"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
The U.S.-Russian Strategic Arms Control Agenda
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Between March and September 1997, the United States and Russia concluded a series of critical agreements designed to help ease the START II agreement through a fractious Duma. Both countries recognized that the complex of national security issues raised by the treaty, by the development and deployment of highly capable theater missile defense (TMD) systems, and by the imminent expansion of NATO into Central Europe had to be addressed if there was to be any hope of continuing the strategic arms reduction process.

With regard to the problems posed by START II, the United States and Russia agreed to shift the treaty's final implementation date by five years—from January 1, 2003, to December 31, 2007. The leaders of the two countries also committed to the prompt negotiation of a follow-on treaty (START III) which would lower deployed weapons levels by another 1,000 warheads (from 3,000-3,500 to 2,000-2,500) by the end of 2007.

To address concerns over the U.S. deployment of highly capable TMD systems, the two nations agreed to ban the testing of such systems against ballistic missile targets with speeds above 5 kilometers per second or ranges that exceed 3,500 kilometers. The two sides also agreed to exchange information on TMD plans, programs and production, and not to develop, test or deploy space-based TMD interceptors. And, together with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, the two sides agreed to a multilateralization of the ABM Treaty.

Finally, to help reassure Russia that NATO expansion is neither exclusionary nor hostile, the NATO alliance and Moscow concluded the Founding Act establishing a NATO-Russian Permanent Joint Council. Intended to mitigate the sting of including former Warsaw Pact nations such as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in NATO, the Council will provide a forum for discussion and potential action on issues of common interest in Europe. This controversial pact notwithstanding, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, on the eve of the Founding Act's signature, warned that NATO would "fully undermine" its relations with Russia if it expanded to include any of the former Soviet republics (meaning the Baltics and Ukraine).


START II Ratification

The key question remaining after conclusion of the START II extension protocol, the TMD accords and the Founding Act is whether the Yeltsin administration will vigorously press for, and the Russian Duma act favorably on, START II. In mid-September, Yeltsin sent his foreign and defense ministers, Yevgeniy Primakov and Igor Sergeyev, respectively, to the Duma to signal his determination to energize the START II ratification process. Then, in November, both houses of the Russian parliament ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) with an overwhelmingly favorable vote. Russian government officials and arms control community were jubilant at the outcome, claiming that the Yeltsin administration had learned how to "pump flesh" in the Duma (the Federation Council, the upper chamber, is a more predictable and less unruly body) and that CWC ratification had generated useful momentum on arms control. At the end of 1997, Russian officials seemed moderately confident that the Open Skies treaty would be approved shortly and that START II could be brought to a vote in the first half of 1998, prior to—and a U.S. condition for—a Clinton-Yeltsin summit in Moscow.

Despite this cautiously optimistic message, Russian ratification of START II is by no means assured. Yeltsin's health continues to be a major concern and Russian domestic issues (especially the budget, taxes and corruption), plus the Duma's own profound ambivalence toward START II, continually threaten to push strategic arms control off the parliamentary agenda. If START II fails to be approved, if (as is almost certain) Russian conventional forces remain weak and its defense resources scarce, if U.S. TMD and national missile defense (NMD) programs proceed apace, and if NATO continues its "open door" expansion policy, then undoubtedly Russia—and subsequently the United States—will be forced to reappraise its political and strategic relationship with the other nation.

This reassessment is likely to take place at a time when the legislatures in both countries are dominated by conservative forces, and at a time when Russia is deeply concerned that the long-term geostrategic tides are running strongly against it. Consequently, failure to ratify START II is likely to have an adverse impact across a broad range of issues affecting both U.S. and Russian security: on the chances for further strategic and tactical nuclear force reductions and other arms control initiatives such as nuclear deactivation (removing from operational service) and de-alerting (reducing operational readiness); on congressional support for "Nunn-Lugar" security assistance to the former Soviet Union; and on continued restraint in ballistic missile defense deployments.

A more likely—some would say overly optimistic—scenario, however, barring any major political perturbations, is that START II will be ratified by the Duma in the first half of 1998. Following Russian action, the START II extension protocol and the TMD documents will be submitted to the U.S. Senate for its approval (which will require a determined effort by the Clinton administration) before the 1998 election break. Under this scenario, START II could enter into force by the end of 1998 leaving nearly two years of both the Clinton and Yeltsin administrations for the negotiation of a START III agreement.


The Future Agenda

Even under the most optimistic of scenarios, however, a great deal of work remains to be done to ensure that START II is implemented and that START III continues the steady decrease in the number of deployed nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Russian arsenals. This future strategic arms control agenda includes;


  • negotiating START III;
  • devising mutually acceptable means of deactivating weapons;
  • exploring the possibility of de-alerting all or part of the remaining missile forces;
  • taking the first steps toward greater transparency in nuclear infrastructures; and
  • adopting measures dealing with tactical nuclear weapons and sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs).

Negotiating START III

Last March, as part of the package negotiated at the U.S.-Russian summit in Helsinki to obtain Russian ratification of START II, the United States and Russia agreed that the START III negotiations would include four basic components:


  • a lower aggregate level of 2,000 to 2,500 deployed strategic nuclear warheads for each party;
  • deactivation by December 31, 2003, of all strategic nuclear delivery vehicles (SNDVs) scheduled to be eliminated under START II (such as Russia's SS-18 and SS-24 ICBMs and the U.S. MX ICBM);
  • conversion of the current START agreements from a fixed 15-year term with five-year renewal periods to unlimited duration; and
  • measures relating to the transparency of strategic nuclear warhead inventories and the destruction of strategic nuclear warheads.
In addition, the United States and Russia agreed to explore (as separate issues) possible measures relating to tactical nuclear weapons and nuclear long-range SLCMs, including appropriate confidence-building and transparency measures, and measures relating to transparency in nuclear materials.


Warhead Levels

A START III level of 2,000 to 2,500 deployed warheads as agreed to at Helsinki would reduce significantly the resources required by Russia to maintain strategic numerical parity with the United States in the next decade and beyond. Two issues are presented, however, by the lower warhead numbers. The first is whether the START III warhead level is separable from the other basic components of a follow-on agreement—and thus quickly insertable into the START II agreement—or whether the agreement on lower warhead levels is contingent on the successful negotiation of some other measure or measures. Will the United States, for example, insist that final agreement to lower levels of deployed systems be linked to additional measures relating to stockpile transparency, or will Russia link START III to provisions relating to warhead destruction or to revision of out-dated and "onerous" START I verification measures?

A second, perhaps more fundamental issue is whether the Yeltsin administration and the Duma would actually be satisfied with a 2,000-to-2,500-warhead level for START III (even though this had been the original Russian proposal at the beginning of the START II negotiations in 1992 and was put forward again by Yeltsin at Helsinki). Russian analysts and government officials are now indicating that these levels may be too high for Russia by at least 500 warheads. Because Russian deactivation and elimination costs are relatively constant, driven as they are by the requirement to eliminate multiple-warhead ICBMs, the lower the START III warhead number, the lower the costs will be for any projected modernization and replacement program.

With Yeltsin's change of defense ministers in May 1997—from General Igor Rodionov, who was not known as a friend of START II, to Sergeyev, who comes from the Strategic Rocket Forces and is a strong supporter of START—and a more sober appraisal of budgetary resources actually available for modernization, the Russians are now seeking a warheadlevel in START III of 1,500. This figure has reportedly been put forward by the Russians in the on-going "strategic stability" discussions with the United States and is openly discussed by senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials in Moscow.<1>

With the United States already prepared to accept a 2,000-warhead level, the sides are, in effect, talking about a START III agreement with between 1,500 and 2,000 warheads. This could be expressed either as a range, as in START II, or, as is more likely, a fixed figure—say, 1,750—as in START I.


Deactivation and De-alerting

Originally agreed to in principle by Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin in their joint statement issued at the Washington summit in 1994, the United States and Russia exchanged letters in September 1997 committing the two countries to begin work—as soon as START II enters into force—on an agreement to deactivate by the end of 2003 all the SNDVs scheduled to be eliminated under the treaty. The Clinton administration has stressed that, although the final START II implementation date has been shifted by five years, all the systems to be eliminated will be made non-operational at roughly the same time (2003) as the elimination called for under the original START II schedule.

Sensing the importance of this provision to the United States, and attempting to protect its own interest in obtaining lower overall warhead levels, in the September 1997 exchange of letters on deactivation, Moscow cautioned that "[t]aking into account the supremenational interests of the country, the Russian Federation proceeds from the understanding that well in advance of the above deactivation deadline the START III Treaty will be achieved and will enter into force." (Emphasis added.)<2>

The current U.S. proposal for deactivation calls for the removal of nuclear reentry vehicles (warheads) from those missiles destined to be eliminated. Russia, for its part, has statedthat it prefers other deactivation measures. According to a recent report, Russian experts argue that they do not have adequate safe storage facilities for those missile warheads that would have to be removed under a deactivation program.<3> Consequently, the Russians have put forward in talks with the United States a deactivation option that would involve removing batteries that operate the missile guidance systems. There are indications that Russia may have other suggestions in the future, such as disablinglid-opening mechanisms of ICBM silos to prevent a missile launch, and there have been reports that on the U.S. side the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an interagency group have begun exploring a range of other deactivation and de-alerting alternatives.<4>

While the two countries may differ somewhat on the specifics of deactivation, there is no strategic reason—although there may be political ones—why a deactivation agreement need be "symmetric" in terms of the methods employed to remove a system from operational status. But an agreement would probably have to be symmetric in terms of its ease of verifiability and its potential reversibility, that is, the time required to restore a deactivated system to operational status.

Much of the work done on designing a program for deactivating systems scheduled to be eliminated under START II could be of value if the United States and Russia decide to de-alert their nuclear forces. De-alerting refers to reducing the alert status of operational forces by methods such as eliminating the "hair-trigger" launch procedures and extending the time required to respond to a launch command. As Senator Thomas Daschle (D-SD)noted recently, "the most frightening example of the disconnect between our nuclear force posture and post-Cold War reality is the hair trigger alert status of thousands of our strategic nuclear weapons."<5>

Although not formally on the START III agenda, de-alerting has many supporters in the non-governmental community, including former Senator Sam Nunn. On the other hand, General Eugene Habiger, commander-in-chief of U.S. Strategic Command has spoken critically of the impact of de-alerting on the survivability of U.S. forces and de-alerting has yet to find a strong bureaucratic champion within the Clinton administration.

The administration's apparent lack of enthusiasm notwithstanding (which is more than matched, incidentally, by the Russians), de-alerting could be of significant value in reducing the potential for launch-on-warning or for inadvertent, accidental or autonomous nuclear release. Also, it is seen by its supporters as a direct and useful way to address some of the concerns about the fragility of the Russian command and control system. De-alerting might also provide some additional negotiating flexibility in START. For example, if the United States were to agree to de-alert the land-based portion of its "launch-ready" missile forces (strategic bombers have been off alert since 1991), this might help bridge any potential gap (of, say, 500 warheads) between U.S. and Russian deployments in START III.


Transparency and Dismantlement

The United States and Russia have already taken some elementary steps toward outlining a warhead destruction regime in connection with their agreement for the U.S. purchase of 500 tons of "downblended" Russian highly enriched uranium (HEU) derived from nuclear weapons. In addition, Washington and Moscow had been discussing a cooperative agreement that would permit the exchange of restricted data relating to nuclear weapon stockpiles. These talks broke off in November 1995, however, without having made much progress, largely as a consequence of Russian unwillingness to agree to declassify and exchange the necessary information.

The issue of stockpile transparency and warhead dismantlement is of particular interest for several reasons. First, there have never been any reliable figures on the size of the Russianstockpile of weapons or weapons-grade fissionable material. According to one estimate, the former Soviet Union possessed more than 27,000 nuclear warheads in 1991, including more than 11,000 strategic and over 15,000 tactical weapons.<6> However, some observers believe that the margin of error in U.S. estimates of the Soviet-Russian stockpile may be as much as 10,000.

Second, there is considerable concern in the West that some Russian nuclear weapons, particularly those that are transportable and in poorly protected storage areas, are susceptible to theft, misuse or misappropriation. A thorough-going transparency and dismantlement regime will presumably improve the accounting and security arrangements and eliminate a number of surplus, non-deployed, but nonetheless potentially dangerous, weapons.

Another argument for such a regime is that, particularly as deployed warhead numbers get smaller, the size of the non-deployed stockpile becomes more relevant to the potential for "breakout"—a rapid increase in force size. This is particularly true when reductions are achieved through "downloading" (the removal of warheads from multiple-warhead systems) as the United States and Russia will do in START II, because downloading leaves empty spaces on operational missiles to which stored warheads can be quickly redeployed to reconstitute the force.

Despite the obvious importance of a transparency and warhead dismantlement regime, it is unclear whether the Russian nuclear and security establishment is prepared—as the United States seems to be—to open up its "books" and participate in a highly intrusive monitoring arrangement. To date, in the official strategic stability talks as well as in discussions with non-governmental groups in Moscow, the Russians have displayed no interest in a nuclear stockpile transparency regime. The Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM), which assembles new nuclear weapons and dismantles older or surplus ones, and the 12th Directorate of the Ministry of Defense, which is responsible for the management of the nuclear arsenal, appear to be opposed to a transparency regime.Despite the lack of Russian enthusiasm for stockpile transparency, the issue is likely to remain on the table at U.S. insistence with the hope of at least beginning the process of opening up hitherto closed nuclear infrastructures, perhaps starting with data exchanges or "shadow visits."<7>

Because stockpile transparency and warhead destruction provisions could take quite some time to elaborate, it will be important to avoid linking progress in this area to the warhead reductions under START III. This issue is particularly relevant because of the connection the Russians have made, in their unilateral statement on deactivation, noted above, between the conclusion of a START III agreement and the conclusion of any deactivation process called for under START II.


Tactical Nuclear Weapons and SLCMs

Tactical nuclear weapons represent a serious potential proliferation problem (as illustrated by the claim last year of retired Russian General Alexander Lebed that some 100 "suitcase-sized" nuclear weapons may be unaccounted for)<8> and could become a more significant component of national arsenals as the number of strategic nuclear warheads shrinks. To begin to address the issues connected with tactical nuclear weapons, and at Russia's request, the related issue of nuclear-armed SLCMs, the Helsinki "Joint Statement on Parameters on Future Reductions in Nuclear Forces" called for the creation of a separate forum in the START III framework to discuss "possible measures" related to these systems, including "appropriate" confidence-building and transparency measures. There is no explicit mention, however, of "limits" on tactical nuclear weapons or SLCMs.

At Helsinki, the United States and Russia agreed to keep the tactical nuclear weapon and SLCM discussions separate from START III. This was a fortunate decision, as the negotiations on this issue are likely to be lengthy and difficult. All indications are that Russia is not prepared to relinquish tactical nuclear weapons at this time. In fact, Russia's strategy is moving in the opposite direction. Perceiving a deteriorating security situation,Moscow has abandoned its long-standing nuclear "no-first-use" policy and is in the midst of a debate over whether, given the deplorable state of its conventional forces, the lack of budgetary resources and NATO's creep toward its border, it should place "increasing weight on nuclear weapons" to deter aggression.<9>

Russia's reluctance to limit tactical nuclear weapons is mirrored by NATO's attachment to U.S. tactical systems (Britain and France are both phasing out their tactical nuclear weapons). The NATO allies do not seem in the least prepared to forgo the "linkage" to the United States represented by the hundreds of air-delivered U.S. tactical nuclear weapons which remain deployed in Europe and dedicated to the defense of the alliance. At the time of the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review, the Pentagon concluded that there was no military requirement for U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. The NATO allies, however, insisted that a small but credible number of weapons remain to demonstrate continued U.S. commitment to European security.

During the NATO expansion debate, the allies had an opportunity to respond to Russian concerns over the forward deployment of nuclear weapons in the new member-states by agreeing to freeze current deployments. NATO refused to adopt a non-nuclear status for the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland claiming—erroneously, given the non-nuclear status of Norway, Denmark and the eastern one-third of Germany (following unification)—that it would make the new member-countries second-class NATO citizens.

Barring a major change in current policy by both sides, it is unlikely that the tactical nuclear weapon and SLCM negotiations will succeed in placing meaningful limits on these systems—much less a ban—in the next two to three years. Historically, the United States has staunchly resisted explicit constraints on SLCMs in START and Russia has refused to ban nuclear-armed ballistic missile interceptors in the TMD negotiations. Moreover, the antipathy shown by the Russians to strategic stockpile transparency carries over into the tactical stockpile as well.

Despite the initial resistance to dealing forthrightly with tactical nuclear weapons, the sides might well be able to negotiate basic confidence-building and transparency measures for tactical weapons and/or SLCMs. These measures might include a freeze (or a START I-like cap) on deployments; storage of all tactical weapons well away from and out of the control of operational units; basic data exchanges and/or mutual visits to key installations; verified dismantlement of excess systems; and/or other incremental measures.


Ballistic Missile Defenses

The future of missile defenses, both tactical and strategic, is probably the most contentious issue on the strategic arms control agenda. Most observers of the U.S.- Russian arms control process agree that a continuation of major strategic offensive force reductions by these two countries will be possible only if the 1972 ABM Treaty remains a viable cornerstone of the strategic relationship. Indeed, Russian adherence to START I and START II has been specifically linked by the Yeltsin government to the future of the ABM Treaty.

Although the Russians sought explicit constraints, the two countries did not establish any limitations on land-, sea- or air-based TMD interceptor performance (the limits are only on target vehicles), or impose any other restrictions on TMD development or deployment. The sides did agree, however, to ban space-based interceptor missiles and space-based components based on other physical principles capable of substituting for such interceptor missiles.

The parties left to each side the responsibility of determining whether that nation's high-speed, highly capable TMD systems comply with the ABM Treaty. Thus, to the degree that highly capable TMD systems are deployed and threaten to circumvent the ABM Treaty, a sustained discussion by the United States and Russia of a range of critical TMD issues—such as space-based tracking and battle-management sensors and land- and air-based laser weapons—will remain a key element on the future strategic arms control agenda.

At the September signing ceremony for the TMD "demarcation" and ABM multilateralization documents, both Russian Foreign Minister Primakov and the foreign minister of Ukraine, Hennadiy Udovenko, indicated that they considered the TMD discussions to be an on-going process. Primakov noted that "[t]he drawn up agreements reflect the current state of affairs with the problem of delimiting the strategic and non-strategic ABM [TMD]. However, the technologies of the non-strategic ABM are yet at an early stage of development and they will presumably be perfected. Hence, it will probably be necessary to hold more consultations in the future in order to deal with possible problems and concerns which may arise in the ABM nations during the formation of a system to combat non-strategic ballistic missiles."

The TMD-NMD issue is likely to be at the fore in the near future if, as is hoped, the Russian parliament ratifies START II and the accompanying—and, in the eyes of the Russians, linked—TMD documents in early 1998. The Clinton administration has also linked its submission of the TMD settlement to the Congress to Russian ratification of START II, sensing that Senate opposition to placing any limits on TMD can only be overcome by arguing that some very loose "rules of the game" for TMD testing are in the interest of both the United States and Russia. They are also the price for Russian agreement to eliminate multiple-warhead ICBMs under START II and undertake significant—and verifiable—overall reductions in strategic forces.

Some in the Senate, however, may attempt to de-link ratification of the START II extension protocol from approval of the TMD agreements and seek to defeat the so-called "Second Agreed Statement" (which covers higher-velocity TMD systems and bans space-based interceptors) and the Memorandum of Understanding (which multilateralizes the ABMTreaty and makes future amendments to the treaty more difficult). The opponents of multilateralization also make the legally dubious argument that defeating the MOU will kill the ABM Treaty since there will be no agreed successor states.<10> If this effort to scuttle the TMD settlement eventuates, the administration will have a serious battle on its hands but one in which it will have important allies—the JCS, informed strategic analysts, the budget balancers, and powerful public and media voices. In addition, opponents to the TMD package will have to buck the highly popular—and highly publicized—momentum created by the START process for significantly smaller strategic nuclear forces on both sides.

One additional item related to ballistic missile defense may force its way onto the strategic arms control agenda: the congressionally favored mandate to renegotiate the terms of the ABM Treaty to permit larger-scale deployment of an NMD system (say with 400 to 600 interceptors). If enacted by the Congress, this would, of course, derail the START reduction process.

To date, the administration has postponed any decision on whether to deploy even a treaty-compliant NMD until 2000 (or beyond) and the Russians have never shown the slightest interest in an expanded NMD system. To the contrary, they have made it abundantly clear they like the ABM Treaty just as it is and, as noted above, consider it key to continuing the strategic arms reduction process.


The Next Two Years

Whether all the protocols, letters, acts, memoranda and agreed statements negotiated and signed at Helsinki, Paris and New York between March and September of 1997 will succeed in their purpose should become evident within the next six to 12 months and set the tone for the balance of both the Clinton and Yeltsin administrations. It is reasonably evident right now, however, that unless START II is ratified by the Duma, unless the threat to the ABM Treaty is checked by the TMD discussions and U.S. NMD deployment policy remains on "hold," and unless the NATO-Russia Founding Act succeeds in taking the sting out of NATO's expansion, the prospects for meaningful progress in strategic nuclear arms control will be very poor indeed.



1. The strategic stability talks, a precursor to the actual START III negotiations, which the U.S. insists must await Duma ratification of START II, have been conducted primarily at the level of the undersecretary of state/deputy foreign minister. [Back]

2. Russia's statement makes it clear, as do its statements in the strategic stability talks, that Moscow seeks a prompt follow-on agreement to avoid a costly buildup of strategic forces. [Back]

3. See Blair, Bruce G., Harold A. Feiveson and Frank N. von Hippel, "Taking Nuclear Weapons off Hair-Trigger Alert," Scientific American, November, 1997, pp. 74-80. [Back]

4. Gertz, Bill. "Pentagon Panel Weighs Lower Nuclear Alert Status," The Washington Times, December 12, 1997, p. A1. [Back]

5. Introductory remarks to a December 11, 1997, Committee on Nuclear Policy Forum on nuclear security and de-alerting held at the U.S. Capitol. [Back]

6. Congressional Research Service Brief for Congress, "Nuclear Weapons in the former Soviet Union: Location, Command and Control," Updated September 24, 1997, Amy F. Woolf. [Back]

7. Shadow visits involve officials of one country "shadowing" their counterparts from another nation during the latter's normal work day. [Back]

8. This rather alarming claim was later slightly modified by Lebed from "missing" to currently "unaccounted for" which seemed to make the problem more one of management than misappropriation. In any case, Lebed's claims were vigorously denied by senior Russian officials. [Back]

9. Gertz, Bill. "Russia to Slash Ground Forces, Rely on Nukes," The Washington Times, October 17, 1997, p. A1. [Back]

10. In reality, the debate between the Senate and the White House over multilateralization has as much to do with legislative-executive rights (which branch has the authority to recognize successor states) as it does with missile defenses. [Back]

Jack Mendelsohn, Arms Control Association (ACA) deputy director and member of the ACA Board of Directors, was on the U.S. SALT II and START I delegations. [Email] [Back]