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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Bush Endorses Legally Binding Nuclear Arms Deal With Russia

April 2002

By Philipp C. Bleek

In the administration’s highest-level statement of support to date for a legally binding pact on strategic reductions, President George W. Bush said March 13 that he expects to sign an agreement that will “codify” nuclear cuts in May, when he is scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Speaking at a White House press conference, Bush said he agreed with his Russian counterpart that “there needs to be a document that outlives both of us.” Administration officials indicated in February that two types of agreement, a treaty and an executive-legislative agreement, are under consideration, and Bush said that what form the pact takes remains under discussion.

In his press conference, Bush also repeatedly emphasized verification, calling it “the most important thing” in any prospective agreement. Bush indicated that the two sides still need to “develop and fully explore...how best to verify what’s taking place, to make sure there’s confidence in both countries.”

In announcing last November that he would cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal to between 1,700 and 2,200 deployed strategic warheads, Bush said that a formal arms control pact with Russia was unnecessary. But the administration’s stance has shifted over the past several months, and the president’s recent statement echoes the calls for a binding agreement first made by Secretary of State Colin Powell in February. (See ACT, March 2002.)

Recently, U.S. legislators have also become more insistent on playing a role in any process that significantly alters the deployment of U.S. nuclear forces. In a March 15 letter to Powell, Senators Joseph Biden (D-DE), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Jesse Helms (R-NC), the committee’s ranking member, argued that there is “no constitutional alternative” to a treaty.

Observing that “with the exception of the SALT I agreement, every significant arms control agreement during the past three decades has been transmitted to the Senate” as a treaty, the lawmakers insisted on their constitutional prerogative to provide advice and consent. The senators also indicated that they “expect close consultation…as negotiations with Russia proceed.”

Differences Remain

Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, who is leading a delegation in the ongoing negotiations with Moscow, said in a March 22 press conference that “a number of outstanding issues” have been dealt with but that there are still “a number of issues to resolve.” The undersecretary expressed optimism about reaching agreement in time for the May summit.

Bolton said that the United States and Russia have yet to agree on the manner in which warheads will be counted or on whether warheads removed from service must be dismantled. According to Bolton, there is not yet “complete congruence” on the issue of destroying downloaded warheads, but “the parties have reached an understanding that in order to reach agreement by the summit in May, we have to focus on…operationally deployed warheads.”

According to a Defense Department official, the United States is seeking to maintain a “responsive force” that would allow as many as 2,400 reserve nuclear warheads to be redeployed within three years to augment its planned operational force of 1,700-2,200 warheads.

Russia has long insisted that warheads removed from operation should be destroyed. Hinting that Moscow may be softening that stance, however, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov said in a March 17 television interview that the issue of storing some nondeployed warheads was “negotiable” and that the key criterion was maintaining “strategic stability.”

Bolton also indicated that, in addition to a standard clause included in most arms control accords that would allow either party to withdraw from the agreement with six months’ notice, the administration is proposing a mechanism that would allow it to exceed the agreement’s numerical limits “without actually withdrawing from the treaty” if warranted by “international geostrategic circumstances.”