Russian-American Strategic Relations

Thomas Countryman, the chairman of the Arms Control Association board of directors since 2017, spoke to the "New Defence Order. Strategy" journal in November 2019 after a lecture* on “Russian-American Strategic Relations.” The lecture was for students of the Strategic and Arms Control Studies Master’s programme, School of International Relations at Saint Petersburg State University.
Mr. Countryman was the acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. He served for 35 years as a member of the U.S. Foreign Service until January 2017, achieving the rank of minister-counselor, and was appointed in October 2016 to the position of acting undersecretary of state. He simultaneously served as assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, a position he had held since September 2011. (ACA)

- In November 2019, the former soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev stated that the world was in “colossal danger” due to the nuclear threat resulting from the tension between the United States and Russia. Do you think that this is too pessimistic?

I think that President Gorbachev was correct. Whether you say colossal, imminent, enormous, or big danger, it does not change the fact that there is a higher risk of a conflict between the US and Russia, more than has ever been since the Cold War. There is even an additional level of risk that was less important at the time of the Cold War, which is the possibility that this conflict could go from conventional to nuclear in a very short time. That is not only because of the deep political distrust between the two countries at the moment, but also because we have seen both governments speak more openly about the potential use of nuclear weapons. It is also because there are concerns about the doctrine that both sides may have in mind, concerning the use of so called low-yield or non-strategic nuclear weapons. 

I think the use of such weapons is more likely today in the case of conflict than it was in the 1980s, and it remains true today, as in the 1980s, that even the single use of a low-level nuclear weapon almost inevitably leads to an all-out nuclear exchange, and that means the end of both of our civilizations. 

-To what extent do you believe that the current advancement in conventional weapons, like hypersonic, supersonic, and cyber weapons, threatens strategic stability between Russia and the United States, and global stability, and how?

There is no one answer to this. The Arms Control Association is now working on trying to analyse exactly these questions: how does the development of hypersonic vehicles, artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons, and cyber capabilities, how do those new technologies change the game of nuclear stability. The answer, of course, is different for each of them. Just to give short examples, for hypersonic missiles, if there is an unrestrained deployment by either the US, Russia, or China, it raises concerns in the other country that there could be a temptation to have a conventional first strike that would raise the risk of nuclear exchange as well. In the case of cyber, if the US, China, and Russia do their normal cyber probing and then -intentionally or not - launch cyber attacks upon command and control systems, that could be seen by one of the other countries as the prelude to a nuclear attack and could cause the nation to respond pre-emptively by launching nuclear weapons. Artificial intelligence raises a concern that we may so much automate our detection and response systems, that we lose human control over the use of nuclear weapons. None of these things has to happen, they are risks, but they are risks that we should talk about before all of these new systems are deployed. For example, in the case of hypersonic vehicles, to talk about limitations of number and type among the US, China, and Russia, in advance before these weapons are deployed can not only save a lot of money, but also make the nuclear situation more stable instead of less. We have to do something that does not usually happen in the military field, which is to talk about restrictions before everything is deployed.

-The US continually refers to China and they demand that China ‘joins the club’, but the Russian counterargument is: why would you ask China alone, but China, France and the UK. How do you comment on that?

It is important that president Trump says that we should have arms control agreements not only between the US and Russia, but also including China. I think that this is a good call for the medium term, it is not a realistic goal for the short term. Between now and the expiration date of New Start, there is no possibility of reaching a new agreement with China. And of course, the Trump administration has not given any detail about the kind of agreement that it seeks with China; does it wish the US and Russia to go down to the same number of warheads as China -In my point of view, that’s a good idea, but I do not think either the Kremlin or the Pentagon are prepared for that- or do they want to suggest that China limit itself to 1550 warheads, which is 5 times more than what they have right now?

So, there is no good answer to the question of what the US would offer to China that would bring the Chinese into these discussions. The Russian argument that the UK and France matter in the same way as China has some validity. France and the UK are in the process of reducing their warheads; they have fewer than they have had in many years. China on the other hand is in the process of increasing its warheads, it may already have more than France; if not today, and then in the near future it will. So if you are seeking to bring in countries one at a time, China would be the logical one next. Of course, I look forward to the five recognized nuclear weapon states using the P5 process to take some of the stabilizing measures that the US and Russia have agreed to, and apply them across all five countries to further reduce the risk of intentional or accidental nuclear war. We are a long way from that today, but I think it is the right time to set for the medium term a goal to bring first China, and then these other countries into that discussion.

-Chemical weapons:  You took part in the American administration’s program for destroying Syria’s chemical declared stockpile. There was cooperation or at least a dialogue between the US and Russia regarding this matter, since they are two major powers involved in the Syrian conflict. How would you describe that cooperation, and how do you evaluate the work of the OPCW today?

US-Russia cooperation in 2013-2014 was very good. In 2013, I went with Secretary John Kerry to Geneva for the discussion of the agreement that would bring Syria into the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). While Secretary Kerry and Russian Minister of foreign affairs Sergey Lavrov focused on the big picture of the overall civil war in Syria, I led one of two groups: one group focused on what do we need to do in New York and The Hague; the other group, that I led with a Russian colleague, focused on what is the actual physical plan for removing and destroying the chemicals. We actually reached an agreement very quickly, in part because in 2012 and 2013 there had been three meetings between the US and Russian National Security Councils to discuss Syria’s chemical weapons; not to make a plan, but to exchange information and ideas. Having done that work between governments in advance, we had a common understanding of the size of the problem. So in Geneva, we came to an agreement very quickly about the timeline, the method of destruction, and how the weapons would actually be removed from Syria. The essential division of labour was that Russia would work with Syria to ensure that all chemical weapons were taken out of the country, and that the US would work to make sure that they were destroyed in an environmentally-safe manner. That cooperation proceeded well. It  was never completely without friction; the Syrians dragged their feet and attempted to slow things down on several occasions, but the Russian government did a good job of keeping their elbow in the back of the Syrian government to get everything removed. Then in the meantime, I worked with the Department of Defence (DoD) in the US on the physical plan for how and where we would destroy these chemical weapons. I think it was good cooperation and continued, even after the serious crisis in the US-Russia relations related to the events in Ukraine in 2014. 

The OPCW proved its value in this enterprise, it had the technical expertise to inspect Syria and verify Syria’s declaration of chemical weapons, to verify that the US destruction was done according to the standards of the OPCW. It is important that the OPCW has never completed its work in Syria because of lack of cooperation from the Syrian side, and that is unfortunate. This had led to the situation where Syria continues to use chemical weapons, even after the destruction of 1300 tonnes in 2014.

Interviewed by Reem Mohamed
©"New Defence Order. Strategy"  


*Read the transcript of the lecture in full in the next issue of the "New Defence Order. Strategy" journal.

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