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U.S., Russia Sign Treaty Cutting Deployed Nuclear Forces

Phillip C. Bleek

At their May 24 summit meeting in Moscow, Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin signed a treaty under which the United States and Russia will cut their deployed strategic nuclear forces to 1,700-2,200 warheads each—approximately a two-thirds reduction from current levels.

The agreement, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, is the first strategic reductions pact signed by the two countries in almost a decade. It requires reductions in deployed forces substantially below the level of the START I agreement, and it effectively supersedes the START II accord, which never entered into force.

At a press conference following the signing ceremony, Bush said that the agreement “liquidates the Cold War legacy of nuclear hostility” between the United States and Russia. Putin was more reserved in his assessment, characterizing the accord as a “serious move ahead” but also noting that the two sides have agreed to continue their work toward resolving remaining differences.

The treaty marks the conclusion of a process begun November 13, when Bush announced that the United States would unilaterally reduce its “operationally deployed” strategic nuclear weapons to 1,700-2,200 and Putin said Russia would “try to respond in kind.” (See ACT, December 2001.) Bush initially expressed skepticism about formalizing the reductions in a binding agreement. But Moscow insisted on such a pact, and in February Secretary of State Colin Powell announced the United States had agreed to codify the reductions. (See ACT, March 2002.)

Composed of fewer than 500 words—a sharp contrast to START I’s several hundred pages—the agreement does not define which strategic warheads it covers (deployed, reserve, or both), nor does it define how warheads are to be counted. However, the document references previous statements by Bush and Putin, including the November 13 announcement in which Bush said he intended to reduce the number of “operationally deployed” strategic weapons, suggesting the treaty covers only those warheads that are mated to their delivery vehicles and ready for launch.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has explicitly rejected that interpretation, noting in a May 22 statement that the treaty does not include the term “operationally deployed warheads” and that the treaty’s implementation will be “tackled” in the Bilateral Implementation Commission called for by the treaty.

In the weeks prior to the summit, negotiations between the two sides had appeared to bog down as they wrangled over how much flexibility the treaty should allow. Russia had sought a START I-style approach that would have counted the maximum number of warheads that deployed missiles and bombers can carry, while the United States had insisted on counting only those warheads ready for immediate use. The U.S. approach provides considerably more leeway because warheads removed from multiple-warhead missiles and bomber-based weapons removed from operational storage bunkers can be counted as reductions even though they can be quickly redeployed.

The related issue of whether each side would have to destroy warheads and delivery vehicles removed from service was also contentious, with Russia publicly calling for the verifiable destruction of both warheads and delivery systems and the United States wanting to retain the option to store warheads removed from deployment.

The treaty makes no mention of the issue, effectively supporting the U.S. position. As Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, pointed out in a May 28 op-ed, “The treaty does not require the actual destruction of a single missile or warhead,” a point other critics have also highlighted.

Although START I and START II did not call for warhead destruction, they did require the verifiable destruction of most delivery systems removed from service. And in 1997 Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin agreed to pursue a START III pact that would include “measures relating…to the destruction of strategic nuclear warheads…to promote the irreversibility of deep reductions.”

To implement the reductions, U.S. officials have announced that they will convert four of the current 18 Trident submarines to carry only conventional cruise missiles, retire all 50 10-warhead MX missiles, and eliminate the B-1B bomber’s nuclear role. These steps will remove about 1,300 warheads from service. Warheads will also be removed from existing multiple-warhead ICBMs and SLBMs to reach the administration’s target of 3,800 deployed strategic warheads by 2007.

Decisions on how to reduce U.S. deployments further have apparently not yet been made, and U.S. officials said earlier this year that further reductions would depend on the strategic situation in 2007 as well as the country’s ability to deploy new capabilities, such as strategic missile defenses and enhanced conventional weapons. (See ACT, January/February 2002.)

U.S. officials have also made clear that although “some” warheads and delivery systems will be dismantled, substantial numbers of warheads will be put in reserve. According to administration sources, by 2012 the United States will deploy 2,200 strategic weapons and retain an additional 2,400 in an operationally maintained “responsive capability.” The United States would be able to redeploy some warheads in the responsive capability within weeks or months and to redeploy all 2,400 warheads within three years.

In addition, the United States is expected to continue to store thousands of nonoperational but fully assembled warheads as well as thousands of additional weapon components that could be reassembled into complete weapons.

When asked at the May 24 press conference why the United States needs to retain thousands of deployed weapons and thousands more reserve warheads, Bush stressed future uncertainties, saying, “Who knows what will happen 10 years from now? Who knows what future presidents will say and how they [will] react?”

Russian officials have yet to provide details on how they intend to implement the reductions, but Moscow may store rather than destroy the warheads it removes from service if that is what the United States does.

Russia currently has a nuclear stockpile estimated to contain more than 13,000 nondeployed strategic and tactical warheads, in large part because dismantling the warheads has proven prohibitively expensive. Russia also continues to manufacture limited numbers of new warheads to replace weapons that have reached the end of their service lives. Asked at the joint press conference why it was necessary to maintain this capability, Putin said that warhead production “is not our priority” but that Russia needs to consider threats posed by other nuclear-weapon states and potential proliferators.

The timetable for reductions remains uncertain because, unlike START I, the new treaty does not include interim deadlines. The treaty requires the two sides to have implemented their reductions by December 31, 2012, which is also the date the pact expires.

The fact that the agreement’s implementation and expiration deadlines are the same has led some to conclude that it is technically impossible to violate the pact. But a Bush administration official close to the negotiations said that from the U.S. perspective, it is in fact possible to violate the agreement by acting in a way that does not “make compliance possible.” The official noted that this interpretation is codified in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, which stipulates that “[a] State is obliged to refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of a treaty…it has signed.”

The official said that as the implementation and expiration date approached, the two sides could decide whether to negotiate a follow-on accord. But the official also indicated that no further agreement might be needed after that time.

The accord’s withdrawal clause also marks a departure from previous agreements, allowing either side to pull out of the pact with only three months’ notice, rather than the six months’ notice required by START I. (U.S. negotiators had also sought a provision allowing either side to exceed the agreement’s limits with 45 days’ notice, but that provision was not included in the final document, suggesting the three-month withdrawal period was a compromise with the Russians.) Also unlike START I, the agreement does not require the withdrawing party to justify its actions by citing “extraordinary events [that] have jeopardized its supreme interests.”

The agreement includes no verification or transparency provisions, although both U.S. and Russian officials have said they will continue to work to increase strategic transparency. With regard to verification, the two sides appear to have decided to rely on existing provisions in the START I agreement, but that accord expires in 2009, and it is unclear whether the sides will extend it, establish verification provisions for the new accord, or simply do without verification after that time.

Moscow and Washington have agreed to consider transparency in ongoing discussions of the treaty’s Bilateral Implementation Commission. That commission will meet at least twice annually, but details such as the seniority of the officials involved, the schedule of the meetings, and the likely agenda have yet to be worked out, according to the administration official. The official said that previous arms control agreements had spelled out such details because of the adversarial relationship between the two countries, but that under the current, more trusting relationship Washington deemed a “more structured implementation mechanism” unnecessary.

Russian officials appear to hold out hope that their differences with the United States over warhead counting and weapons dismantlement can be resolved within the commission, but it remains unclear whether the United States will be willing to continue substantive negotiations. When asked about Washington’s willingness to negotiate such issues further, the administration official said the president had been very clear about U.S. plans, implying that additional constraints on U.S. forces are not an option. But the official also said, “If the Russians have things they want to talk about, we’ll listen.”