Igor Sergeyevich Ivanov headed Moscow’s diplomatic mission during a crucial stage of post-Soviet Russia, straddling two geopolitical eras. He took over as the minister of foreign affairs during the later stage of Boris Yeltsin’s time in power, right after the financial crisis of the summer of 1998 dispelled many illusions about the possibility of an amicable coexistence of Russian interests and Western ones. Ivanov kept the position for the entire duration of Vladimir Putin’s first term, and he passed the baton to Sergei Lavrov in 2004. But Ivanov has continued to pull the strings in all global conversations on the most crucial issues, including disarmament. It was Ivanov who decided to commit to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), stating that “the role of the NGOs in international relations is becoming increasingly relevant, especially when they involve major experts and former statesman, both from the East and the West”, for instance, former US politicians Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar.

They were the main promoters of the Cooperative Threat Reduction programme that was conceived as soon as the USSR collapsed with the main purpose of dismantling the Soviet nuclear arsenal.

“We are not a group of idealists seeking a magical solution to nuclear issues”, Ivanov underlined. “We focus on tangible and at times very minimal steps, which might nevertheless set back the hands of the doomsday clock and postpone any nuclear armageddon as much as possible”. This has never been as essential as it is today. According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which adjusts the hands of the infamous clock by monitoring the state of global security, we are just two minutes away from doomsday. It’s the most critical state of affairs since 1953 when the US decided to build the H-bomb. Yet even just ten years ago, after taking up residence in the White House, Barack Obama spoke of a “world free of nuclear armaments” as a realistic objective.

So what went wrong, Igor?

It has to be said that Obama’s first years in office raised many hopes of a possible improvement in relations between the United States and Russia. There was the pressing of the reset button, then we signed the New START initiative [the treaty on nuclear arms reduction signed by the US and Russia in 2010, Ed.]. We worked together on the Iranian dossier and even the initiated discussions regarding NATO’s antimissile defence system in Europe. But old habits are hard to break and proved too resilient. The new post-Cold War agenda of relations between the United States and Russia has never been thought through and discussed with sufficient care. And a number of regional crises – from the Ukraine to the Middle East – have helped to raise the temperature between the White House and the Kremlin.

In his recent address before the Russian Federal Assembly, President Putin described a whole new generation of nuclear weapons that should be able to penetrate the United States’ defence systems. According to the Kremlin, this was nothing more than a response to the nuclear policy being enacted by Washington for some time now. A little more than a month before Putin’s speech, the Pentagon launched its own upgrade of its arsenal. Even the US secretary of defence, Jim Mattis, justified the move as “a response to Russia’s expansion of its nuclear capacity and its revision of its doctrine”. Is this the start of a new arms race? And if so, who started it?

At present, it seems premature to speak of a new large-scale arms race between the United States and Russia. Moscow and Washington are still complying with the prescriptions of the New START treaty and agree on the importance of the INF Treaty [the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty, signed in 1987, Ed.] as well as the danger of military competition getting out of control in various sectors such as cyberspace and artificial intelligence. But it should be noted that the arms control systems in Russia and the US have clearly deteriorated, and a new arms race has now become a tangible threat. In Russia, this negative tendency began with the US’ decision to abandon the ABM Treaty [Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, signed in 1972, Ed.]. It was a unilateral decision, part of a new US strategy that aimed to create a unipolar world policy under Washington’s undisputed guidance. The plan failed, and that failure has had very negative effects on the entire system of international relations, including arms control, of course.

Experience teaches us that an arms race can only be avoided through agreements that take into account the legitimate interests of both parties. If we all accept this situation then there’s plenty we can do to avoid a new, pointless arms race. We could instead pool our efforts towards solving the many and increasing security problems we are currently facing. Unfortunately, the situation has become very complicated due to the difficult political relationship between Moscow and Washington.

Washington in particular is developing new low-yield nuclear weapons, which Mattis believes to be necessary to oppose Russia’s “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine, according to which Moscow threatens to use this type of weapon even in a limited conventional war with Europe. Are we entering a time in which the use of mini-atomic bombs could be considered a realistic option in all theatres of war?

I don’t think there’s any such doctrine in Russia; I’d say it’s more a product of the imagination of Western military circles. But I do agree with you: we are entering a new era, which entails greater risks. Small nuclear warheads represent a challenge for us all, particularly in Europe, because they could create the illusion that one could fight and win a limited nuclear war.

Do think this could mean that there’s a risk that the so-called balance of terror based on MAD (mutually assured destruction), the doctrine according to which the risk of setting off a nuclear war capable of destroying both parties prevents the start of any hostilities, could be undermined?

Yes, it’s a threat to the balance guaranteed by MAD, but it’s not the only one. Even missile defence programmes, for example, can imperil the basis of the MAD threat. These issues have to be discussed openly and in a very transparent manner at both a political and military level. And I’m convinced that they can be solved without weakening the security of either side.

The new weapons developed in Russia require very considerable financial investments, the RS-28 Sarmat super missile in particular. Is such an expense sustainable for your country? Do you think it’s appropriate as a public spending priority?

Isn’t there a risk that Moscow could suffer economically if the arms race started to pick up? If you look at the curve for Russian military spending, you’ll notice that it actually reached a peak in 2016 and has since started to drop off. The Russian economy is sufficiently solid to be able to maintain nuclear parity with the US, at least in the short term. But this can only be guaranteed at the expense of other sectors of the economy. It means slowing structural reforms, which Russia dearly needs, and steering resources away from social priorities and other civilian objectives. It’s certainly not how we’d choose to do things, but if Russia is forced to engage in a new arms race, its national safety will be guaranteed in all circumstances. President Putin has been very clear on that point.

Let’s get back to our doomsday clock. We were four minutes away from a nuclear catastrophe in 1984 after the launch of Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” project, and 17 minutes away in 1991 when the Cold War ended. Are there lessons to be learned from the disarmament promoted by Reagan and Gorbachev that could come in handy today?

If we hope to find a parallel between the current situation and one in the past, it’s certainly not the Cold War of the 1970s and ‘80s, when the two parties had developed a very complex system of arms control with many channels of political and military communication and a considerable level of mutual respect and trust. If anything, the situation is reminiscent of the ‘50s when the risk of a confrontation was much higher. At that time, it took the Cuban missile crisis [1962] to get both the US and Russia to fully appreciate the danger of a nuclear apocalypse and become convinced that arms control had to be taken seriously. I hope that this time around we will manage to sort things out without a missile crisis. The most important lesson we must all learn from the past is that there will be no winners or losers in an arms race. If it’s not stopped at the right moment, both sides will end up losing. Political leaders were wise enough to realise this state of affairs in the second half of the last century, and they sat down at the negotiating table. Let’s hope the same happens today.

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