Sven-Eric Fikenscher

A way forward on nuclear disarmament

IN HIS State of the Union speech President Obama proposed new cuts in the US nuclear arsenal. The administration plans to do away with more than one third of the nuclear warheads currently deployed in the United States (bringing their overall number down from about 1,700 to a little over 1,000). Obama’s bold initiative enhances US security and makes economic sense. It would save billions of dollars over decades. The current nuclear stockpile grossly exceeds what is required to reliably deter countries from going to war with the United States. Cutting back on the nuclear arsenal helps the United States to advance the goal of global nuclear disarmament, thereby decreasing the danger that nuclear devices fall into the hands of terrorists.

The president will reportedly try to achieve mutual cuts with Russia within the framework of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia. But the president’s plans might face skepticism from Russia, where the atmosphere for arms control is poor. Even if Obama plans to negotiate an informal agreement rather than a full-fledged treaty, the tensions between the two states may affect the chances of a nuclear accord. Russia has announced plans not to renew cooperation with the United States, at least on the same terms as in the past, on a range of nuclear security measures, seriously questioning whether the United States can still make sure that nuclear devices are dismantled appropriately and that the nuclear material is safeguarded in a satisfactory manner.

To persuade Russia to accept a far-reaching nuclear disarmament agreement and a joint dismantlement process, the Obama administration needs to pay attention to the Russian mindset. Moscow is troubled by Washington’s plans to deploy a four-phase missile defense shield, based mainly in Poland and Romania. Moscow fears that the final phase’s missile interceptors — which are meant to protect the American homeland from a future Iranian long-range missile capability — could shoot down Russian intercontinental-range ballistic missiles and impede Moscow’s nuclear deterrence. US officials frequently express exasperation with Russian objections, pointing out that the missile defense system’s capabilities will be far too rudimentary to thwart Russia.


But the real underlying reason for Moscow’s resentment may be psychological rather than strategic. The decision-making elite is made up of proud and ambitious men and women who were trained to compete with the United States for world supremacy. The Soviet Union’s collapse was a traumatic experience for them and Moscow’s continued loss of influence is all the more frustrating. From their perspective, the American agenda to deploy a missile defense system in Eastern European states that were formerly closely aligned with Moscow is a symbol of Russia’s demise. That is why Russia’s anti-missile defense campaign largely focuses on the fourth phase of the transatlantic missile defense plans, although the latter’s effectiveness is still fairly unclear as compared to other missile defense systems.

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The Government Accountability Office’s assessment of the European missile defense system indicates that there is some room for reconciling US security interests and Russian security concerns. The GAO reportedly concluded this week that the missile defense system’s fourth phase is ill-equipped to intercept Iranian missiles on their way to the United States.

This new insight provides the Obama administration with strong reasons to shift course. Rather than continuing to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on deploying an all-encompassing system of highly doubtful effectiveness that threatens to seriously undermine Washington’s nuclear security and disarmament agenda, the Obama administration should shelve the plans for deploying the fourth phase in Europe and engage Russia in joint talks.

The framework should be the twin goals of working out a bilateral nuclear disarmament accord as envisaged by President Obama, including the joint dismantlement of nuclear devices, and developing a common missile defense system, if such a system is cost effective and technically feasible.

Sven-Eric Fikenscher is a research fellow with the International Security Program and the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.