NEW – February 12, 2023
Academician Aleksey Arbatov about the risks of nuclear war and relations between Russia and the United States
The Russian Foreign Ministry warned of the “real danger of a direct military clash between two nuclear powers” – Russia and the United States. Moscow believes that this can lead to “an all-out hybrid war unleashed by Washington against Moscow”. This statement was made in the context of the complex situation surrounding the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (START): The United States accuses Russia of not complying with it, which it categorically denies. The head of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Center for International Security, Academician Aleksey Arbatov, told Kommersant’s Elena Chernenko how the current situation differs from the Cold War and what Russia and the United States can do to avoid escalation.
The fate of the START Treaty is now in question. For the first time since 2011, when the treaty came into force, the United States accused the Russian Federation of violating it. Their complaints relate to Moscow’s refusal to set a date for the meeting of the treaty advisory commission and give the go-ahead to resume inspections at strategic facilities. Russia denies the US’ accusations, making counter-claims and insisting on Washington changing its policy on Ukraine. Do you think that the treaty may fall apart prematurely?
“Yes, clouds are gathering over the treaty now, its future is questionable. Past experience has shown that attempts to use such treaties as a tool for putting pressure on other issues do not facilitate the resolution of the latter, but can undermine strategic agreements. After all, such treaties are by definition possible only on the basis of equal interest of the parties, and therefore it is unlikely to get an additional ‘bonus’ for them. And the collapse of treaties (as in the case of the ABM Treaty, the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), the Open Skies Treaty) harms security of both sides.”
Can the United States denounce the START Treaty, as it was, for example, with the INF Treaty?
“If there was a Republican administration in power in the United States (which some of us dream of returning) and a person like Donald Trump was president, the Americans would easily withdraw from the START Treaty. But there are now democrats in power, they are more rational about issues of strategic stability and control over nuclear weapons. It seems to me that under Joe Biden, the United States will not withdraw from the START Treaty unless something completely apocalyptic happens in Ukraine and if pressure on it during the 2024 electoral campaign does not drive the president into a political corner.”
So you think that even without commission meetings and inspections, the agreement can continue to operate until 2026?
“Meetings of the bilateral consultative commission and, of course, on-site inspections are an integral part of the START Treaty. Under the agreement, the parties have the right to conduct up to 18 inspections per year. The information obtained during such checks is important both technically and symbolically. I very much hope that the parties will make efforts to resolve the issue of inspections and preserve the agreement.”
And what if one of the parties – say, the United States – announces its withdrawal from the Start Treaty, citing Russia’s non-compliance with it, as it has repeatedly done with arms control treaties? Or will it never get any worse?
“No, it will be much worse. Experts’ calculations show that the collapse of the START Treaty will allow the United States, if desired, to double or even triple the number of its strategic nuclear warheads in a few years at minimal cost, and then conduct the planned comprehensive renewal of nuclear forces with complete freedom of hands.
Strategic weapons are extremely expensive and long-term items. Strategic weapons have a life cycle of 30-40 years. They are developed and tested for ten years, then deployed for 10-15 years. They are still in service for 20-30 years. In any case, it’s necessary to plan ahead for decades. At the same time, the fan of planning options diverges its edges very far. And in the absence of treaties, each party…”
Will it proceed from the worst-case scenario?
“That’s right – this is conservative military planning. Each side will proceed from the worst case scenario and lay down the maximum. An uncontrolled, unlimited arms race will begin. Not only will it be extremely costly, but the threat of war will also increase. If we didn’t have a treaty, what is happening in Ukraine right now would very likely have brought us close to the brink of nuclear war.”
“During the Caribbean crisis, when there were no agreements and restrictions, the Soviet Union was afraid of a sudden US nuclear attack. The Americans were much stronger then and had the ability to deliver a disarming nuclear strike against the USSR. The United States, in turn, was afraid of a preemptive strike by the Soviet Union, precisely because the USSR could not then endure the first strike and strike back, but could only hope for a preemptive strike.
A date was set for a US air raid on Soviet missile bases in Cuba. And these missiles were already equipped with nuclear warheads, and their command was authorised to strike the United States in the event of an attack. Fortunately, the escalation was stopped in time. If it would have lasted another 2-3 days – there would have been a nuclear war. The entire east coast of the United States, with its major cities and NATO countries, would be wiped out, as would the Soviet Union, along with China and all its allies.
Now, despite heavy losses and the absolutely unthinkable military-political situation in which we find ourselves, at the strategic level, no one is afraid of a first strike.”
After all, they seem to be afraid of a nuclear war right now. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently warned that “the world faces the greatest risk in decades of a nuclear war that could start accidentally or intentionally”. And in the autumn, US President Joe Biden spoke of the risk of “nuclear armageddon”.
“They say this, they say that, but no one has ever said that they fear a disarming strategic nuclear strike by the other side — something that was the main fear in 1962. Thanks to the path that we have taken in the 60 years since the Cuban Missile crisis and the ten agreements that have been concluded in this area, there is stability at the strategic level: both sides are confident that a disarming strike by the ‘counter-partner’ is impossible, because a retaliatory strike is guaranteed. Therefore, when President Vladimir Putin announced a special alert regime for the strategic deterrent forces at the end of last February, the Americans said they would not put their forces on high alert, and even canceled the scheduled launch of the old Minuteman-3 missile in order not to aggravate the situation.
The current concerns are related to the fact that in the course of conventional military operations on the territory of Ukraine, a moment may come when nuclear weapons will be used for one reason or another, although Moscow has never directly and literally threatened this. This will trigger a response from NATO, most likely in the form of a massive conventional missile strike on Russia, and the latter will respond on a larger scale to NATO, followed by the United States. They are afraid of escalation in this scenario.”
So nuclear deterrence generally works?
“At the global level, it works, but there is no such certainty about the theatre of military operations. The paradox of nuclear deterrence is that it is in theory designed to prevent undesirable actions of the other side through the threat of their catastrophic consequences, but still does not provide a 100% guarantee that the enemy will not cross the red line. And they may not understand where it lies (especially since it is customary to keep the mask of uncertainty here to enhance the effect). Or your opponent might think it’s a bluff. Then, to prove that ‘this is not a bluff’, you will have to actually use nuclear weapons, causing the very catastrophic consequences that nuclear deterrence was designed to prevent.”
And without agreements between Russia and the United States – for example, without the START Treaty and some other agreements – this fragile ecosystem will not work?
“This system will not work, because if there is an unlimited race of nuclear and other weapons, we will gradually lose a clear understanding of the enemy’s potential, and the enemy about our potential, and fears of a sudden disarming strike will return. And in the event of any crisis or direct military conflict, there will be an incentive to get ahead of the enemy. After all, as the president of Russia said, what did the St. Petersburg street teach him?”
That you should hit first.
“Yes, if you can’t avoid a fight, you should hit first. But just such a blow makes a fight inevitable and, in the case of a nuclear war, ends with the death of both sides. After all, all the nuclear powers have repeatedly recognised that in a nuclear war, unlike a street brawl, there can be no winners.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on the nuclear powers to continue to disarm or at least to commit themselves not to use nuclear weapons first under any circumstances. Is there any chance that the leaders of the nuclear powers will heed his appeal, or has nuclear weapons become more valuable to those who have them and more attractive to those who don’t?
“Now there is practically no chance of accepting this proposal. And not only for political reasons. Of the nine current nuclear powers, only India and China formally have such an obligation (not to use nuclear weapons first – “Kommersant”). For the most part, it is seen in the world as a political posture, and not as an operational concept of using nuclear weapons in the event of war. The willingness to use these weapons in response to a nuclear attack is beyond doubt. As for its use by the former, this is a very vague and doctrinally contradictory question. Most often, such a step is envisaged to repel aggression with conventional weapons, when the existence of one’s own state or allied countries that are given security guarantees is threatened.
However, in the distant future, such commitments may become one of the steps towards a nuclear-weapon-free world if they are based on practical control and restrictive agreements: for example, on the mutual reduction of the combat readiness of nuclear forces. But first, of course, it is necessary to remove the threat of aggression with the use of conventional weapons, and to do this, approve mechanisms for peaceful conflict resolution. Simply taking the concept of the first use of nuclear weapons out of the current militarised and conflicted international relations will not work, no matter how attractive this idea may sound. In the light of the events of the past year, may God help us avoid a return to an unlimited nuclear arms race, an increased focus on the strategy of their first use, and a new wave of nuclear proliferation beyond the ‘nuclear nine’.”
Russia and the United States are now unable to agree on arms control, this area has become, in fact, a hostage to their conflict over Ukraine. There is a feeling that during the Cold War, the situation was different, and the parties managed to reach some solutions in the sphere of strategic stability, despite the tough confrontation in other areas. Why did it work then, but not now?
“Indeed, during the Cold War, after the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962, negotiations on practical (as opposed to propagandistic) nuclear disarmament were generally successful and more or less continuous. But sometimes many years passed between the conclusion of agreements, and not everything that was concluded was ratified or fully implemented.
However, this has not yet been the case for large-scale military operations to be conducted in the center of Europe for a whole year, in which one great power would be fully involved, and others would indirectly participate through the supply of weapons and intelligence information.
It is impossible not to mention something else. The leaders of that time were participants and eyewitnesses of the incredible suffering of two world wars, remembered the horrors of Hiroshima, and witnessed full-scale nuclear tests with a monstrous megatonnage. They had a certain awe of nuclear weapons as a harbinger of the end of the world. And the current generation of politicians and strategists, it seems, does not feel anything like this, they are used to nuclear weapons and often treat them quite utilitarily as a more or less effective means of politics, propaganda and even real warfare.”
Taking into account everything that is happening today, what is your outlook in the field of arms control?
“It would be good to keep at least what we have. I am confident that strategic arms control is the backbone of international security. And since, thank God, we are still not in a state of direct war with the United States and ultimately hope for a peaceful resolution of the Ukrainian crisis, this framework must be maintained. And to do this, it is necessary to fully comply with the last of the current bilateral agreements in this area – the START Treaty, at least until its expiration in 2026.
In my opinion, it is unlikely to be possible to start serious negotiations on what could replace the START Treaty until there is at least some progress towards peace in Ukraine, whether it is a long-term cease-fire or a real peace process.”
In the most apocalyptic scenario, who will be more vulnerable — Russia or the United States?
“Both countries will be at their most vulnerable, as will the entire Northern Hemisphere, while the Southern Hemisphere will return to its neanderthal state. Different experts give different estimates of possible losses, but they all amount to tens of millions of people. But they don’t ask themselves what to do with tens of millions of decomposing corpses, or billions of mutant rats that spread all kinds of infections. I will not continue to escalate the nightmares, but it is clear that the consequences of a nuclear war will be so terrible that few survivors will not be able to remember and understand its cause.”
How to get out of the current dispute?
“First of all, we need to agree on a ceasefire in Ukraine, and then work towards a peaceful settlement. It is impossible to talk about the details now, the situation ‘on the ground’ is constantly changing. But the fundamental essence of reconciliation is to ensure the neutral and nuclear-free status of Ukraine in exchange for recognition of its sovereignty and territorial integrity within the agreed borders.
In parallel, it is necessary to resume negotiations between Russia and the United States on strategic stability in the framework of the next strategic offensive arms treaty after 2026. Even without any disturbing effect on the part of politics, this will be a very difficult task. In addition to the traditional nuclear triads, we will have to agree on restrictions on high-precision conventional long-and medium-range weapons, missile defence systems, tactical nuclear weapons, and space systems. Think about how to include China’s rapidly growing nuclear capabilities and the forces of other nuclear powers in the regulations.”
It looks like this whole thing is going to be a big headache.
“Let’s at least save our head first, and only then we will deal with the headache…”
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