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"In my home there are few publications that we actually get hard copies of, but [Arms Control Today] is one and it's the only one my husband and I fight over who gets to read it first."

– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Arms Issues Divide U.S. and Russia

Wade Boese

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s midsummer visit to President George W. Bush’s seaside family retreat in Maine netted one fish and little else.

To be sure, the two governments took some bilateral nuclear cooperation steps but failed to settle sharp disagreements on U.S. anti-missile plans and a European conventional arms pact. Indeed, Putin subsequently charged Washington with ignoring Russian proposals on missile defenses and announced a possible suspension starting in December of Russia’s participation in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. Putin also authorized the resumption of long-range Russian strategic bomber patrols.

Bush acknowledged that the July 1-2 visit did not leave the two leaders seeing exactly eye to eye. “Do I like everything he says? No. And I suspect he doesn’t like everything I say,” Bush told reporters July 2. Still, Bush claimed that he and Putin “made great strides in setting a foundation” for future nuclear security relations.

The Nuclear Agenda

The White House July 3 issued a U.S.-Russian declaration reaffirming the two governments’ commitments to promote nuclear energy expansion worldwide while limiting the spread of nuclear technologies that could be exploited to build nuclear weapons. Underlying this effort are evolving U.S. and Russian projects to provide nuclear fuel and other services to countries to entice them to forgo development of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities, which can be used to produce reactor fuel or bombs. The two countries also declared their willingness to provide or facilitate financial assistance, infrastructure support, and regulatory and technical training for those countries looking to benefit from nuclear power programs.

Washington’s aim is to prevent additional countries from acquiring capabilities to pursue nuclear weapons illicitly under the guise of nuclear energy programs, something it asserts Iran is doing. Tehran denies the allegation.

Briefing reporters July 3, Robert Joseph, U.S. special envoy for nuclear nonproliferation, noted that Iran and North Korea would not be able to participate in the projects, saying, “cooperation, of course, would be with countries with good nonproliferation credentials.” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Kislyak, however, quickly added that if those two countries cleared up suspicions about their nuclear programs, “they will be as eligible as anybody else.”

Meanwhile, the Bush administration two weeks later blessed the idea of nuclear-armed India’s construction of a new reprocessing facility. Washington is courting New Delhi as an ally, and part of that effort has included negotiation of a bilateral nuclear cooperation accord, known as a 123 agreement after the section of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 that requires codifying the terms of U.S. nuclear trade with foreign governments (see page 22 ).

In the U.S.-Russian July 3 declaration, the two governments noted that they also had initialed their own 123 agreement. Bush and Putin endorsed negotiating the pact a year earlier to diminish bureaucratic obstacles to nuclear cooperation and perhaps pave the way for Russia to import U.S.-origin spent nuclear fuel for reprocessing, which is controversial in the United States. (See ACT, September 2006. )

Also on July 3, the United States and Russia pledged to continue to reduce their strategic nuclear forces “to the lowest possible level consistent with their national security requirements and alliance commitments.” The two sides are legally bound by the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) to deploy no more than 2,200 operational strategic warheads each by Dec. 31, 2012. That cap expires that same day, freeing both countries to deploy more warheads.

The Kremlin wants a new lower ceiling of reportedly 1,500 warheads or fewer, as well as delivery vehicle limits. It has made these proposals as part of talks with Washington on a successor arrangement to the START accord, which is scheduled to expire Dec. 5, 2009. Concluded in 1991, START obligated Moscow and Washington to cut their deployed strategic nuclear forces exceeding 10,000 warheads each to fewer than 6,000 apiece.

Both sides fulfilled their START reductions several years ago, but they continue to employ the treaty’s extensive verification regime to conduct inspections and exchange data on their deployed strategic nuclear forces. SORT lacks any verification measures, and the U.S. intelligence community reportedly has concluded that it will not have sufficient access to confidently assess Russia’s nuclear forces and compliance with SORT once START expires.

Nonetheless, neither capital has proposed exercising START’s five-year extension option. Instead, the two sides agreed in March to exchange post-START proposals. Russia provided an April draft agreement detailing future arms limits, while the Bush administration, which does not favor new legal caps, supplied a June draft of measures to maintain some nuclear transparency. U.S. and Russian experts are supposed to meet in September to discuss each other’s drafts.

Fearing that a new agreement might not be ready when START expires, some U.S. lawmakers are urging Bush to consider extending the treaty so the next administration will have time to conclude a new accord that “achieves greater, verifiable reductions.” In a July 24 letter, Chair of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) and 27 of her colleagues, including the chairs of the House armed services and foreign affairs panels, also warned that if START lapsed without a follow-on arrangement in place, there would be “greater strategic uncertainty.”

Missile Defense Discord

The Russian government sees another threat to strategic stability: U.S. plans to base 10 strategic missile interceptors in Poland and an associated radar in the Czech Republic.

U.S. officials contend that Moscow is overreacting to an intended defense against an evolving Iranian missile threat, not Russian ballistic missiles. The Kremlin counters that an Iranian long-range missile threat is up to 20 years away and is offering to share radar data and intelligence with the United States to prove that assessment. (See ACT, July/August 2007. )

During his two-day visit with Bush, Putin repeated the Russian ideas. He also volunteered that the two countries might move ahead with building a long-stalled Joint Data Exchange Center in Moscow, as well as a similar facility in Brussels. Originally agreed to in 1998, the Moscow center was envisioned to facilitate real-time information sharing on worldwide ballistic missile launches and flights. (See ACT, June 2006. )

Bush called Putin’s proposals “very sincere” and “innovative.” Yet, the administration shows no signs of shelving its plans. Hosting Poland’s president July 16 at the White House, Bush declared, “[T]here’s no better symbol of our desire to work for peace and security than working on a missile defense system.”

Led by Kislyak, a Russian delegation visiting Washington July 30 supplied a written copy of Moscow’s missile defense positions to U.S. officials. For its part, the U.S. side invited Russian experts to visit existing U.S. bases in Alaska and California where 20 interceptors in total are fielded. Moscow has previously passed on similar offers, although Russian military officials have visited several times the U.S. missile defense operations center in Colorado.

The interceptors slated for emplacement in Europe are a modified and untested version of those deployed in the United States. The current U.S. model had its first and last successful intercept trial in September 2006, although earlier predecessors scored five hits in eight rudimentary intercept tests between 1999 and 2002.

A September meeting is planned so that Washington can respond to the Russian missile defense position paper. That conference and another in early October are preludes to an Oct. 12 Moscow meeting between the U.S. secretaries of defense and state with their Russian counterparts. Missile defense figures to rank high on the agenda.

Russian offers to share radar data and intelligence are conditioned on the United States not deploying anti-missile systems in Europe. Moscow also warns it will militarily target any such capabilities and implies that Russia will feel compelled to burnish its offensive forces. Writing in the August issue of Global Affairs magazine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov noted “nobody can abolish the interrelation between defensive and offensive strategic weapons.”

The CFE Treaty Clash

In his article, Lavrov cited the proposed missile defense deployments as one element of a broader U.S. strategy to contain Russia. He contended that this goal also “clearly manifests itself” in the current impasse over the CFE Treaty.

Negotiated in 1990, the agreement restricts the amount and location of certain major weapon systems, such as tanks and armored combat vehicles, that NATO and the now-defunct Warsaw Pact could station between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains. In 1999 the 30 states-parties to the treaty agreed to an “adapted” version of the accord establishing new arms caps for each country, including more lenient sublimits for Russia’s weapons deployments inside its borders. Moscow wants the sublimits scrapped entirely, but NATO objects.

The adapted treaty has yet to enter into force because not all of the original treaty states-parties have ratified the newer agreement. In fact, only Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine have taken this step. The United States and its fellow NATO members are tying their final approval of the adapted treaty to Russia withdrawing its military forces from Georgia and Moldova as Moscow vowed to do in 1999. Those pledges occurred in conjunction with conclusion of the adapted treaty, which stresses the necessity of host-party consent to any foreign deployed forces on its territory. (See ACT, November 1999. )

Moscow has repeatedly complained about the NATO linkage, and on July 14 Putin decreed Russia would suspend participation in the CFE Treaty in 150 days if NATO’s stance did not change. The possible suspension, for which there is no provision in the CFE Treaty, would begin Dec. 12.

NATO’s 26 members issued a July 16 press release criticizing the Russian move as “deeply disappointing.” Two days later, NATO spokesperson James Appathurai said the alliance did not intend to overreact, pointing out that Russia has indicated it does not plan “major troop movements” during any suspension. He also added that NATO remained “ready to meet whenever and wherever” with Russian officials to discuss their concerns.

Russia has a raft of complaints stemming largely from NATO’s expansion to include former Warsaw Pact members and U.S. plans to establish training bases in two of those countries, Bulgaria and Romania. But a key gripe is that the newest NATO members and Russian neighbors Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are not bound by the original CFE Treaty and therefore have no arms limits. The 1990 treaty lacks an accession clause, so the trio is waiting to join the adapted treaty once it enters into force.

NATO says Russia can speed up this process by accelerating its military withdrawal from Georgia and Moldova. Russian forces are departing Georgia, but the exit from Moldova halted in 2004, leaving approximately 1,300 Russian troops and a massive ammunition depot in the breakaway region of Transdniestria. NATO and Russia could not agree on steps to resume the withdrawal at a special June CFE Treaty meeting. (See ACT, July/August 2007. )

Notwithstanding its looming suspension, Russia has continued implementing the treaty since Putin’s announcement. It has hosted foreign inspections and provided routine reports on its forces.

Russian Military Developments

Russia’s escalating rifts with the United States and NATO coincide with a growing Kremlin military budget that is profiting from high global oil and gas prices. Moscow is using some of this revenue influx to revive strategic programs and practices that slowed or went dormant after many lean years following the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse.

One beneficiary is Russia’s effort to develop a new nuclear-armed submarine-launched ballistic missile, the Bulava. After a string of test failures last year, the missile reportedly had a successful flight June 28. That success occurred less than a month after the inaugural test of a multiple-warhead version of Russia’s most modern ICBM, the Topol-M.

On another strategic front, Putin announced Aug. 17 that, after a 15-year lull, Russia would resume regular long-range patrols of its strategic bombers. Putin contended that Russian pilots “have spent too long on the ground” and said he hoped that other countries would understand the move. The United States, which regularly conducts similar flights, expressed no concern.