Putin just tested a new long-range missile. What does that mean?

recent Russia test of a new long-range nuclear missile renewed its concerns about the escalation of the current war in Ukraine. Some analysts saw the missile test as evidence of President Vladimir Putin’s will isolation as his ill-fated campaign drags on – or even as the nuclear saber rattling. Putin himself warned that the Russian missile would “make those who, in the heat of frenzied aggressive rhetoric, attempt to threaten our country think twice.”

Here is the good news. The fact that Russia notified the United States before the missile test is in fact a powerful reminder of the importance of arms control between adversaries. The bad news is that this type of arms control is hanging by a thread between the United States and Russia, and virtually non-existent between the United States and China.

What did Russia test, exactly?

Russia is developing the Sarmat multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for several years, claiming that it can penetrate the defenses of any adversary. Although this week’s test used only dummy warheads, the missile’s ability to carry hypersonic glide vehicles led Putin to characterize it as “unique.” And a senior Russian official described the missile as a “super weapon.”

Yet despite all the Russian bluster about the test, the Pentagon reacted calmly. Why? Since Russia had notified the United States of the planned launch under the Missile Test Notification Regime which is part of the New START agreement both countries extended last year.

As part of this, the United States and Russia are required to provide advance warning of missile tests so that they are not mistaken for real launches. This avoids the worst-case scenario: if one side mistakenly believes that the other has started a nuclear attack and, based on this false information, retaliates with its own nuclear attack.

This week, the arms control regime worked exactly as intended. “Such tests are routine and come as no surprise,” the United States said. defense department said in a post-launch statement. “We did not consider the test to pose a threat to the United States or its allies.”

This “non-event” – the crisis that did not occur when the Russians tested a nuclear missile in the midst of a major conventional war against Ukraine supported by the United States – is a prime example of the value continues global arms control efforts.

Arms control reduces risks, but not necessarily weapons

Arms control is often interpreted to mean bilateral limitations or reductions in the nuclear arsenals of two countries. It is the form that American-Soviet arms control Efforts began with the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) in 1972. This approach has continued to characterize US-Russian arms control since the end of the Cold War.

But as academics Thomas Schelling and Mort Halperin Noted in a classic 1961 study, arms control can be much broader. The concept encompasses “all forms of military cooperation between potential enemies for the purpose of reducing the likelihood of war, its scale and violence if it does occur, as well as the political and economic costs of preparing for it. “.

Arms control does not require close or cordial political relations. As Schelling and Halperin point out, this rests on “the recognition that our military relationship with potential enemies is not one of pure conflict and opposition, but involves strong elements of mutual interest”. For the United States and Russia, these elements of mutual interest have long been about avoiding misinterpretations of each other’s test launches.

US-Russian harm reduction is not new

For decades, in fact, the United States and Russia have had other mechanisms in place to reduce nuclear risk as well – not despite poor political relations, but because of them. For example, after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the two sides developed a direct line allowing senior politicians to communicate quickly and directly in the event of a crisis. A similar channel still connects the United States and Russia today.

Similarly, the United States and Russia have established a deconfliction hotline during the war in Syria to avoid inadvertently hitting each other’s forces. The United States itself warned Russia before its attack on a Syrian airfield housing Russian forces in 2017, to avoid any Russian casualties. Russian dead in such high profile strike would have greatly increased the pressure for a Russian response, risking a wider escalation.

The United States and Russia have recently implemented a similar system deconfliction line to avoid an involuntary escalation in Ukraine. These are all forms of risk reduction that fall outside the common view of arms control as treaties aimed at reducing arms, but which nevertheless help to produce the key outcome that both parties want: more “non-events”. “.

Why risk reduction is especially important

The likelihood that Washington, Moscow and Beijing will soon sign a broad tripartite agreement limiting their nuclear forces is low. The spiral political relationship between the United States and Russia, combined with The emergence of China as the third major power with nuclear weapons, greatly complicates the prospects for traditional treaty-based arms control as we know it. The asymmetries in the nuclear arsenals of the three countries, which now encompass very different types of weapons, make it even more difficult to obtain a yes.

Officials in Beijing have repeatedly shown little interest in pursuing an arms control treaty. China has also been very reluctant get more involved limit forms of risk reduction, such as regular high-level dialogue between political leaders or military-to-military dialogue communication in the increasingly congested waters of the Western Pacific.

The war in Ukraine, however, demonstrates the value of such exchanges, even between bitter enemies engaged in active conflict. Risk reduction measures between adversaries are best established in times of peace, so that there is a basis for further communication in the event of a crisis or war.

Such mechanisms can be part of legally binding arrangements, like the missile test notification regime demonstrated this week. Or they can evolve informally, modeled on the channels of deconfliction that have emerged in Syria and now Ukraine. Whatever form they take, risk reduction measures to ensure more “non-events” are of strong mutual interest between the United States, Russia, and China, as highlighted in this week’s launch.

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