News Analysis: U.S.-Russian Nuclear Rivalry Linger

Wade Boese

In signing an arms control treaty with Russia two years ago, President George W. Bush said the simple, less than 500-words document reflected a new spirit of cooperation and trust between the two former foes based upon the recognition that they were no longer enemies.

“This treaty liquidates the Cold War legacy of nuclear hostility between our countries,” Bush said at the May 24, 2002 signing of the U.S.-Russian Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) in Moscow.

Yet, it appears that when it comes to nuclear weapons, old habits die hard. In closing the deal on SORT, the two countries also agreed to establish a new forum to discuss matters related to their nuclear forces. But competing agendas blocked talks in this forum over the past year.

There “hasn’t been a lot of energy in this process,” a U.S. government official told Arms Control Today Dec. 8, because neither side is happy with what the other wants to talk about.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin—harkening back to the days of its superpower competition with the United States—is boasting about its development of new offensive strategic capabilities designed to render ineffective anti-missile systems such as those being developed by Washington.

The Bush administration touts the SORT agreement as one of its major disarmament achievements. The accord requires Washington and Moscow to reduce their operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads to less than 2,200 apiece by the end of 2012. But it does not require the destruction of any weapons, establish a schedule for the reductions, or include verification measures to ensure each side is following through on the agreement. Because of the absence of verification provisions, the U.S. intelligence community has informed the Bush administration that it would be unable to verify with high confidence Russia’s compliance with the treaty, according to a Dec. 20, 2004 Knight Ridder report.

The United States possesses almost 6,000 deployed strategic warheadsroughly 1,000 more than Russia. Both countries also store thousands of nondeployed strategic warheads that are not limited by SORT or other previous bilateral treaties.

In conjunction with SORT, the two sides established the Consultative Group for Strategic Security (CGSS) as the “principal mechanism through which the sides strengthen mutual confidence, expand transparency, share information and plans, and discuss strategic issues of mutual interest.” In short, the group, which is chaired by the two countries’ foreign and defense ministers, is responsible for working out nuclear weapons issues that SORT does not address. The two governments later formed separate CGSS working groups on missile defense cooperation and offensive transparency.

These working groups met several times in 2003, but the offensive transparency working group did not meet in 2004. A meeting of this group might occur in late January, according to U.S. government officials. Washington would like to use the talks to win Moscow’s support for increasing personnel exchanges, tours, and briefings in the event a matter of concern arises.

The United States is also seeking greater information on Russia’s tactical nuclear warheads, which are those designed for battlefield use. Neither SORT nor previous U.S.-Russian/Soviet arms control agreements limit tactical nuclear warhead stockpiles. Russia is estimated to possess thousands in undisclosed locations, and the United States stations 480 in six European states. (See ACT, November 2004.)

Moscow has shown little interest in the U.S. proposals, according to the U.S. official interviewed Dec. 8. Instead, Russia wants to discuss issues that it raised regularly during the Cold War, such as heavy bomber deployments, submarine operations, and sea-launched cruise missile limits.

To be sure, the two countries did hold some meetings in 2004 on fulfilling existing treaty commitments. U.S. and Russian officials met twice through the Bilateral Implementation Commission to discuss progress in carrying out SORT, although they did not have much to say since neither side has finalized plans for implementing the treaty. Washington has mapped out reductions to 3,500-4,000 operationally deployed strategic warheads by 2007, while the U.S. official described Moscow’s plans as “very vague.”

Despite a recent boost in Russian revenue from high oil and gas prices, Russian forces are projected to decline to 1,500 or fewer deployed strategic nuclear warheads over the next decade due to budget constraints and retirement of aging nuclear delivery systems.

Still, the influx of funds has enabled Moscow to try and preserve some parity with Washington by allowing Russia to resume activity on strategic weapons programs previously slowed or shelved because of financial strains. Some of the projects date back to the Soviet period.

Amid what it claimed were its largest military exercises in two decades, Moscow announced early last year a successful test of a new weapon capable of high-speed maneuvers. Few details have emerged about the system, which a top Russian military official described as a hypersonic glide vehicle.

Russia also touted progress on two new types of long-range ballistic missiles: a road-mobile Topol-M and the submarine-launched Bulava. Moscow reported a fourth successful test of the road-mobile missile on Dec. 24 and intends to start deploying the single-warhead missile as early as 2006. Russia has fielded 40 silo-based Topol-Ms since 1997.

Moscow has notified Washington of its intention to deploy the Bulava, but when that would happen is unclear as it is still in the very early stages of testing and the new submarines that are being developed to carry the missile are still under construction.

The value of these new systems, according to Russian statements, is their ability to penetrate missile defenses. While Russian officials avoid saying their arms are developed with the United States in mind, the Bush administration champions missile defense as a top priority. The administration asserts that its anti-missile systems are not for military advantage vis-a-vis Russia but for protection against emerging missile powers and terrorists.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Feb. 18, 2004, “as other countries increase the number and quality of their arms and military potential, then Russia will also need to ensure it has new generation arms and technology.” He later declared in November that Russia is pursuing arms that have no equal.

Bush administration officials say they are not worried about Russia’s arms developments because it is no longer an enemy. Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Stephen Rademaker told a Washington audience Dec. 17 that the United States is not concerned about Russian claims that their new missiles are capable of evading missile defenses.

The U.S. official interviewed Dec. 8 deemed much of Russia’s rhetoric as being geared for domestic consumption. Yet, the official added that the “sense of competition is very much alive” in Russia because it “tends to view the world as we did 15 years ago.”

The Bush administration has expressed little interest in conducting any further nuclear weapon negotiations with Russia. After completion of SORT, Bush’s National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said in an interview with PBS, “We believe that [SORT] is a transitional measure to a day when arms control will play a very minor role in U.S.-Russian relations, if a role at all.”