Arms Control in Today’s (Dis)Information Environment: Part I

(Dis)trust and verify?

In strategic arms control negotiations between the Soviet Union and the United States, President Ronald Reagan was known to repeat an old Russian proverb he memorized to impress his Soviet counterpart: Doveryai, no proveryai. “Trust, but verify.” The old adage has turned cliché as it has been applied to a range of both arms control and non-arms control situations but the idea of maintaining a perspective of healthy skepticism during negotiations with a competitor while ensuring the tenets of any agreement can be verifiably confirmed remains a worthy goal. Today’s contested information environment, however, has diminished the currency of trust held by individuals, institutions, and states. As the United States and Russia — and possibly other countries including China — discuss the future of strategic stability and arms control, the US government will have to contend with the challenges disinformation poses to negotiating, ratifying, and implementing arms control treaties. Some level of mistrust is expected at the negotiating table, and states are wise to remain watchful and wary to ensure the other party or parties do not cheat or otherwise fail to hold up their end of the bargain. But outright distrust is incompatible with arms control. There requires concurrence on basic facts and mutual agreement that both sides benefit from limiting or reducing their ability and capacity to harm each other. Arms control will fail if one party is committed to constantly undermining, denying, or manufacturing reality.

The spread of disinformation poses a challenge to all forms of diplomacy and is an increasingly significant factor in competitions among great powers. Russia, acting from a position of military and economic deficiency since the end of the Cold War, has turned to active measures tactics (to include manufacturing and spreading disinformation, the malicious and intentional development and propagation of false information) to weaken US and allied societies, undermine faith in institutions which it sees favoring the United States and NATO, and sow distrust at every step. Similarly, China’s Three Warfares concept balances public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare in an attempt to shape the information environment in a favorable way without having to fight in more traditional domains. Both Russia and China, perhaps acknowledging the current military advantages of the United States and lacking the appetite for all-out war, seek to win without fighting. In an era of disinformation, the United States must consider how competitors on the other side of the negotiating table will manipulate information to gain leverage, such as by mischaracterizing US negotiating positions to scare US allies and convince third parties the United States seeks outcomes that would harm their interests.

The next generation of arms control negotiators and implementors will face a drastically different, more complicated and contentious information environment than when the United States last negotiated a strategic nuclear arms control agreement (New START) in 2009. In the past decade, disinformation has been used to undermine arms control norms and institutions. Russia, for example, has utilized disinformation to attempt to cover direct violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and to frustrate the ability of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to investigate noncompliance with the treaty. Russia violated the CWC with its use of a chemical agent Novichok in the United Kingdom (and once more against Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny) and then employed numerous and conflicting narratives spread and amplified by Russia and its media disinformation ecosystem to sow confusion and attempt deniability. Russia also undercut and weakened the CWC’s mechanism for verification and attribution in the aftermath of chemical weapons use in the Syrian civil conflict. Disinformation efforts by Syria and its Russian ally sought to undermine the OPCW’s efforts to investigate the attacks (and ultimately attribute them to Damascus). Russia also sought to supplement this disinformation campaign with an attempted cyber-attack on OPCW headquarters. The Kremlin’s ongoing disinformation campaign to obfuscate illegal use of chemical weapons by itself and its proxies, together with its efforts to hamstring the OPCW, raises fundamental questions about Russia’s willingness to comply with the CWC and other arms control agreements.

In an era of disinformation, the United States must consider how competitors on the other side of the negotiating table will manipulate information to gain leverage, such as by mischaracterizing US negotiating positions to scare US allies and convince third parties the United States seeks outcomes that would harm their interests.

The propagation and dissemination of this type of disinformation poses a serious challenge to future arms control initiatives, as some level of trust is required at every stage of a treaty’s life cycle, to include its negotiation, ratification, implementation, and verification. Past arms control challenges of validating and verifying data on state arsenals will exist alongside new tools for broadcasting propaganda and manipulating and fabricating information.

Negotiations. During negotiations, there is a requirement for some level of trust that the other side is negotiating in good faith, both in terms of what they say at the negotiating table and what they will do if an agreement is concluded. The United States should make it clear to Russia that distortion or denigration of its negotiating positions by Russian government actors or proxies, to include on social media platforms, will seriously complicate or even end talks. Moreover, the United States should communicate within talks that Russia’s actions, to include its active disinformation efforts, continue to lower US trust in Moscow with regard to arms control and thus elevate the need to negotiate a robust verification regime.

Ratification. American society is increasingly polarized, lacking trust in one another and in the institutions of government and science and media — important tenets of democracy. This lack of trust has led to an epidemic in which Americans are easily swayed and influenced by mis- and disinformation, making it easy for adversaries to target American society and attempt to influence our national security. This may complicate future ratification processes. Should a third party spoiler seek to sabotage an agreement it sees as unfavorable to its own interests, it may attempt to use disinformation to sway US public opinion against a treaty being considered by Congress. With treaty ratification requiring 2/3 approval of the Senate, even minor shifts within certain populations could have an outsize impact on a close vote on Capitol Hill.

Implementation and compliance. During implementation and compliance with a treaty or agreement, there must exist some level of trust in the verification regimes and the data being shared. Certain multilateral arms control agreements, for example, include the establishment of an implementation or verification body (like the OPCW or the International Atomic Energy Agency). For these organizations to be effective, they must have some inherent level of trust that state actors will work with these institutions and accept the legitimacy of their processes and findings (trust that has already been diminished by Russia’s undermining actions in Syria). Bilateral agreements require parties to exchange information, verify this information through means such as on-site inspections, and find ways to resolve disputes regarding implementation. In the past, however, Russia has continually accused the United States of non-compliance with treaty regimes, seeking to gain ground on matters such as what on-site inspections can (or cannot) cover. US negotiators will need to be prepared for the likelihood that the disinformation ecosystem Russia has developed in the last decade could be brought to bear to accomplish these goals. Russia, for example, could flood the zone with conflicting reports undermining faith in data exchanges, accuse the United States wrongfully of non-compliance, or resort to Soviet active measures of forging documents. Such disinformation campaigns can be made all the more challenging to detect and oppose when they utilize deep fakes and spoofed data.

Russia proved willing to extend New START five additional years and views its seat at nuclear arms control negotiating tables as validation as a peer – with regard to this strategic capability – of the United States. In addition, implementation of New START has remained relatively smooth since its 2011 entry into force. But recent years have given ample evidence of Russia’s malign efforts to undermine trust in democratic processes and institutions and spread disinformation to boost its image while denigrating the United States. Russia has also demonstrated a willingness to use disinformation for the purposes of cover-ups and sabotage with regard to arms control as exemplified by its malign actions around the CWC. The United States needs to ask the question: Can it engage in arms control negotiations with a party that seems willing to “trust but verify” on one arms control agreement while actively undermining others? A similar question can be asked with regard to potential future talks with Beijing, which has never negotiated a nuclear arms control agreement, has a mixed track record on nonproliferation issues, and during the COVID-19 pandemic has ratcheted up its own disinformation efforts to both cover its own mistakes and malfeasance while also attacking the United States.

History demonstrates that complete amity is not a requirement for negotiating arms control agreements. Mistrust between rivals is understandable and can lead to detailed agreements and strong verification regimes. But complete distrust is toxic to negotiations and makes it impossible to find common ground for developing a mutually beneficial compact. As the United States pursues new dialogues with Russia on the topics of arms control and emerging security concerns, it should do so wary of Russia’s tactics and prepare to negotiate, implement, and comply with future arms control in the (dis)information environment. While faith and trust in the institutions and principles of arms control have weakened, trust between negotiators may prevail and allow for new agreements between the United States and Russia.

Sarah Jacobs Gamberini is a Policy Fellow at the National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the US government.

This is the first in series of papers on Arms Control in Today’s (Dis)information Environment with National Defense University’s Sarah Jacobs Gamberini, Justin Anderson, and Jaclyn Kerr. The goal of the series is to contribute to a discussion about how disinformation could play a role in future arms control treaties and agreements. The second article will examine the repercussions of this change in context for future nuclear arms control negotiations. The final article will focus on what practices, tools, and technologies the United States should consider that could help the United States validate and verify information and counter the threat of disinformation in the arms control space.