Nuclear Threat Initiative: Sour U.S.-Russia Relations Could Lead to a Nuclear Standoff

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The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) recently released a comprehensive report on how the deteriorating relations between the United States and Russia increase the risk of nuclear use in the Euro-Atlantic Region. After surveying both Russian and American nuclear experts, NTI Senior Advisor for Russia and Eurasia, Robert Berls, and Program Officer, Leon Ratz, highlighted ten factors that contribute to the deterioration of US-Russian relations:

  1. “Competing, Irreconcilable Narratives that Drive Heightened Threat Perceptions”

The conflicting interpretations on current events (Ukraine, Syria) and interstate relations after the Cold War held by Moscow and Washington create a “vicious cycle of confrontation and escalation” that contributes to the rising risk of nuclear weapon use. From the incident of Russia’s Crimea annexation to the consequential sanctions imposed by the West, Russia sees itself as a “victim of Western bullying” while the US-led NATO alliance sees Russia as a regional aggressor. These differing narratives provide both Russian and American policymakers with the political justification to legitimize their risk-prone approaches in nuclear policy.

  1. “Deficit of Trust”

The unfavorable views coming from both the Russian and American population demonstrate a high rate of distrust. The levels of antagonism today exceed those during the Cold War, with 73 % of Russians and 70% of Americans having unfavorable views of one another. This degree of distrust stems from the fact that both countries perceive the other as a fundamental threat to their respective national security.

  1. “Domestic Political Imperatives”

The public antagonism from both sides encourages policymakers to favor hawkish views to appeal to popular taste. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s aggression towards Ukraine and relations with the West are strongly supported by the Russian people. The report states, “Any departure from the current course would almost certainly come with a heavy political price for Putin.” In the United States, many officials and political candidates are favoring  “resolve over restraint,” identifying Russia as the United States’ biggest security threat, and using “anti-Russian rhetoric” to bolster political support. The pernicious public antagonism makes politicians unwilling to adjust their strong rhetoric regardless of its merits.

  1. “Alliance Politics”      

While NATO collectively identifies Russia as a strategic threat, few NATO members are fulfilling their defense obligation as stated in Article 5. As a result, the United States is often considered “the only credible military opposition to potential Russian aggression against the Alliance.” While being tasked with protecting all NATO members, the Obama Administration has little space to “promote a conciliatory tone in the relations with Russia.”

  1. “Close Military Encounters”

Both Russia and NATO accuse one another of conducting military exercises close to their borders and military and civilian assets.  These strained military encounters foster misunderstanding and could further escalate the standoff.

  1. “Broken Channels of Communication”

When Russia was suspended from the G8, it stopped participating in any G8-affiliated partnership programs like the Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. Its representation at the 2014 NATO-Russia Council was downgraded to the Ambassador-level, which greatly limits the Council’s ability to effectively communicate. Russia’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Security Summit, the suspension of U.S.-Russia nuclear security cooperation, and the lack of military-to-military dialogue between NATO-Russia have also blocked communication and opportunities for mitigating tension and addressing areas of concern.

  1. “Failing Safeguards to Prevent Nuclear Use”

Russia’s space-based ballistic missile early warning system, which has successfully averted dangerous escalations by confirming false alarms of missile launches, is no longer functioning. The system is crucial to identifying false alarms and increasing warning time. Its absence without a doubt causes a higher likelihood of miscalculation.

  1. “Conventional Force Disparity”   

The gap between Russia’s and NATO’s conventional military strengths “creates strong incentives for Russia to increase its reliance on nuclear weaponry” to compensate for its security vulnerability and maintain its “superpower” status. In 2000, Moscow released a new military doctrine outlining Russia’s new nuclear policy, which “lowers the threshold” for deploying nuclear weapons. Instead of responding only to “a threat to existence,” Russia’s nuclear weapons are now charged with the responsibility to counter “large-scale aggression utilizing conventional weapons.”

  1. “Reckless Nuclear Saber Rattling”

In the hope of deterring future Western interference in Russia’s foreign policy, Russian officials often use threatening rhetoric to exaggerate nuclear risks in the media. This kind of strategic messaging, which is designed to intimidate the West, also increases the possibility of miscalculation. But the United States has done its fair share of nuclear saber rattling, too: Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala) and Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) suggested the United States deploy news sites for U.S. nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe in the face of the Crimea crisis, showing that U.S. lawmakers can be just as irresponsible as their Russian counterparts when it comes to nuclear messaging.

  1. “Lack of Nuclear Experience”

“Political leaders in Moscow and in Washington lack the experience of managing the brinksmanship and the constant state of fear that characterized the Cold War.” Their ability to handle nuclear confrontation like the Cuban Missile Crisis is uncertain.

 

The authors conclude that policy makers should take these factors seriously in order to mitigate tensions, reinforce stability, and avoid future nuclear confrontation. To go a step further, policy makers from both sides should seek opportunities to promote constructive dialogues to preserve communication channels and avoid escalations as a result of miscommunication. This would include the continued compliance of both countries to the New START Treaty, which provides transparency and verification measures to reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings and avoid an arms races by placing limits on the quantity of nuclear weapons and launchers that can be deployed by either country.