Cover: Mitigating Challenges to U.S.-Russia Strategic Stability

Mitigating Challenges to U.S.-Russia Strategic Stability

Published Feb 17, 2022

by Samuel Charap, John J. Drennan, Luke Griffith, Edward Geist, Brian G. Carlson

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Research Questions

  1. What are the origins of the current divergence in U.S. and Russian threat perceptions regarding preemption?
  2. What are the practical consequences of Russia's threat perceptions for U.S. interests?
  3. Could changes to current policies address Russian concerns while delivering the benefits afforded the United States by the status quo?

The U.S.-Russia strategic stability paradigm rests on the shared confidence that one side's preemptive counterforce strike would fail to disarm the other side. Both sides are mutually vulnerable to retaliation, and thus have no incentive to strike first. Yet the United States has developed significant prompt counterforce capabilities that Moscow fears could be used for a first strike. These threat perceptions have become a significant source of instability in recent years. The authors examine the historical origins of this dynamic and its impact on bilateral stability. They also evaluate possible policy changes that could mitigate that impact.

The authors identify significant consequences for the United States that could arise from Russia's growing concerns about its ability to retaliate, such as Moscow's development of a suite of novel capabilities to address this issue and the potential crisis instability resulting from use-them-or-lose-them fears. Although these negative consequences are significant, they should be weighed against the benefits provided by current U.S. posture that are documented by the authors.

The report outlines self-restraint measures—that the United States and Russia could take either together or unilaterally but in coordination—that would provide a degree of reassurance about the parties' lack of intention to execute a preemptive counterforce strike by complicating the ability to carry out such a strike on short notice. These modest steps could mitigate the negative consequences of current approaches without any dramatic changes in force structure, posture, or even employment policy. The stabilizing effect of these steps, however, could be significant.

Key Findings

Various historical developments relating to the sides' nuclear forces and their other strategic capabilities have led to an asymmetry of perceived vulnerability to preemption

  • The United States has pointed to certain Russian activities as problematic or even destabilizing, but Washington has not raised concerns that Moscow could undermine its retaliatory capability.
  • Although the United States lacks the ability to deliver a decisive disarming blow, it does maintain far greater counterforce capabilities and leaves open the possibility of using its strategic forces for damage-limitation strikes.
  • The United States continues to develop related strategic capabilities, such as ballistic missile defense, that Moscow believes could be used in concert with a counterforce nuclear strike to blunt Russia's deterrent.

There are four major consequences for the United States of Russia's growing concern about its ability to retaliate after a counterforce first strike

  • Russia has developed a suite of new capabilities to address this concern.
  • Russia seems unwilling to reduce its strategic nuclear forces below current levels.
  • The overall stability of the bilateral relationship has eroded.
  • Russian concerns about preemption might incentivize a first strike in a serious crisis.

Policy changes could mitigate the current instability in the U.S.-Russia deterrence relationship

  • Self-restraint measures would provide a degree of reassurance about the parties' lack of intention to execute a preemptive counterforce strike by complicating the ability to carry out such a strike on short notice.
  • These modest steps could mitigate the negative consequences of current approaches without dramatic changes in force structure, posture, or employment policy.

This research was sponsored by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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