Securing a new US-Russian nuclear arms control arrangement that can supersede the current treaty has been an endeavor that has stood on shaky, fractured ground for years, with Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine earlier this year making the future for nuclear arms control and disarmament all the more uncertain. But there yet remains a sliver of opportunity for the two countries to agree to a new arms control framework that would help ensure that the possibility of an outbreak of nuclear war, whether intentional or inadvertent, is minimized.
In early 2021, US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), initially slated to expire that year, until February 2026 (Reif and Bugos 2021). Following the demise of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty two years prior, New START had become the last treaty capping US and Russian nuclear arsenals (Bugos 2019a). Under the accord, each country’s strategic nuclear arsenal is limited to no more than 1,550 warheads deployed on 700 delivery vehicles.
The Biden administration understandably paused the dialogue on arms control after Russia’s war on Ukraine began in February 2022 (Bugos 2022).
Other arms control processes also hit a wall, including onsite inspections of US and Russian nuclear facilities and meetings of the Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC)—a body created by the treaty to handle any concerns about compliance or implementation that might arise. The inspections and the meetings were both initially halted in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the New START inspections have more recently also been undermined by the Russian notice to the United States that it was temporarily prohibiting inspections of its nuclear weapons related facilities subject to New START.
Russia “is compelled to resort to this measure due to Washington’s stubborn striving to achieve, without prior arrangement, the resetting of inspection activities on conditions that do not take into account existing realities and are creating unilateral advantages for the United States,” said the Russian Foreign Ministry in an August 8 statement (Russian Foreign Ministry 2022).
US and Russian military and diplomatic officials have repeatedly lauded the rigorous verification regime created by New START, which allows for boots-on-the-ground inspections of each side’s nuclear related facilities subject to the treaty by the other (Bugos 2019b). New START also requires regular notifications on the status of strategic delivery vehicles and launchers, plus data exchanges twice a year on the makeup of each country’s strategic nuclear arsenal.
Washington and Moscow must continue to work through diplomatic channels to restart those important onsite inspections—however, bilateral arms control talks on a successor arrangement to New START should not be contingent on resuming onsite inspections, which is the Biden administration’s current stance (O’Connor 2022). While four years until New START’s expiration may seem lengthy, it does not, in fact, supply much time for the two countries to hold formal, time-consuming treaty negotiations and to secure any necessary domestic support for the new arms control arrangement. Consequently, the United States and Russia should aim to begin formal arms control negotiations (which are separate from the strategic stability dialogue) as soon as possible so as to ensure that New START does not expire with no replacement, which would leave their nuclear arsenals without any type of constraint for the first time since 1972.
Determining what this replacement arms control arrangement or framework may look like has long been defined by the divisive, differing priorities between the United States and Russia—and just as importantly, on the political will expressed by both Biden and Putin.
For example, a high priority for Washington is to address Russian tactical, or non-strategic, nuclear weapons, of which there are an estimated 1,900 in central storage (Facini 2020; Kristensen and Korda 2022). Moscow often replies by requiring limitations on US missile defenses—typically a non-starter for Washington.
Other Russian priorities include US tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe, estimated to be at about 100; at least some of the missiles formerly banned by the INF Treaty (nuclear and conventional, ground-launched, intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles); and the inclusion of other nuclear powers, such as France and the United Kingdom (Kristensen and Korda 2021).
Meanwhile, other US priorities include the inclusion of China into arms control, though the Biden administration has indicated its intention to pursue this priority bilaterally with Beijing rather than trilaterally with Beijing and Moscow as the Trump administration did (Billingslea 2020). In addition, Washington aims to incorporate new Russian nuclear delivery vehicles into arms control.
“The issues that have been laid out prior to Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine are even more important now,” said Bonnie Jenkins, the US undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, in May. “In that respect, we want to sustain limits on the Russian systems covered under New START beyond 2026…[and] limit the new kinds of nuclear weapons Russia has fielded or is developing” (Jenkins 2020).
Putin unveiled five new nuclear weapon delivery systems, as well as another system widely believed to become nuclear capable in the future, across two highly publicized speeches in March 2018 and February 2019 (Putin 2018; Putin 2019).
“We have been working intensively on advanced equipment and arms” since the US withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002, said Putin in 2018, “which allowed us to make a breakthrough in developing new models of strategic weapons.”
A new element in the mix: Putin’s diversified nuclear arsenal
A main quandary facing arms control negotiators is how to bring these newer nuclear weapon delivery systems under the umbrella of arms control and risk reduction—particularly those that are entirely novel and consequently do not fit cleanly within the existing definitions of capabilities to be limited in arms control agreements.
The names of these Russian systems are: Sarmat, Avangard, Kinzhal, Tsirkon (or Zircon), Burevestnik, and Poseidon. After their splashy introduction by Putin a few years ago, what is the nature and the status of these various nuclear delivery systems?
First off, New START’s treaty limitations actually already apply to Russia’s Avangard, a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle equipped with a nuclear warhead, given its pairing with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) for launch. Moscow acknowledged this fact for the first time in November 2019, prior to the system’s deployment and New START’s extension (Reif and Bugos 2019).
Avangard entered deployment in December 2019 on SS-19 Stiletto ICBMs, according to reports (Sayler 2022). Russia plans to eventually mount the hypersonic vehicle atop the Sarmat multiple-warhead heavy ICBM, which also falls under New START’s limitations, as stated by Moscow.
Consequently, at this point, the current structure of arms control agreements accounts for at least two of the six new Russian nuclear delivery systems that are sparking concern in Washington. (However, this is not to say that a future arms control arrangement does not need to adjust or refine its imposed limitations in order to more directly address some of the newer weapons under consideration.)
Of the remaining four new Russian nuclear weapon delivery systems, two have hypersonic capabilities: the Kinzhal, an air-launched ballistic missile, and the Tsirkon, a sea-launched cruise missile.
Russia employed conventional Kinzhal missiles against Ukrainian matériel warehouses and a fuel depot in March and other Ukrainian targets in May (Bugos 2022b). The strikes in March marked the first use of new hypersonic weapon capabilities in warfare. The dual-capable Kinzhal system is believed to have begun trial deployment in 2017 and become operational a year later.
Experts have suggested various potential avenues to start bringing hypersonic weapons like Kinzhal into future arms control arrangements—such as by including a provision that prohibits the deployment of nuclear or conventional long-range, air-launched ballistic missiles except on heavy bombers subject to the arrangement or on tactical fighters exempt from the arrangement (Vaddi and Acton 2020). This type of provision would limit the allowed launch platforms for systems in the same category as Kinzhal and could provide a stepping stone to further limit these newer systems down the line.
Tsirkon, meanwhile, is the new system that Putin introduced in 2019, a year after the other five. Currently in development as a conventional capability, Tsirkon may become nuclear-capable, according to expert assessments of Putin’s address and Russian news reporting, and be deployed by 2023 (Hruby 2019).
While hypersonic boost-glide vehicles tend to generate greater concern due to their perceived unique flight profile, experts have also brainstormed possible ways to implement arms control on hypersonic cruise missiles, by, for example, conducting data exchanges on the acquisition or the deployment of precision-guided missiles such as Tsirkon (Bugos and Reif 2021). Hypersonic arms control and risk reduction measures could entail not only confidence-building measures like data exchanges but also the limiting or outright banning of certain hypersonic capabilities.
Other experts, meanwhile, have suggested that hypersonic arms control may not be as necessary as previously anticipated; instead, they view hypersonic weapons as not particularly radical or trailblazine in warfare—and likely to come under future arms control limitations like New START in any case. This viewpoint is bolstered by comments like those of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who, when asked about Russia’s use of Kinzhal missiles in Ukraine, replied: “I would not see it as a game changer” (CBS News 2022).
What about Burevestnik and Poseidon?
The final two new nuclear delivery systems are seen as especially novel, advanced, and therefore worrisome (Hruby 2019).
The Burevestnik system is an intercontinental-range, subsonic, nuclear-powered, nuclear-tipped cruise missile. This type of system has been explored in previous decades—and dubbed a “flying Chernobyl” in the 1990s—but ultimately abandoned due to technical challenges and safety risks to people and the environment (Krzyzaniak 2019). This Russian system, also known as Skyfall, reportedly began development in 2011, with testing starting five years later. Burevestnik has been tested more than a dozen times—with mixed results, including a very public incident in August 2019, when a recovery mission to salvage a nuclear-powered cruise missile from the ocean floor from a previous test caused an explosion that killed seven people, according to US intelligence assessments (Bugos 2019c; Sanger and Kramer 2019).
Russia seemingly has plans to deploy Burevestnik during the mid- to late- 2020s, but experts do not think this deployment will happen this decade, or ever (Macias 2019).
The other advanced novel system is Poseidon, an intercontinental-range, nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed torpedo, also referred to as an unmanned underwater vehicle or drone. The estimated deployment for Poseidon is at least 2027, with sea testing of the system currently underway (Vaddi 2019; Mizokami 2021). Russian news media have stated that the Russian Navy will procure 32 Poseidon torpedoes for deployment on submarines in the Northern and Pacific fleets (Mizokami 2019).
Arms control experts have suggested a blanket prohibition of the research, development, and deployment of nuclear-powered cruise missiles like Burevestnik, given their massive risks and dangers in a future arms control arrangement (Vaddi and Acton 2020). As for Poseidon, due to its planned deployment on a dedicated carrier submarine, the torpedo may—just as occurred with Avangard—be captured by a follow-on arms control arrangement that resembles New START’s central limits, albeit with some refinement.
The road ahead for striking a new US-Russian arms control deal in a post-New START world is certainly rocky and full of difficulties, to say the least. Further complicating any potential arms control processes have been the threats of nuclear use wielded by Putin since the start of the war in Ukraine.
“In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us,” warned Putin in a September 21 address. “Those who are using nuclear blackmail against us should know that the wind rose can turn around” (Putin 2022).
Such dangerous rhetoric from the Kremlin emphasizes the value of holding arms control and risk reduction talks as soon as possible, so as to ensure the continuation of US insight into Russian nuclear forces, preserve limitations on both Russian and US nuclear arsenals, and maintain and expand crisis communication channels at senior levels that could prove vital in the prevention of nuclear war.
Despite these very real challenges for carrying arms control into the future, there are various potential ways to address the issues of concern on each country’s respective agenda for the next arrangement—though this does mean that compromises will have to be made, such as limits on US missile defenses (Thielmann 2020).
Given the breadth of those issues on the negotiating table, both the United States and Russia have acknowledged that what follows New START may not be a single treaty but instead a package of arms control and risk reduction arrangements, each catered to a particular technology or domain. After all, Washington and Moscow have pursued this approach before, such as when they held separate, independent discussions on cyberspace operations and space capabilities (Tomero 2021).
The question of when the United States and Russia should commence formal arms control negotiations on a successor to New START is a thorny one, given Moscow’s ongoing catastrophic, deplorable war on Ukraine. But allowing the last remaining controls on US and Russian nuclear arsenals to lapse during this time of conflict would most certainly heighten the risk of some of these weapons systems being used in some form, potentially leading to an all-out, massively destructive global nuclear war (Witze 2022). Therefore, the world’s two largest nuclear powers must undertake mutual, genuine efforts to sit down at the arms control negotiating table sooner rather than later, so as not to leave the prospect of avoiding nuclear war entirely up to chance.