The U.S. and Russia Are Sleepwalking Toward Nuclear Disaster
Monday, February 4th, 2019
Friday morning’s announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that America will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty because of Russian violations is the latest wake-up call that relations between the world’s nuclear superpowers are dangerously off the rails.
The fear of nuclear confrontation was once omnipresent in Washington and Moscow. National leaders recognized the real risk that a military conflict could quickly emerge and escalate, and that they would be forced to calculate in minutes whether survival required “going nuclear first,” with catastrophic consequences.
The grim horror of this reality was understood. It provided the foundation of decades of nuclear dialogue between the U.S. and Russia, including a mutual recognition of vital interests, red lines and methods to reduce the chance that accidents or miscalculations would lead to conflict.
Today, many of those mechanisms have atrophied. The relationship between the U.S. and Russia is fraught and communications are feeble. Western sanctions placed on Russia in response to Vladimir Putin’s acts of aggression have further frozen relations, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in America’s 2016 elections continues to roil American politics, and Donald Trump’s administration is imperiled if it touches anything related to Russia.
But it’s not just the means of managing risk that have withered; it’s the will. Arms control efforts have been eroded and, some suggest, should be eliminated. U.S. and Russian leaders publicly boast of their respective nuclear arms and preparedness to use them—possibly in response to non-nuclear attacks. Military technologies are advancing rapidly, and the risk that cyberattacks could target nuclear warning and command-and-control systems is ever-increasing. The threat of catastrophic terrorism has greatly increased nuclear dangers. Meanwhile, U.S. and Russian military forces are again operating in close proximity, with increased chances that an inadvertent collision—or a deliberate act of aggression, accident, or terrible miscalculation—could lead to the fatal use of nuclear weapons for the first time in nearly 75 years.
The U.S. and Russia are sleepwalking toward a nuclear disaster, and America’s best hope of avoiding catastrophe is reengaging with Russia now—with Congress taking the lead.
Reengagement cannot wait for the special counsel’s office to complete its work, or for new leadership to take office in the Kremlin or White House—the stakes are simply too high. Congressional leaders from both parties must help create the political space to steer the world’s nuclear superpowers away from catastrophe.
In this moment of unprecedented circumstances, Congress must develop a governance agenda—shared by a broad consensus of Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, and between Congress and the White House—that successfully challenges the now-prevailing assumption that we have no choice on Russia policy except self-imposed paralysis.
First, getting to safer and more stable ground with Russia requires urgent action to establish a working bridge between the Trump administration and Congress on Russia and nuclear policy. With the support of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, this should begin with the creation of a new bipartisan liaison group of House and Senate leaders and committee chairs to work with senior administration officials designated by the president. A strong precedent for this type of congressional-executive cooperation can be found in the bipartisan Arms Control Observer Group of the 1980s, its creation led by Senate Democratic Leader Robert Byrd and Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, which dealt with the secretary of state and other leading administration officials.
Second, the liaison group and Congress should strongly encourage the Trump administration to pursue a Russia policy that reduces unnecessary nuclear dangers while protecting the security interests of the U.S. and its allies. Congress should back bilateral crisis-management and nuclear stability discussions, including among uniformed military leaders in charge of nuclear forces and military and civilian professionals in the defense and foreign ministries. This should include NATO-Russia crisis management dialogue in the Euro-Atlantic region to increase transparency, decrease military risks, and examine the consequences of unraveling arms control agreements.
Third, Congress and the White House must coordinate efforts to make our sanctions policy both effective and flexible. The sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea and in response to Russian interference in the U.S. elections are certainly justified. At the same time, Congress must give the president the flexibility to lift sanctions when and if progress is made on restoring security in Ukraine and to our elections. If the Russians conclude they will never get out of the penalty box, they will have little incentive to change their behavior.
Finally, Congress should increase its dialogue with Russian legislative, business and civic leaders. The liaison group could provide a foundation for dialogue, initially in a third country, with Russian parliamentary counterparts to discuss grievances and opportunities.
Our Constitution mandates a vital role for Congress in matters of war and peace. Senators and representatives cannot wish away dangerous truths and growing risks from a “muddling through” policy towards Russia which discounts and discourages the important role of communication, even—perhaps especially—with adversaries.
The United States, NATO and Russia must decisively confront these existential problems that threaten global security—or risk a catastrophic conflict. Congress has a crucial role to play and a duty to act to reduce these nuclear risks.
Former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn and former U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest J. Moniz are co-chairmen of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.