‘When Obama says Putin is trapped in Cold War logic, it’s true. But so is Obama.’

August 8, 2013

A few years ago, the hope was that the U.S. and Russia were moving towards a "reset" of their relationship — and with that reset, a renewed commitment to mutual nuclear disarmament. That's not looking so good anymore — and it's one reason President Obama canceled the summit with Vladimir Putin. 

Joseph Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, and a member of Secretary of State John Kerry's International Security Advisory Board and the Council on Foreign Relations. He's also the author of "Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons." We spoke this afternoon. 


Less nukes, maybe? (Antonov Mladen/AFP/Getty Images)

Ezra Klein: What does President Obama want from the talks with Russia? 

Joe Cirincione: If Russia would agree, Obama would dramatically reduce the U.S. arsenal. He’s hesitant to do it independently. He wants Russian agreement. But Russia won’t agree. And Russia is hanging all these other issues on nuclear agreement. Putin wants to talk NATO conventional forces. He wants to talk new precision strike weapons the U.S. has that some fear can knock out Russian nuclear targets. He wants to talk missile defense. And he has a very active missile industrial complex in Russia.

EK: Let's say Putin woke up tomorrow morning and decided to agree to everything Obama wanted. What's the size of the disarmament we're talking about?

JC: It is not a Reagan and Gorbachev moment. At Reykjavik they came very close to agreeing to eliminate everything in 10 years. Tragically, we’re not talking about that with Putin or Obama. We’re talking about another step: A 1/3rd reduction.

The START treaty says both sides can have 1,550 full, operationally deployed strategic warheads. That’s the ceiling. The treaty doesn’t go into effect until 2018 so we’re building down to that. The latest data shows we’re down to 1,664. We have 100 more than the treaty permits. Russia is down to 1,480 — they’re already below, and going lower, because their missiles are aging and they’re retiring them faster than they can replace them. They have plans for a big, new heavy ICBM, but estimates are that the Russian force will decline to 1,000 warheads by the end of the decade.

Suppose we follow them down. Then we maybe reduce the incentive for Russia to build this new, big, heavy ICBM.

EK: If Russia is already falling so quickly, why does Obama need their cooperation at all? Couldn't we just pick up the pace on disarmament? 

JC: That is true. That’s another level of the discussion. We could do this unilaterally and the chiefs would probably do that. They’ve already said we can accomplish all our missions at this level. Think about 1,000 strategic warheads — how many do you need? What military mission requires 1,000 strategic warheads? Imagine if we had only 500. There’s no conceivable mission in which the U.S. would launch 500 hydrogen bombs, each one at 10-50 times the power of Hiroshima.

EK: So what's the point of having so many?

JC: It’s still Cold War logic. When Obama says Putin is trapped in Cold War logic, it’s true. But so is Obama and so is his bureaucracy. The only reason you need all these weapons is if you’re preparing for global thermonuclear war with Russia. You don’t need them to deal with Iran or North Korea. It does nothing about terrorism. It just keeps going because it’s tethered to the nuclear-weapons complex. The people who build nuclear weapons keep building them. The people with the bases want to keep maintaining them. The commanders of the strategic forces are vested in this complex. But do you need it? You have to really go down to some hard-core, unreconstructed Cold War theorists in town to find people who will justify this arsenal.

But the problem is the echo of that thinking is still found in the Department of Defense. Ash Carter, as deputy secretary, has exempted nuclear weapons from the effects of the sequester. He shielded them off, arguing that we have to protect the nuclear deterrent. Really? An 8 percent cut in our nuclear budget would imperil the defense of this nation? If we reduced the patrols of the Trident sub? Slowed down the procurement programs for the new generation? So instead he shifts the budget cuts to conventional forces and civilian furloughs. 

EK: But if we're just talking about going from 1,600 operational warheads to 1,000, or 800, why should I care? Which is to say, that's still more than enough to wipe out human life many times over. So if nothing close to disarmament is on the table, what does it matter if we have 800 or 2,000?

JC: Two reasons. You can’t cut everything at once. So this is a step. It’s the next step. And once the U.S. and Russia go down to a 1,000 weapons, you can begin involving other nuclear nations in the discussion, particularly China. You don’t want to start cutting to 500 and risk that China will race past you. So pretty much everyone agrees at that point China will have to be brought into the conversation. So it’s essential to getting to the step afterwards.

Number two is it makes you safer in and of itself because it reduces the risk one will be launched by accident or miscalculation. The U.S. and Russia both have about 1,000 hydrogen missiles ready to launch on 15 minutes' notice. You might remember we had this big detargeting initiative during the Yeltsin era. But those targets can be loaded back on in less than a minute. It's all computerized. And human beings are fallible. Improbable things happen all the time. We load missiles on our B52s and fly them across the country not knowing we’ve put nuclear weapons on them — this happened in 2007 on a flight from a base from North Dakota to Louisiana. In 1995, Russia’s radar misinterpreted a Norwegian weather rocket as a nuclear missile and Boris Yeltsin was presented with the nuclear football. Luckily, he wasn’t drunk and he didn’t believe the report. But accidents happen.

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