Home / Articles / Beyond COVID-19, Part 10: The Death of Arms Control and the Birth of Putinism 3.0
Tomorrow, May begins. The weather is warming up, the flowers are blooming, and the birds are chirping—but we remain inside. This nicer weather makes it particularly more difficult to obey quarantine and social distancing rules, but doing so will help to save lives and reduce the burden on the healthcare system. To mark the tenth installment of this discussion series, I will be interviewing Robert Hamilton, a Black Sea Fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is also an Associate Professor of Eurasian Studies at the U.S. Army War College. We’re going to discuss some “big picture” topics that have larger ramifications beyond the past week’s news.
General reminder to our readers to keep up to date with guidelines coming from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; continue to stay home as much as possible; and when you must leave your home and engage with people, be mindful of social distancing practices; and wash your hands frequently with soap for at least 20 seconds.
Thomas Shattuck: Bob, thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions for today. We’ve been having these discussions every week since the quarantine began to keep readers informed of important international developments. But, today, we’re throwing that out the window (sort of) to focus on broader themes that will affect us for months and years to come.
The Cold War arms control regime seems to have collapsed. All of the treaties signed during and right after the Cold War are now defunct. Only New START, which was signed in April 2010, remains intact, and that is set to expire in February 2021. What made these treaties so important?
Robert Hamilton: Thanks for the opportunity to contribute to this forum, Tom. I’ve been reading these Beyond COVID-19 posts since you started them and find them really interesting. So, to your question. Yes, the Cold War arms control regime has largely collapsed. The U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in 2002 because it prevented our deployment of defenses against Iranian missiles. Russia suspended its compliance with the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty in 2007, and formally withdrew in 2015, because it limited the number of forces it could deploy west of the Ural mountains in Russia. More recently, the U.S. withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty in 2019, accusing Russia of having violated it by developing weapons prohibited under it. Finally, the Trump administration is now floating the idea of leaving the Open Skies treaty, which allows unarmed aerial surveillance flights over the U.S., Russia, and 33 other European and North American signatory states. If the U.S. withdraws from Open Skies, New START, which limits the number of strategic nuclear weapons, will be the only treaty left standing. Unless Russia and the U.S. agree to an extension, it too will end in February 2021.
The arms control regime was an important cornerstone of U.S. security and global stability. We should keep in mind that Russia and the U.S. each represent the only existential threat to the other. As much as the scholarly and policy communities love to remind us that China is the true rising threat, China does not now and probably never will have the means to end the existence of the U.S. The same is not true of Russia—even its New START Treaty-limited stockpile of 1,550 nuclear warheads is more than enough to destroy the U.S. China’s estimated 290 warheads are not. And the Russian numbers don’t include an estimated 870 strategic and 1,870 non-strategic warheads held in reserve, or not mounted on delivery systems. If Russia and the U.S. allow New START to lapse in February, then there will be nothing to prevent either side from building and deploying even more strategic nuclear weapons. A nuclear arms race of the type that occurred in the Cold War—before the advent of the arms control regime—is a distinct possibility.
Next, the treaties mattered because they provided a way for the U.S and Russia to cooperate. One way to look at the arms control regime is as an institution. Political scientists who study institutions tell us that they serve three purposes that help states cooperate. First, they provide information. The arms control regime did this through a wide-ranging set of compliance and verification measures, including on-site inspections. The ability for each side to gain information on the activities of the other served to build confidence between Russia and the U.S. The second thing institutions do is sanction cheating. The arms control regime was admittedly weaker in this area since the only sanction available to each side was withdrawal from the treaty. The third thing institutions do is to “lengthen the shadow of the future” by promising repeated interaction. The idea here is that if two parties know they will have to interact repeatedly on an issue, the incentive for each of them to cheat is lower than in a one-time interaction. Any tourist who has ever bought something at a market and learned later what locals pay for the same item knows this lesson well.
The arms control regime also provided a channel for regular military interaction between the U.S. and Russia. Given the dangerously poor state of the overall relationship, these channels are important for preventing misperception or miscalculation. Outside of arms control inspections and the military deconfliction effort in Syria, there are essentially no channels for regular U.S.-Russia military interaction. In fact, since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, annual U.S. defense authorization acts have expressly prohibited the U.S. military from cooperating with Russia.
Shattuck: What’s going to happen to New START, especially in the midst of an election year, and what effect does the collapse of the arms control regime have on strategic stability across the globe?
Hamilton: Retired U.S. diplomat Steve Pifer has called extending New START a “no-brainer.” Russia has production lines already “churning out new missiles, submarines, and bombers,” while the U.S. will not begin producing large numbers of these until the second half of the 2020s. So, an extension of New START until 2026, which requires only agreement by the Russian and U.S. presidents, would constrain Russia more than it would the U.S. But as you noted, in a U.S. election year, even something as simple as extending New START will be complicated, especially since the U.S.-Russia relationship has become so politicized. In a curious reversal of the Cold War, when Democratic administrations were always at risk of being labelled “soft” on the Soviet Union, it’s now Democrats who tend to criticize the Trump administration for being “soft” on Russia.
One thing the rapidly deteriorating arms control regime did was to institutionalize strategic stability by ensuring that each side retained a second-strike capability. The limitation on missile defense systems of the ABM treaty, and the limitation on offensive strategic nuclear weapons of New START, together ensured that neither side had the ability to strike first and avoid massive retaliation by the other. In a crisis, this removed the incentive for each side to strike to avoid having its nuclear deterrent destroyed in an enemy strike.
The end of the ABM treaty and the impending lapse of New START could result in an era of “crisis instability.” With each side free to build ABM systems, and unconstrained in the number of strategic offensive nuclear weapons it can deploy, Russia and the U.S. will be incentivized to seek the ability to strike first in a crisis and use its ABM system to blunt a retaliatory strike by the enemy. Adding to this crisis instability, in the event New START lapses, is a little-known clause in that treaty prohibiting each side from interfering with the satellites of the other. Since these satellites are critical to each side’s ability to keep track of the nuclear forces of the other, the end of New START could allow each side to devise means to jam, lase, or attack the other’s satellites. Used in a crisis, this could leave one side blind to the status of the other’s nuclear forces, further increasing the incentive to strike first.
Shattuck: Putin has played an obvious role in Russia’s strategic culture for decades, and is set to continue to lead Russia until he decides he doesn’t want to anymore. How do you see Putin changing for what can be categorized as his “third” tenure as President of the Russian Federation? What’s changed from his first term to the present?
Hamilton: I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. In Putin’s first two terms (2000-2008)—let’s call this Putinism 1.0—the social contract with the Russian people amounted to “you stay out of politics and we’ll help you get rich.” And this social contract largely worked. Buoyed by high oil prices, especially after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Russian economy surged. Per capita GDP grew from $6491 in 2000 to $11,088 in 2008. But the 2008 financial crisis and Western sanctions after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea have hit the Russian economy hard—per capita GDP in 2018 was $11,729, essentially where it had been in 2008.
For a government that had built its legitimacy on its ability to provide economic benefits, this was a problem. And the Russian people had noticed. Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, and by November 2013, his approval rating had fallen to 61%. While this number would be the envy of most Western politicians, for Putin, who was used to approval ratings in the 80% or better range, this was a problem.
The crisis over Ukraine provided the context and justification for “Putinism 2.0.” Here, the social contract amounted to “national unity is required to meet the threat from the West and return Russia to great power status.” In early 2014, citing the threat to Russian speakers in Ukraine from “fascists” in the post-Maidan Ukrainian government and among its supporters, Russia seized Crimea and fomented a civil war in the east of the country. A little over a year later, citing U.S. attempts at “regime change” in Syria, Russia intervened in that conflict on the side of the Bashar al-Assad regime. These moves worked—Putin’s approval rating jumped to above 80% in early 2014 and stayed there for four years.
But by 2018, it became clear that the “fascists” weren’t coming over the wall, and Russia found itself still fighting in both Ukraine and Syria, with no clear end to either conflict in sight. It was in this context that the Kremlin introduced pension reforms that raised the retirement age by five years for men and eight years for women. Although required to help balance the budget in an era of flat oil prices, this pension reform was greeted angrily by the Russian people. Especially galling was that the new male retirement age of 65 was very close to the average male life expectancy of 66.4 years. Predictably, Putin’s approval rating fell—from 82% prior to the introduction of the pension reforms to 67% after.
And Putin’s approval rating has remained flat in the two years since; it currently stands at 63%. The combined impact of the Russian-Saudi oil price war and the COVID-19 pandemic have pushed oil prices to historic lows—recently some oil futures were trading in negative territory, meaning sellers were paying buyers to take oil off their hands. For a country as hydrocarbon dependent as Russia, this bodes poorly for the future. The Russian government’s handling of COVID-19 has also not inspired confidence. After closing its border with China and insisting it had the virus under control within its borders—this may sound familiar to American readers—Russia has seen cases surge. Russia’s COVID-19 case count is currently the eighth highest in the world at over 93,000, and few Russians trust those numbers—59% of Russians trust official information on the extent of the virus “only partially” or “not at all.”
Putin has a problem on his hands. The social contracts of Putinism 1.0 and 2.0 have run their course—Russians are no richer than they were in 2008; things are set to get much worse in the immediate future; and there are no foreign dragons to slay at the moment. So, this is an especially inopportune time for Putin to ask Russians to endorse the idea of him ruling until 2036, when he is 83 years old. But this is exactly what the proposed constitutional changes would do. Add to this the fact that most Russians now say they want an age-limit for the presidency and “serious changes to the political system” and Putin’s problem comes into even clearer focus.
Russia is not a democracy, but the Kremlin is very conscious of public opinion. It knows it has a legitimacy problem, and it knows the problem is likely to get worse in the near future. How Putin and the Russian government choose to tackle this problem bears watching. At a time like this, I wonder if Putin thinks back to the example of Gorbachev—a leader who understood that the status quo was unsustainable, but who in his attempts to change it, unleashed forces he proved unable to control.
Shattuck: Bob, thanks for the great discussion!
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.