Playing Chess With Russia: An Update on the New START Agreement

Originally published here.

Normally, the New York Post is a publication known for tabloid-style stories with a right-wing slant. However, in January 2009, they published a short but fascinating inauguration story on something that has the feel of a whispered legend… but it’s entirely real. The story was about the “football“:

The nuclear “football” was handed off yesterday without a fumble.

The metal briefcase with the power to launch Armageddon arrived at the Capitol yesterday behind George W. Bush and left trailing President Obama.

Moments after Obama was sworn in, a military aide in full dress uniform holding the black container, which holds the keys to a nuclear strike, crossed the platform to stand closer to the new commander in chief.

The Federation of American Scientists website has more details on “the football”, and what the briefcase generally contains.

If you think that the Post‘s language regarding Armageddon is hyperbolic, think again.

The briefing that Obama got — and that his counterpart, President Dmitri Medvedev must have gotten — would include information regarding their respective nuclear arsenals, which are indeed vast, as you can see here:

US, Russian nuclear inventory details. Image credit: Hans Kristensen, Federation of American Scientists.

The number, and manner of deployment, of these nuclear weapons has decreased and shifted gradually over the years:

The US and Russia still have huge inventories of nuclear warheads. Image credit: Hans Kristensen, Federation of American Scientists

Several years after the end of the Cold War, in 1991, George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev got together and signed a treaty to limit strategic nuclear weapons:

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.

As you can imagine, the details of the START I treaty are anything but simple; the path the arms reductions have taken over the years is also not without bumps, but overall, it’s obvious that both of our countries have managed to significantly reduce our respective arsenals.

This past summer, Presidents Obama and Medvedev met in Moscow to discuss a new START agreement, because the old one will expire on December 5, 2009. Their Joint Statement was broad but decisive; an excerpt:

Presidents Obama and Medvedev in Moscow, July 7, 2009. Official White House photo by Peter Souza.

The United States of America and the Russian Federation confirm their commitment to strengthening their cooperation to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and stop acts of nuclear terrorism. We bear special responsibility for security of nuclear weapons. While we reconfirm that security at nuclear facilities in the United States and Russia meets current requirements, we stress that nuclear security requirements need continuous upgrading. We will continue cooperating on effective export controls that make it possible to prevent nuclear materials, equipment and technologies from falling into the hands of actors unauthorized by the state as well as prevent their use in any manner contrary to obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Negotiators have been working tirelessly and continuously behind the scenes to meet the treaty deadline. Obama and Medvedev met in Singapore during Obama’s recent trip to Asia. Though the leaders downplayed any problems with the negotiations on “New START”, it has become clear that a new treaty probably won’t happen until after the December 5 deadline.

Kingston Reif is Deputy Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. The other day, we chatted about New START and how there won’t be a treaty by the deadline. Reif has previously written about possible obstacles that the US and Russia are encountering, which include verification issues, missile defense, advanced conventional weapons systems, and upload capacity (which is our ability to quickly put nuclear warheads that are in reserves back on delivery vehicles).

In our conversation, Reif explained that since the treaty involves only strategic forces, missile defense will not be mentioned in it, except perhaps in the treaty preamble. However:

In recent weeks we’ve seen a lot of stories and reports on some of the verification issues that have yet to be resolved. For example, the Russians no longer want to extend us the right to have monitors at their mobile missile production facility at Votkinsk. I think that’s an issue. That’s obviously something we would like to retain, and the Russians are telling us that “well, we don’t have any comparable ability to do that in the US because you are no longer producing new missiles, you stopped doing that, so it would be one-sided if we were to allow you to monitor what’s going on at our facility.”

Another issue that has arisen with regard to verification is that the Russians have a road/mobile version of their SS-27 missile, which is also known as the Topol-M, and they’re resisting efforts on the part of the US to try and monitor and verify the movements of that particular missile. So I think that’s also still a sticking point.

Regarding upload capacity, Reif said:

The US basically wants to maintain more delivery vehicles and fewer warheads, whereas the Russians have been reducing their forces by getting rid of delivery vehicles but still maintaining a relatively steady number of warheads.

This relates to the Moscow Treaty, which — the limits in the Moscow Treaty [SORT] for warheads were 1,700 to 2,200. Basically, we’ve tried to get down to that limit by taking warheads off of delivery vehicles and just putting them into our reserve. So the Russians are worried that we could just quickly take those warheads and put them back on our missiles and bombers.

But it’s important to keep this in perspective — obviously, there are stumbling blocks, but the two sides should be able to get around them. I think they’ll be able to do so this year, maybe early January at the latest, but I still think there’s an excellent chance for an agreement this year.

Most importantly, to those who would say that this is some sort of “failure”, Reif pointed out that:

It’s important to take into account that the two sides only began negotiating earlier this year, in large part because, as we all know, the Bush administration was not interested in a new arms control agreement to replace START I. They knew that the expiration of START was on the horizon, and they simply weren’t interested in doing much about it. The Obama administration’s negotiating team entered this in a pretty tight spot, so it was always going to be a challenge to get an agreement negotiated before December 5, to say nothing about actually getting an agreement negotiated, signed, and then ratified by the US Senate by December 5.

Reif feels that there is a good chance that New START will be ratified by the US Senate and the Russian Duma sometime this Spring, and that it will be a far less contentious battle than that we’ll see regarding ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Between the time we have a treaty and the time that both sides ratify it, there will be a significant gap. Reif said:

Earlier this month, Sen. Lugar introduced a bill that would give the President the authority to continue to grant privileges and immunities to Russian inspectors to carry out START I’s inspection provisions until June 2010. Once START I expires, Russian inspectors will have no legal authority to remain in the U.S. But at this point this bill is more or less a half measure. It’s not clear that the Russians would reciprocate.

U.S. officials have stated that they are negotiating a bridging agreement in parallel to the actual treaty to cover the gap but they’ve remained pretty tight-lipped about the details of it. START I includes provisions for data exchanges, 12 types of inspections, as well as continuous monitoring at certain mobile missile production sites (see Votkinsk). What’s going to happen to these verification provisions once START I expires? Neither side simply wants to extend all of them. Some of them will need to be amended and some new provisions will have to be negotiated. So the most likely outcome is that the two sides will agree to abide by New START’s provisions on a provisional basis until the treaty is ratified. What these procedures will be remains to be seen. We may not get them until the treaty is negotiated.

Finally, Reif left me with a quote by Linton Brooks, who negotiated START I:

To reiterate, there still are issues that need to be resolved. There’s no question about that, but I still think we’re very likely to get an agreement by the end of this year. As Linton Brooks [the US negotiator for START] I put it, “Arms control’s gotta be a little bit painful; otherwise, why do you do it?”

And another reason why I’m optimistic is that both sides don’t want to live in a world in which there are no legally-binding limits on or the means of verifying their respective nuclear arsenals. The further they stray from December 5, the longer they may have to live in such a world.

Let’s hope that we do get a New START treaty by the end of the year, and that Senate ratification happens with minimal fuss, with as few Republicans as possible taking the hard-line approach that we saw during the Bush years, and that still surfaces again from time to time.

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