News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

New Report from U.S., Russian Nuclear Experts: Transcending Mutual Deterrence in the U.S.-Russian Relationship

| September 30, 2013

CAMBRIDGE, MA – A group of high-ranking U.S. and Russian former government officials, retired military officers, and academics has proposed a series of joint steps that would be necessary to move the two countries beyond the Cold War doctrine of mutual deterrence with nuclear weapons.

A new report authored by these nuclear-arms experts says that improved relations between the United States and Russia since 1990 have not resulted in corresponding easing back from the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation. The report suggests a path for the two countries to put nuclear weapons in a context appropriate to the post-Cold War relationship.

The report, authored by specialists at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School and at Russia’s Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies, proposes both conditions that would be necessary to move beyond mutual deterrence and of measures that could enable both governments to break through the inertia and mistrust that keeps them bound up in the doctrine of mutual deterrence.  Interestingly, the most important areas for progress are likely to be outside the nuclear realm, involving greater economic and political cooperation.

The new report, “Transcending Mutual Deterrence in the U.S.-Russian Relationship,” is being released on Sept. 30, 2013, at an event hosted by the Brookings Institution in Washington (see here for event details). The full report, in English and Russian, is available online here at the Belfer Center website.

The paper acknowledges the two nations’ periodic tensions since the end of the Cold War, right up to the current dispute over Syria, but notes that the usual causes of war are now absent: the United States and Russia have no major territorial disputes or contests for natural resources, and even their ideological battle has softened since the fall of communism.

Yet the report notes that “because the scar tissue of the Cold War – suspicion and mistrust – remains unhealed, the institutional momentum of the nuclear weapons establishments on both sides is substantial.” That is so even at a point where “the immediate cause of the creation of these nuclear forces no longer obtains.”

The authors propose two longer-term strategies to move beyond mutual deterrence:

  • Improve political, intelligence and economic cooperation in non-nuclear areas. This effort should emphasize boosting bilateral trade beyond current “miniscule” levels, which would in turn magnify shared interest rather than points of conflict.
  • Initiate changes in both countries’ nuclear posture and defense to move toward a new nuclear relationship.

The report recommends a series of specific steps that could build trust and cooperation in nuclear arms posture, including:

  • Both countries “should make their nuclear forces and stockpiles more transparent to each other.” This can include finally setting up the long-agreed Joint Data Exchange Center to share data, including real-time exchange of early warning information from each country’s sensors. The report says that despite advances, too much information “remains needlessly secret.”
  • While both countries have declared that their missiles no longer target the other day-to-day, targets can still be provided to the missiles in minutes, and “doctrine and train­ing continue to emphasize the two countries as potential adversaries.” Instead, the two countries should move toward more cooperative training and joint exercises on threats such as potential cyber attacks on nuclear command and control systems that could trigger nuclear conflict.
  • Missile defense, now a source of conflict, offers opportunities for cooperation on threat assessment, compatibility of missile defense systems and other cooperative measures.
  • While accidental launches are already extremely unlikely, further changes would ensure that political leaders “have hours or days, rather than minutes, to make nuclear decisions that could mean life or death for millions.” Any such changes should be thoroughly vetted by U.S. and Russian military leaders to ensure that they do not have the unintended consequence of diminishing strategic stability.

If successful, the authors write, “such steps would make nuclear weapons much less relevant to the day-to-day conduct of international affairs – it would put them, in effect, in a closet, where they belong, among the things that will probably never be needed but are kept just in case.”

The authors are:

Matthew Bunn, Professor, Harvard Kennedy School, and Co-Principal Investigator, Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Vice Admiral Valentin Kuznetsov, retired, Russian Navy, Russia Representative to NATO, 2002-2008.

Colonel Yuri Morozov, retired, Chief of Department, General Staff, Russian Armed Forces, 1995-2000.

Gary Samore, Belfer Center Executive Director for Research; President Obama’s coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, 2009-2013.

Simon Saradzhyan, Fellow, Harvard’s Belfer Center. Moscow-based security expert and writer, 1993-2008.

William Tobey, Senior Fellow, Belfer Center, Deputy Administrator, U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, 2006-2009.

Colonel General Viktor Yesin, retired, Chief of Staff, Russian Strategic Missile Forces, 1994-1996.

Major General Pavel Zolotarev, retired, Deputy Chief of Staff, Defense Council of Russia, 1997-98.


William Tobey
US-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism
Harvard Kennedy School
Phone: 1-617-496-0518

Pavel S. Zolotarev
Deputy Director
Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies
Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow
Phone: 7-495-691-1166

Also: James F. Smith, Communications Director, Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy School, 617-495-7831

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Smith, James F.. “New Report from U.S., Russian Nuclear Experts: Transcending Mutual Deterrence in the U.S.-Russian Relationship.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, September 30, 2013.

The Author