This post was written by Jessica Rogers, an intern with NTI’s Global Nuclear Policy Program. Rogers is a graduate student in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
In a time of deteriorating U.S.-Russian dialogue and growing nuclear risks, the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference on Tuesday hosted an expert panel on U.S.-Russian strategic relations led by NTI Co-Chair and CEO .
The panelists—NTI Co-Chair Sam Nunn, German Ambassador to the US Emily Haber, and former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov—expressed strong concern that a lack of dialogue and cooperation is increasing nuclear risks, and offered advice on how to improve strategic stability.
What nuclear risks are we facing?
“We are in a new era and have not recognized it,” Nunn said. “We are much more likely to have war by blunder, by some type of accident, miscalculations, false signal, interference by third parties, launching missiles by mistake.” He said these kinds of mistakes are more likely to lead to nuclear use than a deliberate, premeditated attack.
Ivanov agreed with a recent by Moniz and Nunn that the US and Russia are “sleep walking” toward nuclear disaster. “We are living in a new reality [where] we have a lot of risks at the same time, and it’s very difficult to enumerate them,” Ivanov said. “We are literally moving in a minefield. We don’t know from where and when the explosion will come, and who will suffer more from that explosion.”
What does Ambassador Haber find most worrisome? “The erosion of the system of nuclear disarmament and nuclear arms control.” She is concerned about the lack of a sense of urgency for arms control. Without limits on nuclear weapons, she warned, nuclear deterrence becomes “less predictable, and therefore gives more space to errors in assessment.”
What can we do about these nuclear risks?
Ivanov sees only one way out: For Washington and Moscow to sit down, have a dialogue, and negotiate what to do. Recognizing the difficulty of restarting a dialogue after a long pause, he recommends starting with simple, common threats. “We have to start from common threats . . . step by step.”
On the use of sanctions to mitigate nuclear risks, Haber emphasized the importance of consulting with other countries to strengthen the effect. She further urged that sanctions should be linked to future behavior rather than past events to enable and encourage compliance. Lastly, she explained that “the use of the sanction instrument will only work if we, on the other hand, expand channels where we can communicate . . . Disagreement can be managed in a cooperative sense even if we disagree.” In addition to U.S.-Russian channels, she highlighted NATO and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) as potential channels of communication.
Nunn called for presidential statements—such as Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev’s premise that a “nuclear war cannot be won, and therefore must not be fought”—to change attitudes within the US and Russian governments. He further encouraged the US and Russia to start with crisis management, particularly in Europe and regarding Ukraine. Building on crisis management talks, he then sees the possibility of broader strategic stability talks between the US, Russia, and other nuclear powers in the future.
To overcome US partisanship and increase the likelihood of passing arms control treaties, Senator Nunn recommends that Congressional leadership establish a bipartisan group to work with the executive branch on Russia and nuclear issues. A similar group in the 1980s, the bipartisan Arms Control Observer Group, resulted in overwhelming approval of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
Last, Nunn emphasized the importance of nuclear launch decision time for stability: “What I would rather have than any arms control agreement, is basically a mandate from President Trump and President Putin to their military leaders to give them more decision time.” Nunn said decision time is also reason for concern related to the U.S. decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty. Ground-based missiles in Europe—previously banned by the INF—would further decrease Russian decision time. “It doesn’t take long for a missile to get to Russia from Europe,” he said. Under the umbrella of security, Nunn said he hopes for a successor to the INF Treaty. He suggested that such an agreement could have a narrower geographical scope—but should still ban INF-range missiles in Europe.