One of the meager results of the recent meeting between Presidents Biden and Putin in Geneva was a “dialogue on strategic stability”. Both sides want to start with this in the coming week. So far, it has not been possible to know what needs to be discussed in detail.
The spirit in which the talks should take place, however, was named in a statement at the Geneva meeting: “We reaffirm the principle that a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought. It’s a quote from Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at a time when people were trying to relax. And the first orders of work were indicated: dialogue, it was said, should lay the foundations for future arms control and risk reduction measures.
It looks abstract, but there are very real backgrounds. The world of nuclear weapons, in which the general public takes little interest, has evolved considerably since the end of the Cold War – and not in the direction of a policy of peace that so many people, especially in Germany, had hoped for.
More nuclear weapon states than before
The two former superpowers have disarmed but still have huge arsenals: the United States 5,550 warheads, Russia 6,255. The number of nuclear weapon states has increased to nine; two of them, namely India and Pakistan, have already fought each other, if only “with” conventional weapons. But above all, systems are being modernized everywhere, especially those of the two great nuclear powers.
In nuclear weapons, “strategic stability” refers to a state in which one country has no decisive advantage over another. The classic instruments to achieve this are the arms control treaties. Washington and Moscow said in Geneva and before that they want to talk about the next steps with the new START treaty, which they recently extended until 2026. It limits the number of missiles and bombers for each party to 700 and those operational warheads at 1,550 each.
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The fact that the treaty has survived the many tensions that have existed between Russia and America in recent years shows that the two countries do not want to continue their growing rivalry in this area, which raises existential questions.
Nonetheless, both sides fear that individual developments will come to their own detriment. For years, Russia has been wary of US missile defense because it is seen as a possible weakening of its own deterrence. In fact, most experts believe America would be protected to a large extent by interception systems, as was once envisioned by the failed Reagan SDI project.
“New and dangerous weapons”
Current US systems are also only designed to launch individual missiles from countries like North Korea or Iran. But there are reports that the Russian leadership does not want to reduce the number of their weapons below the limits of the new START due to US missile defense. On the US side, on the other hand, one can see Russian efforts in this area, such as the new S-500 defense system, which could also be used against ICBMs.
In Geneva, Biden said his government was interested in “new, dangerous and sophisticated weapons” that would reduce response times and increase the risk of accidental wars. He didn’t say what systems he was talking about, but some are publicly known who it should be. Russia is developing an underwater drone equipped with nuclear weapons (“Poseidon”) and a strategic cruise missile (“Sturmvogel”) with supposed global range. In addition, there are new types of hypersonic weapons such as the Russian “Awangard” glider missile or the “Kinschal” ballistic missile, which can be launched from airplanes.
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In Russia, on the other hand, the new American system “Prompt Global Strike” raises concerns. It’s conventional, but it can deliver precision hits over long distances as quickly as was previously possible with ballistic ICBMs. The Russians also want to talk about US plans to deploy new conventional medium-range cruise missiles in Europe and Asia after the INF contract is terminated.
It is not certain that these systems really upset the strategic balance. Hypersonic weapons, for example, are considered a breakthrough because they fly even faster than ballistic missiles and at the same time can be guided as only cruise missiles have been before. But it doesn’t seem certain that they can tempt their owners to attack, as they would always have to reckon with a devastating counterattack.
Rose Gottemoeller, who negotiated the new START treaty under Obama and later served as NATO’s Deputy Secretary General, recently wrote that the two sides are still struggling to understand the effects of new technologies. She took the example of space which is becoming increasingly militarized. A satellite that performs repairs could also damage or destroy satellites in other countries.
Both parties are also interested in including other nuclear powers in arms control. Washington thinks first of China, Moscow also of France and Great Britain. These countries have much smaller arsenals than America and Russia. China, which currently has 350 warheads, is ready to talk, but has traditionally taken the position that the two great nuclear powers must first disarm.