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‘Presidential Initiatives’: A Way to Revive U.S–Russia Arms Control?

Image by RIA Novosti archive, CC BY-SA 3.0

There is every reason to believe that Russia will not come back into compliance with the INF Treaty, thus setting the stage for a US withdrawal from the landmark agreement. The demise of the INF Treaty would jeopardize ‘New START’, one of the last remaining pillars of the arms control regime. Although the agreement expires in 2021, New START could be extended by five years – but will both sides agree to do so? The general deterioration in bilateral relations makes any progress in arms control hard to achieve.

With the remaining nuclear agreements gone, the world would enter into a new and more dangerous period. For the first time since SALT I was signed in 1972, the US and Russia would operate without international restrictions on their nuclear arsenals, potentially ushering in an era of unfettered arms build-ups and with channels of negotiation deadlocked.

The good news is that it is not too late to revive arms control efforts. Here, it is instructive to recall the legacy of the late President George H. W. Bush, who did much to enhance international security. It was Mr Bush who initiated ‘Presidential Nuclear Initiatives’ or PNIs – an alternative paradigm for arms control signed in September 1991, aimed at reducing tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) and their delivery vehicles. The initiatives were implemented immediately, and the result was unprecedented. No reductions of comparable scale had ever taken place before.  

Additional PNIs were announced unilaterally by the American president in early 1992. Although reciprocation from the Soviet Union was not guaranteed, President Bush appraised the opportunity correctly. The U.S.S.R. was challenged to follow suit and it did so. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev announced a range of dramatic reductions in tactical nuclear forces – pledging to eliminate all nuclear artillery, short-range missile nuclear warheads, and nuclear mines, as well as not to deploy TNWs off naval platforms. As a result, most of the Soviet TNWs were eliminated with the remainder placed in storage. After teams of U.S./Soviet experts and officials discussed the ways to implement the commitments, an agreement was reached on exchanging the information on nuclear arms progress through periodic implementation reports. These targeted efforts by President Bush produced tangible results, avoiding the long, drawn-out inter-agency talks that usually precede any arms control agreement. Both parties considered their unilateral non-binding measures as firm political commitments. In December, 1991, President Bush signed into law the “Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act of 1991.” The Nunn-Lugar programme was launched, and strengthened U.S.-Soviet nuclear cooperation for the next two decades.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia’s commitment to the PNIs was reaffirmed by President Boris Yeltsin. Both nuclear powers cut their TNW arsenals by between 75% and 90% between 1991 and 2010. The most important accomplishment–the removal of TNWs from sea platforms–has also remained unchanged. Unlike the INF and New START treaties, the PNIs actually work. No accusations of violations have been voiced so far, and neither side has announced its intention to withdraw. This success makes the PNIs the most enduring element of the arms control regime agreed to at that time, particularly when the ‘binding’ and ratified treaties from the period are proving to be unstable and at risk of falling apart. While the 1972 ABM Treaty did just that in 2002, the PNIs are still very much alive. The contribution of PNIs to keeping the nuclear arms race under control is hard to overestimate.

Pledges made at the chief executives’ level could encompass different areas related to arms control and military activities. These could become tools to direct the course of events when agreements are not achievable for some reason. This applies to any administration in the U.S. and Russia, not necessarily the ones currently headed by Mr Trump or Mr Putin. In today’s political climate, some may say that the use of presidential initiatives is an attempt by the U.S. president to bypass Congress. However, aside from the fact that President Bush avoided this accusation in 1991, the use of presidential initiatives are better seen as a means of buying time so as to allow deals to be submitted to Congress for approval at the right time. For example, if the INF Treaty was discontinued, the U.S. and Russia could still utilise PNIs to agree not to deploy intermediate weapons in the Old Continent, as well as establishing tentative tripartite talks with China to address tensions in the Indo Pacific region. After all, the last thing Beijing wants is the U.S. land-based intermediate missiles aimed at its territory. Presidential initiatives therefore represent a useful approach to restrict weapons development and certain military activities, helping to avoid the worst until bilateral relationships are revived, and confidence is bolstered.

The ongoing U.S.-Russia confrontation will not last forever. It will inevitably be replaced by some form of détente. Russia’s economy cannot sustain the heavy burden of excessive military expenditure for too long, while the U.S. will eventually be forced do something about its growing and unsustainable national debt. Despite serious problems that divide the two nations, there is no fundamental issue pre-determining that they be adversaries. The U.S. and Russia had friendly relations before the 1917 October Revolution. They can again.

Image courtesy of RIA Novosti archive, image #667881 / Yuriy Somov / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Andrey Akulov, Colonel (ret), is a Moscow-based Russian expert on military and conflict-related issues. He is a graduate from Defense University and is also a graduate of The George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies and NATO School (SHAPE).

Andrey Akulov

About Andrey Akulov

Andrey Akulov, Colonel (ret), is a Moscow-based Russian expert on military and conflict-related issues. He is a graduate from Defense University and is also a graduate of The George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies and NATO School (SHAPE). He has been a regular participant in talks with the US and other NATO member states on arms control and military activities and has many English-language publications on international security. Andrey acquired his academic experience as a research fellow at the Russian Academic Research Institute of the USA and Canada. He works as a freelance journalist now.

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