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Feb. 11: Taking stock of Russian–US arms control after New START

The hard-won entry into force of the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START) between Russia and the United States was, for many arms control and disarmament advocates, a gratifying but underwhelming moment. As probably the last bilateral arms control agreement between the former cold war rivals to focus solely on cutting strategic nuclear weapons, New START was far from a grand finale. But the treaty’s value should not be underestimated, not least as a positive tone-setter for Russian-US relations and as a transition towards more far-reaching nuclear reductions.

(Much) better than nothing

New START’s entry into force on 5 February was accompanied by a palpable sense of relief in both Moscow and Washington. At several moments following its signing by presidents Barrack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in April 2010, the prospects for the treaty’s ratification had looked decidedly uncertain. In the end, however, New START survived its passage through the Russian legislature and the US Senate essentially unchanged.

In doing so, the treaty was likely aided by its own relative lack of ambition. New START commits both countries to cutting their treaty-accountable deployed nuclear warheads to 1550 by 2018, roughly 30 per cent lower than the ceilings agreed in the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT).

The ceiling on deployed strategic nuclear delivery systems (that is, long-range land- and sea-based ballistic missiles and heavy bombers) will be lowered to 700 each, down from the current limit of 1600 mandated by the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I). These new limits have been relatively uncontroversial, in part because they codify current force trends: both Russia and the United States have already reduced their long-range bomber and missile forces to below 1000 delivery vehicles. Russia will in fact have to build up its strategic forces under the treaty to maintain numerical parity with those of the United States.

Nonetheless, New START still merits at least two cheers for arms control. The treaty’s real accomplishment is that it preserves the main elements of the verification and monitoring regime that expired along with START I in December 2009. One of the main concerns driving the New START negotiations was that, without a follow-on treaty, the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the USA—which still account for nearly 95 per cent of global nuclear weapon inventories—were set to become much less transparent to one another. The two sides would have faced a situation similar to that during the cold war, when nuclear force planning decisions were driven by mistrust, misunderstandings and worst-case scenarios.

New START’s monitoring and verification regime resembles the original START regime, although some of the provisions have been streamlined to make them less costly and burdensome to implement. It has also been adjusted to reflect specific differences in the two treaties’ limits. Most notably, New START provides for on-site inspections at missile and submarine bases during which the parties are permitted, for the first time, to count the actual number of re-entry vehicles carried on individual strategic missiles. This reflects a change in the treaty’s attribution or counting rules, under which the warhead count used for each missile will now reflect the number of re-entry vehicles actually emplaced on it.

More generally, the New START verification regime reflects the changing nature of the  relationship between Russia and the United States. It gives relatively greater emphasis to building transparency and co-operation and openness as part of the verification mission.

For example, it provides for the exchange of more information on the numbers, types and locations of items limited by the treaty than under START. It also retains provisions for broadcasting and exchanging telemetry information from strategic missile flight-tests, even though this data is not needed to monitor compliance with any particular limits in New START.

These examples suggest that New START should not be seen as simply the capstone or coda for cold war-era arms control but rather as part of an evolving process in which Russia and the United States are redefining their strategic relationship. It is the continuation of an arms control process that goes back to the 1960s. The overriding goal at that time was to enhance strategic and crisis stability between the two superpowers in the context of their cold war rivalry. Now, of course, the Soviet Union is gone and the cold war is over. But one enduring legacy is an arms control framework that has evolved from one for reducing pre-emptive risks and dangers in a highly adversarial relationship to one for promoting transparency and predictability in a more accommodative relationship. This has involved, first and foremost, the development and gradual expansion of a cooperative verification and monitoring regime.

Next steps and unfinished business

In the wake of New START’s entry into force, there appears to be little appetite in either Moscow or Washington for moving ahead with a new round of nuclear arms reductions. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted recently as saying that ‘before talking about any further steps in the sphere of nuclear disarmament, it is necessary to fulfill the New START agreement’.

On the US side, there is reluctance to consider deeper cuts, in part because, after the struggle with the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the Obama Administration has no interest at the moment in making major changes in nuclear doctrine or force postures. More generally, the political landscape in Washington has been transformed since 2009 in a way that will make it difficult for the administration to move ahead with any initiatives in arms control and disarmament.

There remains important unfinished business on the Russia-US arms control agenda. The most immediate goal is likely to be opening talks aimed at limiting and reducing the two countries’ stockpiles of thousands of non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons and non-deployed warheads, which are currently unconstrained by any legally binding arms control measures. The time is also ripe to renew discussions about establishing a nuclear warhead dismantlement regime that would ‘lock in’, or make irreversible, mandated force reductions by requiring the parties to verifiably eliminate the nuclear warheads withdrawn from deployment.

The next steps in Russian-US nuclear reductions are likely to be considerably more difficult to negotiate than the incremental reductions codified in New START. Further cuts in the Russian and US nuclear arsenals will require expanding the bilateral agenda to address broader strategic stability issues related to ballistic missile defence, space weapons and conventionally armed strategic launchers. Furthermore, a move towards very deep reductions will almost certainly have to bring in the other nuclear weapon states.

Seen against this background, the modest near-term steps codified in New START are basically preparatory in nature. But the important thing is that they head us in the right direction—that is, forward—for what will be a much longer-term process of making deep reductions in US-Russian nuclear forces and eventually leading to an enlarged multilateral reduction process.

About the author

Shannon N. Kile (USA) is a Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Arms Control and Non-proliferation Programme. His principal areas of research are nuclear arms control and non-proliferation with a special interest in Iran and North Korea. He has contributed to numerous SIPRI publications, including chapters on nuclear arms control and nuclear forces and weapon technology for the SIPRI Yearbook since 1995.


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