New START: Preliminary Thoughts in Moscow

Alexander A. Pikayev
April 7, 2010

A View from Moscow

New START Preliminary Thoughts in Moscow: Obama Medvedev Sign Prague Treaty 2010

Obama and Medvedev Sign Prague Treaty 2010,
Source: Wikimedia Commons

On April 8, 2010, US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev will sign a new Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (New-START) in Prague. The new agreement should provide continuity with the START I agreement, the only comprehensive post-Cold War strategic arms control treaty to enter into force. START I was concluded in 1991 between the Soviet Union and the United States; it entered into force in December 1994 (after the establishment of the Russian Federation) and expired 15 years later on December 5, 2009. START II, which was concluded in January 1993, never entered into force while consultations on a possible START III, which were conducted in the late 1990s, did not result in a treaty. The 2002 Moscow Treaty, also known as SORT, contains major shortcomings as in the following descriptions.

After START I’s expiration, the US and Russian sides failed to agree on informally observing its restrictions; they only pledged to act “in the spirit” of the treaty. In diplomatic language this does not signify a legally binding commitment. Therefore, since December 5—and until the new treaty enters into force—the United States and Russia have been regulating their strategic deterrence relationship only through SORT. This two-page document does not contain a verification regime or any other provisions traditionally included in strategic arms control agreements (counting rules, reduction rules, definitions, etc.). For verification, SORT relied solely on START I. Thus, since START I expired, there has been no formal bilateral verification and transparency regime governing the two nations’ nuclear forces. The new agreement to be signed in Prague will supersede SORT, which otherwise would have been in force until 2012.

Known Facts

So far, neither side has provided much detail on the new agreement. In Russia, even the names of the members of the delegation and relevant experts remained unpublished. However, the treaty is understood to be quite a substantial document—about 200 pages long. The agreement itself has roughly 20 pages and consists of 16 articles. The rest of the text consists of a verification protocol and technical annexes. The treaty is set to last for ten years, with slated reductions completed in seven years. A Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC) will monitor compliance with its terms.

The New-START will represent a “first” in two ways:

  • It is the first bilateral US-Russian strategic arms control agreement. The START I agreement, which was negotiated as a bilateral US-Soviet document, was transformed into a five-party treaty after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Beyond the United States and Russia, three other Soviet successor states, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, were recognized as parties to that treaty.
  • It is the first agreement in the history of US-Soviet/Russian arms control, where the text will not be fully ready by the time it is signed by the presidents. Negotiators continue to hash out some language in the technical annexes and hope to finish the work by the end of April. The unusual situation reflects the time pressure under which negotiators were operating. The talks formally started on May 19, 2009 and were intended to end by December 5, the date when START I expired. Even though the original deadline was missed, the negotiators had spent only slightly more than 10 months hammering out the terms of the treaty by the time the Kremlin and the White House announced that the agreement was achieved (on March 26 Moscow time and March 25 Washington time). In contrast, negotiating START I took 9 years.

(As a side note, the deal was announced on the birthday of US chief negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller.)

Like all previous strategic arms control agreements, New-START limits the number of the following that each side may possess:

  • Strategic nuclear delivery vehicles (SNDVs)
  • Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)
  • Submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs)
  • Heavy bombers that each side may possess

The permitted number for deployed SNDVs is set at the lowest level in history of bilateral strategic arms control — 700. START I permitted each side to possess up to 1600 vehicles. For the first time, a limit on non-deployed SNDVs was established. Each side may possess no more than 800 deployed and non-deployed vehicles.

The treaty contains provisions limiting SNDVs converted for non-nuclear missions. Exact details are not known yet, but statements from Russian officials indicate that the converted vehicles will be accounted for within the overall ceilings (700-800 vehicles). Any conversion will be strictly verified. START I permitted limited and verifiable conversion of heavy bombers; New-START also permits conversion of strategic ballistic missiles.


Like previous US-Russian strategic arms control agreements, the new treaty does not require elimination of warheads as delivery vehicles are reduced. Warheads removed from reduced SNDV can be eliminated or stored at each Party’s discretion. As with other treaties, there will be no verification regime to establish what has happened with the removed warheads.

As with START I, the new treaty includes special and rather complicated accounting rules for determining the number of warheads falling under the 1,550 limit. These rules are such that these and other limits are sometimes even more artificial than START I, particularly when it comes to heavy bombers. Every heavy bomber will be counted as one warhead. In real life, one of these planes could carry often more than ten gravity bombs, short-range air missiles (SRAMs), or/and Air-Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCMs). For instance, a Russian Tu-95 MS 6 Bear bomber could carry 6 ALCMs, and Tu-95 MS 16 could carry 16 ALCMs. All US strategic bombers can also deliver much more than one warhead. In START I, only the bombers carrying gravity bombs and SRAMs were counted as one warhead while strategic aircraft equipped with ALCMs could carry 10 (for the United States) or 8 (for the Soviet Union) warheads each. START II, which was never ratified, actually provided for “real” accounting, meaning that it counted as many warheads against the limit as each heavy bomber actually was capable of carrying.

It is still not completely clear how the parties resolved the issue of downloading. While reductions will be primarily carried out by eliminating SNDVs (and thus removing from the count a corresponding number of warheads), previous agreements also allowed so-called downloading — removing some number of warheads from SNDVs so that a lower number of warheads could be attributed to a carrier. In some cases (in START I in particular) this was accompanied by measures aimed at preventing the rapid return of the warheads to the missiles. Although the reduction rules and procedures for the new agreement have not been published yet, the considerable discrepancy between the current ceilings (more than 5000 deployed strategic warheads for the United States under START I counting rules) and the limits contained in the New-START (1550 deployed warheads), suggest that the new treaty most likely contains more liberal rules and procedures of reductions than was the case in START I. Together with more flexible counting rules for heavy bombers and, perhaps, some ballistic missiles, this seems to indicate that the low official figures touted for deployed warheads camouflage much higher real deployments. Indeed, it is very likely that in fact strategic arsenals of each party could accommodate more than 2000 warheads rather than the stated figure of 1550.

The New-START verification regime is less extensive than that of the START I. Simply in page length alone, the new verification protocol is half the size of its START I equivalent. The new treaty also reduced the number of different types of inspections that will be carried out to verify compliance. According to Konstantin Kosachev, chair of the Duma Foreign Relations Committee, previous agreements were based on the Russian proverb “Trust but Verify.” This treaty relies on an opposite maxim, Kosachev said, “Verify but Trust.”

Again, the details of the streamlined verification regime are not known yet. However, leaks during the talks and discussions with senior officials in both countries suggest that two issues were of major importance during the negotiations. The first was whether to continue monitoring at missile production facilities. Under START I, the United States and Russia could maintain a permanent presence at one of the other party’s production facilities. However, due to a halt in US production of new strategic missiles, for the last decade the Russians have effectively stopped exercising their right while US personnel continued to monitor the Russian plant at Votkinsk. After the expiration of START I, US inspectors had to leave the plant. As a result of the talks, they will not return.

Data Exchange

The second issue was the exchange of telemetry data from missile tests. Due to the absence of such tests in the United States, the Russians complained that this had turned into a one-sided restriction imposed on Moscow. Most likely, the real concern was that the telemetry data from Russian tests could be used for developing US missile interceptors against Russia’s missiles. The final deal provided for exchange of a limited (and voluntarily chosen) amount of telemetry data.

Missile Defense

Missile defense was another sensitive issue. As early as their first summit on April 1, 2009, Obama and Medvedev agreed that the new treaty would contain a provision recognizing an interdependence between strategic offense and defense. During the treaty negotiations, however, the United States sought to focus New-START exclusively on offensive weapons and only agreed to mention this relationship in the preamble in order to avoid imposing practical restrictions on its missile defense programs. Russia’s approach was almost precisely the opposite.

As a result of negotiations, New-START mentions the interdependence between offense and defense in the preamble, but it also contains several other references to missile defense. Particularly, Article V of the treaty prohibits conversion of missile defense launchers into offensive ballistic missiles. This takes into account a Russian concern, that the Ground Based Interceptors deployed in Alaska and California for the US missile defense system utilize stages from the Minutemen ICBM and could be placed in ballistic missile silos, making the opposite conversion possible (i.e., the United States could theoretically, Russians believed, convert missile defense missiles into offensive ones). The prohibition is verifiable.

Balance of Interests

The majority of Russian experts share the view that the Bush administration’s approach to arms control was informed by a belief that due to an asymmetry in US and Russian economic capabilities, Moscow would not be able to maintain its strategic deterrent forces. Therefore, the United States was not interested in limiting its strategic weapons in order to impose restrictions on the Russian strategic deterrent and evinced little interest in negotiating a successor to the START I agreement. After all, the administration contended, the Russian stockpile would decline with or without an arms control agreement. The George W. Bush administration also did not perceive a need for formalized transparency in order to have a verifiable glimpse into Russia’s strategic posture.

However, after the Bush administration unilaterally withdrew from the 1972 US-Russian Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, Moscow has had to pay more attention to its strategic nuclear modernization. The new Sineva SLBM was commissioned; another SLBM type, Bulava, is undergoing testing and could be commissioned in 2010 or 2011. The construction of two new strategic Borei-class submarines has been completed and they are ready to receive Bulava missiles. A new MIRVed (1) RS-24 Yagr ICBM has been successfully tested. And in 2016, it is expected that a new heavy ICBM will be commissioned to replace the SS-18 “Satan.”

Therefore, without New-START the United States risked losing access to the Russian strategic forces at a time when they are undergoing radical modernization. Moreover, deployment of new MIRVed ICBMs, especially after 2016, could lead to a significant — and unlimited – build up in Russian strategic forces. This could affect not only bilateral balance, but broader US nonproliferation interests as well.

The change in the US position toward a new agreement represents a symbolic victory for Russia. Moscow is no longer treated as a second-rate power, and Washington has had to accept the need to maintain a cooperative and “equal” relationship with it in strategic nuclear field. The new treaty also helps Moscow to save money on nuclear modernization. Only 65 of Russia’s currently deployed 385 ICBMs (carrying 1357 warheads under the START I counting rules) were produced after the Soviet collapse; they are all single-warhead Topol M SS-27 missiles. The majority of the remaining ICBMs (carrying 1292 warheads) should be decommissioned in this decade as they reach the end of their service lives.

The new reductions and the successful development of a new MIRVed ICBMs makes the task of continuing to field a US-equivalent arsenal quite feasible. For instance, if the new ICBM were to possess six warheads, Russia would only need to produce 22 such missiles annually this decade in order to replace all the ICBMs that will be retired from service. The New-START will permit Russia to maintain an even lower rate of production and thus save money.

Also, the new agreement does not require Moscow to make additional reductions compared with known national plans. Under some estimates, by 2015 the number of Russian SNDVs could fall to 500 because they have reached the end of their service lifetimes. An agreed ceiling at 700 deployed vehicles might even invite Moscow to increase strategic deployments above original plans.

In return, Russia had to accept liberal counting rules and procedures for reductions. Most likely, these will enable the United States to maintain superiority over the Russians in a number of de facto deployed strategic warheads and even greater superiority in uploading capability. Under the START I counting rules, Russia already possesses approximately 2000 fewer strategic warheads than the United States.

At the same time, the relatively low limit on deployed and non-deployed SNDVs permits Moscow to alleviate concerns that the United States could take advantage of its ability to potentially upload many currently stored warheads onto ballistic missiles that are not fully loaded. Due to asymmetries in the amount of deployed MIRVed ballistic missiles, the United States could theoretically return many more downloaded warheads from storage back to their carriers within a short period of time. The fewer SNDVs permitted, the less possibility that Washington could have a breakout capability.

Russia also made concessions on the timing and location for a treaty signing ceremony. The date of April 8 was clearly aimed at fulfilling the interest of the Obama administration in signing an agreement before the April 12-13 nuclear summit in Washington. A clear sign of this urgency, as mentioned above, is that this will mark the first time in history that the presidents will sign an incomplete set of documents.

Regarding the place, Moscow would clearly have preferred the capital of a non-NATO nation, like Helsinki or Vienna. In March 2010, Viktor Yanukovich, the newly elected President of Ukraine, suggested arranging the signing ceremony in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. Russia supported that initiative. Prague—a new NATO member—was not a desirable location for Moscow as it is associated with NATO’s eastward enlargement, for many years anathema to the Kremlin. Also, reportedly, there are plans to deploy a command post of the future US European missile defense in the Czech Republic.

In contrast, the Obama administration values the symbolism of Prague. It was in Prague that President Obama a year ago called for the first time for a nuclear-weapons free world. Thus, for him, it is an appropriate place to show, by the signing of the New-START, that his policy towards nuclear disarmament has brought its first fruits.

Furthermore, choosing a Central European city as the signing site is also likely a gesture aimed at convincing regional governments that they could benefit from better US-Russian relations. In 2009, officials and former officials of these countries expressed their concern that the reset in relations between Moscow and Washington might affect their interests and security. Moreover, several Central European states took steps that could be interpreted as deliberate attempts to undermine the New-START negotiations during their most sensitive final stage. For example, in October 2009 Poland declared that it would deploy US Patriot air-defense systems on its territory. Later, a decision was made to move the Patriot deployment area from Warsaw to the Baltic Sea coast close to the Russian border. From a strictly military viewpoint, this move could be regarded as counterproductive since it would reduce the area of Polish territory covered by the new system. Yet Poland decided to make that move nonetheless. In February 2010, Romania announced its decision to approve the deployment of US anti-missile SM-3 interceptors. Although neither Patriots nor SM-3s can intercept strategic missiles, the decisions negatively affected the political environment around the New-START talks, which were already stalled over issues related to missile defense.

Politics and Reactions in Russia

In Russia, like in the United States, negotiations and debates were and remain affected by interagency competition and ideology. In late 2009 there were indications of a toughening in Moscow’s position at the negotiations. Possibly, this could be explained not only as a negotiating tactic, but also by the higher profile military started to play in the decision-making. Anatoly Serdyukov, the Defense Minister, is the son-in-law of Viktor Zubkov, the Vice Prime Minister. In 1990s the latter occupied a position of head of St Petersburg’s tax police, when Vladimir Putin was a Vice Mayor of the city.

Some commentators saw remarks by Prime Minister Putin about the New-START negotiations, which he made in late December 2009, as evidence of a competition between offices of the President and the Prime Minister (see previous brief on this issue). To be sure, it later became clear that the remarks did not affect Russia’s negotiating position. Nonetheless, the remarks could hint at the presence of different attitudes within the decision-making community.

It is likely that Russian negotiators received different messages from different power bases in Russia. Otherwise, it is difficult to explain why on February 23, 2010 President Medvedev took the unusual step of inviting into his country residence Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Anatoly Antonov, the head of Russian New-START delegation. Probably, he wanted to overcome bureaucratic inertia and competition by demonstrating his support to the Foreign Ministry and by giving his personal clear instructions to the head of the delegation. After that meeting, the talks moved ahead smoothly.

It should be mentioned that both the US and Russian Presidents made significant personal efforts to keep the negotiations moving forward. According to available data, between April 2009 and March 2010 they discussed the treaty 14 times, both in person and by telephone. This represents an unprecedented level of involvement of the presidents in the history of US-Russian arms control negotiations. They talked to each other almost every three weeks.

The involvement of Prime Minister Putin was also necessary. Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, visited Moscow on March 17-19, 2010 with the aim, among other things, to settle the few remaining disagreements over the new treaty. However, her meeting with a Russian counterpart did not bring solutions. Before the departure she attended a hastily arranged meeting with the Prime Minister Putin. Perhaps, this effort provided the final green light; within a week, both powers announced that the agreement was completed.

The March 29 terrorist attacks in the Moscow metro have distracted media and public attention from the treaty. Still, there seems to have been little criticism so far among mainstream commentators, including Sergei Karaganov and Alexei Pushkov, known by their links to the Office of Prime Minister, who last year criticized the negotiations. It is likely that the recent lack of the mainstream criticism reflects a consensus in favor of the new agreement so far among major sources of power in Russia.

The treaty was openly attacked by conservative observers, like retired General Leonid Ivashov, formerly head of directorate for the Russian Armed Forces General Staff. His arguments were centered on missile defense and in his view a mistaken policy of nuclear disarmament at a time when NATO possesses significant conventional superiority over Russia in Europe. Although some conservative military officers share his opinion, it is unlikely to be supported by the mainstream media or decision-makers.

Russian authorities stated that Russia’s ratification of the treaty would be synchronized with the treaty approval process in US Senate. This might mean that Russia’s legislature will spend months on hearings and discussions in the parliamentary committees and in drafting the ratification resolution, but that the final vote will be postponed until US lawmakers are close to a decision.

In Russia, ratification of international agreements requires simple majority of votes in both houses of the Federal Assembly (the Russian Parliament) — the State Duma and the Federation Council. The President submits the draft ratification law to the Duma. The House discusses it. In the past, during ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997, the START II and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 2000, the Duma negotiated substantive amendments to the presidential draft. It is likely, that amendments, particularly on missile defense will be discussed this time again.

After the Duma approves the law on the ratification, the legislation goes to the upper house — the Federation Council. It could approve or disapprove the document, without changing its content. The members of the Council could participate in re-drafting the document informally, when it is discussed in the Duma before its approval at the lower house. Or they have right to disapprove the agreement as a whole. In the latter case, the Duma could overrule the veto by two-thirds majority. If there were not enough votes, a conference would be called to settle the disagreements. In that case, the Council members could officially participate in revisiting the document text. After approval by both houses, the law is signed by the President and enters into force after the instruments of ratification are deposited.

Due to Russian political realities and given the constitutional majority the pro-government party enjoys in the Duma, there are little doubts that the treaty would be ratified should the executive power decide so. However, Medvedev and Putin’s control over the party is not one of a strict military type hierarchy. The deputies have already expressed their disappointment in the secretive nature of the talks. As a result, on April 2, 2010, President Medvedev during his meeting with leaders of the parliamentary parties briefed them behind closed doors on details of the new agreement.

As in the United States, it will be important for Russia to ratify New-START this year. Russia’s presidential elections will take place in March 2012. In 2011 the ruling class should choose its candidate(s) and in this pre-electoral context, the emergence of domestic political surprises is likely. One could also expect growing competition between groups and institutions supporting various potential candidates. In such a situation, the new treaty might become hostage to electoral fever.


(1) MIRV — Multiple Independently Targeted Re-Entry Vehicle.

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