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START Stalls; Talks Continue

Tom Z. Collina

Despite repeated pledges by their leaders and other top officials to finish “before the end of the year,” Russia and the United States failed to meet their self-imposed deadline for completing a successor to START. But President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pledged to keep talking and predicted near-term success. “I’m confident that [the new treaty] will be completed in a timely fashion,” Obama said in public remarks after a Dec. 18 meeting with Medvedev in Copenhagen. Medvedev replied, “I hope that we will be able to do it in a quite brief period of time.” No new deadline was set, although talks are expected to resume in Geneva in mid-January, according to the Department of State.

After missing an earlier deadline of Dec. 5, when START’s 15-year term expired, there was much speculation that agreement would be reached within weeks. The two governments issued a joint statement on Dec. 4 pledging “to continue to work together in the spirit of the START Treaty following its expiration” and expressing a “firm intention to ensure that a new treaty on strategic arms enter into force at the earliest possible date.”

Medvedev and Obama later announced plans to meet on the sidelines of global climate talks in Copenhagen on Dec. 18, raising expectations for progress on START. Officials’ statements that the talks were advancing fueled media speculation. “We count on resolving all the remaining questions in the very near future, if not hours,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko told reporters early on Dec. 18, according to Reuters. A senior U.S. official said in Washington Dec. 17 that Obama and Medvedev could reach an agreement in principle in Copenhagen, leaving negotiators to finalize a deal later, Reuters reported. Interfax news service quoted an unidentified diplomatic source as saying, “The provisions of a new START agreement are agreed and there will be an official announcement in the near future.”

Indications that agreement would prove elusive began to surface Dec. 17. “It’s high time to get rid of excessive suspiciousness,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow, according to the Associated Press (AP). “In the last couple of days we have noticed some slowing down in the position of U.S. negotiators in Geneva,” Lavrov said. “They explain this by the need to receive additional instructions. But our team is ready for work.”

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs denied Washington was dragging its feet but said at a Dec. 18 press briefing, “We want something that works for both sides. We’re going to work on this agreement until we get it right…. [I]t doesn’t make sense to get something just for the sake of getting it if it doesn’t work for both sides.”

With nothing to sign at their press conference Dec. 18, the two leaders put their failure to reach agreement into a positive light. Obama said, “We’ve been making excellent progress. We are quite close to an agreement.” Medvedev said, “[O]ur positions are very close, and almost all the issues that we’ve been discussing for the last month are almost closed. And there are certain technical details which we can encounter, many agreements which require further work.”

Supporting the view that the negotiations are nearing completion but that significant issues remain, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, said Dec. 21, “I think that we should be able to sign the treaty early next year, but there are still serious difficulties,” AP reported.

According to media accounts and other sources, the main unresolved issues relate to verification, in particular whether the United States would continue to have access to Russian missile flight test data, known as telemetry. Under START, the parties agreed to exchange telemetric data after each flight test, along with information needed to interpret the data, and agreed not to jam or encrypt such data.

The United States is not currently developing new strategic missiles, but is instead rebuilding current models, such as the Trident D-5. The Russians, on the other hand, are developing new missiles, such as the RS-24 mobile missile, to replace Soviet-era systems. The Russians see the telemetry access requirements as burdensome and unequal because the United States has no telemetry data to report under START. Moreover, the United States is currently testing interceptors for its various missile defense systems, but is not obligated under START to share this test data with Russia.

Speaking to journalists in Vladivostok on Dec. 29, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appeared to propose a compromise: to trade Russian offensive missile data for U.S. missile defense data. After stating that Russia has no plans to build a missile defense system of its own but will develop new offensive weapons to offset a future U.S. missile defense, Putin told the group, according to AP, that the United States “should give us all the information about the missile defense, and we will be ready then to provide some information about offensive weapons.”

It was not clear if Putin’s proposal, which was widely reported in the Russian media, reflected a new Russian negotiating position or a trial balloon. In response to the Obama administration’s shift in missile defense plans in September (see ACT, October 2009), Lavrov told Russia Today in October that the United States “has dropped its missile defense plans, and developed an alternative system, which would not create problems in its first phase, but we would like more details on further stages.”

If Putin’s proposal was a trial balloon, the United States was quick to pop it. In response to Putin’s remarks, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in Washington Dec. 29, “While the U.S. has long agreed that there is a relationship between missile offense and defense, we believe the START follow-on agreement is not the appropriate vehicle for addressing it,” The New York Times reported.

On strategic delivery systems, the Russians had been pressing for lower numbers than their U.S. counterparts. In July, Obama and Medvedev promised limits of 500 to 1,100. The U.S. side then picked a middle ground of around 800, about the number of delivery vehicles it currently deploys. The Russians, with only about 620 nuclear delivery systems in use, wanted a lower number, about 550, according to The Wall Street Journal. Indications are that the two sides have resolved this issue, settling on a number between 550 and 800. As for deployed nuclear warheads, both sides are expected to agree to a limit of about 1,600.

The issue of deploying conventional warheads on strategic delivery systems appears to have been resolved. Lavrov said Dec. 22, “The links between strategic offensive weapons with a nuclear and non-nuclear potential will be fixed in the new treaty,” according to Reuters.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. Senate, all 40 Republicans plus Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) sent a letter to Obama Dec. 15 stating that “we don’t believe further reductions can be in the national security interest of the U.S. in the absence of a significant program to modernize our nuclear deterrent.” Such modernization should include, they said, Lifetime Extension Programs (LEPs) for the B61 and W76 warheads, a “modern warhead” that includes “replacement” or possibly “component reuse,” stockpile surveillance work in the nuclear weapons complex, and new warhead production facilities, including a plutonium pit production site at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and uranium facilities at the Y-12 Plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Once the negotiations on the treaty are finished, the Obama administration plans to submit it to the Senate for advice and consent, requiring 67 votes for approval. In that context, the fact that the letter was signed by 41 senators is significant. However, the Obama administration’s fiscal year 2011 budget, to be released in February, is expected to request funding for many of the programs cited in the Senate letter. Also, the full Senate has already called on the administration to prepare a report, as required by Section 1251 of the defense authorization act for fiscal year 2010, on its plans to enhance the safety, security, and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile; modernize the nuclear weapons complex; and maintain the delivery platforms for nuclear weapons. The report must be submitted to the Senate along with the finished START follow-on treaty.