Perspectives | Russian expert says arms control deserves greater attention

The current situation bears resemblance to the 1950s, when both the U.S. and the USSR were engaged in an arms race with few ways to prevent misunderstandings.

Nuclear proliferation is again making headlines, given Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from a deal with Iran and his efforts to negotiate with North Korea. A leading Russian expert on U.S.-Russian relations is cautioning that officials from both countries need to focus more on nuclear arms control. 

Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Moscow-based think tank, paints a troubling picture of U.S.-Russian relations. The infrastructure of arms control that existed during the last decades of the Cold War, he contends, is eroding. He adds that the current situation bears some resemblance to that in the 1950s, when both the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in an arms race with few mechanisms in place to prevent misunderstandings and misinterpretations from sparking a nuclear confrontation.  

The stockpiling of weapons today is nowhere near that of the 1950s. But a new type of arms race could be in the offing, unless there is a renewed commitment by both Moscow and Washington to pursue arms control. The most recent sign of a brewing arms race came in March, when Russian leader Vladimir Putin announced a series of new missile systems. 

“In a way, it [the current situation] is more dangerous than was the Cold War at its mature stage [in the 1970s and 80s],” Kortunov said during a recent roundtable discussion at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. While ideology is no longer a factor in the simmering confrontation, both the United States and Russia have different visions for the future, and “these visions are difficult to reconcile.”

A pivotal period is approaching, Kortunov maintains. A strategic arms control pact known as the New Start Treaty is due to expire in 2021. There is an option to extend the pact for another five years, if both sides can agree. But experts on both sides have expressed concern that rancorous bilateral relations, which have been exacerbated by U.S. anger over Russia’s meddling in the American electoral process, hinder substantive discussions on an extension.

In addition to the uncertainty surrounding the future of New Start, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty is also in doubt. Washington contends that Russia’s development over the last decade of nuclear-capable cruise missiles violates the treaty. At the same time, U.S. officials are funding research on the development of new weapons that could go into production if Russian non-compliance continues.  

To avert the collapse of a nuclear arms control framework, and the resulting increase in the chance of a calamity, both sides should detach arms control from all other bilateral issues, and “start restoring some level of communications,” Kortunov said. 

At the same time, it is unclear whether either side can find a point of departure for productive talks. The Kremlin clearly wants U.S. sanctions to be lifted. But the feeling among Russian officials is that “sanctions are forever,” Kortunov said. Meanwhile, U.S. officials want to see the total cessation of Russian mischief-making in democratic elections in the West, as well as “visible progress on a halt to Russian-sponsored aggression in eastern Ukraine.” Neither side has shown any indication of budging in a way that would facilitate arms control talks.

William Persing is a M.A. candidate at Columbia University's Harriman Institute.

Perspectives | Russian expert says arms control deserves greater attention

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