Arbatov Offers Russian Perspective on Potential U.S.-Russia Nuclear Conflict

What is Russia’s position on the use of tactical nuclear weapons? Would Russia perceive a cyber-attack as the beginning of a nuclear conflict? NTI board member Alexey Arbatov joined James Acton at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last week for a discussion about these and other questions related to the increased risk of nuclear war. Arbatov leads the Center for International Security of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Acton is co-director of Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program.

The discussion sought the Russian perspective on the risk of nuclear war and how it is affected by tensions related to non-nuclear weapons. For example, Acton asked Arbatov if Russia’s placement of nuclear and conventional forces in the same military locations—known as “entanglement”—is a deliberate strategy to deter an attack by the United States. Arbatov said no – that unlike China, which may have deliberately co-mingled its forces, Russia has “entangled” its forces to save resources. He added that to separate them would be a good idea in theory but would be too expensive for Russia in practice.

Acton also asked Arbatov to comment on Russia’s position on the use of tactical (smaller) nuclear weapons, referencing a Russian nuclear policy document published in 2010 that appeared to consider such weapons a viable option for use in a military conflict. Arbatov acknowledged the international unrest that the release of this document caused at the time, noting that tactical nuclear weapon use has not appeared in any official military doctrine since. “The Russian military doesn’t repeat it, but they also do not deny it,” Arbatov said.

With arms control agreements between the U.S. and Russia stalled, an audience member asked what the two countries might do to improve relations until agreements can be approached again. Arbatov suggested that it would be helpful for nuclear and military policy experts from both countries to discuss de-escalation strategies together behind closed doors. “This should not be a scholastic exercise,” Arbatov added, “but should be part of a real strategy negotiation.”

See NTI’s Report with Policy Recommendations for Reducing Nuclear Dangers between the U.S. and Russia.

Another audience member asked how Russia would react to a non-nuclear attack in cyber form. Would that be perceived as the beginning of a nuclear conflict? Arbatov said that Russia has not ever officially linked cyber conflict to nuclear conflict – largely because everything related to cyber policy is regarded as “top secret” in Russia. Regardless, “it would not provoke a nuclear retaliation,” Arbatov suggested, noting that any cyber-attack likely would come from a non-state actor attempting to sow conflict between the U.S. and Russia.

And how does Russia feel about the recently approved Nuclear Ban Treaty? Arbatov answered by joking that he may be the only person in Russia to have said something positive about the ban. The ban is viewed in Russia as a dangerous development – one thing on which he says the U.S. and Russia can agree.

Arbatov ended the discussion by reminding the audience that although “this discussion we’ve been having would seem madly crazy to anyone out there on the street,” it’s important to discuss the potential for nuclear conflict in order to prevent it from ever occurring.

December 4, 2017
Meaghan Webster
Meaghan Webster

Communications Manager

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