Among emerging challenges to international security, the threats posed by potential proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missile technologies would seem to be one that would unite the United States, its NATO allies, and Russia. Yet, as the distinctly downbeat statements that came out of Monday’s NATO-Russia Council meeting on missile defense in Sochi seem to demonstrate, somehow the prospect of working together to counter these threats—or more specifically, the prospect that a ballistic missile from the Middle East would strike Europe—is driving Washington and Moscow apart. Recent pronouncements of senior officials lead one to believe that the dispute centers on legal reassurances that Russia wants and the United States and NATO refuse to provide. But the fundamental reason for the missile defense dispute lies in the continuation of Cold-War-era nuclear postures on both sides.
For those states that maintain them, nuclear weapons are generally considered a deterrent against potential adversaries. Leaders wager that the catastrophic impact of a nuclear response would prevent another country from attacking. But U.S.-Russia deterrence is a product of Cold War-era planning that imagined a worst-case scenario where one side developed the capacity to neutralize the other side’s entire arsenal by targeting it with a decisive first strike. Thus came the arms race, which ended when both sides put mutually verifiable binding limits on numbers of warheads, as well as the means of defending against them (i.e., the 1972 antiballistic missile, or ABM, treaty).
These agreements established the infamous mutually assured destruction, or MAD, by ensuring that one side would retain the capacity to launch a counterattack (known as a “second strike capability”) even if the other started a war with a massive nuclear first strike. Washington and Moscow still follow doctrines that define "strategic stability" as MAD despite the fact that this notion of stability was created at a time when Moscow was the capital of an ideological, expansionist superpower that was engaged in a global competition with the United States.
It is hard to believe that two indispensable international actors should seek to bolster their security through a mutual posture as detached from current realities as MAD. Does it really make sense for Washington or Moscow to prepare for the other’s massive first strike aimed at preventively destroying its nuclear arsenal? Could either country’s polity ever tolerate such an action? Outside of the Cold War context, how could a political leader in either country justify the prospect of even one warhead hitting a densely populated city in order to justify an all-out missile attack?
It is still this kind of worst-case scenario thinking that motivates Russia’s objections to the Obama-era U.S. missile defense plan, known as the European Phased-Adaptive Approach, or EPAA, which by 2020 will have some capability against intercontinental missiles. The United States and NATO propose cooperation, saying that joint work on missile defense will provide Moscow the information it needs to be sure that the system won’t mitigate Russia’s second strike capabilities. Russia agrees to the cooperation, but only on the condition that the United States provide legally binding guarantees that the system won’t have the capacity to shoot down Russian ICBMs—guarantees that have no chance of passing the U.S. Senate.
MAD logic is at the core of this dispute: Russia is asking for assurances that even after a hypothetical U.S. first strike it will maintain the ability to launch a devastating counterattack unhindered by U.S. missile defenses. This Cold-War-era concept of stability still holds because political leaders in Washington and Moscow have not instructed their planners to modernize obsolete paradigms.
Ironically, it was the George W. Bush administration that made the first decisive—if unilateral—moves away from MAD even though it was generally averse to arms control. President Bush abrogated the ABM treaty and then signed an arms control deal with Moscow that essentially codified what the United States was planning on doing anyway while offering no verification mechanisms to ensure compliance and build confidence. Essentially, these steps amounted to one side declaring MAD irrelevant without consideration of the impact on the other side’s concept of stability.
New START, the strategic arms reduction treaty with comprehensive inspection and verification regimes that was signed by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev in April 2010 and entered into force in February 2011, returned us to the status quo ante on offensive weapon limitations. But the combination of the lack of binding limits on defensive systems and the continuation of Cold War-era worst-case scenario planning lead both sides to hedge against the risks that future political leaders might engage in brinkmanship. So the Russian officials’ demands for legally binding guarantees on European missile defense, unrealistic though they may be, are no less illogical than the U.S. worst-case scenario planning that imagines a Russian first strike.
So what to do? Moscow and Washington should certainly continue to try to find a way out of the present dispute—perhaps through a statement from NATO approved by all allies about the intentions behind the EPAA clarifying that it is meant to respond to the missile threats from the Middle East and not blunt Russia’s strategic deterrent. Such a statement might not be a legally binding treaty, but changing it would require consensus among NATO allies, while it only takes a U.S. president’s signature to get out of a bilateral treaty.
But in parallel they should also seek to redefine "strategic stability" in U.S.-Russia relations for the 21st century.
Mutually assured destruction created stability between irreconcilable geopolitical rivals. Worst-case scenario war planning following incidents like the Cuban Missile Crisis was perhaps inevitable. Today, Washington and Moscow certainly don’t see eye-to-eye on every issue, but the fundamental divergences that made MAD seem sane no longer exist. Moreover, should the two largest nuclear-armed powers continue to insist that stability is only possible under MAD, other nuclear-armed states, including nonsignatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, will have an easy pretext to engage into mutually reinforcing arms build-ups.
Getting out of this impasse requires creative thinking and unconventional solutions. So in parallel to the in-the-weeds NATO-Russia talks on missile defense like the ones that ended on Monday, senior policymakers in both countries need to sit down together and think long and hard about a new framework for stability that will provide for their respective countries’ security needs while not locking themselves into an outdated MAD logic.
Having done that, both countries could undertake steps aimed at overcoming the logic of mutually assured destruction. The steps need not come as a negotiated treaty, but rather as unilateral, coordinated moves toward a shared goal.
Doing away with MAD logic does not require the elimination of nuclear weapons. Nuclear-armed states, including the United States and Russia, will continue to maintain their arsenals as long as others do. Their nuclear arsenals will continue to deter others from aggression. But outgrowing a 20th-century relic of mutual assured destruction has long ago become a must for the two largest stakeholders in nuclear stability.
Samuel Charap is Director for Russia and Eurasia at the Center for American Progress. Mikhail Troitskiy is an adjunct professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.