Joe Biden's Strategic Vision for US-Russia Relations, Revisited

Joe Biden's Strategic Vision for US-Russia Relations, Revisited

. 17 min read

The Cold War ended in 1991, but nuclear disarmament continues to be of global importance. Indeed, the United States and Russia are still the most important players in the maintenance of commitments to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. The withdrawal of both the United States and Russia from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the looming expiration of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) Treaty on February 5, 2021, open up the door for proliferation of nuclear weapons and even a potential arms race.

More than 20 years ago, then Senator Joe Biden wrote on the very topic of nuclear disarmament in the context of US-Russia relations for the Summer 1999 edition of the Harvard International Review. In the piece, Biden lays out his views on bilateral relations with Russia as well as the evolving policies towards strategic disarmament. In many ways, re-evaluating Biden’s ideas in a modern-day context illuminates how American foreign policy has evolved since the 1990s. Moreover, with the potential of a Biden presidency, Biden’s article offers several insights into the future of arms control and US-Russia relations. What can Biden’s strategic vision about Russia of the past tell us about his posture toward Vladmir Putin’s Russia today?

Joe Biden: A Strategic Vision for US-Russia Relations

Eight years after the Cold War, relations between the United States and Russia are in a curious—and surprisingly dangerous—condition. Because international communism has collapsed as a worldwide threat, neither country has a serious reason to fear an attack by the other. Yet each still maintains enough nuclear weapons to cause mutual devastation. Still worse, both countries seem poised to accept an increased risk of war. Despite the United States' preponderance of power in our current relationship with Russia, the potential for instability in our strategic arms relationships must be understood and diminished.

The Current Situation

Russia, with its economy shattered and its military in decline, relies increasingly upon its strategic rocket forces as its shield against attack. When a country has survivable strategic forces and a functioning ballistic-missile early-warning network, reliance upon strategic deterrence can be sensible and cost-effective. A country like the United States can count on its ability to respond to any nuclear attack as it occurs, or even to respond in kind after absorbing an attack. But holes in Russia's early-warning network, as well as its inability to sustain the high cost of maintaining or replacing its aging missiles and submarines, compromise its deterrent capability. As a result, Russia is being forced into a "launch on warning" posture, with the attendant risk of accidental war caused by overreacting to fragmentary or erroneous warning data. The United States, for its part, is moving toward a national missile defense that will cost more than US$10 billion over the next six years, yet could actually endanger our national security. The limited national missile defense that the US Department of Defense is developing (and that the US Senate partially endorsed this year) may protect us in the event of attack by a small number of incoming warheads. However, it could also force Russia to rely even more on its aging strategic missiles to maintain nuclear deterrence against the United States and China. There is no way that Russia, in its current economic straits, could match US expenditures on missile defense. Unable to match US defense strategies, Russia would logically turn to offensive missile forces to overwhelm any defense the United States might deploy. Moreover, China may modernize and increase its offensive forces for the same purpose, and Russia might feel compelled to match the Chinese improvements as well. Given these developments in the United States and Russia, the future of both arms control and crisis stability (a situation in which our strategic forces may be safely held in reserve until at tacked) is in question. In the United States, many adherents of national mis­sile defense call for abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. They realize that treaty-compliant missile defenses, or those that might be permitted after negotiations with Russia, will not only be limited, but difficult to expand. But were US mis­sile defenses not so difficult to expand, Russia's deterrent capability could be seriously threatened.

In Russia, many politicians and retired military officers have called for rejection of START II (the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), or at least for its abrogation should the United States deploy a national missile defense. This 1997 treaty requires that Russia dismantle its land-based multiple independently targeted reentry vehicle (MIRVed) missiles. For the Russians, the inability to produce and deploy enough new SS-27 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to match US force levels in a START II environment is both disturbing and galling. Their collapsed economy is in no shape to maintain current strategic-rocket force levels with or without START II, but the path to dramatically lower numbers of warheads would certainly be more gradual, and less difficult for Russia, if MIRVed ICBMs could be retained.

Even the most limited US national missile defense would further tax Rus­sia's deterrent capabilities, increas­ing the temptation to retain MIRVed ICBMs. And as the United States might be driven toward ever more robust missile-defense systems, Russia fears a strategically significant US breakout from ABM Treaty limitations. US­ Russian strategic arms control agree­ments, including START II ratification and implementation, are therefore likely to be held hostage to our mutual ability to work out any ABM Treaty concerns as the United States explores missile­ defense options against rogue states.

The irony in all this is that both Russia and the United States are prob­ably acting against their own strategic interests. In the case of Russia, one must ask whether concentrating on nuclear deterrence does anything to meet the real military challenges exposed by Russia's dismal performance in Afghan­istan and more recently in Chechnya. Continuing instability near Russia's southern border will be unaffected by the health of its strategic rocket forces. Inability to restrain ethnic nationalism in Russia also seems to be a much more immediate military concern for Russia than any strategic forces posture. Given Russia's severely limited resources and consequent failure to maintain top-flightconventional armed forces, the best that strategic weapons can accomplish is to deter other powers from picking up the pieces if Russia should fracture further.

In the case of the United States, it is far from clear that building a na­tional ballistic missile defense will be a cost-effective use of scarce resources. Our traditional deterrence posture has been highly successful, even against implacably hostile or irrational leaders like Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, and Saddam Hussein. Given that record, the need to improve the readiness of US forces, and the pressing need for theater missile defense to protect US forces overseas, one must ask whether concentrating on national ballistic missile defense in fact makes much sense. Improving our conventional forces (including our capability for preemptive attack on enemy missiles) would be a better use of the many billions of dollars likely to be spent on successive missile defense iterations.

Patient diplomacy may also be an alternative to missile defense. The suc­cessful negotiation with North Korea, in which the United States recently secured annual access to a suspect underground nuclear weapons site at Kumchang-ri, suggests strongly that even in foreign relations, we may catchmore flies with honey than with vinegar. Republican scorn for that agreement illustrates the domestic difficulties, however, for any government that relies upon diplomacy to handle national security challenges. Former Secretary of State James Baker has called the agreement evidence of "a policy of appeasement." Similar accusations were hurled by Russian politicians at Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and First Deputy Premier (and Communist Party member) Yuri Maslyukov when they spoke out in sup­port of START II ratification.

Toward a "Strategic Vision"

What is urgently needed today, both in Russia and in the United States, is a clear and compatible "strategic vision" of the direction our countries should be heading. Clearly stated strategic objec­tives can be used as criteria by which to evaluate specific policy proposals. If we keep those objectives in the forefront, we are more likely to achieve both a consistent US policy and a consistent "message" as that policy is presented to Congress, to the American public and to the world. If their strategic visions are compatible, moreover, the United States and Russia will be better able to handle specific issues without disrupting our overall relations.

What strategic vision should the United States and Russia adopt toward each other? We should begin by ac­knowledging that our strategic weapons continue to put both countries at risk, and we should therefore set strategic stability as the most basic and mutual objective in our relations. This term encompasses both crisis stability and stability in the overall balance of stra­tegic forces between the United States and Russia.

A second mutual objective should be prevention of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems. Such weapons have the potential of threatening serious harm to both countries, and ominously, Russia and the United States have each already at least been subject to nuclear threats by terrorist groups.

A third mutual objective should focus on Russia's future. Both coun­tries should work to facilitate Russia's transition from a remnant of a failed empire to a prosperous, responsible, and democratic power on the world scene. It is not realistic to envision Russia re­ gaining superpower status for at least a generation, and it would be destabilizing for the United States or Russia to adopt that objective. It is both realistic and essential for world security, however, that both countries accept the objective of securing Russia's role as a stable and respected power with a role equivalent to that of the UK, Germany, or Japan.

Equally important is a shared objective regarding the US role in world affairs over the coming genera­tion. The United States is the world's only superpower and will remain so for the foreseeable future. That said, the United States possesses neither the resources nor the authority to orderthe rest of the world as we see fit. Rather, the United States must lead by example and through consensus and coalition building. While recognizing and ac­cepting its singular role in furthering world stability, the United States must share both the rights and the burdens of leadership and must make room in its strategies for the legitimate needs and interests of other states.

What would be the policy implica­tions of adopting the four-part strategic vision outlined above? A vision of where we are going is not the same thing as a fully orchestrated strategy to get there. It does afford, however, a useful set of criteria by which both the United States and Russia may judge their policy options.

Strategic Stability and BMD

Strategic-weapons relationships are clearly central to this strategic vi­sion. A shared interest in preserving strategic stability warrants caution in our unilateral deployment of national ballistic missile defense (BMD). This does not rule out all such deployments, but it does argue in favor ofnegotiated understandings regarding system char­ acteristics and deployment patterns. Indeed, if more sophisticated defenses are ever deemed necessary, the revival of earlier proposals for shared technol­ogy or jointly operated systems may be required. It would appear risky, however, for the United States to adopt a policy of permitting Russia to build new MIRVed ICBMs, an option that was reportedly under consideration in the Department of Defense. A more promising idea would be Dr. Richard L. Garwin's suggestion of a joint US­ Russian boost-phase BMD targeted at North Korea's missiles. BMD systems targeted at specific rogue states could be much more capable than a limited national  BMD  while posing  less of a threat to US-Russian strategic stability. A Russian strategy based upon retention of its current MIRVed ICBMs would also be risky. Those missiles will be increasingly expensive to maintain as they degrade in the coming years and will remain, in the meantime, obvious targets for a first-strikeattack. Given the holes in its early-warning net, Russia would have to accept the heightened risk of accidental war that comes with employing a "launch-on-warning" doctrine. A better option would be to explore whether the United States and Russia could move a substantial proportion of their strategic forces to a verifiable second-strike reserve status, rendering them ineffectual for a surprise attack. Such a reorientation of ourforces might well be a useful element of an agreement allowing a limited national missile defense against attack from a rogue state, if that defense should ever be dispassionately determined necessary and cost-effective.

Arms Reduction

The vision outlined here also argues in favor of maintaining the START momentum toward lower levels of strategic forces. Some observers have suggested that the United States might better for­ sake arms control and achieve a position of dominance as Russian forces degrade further. But that approach would surely lead Russia to extend the service life of its MIRVed ICBMs as long as pos­sible, and a trend toward significant US dominance could tempt Russia to take bolder military risks in the near term for fear that it would otherwise face a losing war in the future.

The United States has no tactical reason, moreover, to maintain signifi­cantly dominant strategic forces. Indeed, the costs of maintaining START I force levels are already squeezing Pentagori planners. The United States is therefore likely to lower its force levels in the coming years even without arms control, beginning as soon as the US Congress permits. But we would be wise to take advantage of the benefits that START treaties offer-most notably in the realm of transparency and verification. Mutual agreement on the nature of our draw­ downs in strategic forces enables both sides to plan rationally for the future, giving each side baselines for assessing each other's actions.

The longstanding unwillingness of the Russian Duma to approve rati­fication of the START II treaty has highlighted Russia's inability toafford dismantling its MIRVed ICBMs and produce enough new single-warhead ICBMs to match US forces under the treaty. The United States has offered significant and useful dismantlement assistance through the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, and should extend that assistance to START II reductions. The United States and Rus­sia also agreed in the 1997 Helsinki summit to seek a START III treaty with force levels of 2,000 to 2,500 strategic nuclear weapons, so long as Russia first ratified START II. This would preserve and implement the START II ban on MIRVed, land-based missiles, while seeking lower force levels that would limit the number of new missiles Russia would have to deploy in order to main­ tain roughparity with the United States. There is nothing sacred, however, about the force levels proposed in 1997. It should be possible to go down at least to 1,500 weapons without approaching parity with the smaller nuclear pow­ ers or changing US reliance upon the triad of ICBMs, submarine-launchedmissiles, and airborne weapons. The United States should begin now the formal reanalysis of nuclear targeting that it traditionally undertakes before proposing lower numbers.

Russia, in turn, should ratify START II and not burden its ratifica­tion with unrealistically rigid conditions regarding the future of the ABM Treaty. Russia might understandably choose to preserve its right to withdraw from START II if the United States were to violate or abrogate the ABM Treaty. Realistically speaking, however, stra­tegic stability would not be served by a provision that purported to bar negoti­ated adjustments to the ABM Treaty.

The imperative to guard against nuclear proliferation is also relevant to the START process. To the extent that lower force levels are accompanied by the destruction of nuclear weapons and by the safeguarding and downgrading of the fissile material in those weapons, they will contribute to non-proliferation as well as to strategic stability. Russia should give priority now to develop­ ing a transparent warhead destruction process, and should accept the need to substantially reduce and destroy its tactical nuclear weapons stockpile.

Strategic Stability

From the standpoint of both strate­gic stability and non-proliferation, US and Russian ratification of the Com­prehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) is an immediate imperative. CTBT would help provide assurance that neither country was building nu­ clear weapons with radical newdesigns. As strategic arms levels are reduced, this would provide extra insurance against a technological breakout that might give one side much improved destructive capabilities. Ratification by the fall of 1999, when the first CTBT review conference will occur, would likely also lead both India and Pakistan to ratify the treaty, thus limiting nuclear weapons development in the region where the risk of nuclear war is the highest (although India's political turmoil might delay its formal actions).

A shared concern in preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction has clear implications for both US and Russian policies. It is ab­solutely imperative to Russia's interests to cease any and all assistance to Iran's long-range missile and weapons of mass destruction programs. The idea of using countries like Iran, Iraq, and India as a counterweight to the United States is an utter chimera and a danger to Russia's security as well as to the rest of the world. Any further cracks in the fire­ walls against the use of weapons of mass destruction pose a risk to all countries. Assistance to Iranis especially risky, as a nuclear- or missile-armed Iran could well take the side of ethnic separatists or Muslim fundamentalists both in central Asia and in Russia itself.

For the United States, continued ex­pansion of non-proliferation assistance programs in the former Soviet Union is equally imperative. Non-proliferation cannot be sustained if scientists, firms, and institutes in Russia and elsewhere remain desperate for foreign jobs or contracts just to put bread on the table. The Expanded Threat Reduction Initia­tive proposed by the Clinton administra­ tion is a good first step, especially in its significant effort to find alternative employment for Russian biological­ warfare specialists. Equally important is the Nuclear Cities Initiative-designed to help find new employment for many thousands of scientists and techni­cians as Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy moves to downsize its nuclear weapons complex by 50 percent over the next several years-as well as the expansion of US technical assistance to export-control institutions in the former Soviet Union.

Most US non-proliferation as­sistance to the former Soviet  Union is designed to foster Russian ventures that can gain Western investment and become viable commercial enterprises. Such enterprises are vital to meeting the long-term need for self-sustained non-military employment, but they may well fail to meet the short-term need to employ thousands of scientists and technicians who possess dangerous expertise. The proposed program to employ biological weapons specialists is pathbreaking in its intention to fund public health research that may never lead to commercial ventures. Similar efforts in other fields also merit support and could reach many weapons experts who will otherwise remain prey to for­ eignrecruitment.

Congress should cease enacting annual bans on US sponsorship of such activities as housing construction and environmental cleanups in the former Soviet Union—a better course would be to require safeguards against corruption in such programs. Housing construc­tion may enable Russia to bring troops back from foreign lands or facilitate the successful operation of facilities associated with Cooperative Threat Reduction Program projects or nascent non-military enterprises. Environmental cleanup efforts could usefully employ former chemical or nuclear weapons specialists and could provide field tests of new approaches that would also be of use in the United States.

A Role for Russia

The nagging question for many Russians may well be, "What do we get out of all this?" There is satisfaction in lessening the risk that weapons of mass destruction will be used somewhere, but Russia has a more immediate need for money and jobs (although highly enriched uranium sales and foreign non-proliferation assistance do make a difference). If Russia's future does not lie in maintaining its MIRVed ICBMs or in selling mass destruction technol­ ogy around the world, then just how shall they (and we) facilitate Russia's transition from a remnant of a failed empire to aresponsible and democratic power? In other words, what is the quid for Russia's quo?

What we must offer the Russian people is nothing less than the freedom and prosperity that passed them by in the 20th century. As it happens, most of the adjustments must be made  by the Russians themselves. Some of those adjustments are clear, but painful. Rus­ sia must be able  to collect  taxes and to enforce contracts. It must base its economy upon real output, rather than just printing more money to pay its in­ ternal debts. It must afford transparency and tax-free status to international aid­ givers and a fair return to international investors, while limiting the depreda­ tions of organized crime. To maintain the respect and cooperation of its fellow world powers, Russia must engage them in a cooperative manner and define its national interests in a manner that looks forward to the role that Russia is assum­ing today, rather than backward to the role that the Soviet Union once played in the world.

The United States and other West­ern powers must consider how to treat a Russia that was once a superpower and is now in crisis. Russia by virtue of geographic area, military strength, size and education of its population, and economic potential-should logi­cally be an equal of any world power other than the United States. The West has given Russia assistance as well as a seat at the table, from the G-8 to NATO. This must continue.

But we must do more. Russia needs a place not just at our tables, but also in the world economy and in our diplo­matic practice. If Russia cannot compete in legitimate marketplaces, it will go the way of the black markets of the world. We should support the development of robust Russian enterprises that can sur­vive in both domestic and international markets-and not always expect West­ern firms to provide investment capital in return for major equity positions, as we do in many of our non-proliferation assistance programs. An open, efficient economic system will knit the interests and resources of Russia into the fabric of the international economy and reduce Russia's dependence upon destabilizing military exports.

Achieving this may take much lon­ ger than we have hoped-perhaps a gen­ eration. We must realize the depth of the changes needed in Russia and the risks of demanding more than its precarious balance of economic and political forces can sustain. That means we must keep open lines of assistance to alllevels and parts of Russian society. A particularly helpful approach would be to reach di­rectly to the small- and mid-sized firms that will be the building blocks of any future Russian market economy. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has such a program in place. Despite the apparent economic chaos in Russia, this is not the time to cut back on such programs. We must increase our support for exchange and educational programs that reach down to individual Russian citizens.

If we leave Russia out of the search for solutions to the world's problems, we will forever have to bring it along at the last moment or find it opposed to our ideas. We should consult with Rus­sia in a similar manner to our regular consultation with traditional allies. We should also accept the principle that Russia, too, has reasonable national interests, while countering any imperial designs or ideological "old thinking" on Russia's part.

Democratic Russia is still young and must still scrape the last Soviet barnacles off the new Russian ship of state. But we can demonstrate by our acts the advantages that Russia will accrue by casting its lot firmly with Europe, rather than seeing itself as a Eurasian counterweight to democracy, capitalism, and international norms of state behavior. In this manner we may bring about a shared vision of strategic stability in US-Russian relations that will truly benefit the coming generation.


With the benefit of hindsight, Biden successfully identified some important aspects of US-Russia relations. Some of these topics, particularly that of nuclear disarmament, continue to be crucial to global security to this day. However, the way in which US-Russia relations have unfolded challenges the maintenance of this period of peace surrounding nuclear weapon development.

First, the United States and Russia face very different circumstances today than they did 20 years ago, making Biden’s points regarding Russia’s economic vulnerability as well as the U.S.’s unique role as the sole superpower less relevant. Perhaps of greatest importance is the manner in which Russia developed after the fall of the Soviet Union. The 1990s saw a newly emerged Russian state in the middle of a tumultuous economic and political transition. Today, Russia is still under the rule of the same leader as it was 20 years ago, with the end of his regime not in sight. And, while the West assumed that the fall of the Soviet Union implied a shift of Russia towards a more democratic government, there has instead been a consolidation of power by Putin and the development of an informational autocracy. Hence, while Biden spoke of the importance of treating Russia as a world power, of bigger concern today is the troubling role that Russia plays on the international stage. From the annexation of Crimea to alleged interference in US elections, we have instead seen an increasingly strained relationship between the United States and Russia that threatens the ability to maintain nuclear stability.

That being said, Russia’s role on the global stage extends beyond the maintenance of nuclear stability. The Trump administration has pushed for the re-evaluation of several international agreements, usually ending in the decision to withdraw and attempt to renegotiate. Most notably, the Trump administration withdrew from the INF Treaty, citing Russia’s alleged violation of the treaty as well as the need to incorporate in other nuclear states, such as China. However, the withdrawal of both the United States and Russia from the INF Treaty signals a wavering commitment to these goals from two of the main leaders in promoting this stability. Over the past couple of months, in spite of previous pressures on China to join this agreement, the Trump administration has reversed course and eased pressures in hopes of negotiating an agreement with Russia in addition to extending the New START Treaty. The United States and Russia have historically been global leaders in promoting nuclear non-proliferation, and any wavering on their part signals the potential for a return to the instability and uncertainty of the Cold War period.

Ultimately, the promotion of strategic stability as well as the prevention of further proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is crucial to maintain international security. While the future of US-Russia relations is anything but clear, the need for the kind of “strategic vision” that Biden outlines in his piece is imperative as ever.

Forward and Conclusion by Olga Kiyan, Associate Editor.