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– Frank Klotz
former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
U.S., Russia Agree to Codify Nuclear Reductions
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Philipp C. Bleek

U.S. and Russian officials announced in February that they have agreed to work toward a formal agreement codifying strategic nuclear cuts that will be subject to approval by their respective legislatures, and they provided more details on the possible terms of such an accord.

Speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 5, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that the United States and Russia are working to reach a “legally binding” agreement on strategic nuclear cuts. Indicating that the specific form of the agreement remains undecided, Powell said, “It can be an executive agreement that both houses of Congress might wish to speak on, or it might be a treaty.”

The secretary’s comments marked the first time the administration has said it would codify the nuclear reductions first announced by Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in November. (See ACT, December 2001.) Previously, administration officials, including Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, had repeatedly voiced an aversion to what they characterized as Cold War-style arms control treaties.

Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Alexander Yakovenko echoed Powell’s remarks in a February 27 statement, saying that the “treaty” on strategic arms reductions would have “a legally binding character” and would be submitted “for the consideration of [both countries’] legislative bodies.”

In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing February 28, Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) asked Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, who had just returned from Moscow, about Yakovenko’s reference to a “treaty.” Feith replied that negotiators had agreed to a “legally binding” arrangement but had yet to decide whether it would be a treaty or an “executive-legislative agreement.” The latter has the status of a treaty in international law but must be approved by a majority vote in both houses of Congress rather than by a two-thirds vote in the Senate, the approval mechanism for a treaty.

In a statement to the committee two weeks earlier, Feith had testified that U.S. officials are “perfectly open, if we can achieve an agreement that warrants it, to have it be a treaty,” but he had also said that “we see no reason to try to dictate the size and composition of Russia’s strategic forces by legal means.” Feith further indicated that because “new dangers” are likely to emerge, “we do not believe it is prudent to set in stone the level and type of U.S. nuclear capabilities.”

Feith had also reaffirmed some of Powell’s statements, saying the administration is considering “multiple agreements” with Moscow covering strategic reductions, transparency and predictability, and military cooperation, including on missile defenses.

More Details Provided

Officials from Washington and Moscow have also provided new information on an agreement’s likely composition. Yakovenko indicated in his statement that the United States and Russia had agreed to a “duration” of 10 years for the pact, that it would be “based on the verification mechanisms” of START I, and that the agreement would be “supplemented with new transparency and confidence measures with respect to nuclear warheads.”

When asked February 5 if a new agreement with Russia would include START II’s verification provisions and ban on multiple-warhead ICBMs, Powell had repeated previous statements that Moscow and Washington are considering how to “bring forward” START I verification and transparency provisions, and he indicated that the administration was also considering “how to deal with START II.”

Powell also said that Bush had told his Russian counterpart that if he wants to add multiple warheads to missiles, as Putin had threatened to do if the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, he could “go ahead.” Powell noted that relations between Moscow and Washington are now under a “different framework,” whereby “you do what you have to do to defend yourself, we’ll do what we have to do to defend ourselves.”

U.S.-Russian talks on an agreement have been underway since January. John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, met with his Russian counterpart, Georgy Mamedov, February 19 but noted at a subsequent press conference that the two sides may not reach agreement by May, when Bush and Putin are scheduled to meet for a summit. A State Department official indicated February 20 that further talks are likely “in a couple weeks” but that no date has yet been set.

Despite apparent agreement on key issues, substantive differences have yet to be resolved. Yakovenko indicated in his February 27 statement that “a number of serious outstanding issues still remain.” Most importantly, he indicated, the two sides must agree on “real, not virtual strategic arms reductions,” a clear criticism of Washington’s plan to stockpile rather than dismantle warheads removed from operation.