Over the weekend Russia threatened to halt U.S. nuclear inspections over America’s decision to stop military cooperation with Moscow because of its invasion of Crimea.
The U.S. and Russia are allowed 18 annual on-the-ground inspections of each other’s nuclear arsenals under the terms of the New START arms control agreement the two sides signed in 2010. It’s not clear if Russia’s statements about halting the nuclear inspections are genuine or a bluff; over the weekend the Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said that the U.S. had not received any official communications from Moscow on the subject.
However, as Blinken also noted, such a development would be very serious. The on-the-ground nuclear inspections were one of the key provisions of the New START agreement particularly from the vantage point of the United States. Before New START was signed, mutual inspections have been halted for a number of years and resuming these inspections was a key consideration for the Obama administration in negotiating the New START treaty.
The time to plan for a response should Russia make good on its threat is now. Fortunately, there is a readily available option for the U.S. to take if Russia halts the nuclear inspections, which would force Moscow to restart the nuclear inspections or pay an exorbitant cost for having suspended them.
Given the importance the U.S. placed on nuclear inspections in the New START treaty, there should be zero doubt that Russia banning them would mean it has abrogated the New START treaty. As such, the U.S. would be free to pursue policies proscribed to it under the arms control treaty. The U.S. should therefore respond to Russia banning the nuclear inspections by announcing a huge quantitative buildup of its nuclear arsenal that will only be stopped by Russia reinstating nuclear arms inspections.
The logic behind such a move is two-fold. First, Moscow simply cannot afford to build and maintain as large of a nuclear arsenal as the United States. Indeed, as critics of the New START treaty were fond of pointing out, the New START treaty simply pledged that the U.S. would reduce the size of its arsenal to the level of nuclear warheads Russia could afford.
Second, Russia takes great pride in the fact that it has maintained nuclear parity with the United States. In truth, this nuclear parity is a façade. As already noted, the numerical parity in the size of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals has only been maintained because the U.S. has voluntarily agreed to reduce its arsenal to the levels that Moscow can afford.
Moreover, in actual terms the U.S. nuclear force is greatly superior to Russia’s since America has made great qualitative improvements to its arsenal since the end of the Cold War while Moscow’s has rapidly deteriorated. Indeed, just a few short years ago reasonable scholars could maintain that: “Today, for the first time in almost 50 years, the United States stands on the verge of attaining nuclear primacy. It will probably soon be possible for the United States to destroy the long-range nuclear arsenals of Russia or China with a first strike.”
Although patently false, the notion that Russia is America’s nuclear equal is a useful façade for Vladimir Putin and is especially important for the more nationalistic members of the Russian elite. This is the same group of people that Putin is likely trying to court by annexing Crimea and banning nuclear inspections with the U.S.
Thus, by responding to the ban on nuclear inspections by proposing a buildup of its nuclear forces, the U.S. would be forcing Putin to make a stark choice. In the first instance, he could reinstate nuclear inspections at which point the U.S. would call off its nuclear arms buildup. This would be the preferred option and the smartest one the Russian leader could make.
On the other hand, Putin could remain defiant by pledging to match the U.S. nuclear arms buildup. This would be unfortunate from the standpoint of President Obama’s quest to abolish nuclear weapons. However, this quest is already stalling if not already dead.
Moreover, Putin’s quest to maintain nuclear parity in the face of a U.S. nuclear arms buildup would have other positive consequences. For example, it would greatly sap funds Putin intends to use to modernize Russia’s conventional forces, which are much more deployable as an instrument of Russian power. Ultimately, Putin’s efforts to maintain nuclear parity would exacerbate many of the challenges facing the fragile Russian state, and hasten the pace of its inevitable decline. And given recent events, that may be the only sustainable solution for dealing with the challenge that is Vladimir Putin.