Conflict and Leadership
US-Russia Strategic Stability Dialogue: Why It’s Good to Talk

The symbolism of the two-leading nuclear-armed states recognising the dangers of a more complex and perhaps dangerous global nuclear order is significant, and neither party will lose anything by seeking to better understand the potential flashpoints and pathways that could lead to conflict and even the use of nuclear weapons in the years ahead, writes Valdai Club expert Andrew Futter.

Last June, leaders of the United States and Russia met in Geneva, Switzerland, for the first incarnation of what has been billed as a new “strategic stability dialogue” between the two nuclear-armed nations. The dialogue, which was announced following a summit meeting between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin on 16th June, has been seen as an important first step in addressing a growing range of national and global security concerns held by both parties, and to hopefully lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures. While nuclear and strategic discussions happened during the Presidency of Donald Trump (2017-2021), and while considerable disagreements and problems remain, there is a more positive feeling about this new initiative than in the recent past.

Indeed, this initiative could hardly be timelier, coming as it does after a decade of worsening US-Russia relations, a more recent increase in military sabre rattling and aggressive rhetoric and the myriad concerns raised by the development and deployment of new weapons systems, many of which could have harmful strategic effects. What is hoped is that these high-level meetings will help to address the most pressing national security concerns, explore possibilities for arms control and thus hopefully prevent a future arms race and conflict.

While the first iteration of the dialogue did not produce any game-changing announcements, the fact that the two parties were able to meet and begin to talk through a range of complicated and sensitive strategic issues is nevertheless significant.

If there is one lesson to take from the Cold War it is that even when bilateral relations are most strained everyone benefits from continued communication.

A lost decade?

When President’s Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev signed the New START Treaty in April 2010, reducing both sides deployed strategic nuclear capabilities to 1550 warheads and 700 launchers respectively, there was a feeling of optimism that this agreement might be the first step in a new nuclear arms reduction process. Discussions, particularly in Washington think tank circles, began to focus on the possibility of further reductions to the considerable stockpiles of nuclear weapons held by both parties (which still number many thousands of warheads apiece), including those deployed and not-deployed, and that other nuclear systems not covered by New START (such as shorter-range tactical nuclear weapons) might be reduced or even eliminated as well.   

Instead, the past decade has seen a gradual worsening of US-Russia relations, particularly after the Ukraine crisis of 2013-14. Concerns have mounted during this period about the development and deployment of new and modernised nuclear and non-nuclear weapons systems with possible strategic effect; 2019 saw the end of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that many analysts have credited with fundamentally reducing nuclear dangers in Europe for a generation; and at one point the it seemed that the New START Treaty would be allowed to expire in 2021 meaning that there would be no formal arms limitation agreement and inspection regime between the US and Russia/Soviet Union for the first time in 50 years.      

For sure, the first half of 2021 has seen a number of positive developments: Presidents Biden and Putin agreed in February to extend the New START Treaty until 2026 – theoretically providing time for discussions on what might follow; and at the June summit mentioned earlier, both Presidents made the symbolic, but nevertheless powerful reaffirmation of the Reagan-Gorbachev statement from 1985 that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Nevertheless, many thorny and potentially problematic issues remain, spanning the gamut from the use of cyber-attacks and information operations to undermine political processes and stability through to the challenges posed by new and disruptive weapons systems to the nuclear balance between the two countries.

Nuclear Weapons: Development and Accumulation
According to new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the Trump administration plans to loosen constraints on the use of nuclear weapons and develop new ones, including a low-yield nuclear warhead for US Trident missiles.  US and Russia accuse each other of nuclear weapons developing in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.

New and disruptive technology challenges

While the strategic stability discussions appear from the outside to have a broad remit, at the centre of agenda for the teams lead by Sergei Ryabkov (Russian Deputy Defence Minister) and Wendy Sherman (US Deputy Secretary of State) will be the impact of new and disruptive technologies, especially military systems that could impact nuclear stability. But to refer to these systems as “new” is slightly misleading: there are some novel systems and capabilities that could have an impact in different ways, but many of the weapons that have been cited as threats to strategic stability have either been around for a while or represent new versions of older problems.

The best example of this is ballistic missile defence. Russia has been concerned for decades about the possible implications of the US pursuit of defences against ballistic missiles, and certainly since the US abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002. The unease is twofold; firstly, that the US could rapidly expand the current system of radars, satellites and interceptors to give far more comprehensive coverage and capability than already exists, and second that this could be done at the same time as more closely integrating the various systems deployed in coordination with allies across the globe (and that surround Russia). While this may not make the US invulnerable to Russian nuclear missiles, in could create a significant doubt in the minds of Russian policymakers about the veracity of being able to retaliate following a first strike (either with nuclear or non-nuclear precision weapons). The US has continued to push ahead with BMD during the past decade, ostensibly to protect against other threats, but the Trump Administrations 2019 BMD Review hinted at designing such defences against all potential foes. A message that was not lost in Moscow.

A second area of concern is the deployment of “hypersonic” weapons. Russia appears to be interested in developing hypersonic weapons as a response to US BMD plans: the rationale being that hypersonic weapons can manoeuvre during the midcourse of their non-ballistic flight path making them better at evading interception than current missiles. But hypersonic weapons technology is not that new, many ballistic missiles already travel at hypersonic speeds, and both ballistic but especially cruise missiles are manoeuvrable and can fly at different trajectories. Perhaps the more important aspect is the link between hypersonic weapons and warhead ambiguity – that is the uncertainly whether the missile (ballistic, hypersonic or cruise) being launched is nuclear or non-nuclear armed. This in turn feeds into a bigger issue about US conventional global strike plans (especially in combination with BMD).

Another item likely to be high on the agenda is the concern about autonomous nuclear weapons systems. Nuclear systems have long incorporated aspects of Artificial Intelligence and autonomy, but Russian plans for an autonomous nuclear-armed Torpedo known as Status-6 or Poseidon, has caused concern in the US. Russian policymakers have cited the need for such systems to ensure the continued credibly of their nuclear deterrent in face of US technological advances, but many experts are fearful of the possible implications of removing humans from the decision-making process.

The lesson of Stanislav Petrov in 1983 is just one example of the potential dangers of allowing machines rather than humans to make decisions involving nuclear weapons.

The challenges posed by developments in space and cyberspace represent a further important area for discussions. The cyber challenge ranges from US allegations of Russian interference in elections through to Russian concerns about US “left of launch” BMD plans – whereby hackers might try to prevent nuclear weapons systems from working. Likewise, the growing reliance on space for all nuclear-armed powers, but especially the US military, and a concurrent renewed interest in different types of anti-satellite weapons pose another pressing challenge for those interested in preventing accidental escalation and crisis management.       

Different priorities but a shared goal?

Strategic stability is a nebulous term that can cover a wide variety of different dynamics, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the US and Russia have different conceptions of what this means, and therefore different priorities for the nascent strategic stability dialogue. For Russia, the immediate priorities are limitations on US and allied BMD systems, or at worst more transparency, and the incorporation of all types of weapons systems, both nuclear and non-nuclear, with possible strategic effect into the dialogue For the US the objective is finding an agreement that will continue to limit Russia’s deployed nuclear forces, including new strategic delivery systems and ideally reductions or even the limitation of the large stock of “tactical nuclear weapons”, and finding ways to prohibit or minimise disruptive political interference through information and cyber operations. More broadly, it is likely that both parties will have an interest in the future of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the possible inclusion of third parties in arms control discussions, and the continued work to prevent nuclear terrorism.

At a minimum the dialogue should provide a forum for discussion of important and pressing issues, reflect a commitment to arms control in principle, and potentially begin an informal process of confidence building. It is possible that this is all that the dialogue produces. A slightly more optimistic view would be that the dialogue lays the foundations for an extended and perhaps modified New START Treaty (beyond 2026), possibly with small reductions in deployed nuclear and/or non-deployed forces, and maybe agreements to curb the deployment of potentially destabilising weapons technologies. This might also be twinned with a joint commitment to other trust building, transparency and crisis management mechanisms. More optimistic still would be that the dialogue is able to find ways to address the twin issues posed by US ballistic missile defences and Russian tactical nuclear weapons. This could also potentially include the negotiating teams beginning to explore ways of minimising and mitigating the challenges posed by a range of new weapons systems and issues: this might include moratoria on certain types of cyber-operations; limitations or bans of particular weapons systems or targets; restraint in the deployment of hypersonic and dual capable missiles, or on autonomous nuclear delivery platforms; or greater transparency of both the intentions and capabilities of future BMD systems. The most transformative, but also least likely outcome, is a so-called “grand bargain” linking all types of nuclear and non-nuclear, offensive and defensive strategic weapons systems deployed by both parties. If this was to happen it might provide the space for the scale of nuclear reductions needed to bring the other nuclear-armed states into genuine global nuclear arms control discussions.

Whatever the outcome of this dialogue, perhaps the most important thing is the discourse and face-to-face interaction. The symbolism of the two-leading nuclear-armed states recognising the dangers of a more complex and perhaps dangerous global nuclear order is significant, and neither party will lose anything by seeking to better understand the potential flashpoints and pathways that could lead to conflict and even the use of nuclear weapons in the years ahead.

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Andrew Futter
The safe, secure and reliable management of nuclear weapons has always been a complex and complicated business, plagued by uncertainty and risks.
Valdai Papers
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.