Twenty years have passed since the end of the Cold War but its legacy lives on in many aspects of Russian relations with the United States. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West has greeted each new Russian president—Putin’s return notwithstanding—with optimism that he will in some way lead his country on a path to peaceful democracy. However, cooperation between the two countries has continued to hit snags over the last 20 years. American recognition of Kosovo, the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders (especially the possibility of Ukrainian and Georgian accession), and missile defense shields in Central Europe have sparked fury in Moscow. Meanwhile, Russian reactions to the Color Revolutions, cyber-warfare in Estonia, and an invasion of Georgia have drawn ire from Washington. All these events reinforce the tendency for each side to consider the other in arcane Cold War terms. This was the context for President Obama’s “restart” with Russia upon taking office in 2009. It is crucial that both the United States and Russia abandon the notion that they are military adversaries and instead begin to cooperate on mutual objectives. There are tangible steps that both sides can take in order to progress peacefully and avoid regressing to the Cold War status quo, and perhaps none more obvious and significant than the nuclear question.
The Cold War’s greatest legacy did not dissolve when the Berlin Wall fell. The United States and Russia continue to possess immense nuclear arsenals. These weapons do little to address actual security threats to both countries. At present, nuclear warfare between the United States and Russia is not a significant threat. As far as security goes, terrorism is a preeminent concern. The nature of modern warfare pits both the American and Russian militaries against non-state actors in a fight against terrorism. This reality has robbed nuclear weapons of their strategic utility.
Therefore nuclear reduction, even if pursued unilaterally, would not necessarily weaken the United States’ strategic outlook. The United States government ought not to focus on an extremely expensive and out-dated program when funds could be better allocated to areas where the Department of Defense is still playing catch-up, such as cyber-warfare or counter-terrorism. President Obama’s administration has affirmed as much in its new Defense Strategic Guidance.
Russians were all too familiar with the threat of terrorism well before September 11th, 2001, due to its experience with Caucasian separatists. The possibility of nuclear warfare between the United States and Russia is unlikely, but the threat of undesirable proliferation is real. The availability of nuclear weapons or their components on the black market is a nightmare scenario for both the United States and Russia. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, reports have occasionally surfaced suggesting that a number of nuclear weapons are missing or unaccounted for. Regardless of the accuracy of such reports, nuclear arsenal reductions are the surest way of minimizing concerns over theft or mishandling of nuclear weapons. Simply put, the fewer weapons that exist, the easier they are to monitor. The new START Treaty which went into effect last year went some way towards improving accountability and reporting, but fell short of imposing truly significant reductions in tactical nuclear warheads. Neither country, for instance, is required to reduce their stockpiles of inactive nuclear warheads. The Obama administration should be commended for publicly addressing the problem. However, future START treaties must bind both the United States and Russia to serious reductions and commit them to the goal of a nuclear-free world.
Both Washington and Moscow will need to start thinking more pragmatically when it comes to halting nuclear proliferation. It is hypocritical for the United States to denounce other states such as Iran which pursue nuclear agendas if it is not serious about at least reducing its own. The Senate’s ratification process for the new START Treaty sparked considerable debate. Unfortunately, the debate was not over how to make the treaty more effective, but rather over perceptions of giving up a nuclear advantage. If non-proliferation is indeed a target—and it ought to be—then one must first start at home. The prerogative lies with the president to ensure that the American public understands the message. Failure to do so allows political opponents to use scare tactics and images of the mushroom cloud in order to secure a political “win”. The President must demonstrate the importance of not just being strong on national security, but also smart on national security. A better re-allocation of resources need not indicate weakness.
Despite the Duma passing START concurrently with the Senate, Moscow still must commit to greater de-nuclearization and non-proliferation efforts. Like Washington, Moscow clings to the idea that its strategic nuclear deterrent ought to be a key component of its national security strategy. In some ways, Russia’s inherited nuclear arsenal has ensured that the country is still relevant in global politics. The fear of losing this deterrent and the associated geopolitical role has led to the Kremlin’s aggressive reactions to NATO plans for a missile defense shield in Central Europe. Russian concerns of a European missile shield that it is not directed at them reflect an inability of the government to move past anachronistic Cold War mentalities. Russia has also persistently put up roadblocks to tougher international sanctions against nuclear-pursuant Iran. Intransigence on such issues has the tendency to poison the entire relationship and could impact even unrelated goals. Such policy standoffs fuel Western perceptions of an uncooperative Russia which will forever be an adversary. They also reinforce the Russian notions of American arrogance and unilateralism.
Deteriorated relations inevitably lead to consequences. These consequences have manifested themselves in new missile defense systems in Kaliningrad and threats to place missiles on EU-Russian borders. Sometimes they have manifested themselves in near-armed conflict, as was the case in Kosovo at the Pristina Airport. Other times they have manifested themselves in actual armed conflict, as was the case in August 2008 in Georgia. Improving the relationship means creating a culture of cooperation.
While important in its own rite, the nuclear question is indicative of the Russo-American relationship on the whole. Each side must work to shred the Cold War legacy. It is high time both Washington and Moscow recognize that the Cold War is over and that aggression and posturing lead only to negative outcomes for both parties. Briefly after September 11th, the United States and Russia appeared ready to work together as they realized the enemy was no longer one another, but the common foe of terrorism. President Putin was in fact the first international leader on the phone with President Bush after the 9/11 attacks. Both countries must prioritize de-nuclearization and commit to significant reductions in both active and inactive stockpiles. Failing to do so impairs any authority, moral or actual, to pursue a global non-proliferation policy.