A Nice Game of Chess

Originally published here.

The date: July 31, 1991
The place: Moscow
The players: George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev

Mr. Gorbachev had this to say:

Mr. President, in recent months and weeks, the Kremlin, a symbol of our nation’s centuries-old history, has been the scene of events that will shape this country’s future. Tomorrow it will witness another such event, the signing of the treaty on the reduction of strategic offensive arms.

It is more than just a major step in the process of disarmament. It is a sign of the growing irreversibility of the fundamental change for the better in world developments.

It was the beginning of the end of the nuclear Cold War, for on that day:

Presidents Bush and Gorbachev sign[ed] the “Treaty on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms” (START I), which calls for the United States and the Soviet Union to reduce their strategic nuclear forces over seven years to 1,600 SNDVs and 6,000 “accountable” warheads, of which no more than 4,900 may be on ballistic missiles. This will result in a cut in strategic warheads of 25 to 35 percent.

The treaty was hardly a simple matter; if you have a few hours, you can dig through the details of verification and inspection protocols, and the various goals that the treaty accomplished over the years.

The entire US-Russian arms race, and subsequent arms reductions due to START, is nicely summarized by this graph:

US and Russian nuclear weapon totals over the years

The US and Russia still have huge inventories of nuclear warheads.*

Its peaks and valleys tell the story almost better than a book; at the peak of the Cold War, the two nations had built up a horrifying number of nuclear weapons. The US alone had manufactured approximately 70,000 by the mid-1980s (with a peak operational stockpile of 32,000 in 1967), enough for a nuclear Armageddon many times over (pdf).

The story continues this week.

The date: July 6 – 8, 2009
The place: Moscow
The players: Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev

The Arms Control Association tells us about the meeting:

From July 6-8, U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dimitry Medvedev will meet in Moscow to evaluate and advance progress toward a new strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty that would replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which is due to expire on Dec. 5 [2009].

The backgrounder goes on to mention that the 1991 treaty resulted in a significant reduction of both US and Russian strategic warheads as well as their delivery systems. It also brings up the pitfalls and shortcomings encountered over the years, including the 2002 SORT agreement:

… U.S. and Russian leaders have missed opportunities to reach new agreements that would require deeper, irreversible cuts in warhead, missile, and bomber stockpiles. They failed to conclude the START II agreement and failed to negotiate the START III framework agreement largely because of differences over U.S. strategic missile defense plans.1

The 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) requires that each side deploy no more than 1,700-2,200 strategic warheads by 2012. But the agreement expires the same day that the warhead limit takes effect. Unlike START, SORT does not require the elimination of excess missiles and bombers. Worse still, it failed to establish new verification mechanisms, relying instead on those contained in START.

For some time, Russia has shown interest in deeper reductions: less than 1,500 warheads each along with specific limits on delivery systems. Unfortunately, the George W. Bush administration rejected lower ceilings on deployed warheads and further limitations on missiles and bombers.2

In contrast, the Obama administration has made it clear the United States will now pursue reductions in deployed strategic warheads beyond the lower end of the SORT limit (1,700), along with lower ceilings for strategic nuclear delivery systems.3 A new bilateral nuclear arms control agreement along these lines would be a step forward.

So, the stage is set for major changes. I participated in a press call last week with arms control and national security experts from the National Security Network and the Center for American Progress, in which we discussed what the likely agenda, and ideal outcome, of next week’s summit will be.

Andrew Grotto is a national security expert with the Center for American Progress, as well as a frequent contributor at the invaluable national security blog, Arms Control Wonk. He said:

So what would a successful summit look like? You know the two sides we’re dancing around are arms control and a whole suite of proposed areas for bilateral cooperation now since [the Bush-Putin meeting last spring]. So from my perspective, the summit is a success if they finally get to first base and announce a concrete action plan for replacing START.

Another point I want to leave you with is you know so the United States, arms control has become something like a Rorschach test for the broader U.S.-Russian relationship… the U.S.-Russian relationship is characterized by both cooperation and competition, always has been, probably always will be. The fact is the two sides have a common interest in some areas but conflicting interests in other areas.


Negotiations will take time, particularly when you consider you know the complexity of the issues. But I actually think this learning curve is healthy because it will force the two sides to be creative and hopefully even serve as a firewall to Cold War-like thinking.

He and the other experts went on to answer questions from various reporters; inevitably, the question of the planned US installation of a ballistic missile defense shield in Europe came up. Grotto’s colleague Sam Charap said:

On [the missile defense shield], I think although there have been noises from the Russian general staff and even from the president that a START agreement is contingent on the U.S. making its position clear on the installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, I think they’re going to try to avoid that subject at the summit and focus on these two areas where they could cooperate on ballistic missile defense, that is the site in Azerbaijan and possible installations on Russian territory.

He and Grotto agreed that “…the idea that there would be a quid pro quo [on the missile defense shield]… is false.” They both agree that although the issue is not easily finessed, it is in both countries best interest not to have a “big public blow-up”, because the ultimate point is that, as Grotto said:

… the summit is the first step in a longer term process of arms control where these other issues – which as you suggested are hugely important to the Russians, will be aired.

You know so the goal for next week’s summit… is START expires at the end of the year. We both want something there to replace it. Let’s get that done.

The Arms Control Association briefing puts it this way:

… while the relationship between offensive and defensive arms will be discussed by the two governments, the START follow-on agreement will only address strategic offensive systems.


However, absent limits on the eventual size of U.S. strategic interceptor system and capabilities or a genuinely cooperative U.S.-Russian missile defense partnership, missile defenses will affect how deeply Russian military and political leaders will agree to reduce their strategic nuclear arsenal below the 1,500-1,700 deployed strategic warhead level already projected for 2012.

At the same time, the administration has made it clear that any missile defense system, including the one proposed by the Bush administration for Eastern Europe, must be proven to work and have the full support of NATO allies before it spends billions of dollars to deploy it.

In other words, missile defense will less likely be a huge point of contention at the summit, but rather, a point of compromise; nor will it be a matter of Obama “appeasing Russia”, regardless of what the Heritage Foundation and friends may think.

You can read the transcript to the press call here; the discussion of North Korea is especially interesting, and it’s something I might address in a future post.

All in all, US relations with Russia right now are quite different – and much more positive – than they were when Bush was president (here is a stunning example). There are the usual naysayers, like John Bolton, who actually thinks that we should not negotiate a new START agreement, or Richard Perle and Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who think we need more (new) nuclear weapons. They are stuck in their 1980s rut, where the “Top Gun” soundtrack is still fashionable, and “the Soviets” are still a threat.

Elections have consequences. Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev know this, and are going to make the best of it. It won’t be easy, but the degree to which they want to cooperate is encouraging.

It’s a good start down the path to Global Zero.

*Image credit: Hans Kristensen, Federation of American Scientists.

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