Since the inception of New START, American and Russian politicians and experts have been competing in determining who benefits more from the signing of the Treaty. Most discussions have been focused on the technological aspect of the problem. One of the common arguments of those highlighting “Russia’s advantage” is that Moscow’s new hypersonic weapons do (did) not fall under legal restrictions. Those talking about “America’s advantage” typically point to Washington’s undisputed conventional superiority or to the fact that each American bomber is counted as one deployed warhead. One can make dozens of more specific arguments of this kind, but this vision is one-sided. A broader look reveals that the debate cannot be confined to counting the number of weapon systems, whereas Russia’s interest in New START is not merely a security interest. Russia seeks recognition, and the special position granted to Moscow in arms control negotiations is exactly what the Kremlin in tends to achieve and retain.
Since the mid-1990s, Moscow has been trying to convince its partners in the West that Russia is a real great power. The range of instruments used is broad. On the one hand, Moscow takes every opportunity to demonstrate its military might. The incident at Pristina airport in 1999, the takeover of Crimea in 2014, the intervention in Syria in 2015, and large military exercises were all intended to show that Russia has a say in global and regional politics. On the other hand, Russia tries to remain active on the diplomatic stage. The destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, the Iran nuclear deal, the “Astana Process” on Syria are some of the most prominent examples of Russia’s successful diplomatic engagement in recent years.
What were Moscow’s expectations? Nobody can say for sure, but I can guess: Russia expected the Western world to recognize its right to interfere in wars, establish spheres of influence, and, more generally, behave independently. These dreams have never come true. Since Obama called Russia a regional power in 2014, the U.S. and its allies have done a lot to show Russia that it has neither legitimate spheres of influence nor the right to challenge the rules-based order so as to establish such spheres. Washington and Brussels have clearly demonstrated that they do not view Russia as an equal to the West. There is one exception: arms control.
The very fact that the Russian-American arms control framework is bilateral already means that Russia is granted a position superior to that of not only China but also America’s NATO allies. The Kremlin is proud that Russia is the only country capable of destroying America: many specialists still remember television presenter Dmitry Kiselyov saying that Russia can turn the U.S. “into radioactive ash.” Oddly enough, these same pro-Kremlin politicians and pundits are usually the first to say how important it is to sign and maintain U.S.-Russia deals that can prevent a nuclear catastrophe. The reason is evident: being indispensable for preventing a catastrophe is no less prestigious than being able to cause it. For the West, arms control is one of many items on the agenda; for Russia, it is the central component of the national foreign policy identity.
Russia’s indispensability for maintaining strategic stability is acknowledged by many in America and Europe, as evidenced by the prevalence of selective engagement approaches to Russia. In late January, President Biden introduced his own version of selective engagement, saying that “we can both operate in the mutual self-interest of our countries as a New START agreement and make it clear to Russia that we are — we are very concerned about their behavior.” Most Western leaders are fully committed to decoupling arms control from other issues in their relations with Moscow, and this is exactly where Russia has gained the upper hand. Russia has convinced the West that leaving Moscow out of a legal disarmament framework is dangerous. This means that arms control commitments can be isolated from Russian policies in nearly all other areas.
Such perceptions play into Russia’s hands. In reality, the lack or absence of arms control would be a more severe threat to Russia than to Western countries. Russia’s military spending is a drain on its budget: to keep up with the United States, Moscow has to allocate a larger percentage of its revenues for defense objectives than Washington. One should bear in mind that the Soviet-American arms race is cited by experts as one of the key causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Arms control helps both Washington and Moscow reduce pressure on their budgets, but the backwardness of Russia’s economy makes this reduction critical to Russia’s survival.
It is time now to take stock. First, the New START extension grants Russia recognition, which Moscow certainly lacks in other areas of its interaction with the West. Second, the New START extension shows Moscow that arms control is largely independent of Russian domestic policies, as well as its policies in the post-Soviet space, in the Middle East, or in the cyber domain. Third, the New START extension is beneficial to Russia in financial terms, since it helps Moscow keep under control the country’s military expenditure. What is equally beneficial to both sides? Perhaps, enhanced pure security, resulting from a lower risk of nuclear escalation under transparency measures. However, practice has shown that the key threat to strategic stability are local and regional conflicts and the risk of their escalation. Arms control does little to alleviate these dangers.
All this in no way means that the West should abandon the existing or avoid future arms control treaties with Russia. However, this does mean that the U.S. and its allies must be clear about both explicit and implicit consequences of their political decisions pertaining to arms control. To some extent, agreements favoring Russia may even be a good thing, as they encourage the Kremlin to behave more cooperatively towards its Western partners. In this regard, arms control can be useful for those who might want to repair America’s and Europe’s relations with Russia.