Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 02/2012

Raising our Sights: Russian-American Strategic Restraint in an Age of Vulnerability

David C. Gompert, Michael Kofman

January 2012

Institute for National Strategic Studies


With the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in place, the United States and Russia should expand negotiations to include cyberspace and space. Further, the United States and Russia should agree not to be the first to use nuclear or antisatellite weapons against the other or the first to attack the other’s critical computer networks. In view of its NATO obligations, the United States must insist that Allies be covered. Such strategic restraint would rely on mutual deterrence in all three domains, buttressed by cooperative measures. The United States and Russia have sought to reduce the danger of nuclear war by limiting offensive strategic capabilities through negotiated agreements, relying on mutual deterrence based on reciprocal threats and the corresponding fear of retaliation. Although nuclear arsenals have been pared, this is fundamentally the same way the United States and Soviet Union sought to reduce the danger of nuclear war during the Cold War, when both were impelled to do so because they were adversaries and able to do so despite being adversaries. It is ironic—not to say unimaginative—that although the two are no longer adversaries, they stick to a path chosen when they were. This current approach is inadequate given new strategic vulnerabilities brought on by technological change. Both the opportunity and the need now exist for a different, more ambitious approach to avoiding strategic conflict—one designed for new possibilities as well as new vulnerabilities. The United States and Russia can and should raise their sights from linear numerical progress to qualitative transformation of their strategic relationship. By reducing the utility of nuclear weapons and mitigating vulnerabilities in space and cyberspace, mutual strategic restraint would serve U.S. interests, and Russia should be receptive. The undemocratic character of Russia’s government should not prevent the United States from seeking an understanding that serves its interests, though it will have to be satisfied that its partner is a reliable one.