Over thirty years ago, in October 1986, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union met for a historic summit in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik. The meeting was initiated by then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who believed that “the collapse of mutual trust” between the two countries could be stopped by resuming dialogue with U.S. president Ronald Reagan on key issues, above all on the question of nuclear weapons.
Three decades on, as the leaders of Russia and the United States prepare for their first meeting since the 2016 U.S. election, the summit of 1986 still resonates. (President Donald Trump’s team has denied press reports that the meeting might even be held in Reykjavik.) Although not a single agreement was signed by Gorbachev and Reagan, the historic significance of their meeting was immense. Despite the ostensible failure of their meeting, the leader of the state Reagan had termed the “evil empire” and the president of the Communist system’s implacable enemy opened a new path in relations between the nuclear superpowers.
The START I Success
In Reykjavik, the leaders of the two superpowers set out their positions in detail for one another and, by doing so, were able to take a remarkable leap forward on nuclear issues. Just a year later, in December 1987, the United States and the USSR signed a treaty on eliminating intermediate- and shorter-range missiles. In 1991, they signed the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I).
The efforts that went into drafting these treaties were immense. I participated in preparing the text for these treaties at all stages of heated discussions, in the so-called Small Five and Big Five formats—shorthand for the different Soviet agencies tasked with formulating policy. START I took at least five years of painstaking work. Every page of this lengthy document was accompanied by dozens of footnotes that reflected the contradictory views of the two sides. A compromise had to be found on every point. Naturally, it would have been impossible to reach these compromises without political will at the highest levels.
In the end, an unprecedented agreement was coordinated and signed, something that can still be viewed as a model for relations between two adversaries. It was based on Gorbachev’s initial proposal of a 50 percent reduction in strategic arms: the parties agreed to reduce their almost 12,000 nuclear warheads each to 6,000.
The system for verifying the treaty was revolutionary. It still boggles the imagination. It involved about one hundred various updates on the status of strategic offensive arms, dozens of on-site inspections, and exchanges of telemetry data after every launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). This kind of transparency in a secretive sector was unheard of between former adversaries, or even in relations between close allies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.
There is no doubt that without START I, there would be no New START, which was signed by then U.S. president Barack Obama and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in 2010 in Prague. START I served as the basis for New START and offered the necessary experience for the treaty, even though that document envisaged only eighteen on-site inspections (ICBM bases, submarine bases, and air bases), forty-two status updates, and five telemetry data exchanges for ICBMs and SLBMs per year.
According to the latest data exchange under New START, Russia currently has 508 deployed ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers with 1,796 warheads, and the United States has 681 ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers with 1,367 warheads. In 2018, the two sides are supposed to have no more than 700 deployed launchers and bombers and no more than 1,550 warheads. The treaty will remain in force until 2021.
The START I Legacy Erodes
However, these numbers do not accurately reflect the real state of relations between Russia and the United States.
The crisis and lack of progress in nuclear arms control cannot be separated from the more general breakdown in the relationship between Russia and the West caused by events in Ukraine and Syria. However, in the nuclear field, the crisis started even before that, almost immediately after 2011, and has been unprecedented in the fifty years since the two countries started working together on these issues. In the past, immediately after signing a new treaty, the parties involved would have initiated new consultations on strategic arms reduction. However, since 2011, there have been no consultations. And the more time passes, the more often senior officials employ nuclear terminology in their public statements.
In June 2013, while in Berlin, Obama invited Russia to sign a new treaty aimed at reducing the parties’ strategic arms further by one-third. Under these proposals, Russian and U.S. strategic offensive arms would be limited to 1,000 warheads and 500 deployed nuclear delivery vehicles.
Another suggestion by Washington for further strategic arms reduction was made in January 2016. It followed the appeal to the two countries’ leaders by well-known politicians and scientists from the United States, Russia, and Europe, including former U.S. senator Sam Nunn, former U.S. and UK defense heads William Perry and Lord Des Browne, academician Nikolay Laverov, former Russian ambassador to the United States Vladimir Lukin, Swedish diplomat Hans Blix, former Swedish ambassador to the United States Rolf Ekéus, physicist Roald Sagdeev, consultant Susan Eisenhower, and several others. The appeal was organized at the joint conference of the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe and the Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington at the beginning of December 2015 and was presented immediately to the senior leaders of both countries.
This suggestion provoked a harsh response from Moscow. The Russian government listed several reasons why it deemed negotiations with the United States to be impossible. They included, first of all, the need to make multilateral agreements with other nuclear states; second, the continued deployment of European and U.S. global missile defenses; third, the existence of the potential threat of a disarming strike by strategic conventional high-precision weapons against Russian nuclear forces; and fourth, the threat of the militarization of space. Finally, the West, led by the United States, was accused of enforcing an overtly hostile sanctions policy toward Russia because of the situation in Ukraine.
Following this setback, a new suggestion was put forward by the United States to extend New START for five years, a move that could be interpreted as a backup plan if no new treaty was agreed. This option is included in the text of New START. An extension is highly appropriate given the circumstances.
The main argument for an extension is that the lack of an agreement removes START I from the legal framework, which has allowed the parties to reliably control implementation of agreements for decades. This framework encompasses control of the states’ strategic weapons, the type and composition of those weapons, the features of the missile fields, the number of delivery vehicles deployed and the warheads on them, and the number of nondeployed vehicles. This legal framework also allows the parties to set a short-term agenda.
As mentioned above, there have been up to eighteen mutual on-sight inspections a year since 2011 of each party’s ground, sea, and air bases of their nuclear triads and forty-two notifications on the nature of their strategic nuclear forces. Lack of information about the military forces of the other side generally results in an overestimation of both the quantitative and qualitative strengths of one’s opponent, and in a decision to enhance one’s own capabilities in order to build up the appropriate capability to respond. This path leads directly to an uncontrolled arms race. It is especially dangerous when it involves strategic nuclear arms, since that leads to the undermining of strategic stability as it was originally understood. That is why it is appropriate to extend New START for an additional five years to 2026.
However, it would be even better to sign a new treaty. That would allow the parties to maintain a steady strategic balance while spending much less money than would be required to keep the levels of arms defined by New START. This arrangement would be much more beneficial for Russia because the next treaty signed, just like START I and the current treaty, would basically entail only a reduction in the U.S. nuclear forces and allow Russia to lower the cost of maintaining the current treaty levels as well as to develop and modernize additional types of missiles.
It is up to the leaders of Russia and the United States to take these feasible, necessary, and reasonable steps. The Reykjavik summit from thirty years ago shows what can be done when two leaders, whose states are supposedly implacable enemies, take responsibility and act to enhance the world’s strategic stability and safety.
Decisions of this nature can be taken by the kind of truly great leaders who, sadly, are in short supply in the contemporary world. But, to paraphrase Austrian psychiatrist Wilhelm Stekel, a leader standing on the shoulders of a giant can see further than the giant himself. They do not have to, but they could. Our goal must be to make sure the modern leaders who sit on the shoulders of giants take care to look into the distance.