Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Russia was ready to fully restore relations with the United States following the election of Donald Trump. But even so, when Trump assumes power on Jan. 20, he will inherit a Russian-American relationship in deep crisis.
While Washington and Moscow’s disagreements over Ukraine, Syria, NATO and Russian cyber hacking received the majority of attention during the presidential campaign, both Trump and his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton ignored perhaps the greatest threat of all from the downturn in U.S.-Russian relations: the rise of nuclear tensions. And unless both Washington and Moscow take steps to reverse what one Russian analyst calls “a creeping crisis over the international arms control regime,” the risks of a nuclear confrontation somewhere in the world will increase dramatically.
While Russia’s current nuclear saber rattling – particularly its open threats to use nuclear weapons in a conflict – is dangerous and irresponsible, the breakdown in nuclear cooperation between the United States and Russia did not occur overnight. Rather, it’s a product of decisions made by both sides. The United States struck the first blow in 2002, when it withdrew from the landmark 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty prohibiting both sides from deploying nationwide missile defenses. Washington has also never ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which bans nuclear explosive testing worldwide, since originally negotiating it with Moscow almost 20 years ago.
According to the United States, Russia violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which bans the two countries from developing or using nuclear and ground-launched ballistic or cruise missiles that can travel between 310 and 3,400 miles. (Russia has made a similar claim about the United States.)
And while President Barack Obama is considering offering Russia a five-year extension of the 2010 New START Treaty even though it doesn’t expire until 2021, in the current political environment it’s unlikely a new treaty mandating further reductions in nuclear weapons could be negotiated after he leaves office.
The danger from the erosion in nuclear arms control is exacerbated by the fact that the American and Russian militaries are no longer in regular contact. Without proper communication channels, even a small military incident in a place like the Baltic Sea or Syria could rapidly escalate into a full-scale conflict between the two sides – with the threat of a nuclear exchange lurking in the background.
The possibility of accidental nuclear exchanges should not be discounted, either. Substantial numbers of American and Russian nuclear missiles remain on so-called “hair trigger alert,” a security posture adopted by both sides during the Cold War to allow the launch of nuclear warheads within 15 minutes or less in order to show the other side that no advantage could be gained by a surprise first strike.
The problem with a hair trigger alert policy is that it increases the risk of mistakes. Many incidents involving nuclear near-misses related to technical or human error occurred during the Cold War – and this threat still exists. In 1995 Russian radar operators interpreted the launch of a Norwegian science rocket as a possible nuclear strike on Russia from an American Trident submarine, and in response Russian President Boris Yeltsin actually activated the keys on his “nuclear briefcase.” Likewise, in 2010 an American launch control center in Wyoming lost contact with 50 Minuteman III ICBMs under its control for nearly an hour.
Another consequence of this deteriorating commitment to arms control is that Washington and Moscow now have a harder time cajoling other countries into limiting their nuclear arsenals. Indeed, the Chinese military is already pushing to put its 250 nuclear missiles on hair trigger alert because it fears that an American first strike could destroy its nuclear arsenal and – in conjunction with Washington’s ballistic missile defense systems – eliminate China’s ability to retaliate. Some experts believe that without U.S.-Russian cooperation on arms control, the United States will have a harder time maintaining pressure on Iran to limit its nuclear program.
Less traditional nuclear arms control cooperation is also at risk. After Russia annexed Crimea the United States Department of Energy (DOE) suspended nuclear energy and cooperation work with Russia’s Rosatom, banning Russian scientists from visiting American nuclear labs and banning DOE scientists from attending meetings in Russia. Congress has also prohibited the signing of new contracts with Russian entities for nuclear security cooperation unless the Secretary of Energy signs a waiver allowing the contract to go forward.
Moscow, meanwhile, announced an end to non-proliferation projects in Russia, boycotted President Barack Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit and recently withdrew from a plutonium disposal agreement with the United States. (Russia claims the United States has not met its obligations under this agreement.)
While Russia has made great progress in securing its nuclear facilities since the breakup of the Soviet Union – including protecting its weapons-grade uranium and plutonium – dangerous gaps in the system remain. Now, as a result of the cut-off of communication between Russian and American scientists, a two-year information gap about Russian nuclear security exists. Nuclear security progress depends on scientist-to-scientist relationships, and curtailing these relationships is in neither side’s national interest.
Given the breakdown in U.S.-Russian relations and the existential disaster a nuclear incident could produce, it’s unfortunate that Trump has not yet explained how he would get nuclear cooperation with Moscow back on track. To take one example, would he support negotiating a follow-on agreement to New START, and if so, how would he get Moscow’s buy-in to do this? Likewise, even if a new treaty is not in place by the time New START expires, would he support the automatic maintenance of the existing treaty, which requires 18 on-site inspections per year at the sites of each side’s nuclear weapons? Finally, would he be willing to remove any American missiles from hair trigger alert status as a sign of good faith to induce Russia to do the same?
As part of its goal of reducing the risk that militants will obtain a nuclear weapon or nuclear material such as weapons-grade uranium, should the DOE restart cooperation with Rosatom, frozen after the Crimea annexation? In exchange, the United States could demand that Russia sign back on to the plutonium disposal agreement and agree to change it so that the United States can bury its excess plutonium underground.
Washington policymakers should understand that Russian-American nuclear cooperation is not a concession to Moscow, but a strong U.S. national security interest. As Clinton noted in the third presidential debate, there are about four minutes between the time that the president gives the order to use nuclear weapons and when the weapons are launched. Trump must find ways to reduce the risk of a catastrophic nuclear exchange – and getting U.S.-Russian collaboration back on track is the best way to do so.