START Follow on Treaty: Deadlines and Deadlocks

Alexander A. Pikayev
January 19, 2010

START Follow on Treaty: Presidents Medvedev and Obama

Presidents Medvedev and Obama,
Source: WikiMedia Commons

For the first time in 15 years, the United States and Russia have entered the new year without a verifiable strategic arms control agreement. (1) The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which had regulated strategic nuclear relations between the two nuclear superpowers since 1994, expired on December 5, 2009. The sides have failed to prolong the agreement or even to agree on how they will comply with it informally. In a bilateral presidential statement issued a few hours before the treaty expired, Washington and Moscow merely committed themselves to act in the future in the “spirit” of START. In diplomatic language that meant that the sides had decided not to make any specific legally or politically binding obligations regarding the expired agreement. As a consequence, US inspectors who had constantly monitored the perimeter of the Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) production facility in Votkinsk were required to leave the Russian Federation.

Positive Expectations

Both sides are doing their best to avoid the impression that the negotiations have failed. They have claimed that considerable progress has been achieved and that only technical details need to be finalized when talks on a START follow-on resume in January 2010. Although the countries failed to meet a pledge to conclude a new treaty before START expired, it would certainly be difficult to consider this a “failure” since the original START negotiations lasted nine years; the 2009 negotiations, which were grappling with the bulk of a complicated document, occurred over a relatively short period of time—between April and December 2009.

The fact that the Obama administration had to negotiate a new treaty with Russia from scratch when it took office last year reflected the failure by the two countries to make progress on a replacement treaty during the Bush administration. In 2006, the Russian government approached the Bush administration to ascertain its views on what the United States wanted to do after START’s expiration. In 2007, the United States and Russia commenced consultations on a possible START replacement; however, the talks did not bring any conclusive results. In 2008, in the aftermath of the war with Georgia, the consultations were frozen for several months.

Both sides are now interested in concluding a new agreement. Facing criticism from non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) that they have failed to uphold Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)—calling for good-faith efforts towards disarmament—both Moscow and Washington desperately need to demonstrate progress before the next quinquennial NPT Review Conference to be held in May 2010, or, better, before the Nuclear Security Summit hosted by President Obama in April 2010.

A future treaty would permit the United States to maintain predictability and transparency at a time that Russia seems poised to enter a decisive phase of a nuclear modernization program. For Russia, a treaty that cuts the number of weapons would allow it to save funds that it would otherwise have to spend on the costly production of new missiles. In the coming decade, the majority of old Soviet-made missile systems will have to be decommissioned. President Dmitry Medvedev might also have a personal interest in concluding the treaty; a signing ceremony would become one of the major events in his presidency, and might help him further consolidate his domestic political position.

There is a popular Russian expression that translates as “words must be verified by deeds.” Yet, interestingly enough, the Kremlin’s commitment to the successful outcome of the US-Russian talks might best be illustrated by an action Russian authorities did not take at the end of last year. Critics of US-Russian strategic arms control often claimed that Moscow wanted to abandon START because it was eager to commence deployment of multiple-warhead RS-24 ICBMs. Deploying these systems under START might have been considered a violation of the treaty, which prohibited deploying versions of existing missiles with more warheads than the maximum load with which they were originally tested. It was alleged that the RS-24 represented a modification of a single-warhead SS-27 Topol M ICBM. Thus, its deployment could be considered as inconsistent with START limitations. Russian officials denied that the RS-24 was a modification of the Topol M, and insisted that it was a genuinely new system.

Indeed, in late 2009 Russian media widely reported on plans to deploy in December the first experimental regiment of the RS-24s at Teykovo Strategic Rocket Forces base. Given that START expired without any explicit continuing commitments, such deployments could not be seen as breaching any legal agreements. Nevertheless, when in November 2009 the Ministry of Defense disclosed new deployments of the Topol M, it did not mention the RS-24. Nor did the ministry announce any plans to deploy them in 2010.

The decision could be explained by various reasons, from economic to purely technical. But it might also be possible that the inaction reflects the Kremlin’s desire not to complicate the situation further at a time that the self-imposed deadline for completing the new agreement had already been missed. If this supposition is accurate, it would demonstrate Moscow’s continuing interest in concluding a follow-on treaty.

Russia Is Not a Monolith

Commonly held perceptions of Russia’s domestic political system suggest that if the new agreement is approved by the Kremlin, ratification by the Russian parliament would not be a problem. After all, according to conventional wisdom, pro-Kremlin groups enjoy majorities in both houses of the Russian parliament, and international agreements, including the START follow-on, only require approval by a simple majority of the members of each house. However, in real life the situation might be different. In early 2008, term limits forced then-president Vladimir Putin to step down from his post, and Putin supported the election of his close colleague, Dmitry Medvedev, as the new president. After winning election, Medvedev then named Putin as his prime minister, the second most powerful position in the Russian state hierarchy. Still, while the Russian constitution does not permit a person to occupy the presidential office for more than two consecutive terms it does not bar someone from returning to the Kremlin after an unspecified break. Since Medvedev’s election, Moscow has been rife with speculation on whether Putin would seek the presidency again in 2012, especially since Putin said in 2008 that he might consider returning. Medvedev almost immediately responded that he also did not exclude the option of running for re-election in 2012. These two statements triggered another wave of speculation on what appeared to be a widening crack between those aides closest to the two leaders, if not between the leaders themselves.

If the speculation about this in-fighting has merit, one can reasonably expect that as the presidential electoral campaign draws near (elections are expected in March 2012), the gap between the two leaders will widen. Should a wider crack emerge, it is more likely that the potential US-Russian agreement could become hostage to domestic political competition. In the Duma, the key house of the Russian parliament, a majority of members belong to the United Russia party, which Putin chairs. Medvedev is not a part of its leadership at all.

Some analysts even believe that the widening schism could not only undermine future ratification, but has already started affecting the negotiations. In late November 2009, Konstantin Kosachev, chair of the Duma Foreign Relations committee, and one of the leaders of the United Russia party, suddenly visited Geneva to meet with the Russian delegation to the talks. He made a public statement that Russian ratification should not be considered as guaranteed, and that parliamentarians would ratify only a “good” agreement.

Furthermore, in late December, Putin for the first time publicly commented on the talks. (2) To be sure, his remarks did not directly attack the president or the agreement, and by all standards sounded quite innocuoUS First of all, his comment was given in a form of an answer to a direct question from a journalist. As a member of the National Security Council, Putin participates in the country’s decision making, and is aware of the situation in the US-Russian talks. While he was also careful to point out that the final decision should be made by the US and Russian presidents, Putin’s comments did mark a break in tradition. The Russian legal system makes the President responsible for foreign and security policies. During the last decade, Russian prime ministers have carefully avoided commenting publicly on major elements of foreign, defense and security policies. His remarks confirmed that Putin was more than just a prime minister and that he needed to be taken into account as an important actor in the decision making around the future treaty.

It is also notable, that, unless the comments were truly unplanned, Putin chose perhaps the most sensitive time for his remarks. They came after the two sides had missed their self-imposed deadline and it was clear that the talks would continue into 2010. The final round of the negotiations for 2009 took place, reportedly, in a quite tense environment, with positions of both sides on some remaining issues hardening. Under these circumstances, even the most innocent remarks of a political heavyweight like Putin would inevitably trigger speculation – and stronger anxiety —not only in the media, but within the international governmental community as well.

What Putin Said

Putin’s specific remarks added further confusion. He became the first Russian official to publicly recognize the fact that there were different opinions in Russia on the necessity of the new agreement. According to Putin, “some people believe that (a new treaty) was not needed at all, but other people think it was needed.” He added, however, that he personally supported “certain arms control rules,” which would be “understood similarly, easily verifiable, transparent.” Their presence would be better than their absence, he indicated.

Earlier, some Russian analysts had privately argued that the treaty was not in Russia’s interests. According to their viewpoint, given Russia’s growing asymmetry with the United States in strategic nuclear capabilities, Moscow might be better off with less transparency. The transparency that would be provided by the treaty’s verification regime contribute to increasing accuracy and a more comprehensive scope for targeting by the stronger side (the United States). Therefore, the vulnerability of the weaker Russian forces would grow. At the same time, the more opaque Russian forces were, the greater the survivability they might enjoy.

Putin also echoed other arguments against some elements of the potential verification regime in his remarks. Some experts claimed that certain verification provisions of START helped the United States in developing its missile defenses and potentially employing them against Russia’s strategic deterrent. Particularly, they referred to a treaty prohibition on encrypting telemetry during missile launches. The prohibition was designed to help verify compliance with treaty provisions which limited modernization of existing missile systems. At the same time, the experts argued, the ban helped the United States to gain unique knowledge on the performance of Russian missile systems, which could be used for the development of US anti-missile interceptors.

In his comments, Putin paid significant attention to the offense-defense interrelationship. Here, he responded to one part of a journalist’s question on whether the treaty was needed given “plans for developing defense.” Putin said that the US-Russian balance of forces was based on a combination of missile, air defense and offensive armaments. In order to maintain the balance, Putin suggested “let us receive all data on missile defense, and then we would be ready to give data on offensive forces.”

The content of the current negotiations is clouded by secrecy and it is difficult to judge to what extent Putin’s words reflect the situation in the negotiating room. But they definitely demonstrate Russia’s concerns about US missile defense deployments, as well as the fact that the issue continues to mar the negotiations even after the Obama administration decision to abandon the Bush administration’s planned deployment of missile defense systems in Poland and Czech Republic. At the same time, Putin’s remarks show that some experts’ opinions on linking START verification with the missile defense development have already proven appealing to the Russian government.

It is too early to make a final conclusion on whether Putin’s remarks represent the start of domestic political debates in Russia which could derail the potential treaty ratification, if not its very conclusion. Equally, it would not be fair to consider the brief comment by the prime minister (roughly one page long) as an intellectual platform for criticizing the negotiated document. After all, it was under Putin’s presidency that Russia initiated discussions on a START follow-on at a time when the Bush administration evinced little interest in talks and could have been forced to pay the political price for the treaty’s expiration. Therefore, direct criticism of the follow-on agreement could undermine the prime minister’s reputation as well.

Nevertheless, Putin’s comments, together with some other Russian actions around the talks made in late 2009, should not be completely discounted as a mere negotiating tactics (although they partially could be explained that way too). Putin’s comments were important because they: 1) were the first top level remarks, which were not completely positive about the future agreement; 2) contained the first official recognition that there is opposition to the potential treaty in Russia; 3) showed that certain arguments against some elements of the new document have found their way to Russian policy makers; and 4) proved that the US-Russian offense-defense disagreements appeared deeper than expected. These disagreements already — and surprisingly — affected Russia’s stance on the treaty’s verification and it now be more difficult to overcome remaining differences during the next round(s) of US-Russian talks.


During the US-Russian talks, considerable attention has been paid to deadlines. Initially, the plan was to conclude the new agreement by the date of the START expiration. Later, the deadline was shifted until the end of 2009. In December, it was speculated, that the follow-on treaty might be signed before Obama’s Nobel Prize speech in Oslo on December 10, or on the margins of the Copenhagen Climate Change conference on December 18. Now, the new targets are the April 2010 Nuclear Security Summit or the May 2010 NPT Review Conference.

Certainly, deadlines are important. They mobilize both decision makers and negotiators for the earliest possible completion of the talks, and serve practical political purposes. But what also should be taken into account is the link between deadlines and deadlocks. On the one hand, the sooner they are concluded, the easier it will be for the treaty to enter into force. If the new agreement is concluded too late, there might be not sufficient time to ratify it before US congressional elections in November 2010, in which it is anticipated that the Democratic Party will lose seats in the Senate, which must ratify the treaty by a two-thirds majority. In this way, US-Russian arms control could see a reprise of the nightmare of the 1990s, when the Republican majority effectively killed many arms control initiatives of the Clinton administration.

Likewise, in Russia if speculation about increasing tensions within the governing tandem has any merit, the late conclusion of the new agreement could make it a hostage to domestic political competition. In that case, its ratification in the Federal Assembly might become more difficult. If the talks would be delayed for a protracted time, their successful outcome could come into question.

On the other hand, in a competitive domestic political environment, leaders supportive of arms control, and Presidents Obama and Medvedev, most likely, are not exceptions, are vulnerable to accusations of weakness. In this context, insisting upon early deadlines could be dangerous too if the sides were to give up some important interests in order to complete the talks as soon as possible. This makes a task for the negotiators much more difficult.

If the goal to achieve a new US-Russian START agreement is sincere, the domestic political momentum in both countries requires negotiating and ratifying it before November 2010. The catch lies in the fact that each side will need to be able to portray it as a strong enough agreement to sell it to their respective domestic oppositions.


(1) The United States and Russia remain to be bounded by the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which requires both sides to reduce their strategic nuclear forces to 1700-2200 deployed warheads by 2012. However, for verification SORT relied on START. Therefore, after START’s expiration, the SORT became just a non-verifiable legally binding declaration.
(2) Text of Remarks of Prime Minister Putin, Russian Government, (in Russian).

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