Moscow meetings on Avoiding Nuclear Destabilization

On 6-7 December 2018, Pugwash organized a seminar, “Avoiding Nuclear Destabilization”, and other side meetings in Moscow in cooperation with the Russian Pugwash Committee. This was interconnected with the Russian Congress of Political Scientists organized by the Russian Political Science Association, MGIMO-University under the Russian Foreign Ministry, and the Financial University under the Government of Russia, which allowed some Congress participants to take part in the Pugwash debates. These consultations with Russian experts were designed to seek out reaction in Moscow and the Russian strategic community to the US Administration’s announcement to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and survey current opinion on the future of arms control.

Summary of main points:

  • There is an urgent need by both parties to the INF Treaty to pursue joint investigation of the alleged violations rather than allow this important agreement to lapse.
  • Focus in the expert community can be placed on identifying mutually acceptable measures to enhance security in the future.
  • The current deficit of strategic dialogue between the US and Russia needs to be addressed and efforts made to engage on an extension to the New START treaty and follow-on treaty.
  • The 2020 NPT Review Conference will be placed under immense pressure if the Nuclear Weapons States make no tangible progress on their Article VI commitments.
  • In sum, the direction of arms control has been negatively impacted by recent developments. Serious attention amongst experts as well as governments should be given to identify measures that would increase strategic stability.
  • There are a number of options to be explored that would contribute to arms control and the wider dimension of non-proliferation.


INF Treaty
Overwhelming consensus was that there is a crisis of arms control and therefore a latent potential for a renewed arms race. The stated intention of the US Government to withdraw from the INF Treaty unless Russia “returns to full and verifiable compliance”[1] means the Treaty would likely expire by July 2019. Although the problems of compliance were not considered to be easily solved, both governments should urgently pursue clarifications and enhanced verification mechanisms, including specially arranged inspections. The US allegations of Russian compliance violation – through the development of the 9M729/SSC-8 missile – began several years ago and a technical solution to this issue should be sought. Many Russians considered that the accusations made concerning US violations of the Treaty as part of testing their ABM systems have not been taken seriously by the US side. Furthermore, when considering various statements by both US and Russian officials in the past, it was apparent to many that the most serious problems with the INF Treaty are political rather than technical by nature. Elements on both sides have indicated that the Treaty does not serve their own interests because of the lack of constraints placed on other nuclear weapons states, primarily China, while both sides reciprocally view one another’s claims of violations as not serious, with an underlying strategic desire to be free from the INF constraints. Nonetheless, it was acknowledged that the Treaty provides a crucial stabilizing factor in the European context in particular, and that the political discord should be addressed through serious and meaningful dialogue.

Participants considered that salvaging the Treaty in the next eight months was a formidable challenge. If the Treaty is allowed to dissolve there must be efforts in the expert community to identify ways to offset the negative security and stability consequences. Discussion focused on, firstly, what kinds of measures to limit the fallout from its expiration could be acceptable to both sides, and, secondly, on what the outlook for arms control and non-proliferation would be.

Preserving stability and the future of arms control
One participant reflected that the basis for arms control in the past was the generation of mutual understanding of those involved, with the result that cooperation can produce better security than the pursuit of unilateralism. Many Russian participants viewed the US as primarily responsible for the deterioration of the strategic relationship, noting the withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2003 and the consequent build-up in BMD capabilities. It was noted that five years ago an offer by Russia to discuss further confidence-building measures and transparency in exchange for discussion on both non-militarization of space and missile defence was rejected by the Obama Administration. The interpretation is largely that the US – particularly stemming from the Pentagon – was interested in non-proliferation at the expense of arms control, and that there has been a large underestimation of the consequences of killing off ‘just one treaty.’ Similarly, however, it was noted that the feeling of the US policy community is exactly the reverse, that Russia has taken actions which negatively impacted the security environment and is not pursuing significant steps to redress this.

In case of the demise of the INF, there is talk on both side of taking reciprocal steps in the development of intermediate range missiles – participants widely saw this as producing a spiral of unintentional escalation in both capability and readiness of nuclear forces. One participant noted that, although the US does not currently have cruise missiles to deploy in Europe immediately, Europeans must consider that they will be the ultimate losers of this situation with heightened tensions and instability. At the same time, Russians expressed concern that US nuclear forces could be hosted be either Japan or South Korea, which would have a negative impact for North East Asia.

In this context, a clear danger is an increasingly mistrustful environment between all nuclear weapons states, with detrimental effects not only for the only remaining nuclear treaty in force between the US and Russia (New START) but a serious risk that the 2020 NPT Review Conference will be another failure. Both Russia and the US should seek measures of restraint and mutual constraint.

Ideas to address strategic stability and non-proliferation

  1. A range of options could address the serious problems of missile development at the global level. At the extreme end, one proposal was a total ban on nuclear cruise missiles, although it was noted that in Russia at least there was interest in limitations rather than eliminations. In a post-INF scenario, both the US and Russia could pursue a commitment on the non-deployment of short- and medium-range missiles in Europe.
  2. Russian participants felt that missile defence systems have a destabilizing role regionally. Measures that could be discussed include quantitative limitations to BMD and agreed geographic limitations, both of which would contribute to the issue of promoting stability.
  3. Discussion indicated that a key measure to prevent a future arms race would be a global agreement or binding commitment that nuclear weapons must not be hosted by third countries. Of course, this would require a commitment not to initiate further deployments (for example in Baltic states) but also the withdrawal of American tactical nuclear weapons from the five European countries, considered a clearly stabilizing step by Russians. In fact, such a commitment is already contained in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and would provide an inherently positive emphasis for non-proliferation.
  4. Most participants felt that extension of the New START for a five-year period was an important step. This could provide time to examine how a follow-on Treaty to New START Treaty can be made multilateral. While such an effort was tentatively proposed by Russia in 2007 there was no technical discussion of how such mechanisms could be designed to accommodate the regional differences.
  5. While for over two decades Russia felt forced to maintain security through increased reliance on nuclear deterrence, there is an opportunity to reconsider how both Russia and US frame their deterrence posture: a Non-First-Use policy in line with China is the clearest option, but as intermediate steps both states could clarify that nuclear weapons would not be used in retaliation to, for example, chemical or biological weapons attack.
  6. In lieu of the challenges to negotiating and ratifying treaty-based reductions or limitations, a “Code of nuclear responsibility” could be developed.

[1] “Russia’s Violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty”, State Department, 4 December 2018, available at