The resumption of arms control talks between Russia and the US in Geneva on Wednesday seems like a flashback to the era of the Cold War. According to reports, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov expressed satisfaction at the first round of discussions and have decided to reconvene in late September. They are now likely to determine topics that will be looked into by expert working groups.
These talks were agreed to by President Vladimir Putin of Russia and US President Joe Biden at their summit in June to promote strategic stability and “lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures”.
The Agenda Is More Complex Now
The agenda between the two powers, who between them possess 90% of the nuclear weapons in the world, is now far more complex and difficult than it was in the past. The primary reason for this is the evolution of technology, which has devised numerous new and ingenious ways of delivering nuclear weapons against an adversary. These include AI-controlled weapons, possible cyberattacks on existing weapons and command and control systems, and highly manoeuvrable autonomous aerial or undersea weapons that can evade defences.
Traditional arms control limitations were first established by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) to place verifiable limits on intercontinental ballistic missiles that the US and Russia could launch at each other. This was updated in 2011 and termed the ‘New START Treaty’. The treaty, which was set to expire in February 2021, involves 18 detailed onsite inspections per year for both sides and the exchange of data twice a year.
A Slew Of Failed Treaties
In the previous decades, arms limitation treaties have gone out the window. It began with the Anti-ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty that the George W. Bush Administration dumped in 2002. This was followed in 2019 by the Trump Administration announcing its withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
Under the treaty aimed at stabilising the European front, ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500-5,500 km were banned, and this led to the elimination of over 2,600 missiles.
The Russian development of the 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile in 2014 began to worry the Americans. But by 2019 they had actually deployed it and this gave the Trump Administration an excuse to walk out of the INF treaty. Plans were made to abandon New START as well, but the incoming Biden administration called for its extension to February 4, 2026, and the Russians agreed. The two sides are seeking to use this time to work out a new agreement.
Biden has said that he wants to use New START as the basis for negotiating more arms control agreements, but the Americans have not quite spelt out what they could be and how they would deal with China.
At the time of terminating the INF agreement, the Trump Administration had said that they wanted the Chinese to join the negotiations as a third party, but Beijing has steadfastly refused to participate. China’s nuclear force is 300 or so weapons, which is paltry compared to the around 1,500 deployed and an equal number of undeployed weapons of Russia and the US.
The 'Mutual Assured Destruction' Approach
The key challenge now is untangling the different needs of the two parties and the evolution of technology. In 2019, there were also accusations from Washington that Russia was conducting a very low-yield nuclear weapons test. There have also been charges that Moscow is testing anti-satellite weapons. All these will feed into the talks that have now resumed.
The bottom-line in any nuclear strategy is the notion of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) and the threat to “do unto you what you have done to me”.
The Soviet Union and the US developed tens of thousands of weapons before they realised that this was unnecessary, and they steadily cut back their numbers through the START and INF treaties.
But from the 1980s onwards, the US also began shifting the goalposts in a major way by embarking on a ballistic missile shield, in a programme referred to popularly as “Star Wars”. This undermined the basic premise of MAD and began destabilising the START and INF agreements, because countries like Russia and China, who were American targets, and who, in turn, targeted the US, felt that with a missile shield, the US could gain a decisive advantage over them if it became invulnerable to their missiles.
Never mind that the technology did not work and Star Wars was abandoned for a more modest programme that would be able to take out individual missiles aimed by the so-called rogue states like North Korea and Iran. Even this technology is not perfect, but the US has not only pursued it but also actually deployed THAAD and Aegis missile defence systems in several countries. The Russians are worked up over deployments in Europe and the Chinese have made a major issue of the South Korean deployment.
A Complex Strategic Environment
Another matter of concern to both countries has been the US’s conventional arsenal of precision-guided munitions and its effort to create a system called the Prompt Global Strike, which can deliver a conventional warhead anywhere in the world, like an Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
So, both Russia and China have been developing missile and nuclear weapon delivery systems that can overcome the US missile defences, should they need to. In 2018, President Putin unveiled a range of weapons, which, he said, could penetrate US missile defences. Among these was a nuclear-powered cruise missile of unlimited range, the Sarmat heavy intercontinental missile, a long-range, nuclear-armed underwater drone, a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle Avangard, which can rapidly change its trajectory, and a hypersonic cruise missile called Kinzhal. The Chinese have been testing and have deployed the DF-17 missile tipped by a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle.
Another spoiler in the current situation is the hacking of US systems by suspected Russian-government hackers. The ability to break into American technology firms is viewed as a potential deal-breaker.
The talks underway are likely to discuss all these issues and see if the two countries can work out new ways to stabilise the already fraught strategic environment. China could still play a deal-breaker indirectly. The US’s counter A2/AD strategy in the western Pacific now plans to use land-based long-range missiles that were earlier banned by the INF. These could effectively turn the Chinese A2/AD strategy on its head by bottling up the PLA Navy within the first island chain.
So, while maintaining the New Start treaty indefinitely may have a reasonable prospect, reviving the INF may not. As for the other issues, it depends on the momentum the Sherman-Rybakov talks can generate.