U.S.-Russia Strategic Stability Dialogue

Matthew Rojansky,
The Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute,
United States of America

Presidents Biden and Putin have agreed that the United States and Russia bear “a unique responsibility” for maintaining strategic stability and preventing dangerous escalation between the world’s two leading nuclear powers. Following their June 2021 Geneva summit, they declared that, “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” an echo of the famous Reagan-Gorbachev declaration from 1985. Although significant disagreements between the two sides are likely to persist on a range of issues, the leaders agreed to embark together on an integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue (SSD) that is meant to be “deliberate and robust.” The first plenary level meeting of that dialogue took place on 28 July, once more in Geneva, with a follow-up planned for late September.

From the U.S. standpoint, the goal of such tough engagement with Russia is to move toward more stability and predictability in relations, imposing guardrails on escalatory behavior, while pushing back against what Washington sees as reckless and aggressive actions by Moscow. U.S. officials admit this approach is necessary but untested, and so they have sought to lower expectations for any major breakthrough agreements between the two nuclear-armed adversaries. What, then, may be expected from the dialogue in the coming months?

At the core of SSD are concerns over issues with direct bearing on the two sides’ strategic nuclear capabilities. A foundation is needed for a new arms control treaty architecture that can replace New START, which will expire in 2026. Washington seeks to include in that new architecture all types of nuclear warheads—including both deployed and non-deployed, as well as tactical nuclear weapons, plus a wide variety of strategic delivery systems, ranging from bombers to hypersonic missiles, and intermediate range systems. The last is especially important in the wake of the U.S. and Russian withdrawals from the INF treaty, which had previously banned all intermediate range systems. For the Russian side, core priorities include imposing legally binding limits on ballistic missile defense systems and on non-nuclear weapons with strategic capabilities, such as long-range drones, as well as barring deployment of strategic weapons in outer space.

For several years, the official U.S. position was to insist that China must take part in strategic nuclear arms control, while Russia has said the U.K. and France, as recognized nuclear powers, should be subject to binding limits. But since the SSD talks are strictly bilateral, it is unlikely that any agreement would go beyond Moscow and Washington. Another concern for both sides is the potential for cyber attacks to impact nuclear command and control or otherwise impact strategic nuclear stability. For the moment, this appears to be the main area of intersection between the SSD agenda and that of a separate U.S.-Russian cyber security dialogue that has met at least four times this year.

Below the plenary level, technical working groups will be formed, and will meet informally and alongside plenary sessions. Some discussions, such as on warhead counting rules or on protecting command and control systems, could be expected to progress relatively faster in at least reaching clarity on each side’s positions, and may even identify common ground where agreement is possible. Other discussions, such as on the thorny issues of missile defense or intermediate range missiles, will move more slowly. While recognizing that many issues are intertwined, the sides appear comfortable with the idea that parallel discussions can move at different speeds.

In the medium term, SSD will need to address an even wider range of issues and actions with destabilizing impacts, or that pose unacceptable risks of escalation to direct military and even nuclear conflict. For example, hacking of critical infrastructure, even without targeting command and control systems, could cause significant damage to public trust and confidence and lead to calls for retaliation and escalation. In the physical world, close calls between deployed military forces on land, at sea or in the air, or escalation of regional conflicts, also pose the potential for spillover conflict between Russia and the United States.

U.S. officials say they are open to discussing issues that each side may consider important for establishing more stable and predictable relations, though such discussions may be kept separate from SSD. For Washington, dialogue on ransomware is an important opportunity to build confidence in the principle that each side is committed to communicating concerns in a clear and direct manner and to taking concrete steps to address the other side’s concerns. Reduced frequency and severity of ransomware attacks is seen by Washington as an important condition for continuing with broader dialogue on cyber issues. In case the dialogue does not produce results, U.S. officials have said they will act unilaterally to address ransomware threats. In late July, Russia opened a new front in the debate with its proposal for a United Nations Convention on Countering the Use of Information and Communication Technologies for Criminal Purposes. That draft is unlikely to win U.S. support due to disagreements over so-called Internet “sovereignty,” crimes of a “political” nature, and other sensitive issues.

Another separate, parallel dialogue might consider issues related to improving conditions and restoring greater capacity for diplomatic representation. Reeling from election interference and other reckless and aggressive Russian actions, the U.S. has expelled dozens of Russian diplomats and shuttered consular and other diplomatic facilities in recent years, and each such move has been answered on the Russian side tit-for-tat. Any progress at this point will have to begin from the need for clarity on appropriate treatment and protections for each side’s diplomatic personnel serving in the other country, and the ability of embassies and consulates to maintain basic services needed for their regular operations. Only once such principles are fully agreed might the sides be able to contemplate steps for reopening closed diplomatic facilities and increasing the numbers of personnel accredited to each.

SSD is not without precedent. Several such meetings took place during the Trump administration, even though no agreements were reached, while delegations of nuclear arms control experts have worked on negotiating and implementing treaties since the Cold War. Nor is SSD a replacement for the more extensive “commission” type structures established in the more optimistic periods of the 1990’s and the 2009-12 Obama-Medvedev “reset.” It is, instead a more limited effort to restore some stability and predictability to a high-stakes relationship that seems increasingly at risk of unintended escalation.

Leaders are keenly aware that new crises can crop up at any time, and even developments seemingly unrelated to the core agenda of SSD could easily derail the dialogue. To that end, while keeping expectations appropriately modest, both sides say they are prepared to devote the considerable time, expertise and resources necessary to SSD. For Washington, this also means keeping allies and partners informed, as needed, to avoid misunderstanding of SSD’s content and purpose, as well as setting appropriate expectations within the U.S. domestic political context. Still, the U.S. asserts that it will respond to any further reckless and aggressive acts by Russia, and the Kremlin has issued stern warnings about the risks of crossing a “red line” which it alone will define. History shows that such cycles of action and response could easily create conditions in which productive dialogue becomes impossible.

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