Is it possible to move from the bilateral relations of the Cold War era to the creation of a new, multilateral system for limiting nuclear weapons?
Russia and the United States have faced a number of fundamental problems that require deep rethinking.
In recent decades, both states have maintained a range of arms control agreements that have ensured the nuclear safety of many countries. These agreements were mainly based either on a universal model, such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), or existed as a result of bilateral cooperation.
However, this effective system has been destabilised by a number of factors, of which it is advisable to single out the main ones: the return to a rivalry between the superpowers, the development of superior weapons technology, and its broader distribution.
First of all, it is necessary to note a sharp increase in the competition between the great powers, which has manifested itself in mutual accusations regarding the fulfilment of the existing agreements.
In addition, the uniqueness of the situation lies in the fact that for the first time in history, the United States, Russia and China are simultaneously the most important global players with respect to politics and the military.
At the same time, China and Russia have reached an unprecedented new level of defence cooperation. They are increasingly negative about the extended deterrence guarantees that the US provides to its allies in Europe and Asia. The argument that the United States not only protects the countries under the American “nuclear umbrella,” but also reduces their desire to develop their own nuclear programmes is no longer convincing enough for Beijing and Moscow.
China and Russia also share concern over the American Missile Defence (ABM) system, are critical toward the sanctions policy, even if it affects third parties and is rooted in nuclear non-proliferation considerations.
At the moment, the only areas where Russia, the United States and China have come to an agreement are horizontal nuclear non-proliferation among other states or non-state actors and rejection of a treaty banning nuclear weapons.
The development and implementation of the latest military technology is another destabilizing factor in the arms control system. Currently, there are types of weapons that are not nuclear, but have equal potential in conflict and are comparable in combat effectiveness to nuclear weapons.
First of all, there are concerns about strategic missile defence systems that undermine the offensive-defensive balance. In addition, strike weapons and cyber weapons do not at all fit into the existing arms control framework.
Finally, the proliferation of modern military technology outside of Russia and the United States also poses a serious challenge. Despite the difference in views between the Russian Federation and the United States, Moscow and Washington are increasingly striving for an expanded approach.
US President Donald Trump intends to propose a new arms control initiative to Russia and China. The news was announced by Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-Proliferation Christopher Ford.
In particular, China is the most worrisome, and is seen as a major long-term threat to the US. The Trump administration has accepted the Russian argument that any arms control system should also cover China.
Beijing is building up its nuclear potential and resolutely rejects participation in the arms control process, citing the incomparable scale of the nuclear resources of the Russian Federation, the United States and China. However, it is known that China is already ahead of Russia and the United States in the development and creation of medium-range ballistic missiles, which are the basis of the country’s arsenal.
Thus, the involvement of Beijing in one arrangement or another in the negotiation process is a very difficult, but increasingly necessary condition.
The Strategic Offensive Arms Treaty (New START) expires in February 2021. If the New START expires without a replacement or extension, Moscow and Washington, for the first time in half a century, will not have a valid bilateral strategic nuclear arms control treaty. The prolongation of this agreement will provide the Russian Federation and the United States with additional time to resume formal multilateral negotiations regarding the discussion of a more comprehensive agreement on further restrictions on nuclear weapons with the possible inclusion of new countries and weapons systems in the framework of a future treaty.
Some Russian experts note that it is not possible to replace the agreement on the reduction of strategic offensive weapons before the expiration of the current version. It will take at least six months for Russia to formally extend the existing contract by amending the relevant federal law. However, if that happens, both parties can continue to observe the provisions of the agreement while waiting for ratification; this is what was done in 2010-2011.
Over time, however, it will be necessary to move beyond the bilateral approach established during the Cold War to the creation of a new multilateral system for limiting nuclear weapons and developing functional mechanisms to ensure the mutual control of their implementation.
In the foreseeable future, given the confident rapprochement between Russia and China, Moscow can play an important role in maintaining a dialogue with Beijing to increase transparency and mutual understanding between the three superpowers; in particular, to share positive experiences on key arms control issues, including a verification mechanism. Such consultations could reduce Washington’s (and Moscow’s) concern over military plans and the pace at which China builds up its nuclear missile arsenal.
The Valdai Discussion Club could be a suitable platform for research on this issue.
The political antagonisms of the modern world have reached a degree that is indeed alarming. No less destabilizing than the lowered pain threshold that used to guard against the use of force or wars between the states – is the visible imbalance between the advancing technological warfare capabilities and the lack of practical experience in using these technologies.