Arms Control
Melissa De Witte
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This interview by Melissa De Witte originally appeared in Stanford News.

The upcoming summit between President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin is not rewarding the Russian leader for his bad behavior: It’s opening negotiations and delivering a warning to him instead, says Stanford scholar Kathryn Stoner.

Here, Stoner is joined by Stanford political scientist and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, Payne Distinguished Lecturer at CISAC and former Deputy Secretary General of NATO Rose Gottemoeller and Russia historian Norman Naimark to discuss what to expect at the summit in Geneva on Wednesday.

The meeting, the scholars say, could reset U.S.-Russia relations, signal deterrence on certain issues – including cybersecurity in light of attacks like the SolarWinds breach that the U.S. has blamed on the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service – and launch strategic stability talks related to nuclear weapons.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. For more information on what to expect about the Biden-Putin summit from FSI scholars, visit the FSI website.

Where does diplomacy now stand between the U.S. and Russia?

Naimark: Russian-American relations are at their lowest point since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, perhaps even since the last years of Gorbachev’s rule. When relations are fraying between the world’s two most powerful nuclear powers, the coming of the summit on June 16 between President Biden and President Putin should be welcomed. It’s worth recalling the heightened military tensions just three months ago between Moscow and Washington, when Moscow moved tens of thousands of troops to the Ukrainian border and mobilized its air and sea power in the region. Both leaders have emphasized that they seek stability, reliability and predictability in their bilateral relations; at the same time, their respective administrations have warned that expectations should be kept at the minimum for any kind of serious breakthrough at the summit.

Stoner: We’ve lost a lot of leverage because of the withdrawal from global politics that started under the latter part of the Obama administration and continued with Trump with his America First platform, which meant America alone. There is some leverage, it’s just how much. We don’t necessarily want to destabilize Russia because it’s a big, complicated country with nuclear weapons, but all signs point to Putin staying in office until 2036. He’s not going away. I think we have to try to signal deterrence on certain issues, like trying to move into another former Soviet republic as he is doing with Ukraine, Georgia and potentially Belarus, but then cooperate in other areas where it is productive to do so.

What do you think about some of the criticisms toward Biden meeting with Putin? For example, that Biden meeting with Putin is only rewarding him for his bad behavior.

Stoner: There is a reasonable question about why Biden and Putin are meeting and if it is somehow rewarding Putin for bad behavior by having a summit with the President of the United States. Rather than rewarding Putin, however, I think this meeting could be Biden’s warning to him that if hacking and other cyberattacks continue, we have a menu of things we could do as well.

Naimark: There is no reason that the American president cannot talk about difficult subjects like cybersecurity, ransomware attacks, human rights, the release of Alexei Navalny, the protection of Ukrainian sovereignty and other important items on the American agenda while focusing on issues of mutual interest: the future of arms control, global warming and the regulation of the Arctic, and outer space. One can always hope that, like the last summit on Lake Geneva between Russian and American leaders [Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan] in November 1985, this one can lay the groundwork for serious improvements in relations in the near future.

Is this meeting a reset of diplomatic relations between the two nations?

Stoner: I know in Washington it is popular to say that Biden is not having a reset of relations with Russia when past presidents all have tried that. I think that’s wrong. I do think it is a reset in the relationship in that there should be more clarity and stability, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be friendly and universally cooperative, given that we still see many differences in perspectives and some antagonism too. Still, Russia and the U.S. need to talk because there are a lot of issues in common where it would be helpful to coordinate with Russia. After all, even in the depths of the Cold War, the leaders of both countries still talked. Russia has reestablished itself as the most formidable power in Europe and it looks like Biden is acknowledging that and the fact that the U.S. can no longer afford to ignore Russia.

Is there anything the two leaders will be able to agree upon?

McFaul: I used to organize these kinds of meetings when I worked in the government and back when President Medvedev was there. We would have these meetings as a way to force our governments to produce what is called in State Department-speak “deliverables.” We didn’t have meetings to have them, we wanted to get things done. In the first Obama-Medvedev meeting we had a long list of deliverables when they met in July of 2009.

But there is no way that will happen with Putin today because he doesn’t really want to cooperate, he doesn’t really want deliverables. That’s challenging for President Biden, I think, because he has said that he wants a stable, predictable relationship with Putin. I think that’s fine to aspire to, but I don’t think Putin is that interested in that kind of relationship, so that creates a challenge of substance for summits like this.

Gottemoeller: With such different threat perceptions, the two presidents are not going to agree in Geneva about what should go into the next nuclear treaty. They can agree, though, to put their experts together to hammer it out. They can also agree to put the two sides together to tackle the different threat perceptions and the question of what stability means. Finally, they can agree to a deadline, so the talks don’t stall. It won’t be a headline-grabbing outcome, but at least Moscow and Washington will get moving again on the nuclear agenda.

Where can Biden make progress?

McFaul: I think the most likely place to make progress is to launch strategic stability talks, which is an abstract phrase for beginning the process of negotiations about nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles that would be a follow-on to the New START treaty. Biden and Putin rightfully extended the New START treaty early in his term for five years, and I think that was very smart. I personally worked on that treaty, so I think it’s a good treaty and deserves to be extended. But it’s going to run out really fast because the next set of negotiations are going to be much more complicated. I hope they would start some process to begin those negotiations now.

Gottemoeller: Maybe the only place where President Biden can make progress with Vladimir Putin in Geneva is the nuclear agenda with Russia. Since the two men agreed, in February, to extend the New START treaty by five years, they have put out a clear public message that they intend to pursue a deal to replace New START and to launch strategic stability talks. They are not going to have identical ideas, however, about what those two goals mean.

Biden wants a new arms control deal that will control all nuclear warheads, whether launched on intercontinental strategic-range missiles or on shorter-range systems. He also wants to get a handle on some of the new types of nuclear weapons that the Russians have been developing. One new system, for example, uses nuclear propulsion to ensure that it can fly for many hours at great speed over long distances, earning it the moniker “weapon of vengeance.” These exotic weapons did not exist when New START was negotiated; now, they need to be controlled.

Putin, by contrast, focuses on U.S. long-range conventional missiles that he worries are capable of the accuracy and destructive power of nuclear weapons. The United States, in his view, could use these conventional weapons to destroy hard targets such as the Moscow nuclear command center. He also worries that the United States is producing ever more capable ways to intercept his nuclear missiles and destroy them before they reach their targets. In his worst nightmare, the United States undermines his nuclear deterrent forces without ever resorting to nuclear weapons.

What advice do you have for Biden?

McFaul: One, do not have a one-on-one meeting – just have a normal meeting. Two, I would recommend not having a joint press conference that just gives Putin a podium for the world to say his “whataboutism” stuff; it’s better to have separate press conferences because most of the world will be more interested in what Biden says compared to what Putin says.

Third, I think it’s important to cooperate when you can but also be clear about your differences and don’t pull punches on that. In particular, I want Biden to talk about Alexei Navalny, the Americans who are wrongly detained in Russia today, Crimea still being occupied, Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine, and parts of Georgia that are under occupation. They have been attacking us relentlessly with these cyberattacks, these Russian criminals who in my view have to have some association with the Russian government.

That’s a tough list, but I think it’s really important for President Biden to say those things directly to Putin. I have confidence that he can. I was at their last meeting. I traveled with the vice president in 2011 when he met with then Prime Minister Putin. Biden is capable of delivering tough messages and I hope he uses this occasion to do so again.

What would be a sign that their meeting was productive?

Stoner: One sign the meeting was productive would be if Biden and Putin could agree to establish a joint committee or council on some rules surrounding cybersecurity. Another would be if they make plans to talk again about either replacing or reviving the Minsk-2 agreement [that sought to bring an end to Russia’s war on Ukraine]. And three, a positive sign would be if they plan to do some negotiation on further reducing tactical nuclear weapons or strategic nuclear weapons. An agreement to disagree on some issues, but to continue talking on others would be indicative of at least some small progress.

The Russian and American flags flying side by side

Assessing the Biden-Putin Summit

Analysis and commentary on the Biden-Putin summit from FSI scholars.
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Scholars at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies hope that President Joe Biden’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin will lay the groundwork for negotiations in the near future, particularly around nuclear weapons.

Steven Pifer
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This piece originally appeared in The National Interest.

Significant progress has been made in improving the defense situation in the Baltic states since 2014, but NATO can take some relatively modest steps to further enhance its deterrence and defense posture in the region, according to a report by Michael O’Hanlon and Christopher Skaluba, which was based on an Atlantic Council study visit to Lithuania. The Atlantic Council was kind enough to include me on the trek, which began in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, and included visits to troops in the field and the port of Klaipeda. I largely concur with Mike and Chris’s comments and supplement them below with several additional observations.

First, one can understand the preoccupation of Lithuania’s senior political and military leadership with the country’s security situation. Lithuania has had a difficult history with the Soviet Union and Russia. Some in Vilnius believe that Moscow regards the Baltic states as “temporarily lost territory.”

A Russian military invasion of the Baltic states is not a high probability. However, the Lithuanians cannot ignore a small probability, especially in light of the Kremlin’s recent rhetoric, the Russian military’s ongoing modernization of its conventional forces and exercise pattern of the past five years, and Russia’s use of military force to seize Crimea and conduct a conflict in Donbas.

When the Lithuanian Ministry of National Defense (MNOD) looks around its neighborhood, it can see specific reasons for concern. Russia is upgrading its military presence in the Kaliningrad exclave on Lithuania’s southwestern border. The MNOD now counts Kaliningrad as hosting some twenty thousand Russian military personnel, including a naval infantry unit and substantial anti-access, area denial capabilities, such as advanced surface-to-air missiles. The Lithuanians assess that the Russian military could mount a large ground attack from Belarus, to the east of Lithuania (the border is less than twenty miles from downtown Vilnius). These forces are backed by an additional 120,000 personnel in Russia’s Western Military District, including a tank army. Russia has substantial air assets in the region as well as warships in the Baltic Sea.

For its part, Lithuania can muster fourteen thousand soldiers and sailors (four thousand of whom are conscripts serving just nine months). They are backed up by five thousand volunteers, similar to the U.S. National Guard. Under NATO’s enhanced forward presence program, a German-led NATO battlegroup adds 1,300 troops, mainly from Germany, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. In addition, NATO member air forces rotate small fighter squadrons into Lithuania to provide air policing for the Baltic states.

Second, Lithuania has a logical plan to enhance its defense capabilities. The MNOD is making good use of its defense dollars (Lithuania now meets NATO’s two percent of gross domestic product goal, having tripled its defense expenditures over the past six years). Eschewing shiny objects such as F-16 jets, the MNOD focuses on upgrading the capabilities of its two primary ground units, a mechanized brigade and a recently-established motorized brigade. The main procurement programs of the past three years have purchased infantry fighting vehicles, self propelled artillery and short-range surface-to-air missiles to equip the brigades.

In the event of war, the forces in Lithuania would likely fight a defensive holding action while awaiting NATO reinforcements. The MNOD and Ministry of Transport are working together to enhance the country’s ability to flow in NATO forces, including by upgrading the rollon/roll-off capacity at the port of Klaipeda and building a European standard gauge railroad line from Poland to the main base of Lithuania’s mechanized brigade. The railroad line, which o obviates the need to change the railroad gauge at the Polish-Lithuanian border, a cumbersome process involving changing out the wheels of railcars, ultimately will be extended north to Latvia and Estonia.

Third, the Lithuanians value NATO’s enhanced forward presence in the form of the NATO battlegroup. The battlegroup is fully integrated into Lithuania’s Iron Wolf Brigade, and in wartime would come under the tactical control of the brigade. The rotational NATO force is based with and trains side-by-side with major elements of that brigade.

One potential question is, if Russian forces were to cross the border and the Iron Wolf Brigade deployed, then how quickly would the NATO battlegroup take the field with it? The latter would need a NATO command to do so, and likely also national authorizations from Berlin, The Hague and Prague. Hopefully, those authorizations would be transmitted early as a crisis developed so that the NATO battlegroup could deploy immediately. It adds significantly to Lithuanian combat capabilities, including by providing the only armor unit in the country.

Fourth, as pleased as Vilnius is to have a NATO military presence, the Lithuanians very much would like to add a U.S. component to it. With a U.S. armored brigade combat team deployed in Poland on a rotational basis, the U.S. military has the assets to consider periodically rotating an armored company to Lithuania (and to Latvia and Estonia). These rotations would be useful military exercises in case there is a crisis that requires a reinforcement move from Poland to Lithuania through the Suwalki Gap.

Lithuania is moving in the right direction in bolstering its defense capabilities, with prudent steps taken over the past six years and sensible plans for the future. As Mike and Chris point out, modest steps by NATO and, I would argue, the United States could significantly add to the Alliance’s deterrence and defense posture in the Baltics.


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Steven Pifer
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On Tuesday [June 4], the House Subcommittee on Strategic Forces debated the draft Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.

It voted out, on party lines, language that prohibits deployment of a low-yield warhead on the Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile.  That makes sense:  The rationale for the warhead is dubious, and the weapon likely would never be selected for use.

Read the rest at The Hill


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Steven Pifer
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This article originally appeared at Brookings.


March 18 marks the fifth anniversary of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, which capped the most blatant land grab in Europe since World War II. While the simmering conflict in Donbas now dominates the headlines, it is possible to see a path to resolution there. It is much more difficult with Crimea, which will remain a problem between Kyiv and Moscow, and between the West and Russia, for years—if not decades—to come.


In late February 2014, just days after the end of the Maidan Revolution and Victor Yanukovych’s flight from Kyiv, “little green men”—a term coined by Ukrainians—began seizing key facilities on the Crimean peninsula. The little green men were clearly professional soldiers by their bearing, carried Russian weapons, and wore Russian combat fatigues, but they had no identifying insignia. Vladimir Putin originally denied they were Russian soldiers; that April, he confirmed they were.

By early March, the Russian military had control of Crimea. Crimean authorities then proposed a referendum, which was held on March 16. It proved an illegitimate sham. To begin with, the referendum was illegal under Ukrainian law. Moreover, it offered voters two choices: to join Russia, or to restore Crimea’s 1992 constitution, which would have entailed significantly greater autonomy from Kyiv. Those on the peninsula who favored Crimea remaining a part of Ukraine under the current constitutional arrangements found no box to check.

The referendum unsurprisingly produced a Soviet-style result: 97 percent allegedly voted to join Russia with a turnout of 83 percent. A true referendum, fairly conducted, might have shown a significant number of Crimean voters in favor of joining Russia. Some 60 percent were ethnic Russians, and many might have concluded their economic situation would be better as a part Russia.

It was not, however, a fair referendum. It was conducted in polling places under armed guard, with no credible international observers, and with Russian journalists reporting that they had been allowed to vote. Two months later, a member of Putin’s Human Rights Council let slip that turnout had been more like 30 percent, with only half voting to join Russia.

Regardless, Moscow wasted no time. Crimean and Russian officials signed a “treaty of accession” just two days later, on March 18. Spurred by a fiery Putin speech, ratification by Russia’s rubberstamp Federation Assembly and Federation Council was finished by March 21.


Moscow’s actions violated the agreement among the post-Soviet states in 1991 to accept the then-existing republic borders. Those actions also violated commitments to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence that Russia made in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances for Ukraine and 1997 Ukrainian-Russian Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership.

In late March 2014, Russia had to use its veto to block a U.N. Security Council resolution that, among other things, expressed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity (there were 13 yes votes and one abstention). The Russians could not, however, veto a resolution in the U.N. General Assembly. It passed 100-11, affirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity and terming the Crimean referendum invalid.

Russian officials sought to justify the referendum as an act of self-determination. It was not an easy argument for the Kremlin to make, given the history of the two bloody wars that Russia waged in the 1990s and early 2000s to prevent Chechnya from exercising a right of self-determination.

Russian officials also cited Western recognition of Kosovo as justification. But that did not provide a particularly good model. Serbia subjected hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians to ethnic-cleansing in 1999; by contrast, no ethnic-cleansing occurred in Crimea. Kosovo negotiated with Serbia to reach an amicable separation for years before declaring independence unilaterally. There were no negotiations with Kyiv over Crimea’s fate, and it took less than a month from the appearance of the little green men to Crimea’s annexation.

The military seizure of Crimea provoked a storm of criticism. The United States and European Union applied visa and financial sanctions, as well as prohibited their ships and aircraft from traveling to Crimea without Ukrainian permission. Those sanctions were minor, however, compared to those applied on Russia after it launched a proxy conflict in Donbas in April 2014, and particularly after a Russian-provided surface-to-air missile downed a Malaysian Air airliner carrying some 300 passengers.

Whereas Ukrainian forces on Crimea did not resist the Russian invasion (in part at the urging of the West), Kyiv resisted the appearance of little green men in Donbas. Before long, the Ukrainians found themselves fighting Russian troops as well as “separatist” forces. That conflict is now about to enter its sixth year.

Finding a settlement in Donbas has taken higher priority over resolving the status of Crimea—understandable given that some 13,000 have died and two million been displaced in the fighting in eastern Ukraine. Moscow seems to see the simmering conflict as a useful means to pressure and distract Kyiv, both to make instituting domestic reform more difficult and to hinder the deepening of ties between Ukraine and Europe.

Resolving the Donbas conflict will not prove easy. For example, the Kremlin may not be prepared to settle until it has some idea of where Ukraine fits in the broader European order, that is, its relationship with the European Union and NATO. But Russia has expressed no interest in annexing Donbas. While the seizure of Crimea proved very popular with the broader Russia public, the quagmire in Donbas has not. The most biting Western economic sanctions would come off of Russia if it left Donbas. At some point, the Kremlin may calculate that the costs outweigh the benefits and consent to a settlement that would allow restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty there.

Moscow will not, on the other hand, willingly give up Crimea. Russians assert a historical claim to the peninsula; Catherine the Great annexed the peninsula in 1783 following a war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. (That said, Crimea was transferred from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, and, as noted above, the republics that emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union in 1991 agreed to accept the borders as then drawn.)

Retaining Crimea is especially important to Putin, who can offer the Russian people no real prospect of anything other than a stagnant economy and thus plays the nationalism and Russia-as-a-great-power cards. He gained a significant boost in public popularity (much of which has now dissipated) from the rapid and relatively bloodless takeover of the peninsula. Moreover, it offers a vehicle for Russia to maintain a festering border dispute with Ukraine, which the Kremlin may see as discouraging NATO members from getting too close to Ukraine.

Kyiv at present lacks the political, economic, and military leverage to force a return. Perhaps the most plausible route would require that Ukraine get its economic act together, dramatically rein in corruption, draw in large amounts of foreign investment, and realize its full economic potential, and then let the people in Crimea—who have seen no dramatic economic boom after becoming part of Russia—conclude that their economic lot would be better off back as a part of Ukraine.

For the West, Russia’s seizure and annexation of Crimea pose a fundamental challenge to the European order and the norms established by the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. The United States and Europe should continue their policy of non-recognition of Crimea’s illegal incorporation. They should also maintain Crimea-related sanctions on Russia, if for no other reason than to signal that such land grabs have no place in 21st-century Europe.



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Steven Pifer
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This piece originally appeared at Brookings.



The Trump administration has finished off the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a treaty mortally wounded by Russia’s deployment of a banned intermediate-range missile. That leaves the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) as the sole agreement limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear forces.

New START has less than two years to run. At the February 15-16 Munich Security Conference, a senior Russian official reiterated Moscow’s readiness to extend the treaty. The administration, however, continues its odd reluctance to take up that offer. House Democrats should use their power of the purse on the issue.


Signed in 2010, New START limits the United States and Russia each to no more than 700 strategic ballistic missiles and bombers, and no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads. Those limits took full effect in February 2018. Both sides have complied, although technical questions have arisen. Russian officials question the way in which the U.S. military converted some launchers so that they would not count.

By its terms, New START runs until February 5, 2021. It can be extended for up to five years by simple agreement between the U.S. and Russian presidents.

When asked about extension in 2017, administration officials said they would wait to complete the nuclear posture review and to see if the Russians met the New START limits. Both of those boxes were checked more than a year ago. Administration officials now say they are studying extension but see no need to rush.

New START extension is in the U.S. interest.

First, extension would constrain Russian strategic nuclear forces until 2026. It makes little sense to let the treaty lapse in 2021, when Russia has hot production lines churning out new missiles, submarines, and bombers.

Second, New START extension would not impact U.S. strategic modernization plans. They are sized to fit within New START’s limits. Moreover, the United States will not start producing significant numbers of replacement missiles, submarines, and bombers until the second half of the 2020s.

Third, extension would continue the flow of information that the sides share with each other about their strategic forces. That comes from data exchanges, notifications, on-site inspections and other verification measures, all of which end if New START lapses. Making up for that loss of information would require a costly investment in new national technical means such as reconnaissance satellites.


Extension should be a no-brainer. However, in a White House that operates on its own facts and at times with an indecipherable logic, extension is not a given.

President Trump does not seem to understand much about nuclear arms control. During his first telephone conversation with President Putin, Trump reportedly dismissed New START as a bad deal done by his predecessor. He has taken delight in undoing the accomplishments of President Obama (witness the Iran nuclear accord).

National Security Advisor Bolton shows disdain for arms control and has criticized New START. One of its faults, according to Mr. Bolton: It provides for equal limits on the United States and Russia. He felt the treaty should allow the U.S. military to have more. (U.S. diplomats would have had an interesting time trying to negotiate that.) Asked about New START extension, Mr. Bolton notes two alternatives: renegotiation and a new treaty modeled on the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT).

Renegotiation would allow U.S. officials to try to improve New START, perhaps with more intrusive verification measures, or even broadening the agreement to cover non-strategic nuclear weapons. Moscow, however, would seek changes as well, such as constraints on missile defenses—anathema to Washington.

Renegotiation would prove difficult, take considerable time, and have at best uncertain prospects for success. A wiser course would extend New START and then seek a renegotiation or a new follow-on treaty.

As for SORT, negotiated by Mr. Bolton, it limited deployed warheads only. Mr. Putin accepted that in 2002, but Russian officials have long since made clear that limits should apply to warheads and delivery vehicles, as they do in New START.

SORT, moreover, was “sort of” arms control. Lacking agreed definitions, counting rules or monitoring measures, it was unverifiable. In doing their own counts on the honor system, the U.S. and Russian militaries may not have even counted the same things.

Neither Secretary of State Pompeo nor Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan has shown interest in championing New START. The uniformed military leadership argued the treaty’s value in the past, but Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford recently has hedged.

While ratification of a treaty requires consent from two-thirds of the Senate, the president alone can decide to leave a treaty. The Trump administration did not consult with either Congress or allies on withdrawal before Trump announced his intention to pull out of the treaty last October.


While the Trump administration shows little interest in arms control, it does want funding to modernize U.S. strategic forces. Democrats should recognize that and force the White House’s hand.

The U.S. strategic triad is aging. Ballistic missile submarines are the leg of the triad most in need of urgent replacement. They should be funded. Replacing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or building the B-21 bomber, however, are less urgent needs. As they work on the appropriations for the 2020 defense budget, House Democrats should make clear to the White House and the Pentagon that money for ICBM modernization or the B-21 would need to be paired with extension of New START. That will get attention.

Retaining a strategic triad makes sense (though the need for 400 deployed ICBMs is debatable). Retaining New START makes sense as well. House Democrats should simply insist on a trade.

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Steven Pifer
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Today, January 14, marks the 25th anniversary of the Trilateral Statement.  Signed in Moscow by President Bill Clinton, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, the statement set out the terms under which Ukraine agreed to eliminate the large arsenal of former Soviet strategic nuclear weapons that remained on its territory following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Among other things, the Trilateral Statement specified the security assurances that the United States, Russia and Britain would provide to Ukraine eleven months later in the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances.  Unfortunately, Russia grossly violated those assurances in 2014 when it used military force against Ukraine.

Soon after regaining independence, Ukraine’s leadership indicated its intention to be a non-nuclear weapons state.  Indeed, the July 16, 1990 declaration of state sovereignty adopted by the Rada (parliament) adopted that goal.  Kyiv had questions, however, about the terms of the elimination of the strategic weapons.

First, eliminating the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), bombers, ICBM silos and nuclear infrastructure would cost money.  Ukraine’s economic future in the early 1990s was uncertain (the economy ended up declining for most of the decade).  Who would pay for the expensive elimination process?

Second, the strategic nuclear warheads had economic value as they contained highly enriched uranium.  That could be blended down into low enriched uranium to fabricate fuel rods to power nuclear reactors.  If Ukraine shipped warheads to Russia for dismantlement, how would it be compensated for the value of the highly enriched uranium they contained?

Third, nuclear weapons were seen to confer security benefits.  What security guarantees or assurances would Kyiv receive as it gave up the nuclear arms on its territory?

These questions were reasonable, and Kyiv deserved good answers.  In 1992 and the first half of 1993, Ukrainian and Russian officials met in bilateral channels to discuss them, along with other issues such as a schedule for moving warheads to Russia.  In parallel, U.S. officials discussed similar issues with their Ukrainian and Russian counterparts.

However, in September 1993, a Ukrainian-Russian agreement dealing with the nuclear issues fell apart.  Washington decided to become more directly involved out of fear that a resolution might otherwise not prove possible, giving birth to the “trilateral process.”  Discussions over the course of the autumn led U.S. negotiators in mid-December to believe that the pieces of a solution were ready.

In a negotiation in Washington in early January 1994, U.S. Ambassador-at-large Strobe Talbott, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Valeriy Shmarov and Deputy Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgiy Mamedov and their teams finalized answers to Kyiv’s three questions, and wrote them into what became the Trilateral Statement and an accompanying annex.

The United States agreed to provide Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction funds to finance the elimination of the strategic delivery systems and infrastructure in Ukraine.  Specifically, $175 million would be made available as a start.

The three sides agreed that Russia would compensate Ukraine for the value of the highly enriched uranium in the nuclear warheads transferred to Russia for elimination by providing Ukraine fuel rods containing an equivalent amount of low enriched uranium for its nuclear reactors.  In the first ten months, Ukraine would transfer at least 200 warheads, and Russia would provide fuel rods containing 100 tons of low enriched uranium.

The sides laid out in the Trilateral Statement the specific language of the security assurances that Ukraine would receive once it had acceded to the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state.  Although Kyiv had sought security guarantees, Washington was not prepared to extend what would have been a military commitment similar to what NATO allies have; the assurances were the best that was on offer.

Two issues—the date for transfer of the last nuclear warheads out of Ukraine and compensation for the highly enriched uranium that had been in tactical nuclear warheads removed from Ukraine to Russia by May 1992—nearly derailed the Trilateral Statement.  The sides, however, agreed to address those in private letters.

Presidents Clinton, Yeltsin and Kravchuk met briefly in Moscow on January 14, 1994 and signed the Trilateral Statement.  That set in motion the transfer of nuclear warheads to Russia, accompanied by parallel shipments of fuel rods to Ukraine.  The deactivation and dismantlement of missiles, bombers and missile silos in Ukraine began in earnest with Cooperative Threat Reduction funding.

In December 1994, Ukraine acceded to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and received security assurances from the United States, Russia and Britain in the Budapest Memorandum.  France and China subsequently provided Kyiv similar assurances.

Ukraine fully met its commitments under the Trilateral Statement.  The last nuclear warheads were transferred out of Ukraine in May 1996.

The other signatories met their commitments—with one glaring exception.  In 2014, Russia used military force to illegally seize Crimea, in violation of its Budapest Memorandum commitments “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine,” and “to refrain from the threat or use of force” against Ukraine.  Russian security and military forces then instigated a conflict in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, a conflict that has claimed more than 10,000 lives and continues to simmer.

At the time, the Trilateral Statement was seen as a major achievement in Washington, as it eliminated hundreds of ICBMs and bombers and nearly 2,000 strategic nuclear warheads that had been designed and built to strike the United States.  Not surprisingly, in light of Russia’s aggression, many in Ukraine now question the value of the Trilateral Statement and Budapest Memorandum.  They argue that, had Ukraine held on to at least some nuclear weapons, Russia would never have dared move on Crimea and Donbas.

That argument is understandable and perhaps correct (although alternative histories are not always easy to envisage).  However, had Ukraine tried to keep nuclear weapons, it would have faced political and economic costs, including:

·      Kyiv would have had limited relations, at best, with the United States and European countries (witness the virtual pariah status that a nuclear North Korea suffers).  In particular, there would have been no strategic relationship with the United States.

·      NATO would not have concluded a distinctive partnership relationship with Ukraine, and the European Union would not have signed a partnership and cooperation agreement, to say nothing of an association agreement.

·      Kyiv would have received little in the way of reform, technical or financial assistance from the United States and European Union.

·      Western executive directors would have blocked low interest credits to Ukraine from the IMF, World Bank and European Bank of Reconstruction and Development.

To be sure, one can debate the value of these benefits.  But those who now assert that Ukraine should have kept nuclear arms should recognize that keeping them would have come at a steep price.  Moreover, in any confrontation or crisis with Russia, Ukraine would have found itself alone.

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Steven Pifer
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This article originally appeared at Brookings.


On December 21, the United Nations General Assembly voted down a Russian-proposed resolution calling for support for the INF Treaty. That Moscow gambit failed, in large part because Russia is violating the treaty by deploying prohibited missiles.

This bit of diplomatic show came one week after Russian officials said they would like to discuss INF Treaty compliance concerns. That could be—not is, but could be—significant. Washington should test whether those suggestions represent just more Kremlin posturing or a serious effort to save the treaty.


Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty in 1987. It resulted in the elimination of some 2,700 U.S. and Soviet missiles. The treaty continues to ban the United States and Russia from having ground-launched missiles of intermediate range (500-5,500 kilometers) as well as from having launchers for such missiles.

In 2014, the U.S. government publicly charged that Russia had violated the treaty by developing and testing a ground-launched intermediate-range cruise missile. In early 2017, U.S. officials said the Russian military had begun deploying it.

From 2013 to late 2017, Russian officials claimed that they did not know what missile Washington had in mind. After a U.S. official revealed that the Russian designator for the offending missile was 9M729, Russian officials conceded that the 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile existed but asserted that its range did not exceed 500 kilometers.

On December 4, NATO foreign ministers stated that the development and deployment of the 9M729 constituted a material breach of the INF Treaty. Secretary of State Pompeo the same day said that, if Russia did not return to compliance within 60 days, the United States would suspend its obligations under the treaty, meaning that it would face no treaty bar to testing and deploying its own intermediate-range missile. U.S. suspension of its obligations would relieve Russia of the requirement to observe its obligations.

The treaty seemed fixed on a path for demise.


Then, on December 14, Reuters reported that a Russian foreign ministry official had said Moscow envisaged the possibility of mutual inspections to resolve the sides’ compliance concerns. The next day, the Associated Press and TASS said Defense Minister Shoygu had sent Secretary of Defense Mattis a message proposing “open and specific” talks on compliance issues.

As with the failed U.N. resolution, these statements could just represent posturing. Indeed, given the lack of serious engagement for nearly five years, it likely is part of Moscow’s effort to ensure that blame for the INF Treaty’s end falls on Washington.

There is, however, a small chance that the Russians seek a settlement. U.S. officials should explore this, if for no other reason than that a failure to do so would increase the prospects that Washington bears the responsibility for the agreement’s collapse in the eyes of publics and allies.

The big question: Are the Russians willing to exhibit the 9M729 and provide a technical briefing to American experts on why the missile’s range does not exceed 500 kilometers? That invariably would entail questions about the capacity of the missile’s fuel tanks and power of its engine. U.S. experts might also ask why, if the 9M729 can fly no further than 500 kilometers, Russia built the missile when it already deploys the modern 9M728, a ground-launched cruise missile whose range is also less than 500 kilometers.

Working out the details for this kind of exhibit and briefing would require some patience and delicacy. It would require agreeing to procedures not specified in the INF Treaty. It would also require steps to ensure that U.S. experts had the opportunity to view a 9M729, not something else. But the State Department, Defense Department, and intelligence community have bright people who could figure out how to make this work.

Of course, if the 9M729’s range exceeds 500 kilometers, the treaty requires its elimination. Senior American officials, however, have allowed for the possibility that Russia might satisfy U.S. concerns by modifying the missile so that it could not fly to intermediate ranges.


Russian readiness to conduct the exhibit poses one test. A second test is for the American side. While denying that they have violated the INF Treaty, Russian officials charge that the United States has committed three violations. Two of the charges lack any real foundation, and Russians themselves seem to be setting them aside.

They continue, however, to press a third charge. The Russians assert that the Mk-41 launcher used by the Aegis Ashore missile defense facility in Romania can hold and launch offensive cruise missiles of intermediate range in addition to the Mk-41’s stated purpose of containing and launching SM-3 missile interceptors.

U.S. officials respond that the Mk-41 launcher used in Romania (and soon to be deployed at an Aegis Ashore site in Poland) has not been tested with a ground-launched missile. They argue that it thus is not a prohibited intermediate-range missile launcher.

Technically, U.S. officials may be correct. Moreover, nothing suggests that the Aegis Ashore facility hosts anything but SM-3 missile interceptors.

However, the Mk-41 launcher is standard on U.S. Navy warships. On board warships, the Mk-41 holds a variety of weapons in addition to SM-3 interceptors, including the BGM-109C Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile. The Tomahawk has a range of about 1,500 kilometers. Other than that it is launched from the sea rather than land, it shares many similarities with the BGM-109G ground-launched cruise missiles eliminated under the INF Treaty.

Were the Russians instead of the Americans using something like the Mk-41 launcher on land, the U.S. side might well have questions about its compliance with the treaty.

Speaking in mid December, a Russian foreign ministry official ruled out a unilateral demonstration of the 9M729 but seemed to leave open the possibility for mutual measures. If Russian officials were prepared to allow an exhibit and provide a technical briefing on the 9M729, U.S. officials should be prepared to demonstrate the Mk-41 launcher in Romania to Russian experts and explain why it cannot hold cruise missiles. If it can do so, there should be ways to address Moscow’s concerns, either by modifying the shore-based Mk-41 or allowing periodic visits by Russian experts to show that the launchers contain SM-3 missile interceptors only.

Again, working out the details for such a demonstration would take some time, but the sides have experts with the expertise to do so.


Some may object that this kind of proposal equates Russia’s material breach of the INF Treaty with a question of technical compliance on the American side. Perhaps, but U.S. officials—and European officials, since the treaty affects their security—should ask whether offering to address Russian questions about the Aegis Ashore’s Mk-41 launcher is worth the chance to resolve the 9M729 issue and preserve the INF Treaty.

At worst, if Russia is merely posturing, U.S. officials will be able to cite their effort and finger Moscow’s lack of seriousness. At best, they could preserve a treaty that has made a substantial contribution to U.S., European, and global security.

Washington should take up Moscow’s offer for dialogue. It can do so while allowing the 60-day clock to run, though it might consider allowing more time if technical talks get underway and make progress.

The INF Treaty may still have a glimmer of hope, but someone still needs to act to save it.



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The 1987 INF Treaty was a landmark arms control and disarmament agreement that eliminated from Europe the most dangerous weapons of the era, and significantly decreased nuclear threats between NATO and the Soviet Union. For NATO, Moscow’s deployment of the SS-20 ballistic missiles, which could carry up to three warheads and hold at risk all Western European capitals, was highly destabilizing. In response, NATO decided to deploy the Pershing II ballistic missiles and fast-flying ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) in Europe. Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev quipped, “it was like holding a gun to our head.” Disarming these weapons was therefore in the interest of both sides, and it created favourable conditions for further arms control measures between Washington and Moscow.

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INF Public Panel Discussion

President Trump announced on October 20 that the United States will withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. That will end one of two agreements that constrain U.S. and Russian nuclear force levels, the other being the New START Treaty. What does the president’s decision mean for arms control, for European security and for an already troubled U.S.-Russia relationship?



Steven Pifer
William J. Perry fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies

Steven Pifer is a William J. Perry fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), where he is affiliated with FSI’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and Europe Center.  He is also a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. Pifer’s research focuses on nuclear arms control, Ukraine, Russia and European security. A retired Foreign Service officer, his assignments included deputy assistant secretary of state, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and special assistant to the President and senior director for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia on the National Security Council. He also served at the U.S. embassies in Warsaw, Moscow and London as well as with the U.S. delegation to the intermediate-range nuclear forces negotiations in Geneva.



Kristin Ven Bruusgaard
MacArthur Postdoctoral Fellow, CISAC

Kristin Ven Bruusgaard is a MacArthur Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at CISAC. Her research focuses on Russian nuclear strategy and on deterrence dynamics. Dr. Bruusgaard has previously been a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies (IFS), a senior security policy analyst in the Norwegian Armed Forces, a junior researcher at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI), and an intern at the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in Washington, D.C., and at NATO HQ. She holds a Ph.D in Defence Studies from Kings College London, an M.A. in Security Studies from Georgetown University, and a B.A. (Hons) from Warwick University. Her work has been published in Security Dialogue, U.S. Army War College Quarterly Parameters, Survival, War on the Rocks, Texas National Security Review and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Michael McFaul
Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies
Director of the Ford Dorsey Master's in International Policy

Michael McFaul is the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Professor of International Studies in Political Science, Director and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and the Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, all at Stanford University. He was also the Distinguished Mingde Faculty Fellow at the Stanford Center at Peking University from June to August of 2015. He joined the Stanford faculty in 1995. He is also an analyst for NBC News and a contributing columnist to The Washington Post. McFaul served for five years in the Obama administration, first as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council at the White House (2009-2012), and then as U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation (2012-2014).

Kathryn E. Stoner
Deputy Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies
Deputy Director of the Ford Dorsey Master's in International Policy

Kathryn Stoner is the Deputy Director at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and a Senior Fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, as well as the Deputy Director of the Ford Dorsey Master's in International Policy at Stanford University. She teaches in the Department of Political Science at Stanford, and in the Program on International Relations, as well as in the Ford Dorsey Program. Prior to coming to Stanford in 2004, she was on the faculty at Princeton University for nine years, jointly appointed to the Department of Politics and the Woodrow Wilson School for International and Public Affairs. At Princeton she received the Ralph O. Glendinning Preceptorship awarded to outstanding junior faculty. She also served as a Visiting Associate Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at McGill University. She has held fellowships at Harvard University as well as the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC.


Steven Pifer William J. Perry fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies

Steven Pifer is an affiliate of the Center for International Security and Cooperation as well as a non-resident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.  He was a William J. Perry Fellow at the center from 2018-2022 and a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin from January-May 2021.

Pifer’s research focuses on nuclear arms control, Ukraine, Russia and European security. He has offered commentary on these issues on National Public Radio, PBS NewsHour, CNN and BBC, and his articles have been published in a wide variety of outlets.  He is the author of The Eagle and the Trident: U.S.-Ukraine Relations in Turbulent Times (Brookings Institution Press, 2017), and co-author of The Opportunity: Next Steps in Reducing Nuclear Arms (Brookings Institution Press, 2012).

A retired Foreign Service officer, Pifer’s more than 25 years with the State Department focused on U.S. relations with the former Soviet Union and Europe, as well as arms control and security issues.  He served as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs with responsibilities for Russia and Ukraine, ambassador to Ukraine, and special assistant to the president and senior director for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia on the National Security Council.  In addition to Ukraine, he served at the U.S. embassies in Warsaw, Moscow and London as well as with the U.S. delegation to the negotiation on intermediate-range nuclear forces in Geneva.  From 2000 to 2001, he was a visiting scholar at Stanford’s Institute for International Studies, and he was a resident scholar at the Brookings Institution from 2008 to 2017.

Pifer is a 1976 graduate of Stanford University with a bachelor’s in economics.


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