WASHINGTON -- In their search for a new approach to arms control, Moscow and Washington are likely to soon encounter an old bugaboo: Russia's demand that the U.S. stop resisting limits on its missile defenses, which the Russians view as a long-term threat and the Americans see as a deterrent to war.
It is likely to arise when U.S. and Russian officials open a "strategic stability" dialogue Wednesday in Geneva -- talks meant to lay the groundwork for future arms control and to reduce the risk of nuclear war. The talks are an area of modest promise in a relationship otherwise marred by disputes over ransomware attacks, Russian military intervention in Ukraine and other issues.
The Geneva session is not expected to yield a major breakthrough, but it likely will lead to additional talks.
The missile defense dispute has shot down past efforts to broaden the scope of arms control negotiations to include more than the traditional category of "strategic," or long-range, nuclear missiles. Now it is among several disagreements -- magnified by mutual distrust -- that are likely to determine whether the world's two biggest nuclear powers can avoid a new arms race. At stake are what President Joe Biden has called "new and dangerous and sophisticated weapons that are coming on the scene now that reduce the times of response, that raise the prospects of accidental war."
Biden appeared to be referring to emerging technologies such as hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence and space weapons, which are being pursued not just by the United States and Russia but also China, whose rapid military advances have complicated the international arms control picture.
Biden may also have had in mind Russia's pursuit of exotic nuclear weapons, including a nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed cruise missile, as well as a nuclear-powered underwater drone. The Russians have said U.S. missile defenses compelled them to seek new weapons that could evade those defenses, and they recently offered to include these in future arms control negotiations. That gesture is seen by some as an opening for Washington to drop its opposition to negotiating limits on missile defenses.
When they met in Geneva on June 16, Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to begin mapping a new road to arms control by reopening the "strategic stability" talks that had faltered in the final months of the Trump administration. The idea is to explore possibilities for negotiating arms deals to succeed the New START treaty, which covers only long-range nuclear-armed weapons and is set to expire in 2026. Both sides want additional categories of weapons to be included in future deals, but they disagree how to do that.
The Russians have long insisted there can be no strategic stability without limits on defensive as well as offensive weapons. Their point man on arms control negotiations, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, has left no doubt that Moscow will insist that missile defense be part of a future arms control arrangement.
"Addressing the issue of missile defense has no alternative for us," he told an international conference June 22 sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He said Russia cannot accept U.S. assurances that its missile defenses are meant only to shoot down rockets fired by North Korea or potentially by Iran.
"Sooner or later," Ryabkov said, the U.S. will increase its defensive capabilities to the point where they will undermine the viability of Russian missiles. Therein lies the Russian concern about instability.
For its part, the Biden administration wants Moscow to agree to limit its so-called nonstrategic nuclear weapons, which are not covered by the New START treaty. Some arms control experts think this presents the possibility of a tradeoff -- negotiations covering missile defenses as well as non-strategic weapons.
Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, marking an end to the Cold War, the conventional wisdom was that nationwide missile defenses would make the world less safe. The thinking was that by limiting such defenses, each side was kept vulnerable and thus less likely to strike first. President Ronald Reagan upset that convention in 1983 with his "star wars" vision of an impenetrable shield, based partly in outer space, to render ballistic missiles obsolete. The plan was abandoned after he left office but gave rise to new Russian fears about missile defense.
Russian concerns escalated in 2002 when President George W. Bush pulled the United States out the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which had imposed missile defense limits on both countries. Bush called the treaty a relic and said U.S. security demanded better protection of the homeland against limited missile attacks.
Thus was born the current U.S. missile defense system, based mainly at Fort Greely, Alaska, starting in 2004. Its stated purpose is to protect U.S. territory from a potential North Korean missile attack. A smaller system based in Germany and intended to defend NATO territory against potential missile attack from Iran also is a source of tension with Moscow, which sees it as threatening Russia.
Proponents of U.S. missile defense point out that Russia has its own nuclear-armed missile defense of Moscow.
Prior to entering the White House, Biden was a critic of missile defense. In 2006 he derided the Bush administration's homeland missile defense system as a modern-day Maginot line -- a defense that is confidently relied upon despite being unreliable. In 2001 he said the Bush administration had a "theological allegiance" to a missile defense system that he predicted would spark a new arms race.
Robert Soofer, a top nuclear and missile defense policy official throughout Donald Trump's four years as president, acknowledges that the Russians will want to include missile defense in any future arms negotiations.
"We should offer no concessions, but rather hear them out and explore ways to reassure the Russian side through transparency, technical cooperation where practical, and other confidence-building measures that U.S. missile defenses pose no threat to Russia's formidable nuclear forces," Soofer said in congressional testimony June 9.