Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 05/2011

Gambit or Endgame? The New State of Arms Control

Alexei Arbatov

March 2011

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


The pursuit of nuclear arms control has enjoyed something of a renaissance recently, with the signing of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in spring 2010 in Prague. Whether that momentum will dissipate after New START or lead to further nuclear arms control agreements depends on several factors: 1. The new U.S. and Russian nuclear doctrines. While there is always some distance between a state’s declared policy and that policy’s implementation, both documents show that, behind their more ambitious disarmament rhetoric, the United States and Russia maintain conservative nuclear policies that make radical nuclear disarmament unlikely— to say nothing of a nuclear-weapon-free world. 2. The peculiarities of the recently signed and ratified New START agreement. Among these are the modest cuts stipulated by the treaty relative to its predecessors; the acrimonious ratification debates in both the U.S. and Russian legislatures; and the dim prospects for a follow-on agreement (in sharp contrast to the mood prevailing after past START agreements). 3. The dynamics of obsolescence and modernization of U.S. and Russian strategic offensive forces. The United States should have little problem cutting its forces to get below New START’s limits. Russia, however, will have problems, not in reducing its numbers, but in raising them to treaty ceilings, due to their removal of obsolete weapons from service and slow deployment of new systems. Either Russia can negotiate a New START follow-on treaty with even lower ceilings or it can accelerate the development and deployment of new systems. While the former is obviously a more attractive alternative, it would require the United States and Russia to resolve many thorny arms control issues, such as ballistic missile defense, conventional strategic weapons, and tactical nuclear weapons.