Senate Reviews U.S.-Russian Nuclear Reductions Treaty

September 2002

By Wade Boese

In a series of July and August hearings, senators of both parties signaled that they would support ratification of the latest U.S.-Russian nuclear arms accord, even though several questioned the treaty’s failure to require the destruction of warheads, lay out a schedule for warhead reduction, or establish measures to verify that the promised reductions actually take place. Senior Bush administration officials largely downplayed the senators’ concerns.

Signed May 24 by Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty commits the United States and Russia to reduce their deployed strategic nuclear arsenals to 1,700-2,200 warheads apiece by December 31, 2012. The accord, which the Bush administration refers to as the Moscow Treaty, expires that same day. (See ACT, June 2002.)

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (D-DE) left little doubt about the treaty’s fate July 9, when he opened the first hearing on the accord. Although detailing several problems he had with the treaty, Biden concluded that he hoped to see the treaty voted on and approved this fall. Other Democrats echoed Biden, raising questions and concerns but ultimately underscoring that they saw the treaty as a positive step forward.

Most Republicans offered unqualified praise. A notable exception was Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN). A leading proponent of helping Russia secure and destroy its huge weapons stockpiles, Lugar endorsed the treaty but expressed worries about what would happen to Russian nuclear warheads separated from their missiles, submarines, and bombers.

Testifying at different hearings, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissed complaints about the treaty’s lack of warhead destruction, claiming that both Russia and the United States would certainly destroy warheads they did not need. Rumsfeld added at his July 25 Armed Services Committee appearance that the administration was unlikely to pursue an agreement on warhead dismantlement in the future.

Rumsfeld explained that the administration did not want to require warhead elimination because the United States must be able to store warheads in case it needs to replace deployed warheads that became unreliable or unsafe. Rumsfeld added that the future cannot be accurately predicted and the world could undergo a dramatic change that would necessitate a buildup in U.S. nuclear forces.

The Bush administration is planning to keep up to 2,400 warheads that it removes from service ready for redeployment in weeks, months, or at most three years. Thousands of other warheads and components will be kept as spares or in lower stages of readiness.

Democratic critics charged that by storing warheads, rather than eliminating them or their delivery vehicles, the administration was being misleading about the true extent of the reductions. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) pointedly told Powell July 9 that “there’s a certain fiction here in addition.” Powell subsequently told Biden at the same hearing, “The treaty will allow you to have as many warheads as you want.”

Both Powell and Rumsfeld argued that the administration does not care what Russia does with its deployed or stored warheads as long as they are secure against theft or unauthorized use. Both secretaries and General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, played down past U.S. concerns that Russia might keep or put multiple warheads on its missiles, stating simply that times had changed and multiple-warhead missiles were no longer a worry.

Powell even suggested July 9 that the Bush administration would not be particularly concerned if Russia did not reduce its forces at all, declaring that the administration had decided independently to cut U.S. warheads regardless of whether Russia reciprocated. “Just keep in mind, what we are doing in this treaty, we were going to do anyway,” the secretary told senators.

Responding to a question about why the treaty had no reduction schedule, Powell commented that the United States did not seek any milestones. He explained that the administration desires the freedom to make reductions at whatever pace it wants.

Myers and Admiral James Ellis, commander-in-chief of U.S. Strategic Command, both highlighted at separate hearings the flexibility to alter the pace of reductions as one of the treaty’s most attractive aspects because it would enable the United States to respond to changes in the strategic environment. “The one cornerstone of [the] treaty is it just provides great flexibility,” Myers remarked July 25.

But some Democratic senators sharply asked administration officials what plausible scenarios dictated preserving large warhead stockpiles and the flexibility to slow, halt, or reverse reductions, particularly since 1,700-2,200 warheads far exceeds the nuclear weapons holdings of any country, excluding Russia.

Rumsfeld acknowledged July 25 that 1,700-2,200 strategic nuclear warheads is “a lot.” Such a large force was required, however, he said, to persuade U.S. allies not to develop nuclear weapons for their protection and to dissuade other nuclear powers from trying to achieve parity with the United States. Both Rumsfeld and Powell denied that the force level was based on the size of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

Because Russia is no longer the threat driving the U.S. nuclear force size, according to Powell, the administration saw no need to craft ways to watch whether Moscow strictly abided by the treaty. In his July 9 prepared testimony, Powell wrote that during the treaty negotiations “the Administration did not seek any new verification measures.”

Instead, Powell informed senators, who repeatedly quizzed witnesses about the lack of verification measures, that the inspections and data exchanges of the 1991 START accord would provide enough information on Russian activities, at least up to December 2009, when it expires. If the United States wants more information, it could work with Russia through the new treaty’s Bilateral Implementation Commission to develop additional transparency, Powell said. The commission has yet to be set up, but it is supposed to meet at least twice per year.

Rumsfeld, however, offered a completely different take on verification. He testified July 17 that the Bush administration had “repeatedly raised verification and transparency and predictability issues” but had dropped the effort because “there simply wasn’t time to do that.” Further discussions about transparency would not occur in the Bilateral Implementation Commission because it is not a negotiating body, Rumsfeld said July 25. He said such talks would be held within the recently created Consultative Group for Strategic Security, a forum that he and Powell and their Russian counterparts will chair. The forum’s first meeting is September 20 in Washington.

Senators are not yet done reviewing the treaty. There may be at least two additional hearings in September, one of which might include a witness from the U.S. intelligence community to testify on the treaty’s verifiability. It remains uncertain when a vote on the treaty could take place.