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Making a new START in Russian–US nuclear arms control

Don't open the champagne just yet, but Russia and the United States are tantalizingly close to the finish line in their negotiations on a new nuclear arms reduction treaty to replace the 1991 Treaty on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START Treaty). Although the fast-track negotiations in Geneva were unexpectedly diverted into the diplomatic slow lane by last-minute wrangling over US missile defence plans, the two sides are widely expected to seal the deal and sign a START follow-on treaty within a matter of weeks.

The signing of a new legally binding nuclear arms reduction agreement by the two countries which collectively account for more than 95 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons will be a welcome if overdue development. It will give a timely boost to global nuclear disarmament efforts in the run-up to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference that will take place in New York in May 2010. The new treaty will also enhance the credibility of US President Barack Obama’s call, laid out in a speech in Prague last April, for concrete progress towards achieving a world free of nuclear weapons.

Two cheers for the new treaty

At the same, the treaty that is now taking final shape is decidedly modest in the scope and scale of its ambitions. It will require only small cuts in existing Russian and US deployed strategic nuclear forces beyond those mandated by START and the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT).

Under the new deal, the ceiling for deployed strategic nuclear warheads will be lowered to 1500–1675 per side, down from the 1700–2200 agreed to in SORT, by the year 2017; the ceiling on strategic nuclear delivery systems (that is, nuclear-armed land- and sea-based missiles and long-range bombers) will be lowered to 700–800 each, down from the current START-mandated limit of 1600. These new limits have been relatively uncontroversial, in part because they codify current force trends: both Russia and the USA have already reduced their long-range bomber and missile forces to below 1000 delivery vehicles.

Russia had initially called for a lower limit on deployed nuclear delivery vehicles of around 500. However, this was rejected by the United States because it would have required an expensive restructuring of the US ‘triad’ of strategic nuclear forces. For Russia, the lower limit was attractive insofar as it would ease the financial burden of maintaining numerical parity with US strategic forces—a politically important symbolic goal—at a time when Russia’s strategic forces are dwindling as it retires obsolescent Soviet-era missiles.

One disappointing feature of the new treaty is that it will not require the parties to verifiably eliminate the nuclear warheads withdrawn from operational deployment. Such a provision would have contributed to ‘locking in’, or making irreversible, future force reductions. In doing so, it would have helped to address concerns about asymmetries in the two sides’ so-called upload potential (that is, the ability to rapidly redeploy nuclear warheads held in storage onto missiles and bombers). The USA holds a significant advantage over Russia in this potential because it complied with the START and SORT limits on deployed nuclear warheads first and foremost by reducing the number of warheads carried on delivery vehicles (and then placing the excess warheads in storage), rather than by eliminating the delivery vehicles.

Trusting but still verifying

Despite these shortcomings, in one key respect the new treaty does represent an important achievement for Russian–US nuclear arms control: it preserves the regime established by the START Treaty for verifying limits on the parties’ strategic nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles. Some of the specific verification measures contained in START have been adapted or streamlined in the new treaty, in part to make them less costly.

Moscow and Washington had given a high priority to concluding a follow-on agreement that would extend the main elements of START’s comprehensive provisions for transparency measures, on-site inspections and other cooperative monitoring arrangements beyond the treaty’s duration. This was because the START verification regime basically has been the primary means by which Russia and the USA have monitored each other’s nuclear forces since the end of the cold war. It is also the basis for verifying the nuclear force cuts mandated by SORT, which lacked its own verification provisions. Officials in both capitals had worried that in the absence of these arrangements, the strategic forces of Russia and the USA over time would become increasingly less transparent to one another. This could in turn herald a return to the days when their respective nuclear force planning was driven by worst-case scenarios, while at the same time raising the risks of accidents and miscalculations.

According to media reports, the main substantive differences that emerged during the nine round of talks held in Geneva between Russia and the USA as of February 2010 centred on specific activities for verifying the numerical limits set by the new treaty. The painstaking and often highly technical discussions needed to resolve these disagreements meant that the two sides were unable to meet their ambitious goal of concluding a follow-on agreement before the START Treaty expired on 5 December 2009.

The fate of two verification provisions contained in START was particularly contentious. One had banned the encryption of telemetry from ballistic missile flight tests (that is, the technical data transmitted about the test missile’s performance parameters); the other had provided for continuous monitoring arrangements at the plants that produced strategic ballistic missiles. Unlike the situation in 1991, in the new treaty these provisions would no longer involve reciprocal undertakings by the parties: the USA, in contrast to Russia, is not developing new types of strategic ballistic missiles and has shut down the plant in Utah that produced these missiles. This led to protracted discussions in Geneva about rebalancing the parties’ obligations in a follow-on treaty. Russia reportedly has agreed to continue to transmit key flight-test data in unencrypted form (which can be readily monitored by US national technical means) as it modernizes its long-range missile force. However, the continuous monitoring by US inspectors of Russia’s ballistic-missile production site at Votkinsk, which Russia had long criticized as being too intrusive, will not resume.

In addition to settling these issues, the two sides have apparently reached a  compromise on a US proposal to adjust the ‘counting rules’ used in the START Treaty (that is, the rules for attributing a specific number of warheads to specific delivery vehicles, regardless of whether those delivery vehicles carry fewer warheads). The proposal would allow each side to use on-site inspections to count the actual number of warheads deployed on the other’s delivery systems, including on submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Russia had initially resisted this change, arguing that without a set number of warheads per missile its inspections of individual missiles might not provide adequate information about the US stockpile of operational warheads. The details of the compromise that has been reportedly worked out are unlikely to be known before the treaty text is publicly released.

Stalling at the finish line

In early March 2010, media reports indicated that the Russian and US negotiating teams in Geneva were very close to finalizing a treaty document. The finishing touches were abruptly halted, however, by a Russian demand for the option to withdraw unilaterally from the new treaty if Russia were to determine that US missile defences threatened its strategic nuclear deterrent. The demand was apparently precipitated by Russian pique over revelations that Romania and Bulgaria were in talks with the United States on hosting US missile defence interceptors and radar on their territories from 2015, as part of the Obama Administration’s comprehensive overhaul of the planned US missile defence system to be based in Europe.

The two sides had previously agreed that the new treaty would have a provision on the ‘interrelationship of strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms’. According to US officials, this reflected a shared understanding that the missile defence issue would be addressed separately from the START follow-on accord. For its part, the Obama Administration has been unwilling to sign any new strategic arms deal that appeared to limit US missile defence options because of concern that this would complicate efforts to garner enough Republican support for the treaty to win ratification by the US Senate.

For the moment Russia appears to be holding up the negotiating end-game in an effort to wrest concessions from Washington on its missile defence plans. It seems reasonable to assume, however, that for the moment at least Russia’s obvious interest in concluding a follow-on agreement to START will outweigh its longer-term concern about US missile defence programmes. There has been some speculation that Russia may attach a ‘unilateral statement’ to the final document laying out its concerns about US missile defences. Similar unilateral statements have been included in previous arms control treaties, and the USA used one in 2002 to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

A re-START for arms control?

As Russia and the United States continue to search for the elusive reset button in their strategic relations, the prospect of their imminent conclusion of a START follow-on agreement suggests that the two sides share mutual interests in moving toward smaller, more transparent strategic nuclear forces. At the same time, important unfinished business remains on the Russia–US arms control agenda. This includes extending the new arms reduction framework to cover the two countries’ extensive inventories of non-deployed strategic nuclear weapons. There should also be renewed attention to addressing Russian and US non-strategic, or tactical, nuclear weapons. These weapons today remain entirely unconstrained by any legally binding agreement regulating their numbers and deployments. Moreover, it seems clear that progress toward deeper cuts in Russian and US nuclear arsenals will require some form of negotiated limits on US missile defence plans. Against this background, what remains to be seen is whether the widely anticipated START follow-on treaty will usher in a new round of deeper arms reductions or will instead become the coda for the end of an era in arms control. 



Shannon N. Kile is a Senior Researcher in the SIPRI Weapons of Mass Destruction Programme.