By Wade Boese
Responding to the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty the previous day, Russia declared June 14 that it would no longer be bound by the START II nuclear arms reduction agreement.
Moscow’s announcement was more symbolic than substantive because START II had never taken effect and was unlikely to do so after Russia tied its fate to that of the ABM Treaty two years ago. In addition, Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin signed a new strategic reductions treaty May 24 that effectively superseded START II.
International law requires countries not to undermine the object of treaties they have signed, even if those treaties have not entered into force. However, in its June 14 statement Russia declared it no longer considered itself legally obligated to refrain from actions forbidden by START II because it believed the treaty was dead.
Russia’s action did not surprise the Bush administration. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters June 17, “We knew they were going to do this, and they’ve now done so.”
If it had entered into force, START II would have required the United States and Russia to reduce their deployed strategic nuclear forces to no more than 3,500 warheads apiece. START II also banned multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) on ICBMs. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush described MIRVs as “the most destabilizing strategic weapons.”
According to a U.S. official, the collapse of START II has not upset the Bush administration because the United States and Russia have already “moved beyond” the accord with the May 24 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty. The new treaty, if it enters into force, will commit each country to limit its deployed strategic nuclear forces to fewer than 2,200 warheads by the end of 2012. (See ACT, June 2002.)
Previously viewed as a major accomplishment of START II, the MIRV ban is not part of the new agreement, but the Bush administration appears indifferent. Boucher described the president as “not terribly concerned” about how Russia deploys its warheads.
Russia is now free to extend the service life of some of its aging MIRVed missiles, such as the SS-18, which would make it easier and less costly for Russia to maintain the force level permitted by the new treaty. Moscow has talked about putting multiple warheads on its newest ICBM, the Topol-M (SS-27). But Russia would need to slightly modify the Topol-M and declare it as a new type of missile for the action to be legal under START, which is in force until December 2009. Russia began fielding small numbers of single-warhead Topol-Ms in 1998.
Russia had long complained that START II was unfair because Moscow deploys a greater proportion of its strategic warheads on MIRVed ICBMs than the United States. To maintain parity with U.S. forces under START II, Moscow would have needed to build a substantial number of expensive, new single-warhead ICBMs after eliminating its MIRVs.
Although many Russian politicians disliked START II, they eventually saw it as possible leverage to preserve the ABM Treaty, which Moscow perceived as increasingly threatened by U.S. missile defense plans.
When Russia finally ratified START II in May 2000—seven years after the treaty was signed and four years after the Senate approved the accord—it conditioned the treaty’s entry into force on U.S. approval of a 1997 package of several arms control agreements, including measures to clarify the terms of the ABM Treaty. Moscow also stated that U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty would be grounds for Russia to pull out of START II.
The U.S. official said June 18 that these past Russian linkages “made it impossible for START II to enter into force.”