Thomas Countryman: On Russian-American Strategic Relations

Thomas Countryman, the chairman of the Arms Control Association board of directors since 2017, gave a lecture[1] to the students of the ‘Strategic and Arms Control Studies’ Master’s program, at the School of International Relations, Saint Petersburg State University. This is the full transcript of the lecture.



Thomas Countryman was the acting undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. He served for 35 years as a member of the US Foreign Service until January 2017, achieving the rank of minister-counsellor, 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 Non-proliferation, a position he had held since September 2011.

The Russian-American strategic relations motivated the two countries in the last 50 years to reduce both the number of nuclear weapons and the risk that they would be used. Both Washington and Moscow recognized some facts. First of all, they realized that there are never perfect environments or perfect conditions for arms control negotiations, they have to proceed even when there is tension and dispute between the two countries. Both sides recognized that their national security was well served by putting restraints for the nuclear capabilities of the other country. Both sides recognized the danger of having an unlimited number of non-strategic nuclear weapons (low-yield nuclear weapons) to use in many different conflict situations, creating a danger of escalation. All sides recognized that negotiations are not concessions, negotiations are not a sign of weakness, rather, they are means to improve national security of both countries. And finally, both sides realized the reality of mutual assured destruction. Ever since the Soviet Union’s first built intercontinental missiles in the 1960s, it was unavoidable that a nuclear conflict could lead to the destruction of civilization in both countries. 

People sometimes talk about mutual assured destruction (MAD) as if it is a theory or a doctrine. It is not a theory. It is not a philosophy. It is a fact, and it is one that cannot be escaped. The result of this common approach to arms reduction was significant. We have almost 85% fewer nuclear weapons in the American and Russian arsenal today than we did at the height of the Cold War. Besides reducing the number of nuclear weapons we have also seen a steady decline in the variety of the types of nuclear weapons, and in the role and function of nuclear weapons in both Russian and American doctrines.

What concerns me today is an evolution in the United States’ thinking about these issues, and it is a gradual change since the end of the Cold War, that is not just about nuclear weapons, but that has implications for nuclear weapons. So, the trends that I see in the American political environment are:

– First, an increasing nationalism, particularly within the Republican Party, and nationalism meaning in this case not just pride in one’s country, but a feeling of superiority towards other countries.

– Second, a changing view about treaties; there is a body of thought within the Republican Party, and John Bolton – the former National Security Advisor – led the argument on this, that treaties in general are not good for the United States, that if you constrain a country that is weaker than the United States, in military or economic sense, and you put the same constraints on the United States, then the United States as the stronger power loses more than it gains from putting constraints on the other side. As a result, there is more questioning about treaties within the Republican Party and in the Congress.

– Third, there is an increasing view that arms control with rivals or adversaries is a sign of weakness, that making concessions to other countries is what arms control is all about, and you hear it in the frequent references in this administration when they say: we do not do arms control just for the sake of arms control. There is also an approach that you see in this administration that I would call ‘all or nothing’. If the treaty does not solve all the related problems, then it is not a good treaty; we saw this with the Iran nuclear deal. President Trump said that because it did not solve every problem with Iran, it is not an adequate deal, and you are hearing the same approach today from the right wing of the US political spectrum with regards to arms control treaties as well. 

– There is also something that I think is as much psychological as political, and it goes back to the idea of mutual assured destruction. Any human being should be bothered by the fact that in a nuclear war there is nothing that can save our two nations or our human civilization. There is a reaction within the American political thought that says that we should find ways to ensure that destruction is not automatic, that we might be able to survive and defend ourselves against the nuclear threat. This has led to an American fascination with ballistic missile defence; when ballistic missile defence was put forward under the George W. Bush administration 17 years ago, it had a certain rational argument, which was that a limited missile defence could protect the United States not against Russia, but against the threat from other nations such as Iran or North Korea. But, since that time, the fascination with ballistic missile defence has developed into a political article of faith; it is universally popular among the Republicans in the US Congress to spend more money every year on more and more ambitious missile defence.

– The final political or psychological trend in the United States that concerns me is not so much on the political side, but on the military side. Both of our militaries have great minds and great thinkers – and I mean that sincerely, but if you let them think about too many things, they will come up with some bad ideas. One of them is a return to Cold War thinking among some in the United States military that says it is not enough to have equal capabilities to destroy each other, but we should seek some advantage, and if you cannot find an advantage in the number of warheads, you can find an advantage in some technological way, having a weapons that is more effective, or having a defence that is more effective.

All of these ideas have developed gradually since the end of the Cold War, you could say that they are part of the psychology of a power, of a country that feels itself to be a superior power; that is one explanation. I think it has more to do with the growing political trends that you see not only in the United States, but in every democratic society today; trends towards populism and nationalism. These projections of strength and of superiority appeal to those populists most. What it all adds up to is not a destruction of the arms control architecture, we are not there yet. It is also not the erosion, which is long years of decay; I prefer to call it ‘crumbling of the arms control architecture’. It is gradual at first, and at some point it becomes sudden. If you have read Ernest Hemingway, one of my favourite lines is when one of his characters is asked ‘how did you lose millions of dollars? How did you go bankrupt?’ and the answer is ‘at first, little by little, and then all at once.’

That is the situation we are in with the arms control architecture, it has been crumbling. You can say that this began with the Bush administration’s withdrawal from the ABM treaty in 2002; and President Putin had made that argument. It is not wrong, but it was not inevitable in 2002 that things would develop to this point. The more sudden moves towards the loss of these valuable arms control treaties was really put on paper in the Nuclear Posture Review presented by the Trump administration in early 2018. You can find, on the Arms Control Association website, an eight-page critique that I wrote about it. There are several things in the Nuclear Posture Review that should be concerning; it is not a radical departure from past reviews and past nuclear posture statements, 90% of it is the same as the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review in 2010. But even if it is not a radical change, it is a change in direction. For 50 years, for the United States, the number, the type and the role of nuclear weapons was gradually declining. What you see in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review is this downward trend being turned back slightly, and that should concern anyone who follows these issues.

I was concerned that the posture review seemed to deliberately emit two very important statements that previous administrations routinely said; one “we do not seek to undermine Russia’s strategic deterrence”, that sentence was left out, and it is hard to find an American official who would repeat that statement today. And even if that is not intended as a signal to Moscow, I understand why it is received in Moscow as a signal of American intent. The other statement that was left out was the statement that to me is obvious as a legal matter, that the United States has a legal obligation under Article VI of the Non-proliferation Treaty to pursue arms reduction. That statement does not appear anymore; I have not yet found an American official who would make that statement in public in the last few years.

The Nuclear Posture Review also described a new reliance on non-strategic nuclear weapons, so called low-yield weapons – although I have to have a cynical chuckle every time they are called ‘low-yield’ as it means that they are only about half the size of the bomb that destroyed the city of Hiroshima. Finally, the Nuclear Posture Review, for the first time, said we have no proposals to make on arms control, we do not have the next goal for a new agreement between Russia and the United States. That means, for the first time in more than fifty years, we not only have no active negotiations between Moscow and Washington, we have no idea what is the logical negotiation to conduct. To me, that admission, that we have no good ideas right now, is not worthy of a country that wants to call itself a superpower or a world leader. 

The Nuclear Posture Review’s statement that ‘Security conditions are not ripe right now for new arms control initiatives,’ was motivated in part by concerns about Russia and its behaviour, but I think that an even greater factor was concern about China and the fact that China has a greater potential to expand its relatively small arsenal very rapidly. The Nuclear Posture Review, and the damage I think it has done to the arms control architecture, was exacerbated by the Missile Defence Review published earlier this year (2019). The document itself, again, is not a radical change, it still talks about defending the United States not against Russia or China, but against threats from other countries. But it does talk about developing technology that would be useful for defence against intercontinental missiles and even testing missile interceptors against intercontinental missiles. To make it worse, President Trump, when introducing the Missile Defence Review, said explicitly that the goal was to make the United States invulnerable from any adversary’s attack. Again, I do not assume he knows what he’s talking about, but you can understand why it was taken as a signal of an active threat in Moscow. 

I do not mean to say that all the security, military, nuclear steps that have made the situation worse have occurred in Washington. Certain Russian steps in security have contributed to the situation we are in. The first is about rhetoric; words matter. From the end of the Cold War for about 25 years, none of the major nuclear weapon states boasted about their nuclear weapons, they stopped saying ‘we are great nations because we have nuclear weapons,’ that is something North Korea and Pakistan sometimes do, but the US, Russia, China, France, and the UK stopped talking like that. It was unfortunately revived by president Putin to talk about the importance of nuclear weapons in the definition of the greatness of Russian power, and this was then imitated by President Trump during his campaign and since he became president. To be fair, President Putin did not talk about superiority or dominance, but stressed deterrence and mutual stability.

Second, in my mind, Russia has overreacted to ballistic missile defence efforts from the United States. As I said, I do not believe that it is physically possible to ever construct an impenetrable shield against intercontinental missiles. As one of my colleagues puts it: for every dollar that the US could spend on missile defence, Russia can spend ten cents to overwhelm that new missile defence. I understand why Russia is concerned, given history and US rhetoric, but I think that the Russian military has overreacted by designing new weapons that are intended to go around missile defence, and has introduced new categories that are not captured by past arms control treaties. President Putin said: they will listen to us now. The US is listening. But, the US is just as likely to overreact in dangerous ways as Russia has overreacted; it becomes a game not of just rhetorical brinkmanship, but of actual physical confrontation.

Third, the United States figured out long ago, and in general Russian thinkers agree, that having a variety of sizes of nuclear warheads and having them available for use in different combat situations was inherently destabilizing. NATO still has a couple of hundred low-yield gravity bombs in Europe in NATO countries, but almost every NATO military official will tell you that these are not useful weapons in any military sense. They are primarily political weapons that demonstrate the strength of the alliance between the United States and European countries. The justification for low-yield/non-strategic weapons in Russia’s doctrine of nuclear deterrence is absent, and yet Russia still possesses about 2,000 of these non-strategic nuclear weapons. That, more than any statement by Russian military officials, is what gives rise to the US suspicions about the actual nuclear doctrine of the Russian Federation.

Finally, I have to mention the violation of the Intermediate-range Forces Treaty (INF) by the Russian Federation. While I was still in government I saw the intelligence that convinced us that the 9M729 cruise missile was tested at ranges beyond 500 km, therefore a violation of the INF treaty. Of course, this has been denied by Moscow, with very little effort to get at the truth from either side. I think that it serves Russian interest to have a debate about the range of the missile because that detracts from the debate about why Russia needed new offensive weapons aimed at Germany and Romania and Poland. What stabilizing purpose does it serve for Russia to deploy new squads of missiles that are aimed at NATO territory? Of course, a Russian general will answer the same way as an American general: we have no offensive weapons, all our weapons are defensive. 

From the beginning of the dispute, which was a private one, it took more than two years before it became public, I think that Moscow focused not on solving the situation but on winning the public relations battle with the United States. The Russian military has never liked the INF treaty since it was signed by Gorbachev and viewed it as a restriction on an important defence capability. The US military does not like it very much either, not because of Europe, but because of China and the fact that China possesses intermediate-range missiles. Both sides, I think, failed to find a way to resolve the issue because neither was sincerely interested in resolving the issue in a way that stabilized the situation. Those are the security measures that have affected the US-Russian nuclear relationship.

There are a number of political issues as well that have to be discussed. When I say “political,” I mean not directly related to the military or nuclear, but having an effect on the military balance in a nuclear relationship.

First, I’ll give you the 60-second version of a speech I have given elsewhere. That is a general observation on the United States and Russia.

We will always be rivals. I hope we are not adversaries, but we will always be rivals because we are so similar. And these are the key points of similarity between Russia and the United States. First, both Washington and Moscow feel that they are at the very centre of God’s universe. Second, both of them believe that everything other countries do is aimed at them. Third, both countries have sanitized their history, so that periods of Russian imperialism, expansion, and conquest of other peoples have been reduced to a glorious forward progress in culture and civilization. As a consequence, neither of them can understand why smaller countries feel threatened by the very large militaries of the United States and Russia. These similarities you cannot easily do away with, and there is no great desire to reverse the sanitization, mother re-writing of history; in fact, I would argue that Russia is moving in the other direction.

There is a perception in Russia of US arrogance, of a disdainful attitude towards the Russian Federation, and there is some truth to that. I have to tell you that I do not see it as different from the Russian attitude towards countries that are less powerful than Russia; Russian attitude towards Ukraine or the Baltic states reminds me very much of what Russians complain about the US attitude to Russia.

That is the political backdrop that we have been dealing with since the end of the Cold War and further back. Specific developments matter. You cannot underestimate how important the Russian military intervention in Georgia, and especially in Ukraine changed the US perceptions of Russia. Particularly, the seizure of Crimea was the first forceful seizure by a neighbour against a neighbour’s territory in Europe since 1945. And I note that when that happened in 2014 (by the way, I was here in Saint Petersburg when that happened in 2014), despite that, President Obama and Secretary Kerry gave very clear instructions to me and my colleagues that said: we cannot have business with Russia as usual after that, but we must continue arms control and non-proliferation cooperation with Russia specifically in three areas. One area was the implementation of the New Start, the second was negotiations with Iran, and the third was an issue that I was leading in the US government – the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. 

So even as we cut back normal relations with Russia, cooperation in fields that were vital to both our security continues. It changed further with the Russian interference in the US elections in 2016, and that was in the perception of many within the US government and US population, a change in the perception of Russia from a rival to an adversary. Russian intelligence hacked and stole emails from many different sources in the US, but only released through Julian Assange of Wikileaks embarrassing emails that came only from the Democratic Party. This is a deviation from traditional espionage. Yes, it is absolutely true that the United States and Russia spy on each other, as usual, to understand each other better and to learn about future threats, but it is a change or a violation of the unwritten rules to use the information you gather to embarrass a particular party within the other country. It may seem like a trivial distinction to Russian intelligence, but I am telling you, it is not seen as trivial in the United States. The fact the internet research agency, which I think was here in Saint Petersburg, hired a few hundred English-speaking Russians and mounted a massive social media campaign, is an event that could not have occurred without the approval of the Russian government.

It is not clear to me why the Russian government appears to favour Donald Trump. There are two possible explanations and they can both be true. One is sincere hope for a better relationship with the United States with Trump in the White House, there are reasons to believe that; there is the fact that Mr. Trump depended upon infusions of money from Russian Oligarchs to keep his real estate business afloat when it was in threat of bankruptcy. It is true that Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump share a similar view about the relationship of political power to the accumulation of wealth. It is true that they have a similar view that great powers have the right to dominate smaller powers. But, at the same time, the fact of Russian interference in 2016 has made it politically impossible for Mr. Trump to deliver on things that he would like to do with Russia. He cannot take any significant step forward in the areas that matter to Russia without severe political revolt, even within the Republican party, which follows him as a slave follows his master. If the goal was simply to cause chaos within the United States government, well, that has been achieved. If the thought was that a chaotic US government is automatically good for Russia, that is the situation that we are in right now.

But it remains the fact that you can have a good relationship with governments that are corrupt and chaotic, but you cannot have a stable relationship that moves forward if the United States are in a constant state of chaos. Rational, serious negotiations on arms control are not possible with the Trump administration, and they will not be possible in an equally chaotic second term, if Mr. Trump is re-elected. 

That brings me to what I think is the worst-case scenario, and the most serious risk for strategic stability, and that is, if Moscow increases its bet on Trump and repeats the interference of 2016, but the Democrats win anyway, and I think that is the most likely scenario. If such an interference happened only once, in 2016, we could overcome that within a few years and get back to a normal relationship; if it happens again in 2020, it will poison the relationship between the Kremlin and the largest political party in the United States for a generation. It will convince Democratic leaders that Russia is not only a rival but an active adversary (I will conclude the same thing, by the way) and there will be retaliation in the same way. I do not expect anybody to admit or apologize for what happened in 2016, I am well used to both the Soviet and the Russian method of denial which is to say: one, we did not do it; two, you cannot prove that we did it; and three, besides, who did it first? But, if it happens again, it will be because the Kremlin took no steps to prevent it from happening and that denial will mean nothing in the United States.

So those are the security and political problems, and where does all that leave us?

It leaves 13,000 warheads between the two countries, enough not only to destroy each country but literally to end human civilization. There are many paths to a nuclear war, but broadly speaking there are two, and both of them have a more realistic chance of occurring today than at any time since the end of the Soviet Union.

The first is false alarms; we have had this very serious case under the Carter administration in 1980, and in 1995, when president Yeltsin was informed that a Norwegian rocket was actually a US submarine launch. The difference today is: would the US President and the Russian President respond as calmly and as carefully as they did in 1980 and in 1995 or would the political tension make them more ready to believe a false alarm?

The second is the risk that is also growing, in which an accident, an American and a Russian ship, or an American and a Russian plane bump into each other, an accident becomes an incident, becomes a conflict, becomes a war, and becomes a nuclear war.

So what can we do about it?

I do not think the answers will surprise you, but they are my priorities. Number one, the most urgent is to renew the New Start Treaty, to extend before it expires in February 2021. I am actually less pessimistic than many of my colleagues in Washington. I think there is better than a 50/50 chance that President Trump and President Putin will take the step in 2020. Russia strongly supports it, almost everybody in Washington supports it. There are two obstacles, and they are both within the head of Donald Trump. First, that this is an ‘Obama Treaty’ and the most unifying consistent principle of President’s Trump administration has been to reject everything that Barack Obama did. Second, and also important, is that the president truly seems to believe that this is the right time to expand the arms control beyond the US and Russia, and involve China as well. This is a good idea for the long term, and I am glad he is thinking that way, but it is not realistic in the next year to bring China, with whom we have never negotiated in arms control, and expect that we will get to a three-way agreement within just a year. 

There is a way around this. I do believe that Russia and the United States can find a way when the two presidents sign the extension. Simultaneously, to add two pages on top of it, two pages that are a political declaration, not a treaty. The political declaration can use beautiful, nearly religious language about how we will work together on further reductions and eventually we will bring China in as well; that would allow President Trump to meet the only standard he truly cares about, to be able to say: I did something better than Obama did. This depends more on Russia to make that proposal because I cannot predict how anybody could make that proposal in the very – to be polite – non-systematic policy machinery of the White House.

Second, the INF treaty is gone and getting a new treaty is not currently possible, but it does not mean that it is impossible to keep some of the benefits of the INF treaty. As I said, Russian and US militaries are both happy to get rid of the treaty, so there will not be any good ideas that come from the Kremlin or the White House, but there could be good ideas that could come from Europe, which after all is the target of the new Russian offensive missiles. None of them are perfect, none of them are easy, but to give just a couple of examples; to propose a political agreement that any missiles in Europe, whether new American missiles or the 9M729 will not carry nuclear warheads, only conventional warheads. That would be a difference from the Euromissile battle competition that we saw in the 1980s. A second would be for the NATO to say clearly: we may install new United States missiles, not next year but a few years later, but we will not install more than there are 9M729, we are not asking Russia to admit that 9M729 is in violation, but it is a new threat to us and we will match it in number. If NATO said that, it could open for negotiations that would limit the number and the geographical area of deployment of both Russian and US missiles in Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals.

Most important and most generally, what can be done is to rebuild what I call a habit of stability. There are several points to this. First is encouraging and expanding military-to-military contacts, since Russian and American military leadership appreciate better than politicians do the danger that we are in, the risk we are running. Many of these military-to-military contacts were cut back by the United States in a way that I think is dangerous. I think the US military is ready to re-establish more intensive contacts that would help defuse crises, would help prevent an incident turning into a conflict.

Second is to talk about risk reduction.

An article by Sarah Bidgood in “Arms Control Today” about ways to reduce tension and focus on risk reduction has a few really good specific ideas which I will mention briefly without explaining them. One is a parallel risk assessment where we simply have experts sit down and talk about what could go wrong from either side. Second is increased consultations on practical risk reduction measures to expand not just hotline telephones, but also agreements such as ‘how to prevent accidents at sea or on the air.’ Third, and very difficult thing is to write a treaty about, but something you can write a political agreement about is to agree that we will not attack with cyber means each other’s command and control because of the risk that poses to nuclear stability. Finally, to make a common statement about risk reduction between the US and Russia at the 2020 Review Conference.

The last part of the habit of stability is a regular strategic stability dialogue. We have not done this in the last few years; we have had only two meaningful strategic stability dialogues between the two governments since 2013 (in six years). It should be something we do every six months; it has to include all the topics that concern both of us, not because you can solve all the topics at once, but because you have to understand the interconnection between them in order to solve them one at a time. 

So, what does all this mean for the NPT and the Review Conference coming up in the spring of 2020?

First, the US and Russia have a strong shared interest in the continued success of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is in my mind the most important and most successful multilateral treaty in history, it has improved security of every country in the world, including the Nuclear Weapons States and the Non-nuclear Weapon States. Therefore, we should have a common interest ensuring that it retains its credibility and its binding nature, not just upon us but upon the rest of the world. It is important to know that much of the world views the NPT differently than Washington and Moscow do. They see Article VI as being an active binding legal measure that the United States and Russia must constantly be working on; they see that past decisions at review conferences have a legal status. It is very concerning to me that lately both the United States and Russia have been arguing that past decisions by review conferences were good for those review conferences, but they have no permanent nature, and every review conference starts from scratch in building a new foundation. 

I am not one of those who say that the only way to define success at a review conference is to have a detailed consensus document. There are other ways to measure success, there are other details, other documents that can come out that make the treaty stronger. But, it is hard right now to be optimistic about the success of the next review conference by any standard. One thing that concerns me is that the way that Moscow and Washington have been in a propaganda battle for the last few years will continue in the review conference. They will not resist the temptation to throw mud at each other, to blame each other; I have given you 25 reasons that are valid for them to blame each other, but it will not help the review conference if it is about one side scoring points on the other. Most important, at the review conference, if we extend New Start before the conference, that will be the single most positive thing that the US and Russia can do before the conference. We will still be criticised, and in fact some will accuse us of collusion, of conspiracy, of trying to change the subject and to maintain the nuclear monopoly of the five nuclear-weapon states if we do extend New Start. But if we do not extend New Start, both Moscow and Washington will be severely criticized by nearly everyone in the world, and justifiably so. In 2010 and 2015 both Moscow and Washington could say ‘we have reduced nuclear weapons by 80%, we are meeting our obligations.’ With no progress in the last eight years, Russian and American diplomats in New York cannot say that with a straight face, they cannot say ‘we are meeting our Article VI obligation.’ That is the biggest danger to the success and continued credibility of the Non-proliferation Treaty.

I am very happy to see young people who are learning these issues, and not only learning what we did in the 20th century, but thinking about what we can do differently in the 21st century. Going into careers to the government, non-governmental world, or into academia and being ready to change, not just to move your career from one field to another, but to make sure that government, non-government and academia are talking to each other about the best ideas.

I have to be honest to you; my generation of old white men has not performed brilliantly in reducing nuclear risk, in protecting the planet from climate change, in reducing corruption, or in improving the environment. In order to really make some progress in the future on reducing nuclear risk, I am convinced we need more than Americans, more than Russians, more than politicians and generals. We need to have a much broader representation of ideas and a much greater consideration, not only of national security but of global security.

Transcribed by Reem Mohamed

©New defence order. Strategy  №5 (64) 2020


[1] The lecture was given in November 2019. The event took place at the School of International Relations of Saint Petersburg State University (in St. Petersburg, Russia).


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