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Bloomberg News
August 27, 2018
Assessing the New U.S.-Russian Pact
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John Holum

The Bush administration should be congratulated for completing an arms control treaty and for doing so in a timely manner. This new treaty further defines an important truth: the Cold War is long over and the United States and Russia are no longer adversaries.

As compared to previous administrations, including those of President Reagan and the first President Bush, it is fair to say that the current administration is not generally enamored of formal arms control. This is not an observation that anyone in the administration would dispute, and it is reflected in the administration’s approach to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention protocol, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and UN efforts to control small arms.

The administration’s wariness of arms control is also reflected in its initial approach to strategic offensive nuclear arms reductions. The Bush team originally wanted to reduce the number of deployed offensive arms by unilateral decisions and to confirm these decisions with a handshake rather than a legally binding agreement. As reflected in January’s nuclear posture review, the administration also apparently sees a larger and more durable role for nuclear weapons in international affairs. For example, the review explicitly suggests their use in response to non-nuclear attacks.

In that context, this new treaty, to some extent, represents a reversal of the administration’s unilateral approach. However, the treaty does not point to a major reversal. Aside from the number of warheads and delivery vehicles each side actually mates up and deploys, the treaty essentially regards each side’s nuclear posture as its own business. It is also up to each side whether they will actually eliminate any of the nuclear weapons they remove from deployment.

The new treaty sets aside some arms control gains in START II. That treaty would have eliminated all remaining land-based missiles with multiple warheads, most significantly more than 150 Russian SS-18 heavy missiles with 10 warheads each, long considered a potential first-strike weapon. With the new treaty, the administration is effectively abandoning START II and this key limit on multiple-warhead ICBMs.

Because the new treaty gives Washington and Moscow until 2012 to get down to the 1,700-2,200 warhead range, the number of warheads deployed in the interim are likely to be higher than they would have been under START II. Even as extended in 1997, that treaty would have taken the two sides down to 3,500 warheads by 2007, and relevant delivery vehicles would have been deactivated by 2003. Under the new treaty’s timetable and the nuclear posture review, the United States will still have some 3,800 warheads in 2008.

Furthermore, it is disappointing that in the closing days of the discussions on the new treaty, efforts to adopt new transparency measures that may have helped to get a handle on the large numbers of Russian tactical nuclear weapons were apparently dropped. Washington and Moscow had agreed to address these weapons in the context of START III negotiations, which have also now been abandoned.

On the flip side, the advantages the United States can claim from the treaty fall principally in the realm of military flexibility. The Pentagon can develop its nuclear force structure without requirements to meet detailed treaty limitations, and, of course, there is no longer any link between strategic reductions and constraints on missile defenses, as there would have been with the agreements linked to START II’s entry into force.

The treaty should go down fairly well in Russia. President Putin came to the negotiating table with virtually no leverage. He could not bargain warhead numbers down because it has long been obvious that Russia cannot afford to maintain its existing forces and, in fact, Moscow has for years been pushing for a lower number than the United States would accept. Previously, Putin’s main leverage to extract lower numbers and other concessions had been his ability to withhold amendment of the ABM Treaty, but that card evaporated last December when President Bush gave notice of U.S. withdrawal from that treaty.

But, in the end, Putin gained important concessions from Washington. First, he got a legally binding agreement, in place of the easily reversible unilateral cuts President Bush initially proposed. Second, he has the appearance, at least, of parity, with the United States coming down to the same range of deployed warheads that Russia is economically capable of sustaining. Third, with START II now defunct, Putin has greater ability to maintain the numbers allowed by the treaty, and so preserve equality, because he can keep land-based MIRVed missiles; Russian SS-18s could account for more than 1,500 warheads by themselves. Fourth, Russia will be able to glean savings since it will not have to get rid of delivery vehicles that START II would have eliminated. So, despite some early criticism from both countries’ legislatures, a relatively smooth path to ratification by both the Duma and the Senate seems assured.

Aside from these more narrow pros and cons, there are two broader areas that need to be closely considered: the agreement’s nonproliferation ramifications, which is a much greater worry than an arms race or military conflict with Russia, and how the agreement will impact elsewhere.

The first concern is a practical one. To the extent that both the United States and Russia keep large numbers of extra warheads and bombs around, there is a greater risk that dangerous materials will fall into the wrong hands. And although they do not have to be interdependent, formal arms control has been an important channel to press Russia in the threat reduction area. It has also been used to pressure Moscow to live up to other obligations, such as not assisting countries like Iran in their pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile technology.

The second concern is a political one. The international community will have a hard time figuring out why the United States pressed to keep so many weapons on the shelf. Washington says that Russia is not an adversary; and China, the country with the next highest number of nuclear weapons, has less than two dozen nuclear weapons that can reach the United States. The non-nuclear-weapon states see the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a bargain under which they agree to forgo nuclear weapons entirely and the nuclear-weapon states agree to negotiate the ultimate elimination of their nuclear stockpiles. A treaty billed as an arms reduction agreement but under which most of the weapons will be retained could be a hard sell, at least absent a compelling explanation of the need.

In the same vein, non-nuclear-weapon states have relied on assurance received in 1978 and 1995 that nuclear weapons would not be used against them unless, essentially, they attacked a nuclear country in alliance with another nuclear-weapon state. Together with a nuclear posture review that undercuts those assurances, a treaty that allows the retention of thousands of weapons will be questioned as other countries consider how serious they should be about the NPT, the chemical and biological weapons conventions, and other measures that constrain them.

Terrorists, of course, do not join these regimes. But to the extent that the regimes are weakened or undercut and the atmosphere is permissive, terrorists will have an easier time gaining access to weapons of mass destruction. In the end, therefore, perhaps the biggest open question about this new agreement must be, will it help address the dominant security challenge of proliferation, or could it hurt nonproliferation efforts?

John Holum is vice president for international and governmental affairs at Atlas Air, Inc. During the Clinton administration, he served as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security and as director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.