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August 27, 2018
Re: ReSTART? The Need for a New U.S.-Russian Strategic Arms Agreement
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Nikolai Sokov

Anatoli Diakov and Eugene Miasnikov (“ReSTART? The Need for a New U.S.-Russian Strategic Arms Agreement,” Arms Control Today, September 2006) provide an interesting discussion of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposal to replace START I with a new strategic reductions treaty. But they did not fully touch on several important issues, pertaining to how a final treaty might evolve.

Diakov and Miasnikov are right to argue that START I should be replaced, not extended. Many of its provisions became outdated even before it was signed because the pace of events in the last years of the Cold War overtook negotiations. In fact, the United States and the Soviet Union briefly considered abandoning it halfway in favor of negotiating a new treaty, but then decided to finish the job and instead adopted a special Joint Statement at the June 1990 summit outlining some key provisions of a follow-on treaty.

However, two subsequent attempts to replace START I failed. The 1993 START II never entered into force and was formally abandoned by Russia in 2002 the day after the United States withdrew from the 1972 ABM Treaty. START III consultations, which were launched by the 1997 Helsinki Joint Statement, never came to fruition and were abandoned by the end of 2000. By contrast, the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) is not a replacement for START I—it is more a joint statement than a full-scale treaty.

Many outdated provisions notwithstanding, START I has done a good job of providing transparency and predictability for the strategic arsenals of the parties. These elements need to be preserved. START I limits, however, are part of the past. It is likely that the substitute treaty will incorporate the targets provided by SORT—1,700-2,200 warheads compared to 6,000 in START I—or establish a new, somewhat lower target.

The biggest question regarding negotiations on the replacement treaty, which for convenience could be dubbed START+, is the scope of changes—provisions that will be dropped or modified. The “game of negotiations” is likely to be tense. Each or almost each proposed change entails a concession to the other side. Consequently, each side will carefully weigh which changes it wants to propose; and, paradoxically, the number of changes might be smaller than one can expect today. Each or almost each bargain will force the sides to consider abandoning the “game” altogether, that is, each will use the threat of withdrawing from negotiations and allowing START I to lapse without replacement.

Diakov and Miasnikov named Russia’s central demand: the right to put multiple warheads on its new Topol-M ICBMs. This appears to be a sine qua non condition: Russia would rather allow START I to expire than have a START+ without it. In fact, in the late 1990s some in the Russian military were even prepared to consider early withdrawal from START I just to clear the way for putting multiple warheads on Topol-Ms. The right to increase the number of warheads on other existing types could be on the agenda as well.

By contrast, a key U.S. demand—one that is likely to be granted—is likely to be new accounting rules that will make START+ similar to SORT. Whereas in START I every type of delivery vehicle is assumed to carry a certain number of warheads, SORT counts only warheads that each party declares deployed (although that number cannot be reliably verified), allowing the parties to claim reductions by removing warheads without eliminating missiles. This is known as “downloading.” Additionally, the United States will probably want the right to replace nuclear warheads with conventional warheads on some sea- and land-based strategic missiles.

Another item on the Russian agenda will be preservation of START I’s verification system. Russian officials consistently emphasize its value, but they also consider it cumbersome and expensive. It seems likely that Russian proposals will be similar to the ones considered for the ill-fated START III. Reportedly, these included reductions in the number of short-notice inspections and their replacement with “visits,” whose procedures would be less taxing than those mandated by START I.

Other likely Russian proposals would likely prove more controversial. These include modifying procedures for verifying the number of warheads so that inspectors can more easily count their actual number and a continued Russian insistence that existing warhead platforms on downloaded missiles be eliminated so that warheads, once removed, could not be put back secretly.

While the United States will probably agree to simplify START I verification rules, it will continue to object to new procedures for downloaded missiles. It will almost certainly have controversial proposals as well—elements of its own START III proposal regarding transparency of warhead stockpiles, including tactical nuclear warheads. Russia rejected these proposals in 2000 and is likely to reject them again.

In the end, negotiations might lead to an intriguing outcome, a START+ combining some of the flexibility of SORT with a simplified START I verification system.

One change that is almost certain concerns the number of parties to START+. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, its place was taken by four newly independent states with START I-limited weapons in their territories: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. The replacement treaty again could be made bilateral.

An element of uncertainty of START+ talks is how the Kremlin will address the issue of missile defense. Russia could insist on restraints on U.S. deployments, particularly in space, a demand that the United States is certain to resist. The result would be deadlock, as occurred with START I and later with START III. Russia might abandon that position, but rather than a change in its policy, this would represent a practical decision to solve only issues that are solvable and to postpone missile defense until some future, more opportune time.

Will START I replacement signal a renewed commitment of the United States and Russia to their nuclear disarmament obligations under Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty? Hardly. Like SORT, START+ would be primarily about optimizing nuclear arsenals inherited from the Cold War. The key benefits of the new treaty would be that these reductions would be transparent and predictable—features that SORT lacks. This seems a fair gain, worthy of a sincere effort.


Nikolai Sokov is a senior research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He was part of the Soviet delegation to the START I talks.