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Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
U.S., Russian Legislatures Take Up SORT Ratification

Christine Kucia

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution to ratify the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) on February 5, but in January a committee of the Russian Duma rejected President Vladimir Putin’s draft of a ratification document, returning it to him with several conditions. The treaty’s flexible language and minimal accounting and verification measures remain outstanding concerns that lawmakers in both countries are trying to address.

SORT, signed by Putin and President George W. Bush in May 2002, stipulates that the United States and Russia must cut their deployed strategic nuclear arsenals to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads over the next 10 years. Roughly 6,000 nuclear weapons are deployed at present in each country. Only three pages long, the treaty forgoes verification and accounting procedures that earlier bilateral agreements included to ensure each party’s compliance. SORT also does not outline interim deadlines for the reductions, making its expiration date—December 31, 2012—the only day on which the cuts must be in effect. (See ACT, June 2002.)

As of February 28, the full Senate was still awaiting the opportunity to vote on SORT after the Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved a resolution of ratification. The resolution includes two conditions that apply only to U.S. enactment of the treaty’s provisions. It mandates an annual report outlining ways that the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which provides U.S. assistance to help secure and destroy Russian weapons of mass destruction, can assist Russia with its treaty implementation efforts. The resolution also calls for an annual update on the status of U.S. treaty implementation, including strategic force levels, planned reductions each calendar year, and verification or transparency measures that have been or might be employed.

The Senate’s resolution also outlines several declarations that are not binding on the president but which offer recommendations to strengthen the treaty and the U.S.-Russian relationship further. The declarations urge the president to complete the nuclear weapons reductions outlined in SORT prior to the treaty’s expiration; to continue to reduce U.S. strategic nuclear force levels, as national security requirements allow; to increase bilateral transparency on tactical nuclear weapons; and to consult with the Senate prior to a decision to withdraw from the treaty.

Despite these additions to the treaty, some senators expressed concern that SORT remains weak, lacking measures to destroy warheads removed from deployment, assure both countries that the reductions are being undertaken, and guarantee avenues for future arms control negotiations. Committee chair Richard Lugar (R-IN) assured his colleagues, “Our agreements need not be based on mutual suspicion or an adversarial relationship.” Senator John Kerry (D-MA), however, characterized the treaty as “lofty rhetoric and little real accomplishment,” according to a February 6 New York Times article.

Now that the Foreign Relations Committee has completed its work, Senate Republican leaders indicated that they are eager to bring the treaty to a vote on the floor soon. Ratification of SORT would require 67 votes from the 100-member Senate.

The Russian Duma also struggled with SORT’s brevity and lack of accounting measures during its deliberations on the treaty earlier this year. According to a January 17 Itar-Tass article, the Duma’s defense committee rejected a ratification document that Putin submitted on December 7, 2002. Finding that the document “fails to provide for comprehensive verification procedures of its implementation, in terms of quality and time,” the defense committee called for a working group to draft new language for the resolution.

On February 11, the Duma sent the bill back to Putin with conditions that the Russian government would have to follow. According to a February 11 Interfax report, the Duma stipulated that U.S. deployment of a missile defense system that could threaten Russia’s nuclear deterrent would prompt Russia’s withdrawal from the treaty. This condition underscores Moscow’s concern with U.S. missile defense development in the absence of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which became null after the United States withdrew from it on June 13, 2002.

In addition, the Duma called for additional funding for strategic nuclear forces to guarantee that they are maintained at levels consistent with national security requirements; a report from the president on strategic force deployments; and parliamentary participation in plans to develop, modernize, or dismantle weapons.

Putin will review the Duma’s version of the ratification document and must send it back to the legislature—either with the Duma’s changes or with Putin’s own revisions—and the Duma will decide again whether to approve the president’s document. Andrei Nikolaev, chair of the defense committee, told Interfax January 22 that the treaty could be ratified in late March or early April.