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Taking the Edge off U.S.-Russia Strategic Relations

Written by Steven Pifer

Secretary of State Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov have agreed in principle to resume strategic stability talks.  The United States and Russia should begin the talks expeditiously, and the first agenda items they should tackle include measures to reduce the risk of accident or miscalculation, preservation of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

Laying the Groundwork

Even if renewed strategic stability talks do not result in early agreements or negotiations on specific topics, the agreement to resume them is welcome.  They can provide an important forum for dialogue at a time when U.S.-Russia relations have hit a low point.

The talks should be wide-ranging, reflecting the changing character of strategic stability.  U.S. and Soviet officials long ago came to a common understanding that strategic stability referred to a situation in which neither side had an incentive to strike first with nuclear weapons, even in an intense crisis.  That was because the other would retain surviving nuclear forces that could still decimate the attacker.

During the Cold War and its immediate aftermath, strategic stability was a U.S.-Soviet/Russia construct, measured by the numbers of strategic nuclear weapons and missile and air defenses.  Increasingly, however, other factors merit attention, such as precision-guided conventional strike weapons and third-country nuclear forces.  Moreover, the new cyber and space domains should figure into the equation.  Strategic stability is becoming a multilateral, multi-domain concept.

The sides thus have much to discuss.  Some questions—such as future arms control arrangements—could be addressed, though there appears to be little prospect of negotiations beginning quickly.

An exchange on military doctrines would prove useful.  For example, Russian non-governmental experts claim that the “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine—which postulates the use of low-yield nuclear weapons to terminate a conventional conflict, perhaps initiated by Russia, on terms favorable to Moscow—has never been part of official Russian policy.  While public Russian government documents do not incorporate it, the concept is certainly discussed a lot in Moscow—so much that the Pentagon and NATO are adjusting their nuclear planning to take account of it.  It would be useful for the sides to come to a common understanding of that doctrine and its status.

Several issues should be addressed as a matter of urgency.  That is because they could undermine an already difficult U.S.-Russia relationship.

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About the author

Steven Pifer