As New START Enters into Force, Negotiations Are More Challenging

Nikolai Sokov
February 4, 2011

New START Enters into Force: Chief negotiators of New START: Rose Gottemoeller and Anatoli Antonov

Chief negotiators of New START: Rose Gottemoeller and Anatoli Antonov,
Source: WikiMedia Commons

The February 5 exchange of ratification documents for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov marks the end of nearly two years of negotiations and ratification efforts. The entry into force of the treaty signed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev in April 2010 in Prague provides an opportunity for reflection about the treaty itself, the reasons for long and tortuous debates in the U.S. and Russian legislatures, and the next steps in U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control.

The Meaning of New START

It has become a commonplace idea that New START is a treaty with limited purposes. While it mandates limits approximately 30 percent below those established by the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT, also known as the Moscow Treaty), the United States and Russian arsenals were poised to shrink to about the same levels, and the two countries’ strategic postures would have been about the same with or without New START. There is little of substance that either party has conceded during the course of the negotiations.

The main purpose of New START was — and remains — different: this is not so much a nuclear disarmament measure, but a tool to restore, in a modified form, the transparency regime that expired in December 2009 together with START I, the treaty signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in July 1991. In fact, transparency has greater value today than limitation and reduction of arsenals themselves — neither the United States nor Russia fear a nuclear war to the same degree as was the case during the Cold War. The old problems of strategic stability, first-strike capability, and other similar “games” nuclear strategists played for several decades are now of little interest. Traditional calculations are still performed — and Russia pays more attention to them than the United States — but they no longer preoccupy policy makers in either capital. Above all, the two nuclear powers need transparency, which guarantees against unpleasant surprises and provides predictability to the strategic balance.

While they achieved the goal of transparency, negotiators put off the many difficult issues that would stand in the way of deeper cuts. It was clear to both governments and to negotiators that these “difficult” issues would not disappear; they were simply not an immediate concern, contrary to what one might hear from official and unofficial statements. For example, for all the public expressions of concern by the Russian military about U.S. missile defense plans, the Russian military leadership is not really concerned about the defenses against short- and medium-range missiles that the United States plans to deploy in the near future. Their worries center on the deployment of SM-IIA interceptors, which could theoretically intercept Russian strategic missiles; the deployment of these defenses is only scheduled to begin in 2018. Similarly, the planned U.S. Prompt Global Strike capability, particularly the use of conventional warheads on long-range ballistic missiles, is not yet at the stage that it could even theoretically present an immediate threat to Russia, if it ever could. Much of the ongoing controversy and sometimes heated debates between the United States and Russia are about possibilities rather than capabilities.

In these circumstances, negotiators chose the only approach that could work — to temporize. Effectively, the most difficult issues were left for future dialogue between the governments or for discussions in the Bilateral Implementation Commission established by the new treaty.

The second important role of New START is to serve as a “bridge” to a new treaty. With its 10-year term and guaranteed transparency and predictability, the treaty ensures a stable environment in which the parties could pursue more difficult follow-on negotiations. In the absence of a solid data exchange and verification regime (something that SORT, which still remains in force does not provide) more comprehensive talks would have been infinitely more difficult and could perhaps even fail. Thus, the course of action chosen by diplomats made sense — first quickly agree on a relatively simple treaty (although it did take several months longer than originally anticipated), then negotiate a more comprehensive agreement.

Ratification Debacle

Given the limited purposes of the treaty, the difficulties encountered during the ratification process might seem surprising. Ratification took almost as long as the negotiations themselves.

What happened was that a number of U.S. Senators, for one reason or the other, sought to “open up” the issues negotiators postponed for the future and to codify, in no uncertain terms, what remained implicit in the text — for example, that New START does not limit U.S. efforts to deploy missile defense or long-range conventional assets. These and a range of other issues, which were supposed to be discussed between the two governments or in the Bilateral Implementation Commission during the implementation of the treaty at a later date, were now brought into the spotlight even before the treaty entered into force. The administration was forced to publicly confirm what apparently was the tacit understanding between the two parties — an understanding that did not satisfy either, but was sufficiently comfortable for both. In effect, the Senate resolution pressed on all the sore spots of the Russian approach to nuclear arms control.

This unexpected turn of events in the United States inevitably caused a reaction in the Russian parliament, which initially (clearly with the prodding of the executive branch) planned to adopt a simple, one-paragraph resolution of ratification. Instead, Russian lawmakers hastily adopted a mirror resolution, which laid out an opposing, Russian view on the same issues.

The conflicts that surrounded ratification of New START did not, of course, affect the original design, but the implementation of the new treaty will now begin in a more contentious atmosphere. Conflicts over interpretations and clashes of points of view in the Bilateral Implementation Commission now seem more likely.

What Happens Next? And When?

It is widely expected that now that New START has entered into force the United States and Russia will launch new negotiations on the next stage of nuclear arms reductions. In fact, the Obama administration is obligated by the Senate resolution of ratification to begin talks with Russia on tactical nuclear weapons this year. It has been rumored that the State Department began drafting a position on new talks last year and it is widely assumed that the next stage will feature a shift to a new framework — the focus will reportedly be on limiting stockpiles of nuclear warheads instead of the START tradition that centered on limiting delivery vehicles and associated warheads calculated through special rules of attribution.

Much of the agenda of new talks will be taken up by issues that remained unresolved in New START, such as missile defense and conventional strategic weapons. Or, rather, Russia can be reliably expected to push these issues while the United States will resist their inclusion into the next treaty.

In contrast to Washington’s impatience, Moscow apparently prefers to take a pause. One statement after another from Russian officials declare that it is necessary to see how New START is implemented before new talks are launched; this suggests at least a two or three years delay. American insistence on a dialogue on tactical nuclear weapons has already been met with a long list of conditions — according to statements emanating from the Foreign Ministry, such dialogue should not only include complete withdrawal of the remaining U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe — a traditional condition that has been used by Russia for more than a decade to avoid such negotiations, — but also by demands that these weapons be linked to conventional force balance in Europe and limiting long-range conventional assets, missile defense, and even (yet to be developed) space weapons. The long list of conditions is clearly non-negotiable and only suggests an attempt to stall.

The Senate’s insistence on early talks on tactical nuclear weapons, in fact, puts American negotiators at a disadvantage. To implement the instruction they will have to ask Moscow for talks while the latter can stall, advance conditions, and will perhaps try to obtain tangible concessions in exchange for a mere agreement to begin discussions without any guarantee of success.

There are two reasons why Russia appears to enter a period of limbo: first, it is lost and does not know what it should seek in negotiations; second, it is reluctant to negotiate with the Obama administration.

The traditional agenda that informed several decades of SALT and START talks is almost exhausted. Strategic nuclear balance is no longer the central preoccupation of either party. The Russian military are instead concerned primarily about U.S. capability to wage conventional wars — in scenarios similar to the wars in Kosovo and Iraq. Moreover, the distribution of power in the world is shifting, and the traditional bilateral framework might no longer be applicable. Hence voices can be heard from Moscow about the need to include other nuclear powers into negotiations, but no one seems to know when and how. An interesting clue was contained in the Communist Party draft of the Duma’s New START ratification resolution — it suggests that at least some military officials in Russia believe that British and French arsenals might begin to affect the bilateral balance at the New START limit of 1,550 when the combined deployed arsenal of these two countries reaches the level of 600 deployed warheads or more. The “China factor” remains an enigma and there is no indication whether it has been quantified; it is clear, however, that this is emerging as the second most important security concern for Russian officials, trailing only that of the relationship with the United States.

Another reason why Russia is not in a hurry to seriously entertain new negotiations is the political situation in the United States. The outcome of the Senate vote on New START and Republican gains in the U.S. midterm elections were seen in Moscow as evidence that the Obama administration will find it hard to push through the Senate treaties it can negotiate and sign. An obvious conclusion is to wait until the next presidential election in the United States before undertaking new talks. Otherwise, any concessions made to Obama team will be pocketed by the next administration and Moscow would be forced to renegotiate a half-baked treaty from a weakened position.

An example that obviously comes to mind (although this bit of history may not be remembered by today’s Moscow policymakers) is the handling of SALT II during the transition from the Ford to the Carter administrations. After the successful signing of the Vladivostok framework in 1974, the politically weakened Ford administration began to drag its feet and in March 1977 the newly elected Carter administration proposed a revised framework. Effectively, the Russians fear a repetition of that conundrum, even if they do not necessarily remember it.

Thus, Russia is likely stall and avoid disclosing its “real” position until it becomes clearer who might be elected president in 2012. In contrast, the upcoming Russian presidential elections, which will take place in spring of 2012, will hardly affect internal discussions about the next stage of negotiations. The intrigue surrounding the choice of the next president is not very relevant to foreign policy and whoever is elected will, in all likelihood, continue the line of the current government. If anything, mid-level officials might become somewhat more cautious than usual (although it is difficult to see how one can be even more cautious) until the fall of 2011.

Options for Moving Ahead

Three broad options for bilateral U.S.-Russian negotiations appear possible. They are different not only by the nature of the proposed agreement, but also by the time required to achieve each of them.

(1) An early agreement (long before the expiration of New START) on modest further reductions, perhaps to the level of about 1,200 deployed warheads.

This option is advantageous because it would demonstrate adherence of the two countries to their disarmament obligations under Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), but at the same time hardly entail significant changes in either the U.S. or the Russian posture. The agreement, however, has to be achieved soon because the political effect from a modest reduction will be lost if negotiations last a decade or so. The negative aspects of this option appear significant, however, because it will still fail to resolve all the difficult issues that New START has avoided. Furthermore, any future agreement will have to include tactical nuclear weapons, but START accounting principles are inapplicable to them; the only feasible option is to have Russia agree to transparency measures, which is hardly possible in the near future.

(2) A more comprehensive agreement with deeper reductions (perhaps to 1,000 warheads on strategic delivery vehicles) involving some limits on nuclear forces of other nuclear-weapon states.

Involvement of other nuclear-weapon states would address an important Russian concern, one increasingly shared by the United States. Other nuclear-weapon states would be asked to accept limited obligations, such as a freeze on their nuclear arsenals and limited transparency. The real target here is, of course, China, which will likely object to any obligations and insist that the United States and Russia should reduce their nuclear arsenals to about Chinese levels before joining multilateral negotiations. This option could lead to an interesting political and diplomatic outcome in which the United States and Russia would find themselves on the same side vis-à-vis other nuclear-weapon states, especially China; in that case, any failure in negotiations could be blamed on the Chinese. The downside is that this option is almost certainly doomed to failure primarily because of Chinese intransigence.

An issue that unavoidably emerges in following this option is what should be done with “unofficial” nuclear-weapon states and how soon they should be included into the process (their arsenals are very small, of course, but it might be politically difficult to leave them outside when all five “official” nuclear states engage in talks). While it is possible to indirectly involve India and Pakistan through unilateral obligations, Israel would present a serious problem because it would be politically difficult (if not impossible) to leave it outside the new negotiations, but joining them would require it to acknowledge possession of nuclear weapons. An additional benefit of this option is increased pressure on Iran and North Korea.

(3) Finally, a treaty — whose negotiation might take a long time — that shifts the focus from accounting by delivery vehicles and reduction of deployed warheads to transparency and possibly also limitations of non-deployed warhead stockpiles.

This option has several important advantages. First, it could further genuine nuclear disarmament and thus represent a new step in the implementation of Article VI. Second, the shift in focus would help to skirt the issue of further reductions in the number of deployed weapons as both sides try to decide on the long-term desirable postures or to limit these reductions to a notional amount. For Russia, the absence of significant reductions in the deployed arsenal might be attractive because it would mitigate the impact of future U.S. missile defense on Russian strategic capability. The United States, for its part, could benefit by removing strategic delivery vehicles with conventional payload from the new system of accounting (although Russia would be sure to object). Third, this option could address the Russian concern about uploading capability — that is, putting more warheads on delivery vehicles than listed in the treaty. If all non-deployed warheads are accounted for, then secret uploading (a big concern of the Russian military) would be impossible. Finally, but no less important, this is the only feasible way to address non-strategic nuclear warheads, all of which are non-deployed and which cannot be covered through the traditional, START-like approach.

A serious challenge would be the structuring of limits on non-deployed warheads. For the United States, an obvious choice is to seek equal limits on stockpiles with freedom to choose the mix of strategic and non-strategic warheads. Russia, however, will want equal limits on strategic warheads to avoid precisely that situation — it will continue insisting on rough strategic parity and the right for a larger non-strategic arsenal that cannot reach U.S. territory; for the United States it would be politically untenable to formally agree to Russia’s right to maintain a larger non-strategic arsenal. At the same time, equal limits on non-strategic warheads that would theoretically allow the United States to increase its non-strategic capability (regardless of whether this right is ever exercised) would also be unacceptable for Russia for symbolic and political reasons. Furthermore, differences in the structures and the standard procedures of nuclear weapons complexes might make it technically difficult to establish equal limits in the first place. Perhaps the best option would be to completely skip establishing firm numerical limits — after all, the treaty will be about non-deployed warheads that cannot be used unless delivered to bases and thus do not represent an immediate threat. Thorough transparency should be sufficient.

The greatest challenge to such an approach would undoubtedly be verification. At a minimum, a verification regime would have to include the ability to monitor the perimeters of storage facilities so that non-deployed warheads cannot be taken out of them secretly as well as to permit baseline inspections of both storage facilities and bases with strategic delivery vehicles in order to establish the number of warheads kept at each location. At a maximum, the regime would involve continuous control of the number of warheads at each facility, control of dismantlement, and control of weapons-grade fissile materials removed from warheads. While this might be challenging for the United States, for Russia allowing this level of transparency for its stockpile has always been be deemed completely unacceptable. In fact, this option will take a long time to negotiate precisely because talking to Russia about data exchange and verification is likely to be an uphill battle at each turn.

Now that New START has entered into force, it can be put in a better perspective. In retrospect, the negotiations no longer seem all that difficult and even ratification was not that much of a challenge, at least compared to the challenges that lie ahead for future negotiations. Even formulating the agenda for the next talks will represent an almost insurmountable obstacle, at least in the next two years. The talks themselves might be even more difficult. Both parties must brace for some very serious work.

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