Strategic Spiral: Arms Control, U.S.-Russian Relations, and European Security

March 10, 2020
Strategic stability was a significant component of U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War.

Strategic stability was a significant component of U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War. Efforts to remove incentives for the United States or Russia to launch a first nuclear strike continued to undergird the nuclear-arms regime in the early post-Cold War era. However, the geopolitical environment gradually changed, and interest in discussions around strategic stability waned.

The United States and its European allies hoped Russia would become a contributor to security in Europe rather than a challenge to it. Meanwhile, European defense capabilities atrophied and conversations on arms control lost prominence in the Euro-Atlantic space and in U.S. foreign policy thinking. New challenges posed by Iran and North Korea compounded this disinterest.

In recent years, Russia has grown increasingly confrontational. Its violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty is a case in point. In response, the United States officially withdrew from the treaty last August.

The U.S. withdrawal exemplifies a broader shift under the Trump administration to a more hardline posture toward geopolitical rivals, also including China. The U.S. response to Russia’s actions, as articulated, for example, in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, seeks to signal their cost and to create an environment in which Moscow is less willing to take risks, particularly in the nuclear domain.

This shift has generated anxiety in Europe as fears of a potential confrontation have grown. These fears are aggravated by an erosion of trust in transatlantic relations, which has raised doubts about the U.S. security guarantee in some European capitals. This dynamic exacerbates existing intra-European divides driven by differing threat perceptions. All of these developments elevate the following risks.

  • A further breakdown of arms-control agreements, including doubts regarding the extension of New START beyond 2021.

  • A deeper deterioration in transatlantic relations further undermining the credibility of NATO deterrence, which could heighten the potential for limited conflict in Europe.

  • Increased risks to strategic stability due to technological advances. This includes cyber and hybrid threats, but also nuclear-weapon modernization and missile-defense advances.

All of these factors contribute to an increased risk of accidents and miscommunication potentially leading to escalation. To mitigate these dangers, the United States and its European allies should consider the following measures.

  • Step up efforts to buttress the credibility of NATO’s deterrent through capability development and greater political cohesion.

  • Avoid widening transatlantic divides by elevating discussions on a European nuclear deterrent. While discussions about added investment in European capabilities may open opportunities to buttress Europe’s security in the long term, there is little utility in conversations about nuclear autonomy at this point, given that there is no credible alternative to the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

  • Continue to invest in strategic dialogue and confidence-building measures with Russia to avoid escalation. Open communication channels in the event of a crisis will also be key. Historically, this has proven critical in deescalating tensions resulting from misunderstanding, accidents, and miscalculation.

  • Devise steps to reestablish shared norms around strategic stability, which could lay the foundation for future global arms-control efforts. While the utility of bilateral agreements in a multipolar world is in question, it is unlikely that any progress toward a global arms-control framework can be made without the leadership of the United States and Russia.

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