Barack Obama hopes to engage Russia in his effort to continue reducing nuclear armaments. For the president, this is vital for advancing his goal of a world less reliant on nuclear weapons. For Moscow, however, nuclear arms remain the bedrock of military security and a key component of Russia's international status. This does not necessarily doom Obama's approach, but it makes further reduction of U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals contingent on Washington's willingness to consider Moscow's security needs. The United States should examine those requirements in order to understand not only what kind of a deal with Russia is possible, but how Russia's needs relate to its own security interests.
Since the end of the Cold War nearly a quarter century ago, Russia has existed in a heretofore unprecedented strategic environment. For the first time ever, it faces no likelihood of a major war erupting either in the west or in the east that might involve Russia. In another first, there is no threat of a foreign invasion of Russia itself. And, finally, having reconciled itself with the loss of both its outer empire in Eastern Europe and the inner one in what used to be the USSR, Russia has no need to physically control others and no interest in reabsorbing them within a new imperial construct.
Thus, for nearly 20 years following the breakup of the USSR, Moscow could afford to postpone the modernization of its conventional forces, allowing them to decay, while fully relying on its nuclear umbrella. Psychologically, being one of two nuclear superpowers helped the Kremlin overcome the trauma of imperial collapse and state disintegration. As a result, Moscow's present concept of a great power is the reverse of the classical one. It aims not so much at dominating others as not being dominated by the stronger powers. Given that the Russian military is no match for the Pentagon -- or soon the PLA -- the Kremlin believes nuclear deterrence is the best way of preserving Russia's strategic independence.
This deterrence operates at both strategic and tactical levels, making up for the huge gap in conventional capabilities between Russia and the leading military powers of the 21st century. Like the United States, Russia, of course, has inherited from the Cold War a nuclear arsenal which was absurdly large, thus allowing for massive reductions under the START and New START treaties -- but now the smaller the numbers have become, the smaller the margin is for further reductions. Russian political and military leaders have also identified three factors which weigh on their strategic calculus and impact policy decisions: the steady U.S. progress in the development of a global missile defense system, the vastly increased capabilities of non-nuclear weapons systems that can perform strategic missions, and the growing Chinese capability to dramatically increase its nuclear arsenal, should Beijing want.
Of course, none of the above, for now, can appreciably devalue Russia's nuclear deterrent, but, looking two decades ahead, each of these factors will become much more important. This means that the United States, if it wants further cuts in nuclear weapons, will need to credibly assure the Russians that U.S. missile defense deployments, while effective against third countries (i.e., Iran), will not diminish Moscow's deterrence power. Washington will also need, when discussing tactical nuclear weapons, to include non-nuclear systems with a capability for precise strikes. Finally, both Washington and Moscow soon need to reach out to Beijing to include it in the process of limiting nuclear arms and enhancing strategic stability. None of these tasks will be easy, but all of them will be necessary if relations among the world's major nuclear powers are to be further stabilized.
Great-power stability is crucial for a number of reasons. One is stopping further nuclear proliferation, mainly in Iran and North Korea, for which Russia and China are key. Moscow's assessment of the pace of Tehran's nuclear program may differ from Washington's, but it has zero interest in a nuclear-armed Iran. Russians might prefer a different way of dealing with Pyongyang than the very uneven U.S. approach to North Korea, but they clearly see the dangers of living next to a country that is constantly testing its nuclear devices and long-range missiles. U.S.-Russian cooperation at the strategic level certainly creates a better prospect for coordinated non-proliferation efforts.