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Russia Seeks New Nuclear Accord

Wade Boese

With a landmark U.S.-Russian strategic arms treaty nearing expiration, Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to revive a listless strategic arms dialogue with Washington. The Bush administration, however, has indicated repeatedly it is not interested in another strategic nuclear reductions accord.

Addressing Russian diplomats June 27, Putin complained about “the stagnation we see today in the area of disarmament.” He contended Russia was not to blame for the current status quo and was ready to move forward on disarmament issues. “Above all, we propose to our American partners that we launch negotiations to replace the [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] START,” he stated.

Signed in 1991, START I obliged Moscow and Washington to cut their deployed strategic nuclear forces of approximately 10,000 warheads apiece down to 6,000 each. Both capitals enacted their cuts by 2001, and the treaty is scheduled to expire Dec. 5, 2009. START II, negotiated in 1993, languished for years without entering into force. Finally, Moscow repudiated the accord a day after the June 13, 2002, U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty banning nationwide strategic missile defense systems. (See ACT, July/August 2002.)

Although the START I reductions have been completed, the treaty’s verification regime is still being relied on to assess the two countries’ progress toward meeting their May 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) commitments. Instead of negotiating specific SORT verification measures, the two governments stated in a joint declaration that START I “will provide the foundation for providing confidence, transparency, and predictability in further strategic offensive reductions.”

Then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice noted in a May 13, 2002, PBS interview that START I verification measures would provide “confidence that [SORT] reductions are actually being made.” The Department of State’s verification bureau has judged that SORT is not effectively verifiable without these measures. (See ACT, April 2005.)

But START I expires three years before Moscow and Washington must meet the SORT limit of 1,700-2,200 operationally deployed strategic warheads apiece. The United States currently fields around 5,400 strategic warheads, while Russia deploys about 1,000 less.

Bush administration officials have said repeatedly that they trust Russia to fulfill its reduction commitments. In an annual report on SORT implementation, the State Department predicted in May 2005 that there will be “increasing openness over the lifetime” of the treaty.

Yet, a U.S.-Russian working group created in connection to SORT to explore strategic offensive transparency issues last met in January 2005. Established under the May 2002 Consultative Group for Strategic Security, the group has been “replaced with a new forum,” Pentagon spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Karen Finn told Arms Control Today Aug. 23. She provided no explanation for why the group stopped meeting or why it was replaced.

Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph revealed in a May 18 interview with Arms Control Today that the United States and Russia were creating a new working group to look at issues related to the expiration of START I. Joseph is leading the group’s U.S. team while Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak heads Russia’s delegation.

No details about the substance and status of the talks have been released. The State Department provided Arms Control Today an Aug. 9 statement simply noting that “[t]he U.S. and Russia have each begun to address the larger question of how to conduct a dialogue on strategic issues, including reviewing the question of what arrangements could replace the START Treaty.”

For the past several years, Russia has advocated an agreement reducing U.S. and Russian strategic warheads to 1,500 warheads or fewer. Although Moscow is moving ahead on introducing two new ballistic missiles to its inventory—the mobile, land-based SS-27 Topol-M ICBM and the Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile—the size of the Russian strategic force is projected to continue shrinking below the SORT bottom limit because of costs associated with replacing older weapons. The Kremlin wants to bind Washington legally to go in the same downward direction.

But Bush administration officials have repeatedly said they are satisfied with SORT and not interested in negotiating further reductions. Most recently, Joseph in his May Arms Control Today interview said, “It is our view that we ought to focus on other threats.”

Moscow would clearly like to win U.S. agreement to lower strategic force levels, but Putin has dismissed the notion of trying to match the United States in arms numbers if Washington refuses. “We should not burn money uselessly,” Putin told Russian legislators May 10. Russia’s responses, he stated, “will be asymmetric [and] less costly, but they will undoubtedly make our nuclear triad more reliable and effective.”