constructive and progressive U.S. president in the past decades, and, possibly for many years to come.

After the treaty had been signed, Washington hosted a nuclear non-proliferation summit, a landmark event for the U.S. administration, which has made the fight against nuclear non-proliferation its trademark policy. Almost all other countries are also keen to contain the threat of proliferation and terrorism. This concerns Russia in the first place as it has potential proliferators and terrorists among its neighbors.

The summit was a success. Russia undertook the commitment to stop the production of weapon-grade plutonium which it had piled up beyond measure. The participants pledged to step up coordination in fighting nuclear terrorism and proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Yet the few accords reached at the summit, though welcome, are not as significant as its political-psychological effect. It creates the impression that world leaders are ready to work together.

Iran, which I am sure is seeking to come in possession of nuclear weapons or the capability to produce them, is likely to encounter a much tougher resistance to its plans. Admittedly, Tehran can hardly be stopped, but the concerted international effort can limit its ambitions and opportunities, set a higher price for other proliferators, and inhibit possible chain reaction of nuclear proliferation in the region.

Yet the debates about the role of nuclear weapons in the modern and future world are only beginning. Regrettably, they are still based on the mentality and concepts inherited from the past. Meanwhile, the recent changes in the world have made it almost unrecognizable, so the adequacy of old concepts is to be challenged.

Just a reminder of these changes:

– An unprecedented shift in the correlation of economic forces in the world;

– Climate change and the new industrial revolution caused an increased competition for natural resources, water, food, and, hence, for territories. The competition will be gaining momentum while taking various forms;

– There began an apparently inevitable proliferation of nuclear weapons (which might be regulated by joint efforts at best). Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea have joined the club of nuclear weapon states;

– New challenges to international security have emerged, such as international terrorism, cyber crime, and piracy. The real impact of these threats is not clear yet;

– The old world governance institutions – the UN, WTO and IMF – have weakened, while the new ones have been lagging behind in their development;

– The role of nation states and regional blocs is reviving – to the detriment of the agencies and institutions of multilateral supranational governance. The remarkable European integration project seems to be unique at the present historical stage; it, too, is experiencing problems;

– The Euroatlantic space, including the former Soviet Union and the Old West remains split, although not as deeply or antagonistically as during the Cold War. In actual fact, the Cold War lingers;

– The growing security vacuums in a number of regions, including the Gulf and the Middle East, are exacerbating the situation;

– A lack of understanding of current events, a sort of intellectual political chaos, aggravates the situation in the military-political sphere. It has changed dramatically, compared with the period of 1945-1990 when the West formulated the modern military-strategic theory, along with its basic concepts of deterrence, expanded deterrence, strategic stability, etc. But the concepts of European universal – one and indivisible – security and of “a common European house,” which have been brought forward to replace them, refuse to take root.

For lack of new ones, old concepts have been offered in the military-strategic field, such as the calls reiterating the “nuclear zero” idea, i.e. the necessity to make the world completely free of nuclear weapons.

President Obama has made this idea his official objective. The recent Treaty and summit have been hailed as moves towards this goal.

I have serious questions regarding this bid. Strengthening the non-proliferation regimes or fighting nuclear terrorism by cutting armaments is one thing, but striving toward “the nuclear zero” is another. They may turn out to be opposite and mutually exclusive objectives.

I believe the “nuclear zero” concept is moral, but senseless.

Nobody is going to give up nuclear weapons. Nor is it feasible – technically or politically. One might close the issue by offering a proof of this stance. But consider: the anti-nuclear movement is harmful. Firstly, it may result in the reduction of nuclear armaments to a dangerous minimum; it opens the “Pandora’s box” of the negotiations over the reduction of non-strategic nuclear armaments. Secondly, it is a distraction from the search for new ways of setting peace and stability in the new world.

Now to the essence of the problem:

Obviously, nuclear weapons are immoral. An A-bomb is millions of times more immoral than a spear or sword, hundreds of thousand times than a rifle, thousands of times than a machine gun, and hundreds of times than salvo systems or cluster bombs.

But there is a significant difference. Unlike other kinds of armaments, nuclear weapons are an effective means of preventing large-scale wars and mass destruction of people – something the humanity has been doing throughout its history with surprising perseverance, destroying peoples, countries and cultures.

To reject nuclear weapons and strive towards their elimination is a moral thing. Yet one has to realize that this goal would be feasible and welcome only if man and humanity have changed. Apparently, the “nuclear zero” advocates believe that such a change is possible. I believe otherwise.

In my opinion, the risks for the world without nuclear weapons or with their minimal amount are tremendous.

Nuclear deterrence, or the threat to destroy hundreds of thousands and even millions, is a concept that does not fit into traditional morals. Yet it has worked, preventing wars and the murder of thousands and millions, while making people and their organizations more civilized and cautious. When one pole of nuclear deterrence weakened due to Russia’s political decline, if not collapse in the 1990s, NATO, a defensive union of democratic and peaceful states, committed an aggression against Yugoslavia. Now that Russia has restored its capability such a move would be unthinkable. After Yugoslavia, there was an unprovoked attack on Iraq.

The idea of cutting nuclear arsenals to minimal levels is also questionable. In a nearly perfect world, Russia and the U.S. would hardly need large nuclear stockpiles. But cutting nuclear weapons to a bare minimum in the present conditions would give a considerable advantage to small countries that will have their nuclear potentials on par with those of great states. This will give a stimulus for a worldwide destabilizing nuclear arms race.

If it comes to the reduction of tactical nuclear weapons, as proposed by a dozens of European experts and part of their U.S. and Russian colleagues, the opponents to the ongoing radical military reform in Russia will have more objections to reconfiguring the conventional armed forces from confrontation with NATO to a flexible response to any potential threats.

And if the U.S. pulls out its largely nominal tactical nukes from Europe, the strategic U.S.-Europe linkage will weaken. Many Europeans, above all in new EU member-states, will be demanding more protection from the mythical Russian Leviathan.

A number of politicians suggested talks over the reduction of tactical nukes, on the wave of euphoria from the new Treaty. This will open another Pandora box.

New reduction talks should not begin until the international community assigns a place to nuclear weapons in the modern world. Otherwise, we’ll be trying to eliminate the non-existing imbalances, by implementing expensive moves to pull out armaments from the current deployment areas for unclear purposes or creating new mythical threats for other states.

In theory, reducing nuclear weapons to the minimum enhances the usefulness of missile defense systems and their destabilizing role. Even the non-strategic missile defense systems whose deployment might be tentatively useful will be challenged.

Previous talks over intermediary range nukes in Europe militarized the European policy for years. Do we wish a repeat scenario? Not even as farce, but as a caricature of farce?

Instead of coming to grips with the real problem, namely the increasingly unstable international situation, including in the military-political field, the world community, having lost the strategic reference points, is trying to apply the old instruments of the Cold War era to the new situation. At best, they are marginally useful or even useless, but most often, they are simply harmful.

What can be done to give an adequate response to these challenges? Obviously, we should not clutch at the old recipes and institutions as we have been doing so far. Anticipating future trends, we should build new institutions accordingly.

In the military-strategic field, we have to think about how to live in the world with an expanding club of nuclear weapon states, while keeping it relatively stable. To this end, the two great nuclear powers need a joint deterrence policy with respect to new nuclear weapon states. Simultaneously, they should offer guarantees to the non-nuclear weapon states that might feel insecure. In the first place, it is necessary to fill in the increasing security vacuums in the Middle East. China, the world’s second strategic player, might join this policy, although at present it ranks third by military power.

Lastly, it is necessary to determine the role of nuclear weapons and put an end to the sweet talk about how well everybody would be faring in a nuclear-free world.

I have elaborated on the above arguments from the position of a “supra-national” specialist – as far as I conceive it.

Now, I will tell my opinion as a Russian. My country finds itself in a very difficult geopolitical situation. Its modernization is thwarted by ubiquitous corruption and the wish of the population and the elite to “relax” offer the burdens of Communism and the ensuing revolution. In the present situation, it would be suicidal to renounce the support of a powerful nuclear potential, including tactical nukes, the main guarantor of Russia’s security and the crucial source of its political and even economic positions in international competition.

Of course, Russians are superb idealists: twice they did things that fell nothing short of suicide. In 1917 they tried to realize one of Europe’s worst utopias, Communism, and paid for the attempt with dozens of million lives. Another suicidal move occurred in 1991, when they decided to put an end to Communism and become a democratic and capitalist country on short notice. They readily paid for it with the breakup of the country which earlier was called the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and very nearly broke up Russia itself by the end of the 1990s. At present, I can see no such idealism among my fellow citizens.


Arms control talks are mostly needed to make the situation in this field more transparent and build confidence between the great powers and their ability to work together. And that is all how useful they may be.

Most importantly, it is necessary to launch an international discussion about the role of military force, including nuclear weapons, in the contemporary world. This world differs dramatically from the world of last centuries which we got accustomed to and which created nuclear weapons and basic concepts to control or limit them. Such a discussion might end with an understanding that “nuclear zero” is not just a myth, but a harmful myth, and that nuclear weapons are a good asset designed to save the humanity from itself.


This article was originally published in Russian in Rossiiskaya Gazeta, April 23, 2010.


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