“We continue to count on the valuable contributions of the Arms Control Association.”

– President Joe Biden
June 2, 2022
U.S., Russia Agree on Path for New Arms Cuts

Cole Harvey

At their inaugural meeting April 1, President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to launch bilateral talks aimed at concluding a successor agreement to the 1991 START no later than the end of the year. START is scheduled to expire Dec. 5. Top U.S. and Russian negotiators began the talks in Rome on April 24.

In a wide-ranging joint statement issued after their meeting in London, the two presidents pledged "to work together to strengthen strategic stability, international security, and jointly meet contemporary global challenges." In a second statement, focusing specifically on the START follow-on agreement, the presidents instructed their negotiators to draft a treaty that will reduce strategic offensive arms to levels below those specified in the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which calls for each side to limit its operationally deployed strategic warheads to no more than 1,700-2,200 by the end of 2012.

That statement also said the new agreement would utilize verification procedures drawn from both countries' experiences implementing START. The negotiating teams are to report on their progress by July, in time for a planned visit by Obama to Moscow.

In their broader statement, Obama and Medvedev underscored their countries' special obligation, as the states with the two largest nuclear arsenals, to "demonstrate leadership in reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world." In keeping with that obligation, they agreed to pursue new strategic arms reductions in a "step-by-step process," beginning with a successor agreement to START.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov highlighted the significance of the presidents' decision to limit "strategic offensive arms" in a press conference April 9. The wording of the negotiating instructions indicates a change of U.S. position, Lavrov said, because "the previous administration was prepared to talk about reducing strategic nuclear arms only, leaving outside the scope of negotiations strategic weapons equipped with conventional warheads."

The Bush administration had proposed that some U.S. nuclear-armed submarine-launched ballistic missiles be converted to carry conventional warheads under a program called Prompt Global Strike. Moscow considers such a capability to be destabilizing and wants all strategic delivery vehicles to be counted against a treaty limit, whether they carry nuclear or conventional warheads. (See ACT, June 2008.)

The Bush administration also did not favor lower limits on strategic delivery vehicles, which are currently limited to 1,600 under START. Moscow has stated that the START follow-on agreement should establish lower limits on such systems. (See ACT, May 2008.)

According to the chief U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation Rose Gottemoeller, the START follow-on agreement will establish limits on strategic delivery vehicles. At the Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference April 7, Gottemoeller described the subject of the negotiations-strategic offensive arms-as "ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, bombers, and the warheads that are associated with them."

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told Interfax April 20 that Russia welcomed the shift in the U.S. position on delivery vehicles, saying, "We are still unprepared to accept the idea of limiting operationally deployed warheads only.... Hopefully the new [U.S.] administration will find a possibility to look at this issue constructively."

Obama and Medvedev cast their START follow-on negotiations as part of a broader U.S.-Russian effort to strengthen the global nonproliferation framework. They emphasized their countries' obligation to seek nuclear disarmament under Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, expressed support for entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and applauded the ongoing development of multilateral approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle.

An unnamed senior administration official told reporters April 1 that a new treaty will "send a very clear message to the world-places like Iran...and other countries throughout the world-that this is a United States that's very serious about the challenge posed by nuclear weapons and the proliferation of such technology." Both presidents also expressed their commitment to "achieving a nuclear-free world," a long-term aspiration that Obama further highlighted in his April 5 speech in Prague (see page 29).

Obama and Medvedev did not agree on everything. They acknowledged that differences remain over the proposed deployment of U.S. missile defense assets in Poland and the Czech Republic. Obama has said the planned deployment will proceed as long as the United States continues to perceive a mounting threat from Iran and if the missile defense technology is proven and cost effective. The presidents exchanged letters on the subject in advance of their meeting, in which they "discussed new possibilities for mutual international cooperation in the field of missile defense."

Speaking at the same April 7 event as Gottemoeller, Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak suggested that a lack of agreement on missile defense would not be a "showstopper" for a START follow-on agreement. Nevertheless, he said the issue must be "factored in" to U.S.-Russian discussions on strategic stability. He added that failure to agree on the subject of missile defense helps define "what are the limits of possible" in the relationship between Russia and the United States.

Gottemoeller, who was confirmed by the Senate April 3, met with her Russian counterpart, Anatoly Antonov, April 24 in Rome. In a press conference following their meeting, Gottemoeller said that the two negotiating teams "got off to a very fast start" and described their discussion as "very productive."

Nevertheless, both Gottemoeller and Antonov have hedged on whether a new agreement will be complete before the Dec. 5 deadline. At the April 24 press conference, Antonov said, "I hope we are capable to prepare a new draft by the end of the year, or at least do our utmost." Likewise, on April 7, Gottemoeller called completing an agreement before December "a difficult task, but...a doable task." She remarked that "we will do what we have to do to get this negotiation done, but...if necessary, we will look for ways to find more time for the negotiators."

Gottemoeller said the new treaty "will be a valuable way to link together two legacies, the legacy of the START I...and all that it's been able to accomplish and the legacy of the Moscow Treaty [SORT] and what it has accomplished."

START, which entered into force Dec. 5, 1994, limited the number of strategic delivery vehicles that the United States and Russia could possess, the number of warheads mated to those vehicles, and the overall disposition of the two sides' strategic forces. The treaty outlined detailed counting rules for delivery vehicles and warheads and gave each party the right to inspect the other's facilities.

Gottemoeller praised SORT as "instrumental in bringing our two nuclear arsenals to lower numbers," as the warhead limits imposed by SORT are significantly lower than those established by START. However, SORT expires on the same day it takes effect, does not limit delivery vehicles, and relies on the verification procedures established by START to monitor compliance.

The U.S. and Russian negotiators will next meet in May in the United States, Antonov said at the April 24 press conference. Antonov expressed hope that a new treaty will improve relations between the United States and Russia and that it "will be a very impressive impulse to [the] international movement regarding getting rid [of] nuclear weapon[s]."