Despite the general satisfaction in the two capitals over the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed on 8 April, a potential misunderstanding is visible. As before, it concerns American plans for missile defence. Last month, US Secretary of State Clinton declared “And the treaty places no constraints on our missile defence plans – now or in the future.” Perhaps a finicky reading of the Treaty may lead one to conclude this but Moscow has made it clear that the missile defence issue could cause it to leave the Treaty. Therefore, US missile defence programs could “constrain” the new Treaty. But Russian statements have also made it clear that they don’t have to. This misunderstanding – and perhaps that is all that it is – must be cleared up if the Treaty is to last for its ten to fifteen years and be succeeded by further reduction treaties.

There is a weird logic to nuclear weapons. The subtext of Einstein’s famous letter to Roosevelt is that we cannot afford to let the other side be the only one with nuclear weapons; from here, step-by-step, the logic builds to the arcane issues of first strikes, secure retaliatory strikes and all the rest. The theory is that, no matter what one side may do, the other side will always have enough weapons left to destroy the other. This is the logic of MAD – mutually assured destruction. Therefore, the theory runs, each side is deterred from ever using the weapons because of the certainty of destruction. The weakness of the theory is that no one knows whether it is actually valid: all that is known is that the USA and the USSR never used the weapons against each other. Will deterrence work against “rogue states”? No one can be sure and that uncertainty is the impetus for attempts to create a missile defence system.

ABM systems are a threat to the stability of deterrence. If (in theory) one side can develop a weapon that can reasonably reliably – and it doesn’t have to be 100% or anything very close to 100% – shoot down the other side’s missiles or warheads, in theory (a lot of theory) it can so unbalance the calculations that the other side can no longer be sure that it will have enough weapons left for a retaliatory strike and the delicate balance of MAD would be upset.

On one level, all this is perfectly logical; on another, it is all crazy. If, let us say, Side A, believing that its ABM system is reliable, fires 500 warheads at the other, and 450 of them explode on their targets and Side B launches its 500 and the ABM system destroys 490 of them (a success rate that is very hypothetical at present), Side A will have won because “only” 10 nuclear weapons have exploded on its territory. I suspect that the survivors in Side A would not be very enthusiastic about their “victory”. Nonetheless, this increased level of uncertainty, might, so goes the theory, encourage Side B to make a pre-emptive first strike, on the principle of “use them, or lose them”. Therefore, a strategic missile defence system unbalances the MAD-based deterrence and leaves everyone guessing again.

In the 1960s both the USSR and the USA began work on missile interceptors and were faced with this unfolding logic: uncertainty would be increased and another area for an arms race would be opened. Stepping back from this possibility, the two negotiated the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972. It froze developments and prohibited further construction of ABM defences. Washington abrogated the treaty in 2002. Abrogation made some sense because the reality had changed. The threat to the USA, and other countries, was not hundreds of sophisticated missiles, with all their decoys and deception devices, coming from Russia; the threat, in the near future, was a much smaller number of simple missiles and warheads coming from what used to be called “rogue states”.

In 2007 Washington announced a plan to put radars and anti-missile systems into Poland and the Czech Republic. The reason given was that these emplacements would protect Europe and the USA from potential missiles from Iran. Russian experts, however, maintained that these locations could (in theory – but it’s all theory) be used against Russian ICBMs. Not today, of course, but in the future. (For those who are interested, here is an analysis by Theodore Postol arguing that the Russians were correct.) Moscow is not unaware of the potential threat from third parties and is not in principle opposed to some sort of defence against these future possible threats. Prepared to accept a local defence system and following the principle of “trust, but verify”, it first sought involvement in the system and offered a radar station in Azerbaijan which it leased (having secured Baku’s agreement). When this offer received no real answer, Moscow sought verification: it asked to have Russian officers stationed in the proposed bases so that they could see for themselves that the radars were looking south and not east. This also received no response. Russians, who are no less suspicious than anyone else, became more sceptical of the stated purpose of Washington’s scheme. And, as we have seen, the logic of the nuclear balance is that if something might happen, preparations must be made to regain the MAD balance.

But President Obama has cancelled this plan and replaced it with one that does not concern Moscow. At present. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said in his press conference on the Treaty about current US plans: “The initial focus is on regional systems, systems that do not prejudice strategic stability, and do not create risks for the Russian strategic nuclear forces. When and if our monitoring of the realisation of these plans shows that they are reaching the level of a strategic missile defence, and this level will be regarded by our military experts as creating risks for the Russian strategic nuclear forces, it is then that we will have the right to take advantage of those provisions which this Treaty contains.” (My emphasis) Note the clear distinction he makes between regional systems and strategic systems: the latter can destabilise the MAD balance.

Given its concerns about anti-missile defences and their scepticism over mere declarations, Moscow has made it clear, in its statement appended to the Treaty, that unilateral development of anti-ballistic missile defences by the US could cause them to abrogate the treaty. “The Treaty between the Russian Federation and the United States of America on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms signed in Prague on April 8, 2010, can operate and be viable only if the United States of America refrains from developing its missile defence capabilities quantitatively or qualitatively.” The statement specifically refers to Art XIV.3 which allows either party to withdraw from the Treaty at any time “if it decides that extraordinary events related to the subject matter of this Treaty have jeopardised its supreme interests”

There should be no doubt that the Russian government means it. Moscow abrogated the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty in 2007 – one of the very few arms treaties that has actually destroyed weapons, and one very much in Moscow’s interests today – when, after years of complaints, no one else had ratified it and NATO kept adding new conditions to ratification. Contrary to much casual opinion, Moscow does not make threats, it makes statements. If ABM systems on Poland, then Russian anti-ABM systems in Kaliningrad. No ABM systems in Poland, no anti-ABM systems in Kaliningrad. Its appended statement to the Treaty makes it clear: if Washington develops its ABM systems in a way that Moscow believes undermines the strategic nuclear balance, in short develops a strategic missile defence, then Moscow will abrogate the Treaty. Therefore, while Clinton may be correct in a narrow sense, it is clear that she is wrong in a wider sense. There is a constraint on the agreement the US Administration is so pleased with: Moscow will accept tactical or limited defences, and indeed wishes to be part of any such system, but resists strategic missile defence.

But, as was said earlier, the threat to Washington and its allies does not come from hundreds of ICBMs from Russia but from a much smaller number of less sophisticated missiles from somewhere else. This is a threat that Russia also shares and defence against it is an obvious matter of mutual interest. Medvedev in the press conference after the signing made Moscow’s interest in cooperation clear: “We also offered our services to the United States in creating a global missile defence system which should be our concern in light of our world’s vulnerabilities and terrorist threats, including the possibility that terrorists could make use of nuclear weapons”.

It ought to be a no-brainer: if the civilised world is concerned – and it ought to be – about defence against “rogue states” with nuclear weapons and missiles, then it would be idiotic not to include Russia in the defence system. Russia has geography that is much more convenient than anything in eastern Europe and it has technology which is not to be slighted. A defence system against small numbers of not very sophisticated or accurate missiles with nuclear warheads that took in the territories and technologies of North America, Europe, Russia and Japan would be worth having. A defence system excluding Russia and threatening the new START would not be worth having.

So, what is to be done?

  1. Take the Russians at their word: no unilateral MAD-eroding strategic ABM systems; Moscow will abrogate the new Treaty if that happens.
  2. Take up Medvedev’s offer of cooperation on a defence system appropriate to the actual threat: incorporate Russia’s territory and technology into a defence system for the civilised world.
  3. And, it might be a good idea to negotiate a new ABM Treaty that excludes what should be excluded and includes what should be.

The Cold War is over, Russia and the USA are not enemies; they have common enemies. Defend against them, not against the past.