Virtual Roundtable: Russian Arms Control Compliance: A Report Card, 1984-2020

Tuesday, June 23, 2020
Ramil Sitdikov/Reuters
Christopher A. Ford

Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation, U.S. Department of State


Adjunct Senior Fellow for International and National Security Law, Council on Foreign Relations; Partner, Arnold & Porter

Last month, the White House announced that the United States will withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, citing Russian noncompliance with the agreement as part of the rationale for the decision. Christopher A. Ford reflects on the past thirty-five years of U.S. compliance assessments and discusses U.S. concerns over Soviet and Russian behavior in arms control.

John B. Bellinger III: Thanks very much, and hello everybody. Welcome to our roundtable on international and national security law, which we are now doing by Zoom. I am John Bellinger, and I am delighted to have with us today an old friend who is known to many of you all: Chris Ford, who is the assistant secretary for arms control and nonproliferation and who is performing the delegated duties of the undersecretary and has been for some time.

John B. Bellinger III: I've looked at the participant list today and Chris, you have attracted a very high-level audience. I think many people know you.

John B. Bellinger III: I've known Chris for at least twenty years—probably longer. Chris was a deputy assistant secretary in the Arms Control and Verification Bureau and then moved on to be the senior envoy for nonproliferation in the second term of the Bush administration, first when John Bolton in the first term was the undersecretary and then when John Rood was undersecretary in the second term.

John B. Bellinger III: But there are few people in Washington who have as long-standing an experience on proliferation, arms control, and arms control treaty issues as Chris Ford, so the department and the government are lucky to have you. I appreciate your service.

John B. Bellinger III: Chris has been in the assistant secretary job for the last two years. He served for the first year of this administration as special assistant to the president and senior director for WMDs and nonproliferation on the NSC staff, before he moved over to the State Department.

John B. Bellinger III: Chris is a real expert and also a truly decent person—a very nice guy. So, Chris, thanks for taking time to be with us. There's a lot to talk about.

John B. Bellinger III: We only have an hour today, which is shorter than our normal amount of time. Chris is going to make some opening remarks, which, as Audrey said, are on the record. His remarks are on the record, but then we are going to switch for the Q and A session with a couple of questions from me and then a couple from you all.

John B. Bellinger III: Those will be off the record—or, at least, to be precise under CFR rules, they are not for attribution: you can use the information that he has provided in the Q and A, but it may not be attributed to him and we ask everybody to respect that carefully.

John B. Bellinger III: So, everybody's a Zoom expert, so as Chris speaks—and certainly when I start asking for questions, but even as Chris speaks—you can use the raise hand function, which is at the bottom ribbon. And I will keep track of the raised hands and then call on you all. So, with that, Chris, welcome. It's really great to have you. Thanks.

Christopher A. Ford: Thank you, John, and thank you for the kind words and thanks to CFR for hosting. It's great to have the chance to talk to you guys, even if it is just through the video teleconference, which, I'm discovering—to my surprise—works remarkably well. I would not have thought that some months ago.

Christopher A. Ford: So, on today's topic of Russian arms control compliance and the lessons it can teach us, let me start by giving you guys three data points as a way to sort of get out of the box here.

Christopher A. Ford: The first data point is, of course, that yesterday, U.S. and Russian officials met in Vienna to talk about possibilities for a follow-on arms control framework.

Christopher A. Ford: The second data point is that last night, the State Department sent to Congress the unclassified text of the 2020 report entitled Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments.

Christopher A. Ford: This is the unclassified version of the report. The higher-level versions will follow shortly, but we sent this sort of eighty-something page, single-spaced slab of unclassified compliance analysis to Congress last night. I believe it is actually on the website this morning—in case anyone is interested.

Christopher A. Ford: The third data point is that last week, my office at the department published a paper in our arms control and international security papers series—also available on the State Department website—that looks back across essentially three-and-a-half-decades of U.S. compliance analysis ever since we started doing these reports in, I think, 1984.

Christopher A. Ford: What I'd like to do is try to draw those three data points together, which makes this a fairly big week, I guess, to say a few words about what looking back at the history of Russian arms control and compliance visible in all of those old reports can tell us about some of the challenges that lie ahead as we try to negotiate a new arms control framework.

Christopher A. Ford: So, I guess the first observation is that, at the most abstract level, if you look back at the history of U.S. assessments of Russian arms control—well, Soviet and then Russian arms control—compliance, it gives you a bit of a window upon the shifting nature of geopolitical concerns over the years, starting in the eighties with a strong focus upon essentially great power rivalry, which was the focus of reports at that time, to a rising of new themes of other countries' compliance and, in particular with WMD issues, the nonproliferation issues that arose particularly in the 1990s, and then some degree of a shift in more recent years back again towards a concern with great power rivalry, as you can see in the more recent reports—not simply in our 2020 report that is now available to the public.

Christopher A. Ford: But I think there is actually an even more important lesson than just sort of watching that pendulum shift over time, and that is that looking back across the history of U.S. assessments of Moscow's compliance helps us understand something about how Moscow approaches arms control and, thus, helps give some insight, I hope, into what it is that we need to be struggling with now as we try to build a new arms control framework.

Christopher A. Ford: So, as I suggested, the reports from the early and mid-1980s during the so much more competitive high Cold War phase, if you will, do reflect those kinds of very focused, bilateral concerns.

Christopher A. Ford: Obviously, for those of you who are students of the period, the 1970s had been a decade of, well, two things at the same time, very interestingly.

Christopher A. Ford: On the one hand, a fair amount of arms control movement. This was the era of détente in the seventies. It was the era in which the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty had been negotiated, and, of course, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. So, there was a good deal of arms control movement. But, at the same time—outside the uncontrolled context—the seventies were a decade in which Moscow had made some very significant aggressive, competitive moves.

Christopher A. Ford: In addition to developing and deploying the new generation of both strategic and nonstrategic weaponry, the Soviets, during that period, of course, bankrolled and provisioned Cuban expeditionary warfare in support of proxy regimes in locations such as Angola and the Horn of Africa.

Christopher A. Ford: They supported guerrilla movements and terrorist groups against countries friendly to the U.S. around the world. They invaded Afghanistan. They crushed dissent in the subject nations in the Warsaw Pact.

Christopher A. Ford: All these advances, of course, came on top of some very notable U.S. setbacks: in the 1970s, the loss of the Vietnam War, social unrest and political protest at home, the Watergate Scandal, and the traumas of the oil crisis and rampant inflation—stagflation, as I recall it being termed at the time.

Christopher A. Ford: So, by the time you get to the compliance report process in the early 1980s, you have a very sort of challenging backdrop for all these questions to be discussed, and it's very clear that, although by that time U.S. leaders had begun to react to all of those Soviet moves with our own counter-strategy, if you will, under the Reagan administration—in fairness, Jimmy Carter at the very end of his term as well began some of that—the context in which those early arms control discussions were going on about Soviet compliance was a very fraught strategic and competitive context.

Christopher A. Ford: So, what those early reports from the U.S. do is paint a very clear picture of the Soviet Union as a superpower that was, in that context, determined to eke out any advantage that it could vis-a-vis the United States and which was unfortunately not too scrupulous about treaty compliance—except merely that it might, of course, be a propaganda setback if you were caught in such cheating.

Christopher A. Ford: These reports also make it pretty clear—it seems clear from reading them—that American leaders at the time were both alarmed by the growth of Soviet capabilities in the strategic realm and also worried about the degree to which arms control still represented a viable way of limiting those threats.

Christopher A. Ford: So that was some of the eighties picture, or at least the early eighties picture, and if you read the reports through—and I don't think all of them are available publicly at this point, although I am referring to the unclassified reports—the picture began to change during the course of the 1980s, as we all remember, of course: to some degree for internal reasons of its own, and to some degree because U.S. counterstrategy had by that point begun to convince the Kremlin that competition wasn't in fact going so well for them.

Christopher A. Ford: For all these reasons, the Soviets began to take a somewhat different path, and you can sort of watch this happening over the course of reading the compliance reports over the years.

Christopher A. Ford: For example, in the late 1980s, a number of compliance issues raised previously were actually starting to—some of them—be resolved, which is, frankly, on the unusual side historically speaking.

Christopher A. Ford: Then as the Cold War waned and ended, this very easing of tensions made possible a lot of very important progress: some real arms control achievements were realized as leaders of that period were trying to take advantage of the cooperative possibilities that opened up by this new atmosphere of strengthened trust.

Christopher A. Ford: So we saw enormous arms reductions begin to get underway, first with the INF Treaty, which got rid of an entire class of nuclear-capable delivery systems, and then, of course, with START I, which brought to fruition an enormous range of full-scope nuclear arsenal reductions.

Christopher A. Ford: So, that's the sort of nuclear side, but also in conventional arms control, that was also the period of conventional arms control in Europe blossoming for the first time with instruments such as the CFE Treaty, the Open Skies Treaty, and the Vienna document—all of which were designed to sort of take advantage of and to institutionalize what everyone hoped would be an enduringly benign and post-competitive era of trust and cooperation.

Christopher A. Ford: The Chemical Weapons Convention was negotiated also during this period, as well as the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty.

Christopher A. Ford: The former, in fact, tried to eliminate an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. That was a dramatic sort of macro shift and what you saw is that the reports of Russian noncompliance eased during that time: they seemed to have approached treaties with a greater fidelity to their obligations—not a perfect fidelity by a long shot, but it was a considerable improvement.

Christopher A. Ford: You sort of saw Moscow's behavior changing with the tenor of the times and perhaps it was the other way around: the tenor of the times were changed, in part and to some degree, because Moscow showed a degree of good faith that it had not shown before.

Christopher A. Ford: But of course, as we all know, that easing of tensions and strengthening of trust wasn't going to last. Russia's ambitions to recover global power for itself were ultimately not compatible with that kind of post-competitive, more cooperative post-Cold War world.

Christopher A. Ford: Ever since Vladimir Putin became president at the end of 1999, his government has rather openly dedicated itself to reversing what he has himself proclaimed to be the twentieth century's greatest geopolitical catastrophe: the collapse of Moscow's power.

Christopher A. Ford: What Putin proclaimed himself to be following, and he said this even before actually stepping into the office in his so-called Millennium Message in late December 1999, is essentially a fundamentally revisionist strategic agenda, and it is this agenda that has driven Russian policy ever since in ways that have led to a very significant deterioration in the global security environment. In service of this agenda, Putin's policy has turned increasingly toward self-aggrandizement by means of extravagant provocations.

Christopher A. Ford: We all know the list: there's Russia's invasions of Georgia and Ukraine; its expeditionary warfare in Syria; its interference in Western elections; its use of energy as a weapon; its chronic violations of arms control agreements and arrangements, which I will come to more in a moment; its deployment of so-called private military contractors to hotspots around the world; its build-up of nonstrategic nuclear weaponry; its pursuit of a range of bizarre new and exotic strategic delivery systems that Putin boasted about publicly in March of 2018; as well as such things as assassinations and assassination attempts against defectors and political opponents overseas using radioactive poison in one case and, in another case, a banned chemical nerve agent.

Christopher A. Ford: So, this, then, is the context for modern Russian approaches to arms control.

Christopher A. Ford: In terms of their present compliance, you can sort of track this also through reading the reports over time.

Christopher A. Ford: Unfortunately, the results are very much what you might expect from a country willing to use such approaches in service of its geopolitical agenda. Just as compliance reports in the early 1980s depict a Soviet Union seemingly quite willing to ignore its obligations where cheating seemed likely to provide some kind of advantage, so Putin’s Russia has also seemed willing to ignore increasingly its arms control agreements in service of the Kremlin's dreams of power.

Christopher A. Ford: So, if you read the reports, you can track this as it goes on. Russia's record of compliance has been really woeful.

Christopher A. Ford: Their compliance problems under the Open Skies Treaty, quite ironically, began almost from the very moment that that treaty entered into force. And its record of compliance has been highly problematic ever since.

Christopher A. Ford: They've shown a pattern of behavior that we've documented in our reports for a while since 2005, showing very clearly that Moscow is perfectly willing to adopt illegal restrictions whenever it wishes, turning them on and off again as if the law were something like a light switch. And this, of course, has done a lot to undermine the confidence that the treaty had hoped to provide.

Christopher A. Ford: Notwithstanding a provision in the Open Skies Treaty that imagery from overflights under the treaty shall be used exclusively for the attainment of the purposes of the treaty, Russia may now also be using imagery gathered on those flights for purposes of supporting its new strategy of targeting—civilian and military— foreign countries' critical infrastructure with precision-guided conventional munitions.

Christopher A. Ford: It has used airfield designations under the Open Skies Treaty and illegal overflight restrictions as well to buttress its propaganda narratives in support of Putin's regional aggression, such as by claiming that the Russian-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are independent states rather than, of course, Russian-occupied portions of the sovereign state of Georgia and claiming that Russian-occupied Crimea is part of Russia rather than of the sovereign state of Ukraine.

Christopher A. Ford: So, on the whole, what was supposed to have been a treaty institutionalizing the mutual confidence and cooperation of the post-Cold War era has been weaponized by the Kremlin in support of its own aggressive revisionism—and that's just Open Skies.

Christopher A. Ford: More broadly, Russia has systematically undermined essentially all of conventional arms control across Europe. In 2007, it announced what it described as the suspension of its obligations under the CFE Treaty and today it has made clear that it's not going to resume CFE implementation even as it continues to station military forces on the territories of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine without their permission.

Christopher A. Ford: Every one of our compliance reports from 2015 has described Russia also as having engaged in select implementation of the Vienna document.

Christopher A. Ford: Now in the nuclear arena, it is true that Russia has complied with its obligations under New START. That's a good thing, but it is, unfortunately, perhaps the sole bright spot.

Christopher A. Ford: Less bright spots are all the other promises that Russia has made. It has not adhered to the promises that it made in the early 1990s under the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives on the nondeployment and elimination of its arsenal of nonstrategic weapons and apparently no longer feels bound by those PNIs: it retains a sizable stockpile of nonstrategic weapons—up to 2,000 of them at the moment—and it is likely to build many more in the years ahead.

Christopher A. Ford: Additionally, in the nuclear realm, as set forth in our compliance report, Russia has conducted nuclear weapons-related experiments that have created nuclear yield.

Christopher A. Ford: Their activities during the 1995 to 2019 timeframe, which we also assess, raise concerns about their compliance with the Threshold Test-Ban Treaty, specifically its notification obligations.

Christopher A. Ford: And, of course, as we all know, Russia began development of an illegal, covertly-developed, intermediate range ground-launch cruise missile, probably by the mid-2000s, that raised concerns under the INF Treaty. In 2013, U.S. diplomats began to engage with the Russians to try to address this problem and, in 2014, declared Russia to be in violation of the INF treaty.

Christopher A. Ford: But, of course, as we all know, to no avail. Today, multiple deployed battalions of these missiles pose a direct threat to all the countries of Europe, as well as to the People's Republic of China.

Christopher A. Ford: And meanwhile, for good measure, Russia was violating the CWC, the Chemical Weapons Convention, with, for example, its use of an illegal chemical weapon in 2018 on the soil of our NATO ally, the United Kingdom.

Christopher A. Ford: So, that's a pretty grim story. So, as we attempt today to engage both Russia and this look back across the history of U.S. compliance reporting, I think this makes clear what a formidable challenge it is that we face in this.

Christopher A. Ford: First of all, one lesson is that Moscow clearly seems to take an opportunistically instrumental view of compliance with its treaty obligations.

Christopher A. Ford: Now it may not cheat all the time and it doesn't cheat time all the time; as I mentioned, it is complying with the new START—as far as we can tell. It doesn't cheat all the time, but neither does it shrink from violating treaties on a whim almost if it thinks that doing so will be advantageous to it.

Christopher A. Ford: The second lesson, I think, from this long history is that Russia's approach to treaty compliance varies hugely depending upon its objectives in the international arena.

Christopher A. Ford: During the period when the Kremlin still hewed to an approach of cooperation and reconciliation with the countries of the West, keeping agreements was, at least, more the norm—certainly much more so than today.

Christopher A. Ford: But whenever Russia has sought to rearrange the international system to its advantage, it has regarded compliance with its obligations and with its commitments as essentially being no more than optional.

Christopher A. Ford: And so, this highlights, I think, the challenge that we really face in building a new arms control framework. It makes clear that the difficulties of ensuring Moscow's compliance with its obligations are at their maximum when the Kremlin approaches geopolitics with a competitively self-aggrandizing high, which, of course, it does today.

Christopher A. Ford: In such circumstances, it tends to disregard its obligations frequently, whenever in effect it thinks it can. And this is, I think, the paradox and the problem for us as arms controllers.

Christopher A. Ford: Such times of distrust and antagonism, while they are the ones in which it is the most difficult to rely upon arms control when dealing with someone like Moscow, are also, of course, exactly the times when arms control is most necessary in order to limit the degree to which distrust spirals into a dangerous new arms race.

Christopher A. Ford: After all, where tension and distrust have eased and trust has grown, there is less need for arms limitation in the first place. I mean, who feels nervous from a perspective of policymakers in Washington about Britain's nuclear arsenal, for example? Where there is trust, you don't have such a need for arms limitation.

Christopher A. Ford: The challenge is that, when dealing with a country such as Russia, with its unprincipled approach to legality, arms control is least reliable when having it is most urgent. And now, in many of these respects, you could probably say the same thing about China, about the PRC, as I have about Russia, given Beijing's own revisionist ambitions in the world.

Christopher A. Ford: Over the last generation, China, too, has directed its strategy—rather single-mindedly—to expanding its global power at the expense of the existing international order, and it is today building up both its nuclear and its conventional capabilities at an alarming rate.

Christopher A. Ford: Now I've written extensively and I talk all the time about China's ambitions, so I won't belabor that point here. But I do want to point out that, in understanding the challenge of the arms control environment, one must remember that both the second and the third most militarily-powerful players on the Earth today are both dyed in the wool of geopolitical revisionism, and this makes the arms control challenge all the more significant.

Christopher A. Ford: Now, in fairness, China appears much less frequently in the annals of our compliance reporting, than do the Russians. But that infrequency isn't exactly to Beijing's credit: it simply speaks to the PRC's general refusal to engage in good-faith arms control negotiations in the first place, so there is just less to assess compliance with, if you will.

Christopher A. Ford: That said, our report—if you check it out online, you will notice that we do raise concerns about China in connection with yield-producing nuclear testing and biological weapons, and we conclude the Beijing has failed to adhere to its commitments not to assist others in developing nuclear-capable missiles.

Christopher A. Ford: But anyway, on the whole, given their competitive ambitions, it is not clear that either Russia or the PRC is likely to take arms control compliance very seriously today if either one of them feels that they have the chance to get away with cheating. And that is something of a grim lesson of history that, I think, stands out rather clearly from looking at the history of our reporting.

Christopher A. Ford: But this does not mean that the U.S. isn't still going to try. We continue to believe that effective arms control, when it is effective, can indeed limit threats and that it can provide stability and predictability in very important ways, and we remain committed—rather famously now—to pursuing a trilateral agreement with both Russia and with China.

Christopher A. Ford: Under these circumstances, we think in the modern environment only a nuclear weapons agreement that binds Washington, Moscow, and Beijing is likely to be effective in averting a new nuclear arms race.

Christopher A. Ford: And so, mindful of our obligations under Article VI of the NPT, we do seek negotiations in good faith on such an agreement, and we call upon the rest of the international community, frankly, to insist upon one.

Christopher A. Ford: Now, I don't pretend that such negotiations will be easy: they will not. And I don't pretend that a deal will work unless we give verification and compliance enforcement the attention that this history of our compliance assessment process suggests that they need. If we do not give it that attention, it can't work.

Christopher A. Ford: But we are fully committed to trying and giving these issues the attention they deserve, and, hopefully, we will have the support of all sorts of bright folks out there in the policy community, such as yourselves, in calling for this and urging for its prompt completion with the Chinese and the Russians sitting around the table with us as rapidly as possible.

Christopher A. Ford: So that's my pitch in looking back at the history of U.S. assessments of Russian arms compliance and the lessons that it can teach to us today, and I look forward to talking with all of you and hearing your questions. Thanks, John.

John B. Bellinger III: Thanks very much, Chris, and in case anybody didn't know, I think you can tell that Chris is both a recovering lawyer and also a former Rhodes Scholar, so that was a really terrific presentation that I think will kick off a bunch of questions.

John B. Bellinger III: So, we're going to switch now. That part was on the record and I think you'll actually see Chris's remarks popped-up on the State Department's website and the CFR website. The Q and A session is not for attribution.

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