President-elect Barack Obama's to-do list grew longer in late November when the United States and other states-parties to the expiring START deferred a final decision on the nuclear accord's future. Working primarily with Russia, the incoming Obama administration will have until the treaty's expiration deadline of Dec. 5, 2009, to determine its fate.
U.S. officials met Nov. 17 in Geneva with their counterparts from Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine on whether to exercise the treaty's five-year extension option. The states-parties took no action, but the U.S. mission in Geneva announced Nov. 21 that they "will continue to consider the issue." The treaty's terms required the five governments to meet "no later than one year" before its expiration to consider an extension.
A Department of State official told Arms Control Today Nov. 21 that the meeting's outcome does not rule out a future treaty extension and did not foreclose any options for the Obama administration. In September responses to an Arms Control Today survey, Obama wrote that if elected president, he would seek "Russia's agreement to extend essential monitoring and verification provisions" of the treaty before it lapses (see insert). The State Department official said that the Bush administration concluded it would be difficult to "cherry-pick" elements of the treaty to continue and get the other states-parties to concur.
Neither the White House nor the Kremlin advocates extending the entire treaty. Completed in 1991, the landmark agreement required Moscow and Washington to cut their deployed strategic forces from more than 10,000 nuclear warheads apiece to less than 6,000 each.
Although both countries' arsenals for several years have been below the treaty's weapons ceilings, START's extensive verification regime is still used by each side to monitor the other's nuclear forces, including additional reductions mandated by the May 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which lacks verification provisions. (See ACT, June 2002.) The U.S. intelligence community reportedly prizes the START regime and is loath to lose all the data it provides through regular on-site inspections, notifications, and information exchanges.
Still, the State Department official explained that the Bush administration feels START's "terms are unnecessarily onerous given the post-Cold War circumstances." The official also asserted that Russia says some of the treaty's verification provisions are a "burden."
The official further contended the treaty's extension is unappealing to Russia because it prefers working bilaterally with the United States on nuclear weapons issues and wants to "exclude" Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine from future arrangements. Those three states inherited nuclear arms when the Soviet Union collapsed but gave them all up to Russia.
As an alternative to extending the treaty, the Bush administration and the Kremlin launched talks last year on a new agreement to succeed START. (See ACT, May 2007.) Those talks proceeded irregularly and ended recently with Russia's rejection of a draft U.S. treaty submitted a few weeks before the Geneva meeting.
After meeting Nov. 8 in Egypt with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov noted that his country wants the "strategic offensive arms control regime not merely preserved, but also modernized." He continued that "so far in the proposals received from the American side, we do not find the things that are necessary for that." Similarly, Sergey Kislyak, Russia's ambassador to the United States, told Arms Control Today Nov. 14 that Russia and the United States "have quite different views as to what the follow-on to START should be."
The State Department official acknowledged that Russia wants "something a little more elaborate" than what the Bush administration proposed. The official described the recent U.S. offer as a blend of START and SORT that would supersede both agreements. It apparently would include some verification measures and extend the SORT limit of 1,700-2,200 operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads beyond that treaty's scheduled expiration of Dec. 31, 2012.
Russia, however, has called for deeper warhead cuts as well as limits on delivery vehicles, which START imposed but SORT did not. Lavrov described it as an "absolute necessity" to restrict "the total number of carriers." Russia also wants future limits to apply to strategic delivery vehicles that might be armed with conventional munitions instead of nuclear payloads as part of the U.S. prompt global strike initiative. (See ACT, June 2008.)
Russian officials indicate they will now wait to do business with the Obama administration. Noting that "there are a lot of interesting things in [Obama's] statements," Kislyak said that Russia hopes there is a "basis for serious negotiations."
During his presidential campaign, Obama endorsed the long-term goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. He has yet to waiver from it, stating on his official Web site that his administration "will set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and pursue it." Part of the effort, according to that statement, will be to "seek dramatic reductions in U.S. and Russian stockpiles of nuclear weapons and material."