Why you should care
If Washington and Moscow don’t start rebuilding trust, a new arms race may soon get underway.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Three days spent in Moscow recently left me deeply concerned about the state of U.S.-Russian relations. Tensions are higher than at any time since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and in some ways are more susceptible to misunderstanding and inadvertent conflict than during the dark days of the Cold War. Neither country has the intention of attacking the other, but trust is lacking at just about every level — meaning that there is a lot of dangerous testing and probing going on and little in place that’s likely to stop the downhill slide.
This was a trip that allowed me to exchange views with a cross-section of Russian counterparts and develop a better understanding of where the Russian side is coming from on some of the tough issues dividing our two countries. My interlocutors came mainly from Russian research institutes — many of whose members have a government service background.
These were my major impressions:
First, considering the many issues that divide the United States and Russia, there is today surprisingly little official dialogue. Contact between officials in both capitals is minimal and seldom high level, constrained by a lack of open dialogue at the very top of the two governments and by the severe expulsions by each side of the other’s diplomatic officials. This tit-for-tat process was kicked off by U.S. and allied expulsions of Russian officials in the wake of Moscow’s meddling in the American presidential election and Britain’s charge that Russia had carried out poison operations in the U.K.
One Russian counterpart remarked to me that he thought it must be close to “treasonous” in the U.S. these days to advocate a more productive relationship with Russia.
My baseline for judging today’s relationship is my experience during the Clinton administration, participating in an interagency delegation that met with Russian counterparts every couple of months for talks on nearly all issues involving the two countries. This occurred even when tensions were high — even when the U.S. arrested Russian spy, then CIA officer Rick Ames, in 1994. This did not continue in exactly the same form during the Bush administration, but there were frequent exchanges at both the highest levels and between senior aides to Presidents Bush and Putin and similarly during the Obama administration.
Of course, the current constrained relationship is inevitably conditioned by an unprecedented situation: the investigations into Russian election interference in the U.S. and the question of whether President Trump’s campaign was aware of this or cooperated with it. The intense controversy has put on hold all serious discussions in government and political circles in both capitals on how to manage and improve relations. One Russian counterpart remarked to me that he thought it must be close to “treasonous” in the U.S. these days to advocate a more productive relationship with Russia. An exaggeration but perhaps not by much.
There are many practical worries that flow from this situation. Although the two countries have well-functioning means of deconflicting military operations in shared theaters such as Syria, it is less clear that mechanisms are in place to deal with an accidental clash elsewhere. For example, in November a Russian fighter jet buzzed a U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace over the Black Sea — close enough to create turbulence and vibrations for the U.S. aircraft. This was the fourth known incident since 2017, with a Russian SU-27 in one case coming within 5 feet of the U.S. aircraft. In such situations, unlike planned deconfliction in an ongoing war, the two sides may lack the means to quickly determine whether an incident is deliberate or accidental. This situation cries out for closer military-to-military communications outside actual conflict zones so that the two sides can quickly share facts surrounding an incident and manage the situation.
That said, it is the gap opening up on arms control that is most worrisome and deserves the most attention from both sides. This gap has widened in the wake of Russian violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty — along with Russian claims that the U.S. is out of compliance — and the decision of the U.S. to withdraw from the treaty rather than try to repair it through negotiations. This allows Russia to have its cake and eat it: It can blame the U.S. and justify its deployment of new intermediate-range missiles by saying that Washington has made the treaty null and void.
That, in turn, sours the atmosphere for renewal of the 2011 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which is set to expire in 2021. It mandated and has seen close to a 30 percent reduction in the two countries’ longer-range strategic nuclear arsenals. Trump has not committed yet to renewal and National Security Adviser John Bolton, an arms control skeptic, called the treaty “profoundly misguided” when it was signed. The treaty can be easily renewed for five years by mutual agreement between the two countries. That could give time to begin revising it to take account of new technologies developed since its inception, such as hypersonic weapons. Letting the treaty lapse would leave the two countries, who own 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, without a forum for managing them for the first time since 1972.
That outcome would, in turn, lead to a ripple effect on the 1970 international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signed by close to 200 countries. The implicit bargain in the treaty is that states without nuclear weapons will forswear them in return for those possessing nuclear weapons agreeing to reduce and eventually eliminate them. The treaty is already weakened by North Korea’s withdrawal. A U.S.-Russia stall in arms control would remove yet another incentive for nonnuclear states to stay that way.
For all these reasons, arms control would be an ideal arena in which to upgrade and reinforce communication between Moscow and Washington, even at this time of high political tension. The interest is clearly mutual, the entire world has a stake, and there is a long tradition of dealing responsibly with each other on such issues even during the extreme hostility of the Cold War. Unfortunately, resuscitating the arms control process in current circumstances is easier said than done, given deep-seated grievances and a complete lack of trust on both sides.
Leaving U.S.-Russia relations devoid of transparency and adrift will only increase the chances of accident and miscalculation, harking back to the worst mistakes of the 20th century.