START Follow-On Talks Successfully Concluded: What’s Next?

Nikolai Sokov
March 25, 2010

START Follow-On Talks: Obama and Medvedev

Obama and Medvedev,
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In agreeing to sign a START replacement treaty, President Barack Obama and Dmitri Mededev not only made an important contribution to bilateral relations, but provided a tangible demonstration of their commitment to work toward the sweeping vision of a nuclear-free world that President Obama offered in Prague a year ago.

The significance of the new treaty, which is to be signed in Prague in first week of April, is not diminished by the fact that it provides for very modest reduction of the two countries’ strategic nuclear arsenals compared to the 2002 Moscow Treaty (also known as SORT, or Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty). Its purpose has been limited from the very beginning: the Treaty of Prague is meant to preserve the essential elements of transparency that were embodied in the expired START I. Essentially, it is a bridge that will provide predictability about the strategic arsenals of the United States and Russia as they engage in more complex and lengthy negotiations on a new treaty that will provide for deeper reductions.

Nor was it a sign of failure that the new treaty was not completed before the expiration of START I on December 5, 2009. The delay can only partially be blamed on negotiators: of greater importance was the delay in beginning the talks themselves.

Russia formally proposed to start talks on a START I replacement as early as 2006, but the Bush Administration took a long time to consider its options. It was only a year later, in July 2007, that US Secretary of State Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov announced an agreement to pursue a new treaty. In October of that year, the parties announced that the new treaty would incorporate elements of START I. Unfortunately, this is where substantive work stopped — throughout 2008 the parties leisurely exchanged public statements, but did not engage in negotiations.

At issue was the format of the future treaty. Washington apparently favored taking the 2002 Moscow Treaty as the model and adding verification and data exchange provisions; Moscow wanted to conclude a “START I Light” — modeling the new treaty after its predecessor, but making it simpler and cheaper. The increasingly acrimonious arguments over the Bush administration’s plan to deploy missile defense assets in Eastern Europe made constructive work even more difficult.

Talks began in earnest only after the advent of the Obama administration, less than a year before the expiration of START I. The talks proved to be more challenging than some had anticipated—if someone thought that negotiators would simply have to review START I and decide which provisions will have to be kept, they were mistaken. Strategic arsenals of the two parties look very different from what they were in the early 1990s. Their nuclear postures and the missions assigned to nuclear weapons are very different as well. New issues had emerged that were not on the agenda then. As a result, even a very modest treaty required significant effort.

Negotiators probably made only one mistake: they should have started full-scale negotiations several months earlier, perhaps in the early summer of 2009. For several months talks were limited to relatively infrequent meetings of chief negotiators while full-scale meetings of delegations began only in September. This was probably one of the main reasons for the delay. In the grand scheme of things, these three or four months do not matter and negotiators on both sides should be complemented for the job well done.

The main stumbling blocks became apparent very early on:

  • Accounting rules. Under the Moscow Treaty, the United States has been implementing reductions primarily through downloading (reducing the number of warheads on each delivery vehicle) while Russia has had to eliminate delivery vehicles that have reached the end of their service life. As a result, the United States enjoys so-called uploading capability — the theoretical ability to return warheads to delivery vehicles and quickly obtain an advantage over Russia.
  • Conventional strategic weapons. The United States is already transforming some of its strategic delivery vehicles to carry conventional warheads and plans to continue and perhaps expand that process; Russia is only beginning to do the same. Dual capability of strategic delivery vehicles had to be factored somehow into the new accounting rules and limits.
  • Defensive weapons. START I did not include any language on defenses: the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was in its waning days and the 1972 ABM Treaty was still in force. Consequently, the Soviet Union limited itself to a unilateral statement about the relationship between offensive and defensive weapons. Things are different today: the United States continues to develop its defensive capability, and Moscow wanted much stronger language on that issue.
  • Verification. Both parties sought to simplify the START I verification system: provisions negotiated in the later 1980s are too cumbersome and expensive for today’s world. In addition, Russia, which continues modernizing its strategic arsenal (the arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union is already years beyond the original service life) believes that the United States obtains disproportionately more information under those provisions, and it wanted to eliminate some activities, which Washington believed essential, such as the exchange of telemetry information and the permanent presence of US inspectors at the main Russian missile-producing plant.

Judging by publicly available information, negotiators succeeded in finding compromises on these and many other issues, but these solutions are of temporary nature. These temporary measures will work for several years, but more permanent, long-term decisions must be developed at the next stage of talks.

Some issues were not tackled at all. Two among them stand out:

  • Accounting for and limitation of nuclear warhead stockpiles. START I, like all other US-Soviet and US-Russian treaties, only truly limited delivery vehicles whereas warheads were limited indirectly — through agreed accounting rules. It is high time to change the focus and fully address warheads themselves, including non-deployed warheads. Among other advantages, this method will help to solve the problems of uploading capability and of conventionally armed delivery vehicles. Yet the new focus will require very delicate and probably lengthy negotiations to develop brand-new rules and verification procedures.Tactical (non-strategic) nuclear weapons were not covered in START I at all and consequently have remained outside the Treaty of Prague as well. These weapons are not subject to any legally binding limits or verification. This is also a novel task that will require much time and effort. Leaving them out of the “bridge” treaty is justifiable, but this element of nuclear postures cannot be kept in limbo for very long.
  • Other nuclear powers. As the United States and Russia continue to reduce their nuclear arsenals, experts and many officials are beginning to contemplate when and how other nuclear powers (in particular the “official” ones listed in the Nonproliferation Treaty) will join arms reduction talks. The Russian military has been particularly insistent that the next stage of talks should be multilateral.

US and Russian negotiators have successfully concluded difficult negotiations. The next stage, which promises to be equally, if not more, challenging is ratification. Yet, both capitals should probably start thinking about the next stage of nuclear arms reduction as early as possible. It seems that negotiators will have very little time for vacation after months of overtime in Geneva and national capitals.

Given the unavoidable problems with ratification in both capitals, it might be to the advantage of both parties to announce next talks as early as possible and perhaps to include a list of some areas they plan to address. This might be worthwhile recalling that in the spring of 1990, more than a year before the signing of START I, the parties adopted a joint statement to outline the contours of a follow-on treaty.

A forward-looking agenda of this sort can help Washington and Moscow in two ways. First, it could demonstrate to the international community that the United States and Russia do not intend to stop at the Treaty of Prague and plan to pursue deeper and more comprehensive reductions. Second, it could help deflect some likely objections to the new treaty by promising to address them at the next stage of talks. Perhaps such an agenda could be adopted in a visible and politically tangible way at the upcoming 2010 NPT Review Conference.

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