Current Prospects For START II Ratification and START III Talks – The 1998 Moscow Summit

August 31, 1998
Nikolai Sokov

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At first glance, the long-running saga of START II ratification appears to have no end in sight. The Russian Duma continues to postpone consideration of the treaty, which was signed in January 1993, and opposition to it appears to be as strong as ever.

Beneath the surface, however, new developments have been taking place that improve the chances that Russia will ratify START II. Apparently, the Yeltsin administration and the Duma have reached a tacit consensus on a ratification package. Grudgingly, the Duma opposition has reconciled itself to the idea that the treaty must be ratified on its merits.

This tacit consensus does not mean that ratification is assured, however. The key impediment now is the Russian domestic political situation. Early in 1998, the Duma appeared poised to ratify START II, but in March 1998, Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly appointed a new Prime Minister, Sergei Kiriyenko, and forced the Duma to approve the nomination by threatening to dissolve the lower house of the parliament. Since Yeltsin had repeatedly promised US President Bill Clinton that START II would be ratified quickly , delaying the ratification of START II was the most convenient means for the humiliated legislators to “repay” the president.

Having decided to postpone the debate on START II ratification until the fall, the Duma once again has a new Prime Minister to consider: the veteran Viktor Chernomyrdin, who was abruptly nominated by President Yeltsin on 22 August 1998. It is not inconceivable that START II might again get entangled in Russian domestic politics. Given the current political uncertainty in Moscow, it is virtually impossible to predict the fate of START II.

Despite this uncertainty, the outline of the START II ratification package that the Duma might pass is now reasonably clear. Naturally, variations could be introduced at the last moment. The package will consist of a series of conditions attached to the ratification of START II. Like those included in the ratification package passed by the US Senate in January 1996, these conditions will be binding for the Russian government, but will not require renegotiation of the treaty itself.

The package is likely to contain three main elements:

(1) A series of provisions related to the modernization of Russian strategic nuclear forces. These will include an outline of Russias future strategic posture, guidelines for the evolution of the strategic triad (to be submitted by the government), and budget allocations to fund these plans (the figures will be submitted by the government, and the Duma will declare the relevant budget lines “untouchable”).

(2) A confirmation of Russia’s adherence to the 1972 ABM Treaty and a declaration that should the United States withdraw from the ABM Treaty, START II would become null and void. Here several options are being considered. The “softest” language would obligate the Russian government to consult with the Duma about an appropriate response should the United States withdraw from the ABM Treaty. A “tougher” version would make Russian withdrawal from START II automatic if the ABM Treaty is abrogated. The “strongest” approach would require that START II enter into force only after the US Senate ratifies the September 1997 ABM demarcation agreements. This approach will all but doom START II, since the US Senate may well reject the ABM demarcation agreements. It could, however, be used by the opposition in the Duma to shift the blame for the failure of START II to the United States, while simultaneously ensuring that the treaty never formally enters into force.

(3) Provisions pertaining to the continued reduction of strategic nuclear weapons. Owing to financial and economic constraints, Russia cannot reach the START II ceilings, so the treaty makes strategic sense for Russia primarily as a precursor to START III. The “softest” variant would call on the United States to negotiate a follow-on START III agreement as soon as possible. A “tougher” version could make the signing of a framework for START III a condition of START II entering into force. Such a framework agreement on START III would include an aggregate limit on the number of warheads, sublimits on ICBMs and SLBMs if appropriate, and key verification and transparency provisions.

The ratification package which ultimately passes the Duma could include a provision requiring the deployment of multiple warheads (MIRVs) on the new Topol-M, the mainstay of the future Russian ICBM force, if the United States withdraws from the ABM Treaty. (START II bans multiple warhead ICBMs.) Even if this topic is not directly addressed in the ratification package, the Russian military leadership will mention MIRVing as possible response to US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty during the parliamentary hearings on START II. In essence, a promise that MIRVs will be deployed on Topol-M if necessary was a key condition to get the right-wing opposition in the Duma to soften its opposition to START II. Russian military officials have already testified that the Topol-M could be equipped with up to five warheads.

In other respects, the program of development for Russian strategic forces will hardly contain any surprises. It will proceed from the optimal production capacity of missile- and submarine-producing plants. Topol-M, deployed in two basing modes (mobile and silo-based), will remain the only ICBM. The program will provide for continued construction of new Borey class (Project 955) SSBNs and a new SLBM (most likely, with four to six warheads). The program is also likely to include research on a new heavy bomber. In other words, this program will combine the maximum of what the military wants and the minimum that is required to obtain support for START II in the Duma. Actual spending on these modernization programs, however, is likely to be lower than the official plan. For example, funding for the Topol-M program was declared “untouchable” in last years budget, but was later cut anyway.

The provisions of the START II ratification package that address the START III negotiations represent a tricky point. The official US position is that negotiations on START III can begin only after START II has been ratified. It is common knowledge, however, that unofficial consultations on START III have been underway since at least the fall of 1997 and certain key provisions are already being discussed. The Yeltsin administration is likely to use these unofficial consultations to fend off demands from the Duma that a “framework” agreement on START III must be signed before START II enters into force. As a result, the START II ratification package seems likely to include softer language on START III.

The guidelines for the START III negotiations will be determined by the program for the development of the Russian strategic forces. When this program is officially submitted by the Russian government to the Duma, it will probably provide for a warhead ceiling lower than the 2,500 warhead limit agreed by Clinton and Yeltsin at their March 1997 Helsinki summit. Russia will hardly be able to reach even these, lower figures in the near future. Instead, Moscow may reconcile itself to having fewer warheads than the United States or gradually build up to the START III level later, depending on the state of its relations with the West. Beyond that, the Duma might instruct the government to seek provisions in START III that would ensure lower implementation and verification costs than will be required by START II.

On the other hand, if for some reason the Duma does not ratify START II, which is by no means impossible, little if anything will change in the current nuclear policy of the Russian government. Russia will continue to comply with START II for at least another two or three years. Regardless of its legal status, START II and, even more, the hopes for START III fully match the strategic concept developed by the Russian military in the last few years: guaranteed second strike capability based on survivability of delivery vehicles and ability to penetrate defense systems. MIRVed ICBMs, which Russia inherited from the Soviet Union, are simply not needed to implement this concept, even though they could be kept operational until approximately 2008-2010 (thus allowing Russia to maintain a total of 4,000-4,500 warheads using START II accounting rules).

If START II is not ratified by 2000, the next president, who is supposed to be elected that year, will have to make a difficult decision about long-term policy regarding START. By that time, Russia will no longer be able to temporize. It will have to decide whether to keep its existing MIRVed ICBMs or eliminate them, and it will also have to decide whether to begin research and development work on a new MIRVed ICBM. It is difficult to predict how the next president will proceed both because of the uncertain domestic political situation and because much will depend on whether the United States choses to deploy at least elementary strategic defenses.

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