By Philipp C. Bleek
Despite months of talks, substantial differences remain between Washington and Moscow over a legally binding accord to codify strategic nuclear force reductions, and it remains unclear whether the two sides will reach agreement by a presidential summit planned for late May.
Both sides have cited progress in the past two months, but more recently talks appear to have bogged down as U.S. officials continue to emphasize flexibility while Russia seeks to negotiate more substantial constraints on each side’s strategic nuclear forces.
President George W. Bush announced last November that the United States would reduce its operationally deployed strategic nuclear forces to 1,700-2,200 warheads by 2012, and Russian President Vladimir Putin subsequently called for reductions of strategic forces to 1,500-2,200 warheads each. Bush initially expressed skepticism about codifying the reductions in a legally binding pact, but Russian officials lobbied hard for such an arrangement and won U.S. agreement in February.
However, in late April both U.S. and Russian officials began to suggest that the two sides might not reach agreement in time for the upcoming summit, scheduled to begin May 23. During an April 29 briefing, a senior U.S. defense official said that reaching agreement by the summit remains “a possibility” but added that whether an agreement is reached “is not necessarily going to be a make or break issue for the summit.”
Similarly, Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Georgy Mamedov said during an April 24 interview with Russia’s ORT public television that the talks had “made some progress” but noted, “It is too soon yet to declare that we will or will not have a treaty because there are still some differences.”
Both sides have announced that the agreement will have a 10-year duration, meaning that if it entered into force this year it would expire in 2012. A U.S. official close to the negotiations said that when the agreement expires, the two sides would either seek to negotiate a successor pact or agree that no further agreement was necessary.
Washington and Moscow have reached an understanding on some facets of an agreement, but some of the most significant issues appear unresolved. When queried about areas of agreement during an interview, the U.S. official said that the two sides had agreed to pursue a legally binding agreement limiting both sides to between 1,700 and 2,200 deployed warheads each by 2012. But the official noted that Russia is seeking a “specific number” rather than a range.
According to the official, the most significant remaining stumbling block is how to count deployed weapons. Russian negotiators have proposed extending START I counting rules to apply to the new agreement, while the United States has proposed a new concept that would involve simply counting “operationally deployed” warheads, the official said.
Like START I, the Russian approach would limit the number of warheads that could be deployed by restricting the number of delivery vehicles each side may field and by mandating the verifiable dismantlement of excess delivery vehicles. Such an approach would count the maximum number of warheads the missiles and bombers could bear, regardless of how many they were actually deployed with. This would greatly reduce the potential for “uploading” stored warheads and thereby for rapidly increasing the size of deployed forces.
By only counting deployed warheads, the U.S. approach would allow maximum flexibility because it would permit the stockpiling of warheads and thereby preserve the ability to redeploy them rapidly. For example, the United States hopes to meet its reductions commitment by removing warheads from some multiple-warhead missiles, but those warheads could be quickly replaced on the missiles.
Whether and how the two sides will be permitted to store warheads under the new agreement is being addressed within the context of counting rule discussions, according to the U.S. official. The Bush administration has said that in addition to the 2,200 deployed strategic warheads it plans to field by 2012, it will stockpile in operational condition another 2,400 strategic warheads that could be redeployed within weeks, months, and years, with the full 2,400 warhead reserve deployable within three years.
Moscow has long called for nondeployed strategic warheads and delivery vehicles to be dismantled. But Mamedov appeared to indicate new flexibility on this issue when he noted that Moscow had been “satisfied” with the approach taken in previous bilateral strategic arms reduction treaties, under which nondeployed delivery vehicles were destroyed but warheads were stored.
Linking strategic offensive nuclear weapons with strategic defensive capabilities also continues to be a source of disagreement. Citing the impending U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which limits strategic missile defenses, Mamedov said that language on defensive capabilities “should be [a] fundamental provision” of any agreement. But Mamedov also hinted that Russia might be satisfied if language on defenses were incorporated into a separate “declaration of new strategic relations” that the two sides are also discussing.
The U.S. official said that Washington is not prepared to include language on defensive capabilities in the reductions agreement but noted that “there are other ways the Russians could get what they want,” apparently referring to the declaration.
The two sides are also discussing a provision that would supplement the agreement’s six-month-notice withdrawal clause by allowing either side to exceed the pact’s numerical limits if warranted by a change in strategic circumstances. U.S. government sources indicated that the United States is proposing that either side provide 45 days’ notice to the other side before it could exceed the agreement’s limits.
Moscow and Washington have also yet to agree whether the pact will be a treaty or a legislative-executive agreement, according to the U.S. official. Under international law, the two options are the same, but domestically they differ in that the former requires the Senate’s advice and consent while the latter must be passed by both the House and Senate and is subject to conference negotiations if the two legislative bodies disagree. According to the U.S. official, Russian negotiators “have made [a treaty] a matter of principle,” but the issue will not be decided until the two sides can evaluate a more advanced draft.
The official also noted that the agreement will be a “very short text” of only several pages, unlike the lengthy texts of past strategic arms control agreements. A short text is possible because the document can reference past accords, notably START I, and because “the strategic situation has changed” and there is an “increased level of trust” between the two countries, the official said.