The First Steps Back from the Nuclear Precipice

A recent development in the ongoing United States – Russia brouhaha received absolutely no attention from the U.S. mainstream media.  With the sudden departure of Rex Tillerson from the State Department, only time will tell whether Mike Pompeo, the Trump Administration’s second attempt at imposing a Secretary of State on the world will take action on this key issue.

On March 8, 2018, a group of three Democratic and one Independent Senators, Jeff Merkley (Oregon), Dianne Feinstein (California) and Edward Market (Massachusetts) wrote the following letter to then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson:

March 08, 2018

The Honorable Rex W. Tillerson

Secretary of State

U. S. Department of State

Washington, DC

Dear Secretary Tillerson:

We write to urge the State Department to convene the next U.S.-Russia Strategic Dialogue as soon as possible.

A U.S.-Russia Strategic Dialogue is more urgent following President Putin’s public address on March 1st when he referred to several new nuclear weapons Russia is reportedly developing including a cruise missile and a nuclear underwater drone, which are not currently limited by the New START treaty, and would be destabilizing if deployed.   There is no doubt we have significant disagreements with Russia, including Russia’s brazen interference in the 2016 U.S. elections; continued violation of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF); invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea; and destabilizing actions in Syria.  However, it is due to these policy rifts, not in spite of them, that the United States should urgently engage with Russia to avoid miscalculation and reduce the likelihood of conflict.  

First, we encourage the administration to propose alternative solutions to address Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).  Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov admitted to the existence of this ground launched cruise missile (GLCM), but contended that the system was INF Treaty compliant.  Senior officials from the United States and Russia have said that the INF Treaty plays an “important role in the existing system of international security.”  As such, we urge the State Department to resolve Russia’s violation through existing INF Treaty provisions or new mutually acceptable means.

Second, we urge the United States to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).  The Trump administration’s own 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) references Russia’s robust nuclear modernization program as a main justification behind the U.S. need to recapitalize its three legs of the nuclear triad.  An extension of New START would verifiably lock-in the Treaty’s Central Limits – and with it – the reductions in strategic forces Russia has made. 

The New START Treaty, which entered into force in 2011, provides transparency and predictability into the size and location of Russia’s strategic nuclear delivery systems, warheads, and facilities.  New START’s robust verification architecture involves thousands of data exchanges and regular on-site inspections. The United States confirmed in February that Russia met New START’s Central Treaty Limits and it stated that “implementation of the New START Treaty enhances the safety and security of the United States.”  These same Central Treaty Limits could also govern two of the new types of nuclear weapons referenced by President Putin on March 1st – a case the United States can argue through the Treaty’s Biannual Consultative Commission (BCC). 

Lastly, as the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review notes, Russia maintains a numerical advantage to the United States in the number of non-strategic nuclear weapons. The Senate, in its Resolution of Ratification on New START in 2010, took stock of this imbalance and called upon the United States to commence negotiations that would “secure and reduce tactical nuclear weapons in a verifiable manner.” Attempts by the Obama administration to negotiate an agreement on this class of weapons met resistance from Russia.  However, even absent the political space for a formal agreement or binding treaty with Russia, we urge the State Department to discuss ways to enhance transparency on non-strategic nuclear weapons.

Extending New START, resolving Russia’s INF violation, and enhancing transparency measures relating to non-strategic nuclear weapons will also help quiet growing calls from many countries that the United States is not upholding its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations.  The Treaty’s three mutually reinforcing pillars: non-proliferation, peaceful uses of the atom, and disarmament can only be advanced through U.S. leadership on all three.

There is no guarantee that we can make progress with Russia on these issues.  However, even at the height of Cold War tensions, the United States and the Soviet Union were able to engage on matters of strategic stability.  Leaders from both countries believed, as we should today, that the incredible destructive force of nuclear weapons is reason enough to make any and all efforts to lessen the chance that they can never be used again.   

Sincerely,”

Other than the finger pointing about Ukraine and election meddling in the first paragraph, this letter is an obvious departure from the “blame Russia for everything” mantra that has echoed through the sacred halls of Washington since mid-2016.  With Russia’s recent announcement of new its new nuclear weapons in his March 1, 2018 Address to the Federal Assembly and the United States recent announcement in its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review that it is looking to expand and modernize its nuclear triad and increase its focus on low yield weapons, the threat of a potential nuclear war has not been higher since the end of the Cold War.

Let’s look at the current nuclear weapons stockpiles of both nations from Arms Control Association:

Here is a detailed table showing Russia’s nuclear forces as of 2017 from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

According to the Bulletin, Russia had about 4300 stockpiled warheads of which 1950 strategic warheads are deployed on ballistic missiles and at heavy bomber bases, 500 are in storage and 1850 are nonstrategic warheads.  In addition, there are roughly 2700 retired warheads which are largely intact awaiting dismantlement.

Russia’s nuclear doctrine states that Russia: 

…shall reserve for itself the right to employ nuclear weapons in response to the use against it and/or its allies of nuclear and other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, as well as in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation with use of conventional weapons when the state’s very existence has been threatened.”

Here is a detailed table showing America’s nuclear forces as of 2018 from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

Here’s what has happened to America’s nuclear weapons stockpile since 1962:

According to the Bulletin, the United States had a total of about 400 warheads of which 1650 warheads are currently deployed on ballistic missiles and at bomber bases in the United States along with 150 tactical bombs that are deployed in Europe.  The remaining 2200 weapons are kept in storage as a hedge against technical or geopolitical surprise.  An additional 2200 retire but still intact warheads are stored under the custody of the Energy Department while they await dismantlement.  

The United States doctrine which outlines its nuclear strategy is as follows:

The United States would only consider the employment of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies, and partners. Nevertheless, if deterrence fails, the United States will strive to end any conflict at the lowest level of damage possible and on the best achievable terms for the United States, allies, and partners. U.S. nuclear policy for decades has consistently included this objective of limiting damage if deterrence fails.”

The lack of attention paid by the mainstream media to the letter suggests that this move is not playing into the all encompassing anti-Russia rhetoric that the U.S. media is largely responsible for.  Unfortunately, the civilian populations of both Russia and the United States appear to matter little to those in control of the world’s deadly arsenal of nuclear weapons.

It will be interesting to watch how the newly minted U.S. Secretary of State handles the “Russia file” and responds to the letter from the four aforementioned Senators, however, I am not hopeful given this quote from July 2017:

I am confident that the Russians meddled in this election, as is the entire intelligence community…I hope I didn’t stop at 2008 [for when he says Russian began interfering in U.S. elections]. You can go back to the 70s. My point was simply this: This threat is real. The U.S. government, including the Central Intelligence Agency, has to figure out a way to fight back against it and defeat it. And we’re intent upon doing that.”

Imagine that, negotiating with the dreaded Russians, the source of all that is evil in the world.  What a novel concept.

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