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"I greatly appreciate your very swift response, and your organization's work in general. It's a terrific source of authoritative information."

– Lisa Beyer
Bloomberg News
August 27, 2018
Don't Stop START II

Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.

After coming within a hairbreadth of Russian ratification, START II is now in serious jeopardy because of the U.S. bombing of Iraq and provocative U.S. statements on the deployment of a national missile defense (NMD). If, as a consequence, the Russian Duma fails to act soon on START II, there will be little prospect of further progress on nuclear arms reductions during the remainder of the Clinton administration and quite possibly the loss of past arms control accomplishments as well.

After years of delay, the Duma was scheduled on December 25 to ratify START II. The world was denied this long-awaited Christmas present, however, when the United States on December 16 launched intensive strikes against Iraq in response to Saddam Hussein's denial of UNSCOM inspections. The Duma postponment of the vote on START II reflects the strong disapproval across the spectrum of Russian political opinion of the U.S. actions, which were perceived as being taken in disdainful disregard of strong Russian objections. Nevertheless, the Duma announced that consideration of START II would resume in March, albeit under a cloud.

The Russians were then treated on January 20 to Secretary of Defense Cohen's announcement that advance funding would be provided to support NMD deployment should such decision be made in June 2000. Accepting uncritically the dubious proposition that a rogue-state ICBM threat will soon exist, Cohen stated that the decision to deploy now depends solely on demonstration of the necessary technology. And, if Russia would not agree to modify the ABM Treaty to accommodate the as-yet-undefined NMD system, Cohen said the United States could simply withdraw from the treaty. As the specific architecture of the system has yet to be defined, the modifications that Cohen has in mind are not clear. However, given the technically demanding, politically driven requirement that protection must be provided for all 50 states, all of the substantive articles of the treaty would have to be amended to permit deployment.

The timing of this announcement could not have been worse for START II. All Duma factions saw it as a blatant attempt to repudiate the fundamental bargain on which strategic nuclear reductions are based: namely, the ABM Treaty would prevent either side from deploying defenses to challenge the deterrence provided by the other side's offensive forces. In fact, the Duma had already included as a condition of START II ratification that U.S. violation of or withdrawal from the ABM Treaty would constitute a basis for Russian withdrawal from START II. To Russians, the idea that the United States, in response to the future possibility of a minimal nuclear threat from a weak, isolated North Korea, was prepared to repudiate the ABM Treaty at the ultimate cost of tens of billions of dollars was too irrational to be credible. Despite U.S. disclaimers, deployment of even a limited NMD system appeared in Moscow to be the first step in developing a defense to negate Russia's deteriorating strategic forces that would be further constrained by START II reductions.

With bitter memories of NATO expansion still fresh, these developments fed Duma suspicions of U.S. motives. Some Duma members were encouraged to argue that Russia would be better off without START II so that it could retain its SS-18 missiles (each with 10 high-yield warheads) and put three warheads on each new TOPOL-M missile.

Whatever value one places on a defense against the highly unlikely emergence of a credible rogue-state ICBM threat or on U.S. military actions against states such as Iraq and Serbia, that value pales in comparison with the importance of Russian ratification of START II and the commitment to follow-on negotiations on START III. These treaties would reduce—by about 75 percent from present levels—the number of deployed Russian strategic warheads. In addition they would eliminate all Russian land-based MIRVed missiles, which are particularly dangerous because their high value as targets encourages a precarious launch-on-warning posture. However unlikely a U.S.-Russian conflict may appear today, Russia remains the only country that can threaten U.S. survival.

The window of opportunity for START II is rapidly closing. The Duma's interest in the treaty will disappear as campaigning for its fall elections begins. Any prospects for favorable Duma action will be dealt a final blow if there are further provocative U.S. actions such as air strikes in the Kosovo crisis or invitations to any of the Baltic states to join NATO at the alliance's 50th anniversary celebration in late April.

President Clinton must move immediately to give START II the overriding priority it deserves in the U.S. national security process and avoid foreign policy actions that could result in the Duma's indefinite deferment of START II ratification.