A key hurdle in the talks has been Russia’s demand that the U.S. stop resisting limits on its missile defenses, which the Russians view as a long-term threat and the Americans see as a deterrent to war ... For their part, the Russians have long insisted there can be no strategic stability without limits on defensive as well as offensive weapons. Russia has left no doubt that it will insist that missile defense be part of a future arms control arrangement.


Why does Russia see these missile defenses as a long-term threat? It seems to me like a world where defensive weapons are a lot stronger than offensive ones would be a way to achieve the long-term goal of preventing war, since it precludes countries from attacking each other. This seems especially appropriate for Russia, since their foreign policy tends to be non-interventionist.

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    "their foreign policy tends to be non-interventionist". Except in neighboring countries Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014+) and where they have bases they want to keep like in Syria. Never mind Wagner, which has broader reach and some deniability, albeit fewer capabilities than regular forces. Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 8:10
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    @Fizz Perhaps OP meant pretends rather than tends? ;-)
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 14:07
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    @Fizz they certainly say they are non-interventionist though. The question of whether Russia is more interventionist than other countries who do not preach the same policy is an interesting one. I might ask it as a separate question sometime.
    – Allure
    Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 14:28
  • I'm disappointed that none of the answers have mentioned the relative size of these two nations, compared to their ability to cover them with ABMs. Russia is HUGE compared to the USA.
    – Ian Kemp
    Commented Oct 7, 2021 at 12:54

6 Answers 6


The logic behind nuclear peace is mutually assured destruction: Anyone who uses nuclear weapons will also be destroyed by the counter-strike. As long as there are multiple nuclear powers who all have the capability to destroy each other with a nuclear second strike after one of them performed a nuclear first strike, none of them will dare.

But if one actor has a nuclear defense system which is so reliable that they no longer need to fear a second strike, then MAD falls apart. They can now use their nuclear weapons without being afraid of destruction.

Now if everyone had the ability to intercept a first strike, well, then all seems fine and dandy. Nuclear weapons would be completely useless in such a world. But that's unfortunately not the only scenario which can result from the development of nuclear defense technology.

A nuclear first strike often aims to disarm the opponents nuclear capability, so the resulting second strike will be a lot weaker and easier to intercept. That means it is very well possible that one state does not trusts their nuclear defenses to intercept a first strike, but still trusts them to intercept a second strike. This would make them extremely dangerous, because now that state has a very strong motivation to be the first to launch their missiles.

This gets even worse if one state has the defensive capabilities to defend even against a first strike, but no other state has. Because now that state is completely safe against a nuclear attack, which means they can do whatever they want - nuclear or conventional - without any fear of nuclear retaliation.

By the way: This topic is not a new one. In 1983, the United States started the Strategic Defense Initiative, a plan to greatly increase the US nuclear defense capabilities by investing research into a wide variety of experimental missile interception technologies. This project got a lot of international criticism, because the project had the potential to undermine MAD. The project officially ended in 1993, when the cold war subsided.

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    This is also why nuclear powers build so many more warheads than they actually "need". If you estimate that a first strike would take out, say, 90% of your retaliatory capacity, but you built 10x more warheads than you would need to effectively counter-strike, MAD is still maintained. In theory anyway.
    – Seth R
    Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 16:03
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    The topic is "not new" by longer than that. A link to Thomas Schelling and his 1960s works may be appropriate.
    – Zeus
    Commented Oct 6, 2021 at 1:20
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    as a site note: even if you don't think a war will start, if the other party increases their defense capabilities, the natural response would be to increase either your defensive or your offensive capabilities, which then leads to an arms race and cripples both nations financially. Commented Oct 6, 2021 at 4:18
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    Us missile defense is nowhere near up to stopping nuclear war. ICBM warhead are very hard to intercept and too many. Commented Oct 6, 2021 at 6:54
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    One note: Mutually Assured Destruction doesn't just deter nuclear first strikes, it deters any meaningful attack (any attack that would lead to total war, anyway, and not just a sortie or proxy war). Not having the ability to prevent a nuclear strike means the US cannot invade Russia with any means, and vice versa, because if we did, they would use their nuclear weapons.
    – Joe
    Commented Oct 6, 2021 at 15:38

In 1914 the defensive technology (trenches, machine guns) was more effective than the offensive (infantry charge). It lead to quagmire and stalemate. Clearly, the effective defence did not prevent war.

The concern of Russia is that if there is an effective defence against a nuclear counter-strike, then the cost of launching a pre-emptive strike is much reduced. This could conceivably result in a situation in which an American President decides on the first use of nuclear weapons, because he/she calculates that the Russian counter-strike can be sufficiently blocked by a defence system.

An effective defence against the opponent's weaponry, does not stop a country from starting a war. Indeed it makes it more likely.

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    Machine guns were actually a larger part of the defense than of offense in WWI. They were hard to carry etc. Only towards the end of the war and especially mounted on tanks they became more offensive. Tanks aside, you could say that in WWI the advancing infantry was the main offensive weapon and the machine guns were the main anti-infantry weapon, so there was that stalemate. Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 6:57
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    @Allure: because the Russian ones might not work so well? skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/52354/… Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 8:16
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    @Allure You're supposing that russian anti-missile capabilities are as good or even better than american ones. That could be certainly not the case. Even if the russian anti-missile technology was superior to american one, in order to be effective you need to deploy it effectively. The USA can put anti-missile shields on friendly countries which could intercept russian missiles on an early stage, while Russia would have to spend a hundred times more money deploying shields all over the territory. Russia can't pay that.
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 8:17
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    @Allure I could, but PhillS explains it much better at their answer to this question: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/38685/…
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 15:02
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    @Allure It is easier to intercept missiles shortly after launch than it is to do so shortly before impact. US has allies close to Russia where it can deploy Anti-Missile bases along expected missile trajectories. (e.g. in Europe). Russia does not have allies in equivalent places close to the US (would need to be in Canada or Greenland).
    – Joe
    Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 22:44

In much simpler terms (eschewing more complex reasoning about 2nd strikes etc. specific to nuclear weapons): being able to hit your enemy without them being able to hit you back is a good recipe for winning a war. It's why the US (and in fact anyone else who can) pursues technological superiority, including in defensive tech, be it tank armor, CIWS, stealth in planes/drones and what not.

For a somewhat modern [theater] example, consider the "SAM umbrella" that allowed Arab armies to advance during the initial phase of the 1973 war because it negated to some extent the Israeli airforce.

Finally, you say

It seems to me like a world where defensive weapons are a lot stronger than offensive ones would be a way to achieve the long-term goal of preventing war, since it precludes countries from attacking each other.

But the catch is that we don't live in that technological utopia. A bullet is a lot harder to hit than a man. A city is far easier to hit than a missile (targeting it). Etc. Physics and biology conspire against your plan for impenetrable defenses, except in highly [technologically] lopsided scenarios like Gaza/Hamas vs Israel, in which only one side has the shield working. If you want me to put it bluntly, Russia fears that in a nightmare scenario it will end up like Gaza in a sense, i.e. unable to break through a technologically and possibly numerically superior defense as well, while it's still vulnerable to attack. (Of course, they are also exaggerating how real/near that kind of perspective is, given the current state of nuclear arsenals relative to interceptors etc.)

Russia understands this equation fairly well, which is why you see them counter with announcements of and (for now) small scale deployments of stuff that can bypass would-be defenses: hypersonic glide vehicles (Avangard), unmanned nuclear-powered autonomous torpedos (Poseidon), etc.

Basically, in an economically imbalanced arms race, one side will go for the offensive weapons, because it's the [only] way to (potentially) prevail over an economically superior foe. Think how the Taliban prevailed over the US: it wasn't by building some shield to stop all US missiles, bombs, planes, drones etc. Instead they got better at building IEDs and deploying them in larger numbers and also adopted (and scaled up) suicide attacks, their cheapo version of a stealth/guided "missile" that could make it through defenses.


It's not possible to cleanly divide military technology into "offensive" and "defensive". There's the saying "the best defense is a good offense", but a good defense can also be a good offense. For instance, bullet proof vests may seem to be defensive devices, but how many security guards, versus bank robbers, wear them?

There is also a wider narrative at play here. America and the USSR are often portrayed as peers in the Cold War, but the US was well ahead of the USSR in economic strength and technology throughout. The only thing stopping the West from stomping over the USSR was lack of will and nuclear weapons. While it would have difficult to get the American people to support an invasion of the USSR, the Soviet Union had had the experience of Germany being a Western democracy in 1932 and a decade later being a brutal dictatorship hell bent on destroying the USSR, and almost succeeding. The USSR simply could not match the US' conventional forces, leaving nuclear weapons as the only way they could hope to win a war, or, if not win, make sure that no one would win. From the Russian point of view, it is nuclear weapons that deter the West from attacking it, and it is defense systems that encourage war; if nuclear weapons are taken off the table, NATO would, if it were willing to engage in total war, be virtually certain to win that war.

When Reagan began pushing for "Star Wars", that put pressure on the USSR to spend more money countering it, and this is considered by many to have contributed to the collapse of the USSR. So current US spending on missile defense is seen by Russia as trying to take away their strongest card and reigniting an arms race that doomed its predecessor.

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    "The USSR simply could not match the US' conventional forces" Citation needed. IIRC the Cold War-era war games involved the USSR more or less conquering Europe with their overwhelming advantage in the number of their armored vehicles.
    – nick012000
    Commented Oct 6, 2021 at 7:17
  • I (in the US) see security guards wearing bullet proof vests all the time (at least, those employed by banks or other sites with something of value), so I'm not sure what you were trying to convey by the analogy. Commented Oct 7, 2021 at 13:26

I would add something I didn't see in the other answers, namely Russia's concerns regarding the launching systems.

As per the Russian media and official releases (examples below), Russia holds the position that the launching systems for the SM-3 anti-ballistic missile can be actually used to launch Tomahawk missiles. If this were the case, then the anti-ballistic systems deployed in Poland or Romania could be used for launching attacks on Russia. This would also be a violation of the INF Treaty (1987).


Now, the US have multiple times answered to those claims (e.g. here). It doesn't seem that Russia is satisfied by these statements.

So it seems that this is one of the major reasons that Russia perceives the US missile defenses in Europe as a threat.


Russia's best deterrent to being subject to a nuclear attack is the threat of an equally deadly counterattack. It is that balanced threat that has likely prevented all out war between the US and Russia (and the former USSR) for the past several decades.

If the US were to have an effective defense against a counterattack, then the balance is gone. The US could attack Russia without fear of being destroyed in return. One could certainly argue that this scenario would make it more likely that the US would attack, while they have the advantage.


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