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– Lisa Beyer
Bloomberg News
August 27, 2018
U.S., Russia Exploring Post-START Options
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Wade Boese

Moscow and Washington recently initiated talks on what measures might follow the upcoming expiration of START, their landmark nuclear arms reduction treaty. Russia favors negotiating another treaty cutting strategic nuclear forces, but the United States prefers a less formal arrangement without weapons limits.

Officials of each government told Arms Control Today that neither side supports extending the 1991 START accord past its scheduled Dec. 5, 2009 expiration. The officials requested that they not be identified because of the early stage and sensitive nature of the discussions.

Experts from the two governments met March 29 in Berlin to exchange views on which elements of START they would like to preserve and to discuss post-START options. Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation Paula DeSutter led the U.S. delegation, while the Russian team was headed by Anatoly Antonov, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for International Security and Disarmament. Both sides say the next meeting has yet to be scheduled but should occur soon.

A Department of State official said April 13 that the Berlin meeting was a “positive start” and set the stage for a “potential productive outcome.” The official cautioned that the United States was not seeking “another treaty.”

Christopher Ford, U.S. special representative for nuclear nonproliferation, stated March 17 at a conference in Annecy, France, that the United States “hopes to ensure that transparency and confidence-building measures remain an enduring part of the U.S.-Russia relationship.” Such measures help each side stay informed about the other’s nuclear forces.

President Vladimir Putin last June called for negotiating follow-on arms limits to START. (See ACT, September 2006.) Russian officials reaffirmed that goal in April interviews with Arms Control Today, saying Moscow wants a legally binding agreement restricting both warheads and delivery vehicles. The Kremlin has indicated it wants a ceiling of 1,500 strategic warheads but has not specified a delivery vehicle level.

START obligated Moscow and Washington to slash their deployed strategic nuclear forces from approximately 10,000 warheads each to no more than 6,000 apiece by Dec. 5, 2001. The accord also limits each side to 1,600 delivery vehicles—ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers.

As of Jan. 1, Russia reported it had 4,162 warheads under START, and the United States claimed 5,866 warheads. These sums, however, are not precise tallies of current holdings because of the treaty’s unique counting rules. For example, the U.S. total includes 400 warheads assigned to 50 MX ICBMs even though the Air Force retired the last of these missiles in September 2005. (See ACT, October 2005.)

In contrast, the United States informed lawmakers last October in an annual implementation report on the May 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) that operationally deployed U.S. strategic nuclear warheads totaled 3,878 at the end of 2005. (See ACT, December 2006.) SORT commits the United States and Russia to reduce their strategic forces to 1,700-2,200 operationally deployed warheads each by the last day of 2012. The accord imposes no constraints on delivery vehicles.

SORT also does not define an “operationally deployed strategic warhead,” and the warhead limit expires the same day that it takes effect, freeing the two countries to decrease or increase their arsenals. The United States is generally perceived as being able to financially support a larger arsenal than Russia.

The two sides currently use START verification provisions to help assess compliance with SORT because the latter lacks such measures. If no new verification mechanisms are established by the time START expires, a former U.S. verification official previously warned Arms Control Today that the two countries will be “flying blind” in their nuclear relationship. (See ACT, April 2005.)

A Russian official told Arms Control Today April 18 that “common ground” exists on continuing some verification after START. The official noted, however, that more intrusive measures, such as onsite inspections, would need to be included in a legally binding agreement to be permitted by domestic Russian law.

Under pressure from U.S. lawmakers and Putin, President George W. Bush reluctantly agreed to make SORT legally binding. Bush and other senior administration officials had contended a treaty was unnecessary for countries that were no longer enemies.

In a May 13, 2002, PBS interview, Condoleezza Rice, then Bush’s national security adviser, described SORT as 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.” Russia, however, is hoping to prevail on Rice in her current position as secretary of state to negotiate another arms reduction treaty.