Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev signed the New START Treaty in April 2010, committing both Russia and the United States to substantial reductions in their nuclear arsenals. If ratified by the U.S. Senate, this treaty would reduce deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down nearly two thirds from the original START treaty.
However, Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Fellow for Conflict Prevention Micah Zenko argues that further cuts would be even more advantageous. “An arsenal of one thousand nuclear weapons [strategic nuclear warheads and tactical weapons combined] is more than sufficient to allow the U.S. military to sustain the nuclear triad to deter any plausible current and future threats, or respond with a devastating retaliation in the case of a nuclear first strike.” They would also “decrease the likelihood of nuclear terrorism by reducing the total number of such weapons potentially vulnerable to diversion or theft.”
Zenko maintains that additional reductions on this scale would satisfy both nuclear disarmament advocates and proponents of nuclear weapons and could garner support from both civilian and military officials. They would also “balance the positions of allied governments who favor faster movement toward nuclear disarmament against those who maintain that robust U.S. nuclear capabilities are necessary.”
To achieve this outcome, the United States and Russia would have to sign “a verifiable and legally binding bilateral treaty limiting each country to no more than one thousand operationally deployed nuclear weapons, including tactical nuclear weapons.” Tactical nuclear weapons are those designed to be used on a battlefield in military situations, as opposed to strategic nuclear weapons, which are primarily meant for deterrence.
In his Council Special Report, Toward Deeper Reductions in U.S. and Russian Nuclear Weapons, Zenko addresses three points of contention between the United States and Russia: tactical nuclear weapons, missile defense, and conventional weapons on nuclear-capable delivery systems. He recommends:
- Limiting operational tactical nuclear weapons. This will be the biggest challenge, Zenko writes. “Since Russia maintains a significantly larger tactical arsenal—and places great importance on it for territorial defense—unprecedented transparency and cuts will require greater sacrifices from Moscow.” To inspire Russian cooperation, NATO must agree to limitations on its conventional forces in Europe.
- Increasing U.S.–Russia missile defense collaboration. The Obama administration should continue to pursue joint missile defense with Russia, overcoming skepticism from Russia about U.S. intentions. At the same time, “the Obama administration will need to weigh Russia’s desire to be a meaningful participant against Congress’s demand for robust missile defense.”
- Agreeing on the use of conventional weapons on nuclear capable delivery systems. “U.S. conventional missile launches from nuclear-capable delivery systems could be misinterpreted by Russia’s reportedly unreliable early-warning radar system as carrying a nuclear payload, thus potentially prompting an unintentional retaliatory nuclear strike.” As a result, the United States “must provide transparency to allay Russian fears about potential capabilities and missions.”
Zenko concludes that, through its example, the United States would also “catalyze broader international support for a range of American nuclear priorities, such as securing all nuclear weapons materials within four years” through a new treaty. Finally, it would “reinforce a ‘reset’ of U.S.-Russia relations, which increases the likelihood of Moscow’s cooperation on a broader set of critical U.S. foreign policy priorities.”
For the full text of the report, visit www.cfr.org/us_russia_nuclear_weapons_csr/
Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention in the Center for Preventive Action at CFR. Previously, he worked at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and in Washington, DC, at the Brookings Institution, the Congressional Research Service, the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, and in the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning. Zenko has published on a range of national security issues, including articles in the Journal of Strategic Studies, Parameters, Defense and Security Analysis, and Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. He and CFR senior fellow Paul B. Stares coauthored a Council Special Report, Enhancing U.S. Preventive Action, which analyzes U.S. government capacity for different types of preventive action. Zenko received a PhD in political science from Brandeis University. His book Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post–Cold War World examines U.S. uses of limited military force, assessing their effectiveness at achieving military and political objectives.
Council Special Reports (CSRs) are concise policy briefs that provide timely responses to developing crises or contribute to debates on current policy dilemmas. CSRs are written by individual authors in consultation with an advisory committee. The content of the reports is the sole responsibility of the authors.
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