The Biden-Putin Summit: Pivoting in the Right Nuclear Direction

Talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President of the United States of America Joseph Biden in Geneva, on 16 June 2021.

By Christine Parthemore

The first in-person summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin concluded in Geneva Wednesday. While major breakthroughs were not expected, the meeting seems to have been relatively positive—and it may mark a pivot in a better direction regarding nuclear weapons threats in particular. 

Among other common ground set, the United States and Russia agreed to a full bilateral dialogue on strategic stability and risk reduction. The two sides indicated that they’ll move forward to discuss future agreements to follow on the current New START Treaty, which is the last remaining nuclear arms control agreement between the two sides.

It is important to view this news in conjunction with an event a few days prior: On June 14th NATO leaders met and issued a Brussels Summit Communiqué that makes clear that NATO allies share serious concerns about re-introducing new nuclear capabilities into Europe. The statement is explicit on Russia’s most concerning behaviors, which in the nuclear domain include “the deployment of modern dual-capable missiles in Kaliningrad” and the continued diversification of the Russian nuclear arsenal. From the communiqué: 

“Russia has continued to diversify its nuclear arsenal, including by deploying a suite of short- and intermediate-range missile systems that are intended to coerce NATO…it is expanding its nuclear capabilities by pursuing novel and destabilising weapons and a diverse array of dual-capable systems.”

The statement also reaffirms that NATO is committed to arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation. Moreover, it grabbed headlines for being explicit on one specific item:

“We have no intention to deploy land-based nuclear missiles in Europe.”

The results of the summit coupled with the NATO communiqué are showing important signs that the world may be moving in a better direction in nuclear affairs.   

First, it is noteworthy that both presidents and other NATO leaders have re-elevated focus on strategic stability and risk reduction. In recent years, attention increased to the objective of full nuclear disarmament on one side, and the demise of arms control treaties and an expansion of nuclear capabilities by Russia, the United States, and other nations on the other. As our colleague Rear Admiral John Gower has emphasized in recent years, refocusing on strategic stability and risk reduction can guide us in the direction of  practical steps toward progress.

Second, it is important that NATO leaders appear to agree that matching and mimicking Russia’s concerning behaviors is not the path toward security and stability

For the United States, this would be a step in the right direction after years of U.S. nuclear policy focused on developing like-for-like capabilities, such as quickly developing a new conventional, ground-launched intermediate-range missile system and aiming to bring back the previously-retired nuclear variant of its sea-launched cruise missiles. These steps are unnecessary for effective deterrence and needlessly provocative. 

Third, this week’s events may indicate that some of the most fruitful next steps in arms control may focus on dual-capable systems, new and novel nuclear capabilities, and nuclear systems that many consider more useful in warfighting rather than solely for deterrence. As these specific categories of nuclear weapons risk being even more destabilizing than others, and hold even greater potential for miscalculations in conflict, the U.S.-Russian focus on strategic stability and risk reduction is highly encouraging.   

This aligns with efforts by the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) to develop a strategy and specific steps for the future of arms control. One specific recommendation by CSR experts in early 2021 was to pursue a nuclear-only agreement following the past Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The NATO leadership statement that “We have no intention to deploy land-based nuclear missiles in Europe” is a strong step in this direction. 

Remaining committed to continuing the arms control discussions agreed in the summit is paramount. Looking forward, for the United States, options to affirm the positive directions indicated in the NATO communiqué include ensuring that the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) ends U.S. plans to resurrect nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCM-N; this would cement indications that the Navy may prefer this path), stating clearly that the United States will keep nuclear warheads off of its ground-launched, intermediate-range cruise missiles, and adopting a sole purpose policy. 

Though it may not occur all at once in the next NPR, these steps would help set a pathway away from new, novel, and dangerous low-yield nuclear capabilities. Whether unilaterally or via arms control measures, the United States should seek in the coming years to end its endeavors into new nuclear capabilities like the SLCM-N and the long-range, air-launched standoff nuclear cruise missile. 
For the United States, the President and national security and diplomatic corps can’t stop there—these must be first steps toward a concerted but flexible plan to continue working with Russia and other nations to reduce nuclear risks. 

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